As each new season approaches, publishers trumpet the arrival of their latest big books in hopes of ringing up corresponding big sales. Through marketing, publicity, author tours and sometimes word-of-mouth, a few titles usually break out. Other times, a publisher may turn its marketing attention to a backlist title or group of titles that it wants to give a push for larger sales. But despite all the grand efforts of publishers, sometimes it's the quiet backlist title that gets little or no attention that proves to be a company's bread and butter.
With little fanfare, or sometimes none at all, many books continue to sell well year after year; we chose a handful of those properties for a closer examination.
The Biscuit books, written by Alyssa Satin Capucilli and illustrated by Pat Schories (HarperCollins), started out in 1996 as a single book about a golden retriever puppy. As of this fall, the puppy stars in 26 books in a variety of formats.
"We were looking for ways to grow our I Can Read line and we saw a gap in the books for younger readers," said v-p and editorial director Kate Jackson. "We put Biscuit in My First I Can Read thinking that a cute puppy would have a lot of kid appeal." With Biscuit's success in his original format, he was eventually published under the HarperFestival imprint, where he was introduced into novelty books with flaps and gatefolds.
Biscuit is among good company in the I Can Read line, joining such classic characters as Amelia Bedelia and Frog and Toad. "Whenever we launch a character in I Can Read, we always hope it will have a long life," Jackson said. Biscuit seems to be enjoying a long life as well as strong sales. To date, the original Biscuit, which is the series' bestselling title, has sold more than one million copies in seven years. The series as a whole has more than five million copies in print, in all formats.
According to Andrea Pappenheimer, senior v-p of sales, "Biscuit has grown over the years and has created its own niche. We're getting the books into new markets, like Wal-Mart. We're really ready for the leap to more consumer awareness."
Diane Naughton, v-p of marketing, attributes the success of the series to a variety of factors. "The book has the feel of a classic," she said. "It's about shared experiences, something kids identify with. Also, it's unisex and totally appropriate for the age group."
In hopes of continuing the brand, Harper will be releasing one I Can Read title per year for Biscuit "well into the future," according to Jackson, who said they will also continue adding Biscuit titles into HarperFestival.
First published in 1992 as a one-off picture book, Froggy Gets Dressed by Jonathan London, illustrated by Frank Remkiewicz, has turned into what is now a 13-book series.
Regina Hayes, president and publisher of Viking Children's Books and editor of the series, said, "When the first book was published, it had solid sales. We didn't do any special promotion but the reviews were wonderful. We saw a terrific response so we decided to continue it."
Each of the Froggy books has been sold to Scholastic for its book clubs, and every title has been an IRA-CBC Children's Choice Book. "These are books that have true child appeal," Hayes said, adding, "The most universal themes sell the best, like going to school or eating out. Froggy's First Kiss is extremely popular."
According to Gina Maolucci, v-p and director of marketing for the Penguin Young Readers Group, the bestselling title is Froggy Gets Dressed, which has sold over 350,000 copies in its various editions. The series as a whole has sold over 1.4 million copies.
Viking has tried putting Froggy into other formats, such as an activity book and an 8x8, but the picture books sell the best.
As Hayes sees it, Froggy's popularity can be attributed to the fact that "Froggy is every child and he's such a good-hearted fellow. He makes mistakes but thing work out all right for him. That and the fact that they are such great read-aloud texts."
New Froggy books are in the works, with Froggy's Day with Dad coming next spring. "There has been talk about a TV show," Hayes reported, "but nothing has been crystallized. Maybe some day we'll have a whole world of Froggy."
My Body Science
Kane/Miller, which is celebrating 20 years of publishing translated foreign picture books this year, has had great success with a series of books called My Body Science. Originally published in Japan by Fukuinkan Shoten Publishers in 1977, the first title in the series, Everyone Poops, made its initial appearance in the U.S. in 1993. According to Kira Lynn, president of Kane/Miller and editor of the series, Everyone Poops was discovered through a local educator in California. "She had found the book in Japan, translated it herself and was sharing it with her friends and colleagues," Lynn said. "We were familiar with the Japanese publisher and contacted them soon after." The company sold close to 210,000 copies of the book in its first two years, as word about the book began to spread.
Admitting that the healthy sales of Everyone Poops were a "mitigating factor" in the decision to acquire the other titles in the series, Lynn said that wasn't the only reason. "We really thought—and still do think—that these books are important," she said. "They appeal to adults, it's true, and we're happy about that, but they provide necessary and important information to children. That's what we've always been committed to doing."
The second book in the series, The Gas We Pass (1994), has also had big sales. Those two books "have pretty much sold themselves," Lynn said, "taking the rest of the series along with them.
