A Second Chance for Key Porter’s Backlist

The demise of one of Canada’s largest independent publishing and distribution houses (H.B. Fenn and Company and its subsidiary Key Porter Books in early 2011) was bad news for the whole Canadian book industry. But there are some encouraging signs of new life this spring for some of the authors whose backlist titles have been purchased by other publishers.

HarperCollins Canada bought all of Key Porter’s backlist by poet Dennis Lee, sometimes known as Canada’s Father Goose, and is just about to release the first of its new editions of his classic poetry collections for children.

Some of Lee’s books had gone out of print, and Hadley Dyer, executive editor of children’s books at HarperCollins Canada, says booksellers were becoming quite frantic to get new copies. “Dennis’s agent says Alligator Pie has sold more than 500,000 copies [since its publication in 1974], which for a Canadian picture book is pretty extraordinary,” she says. Dyer says when Lee first began publishing in the early 1970s, there was very little Canadian children’s literature. “Wiggle to the laundromat,/ Waggle to the sea;/ Skip to Casa Loma/ And you can’t catch me!” she recites. “That’s a castle in Toronto. Kids had literally never seen a reference like that in their picture books.”

Alligator Pie and Garbage Delight will be the first two new editions released, both on May 26. Both will include the original art by illustrator Frank Newfeld. “It’s got a terrific vintage quality to it now,” says Dyer. “I remember, and so do all the people in the office, poring over his illustrations, some of which are kind of surreal, some just strange. Others are lovely and comforting and fanciful and full of whimsy. But they look very much of their era in the best possible way.”

All of Lee’s children’s poetry collections will be coming out season by season, says Dyer. HarperCollins is also planning to publish a treasury of Lee’s best-loved poems and board books for younger children down the road.

Margaret Atwood Books to Become Animated TV Series

Toronto-based publisher McArthur and Company also bought the rights to three children’s books written by Margaret Atwood from Key Porter’s list. Atwood went on to write a fourth title in the series for McArthur last fall and will release the fifth this fall. The latest development is that Breakthrough Entertainment, one of Canada’s largest television and distribution companies, has bought the rights to all five titles for an animated television series that will be called Wandering Wenda and Friends.

“I’m absolutely thrilled that this has happened,” says Kim McArthur. She credits the deal to an event called From Page to Screen hosted by the Ontario Media Development Corporation, an agency of the provincial government that aims to create jobs and stimulate investment in cultural industries. McArthur presented Atwood’s books – Wandering Wenda, Bashful Bob and Doleful Dorinda, Princess Prunella, and Rude Ramsay – at the event in January. “It’s a great opportunity to meet people,” says McArthur, who has also sold rights to two books from her adult fiction list to film companies at the event in the last two years.

Small Publisher Takes a Big Step into Apps

Vancouver-based Simply Read Books is a small independent house known for its high-quality, beautifully illustrated works for children. Now that digital technology can accommodate illustrated books, publisher Dimiter Savoff is experimenting with producing apps.

He’s started with Paola Opal’s Simply Small series of board books, which he’s producing for Apple. Each title in the 11-book series tells the story of a baby animal doing something for the first time. The first app is now ready to upload and was made for Saffy, the most popular book in the series, about a baby giraffe learning to find food for herself. Savoff says he has apps for quite a few of the books in various stages of development and has finished a second one, but he’s starting with one to test the waters. Similarly, if all goes well with the app for Apple, Savoff says he will look at adapting it for the new version of Windows.

He describes the apps as being “on the quiet side” compared with a lot of what’s on the market. But, he says, “We think this is the appropriate thing to do for this age group [0 to 3]. There is animation, but it is subdued.” He explains that there is only one piece of animation on each page to touch and activate. There is not much music, but there is a voice-over and parents have the option of recording their own voices. The app also includes a black-and-white picture to color, and a puzzle.

Even as he is producing the apps, Savoff wrestles with the questions that are on many children’s publishers’ minds. “It’s such a fine line now,” he says. “What is a book really? What do you do? And where do you stop?”

Ironically, the experience of producing the app has reinforced Savoff’s faith in the future of the printed book. Producing the app is a big expense, he notes, especially because there are always updates that need to be done. Simply Read has had to update its apps to match the new higher resolution for the new iPad. Consumers, too, have to continually upgrade their devices. “It’s a never-ending game,” he says. “I think people are going to get tired of this, which is why books will be books for a long time.”

First Book Establishes a Foothold in Canada

The longevity and relative affordability of print books is not lost on First Book Canada. First Book, a non-profit in the U.S. that has distributed about 90 million books over its 20-year history to children who may never have owned a book before, is now up and running in Canada. Tom Best, executive director of First Book Canada, says after some preliminary regional projects, 2011 was the first year the organization went national, distributing about 250,000 donated books throughout Canada. This year, they hope to distribute a million books.

First Book Canada works with community groups that have determined that at least 70% of the children they are serving are living at or below the poverty line. Best noted, “Publishers sometimes are fearful that we would be cutting into their markets … but we’re really reaching groups that otherwise would never ever go into a bookstore.”

Following the U.S. model, First Book Canada is also working on establishing a marketplace that would allow the groups they work with to purchase specific books, such as classics and top favorites that are rarely donated, at a large discount, often about 70%. “We’ve had great help from the Canadian Children’s Book Centre and a number of prominent Canadian book retailers, helping us determine what Canadian books should be on that list,” said Best. “And we’re starting to have those discussions with publishers now and negotiating our discounts with them so that we can pass those savings on to our customers.” The groups often fundraise to be able to afford the books, he added.

Best went on to say that he is is amazed at the statistic that 25% to 30% of all households in the U.K, U.S, and Canada don’t have a single book in them. “There are that many households that just don’t make books a priority. Some of them can afford it, but for a lot of them, it’s because it is not a priority in their lives. They would love to be able to bring in books but when it comes down to paying rent and putting food on the table, or purchasing a brand new book, it is just not going to happen. That’s where I think we are filling an important gap and trying to make a difference.”