Esteemed literary agent and innovative publishing executive George Nicholson, credited with introducing high-quality paperback publishing to the children’s book industry, died February 3 in New York City. He was 77.
Nicholson was born July 6, 1937 in Detroit, but grew up in Saddle River, N.J. and Kansas City, Mo. He graduated from high school in Mt. Lebanon, Pa. (a Pittsburgh suburb) and attended Carleton College in Northfield, Minn. He had planned to attend graduate school when he first came to New York City in 1959, but, as he told author and historian Leonard S. Marcus in a 2007 interview for the Horn Book, he was talked into a detour by Albert Leventhal, the father of a friend.
Nicholson embarked on his publishing career in 1959 when he began working for Leventhal, president of Artists and Writers Guild, a firm partly owned by Western Printing and Lithographing, which published Golden Books among others. “At Artists and Writers you got to do everything,” Nicholson told Marcus. He worked his way through various departments learning about layout, design, permissions, and manufacturing, and heading up a Roman Catholic children’s book division. After five years, Leventhal recommended Nicholson for a job at Dell Publishing working with Helen Meyer, the company’s the president.
At Dell, Nicholson led the charge to publish paperbacks of “literary merit,” something that was not being done at the time. Hardcover publishers were reluctant to sell rights at first, believing paperbacks would eat into their hardcover sales. But companies sat up and took notice—and wanted to be part of the action—when Nicholson secured the rights from Harper to reprint Charlotte’s Web and Stuart Little by E.B. White. That breakthrough was such a major deal that it spurred Harper editor and publisher Ursula Nordstrom to open her company’s own paperback imprint, HarperTrophy, several years later.
Nicholson guided teen author S.E. Hinton’s The Outsiders and the works of Judy Blume into paperback at Dell and saw their books become popular classics as a result. From Dell, Nicholson moved to Holt, Rinehart and Winston in 1970. During his time there, he launched Owlet, a line of picture book reprints. By late 1971, Nicholson had moved to Viking where he helped establish the children’s book division of Puffin paperbacks. In 1979, Nicholson had the opportunity to return to Dell, which he did, and remained there until 1993, when following the Bertelsmann takeover of Bantam Doubleday Dell, he moved to HarperCollins.
In 1995, Nicholson joined Sterling Lord Literistic as an agent for children’s and young adult books. Among his many clients were Tony Abbott, Betsy Byars, Lois Duncan, Patricia Reilly Giff, Alice Provensen, Peter Lerangis, and Zilpha Keatley Snyder, and the literary estates of Don Freeman, Hardie Gramatky, Marguerite Henry, and Lois Lenski.
Throughout his time as a publisher and agent, Nicholson was a trusted industry voice often called upon to provide insight on the inner workings of the business as well as the history and evolution of children’s book publishing. His clients and friends enjoyed his book recommendations, and PW caught up with him just this past summer to see what titles he had on his bedside table.
Plans for a memorial service will be announced at a later time.