Altogether there are seven books in the series, including The Holes in Our Nose, All About Scabs and Breasts. According to sales manager Byron Parnell, "sales continue to grow as we open up more nontraditional accounts. At the same time, traditional booksellers have embraced this series as a staple item and continue to promote the books as strong backlist sellers in the potty training, science and sometimes humor categories." Since the debut of the series, over two million copies have been sold, with Everyone Poops and The Gas We Pass making up about half of the total.
The success of My Body Science has meant a lot to Kane/Miller as a company. In a large company, strong sales for a series may mean a bigger profit that year, but for a small company it can be more meaningful. "The success of these books is what sustains our company," Lynn said. "They allow us the freedom to publish other books we feel are also important to bring to American children, but perhaps don't have as wide an appeal. We owe [the series] a lot."
Freddy the Pig
Freddy the Pig has had quite the life—or, rather—lives. First published by Knopf back in the 1950s, Freddy went on to star in 26 books. He has recently found a new life at Overlook Press, which just finished reissuing each of the Freddy titles, written by Walter R. Brooks and illustrated by Kurt Wiese.
Freddy's second life had an auspicious beginning, but one that the publisher didn't think would lead as far as it has. "When we decided to reissue the first title back in 1998," said Overlook president and publisher Peter Mayer, "I wanted to publish as many of the books as we could afford to do. And truthfully, I thought we could do just the first one." Overlook's initial printing for the first reissue, Freddy the Detective, was just 2,000 copies; it has gone back to press six more times, and more than 21,000 copies are now in print.
Mayer bought the rights to Freddy after hearing from a friend that all of the books were out of print. "I grew up with the Freddy books," he said. "They were my favorites." After attending a meeting of the Friends of Freddy in New York one evening, Mayer thought, "There's something going on here." And it seems as if he's right: Overlook has sold paperback rights, book club rights and audio rights; movie rights have just sold to Saturday Night Live creator Lorne Michaels.
In considering the look of the reissues, Mayer felt it necessary to stay true to the original books. "Keeping the illustrations was key," he said. "We made sure the look of the book, the endpapers and the color of the art were matched up to the first editions from Knopf."
Mayer attributes the success of the series to the books themselves. "If something is of great quality, it comes around," he said. "But timing always plays a factor. Knopf knew they had something very valuable and they reissued eight of the titles years ago, but they didn't work. I think it just wasn't the right time for them."
With sales continuing to rise, the popularity of the books has given Overlook the chance to publish a few new Freddy titles. "We've added The Wit and Wisdom of Freddy and His Friends and The Collected Poems of Freddy the Pig," Mayer said. "It's been a lot of fun for us."
Bobby Lynn Maslen, a former classroom teacher, created the Bob books in the mid 1980s as a way to get her class of four-, five- and six-year-olds to read. Bobby's husband John illustrated them and together they produced and sold the leveled readers out of her home in Portland, Ore., largely to accounts in the Pacific Northwest and through mail order. Scholastic found the books and bought them in 1994, just as the Maslens were looking for a way to distribute the books to a larger audience. "Our image is about school," said Craig Walker, v-p and editorial director of trade paperbacks. "The Scholastic brand really means learning, so it was a perfect match."
The books, a step-by-step program to get children reading, are sold as five different sets with varying number of books in each box, depending on the level chosen. There are two sets in level A, two in level B and one in level C.
With the books having had the same appearance since they first came on the market, Scholastic is beginning to think about updating the series' look. "There is a lot more competition in the marketplace," Walker said. "Now everyone is coming out with books that mimic the Bob books, but with more inventive packaging. We don't want to change them drastically, so we're thinking about adding something that is more interesting contents-wise, maybe some supplementary information. We tried to do some workbooks years ago, but none of that seemed to have much effect. It's the basic Bob books that do so well."
With no marketing or publicity efforts from Scholastic, the books' sales have remained healthily steady for years. Michael Jacobs, senior v-p of trade sales, said, "The books sell phenomenally well. The first set sells the best, with sales of 70,000 to 80,000 a year. Lifetime sales for all five sets combined is well over a million copies in just the trade alone."
Walker has no doubt that parents and booksellers have a lot to do with why the books sell so well. "It's definitely a word-of-mouth thing," he said. "It's the bookstore owners and parents who say, 'If this child isn't reading, get them the Bob books.' " And Jacobs added, "I think they work so well because they help the youngest readers feel like they've accomplished something by reading a whole book in one sitting. It makes them feel like they are really making progress. With these books, the kids gain confidence."
