Other houses may be trimming staff and books, but 20-year-old Charlesbridge Publishing in Watertown, Mass., is profiting by maintaining both. Admittedly things looked “dicey” last fall, says president and publisher Brent Farmer, when sales dropped off as they did for trade houses large and small. But coming off a strong spring list, the independent children's press, best known for its picture books, finished 2008 up 3%. And it's on track to be slightly up again this year.

Despite today's harsh retail environment, Charlesbridge, the trade arm of educational press Charlesbridge Publishing Inc. (a privately held company founded in 1980), is doing better than simply holding its own. Over the past decade, its sales have shot past those of CPI, and it is preparing to grow by adding early childhood books.

With the launch of a 16-book series in 2010 by visual learning specialist Stuart J. Murphy, whose MathStart series from HarperCollins has sold more than four million copies, Farmer anticipates hitting Charlesbridge's target of 30 to 40 books a year.

Getting Murphy's I See, I Learn series was a coup for Charlesbridge, and Farmer credits consultant and former Houghton Mifflin Children's Books editorial director Judy O'Malley. In addition to introducing Murphy to the press, she is largely responsible for moving the list beyond its picture book beginnings. She worked on staff for several years to develop “bridge books,” or chapter books and middle-grade novels. In 2006, Charlesbridge published its first bridge book, Mitali Perkins's Rickshaw Girl.

Charlesbridge's senior staff: (l. to r.) president and publisher
Brent Farmer; editorial director Yolanda LeRoy; associate
director of marketing Donna Spurlock; v-p and associate
publisher Mary Ann Sabia; and art director Susan Sherman.

For Farmer, the Murphy series is a win-win for author and publisher. The books, which art director Susan Sherman describes as more Mr. Rogers or Barney than Sesame Street, cover four basic skills: health and safety, cognitive, social and emotional. The first four books will pub in fall 2010.

With the addition of Murphy's series, Charlesbridge has books for children from birth to 14, as well as Spanish translations and original bilingual English/Spanish titles. However, the one area it declines to move into is YA. “Our roots are in the picture book business. We want to keep the core of what we are,” says editorial director Yolanda LeRoy.

As the press has expanded into new areas, adds v-p and associate publisher Mary Ann Sabia, who has been with Charlesbridge for all 20 years, it has not cut back on picture books. Instead it has grown its list to accommodate titles for more ages. “Picture books,” she notes, “have been a steady source of growth for Charlesbridge since our inception. Although every list has one or two riskier books or ones that stretch our boundaries, we have a strong sense of our identity and our markets, and we stay focused on that.” Sales for picture books split evenly between retail and the school and library market.

Traditional Values

In many ways Charlesbridge harks back to “traditional publishing values,” says Donna Spurlock, associate director of marketing, publicity and promotions. It continues to accept unsolicited manuscripts, handle its own shipping and keep most of its books in print. According to Sabia, 80% of the books the press has published, or 322 titles, are still available, including the five nature alphabets by Jerry Pallotta with which the press launched in 1989. Currently, Pallotta has 22 books in that series, with over five million copies in print.

Charlesbridge also continues to maintain its partnership with the Global Fund for Children to publish books with a global social consciousness, which it began more than a decade ago. Together Charlesbridge and GFC have developed 18 books, and in 2006 GFC was honored by Oprah's Angel Network for its contribution to children's literacy.

That's not to say that Charlesbridge isn't interested in adapting to new technology. It has 90 e-books, which are primarily distributed through Follett and Ingram to the school market. It has upgraded its Web site, which enables consumers to click through to purchase books at a local store. The site also includes posters, discussion guides and activities, including one for Chris Barton's The Day-Glo Brothers (July), which explains how Day-Glo colors are made.

Going forward, Farmer would like to see the press continue “building on our strengths and building our lists gradually,” though he doesn't preclude the idea of adding other presses like Lickle Publishing, which Charlesbridge acquired in 2006, or Whispering Coyote Press, back in 1999. “We don't chase after the latest trends,” Sabia says. “We know what our customers want and we try to acquire and publish accordingly. We're self-supporting, so we grow within our means.”