Sparking the Interest of Young Readers
Cambridge, Mass.-based Candlewick Press was launched 15 years ago as the U.S. publishing arm of London-based children’s book publisher Walker Books. Since its inception, the company has grown into one of the largest independent publishing companies in the world. Today, it boasts nearly 100 employees, more than 3,000 published titles and countless industry awards, including the 2007 Theodor Seuss Geisel Award for “Zelda and Ivy: The Runaways,” by Laura Kvasnosky, and this year’s E.B. White Read-Aloud Award for “Houndsley and Catina,” by James Howe and illustrated by Marie-Louise Gay. Both of these award-winning titles were among the first four titles released in the new Candlewick Sparks series, launched this spring, marking Candlewick’s foray into the early-reader
market. The publisher also entered the graphic-novel arena this year with its release of a graphic-novel version of “Beowulf” by Gareth Hinds, for children ages 10 and up. Candlewick President and Publisher Karen Lotz spoke with Book Business about these new endeavors and how the company continues to find success in the vast world of children’s book publishing.
● What are the challenges in selecting material to publish for children today compared to those of previous generations?
Karen Lotz: It truly seems to me that we are living in a golden age of publishing for children. Technology, changes in values and the phenomenal success of certain titles in recent years have created an alchemical situation that means many more writers and artists are attracted to the field than ever before. [And] other brilliant talents who have been working in the field for decades can find their work showcased as never before. We also can, from a production standpoint, manufacture books of even greater and more innovative quality. The biggest challenge we face is not in finding wonderful and appropriate material to publish, but in selecting the very best books from all the great offerings out there—and, of course, in finding new and better ways to reach young readers with our books in a very volatile marketplace.
● With children’s books, Web sites that complement the book titles seem particularly important because children are so eager to be engaged on the computer. How is Candlewick using the Web to complement its titles and further engage its
Lotz: One of the ways we’ve been promoting our titles at Candlewick that has been particularly successful is to create in-depth, behind-the-scenes interviews with the authors and illustrators of our books. These “shorts” can be distributed [in] a number of ways, including on disk, via our own Web site, via podcasts, in conjunction with not-for-profit organizations, and through online retailers.
[In regards to Web sites,] we pursued, [for example], OlogyWorld (www.OlogyWorld.com, which was launched in June) because we knew that our obsessive young fans wanted a more frequent way to interact with their favorite author and subjects––and also because passion and community go together so naturally. Because the “Ologies” [the series of books that includes “Egyptology,” “Dragonology” and “Wizardology”] are truly a worldwide phenomenon with more than 13.7-million copies sold in 32 languages, a Web site—which reaches readers around the globe—was a natural fit. … This comprehensive site allows fans the opportunity to more deeply explore each subject. OlogyWorld.com members receive insider tips, members-only advance information on upcoming publications and special promotional opportunities. There are also online games, activities and movie clips, so visitors to OlogyWorld.com will have an interactive experience.
● Candlewick has experienced impressive growth in recent years. To what do you attribute this growth?
Lotz: Candlewick has had double-digit sales increases the last three years: 39 percent in 2004, 41 percent in 2005, and 13.9 percent in 2006, with sales close to $58.9 million. We’ve also grown from 44 titles and six employees when we were founded in 1992 to 220 titles and 88 employees in 2007. Although the growth rate of our traditional trade business has slowed down in 2006 to 2007, in 2008 through 2010, we will be launching some new business initiatives that we hope will carry us into new channels with the same welcome we’ve received for our expanded publishing program.
… Over the past seven years, we have made a significant investment in our U.S.-produced publishing program that has really hit with great acceptance, for which we are very grateful. But it all comes down, at the end of the day, to the great talent of the authors and artists we work with.
● Candlewick has an unusual ownership model (with employees, authors and illustrators sharing in profits and dividends). How does this model complement or influence the publishing end of the business?
Lotz: It allows the creative mandate of the company to continue to lead the way, through up years and down years. More than 150 of our authors and illustrators are indeed part “owners” of the company, and we refresh this list as we grow.
● Candlewick recently published its first graphic novel for children, “Beowulf.” What drove your decision to enter into this area, and do you see this area expanding within Candlewick’s catalog?
Lotz: Gareth Hinds, the author-
illustrator of “Beowulf,” had the vision for the book, and we loved what he did. We believe that graphic novels are a vibrant literary genre with an enormous amount of untapped potential, and we will continue to publish them as new and intriguing projects come along.
● How did the new Candlewick Sparks series for early readers come about? What was the goal behind creating a series bearing the Candlewick name?
Lotz: Candlewick Sparks has been in the works for some time. We were encouraged by the warm reception that our “Mercy Watson” early readers received from booksellers, educators, parents and kids, but the real momentum to start the series came from our authors and illustrators who were excited to create early readers. … At this particular point, we felt we had enough critical mass to enter the more traditional side of the genre with some flair and innovation.
The name for the series was a topic of great debate. “Sparks” felt like the right choice because the books are meant to ignite a love of reading and light the way for early-fiction readers. Because each book at Candlewick is published individually––even if it’s part of a series––it made sense for “Candlewick” to be a part of the series name. The authors, illustrators and characters of our Sparks titles vary, so Candlewick is the common element that ties all the books together.
● What was your favorite book as a child, and why did it make such an impression on you?
Lotz: The book from my childhood that’s most on my mind at the moment is “The High King” by Lloyd Alexander [who passed away in May]. It was the powerful young heroines and slightly bumbling young heroes as well as the moral, but extremely magical world of Lloyd’s writing that made me want to be involved in the children’s field in the first place, and I was extremely privileged to have known and worked with him earlier in my career. As a person, he was a sparkling, witty, elfin friend. We all miss him very much. BB