The outstanding performance of the children’s nonfiction category in the first half of 2020, with unit sales up 25.5% compared to the same period in 2019 according to NPD BookScan, was driven by pandemic-fueled interest in educational workbooks, coloring and activity books, and other titles that help families cope with the crisis. Leading the way was Rockridge Press’s $8.99 My First Learn-to-Write Workbook by Crystal Radke, which has sold about 431,000 copies so far this year.
Rockridge is the primary imprint of 10-year-old Callisto Media, a fast-growing, data-driven nonfiction publisher based in Emeryville, Calif., and New York City. The company is best known for its specialized cookbooks and health titles, many of which are tied to specific diets (e.g. alkaline, keto, paleo), appliances (Dutch ovens, slow cookers), and health conditions (diabetes, Hashimoto’s disease).
Callisto began to dip its toes into the children’s sector just two years ago with a coloring and activity title for toddlers, followed by some kids’ cookbooks, according to chief content officer Mary Amicucci, former chief merchandising officer at Barnes & Noble, who joined Callisto around that time. The publisher has more than doubled the number of titles it produces every year since then, with 150 in 2018, 350 in 2019, and 850 planned for 2020.
The kids’ segment became important for Rockridge in 2019. “Q4 2019 was when a lot of our publishing efforts for kids really landed,” Amicucci says. “They came out of the gate strong in terms of meeting or exceeding our expectations.”
In addition to My First Learn-to-Write Workbook, published in August 2019, some of Rockridge’s top-performing juvenile titles this year include Human Body Activity Book for Kids (published in March 2019; 138,000 copies sold in the year to date), Awesome Science Experiments for Kids (February 2018; 122,000 copies),The Backyard Bug Book for Kids (September 2019; 83,000 copies), My Kindergarten Workbook (July 2019; 80,000 copies), and My Sight Words Workbook (September 2019; 75,000 copies). The imprint is also high on April’s The Story of Harriet Tubman, the first title in a new biography series.
Though Rockridge’s titles have been topping bestseller lists during the pandemic, instant hits are not its objective. “When shelter-in-place started, these books took off like lightning, but we play at the margins of what’s really a backlist business,” Amicucci said. “We want everything we do to be something consumers can keep for the next five years. That this became a juggernaut of bestsellers is a bonus but not the goal.”
Callisto’s process is to analyze numerous data points, including point-of-sale information and search results, to identify which topics consumers are looking for, which issues they want addressed, and their complaints about what’s on store shelves already. The intent is to determine topics of high interest for which there is a void in the market.
“We’re a data and technology company first,” Amicucci said. “It’s how we collect and cull and analyze the opportunity that makes us unique. I like to say our content is empathetic to consumers’ needs.” Noting that many of Rockridge’s books focus on very specialized topics, she added, “These are books that are difficult to do for most publishers.”
The data not only gives Callisto topics to pursue but also provides details about a content blueprint; price point, format, trim size, and packaging; and even the kind of author the company should seek out. “The authors share our mission and are really wonderful in partnering with us on the data,” Amicucci said. Authors can suggest additions or changes, which are run through the data to decide if they’re viable. “You’re never losing sight of who you’re writing the books for.”
Before the pandemic hit, Rockridge’s sales were split evenly between e-commerce and retail channels, including trade bookstores, specialty stores, mass retailers, and wholesale clubs. Like most publishers, Rockridge’s e-commerce has gained traction during the Covid-19 crisis. The company began building an in-house trade sales infrastructure three years ago, and Amicucci recently was given responsibility for that function along with overseeing Rockridge’s content. She said that there are also discussions about moving into the school and library market.
Unlike many publishers whose sales have suffered during the pandemic, Callisto will grow in 2020, Amicucci said, making it more confident in its strategy. “What’s happened this spring has validated that direction and confirmed that our approach is the right way to go,” she added.
Rockridge’s kids’ list will continue with its core educational activity and workbooks, and will delve further into newer content areas, such as history and biography, and expand its presence in science. It will also add titles for new age groups—it started with a focus on ages six to eight—as it works toward a goal of publishing books for all children.
“We want a robust reading experience at all ages and stages across all nonfiction subjects, with continuity to shepherd the readers as they age,” Amicucci said. “I feel good about our product road map for kids. The key is execution and making sure consumers are aware of our products that are out there.”