- The Heart of Book Publishing:An Editor's Line in the Sand
The world of book publishing has changed vastly in the last twenty years, and it has changed not at all. I recall, as a young author, coming to 51 Madison Avenue to meet Ferd Monjo, first a senior editor at Harper's, then Editorial Director of Coward McCann. We met for lunch at the Park Sheraton, a trendy spot where writers and editors often met in the 1970s, and where he urged me to write in a new form—he called it "easy read" (at Harper's it was called I Can Read). "Discover some American heroes whom nobody has ever heard of," he said. "Write about some footnotes of American history." He mentioned Sam the Minute Man by Nathaniel Benchley as a model. As an afterthought he added, "I passed a road in Vermont called The Molly Stark Trail. Who was she? Did she have a story?"
He had led me to a footnote. New to writing for children and only having published two books, I was delighted. The same day I went to the Local History and Genealogy Room of the New York Public Library, a lovely room of small tables dotted with funnel-shaded lamps and shelves of good-smelling ancient books. There I discovered that Molly was Colonial General John Stark's wife; he'd named the road for her because he had dragged a cannon back to her as memorabilia from the Battle of Bennington. But in the same local history volume, I ran across Aaron Robinson, nine- year-old grandson of a Bennington innkeeper, who had a small but distinct role in the famous battle. I had found my footnote, and, indeed, his story became one of Coward McCann's first easy reads: Aaron and the Green Mountain Boys. It was published in 1974 with a nod from Coward's institutional marketing department of one, a woman whose name I have long forgotten, and who promised to call some librarians on behalf of the book.
Fast forward. Coward McCann, publisher of Claire Bishop's Five Chinese Brothers and Wanda Gág's Millions of Cats, among many famous others, was one of the first independent publishers to be swallowed in a merger. It was first bought in the 1970s by the venerable G.P. Putnam's Sons, who also bought Grosset and Dunlap, Nancy Drew's original home, and which itself was swallowed in the early 1990s by Penguin, Inc., which had been swallowed in 1970 by the international educational publisher Pearson, Inc., headquartered in London. And so on and so on.
Here's the point. The likelihood that a trade-book editor today, existing in this multi-merged publishing world, would encourage an almost unknown author to find an obscure historical footnote to write a book in a new form of any kind is minimal. Not impossible, but minimal. The secret is in the word "trade." No longer publishers who primarily serve the school and library markets—that changed forever by the early 1990s—most major publishers increasingly "serve the trade": bookstores and bookselling interests from Barnes and Noble to Costco to the peripatetic Books Are Fun. Big names and big ideas, with big authors and big illustrators illustrating, are simply a much better risk to enhance the bottom line, the primary if not sole goal of the large, merged conglomerates.
And marketing? When I first began to write and publish in the early 1970s, I would have given my 1947 Royal typewriter for marketing support, beyond the standard post publication ad if the book received two stars in institutional journals. Today, the marketing departments of major publishers have grown in number and importance, as have their adult counterparts, to rival in significance and power the editorial departments themselves, the very source of children's and young adult books.
It is always difficult to trace beginnings. Did publishers begin selling into bookstores because in the early 1980s they found a way to produce full-color books by printing more cheaply and with higher quality in Hong Kong? Or did trade book stores themselves have a growth spurt...