Counting on Innovation and Success

Whether it's plastic jungle animals, magnetic letters, or a foam boomerang, Innovative Kids books come filled with surprises. Read all about it on page two of this article.

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Food Counting Books: A Tasty Publishing Trend

A sweet, sticky wave of new entries to the field has some critics warning of exploitation and junk food abuse. We get the scoop from innovators of the trend, Charlesbridge Publishing.
Among the hottest trends in books for beginning readers are board books that promote early math skills - and the sale of products - by using food popular food items like M&Ms or Cheerios along with the books.

Powerhouse publishers Simon & Schuster and HarperCollins have both teamed up with food companies to publish books starring popular snack items like Pepperidge Farm Goldfish, Sun Maid Raisins, and Hershey's Kisses. Necco candies and Kellogg's Froot Loops will be featured in new books due out this fall.

It's no big surprise that this trend was actually started by an independent publisher. Charlesbridge Publishing, Inc. published the The "M&M's Brand Counting Book in 1994, and quietly began selling it with great success. This innovative little publisher in Watertown, Massachusetts had already carved out a solid niche in educational book publishing, creating books that "inform and fascinate young readers." Barbara McGrath, a former nursery school teacher who had used candies as counting aids in her classroom, knew of Charlesbridge and brought the idea to them after receiving rejections from major publishers. McGrath has now authored six books with the M&Ms counting theme.

The books' success finally attracted the attention of the aforementioned major publishers, and now a pantry-full of snack food books has been published, some of them not so education-oriented. The trend has begun to draw criticism from social and nutrition experts for exploiting kids with MacDonald's-like commercialism and tempting them to over-eat.

We spoke with Mary Ann Sabia, Vice President and Associate Publisher at Charlesbridge about the history of this busy publishing trend.

IP: How did the M&M's counting book evolve from an idea to a book?

CP: The author, Barbara McGrath, decided to publish a book based on lessons she taught in her nursery school. She created a book "dummy" and sent it to M&M/ Mars, Inc. and requested permission to use the brand in her book. They loved the idea and asked her to find a publisher first. After approaching several major houses and being rejected, a mutual friend suggested she propose the book to Charlesbridge.

IP: Was there a pilot study or any field-testing done?

CP: Not really. Essentially all the field-testing had been done for years prior to this time in Barbara's school. We knew that "M&M's" were and are used as manipulatives in classrooms across the country, so the book seemed like the perfect idea. It also was a natural fit with our publishing program, which in the early years consisted of non-fiction picture books and concept (alphabet and counting) books. (Charlesbridge has since added two imprints devoted to storybooks). I know that if we were presented with an "M&M's" book that had no educational value, we probably would have rejected it.

IP: There have been some recent stories criticizing the "food book" trend, with accusations of commercialization and even pushing junk food on kids.

Although the book has an obvious commercial slant, it is fundamentally a book that teaches basic/early math skills. Therefore it was a perfect fit with our list. I think this is what made the book really work for us and why it continues to sell. We did not go out on a limb and branch out in a new direction; it was a typical Charlesbridge book with a great hook!

Many of the "food" licensed books that have since been published don't necessarily have an educational value to them. They build on the popularity of the brand and the concept is secondary. Our books focus on the educational concept and the brand then supports the idea. We never dreamed that we would start a trend when we released the first "M&M's" book in June 1994 and it actually took about four years before we started seeing competitors enter this genre.

IP: How did the switch from educational titles to a book with mass-market appeal affect your print runs?

CP: All our print runs are conservative, but with the first run of this book we doubled our normal run. We went back to press immediately and had quite a frantic first season trying to keep up with the demand for the book. After about two years, we became able to forecast the demand and eased into ordering 3-5 times our usual runs for reprints.

IP: Describe your relationship with the M&M/Mars company.

CP: Charlesbridge received one of the first licenses granted by M&M/Mars, Inc. In the beginning there was not a lot of contact between the two companies. Now that their licensing program is very active, we are in contact with them quite regularly. We are kept up to date with any new happenings at Mars so we can take advantage of anything that is relevant to us. I also work very closely with their consumer affairs office, providing books that get donated to worthy causes.

IP: These books are priced very reasonably. Were initial production costs higher than the current retail would suggest? In other words, can an independent doing smaller print runs compete in this genre?

