Albert Whitman & Company, best known as the publisher of the Boxcar Children series, has undergone a transformation in the past six months. The 102-year-old Chicagoland publisher is moving into the digital media market with the launch of Albert Whitman Media and is also expanding its workforce in editorial, sales, and marketing. Executives have also implemented new procedures designed to improve the fraught relationships between AW&C and its authors and illustrators that PW reported on last November, when a number of authors and literary agents went on the record detailing a range of issues they experienced working with the publisher.
In a recent conference call, president John Quattrocchi emphasized that the complaints made “were helpful for us, and we worked internally to focus on addressing the issues.” He claimed that all royalty payments are up to date.
Director of marketing Tom MacDonald added that AW&C “remains committed to that going forward.” He said that AW&C is striving for more transparency in its dealings with authors and agents by forming an “accountability team.” The group, headed by him, includes representatives from the marketing, editorial, and operations/accounting departments. It meets biweekly to discuss “all aspects of contributor care” and to monitor AW&C’s new help desk.
In the first quarter of 2021, the team answered more than 60 queries, ranging from royalty questions to address changes, MacDonald said. It has also created a quarterly newsletter for authors and illustrators that answers potential questions and shares new company initiatives.
“Our royalty statements are not as clear as they should be,” Quattrocchi admitted. To address the problem, he said the publisher sent out a sample royalty statement to authors, illustrators, and agents explaining what each component is. The dummy statement also went out in the company’s newsletter. The feedback AW&C has received has been “all positive,” he added.
More than a dozen authors and agents PW spoke with recently confirmed that their royalty payments are up to date and that communication has improved considerably in the past six months. Still, given the previous issues with the company, almost all are cautious in their optimism. “Have things improved? That’s a hard question to answer,” one author said, noting that she has received one scheduled payment on time since the November PW story ran, but that it was hard to discount all the late payments that had been made in the past.
A boutique agency principal said that a recent conversation with two AW&C executives was “mostly forthright and forthcoming about information I have had a hard time getting in the past.” She added, “It was a good development. I will of course be keeping a close eye on things going forward, but what a relief it is to just have an open line of communication.”
Umair Kazi, the director of policy and advocacy at the Authors Guild, confirmed that the organization has not received any new complaints regarding delays in royalty statements or payments, “which were the two biggest concerns.” He added, “I think it’s fair to say the authors’ collective voice has pushed them to be more attentive, at least for the time being.”
Several authors and agents were concerned about what they said is a continuing lack of transparency regarding subrights and licenses, and Kazi confirmed he is working on getting foreign sales data for a member. Others contended that AW&C’s accounting methods are a major source of the problems. AW&C “is the only publisher I’ve worked with in my almost 30 years of business who does not pay with the statement for that royalty period,” one agent said. “There’s still a six-month difference between statement and payment.”
Quattrocchi disputed this, explaining that AW&C’s royalty statements “go out 45 days after the six-month period and are then paid 90 days after that.” He added, “We would have to dramatically change our system to pay at the time of the royalty statement.” AW&C’s terms “were set up for a reason,” he explained, noting that the publisher uses its frontlist revenues to pay royalties. “We’ve not changed our terms in 75 years. If someone read the contract and signed the contract and didn’t have an issue with it then, I’m not sure why it becomes an issue.”
MacDonald noted, “We understand there are things that need to be changed. We’re not done making changes. We’re open to inquiries and suggestions from authors, illustrators, and agents. We’re trying to do the best we can.”
Albert Whitman Media launches
AW&C’s efforts to improve relationships with the creative community coincide with the publisher’s expansion into digital media and ed tech through the launch of Albert Whitman Media. Quattrocchi said the creation of AWM is aimed at taking advantage of the media rights the publisher controls to “a huge backlist of high-quality books” and ensuring it “can control the process” in the development of digital content based on its books. The new company is headed by Attila Gazdag, a Los Angeles entertainment media and ed tech executive who has worked for Disney, Warner Bros., and Age of Learning/ABCmouse.
“We’re well suited to deliver interactive apps and platforms that allow kids and families to discover the books in a digital format,” Gazdag said. The objective is “to stream to their devices and computers in a way that provides effectively a supplemental reading comprehension solution.” After all, he added, “that’s where kids are spending a decent amount of time: streaming or interactive things.”
AWM is making its debut this fall with a subscription-based digital reading app intended as a supplemental educational resource for families as well as for teachers and librarians. The app is aligned with Common Core reading standards, and its content, selected by education experts, will feature “hundreds” of AW&C books that have been enhanced with animation and professional voice-overs, according to Gazdag. Mini-games and other interactive elements complete the package.
Describing the Boxcar Children classic series as the “crown jewel” in the AW&C portfolio, Gazdag anticipates that it will become the linchpin of AWM’s efforts because of the “endless stories” possible for adaptation. There are approximately 170 titles in the series, which was created by Gertrude Chandler Warner and which AW&C began publishing in 1942.
Gazdag said AWM is working with several writers and a Hollywood creative studio to produce a live-action adaptation of the Boxcar Children books. The project will be pitched to tele-vision networks and streaming platforms “in the coming months,” with the goal of developing something that will appeal to adults and children. A Boxcar Children podcast series that will include music and narration is also being developed. And AWM is pursuing Boxcar Children merchandising opportunities.
With an AW&C catalog that has more than 1,000 classic and contemporary children’s books to choose from, AWM will be doing other projects too, Gazdag said. For instance, AWM is partnering with another studio to produce an animated series based on the Zapato Power books by Jacqueline Jules, about Freddie Ramos, an ordinary boy with shoes that transform him into a superhero.
“We’ve laid the foundation,” Gazdag said. “We’re expecting to make some announcements about upcoming shows in the coming months.” He also noted that the production cycle for these projects can take up to two years.
Quattrocchi described the formation of AWM as “a natural extension” of AW&C’s mission, but he emphasized that the company will remain focused on publishing quality children’s books while it moves into the digital media marketplace. “We’re a children’s book publisher,” he said. “That’s never going to change. Now we’re just extending it to these other areas, digital areas, where the kids are anyway.”
Tom MacDonald's title was incorrect in an earlier version of this story; it has been corrected.