Ever since 1864, children’s books have played a significant role at Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, or Hurd & Houghton as it was originally known. Back then, there was no separate children’s department, and the kids’ list was a bit shorter. Fewer than a dozen books came out in the house’s first year, compared to 280 annual releases today, including paperbacks and franchise titles. The children’s division now accounts for more than half of HMH’s 520 annual trade releases; revenue is evenly split because children’s books are typically priced lower than books for adults.
“It is impossible to overstate the importance of Books for Young Readers to HMH trade, and to HMH overall,” said Betsy Groban, senior v-p and publisher of Books for Young Readers. She added that it helps to have a leader, trade president Gary Gentel, with a strong background in children’s publishing (his former companies include Scholastic, DK, Candlewick, and Random House’s children’s division). In addition to pulling its financial weight, Books for Young Readers oversees the company’s biggest brand, Curious George. The mischievous monkey is so deeply ingrained in both popular and HMH culture that when the company was looking for a new logo last year, Curious George was a strong contender.
However, when Groban looks back over the first century and a half of HMH, she turns to a different brand, which also dates from the mid-1800s and has changed with the times, to describe Books for Young Readers: Burberry. “We really do represent both the Burberry checked trench coat—classic, trustworthy, timeless, best in class, incredible heritage—and the Burberry bikini—fashion forward, contemporary, innovative, energetic,” she said. “We are proud to maintain our author-centered approach to publishing. But Food Trucks!, babies with beards [Mustache Baby], coloring books about shoes [Shoes, Shoes, Shoes]—bring it all on!”
The interplay between old and new is not just apparent in the press’s list but also plays out on the fifth floor of the company’s headquarters in downtown Boston. The hallways contain a monitor displaying the history of HMH Trade in digital format, and key dates and people are posted on the walls. One room is filled with memorabilia, including a replica of the piano that stood in the home of H.A. and Margret Rey, creators of the Curious George books—the original was donated to the Cambridge Public Library in Cambridge, Mass.—and a table built from favorite HMH volumes, many brought from home by staffers. A corridor showcases the press’s 17 Caldecott medalists and includes original picture book art from winning titles, including Allen Say’s Grandfather’s Journey, Mary Azarian’s Snowflake Bentley, and Chris Van Allsburg’s The Polar Express. HMH books have also received 29 Caldecott Honors, 13 Newbery Awards, and 40 Newbery Honors.
Even the name and structure of the children’s group, Books for Young Readers, has changed with the times. This spring the company “retired” most of its separate children’s imprints—Houghton Mifflin Books for Children, Harcourt Children’s Books, Sandpaper paperbacks, Graphia, and HMH novelty imprints—and placed them under a single umbrella. The sole exception is Clarion Books.
The Company Books Built
If 75-year-old Curious George has become HMH’s largest franchise, with 200 different titles—the Reys wrote seven—and 20 apps, it’s by no means the oldest property on the HMH backlist. This year also marks the 75th anniversary of Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel and Country Bunny and the Little Gold Shoes, and the 80th of Mary Poppins, originally published by Harcourt. “That’s the beauty of the continuum of 150 years of publishing,” said Gentel, “the amazing backlist.”
The backlist also includes more recent standouts like Lois Lowry’s Newbery Award–winning The Giver, published two decades ago. Not only is it popular with young readers and their teachers—who have helped make it the top-selling e-book at HMH BYR—but it is getting an additional boost this summer with the mid-August release of the movie of the same name. In advance of the film, Books for Young Readers is releasing an omnibus edition of all four Giver titles—The Giver, Gathering Blue, The Messenger, and Son. It is also publishing its first standalone paperback edition of The Giver in July with a new introduction by Lois Lowry, as well as a movie tie-in with interviews with several actors in the film. The reason for the 20-year time lag is that HMH used to sell its authors’ paperback rights. Over the past five years, it has begun to take them back for its entire list. Only one Lowry title—The Messenger—hasn’t reverted yet; it is under contract until 2018.
Another big book due out in the coming months is Little Blue Truck’s Christmas (Sept.), the latest in the Little Blue Truck mini-franchise that HMH inherited when it merged with Harcourt in 2007. As Gentel describes it, the board book format was a game changer. Although the original Little Blue Truck picture book by Alice Schertle, illustrated by Jill McElmurry, sold “okay,” the company has gone on to sell two million copies of both editions along with other Little Blue Truck titles following the publication of the board book. The new book will debut with a 300,000-copy first printing.
The fall 2014 list contains picture books by several HMH veterans, including Katherine Applegate’s Ivan: The Remarkable True Story of the Shopping Mall Gorilla (Oct.), illustrated by G. Brian Karas; Brian Lies’s Bats in the Band (Aug.); and Chris Van Allsburg’s The Misadventures of Sweetie Pie (Nov.). There are titles from newcomers as well, such as Deirdre Gill’s Outside (Oct.).
In 2015, Groban said, she’s excited to publish Michael Buckley’s Undertow, the first book in a YA trilogy, along with other YA novels, such as Henry Turner’s Ask the Dark, Anne Heltzel’s Charlie Presumed Dead, and Roland Smith’s Peak 2. In middle grade, she singled out a new novel by bookseller favorite (and former bookseller) Linda Urban, and a collection of stories from a young Terry Pratchett, Dragons at Crumbling Castle.
HMH children’s titles are available in as many formats as possible. But the publisher is doing far fewer apps, according to Gentel, notwithstanding last month’s release of the Curious George and the Firefighters app and the July release of the Curious George Goes Camping app. “We’re being more selective,” he said, “and we’re doing them all in-house now.” Where apps are intended to enhance books that are already out, digital editions are making inroads into overall sales. Gentel noted that YA is the single strongest e-book category with one-color YA e-books comprising 15–30% or more of YA sales. For middle grade, e-books sales are significantly lower, 10–15% of the total, and digital picture book sales come in at less than 5%.
As for the next sesquicentennial, it’s hard to predict. But, Groban said, “We are both proud and humbled by our incredible heritage and determined to create books for young readers that will be celebrated enthusiastically in 50, 100, and 150 years.”
Top 10 All-Time Bestselling Picture Books
|1.||The Polar Express by Chris Van Allsburg|
|2.||Curious George by H.A. Rey and Margret Rey|
|3.||Five Little Monkeys Jumping on the Bed by Eileen Christelow|
|4.||Stellaluna by Janell Cannon|
|5.||Miss Nelson Is Missing by Harry Allard, illustrated by James Marshall|
|6.||Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel by Virginia Lee Burton|
|7.||Time for Bed by Mem Fox, illustrated by Jane Dyer|
|8.||Tuesday by David Wiesner|
|9.||The Napping House by Audrey Wood, illustrated by Don Wood|
|10.||Little Blue Truck by Alice Schertle, illustrated by Jill McElmurry|
Top 10 All-Time Bestselling Novels
|1.||The Giver by Lois Lowry|
|2.||The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry|
|3.||Island of the Blue Dolphins by Scott O’Dell|
|4.||Number the Stars by Lois Lowry|
|5.||Tangerine by Edward Bloor|
|6.||The Hundred Dresses by Eleanor Estes, illustrated by Louis Slobodkin|
|7.||Ginger Pye by Eleanor Estes|
|8.||The Bronze Bow by Elizabeth George Speare|
|9.||The Lemonade War by Jacqueline Davies|
|10.||The Borrowers by Mary Norton|