Founded in 1982, Saddleback Educational Publishing supplies the school and library markets with a broad selection of books aimed at students in middle and high school who have poor reading and/or learning skills. In recent years, the Costa Mesa, Calif. company has been growing its list significantly, focusing on fiction series with content and covers suitable for middle-grade and YA readers, yet written at elementary-grade reading levels. Four additional series, each with a specific handle to appeal to a range of reading tastes, will debut in January.

Three of these are fiction series, including My New Normal, a dystopian romance penned by 16-year-old Sara Michelle, which features teens struggling to survive after the world they’ve known is destroyed; Juicy Central, a series by Jada Jones and Shay Jackson introducing five friends, all members of the Yearbook Club, who deal with such standard high-school dilemmas as jealousies and secret crushes; and the first novels in Gravel Road by L.B. Tillit, a series whose protagonists contend with difficult home lives. The fourth new series is 21st Century Lifeskills Handbooks, workbooks addressing skills young adults need to survive in the real world.

Launched this fall with three novels was Cutting Edge, a YA series by various authors that addresses such hard-hitting subjects as self-abuse, family breakdown, suicide, and sexuality. The series will gain another trio of titles in January.

These newcomers join Saddleback’s lineup of established YA series, including the publisher’s bestselling series to date, Urban Underground of which six titles were named this year’s YALSA Quick Picks for Reluctant Readers by the ALA. Written by Anne Schraff, this two-year-old urban teen fiction series will add five novels in January, for a total of 25 titles in print. Audiobooks and teacher’s guides have also been added to the series recently.

Saddleback’s fiction publishing program extends into the area of classics as well. Series in this genre include Illustrated Classics, Timeless Shakespeare, and Graphic Shakespeare. "There are so many kids out there who can’t read the texts of the original classics," observes Arianna McHugh, Saddleback’s president, who in 2009 purchased the company (long owned by her family) with her husband, Tim McHugh. "We want to give them the opportunity to understandthe content of these classics, and hopefully they’ll graduate to reading the original."

The company also publishes a number of hi-lo nonfiction series, including Strange but True Stories, True Crime, Graphic Biographies, and Disasters. McHugh notes that of Saddleback’s approximately 1500 titles in print, virtually all belong to series. "The idea is that if a book does engage readers, we want them to be able to find another book that will interest them without having to search and search," she says. "We want them to have the chance to immediately pick up another book in the series that will also spark their interest."

Though in the past, curriculum-based publishing made up close to 60% of Saddleback’s output, the company has recently begun publishing a majority of hi-lo fiction and nonfiction readers, shifting the percentage of its output to 35% hi-lo curriculum-based and 65% hi-lo books, reports McHugh.

"We’ve taken a look at what has been our core demographic for almost 30 years—older struggling readers," she explains. "Once a student is in middle school or high school, it is much harder to catch up than in elementary school. Our purpose is to provide them with books that they want to pick up and read by creating engaging covers and mature, age-appropriate content at accessible reading levels. Our hope is that when they see a book they can relate to, they’ll be able not only to read it, but to finish it. We believe that if they can do that, they will continue reading."

Saddleback mails more than 1 million catalogues each year aimed directly to classrooms, and sells to libraries through such distributors as Follett, Baker and Taylor, Ingram, and Mackin. The publisher sells to the trade through such channels as Amazon and Barnes & Noble, and, as McHugh explains, “In 2012, we’ll be focusing on growing our presence in the trade market.”

She points to several obstacles the company has encountered marketing its books to the trade, including positioning this type of content. “Nowhere on the Amazon site can you click on ‘struggling readers’ and find a section of books dedicated to them,” she observes. "The same goes with any major retailer. Even wholesalers aren’t sure how to categorize these materials, and often our books get ‘lost’ in the database. Another issue we have is with reviewers not understanding the way that we publish, and perhaps stating in a negative way that a book has short, choppy sentences. This is the way our books are written so that struggling readers don’t get lost in compound sentences. We are constantly looking for ways to educate the trade in this increasingly important niche."