Ten years ago this month, Feiwel and Friends released Nancy Tillman's On The Night You Were Born, a publishing moment that marked three significant “firsts.” This originally self-published picture book celebrating a baby’s birth was Tillman’s debut title, the first children’s book sold by literary agent Cathy Hemming, and the inaugural title released under Macmillan’s Feiwel and Friends imprint. And the stars’ auspicious alignment continued: On the Night You Were Born is the top-selling title for author, agent, and imprint. On the 10th anniversary of its publication, this popular go-to baby gift has sold more than five million copies in its hardcover and board-book editions.
The triumphant publishing tale began in the early 2000s, when Tillman, who had left her career in advertising to be a stay-at-home mom for 18 years, launched a greeting-card company. One of her bestselling cards, still in circulation today, expressed the sentiment that inspired On the Night You Were Born. “That card, in fact, became the first page of the book,” she explained. “I expanded the message to say what I felt for my own children, and with the hope that those words would say what other parents felt for their children as well.”
Though Tillman was well acquainted with the printing business from her advertising work, she found herself a bit at sea after deciding to try to get her picture book published. “Much had changed in the printing and publishing industries in the years I was at home,” she said. “I didn’t have an agent or publisher connection at the time I was ready to move forward, and self-publishing seemed the fastest way to get the book to market.”
Tillman did just that in 2005, handling fulfillment and distribution herself, and sold some 30,000 copies relatively quickly – but not without some rocky interludes. “I discovered it was a very big job!” she recalled. “At one point, I was on a family vacation in the Cotswolds, with very little access to technology, when Homeland Security decided to hold many book shipments coming in from China. I had to find a library near Stratford-upon-Avon to deal with it – crazy-making!”
Fortunately, Tillman’s greeting-card distributor, Bottman Designs, stepped in to help. “Tom Bottman distributed half of the books I sold the first year to gift stores around the country,” she said, “and Biblio Distribution came on board soon after to supply the book to large bookstores and independents.”
While working on an Internet promotion, Tillman met author Peggy McColl, a friend and client of Hemming, who sent a copy of On the Night You Were Born to the agent. Knowing little about children’s books, Hemming admitted, “I didn’t know if the book was good or not – but what I did know was that it had sold very well as a self-published book in a short period of time. So I shared it with some people, and the first person immediately cried, and others had similar reactions.”
A Rebirth and a Long New Life in Print
Fortuitously for all involved, Hemming had recently read in PW that Jean Feiwel had left her longtime position at Scholastic’s editorial helm to launch her own imprint at Macmillan. The two had been colleagues at Avon Books more than two decades earlier, when Hemming was a sales rep in the Midwest and Feiwel was children’s book editor. Knowing that time was of the essence – Tillman’s stock of books was almost depleted, and she quickly had to either find a publisher or place a reorder – Hemming dropped off a copy of the book at Feiwel’s office.
The editor was out of town at the time, but when she returned she looked at On the Night You Were Born with initial skepticism, given her expertise and success with blockbuster middle-grade series, including The Baby sitters’ Club and Goosebumps. “I hadn’t yet acquired any books for my list, and of course everyone expected I would launch with a middle-grade series,” Feiwel recalled. “But when I opened Nancy’s book, I immediately loved it. I responded to it emotionally, not because it was a commercial success. It was unlike anything I’ve ever seen. So I contacted Cathy and we negotiated a three-book deal.”
Though Feiwel had planned to debut her imprint in fall 2007, she decided to jump the gun and release On the Night You Were Born a full year earlier. “There was such an appetite for the book, and we didn’t want the momentum to stop,” she explained. “Also, I don’t have it in my DNA to wait! Everyone in the company agreed with the decision, and since the files already existed, we rushed the book into production – with all hands on deck – including Nancy, who was involved in every step.”
It was, by all accounts, a lucky leap. Feiwel and Friends has to date published a dozen of Tillman’s picture books (most recently last month’s You and Me and the Wishing Tree), whose combined sales in the U.S. alone total more than 10 million copies. “I think someone was looking out for me that Cathy brought me On the Night You Were Born,” said Feiwel. “In fact it may well have been divinely inspired. It was a bit of a risk to publish it so early, but I do think that the way to remain successful is to pitch yourself onward into the unknown – to take chances rather than repeat a success.”
Hemming, whose Cathy D. Hemming Literary Agency is associated with McCormick Literary, likewise expressed gratitude for her ongoing relationship with Tillman. “My luck is ridiculous—absolutely ridiculous,” she remarked. “I’m so grateful for the close friendship I’ve established with Nancy.” Tillman echoed that sentiment: “I knew I adored Cathy the first time she called me. She was five minutes late getting to her office for the call, and said it was because her cat had fallen asleep in her laundry basket and she hadn’t had the heart to wake her up. We are dear friends to this day, and I don’t know what I’d do without her.”
The author, whose next book, You’re All Kinds of Wonderful, is due in September 2017, also noted that the continual, uplifting feedback she receives from readers means a great deal to her. “I believe that the love a parent has for a child is the most profound love there is, and I am so grateful and humbled when parents tell me that On the Night You Were Born, and my subsequent books, have given them words to say what they feel for their children – and that my books speak the words of their hearts.”