Author Daniel Pinkwater generates attention -- and sales -- for children's books via NPR
Since he began his writing career in 1969, author-illustrator Daniel Pinkwater has been known for the quirky humor and artwork found in such titles as his The Hoboken Chicken Emergency, Fat Men from Space and The Snarkout Boys and the Avocado of Death. Thirty years and nearly 80 books later, he is still bringing his zany brand of entertainment to the children's book world.
But a funny thing happened along the way: Pinkwater has found a second career as a radio commentator on National Public Radio's All Things Considered and, since 1996, has also been discussing children's books during periodic segments of National Public Radio's Weekend Edition Saturday.
Publishers of adult books have long been aware that NPR exposure sells their wares. Now, thanks to Pinkwater, children's book publishers -- whose books rarely receive national attention -- are getting a taste of the same sweet success. Roughly one Saturday a month, Pinkwater joins Weekend Edition Saturday host Scott Simon on the air to talk about children's books Pinkwater has selected.
| A P TRY COLLECTION and a chapter book have reaped the benefits of Pinkwater's approval. |
To date Pinkwater has championed a broadly diverse group of picture books, which reflect his idiosyncratic tastes. "I'm not looking for books that are getting a lot of attention," Pinkwater said of his choices. "I like to find books that are obscure, not top-of-the-list. And it's always a treat to discover a new author or something I just really like. It's very random, but they [NPR] allow me to be the eccentric I am." Though he generally follows his own sensibilities, Pinkwater explained that his book choices must also pass muster with Simon and NPR producer Sarah Byer-Kelly.
| PINKWATER: "It's always a treat to discover a new author. |
As he searches for titles to discuss, Pinkwater consults publishers' catalogues but relies mainly on word of mouth. "Most books are recommended to me by friends and colleagues who are not connected to the book," he said. Publishers routinely pitch materials to him, but Pinkwater is quick to point out that pitches, especially elaborate ones, are not necessary or particularly welcome. "Fancy press kits are a waste. Those things don't do any good. If a book d sn't instantly intrigue me, I move on." Byer-Kelly also seeks out suitable titles.
A good book alone d sn't make a successful segment, however. Asked what it is about his radio presence that listeners are connecting with, Pinkwater answered, "On radio, you usually hear a librarian reading a list of good children's books. I don't profess to be that kind of expert, but I am an artist and I think it's interesting to hear an artist talk about art. My knowledge may not be encyclopedic, but I am very enthusiastic and I have insights that no one else has."
Pinkwater's rapport with Simon is also key. Their comfortable, entertaining banter makes the segments particular appealing, according to listeners. "Scott and I have good chemistry," said Pinkwater. "Working with him is amazing, like riding in the back of a limo -- it's deluxe and dead easy." What d sn't sound quite so dead easy is the technical aspect of preparing a 10-15-minute radio segment. Over the years, Pinkwater has mastered a synchronized taping technique that is often employed by NPR. In his upstate New York home, Pinkwater isolates himself in a closet and speaks to Simon in Washington, D.C., via telephone, while recording himself with a high-quality digital tape recorder and microphone. Simon also tapes his end of the conversation, then Pinkwater sends his tape to Washington where it is spliced with Simon's tape and edited.
Listeners Become Buyers
According to publishers whose books have been featured on the Saturday segments, listeners have clearly responded to Pinkwater's radio performance and his selections. Last April, when Pinkwater and Simon read aloud from two picture-book p try collections, Insectlopedia: P ms and Paintings by Douglas Florian (Harcourt Brace) and Antarctic Antics: A Book of Penguin P ms by Judy Sierra, illus. by Jose Aruego and Ariane Dewey (Harcourt Brace), requests for those titles in bookstores was nearly immediate.
"We were told people were looking for the books that day," said Barbara Fisch, senior publicist at Harcourt Brace. Late last March, Byer-Kelly asked Fisch to send any Harcourt p try books to both NPR and to Pinkwater for possible inclusion in a segment celebrating National P try Month. Fisch was alerted on the Thursday prior to the air date that the two Harcourt titles had been chosen.
Fisch said the positive buzz helped to maintain strong sales for the books through the end of 1998. Insectlopedia was released last March with a first printing of 15,000 and has been back to press six times for a total of 60,000 copies; Antarctic Antics also had a 15,000-copy first printing last March and has been reprinted five times, bringing the in-print figure to 40,000 copies.
In addition to healthy sales figures, Pinkwater's segments tend to generate additional reviewer interest, too. "It's been just astounding," said Sarah Shealy, senior publicist at Harcourt. "Daniel's reviews have had such a far-reaching effect."
Judith Haut, director of publicity for the Bantam Doubleday Delldivision of Random House Children's Book Group, noted that two of her company's recent releases have also benefited from the Pinkwater effect. In September Pinkwater and Simon discussed Music over Manhattan (Doubleday) by Mark Karlins, illus. by Jack E. Davis, and in December they shined the spotlight on The Ink Drinker by Eric Sanvoisin, illus. by Martin Matje (Delacorte).
"We knew it would be good, but we could not predict the impact Pinkwater's review had," Haut said. "Our reps reported a big jump in demand only two days after each segment aired. For both titles it was a great and unexpected boost." The Ink Drinker had a 14,000-copy first printing and after two reprints it now boasts 28,000 copies in print; Music over Manhattan has been back to press twice following a 15,000-copy first printing; it now has 30,000 copies in print.
Haut also mentioned an increased demand from online booksellers; many of the customer comments found in Amazon.com's listings for these titles (and the Harcourt titles) make reference to the Pinkwater/Simon segments. Like Harcourt, BDD also experienced an increase in review requests for the titles from newspapers and magazines across the country.
Small Publishers Get a Boost
While a word from Pinkwater appears to work wonders with individual titles, he has also used his on-air time to laud some of his favorite small presses. In 1996, he praised Flagstaff, Ariz. -- based Northland Publishing, and touted two of their Southwest-themed titles: Monster Slayer (1992) by Vee Browne, illus. by Baje Whitethorne, and Mystery of Navajo Moon (1993) by Tim Green. "When the segment aired in August or September of 1996," said Karen Anderson, marketing director at Northland, "Our phone literally rang off the hook. It was unbelievable."
As a result, Northland sold out of its remaining stock of both titles within three months. Unfortunately, both titles were already slated to go out of print and no reprints were ordered. Pinkwater's mention of another Northland title, Spider Spins a Story: Fourteen Legends from Native America, edited by Jill Max, illus. by Robert Annesley and others, in November 1997 produced similar results. Sales of that book doubled for December 1997 through February 1998.
Though it's impossible to predict which titles Pinkwater will single out next, publishers are glad that he continues to bring children's books to the attention of some of NPR's nearly 17 million listeners (2.3 million for Weekend Edition Saturday).
Pinkwater has also recently launched his own weekly radio program for kids, called Chinwag Theater. The half-hour show is heard on 51 stations across the country so far. A mix of music, humor and Pinkwater reading his work, the program may also expand to include coverage of other children's books. Such a development would be icing on the cake for children's publishers. "We're very encouraged by Daniel Pinkwater and his effect on children's books," said Haut of BDD. "We're thrilled that we have our own little Oprah in our corner of the world."