These days it takes nerve to start a children's book publishing company. But this fall the five-women staff of packager Downtown Bookworks is launching their own line of quirky children's titles. Exhibit A: The Lonely Sock Club, a pom-pom and googly-eye–filled guide to hundreds of craftie ideas for single socks. "I have a gigantic bag full of them next to my dryer, and I'm fairly sure I'm not the only one," says Julie Merberg, Downtown Bookworks' president and founder.
With so-called "green and groovy" kit books like The Lonely Sock Club and board books with artwork by Van Gogh and Leonardo da Vinci, Merberg is tackling the 12-and-under market in an offbeat way. "We're setting out to create books that feel like tiny treasures," she says. "I felt the big publishers weren't taking chances. They were doing more of what they'd done—established authors and illustrators, and a lot of licensed stuff." She decided she could produce her favorite kind of books on her own, from start to finish, without outsourcing. And with her experience packaging books for such clients as Time Inc., Andrews McMeel, Scholastic, and Chronicle, she knew how to create titles that could still be affordable—Merberg expects that her highest-priced items will be no more than $19.99 retail.
Merberg and her colleagues have built-in focus groups: their own kids. Merberg is the mother of four boys between the ages of two and 11. Art director Georgia Rucker has a five-year-old daughter and a three-year-old son. And the company's marketing consultant has four- and six-year-old daughters. "Our ideas come from our own lives," Merberg says. For example, she came up with the concept for the Art from the Start series because one of her sons loved looking at paintings at art museums. "I wanted to replicate the experience for kids who might not have ready access to museums," she says. "Marrying fine art to basic concepts seemed like a way to make iconic, famous paintings accessible."
Even her biggest "kid," her husband, playwright David Bar Katz, provided inspiration. A comic book geek, he wanted to introduce their sons to his favorite superheroes. Merberg thought, "Why wait?" And she came up with My First Superman (kids pull Clark Kent through a phone booth, and the superhero comes out the other side).
Simon & Schuster is distributing the new line. "It complements our list," says Mary Marotta, v-p and director of sales for Simon & Schuster Children's books (which is not doing its own kits or art board books). "[Merberg] is able to take our feedback and act on it," Marotta says. "You don't have to go through 17 people." The new list's offerings also aren't generic. "Everyone does board books, but there aren't a lot of board books that address art at that age," says Marotta.
New York City's Books of Wonder is hosting the publisher's launch party. On November 30, more than 150 children and adults will eat cupcakes—and choose from 100 copies of each of the house's first six books. Often larger houses "only want the grand slams," says store manager Allan Bennington. He likes the way Downtown Bookworks' editors are responding to "what readers want" rather than just serving up big names.
In fact, the company could be called "Downhome" Bookworks: employees shot the cover of the Do It Myself Kids' Cookbook in Merberg's own kitchen. That book started after Merberg noticed that kids' cookbooks all required "serious grownup involvement." The 45 child-friendly, illustrated recipes require nothing sharper than a butter knife.
Downtown Bookworks will continue to package books while adding to its own list of titles. Last month it published its first three titles: I'm So Not Wearing a Dress, and two Art from the Start board books. Also this fall, the publisher is coming out with Icktionary by Sarah Parvis, who also edits and co-writes Time magazine's almanacs for kids. The yucky creature–filled book is full of "neat, gross facts from around the world," says Parvis.
In February, Downtown plans to publish The House That Mouse Built, a picture book co-written by former Parents magazine editor-in-chief Pam Abrams. (Abrams, author of Now I Eat My ABC’s and Gadgetology, had been senior v-p of Downtown Bookworks when it was simply doing book packaging.) Abrams thinks small is beautiful. “Given the smallness of the company, we get to be involved at every stage of the process,” says Abrams. “That’s really nice for authors. They’re open to our ideas, and we’re open to theirs.”
Next spring Downtown Bookworks will also introduce "into the field" kits—one for a walk in the woods and another for a walk on the beach—that come with a magnifying jar, a field guide, and a mesh bag for collecting. (Mother Nature provides most of the supplies, which helps lower the cost for the kit.) Valerie Koehler, owner of Blue Willow Bookshop in Houston, says she expects the kit books, priced at $16.99, to sell well as affordable, different birthday gifts. She also likes what Downtown Bookworks stands for: "I like this idea of the young moms coming together and going for it."