“We can’t depend on B&N, and we didn’t go into business to depend on B&N”: A Q&A with Downtown Bookworks Publisher Julie Merberg

Julie Merberg, Publisher, Downtown Bookworks

When I first met Julie Merberg in the ’90s, she was an editor at Perigee Books. Since then, I’ve enjoyed watching her journey from editor to book packager and then to publisher. In 2005 Merberg launched Downtown Bookworks, where she’s now doing children’s books in innovative formats and says: “Children should be reading from books and not from screens.”

Book Business spoke with Ms. Merberg via telephone late last year.

What inspired you to start publishing children’s books?
When I started having children, I began to come up with ideas for books for them. I wrote and packaged my first children’s book—A Magical Day with Matisse—after having my first child. As I had more kids, I had more ideas for kids’ books [Merberg has four sons]. None of the concepts were straightforward. Publishers weren’t willing to publish in non-traditional formats; I kept trying to sell and no one was biting. When the economy slowed down and advances and fees for packaging came down, I had nothing to lose anymore. That’s when I jumped in and started publishing.

I mocked up the titles that would become my first list and met with potential distributors, then signed a distribution deal with Simon & Schuster, and started creating the books we wanted to create. We launched in Fall 2010 with a couple of books. It started with me, Patty Brown and Sarah Parvis plus Georgia Rucker as art director. Now we have a wonderful assistant, Sarah DiSalvo, and recently hired a sales director, Christina Tomasulo.

What’s your philosophy about children’s books?
Children should be reading from books and not from screens. I see with my kids and others this dazed comatose look [when they’re watching something on a screen]. But when they’re looking at a book, the lights are on. We went into this knowing we were competing not only with other books on the shelf but with screens, apps, video games—anything that can be on a screen that you can touch. So we create highly interactive books that can be held and touched.

What’s an example of this?
In our “Science with Stuff” series, each book comes with a pocket treasure, such as real shark teeth. We’re printing one now—Insect-O-Mania— and I’m walking around with eight insect samples in my purse! I want what kids think is the coolest thing. … That’s how I do my focus groups: walk around with things in my purse and show them to other kids in my childrens’ classes. The shark book [Shark-Tastic] sold out; it’s done really, really well. Toys “R” Us took a big number. These books are selling in all different kinds of outlets and we’re seeing minimal returns.

Including Barnes & Noble?
We can’t depend on B&N, and we didn’t go into business to depend on B&N. It’s very nice when they can take one of our books. We don’t need them to be in business, we can’t need them to be in business. So we consciously created books that would have a market outside of bookstores.

What’s next for you?
I feel like we’re now in a place where our list has taken shape. Everything we have out is so carefully conceived and packaged. I’m proud of it. The branding is cohesive, as is the messaging.

We’re in the process of revamping our craft kit line. It’s about getting kids thinking creatively and imaginatively. Our Green & Groovy craft kits are being re-launched as Crafty Pants, where the emphasis is more on the number of projects that can be made with each kit, rather than the fact that the crafts are recycled. All of our board books are really special: our touch & feel books, superhero books… My Favorite Shoes is for girls with shoe fetishes and their moms! Our Turn the Key books have a working key and lock and doors that open. Every book has something that you touch or something you go out and do.

Reading is not a passive experience with our books. That was the goal: to get kids engaged and active. Now we’re focusing on the marketing and sales. I think we’ve clarified our message and our branding and now we want to let the world know.

Would you recommend starting a new publishing company to others?
I think if somebody’s got something new and different and special to contribute, it’s never a bad time to start a press. There’s a ton of product out there, and it can be depressing to see all the volume, but it’s also exciting to see people doing cool, new and different things.

Are you happy with where you are?
We took a big risk. Looking back, it was pretty crazy. I’m glad I didn’t know how hard it was going to be because I might have faltered. It’s very gratifying being here. [At first] I was more ambitious about the pace. I’m glad we’ve slowed down and done this in a more careful and considered way.

My kids were so proud when our books were at the school book fair—they felt like celebrities. You want kids to be excited when they get books as a gift, want them to have books feel like a treasure. I think our books feel like a treasure.

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