The Hundred Dresses
First published in 1944, The Hundred Dresses by Eleanor Estes, illustrated by Louis Slobodkin, is a picture book that just won't quit. It has never gone out of print in almost 60 years, and despite the lack of any marketing or publicity efforts for the title, it continues to rank as one of Harcourt's top five bestselling children's books every year. Sales in 2000 topped 65,000; in 2001 they were close to 67,000; and in 2002 the book sold just over 57,000 copies. "What's remarkable," said Jeannette Larson, senior editor at Harcourt Children's Books, "is that the sales are so consistent year to year. It's not a book that sold early in its life and trickled along." In total, the book has sold almost 1.2 million copies.
The Hundred Dresses, a 1945 Newbery Honor winner, tells of a girl who is teased by classmates because she says she has 100 dresses at home, yet she wears the same dress to school every day. "The book speaks to universal moral issues like peer pressure, grace under pressure and self-esteem," said director of sales and marketing Laurie Brown. Larson agreed, adding, "When you look at it and read the book, it has an old-fashioned sense, but it is relevant to today. The feelings are very authentic."
As for the reasons it has stayed in print all these years and continues to sell so well, Brown stated, "The book was a Newbery Honor, illustrated by a Caldecott Honor artist, so its pedigree is beyond reproach. It is particularly classroom-friendly, as it takes place in a school, and the situations are familiar and ultimately instructive in the most positive fashion." Larson added that the paperback edition sells particularly well in the school market. "Teachers have started using the book because it doesn't wrap things up neatly," she said. "It's the perfect book to say, 'What would you do?' "
In the fall of 2004, Harcourt will publish a newly restored edition of The Hundred Dresses, because through the process of reprinting the book over the past 60 years, the colors have faded. According to Brown, by reshooting the original art and restoring the colors to their former brightness, "we will be able to produce a palette truer to the illustrator's original intent."
Poetry for Young People
Sterling president and CEO Charles Nurnberg began the Poetry for Young People series back in 1993, for his grandmother. "She used to read poetry to me as a child," he said. "I wanted to give her something to honor her on her 102nd birthday." Unfortunately, Nurnberg's grandmother passed away before the first book was released, but the series that began on her behalf has proved a perennial success.
The idea behind the series, according to Nurnberg, was to "introduce poetry to young people. We wanted to do something interesting, so we built in art that was just right for each poet. Each book has a different artist that evokes the feeling of that particular poet." Every volume in the hardcover series contains a number of poems, each with an introduction, along with annotations and biographical information.
Robert Frost was the first book published in the series and has been one of the strongest sellers ever since, with William Shakespeare and Emily Dickinson close on its heels. All together, there are 18 titles in print, and they have sold over two million copies since their inception. "The books sell fantastically," Nurnberg said. "They've been increasing in sales year after year. They've really come into their own. In the last year alone, the Frost title has sold about 15,000 copies. Of a hardcover poetry book!"
The appeal of the series is across the board, according to Sterling, with strong sales in bookstores, libraries and schools. Editorial director Frances Gilbert commented, "Libraries really support this series, but we've also had a lot of support in the trade. Special markets has helped a lot in placing books in outlets like the Yeats Society."
As for thoughts on why the series has been a success, Gilbert said, "I think they are beautifully produced. We choose the artists carefully and people understand that these are carefully edited and annotated and not just slapped together. Also, many generations can enjoy the books together."
With sales still climbing, plans for future books are definitely in the works. "I intend to do the series forever," Nurnberg said. And a spin-off is in the works. Sterling is creating a Stories for Young People series, with Oscar Wilde and Mark Twain as the first two books, due out in the spring of 2005.
The Velveteen Rabbit
The story of The Velveteen Rabbit by Margery Williams Bianco has appeared in many editions since it was first published in 1922. The Creative Company, based in Mankato, Minn., began work on its edition of The Velveteen Rabbit in the spring of 1992 and published the book in September of 1994. According to president and publisher Tom Peterson, "It took [illustrator] Monique Felix, as well as our design, editorial and production teams, the next 24 months to bring the idea to reality. We wanted to publish the story because, first and foremost, it is a classic and wonderful text. We thought adding Monique Felix's talent with these enduring words might make a good combination."
Since 1994, the book has sold over 300,000 copies in hardcover. It was released in paperback in July and sold 5,000 copies in that month alone. "We don't follow that dollar-a-book kind of ratio," said trade sales and marketing manager Barbara Ciletti. "We believe that cream rises and we hand-sell all our titles."
Sales have been fairly steady for the book over the years. "Some titles surprise us with their strong sales," Ciletti said. "But this title has never been a surprise. It has always shown the signs of a long-distance runner."
Ciletti attributes the design of the book to its success. "Like many of Creative's titles, the overall design of The Velveteen Rabbit is a bit away from the typical picture book. It's the entire original story, in a typeface that is more adult than typical [picture] books. I think this is something that makes it a very readable classic and people love the illustrations."
