Those vinyl books that make bath time so much fun for kids present a much different challenge to Nadine Britt. She is the production director at Penguin Putnam (www.penguinputnam.com) and oversees the Dutton, Grosset & Dunlap and Price Stern Sloan mass merchandise children's imprints. With 11 children's imprints and 15 adult imprints, Penguin Putnam is a division of the Penguin Group, the second-largest English-language trade book publisher in the world.
Formed in 1996 as a result of the merger between Penguin Books USA and The Putnam Berkeley Group, the Penguin Group has primary operations in the United Kingdom, Australia, the United States and Canada, and smaller operations in South Africa and India. It is owned by Pearson, an international media group.
In addition to working with vendors around the globe, "Mass Merch" production serves as an internal watchdog to ensure that whimsical touches on books, like crayons and buttons, will not harm young readers. "The big challenge for any publishing company is to maintain safety standards on children's products. In general, novelty products are tested for child safety according to governmental and industry standards," she explains. "If the product is geared to young children and there are elements, like small parts, a choking hazard warning label must be placed on the book to alert the consumer."
To comply with federal and international safety measures, Britt is armed with a wealth of information from vendors about what materials and chemicals are deemed advisable and inadvisable in children's bookproduction. This knowledge makes Britt and the production team an integral part of the design process. "When someone proposes a product, we try to think of every possible thing that can go wrong," she explains. "Someone might come up with an idea and we'll modify it. We had a product that included bracelets with liquid in their centers. The liquid has a chemical in it to prevent freezing. The bracelets were not meant to be chewed upon, but you never know. So, we opted not to put the liquid in, just to be safe. You really have to look for potential problems. [Production professionals] should receive the applicable test results up-front from vendors and if, for example, something goes wrong, we know the risk of injury has been reduced."
The creative process
At Penguin Putnam's juvenile division, the art department, designers and the production staff meet several times a year to discuss new products on the market and current technologies from various vendors. The most interesting and innovative vendor samples are later presented to the creative staff to alert them to these new capabilities.
"All production people bring ideas to the table. We always have an open forum and the best ideas come from bouncing them off of one another," she offers. But sometimes the best ideas present the biggest production challenges. Recalls Britt: "We did a scratch 'n sniff book where a four-color sticker was placed on a four-color page to complete the artwork. It was challenging to us and the vendor because of the four-color process and the various smells involved that had to be incorporated. It required several passes through the press to complete."
Ideas that have crossed-over from other markets have added to children's books becoming more and more toy-like. According to Britt, merchandise from the card and gift markets have worked their way into children's books. The ever-popular scratch 'n sniff product owes its origin to promotional perfume samples in magazines. In fact, the label industry has even gotten involved in printing four-color stickers on clear adhesive that resemble band-aids.
As ideas reach new creative heights, Britt has had to expand her search for vendors that are capable of producing books in a safe, cost-effective manner. "The overseas vendors market themselves as being able to produce novelty products like books that make noise, are touch 'n feel, are meant as bath books or have plush toys attached," she says. "Most [novelties] need to be manufactured overseas because of economic factors. It is difficult to meet these needs domestically—difficult but not impossible."
But finding a vendor that can handle the different safety challenges posed by just one book can also be taxing. A vinyl book is one such product that presents several manufacturing hurdles. She warns, "You have to know what types and levels of chemicals are acceptable and have product tested with various safety regulations and recommendations. We avoid using PVCs, so an alternate to the material had to be found. We have been using PEVA, which is non-toxic and passes safety tests, but it wasn't previously used because the vendor equipment couldn't effectively heat-seal PEVA around the foam it must enclose in a bath book. If a seal was to open and expose the foam, the foam then has the potential of becoming a choking hazard. You can't print on the heat-sealed area because it needs to be free from ink in order to seal to proper strength. So, it was hard to find a vendor."
In such instances, vendors will often modify their equipment to accommodate publisher needs. As a result, Britt was able to eventually find such a vendor that was able to print and keep the heat-seal strong in order to prevent dangers to consumers.
In dealing with vendors around the world, Britt also has to overcome international communication challenges. "I think that the greatest asset to us has been e-mail," she enthuses. "Prior to that, phone lines were difficult because of the different time zones. Faxing was tough because of the time delay and the fear that the pages didn't send. Now with e-mail, someone will take a digital picture, send a JPEG and ask, 'What do you of this?' With the digital pictures, you can respond immediately, instead of having to mail, which loses one week of production. It's great for anything you don't have to physically touch. I think people in different countries have made a tremendous effort to work with us. Their technology has improved greatly, as well."
Due to advances in communications technologies, Britt reports that production time has decreased. But with the world being as it is post-September 11, shipping times have actually grown worse because of the necessary safety measures that accompany the very act of opening and sending packages. On the bright side, she says that vendors have decreased the time it takes to manufacture products—in the safest manner possible, of course.