Seattle-based gift publisher Compendium, known more for gift products than books, has had a recent bestselling picture book, What Do You Do with an Idea?, penned by Compendium’s president and CEO Kobi Yamada. Despite the fact that it’s Yamada’s first time writing a children’s book, it’s had breakout success, selling over 300,000 copies since its publication date of January 2014. Illustrated by Mae Besom, the book tells the story of an idea and the child who shares it with the world.
Yamada said he doesn’t often “pen books, because I’m usually busy with the business, but at times I’ll go back and put my creative hat back on, especially if I feel inspired about a particular project. This was one of those cases where it was a story that needed to be told.”
Yamada, who has been at Compendium since 1992, saw it as a children’s book from the start. “I actually pictured it as this little egg, and that’s the way we illustrated it. It’s become a fun little symbol for an idea. Many times when we have an idea it’s so fragile at the beginning, we don’t know if it’s good or not, and we question it and ourselves. I’m a big believer that ideas are one of the big tools we have to affect the world. I wanted to convey that in a way that kids could see that they could believe in their ideas, protect them, and help them to grow. It’s very important to have ideas because the world is shaped by ideas. Everything you see around you was once an idea.”
Yamada had seen a sample of illustrator Besom’s work on a poster of a rabbit playing a piano in an upside-down forest done in pencil sketches that he “couldn’t get out of my mind. She was a big reason why I wrote this book; I pictured her illustrating it the entire time I wrote it.” It’s Besom’s first children’s book as well. Yamada said that Besom is based in China and speaks no English; through a translator, she agreed to illustrate the book.
And the book is resonating with adults as well. “My biggest surprise and delight is that older kids and adults have been touched and inspired by the message,” said Yamada. “We’ve heard from thousands of them, and even big companies like GE and Google and universities have purchased large numbers of the book and given them to staff.”
Yamada describes Compendium as a publisher that’s a “gift company at heart focused on inspiration,” noting their titles and products are typically sold across retailers like Anthropologie, small boutiques, and gift and museum shops.
But with this recent title, Compendium is intersecting with new markets as well. When the title won the 2014 Scandiuzzi Children’s Book Award for picture books, part of the Washington State Book Awards, Yamada said that librarians told him “it was the only book that wasn’t in our system to buy for libraries. [Compendium] had never entered the entire institutional library system before. So we did some learning and catching up to make it available. It’s nice for us to be introduced to different markets and audiences.” Compendium is distributed by APG, based in Nashville, and is also represented by about 100 independent gift reps.
It’s also been a big seller for retailer Barnes & Noble. Benjamin Ruby, children’s book buyer at Barnes & Noble, said they were very excited about this title from the get-go. “We thought it was an inspiring, creative, and very relatable story that our customers would connect with, so we have had a very aggressive marketing push and promotional placement for the book since its publication,” said Ruby. The chain called it out as a top kids’ book for the holidays and from April 7-May 18, 2015 offered it at a special price of $7.99 with the purchase of any children’s book. “This is an ongoing promotion where we select one book and offer it as a special value with a highlighted title,” said Ruby, adding that the promotion for What Do You Do with an Idea? was enormously successful.
The book’s success didn’t come as a surprise to Ruby because Compendium has published successful picture books in the past, but this book definitely stood out. “It’s always exciting to see a book we think should be in every child’s library and that’s what excited us about this book,” said Ruby. Additionally all Barnes & Noble stores held a nationwide storytime featuring What Do You Do with an Idea? on May 2. The retailer plans to continue to support the title with additional promotions through the summer, fall and holiday seasons. “We’ve made every effort to make sure we put it in the hands of as many customers as possible,” Ruby said.
Yamada attributes part of the book’s success to the fact that creativity, innovation, technology and the maker movement are big topics these days, both for industry and for children, particularly with respect to education. He recently spoke on a panel at Teaching Garage’s 2015 Innovation in Education conference. “They think this book has really encapsulated where we need to be in education. We’ve got to nurture this thinking that’s going to take this country and world to the next place, and how do we create that culture? How do we create a safe environment for having ideas and exploring where they go instead of stamping them out and doing things the same way? It’s remarkable to think that we would possibly teach sameness and ultimately reward originality. What does that teach kids?”
He added that ideas in their fragile stage can be “killed by an eye roll, even an exhale. That’s sad if that happens to you at any age, but it’s really sad if it happens to you as a child because it can create patterns that maybe aren’t the best for growth and what you can accomplish in your lifetime.”
In addition to the support from B&N, Yamada said the book’s success has been largely via word of mouth. “The title has already sold hundreds of thousands of copies,” he said, “and from the feedback it’s just getting started. I think the reason people are so touched by it is that they have ideas themselves so they can see themselves in the character. Einstein once said the mind that opens a new idea never returns to its original size. Once you see an idea, once it’s here it changes everything. It’s impossible to un-think an idea.”