Picture Book Biographies
Holiday House acquired the title A Picture Book of George Washington by David A. Adler back in 1988. Editor-in-chief Regina Griffin, who now edits the series, said, "The company hoped the book would lead to a successful series, but did not expect that it would last as long as it has." There are now more than 30 titles available, which Griffin called "a delightful and happy surprise."
The combined titles have sold well over seven figures, and keep on selling, with certain titles doing better than others. "Sales are very dependent on the subject matter," Griffin said. "For example, we sell many more copies of the George Washington biography than of the biography of Patrick Henry. Curriculum needs and familiarity with the subject matter are what drives these sales."
Picture Book Biographies are sold mostly to schools and libraries, where the series has become, in Griffin's words, "a sort of brand. [Teachers and librarians] know what to expect and know that they can rely on the books as an introduction to a celebrated historical figure."
The books have a healthy life in bookstores as well. "We are always wonderfully surprised at the number of bookstores, both independent and chains, that sell large numbers of these books effectively both to teachers and parents," Griffin said. "They have done a terrific job figuring out how to sell this type of nonfiction in the retail market."
Since the introduction of the series in 1989, Adler has written each title, though they have been illustrated by various artists; the books have always had a uniform look. The company has, however, begun to experiment slightly with the design. "The Eisenhower title has a more contemporary look," Griffin commented. "And we are discussing updating the earlier books as they reprint."
As for the line's strong sales, Griffin believes that a number of factors contribute. "The author is careful to make sure that the topics are appealing to primary school kids. He writes in clear, straightforward prose that is easy to read and comprehend. Also, we pay close attention to the curriculum in order to assure that the subjects are desired by teachers."
On the market for over 15 years, the series shows no signs of slowing down. "We have already signed up more titles in this series," Griffin said, "and we look forward to publishing them as long as kids are still interested."
Artist Picture Books
Camille and the Sunflowers: A Story About Vincent Van Gogh by Laurence Anholt was published by Barron's in 1994 as a single picture book. Two years later, Degas and the Little Dance: A Story About Edgar Degas hit the market, and since then Anholt has created three more picture books about artists.
According to director of marketing Lonny Stein, "The concept for the books grew out of Anholt's training in the fine arts and as a classroom art teacher. The stories tell the events of the artists' lives as seen through a child's eye. They are very accessible to readers."
The books are not literally considered a series, but they are all written by Anholt. "People recognize his concept," Stein said. "They see them as a group."
Sales of the titles are healthy across all types of markets, Stein said. "The titles are strong in museum stores, bookstores, schools and libraries. It's a very consistent series." The five titles combined have sold over 200,000 copies. "Sales are pretty steady year to year," he said. "We see significant bounces in particular years when there are traveling exhibits; we'll see increased sales at the museum bookstores as well as across the region the exhibit is at."
As for the success of the series, Stein believes the books work on their own merits. "They are a springboard into a lifetime interest in art. Parents who are patrons of the fine arts and want to pass that love on to their children can give them these books."
Sandra Boynton Books
When Robin Corey, v-p and publisher of novelty and media tie-ins at Simon and Schuster Children's Publishing, began working at S&S in 1994, one of her first projects was working with Sandra Boynton. Boynton had published eight board books for the company between 1982 and 1984, which were selling well, but according to Corey, "[Boynton's] art style had changed drastically and she offered to reillustrate all eight books. She finished all eight of them in one summer and they have sold even better since then."
Simon and Schuster has published 15 Boynton books to date, with the majority being board books, such as Doggies, Snoozers and Horns to Toes. "We've done two picture books, and a touch-and-feel [Fuzzy Fuzzy Fuzzy!] was released this summer," Corey said. "We're always working on something new. We're in the development stages for a cloth book now."
Despite an absence of marketing or promotion for Boynton's books, her backlist titles continue to be top sellers for S&S each year. "A few of her books are always in our yearly top 10," Corey said.
According to executive director of publicity Tracy van Straaten, Moo Ba La La La and The Going-to-Bed Book are the top two Boynton bestsellers. Since 1991 (as far back as S&S computer systems track), Moo Baa La La La has sold over 1.8 million copies, with The Going-to-Bed Book close behind with sales of 1.6 million. "Each of these books sell more than 100,000 copies a year," said van Straaten. Even with strong, steady backlist sales, according to Corey, "We see a spike in backlist sales if a new title comes out."
"I think they sell so well because they are simply great books," said Corey. "They appeal to everyone. I've seen adults buy them for other adults." And van Straaten added her own take on why they have proved so popular: "There is something about Boynton books—the look and sound of them, the topic and word play. It all comes together with a distinctive, simple look."