Children’s Book Press, founded in 1975 by Harriet Rohmer for the specific purpose of creating a line of bilingual and multicultural books, ceased operations at the end of September and has sold its backlist inventory of 90 titles to Lee & Low Books in New York.
Dana Goldberg, former executive editor for Children’s Book Press, attributes the demise of the press to "a perfect storm of systemic things. We were a niche publisher for the institutional market, and 80 percent of our business came from schools and libraries. With the nationwide budget cuts, the last two years were really tough." Goldberg also points to the challenge inherent in running a nonprofit publishing company. "We didn’t have to rely solely on book sales because of the fundraising side of the business, but in recent years our fundraising efforts didn’t meet expectations." Children’s Book Press was distributed by Publishers Group West.
As a nonprofit organization Children’s Book Press was overseen by a board of directors. When Rohmer retired in 2001 the press split the functions of fundraising and editorial, which were then run by an executive director and an editorial director. Lorraine Garcia-Nakata, the last executive director to serve, was hired for her fundraising acumen and did not come from a publishing background. In addition, there was a critical absence of members with publishing experience on the Children’s Book Press board. "The press became a two-headed monster," says former sales and marketing manager Janet Del Mundo. "There was the non-profit side and the publishing side. It takes a very special person with two different skill sets to manage both of them, and we needed someone who was a visionary with entrepreneurial spirit."
As the company’s fundraising declined, so did business in the book industry. The press fell into a serious cash flow problem that, according to Goldberg, "could have been solved with funder muscle." Instead, backorders piled up as high as $40,000 at PGW for titles that were out of stock and couldn’t be reprinted due to lack of funds.
Del Mundo knew in March 2011 that Children’s Book Press needed a huge infusion of cash. "We were in the planning stages for the next fiscal year’s budget at the time, and it was clear that we had a problem," she says. Still, the board didn’t inform the staff that Children’s Book Press was for sale until June. "We were disappointed. We wanted the board to fight for us, and that didn’t happen," she says. Adds Goldberg, "We were shielded from the process of the sale. The board assigned it to a broker, so we didn’t know what was going on."
Maya Christina Smith-Gonzalez, whose titles for Children's Book Press include I Know the River Loves Me and Iguanas in the Snow, says she regrets the closing of the company. "Children’s Book Press changed my life," she says. "Growing up, I was one of the many children who did not see myself reflected in my world. Having the opportunity as a grown-up artist to create books that spoke to the child that I was helped me to empower a new generation of children of color. The work I did with Children’s Book Press was a catalyst for the development of my own work with creativity, children and social justice. While I feel sad about the press coming to an end, I feel comfort that the books and spirit of Children's Book Press will continue and thrive with Lee & Low, which holds a similar mission and values."
Children’s Book Press, which at its peak brought in annual revenues of $1.4 million, had reduced its staff in recent years and had only five employees when the press closed, all of whom were laid off. Still, both Del Mundo and Goldberg are pleased with the decision to sell the list to Lee & Low. "I couldn’t be happier about where our books are going to live now," says Goldberg, and Del Mundo believes the acquisition fits well with Lee & Low’s commitment to books about social justice. "We always had a lot of respect for them," she says, "and enjoyed a friendly rapport over the years."
Ironically, one of Children’s Book Press’s titles, Marisol McDonald Doesn't Match/Marisol McDonald no combina by Monica Brown and illustrated by Sara Palacios, just won a 2012 Pura Belpré Illustrator Honor, which highlights work for children that "best portrays, affirms, and celebrates the Latino cultural experience" (a Lee & Low title, Under the Mesquite by Guadalupe Garcia McCall, won the 2012 Pura Belpré Author Award). Children's Book Press had consistently received critical success and awards for its picture books and anthologies for the African-American, Latino, Asian, and Native American markets. "We were seen as a leader in multicultural publishing for 35 years," Del Mundo says. "We paved the way for other publishers. Despite our financial problems, the books themselves were not the reason the press had to close. Through the end there was demand for them. We were a small press, but we could have survived if we’d had books to sell."
Jason Low, publisher of Lee & Low Books, told PW, “This is a tremendous honor for us – to keep the prestigious collection of Children’s Book Press alive and to have the opportunity to build on its history. This acquisition says without question that the demand is growing for diverse books. Creating continuity for the mission of Children’s Book Press is important to us, since its commitment to diversity was so groundbreaking. [It] started the trend of featuring people of color in the pages of books.”
Lee & Low will assume Children’s Book Press contracts with authors, illustrators, customers, and suppliers. Terms of the cash transaction include the acquisition of books in inventory as well as copyrights, trademarks, and the Children’s Book Press name as an imprint of Lee & Low. The sale price was not disclosed.
An earlier version of this story misattributed the publisher of Under the Mesquite as Children's Book Press, and has been corrected.