I have to say that pricing is a real struggle for all our books. We priced this book, like we price all our books, trying to achieve an acceptable margin at a modest-sized print run. Then, if you're successful and increase the size of a run on a later reprint, the extra margin is "gravy".

In 1994 we were a small, independent publisher, and although we have grown over the past 7 years, we still are a relatively, small independent publisher. I think what we did with the "M&M's" book in the early years proves that small independents can compete with larger houses when they have the right book.

IP: Any thoughts or predictions about trends in this area of publishing?

CP: So many publishers have jumped on the bandwagon and there are so many "food" books out there now. It's become a very crowded genre and I'm not sure how much more the market can handle. But I also think that other publishers don't necessarily see this as a long-term part of their publishing programs, but rather as a current trend. I doubt it will last too much longer. However, I like to believe that there is always room for another good quality, educational children's book, and we will continue to publish in this area as long as we have ideas that we think will work for our customers. When innovative KIDS started publishing books in 1999, they set out to make a difference. "Encouraging children to read was our first mission, and we wanted to do it by sparking their young minds and hands to work together," says publisher Shari Kaufman. "From the beginning, we combined high quality content, beautiful artwork, and interactive elements to enhance the reading experience. All of our books have one or more interactive components-not just add-ons or novelty items, but fully integrated parts of the books or packages."

Innovative KIDS books are developed in-house, and the staff works hard to make sure every book is age appropriate, kid tested, safe, educationally sound, and most of all -- FUN!

Coin-County is a board book that teaches kids about money. It won last year's 2000 Ippy Award for Juvenile/Young Adult Non-Fiction. With this book, children save over $20.00 by filling the built-in coin slots on each page with pennies, nickels, dimes, and quarters -- while building early math skills.

The book features a delightful rhyming verse, which takes young readers along the savings path through the Penny Candy Shop, the Five-and-Ten-Cents-Store, and Quarter Quarry, until they complete the journey at Dollar Roundup, discovering how coins add up to dollars as they watch their savings grow!

Whether it's plastic jungle animals, magnetic letters, or a foam boomerang, the innovative Kids books come filled with surprises. We spoke with IK Sales & Marketing Director Pam Romano to get some further insight into the creative, innovative minds of her company.

IP: Your books are, shall we say, strikingly different than most. How are they being received in the marketplace?

IK: We measure the enthusiasm for our books in the form of orders from established book purveyors, such as Scholastic Book Clubs, Scholastic Book Fairs, Book of the Month Club, Discovery Channel Stores, and Books Are Fun. Seeing a very finicky and conventional book trade come around to love our titles has also been very encouraging. We're reaching all markets of traditional and nontraditional retailers and seeing excellent sell-through. The consumer kudos we get are not to be underestimated, however. We just received one review from a teacher for the Hocus Pocus Magical Cookbook-she said she was using it in her classroom! We truly get pumped when we hear back from a teacher or child who has one of our books and loves it.

IP: It sounds as if you're finding successes in both traditional and non-traditional markets.

IK: We've been very successful in all markets, from bookstores to specialty retailers, mail order to book clubs. Our books do lend themselves to hand selling, so environments where hand selling is employed tend to do very well with our titles. The fact is that it's the books that are different-not necessarily the selling methods. The fact that we offer something that no other publishing company does-a fun product that encourages kids to read and learn, without realizing that they're learning-is a huge leg up in today's competitive market.

IP: Where does the inspiration for your books come from?

IK: Inspiration can and has come from a number of places. Mostly all our books are homegrown. A book could stem from a desire to publish an excellent package with hands-on components to teach kids to learn to read and write and spell, like Now I Know My ABCs. Or it could be as simple as a talk about aerodynamics that turns into a cool book on flight principles. With our Phenomenal Foam Flyer Book, for instance, here was an idea (totally conceived, engineered, written, and designed in-house) where we've created a unique and fun book that teaches kids as well as entertains them.

IP: What's the latest and greatest idea to come off the drawing board?

IK: The Groovy Tube(tm) series originally was conceived to have classroom teaching aids (called manipulatives) in the tubes alongside a book, and has evolved into a highly successful series combining a book, a game, quiz cards, and toys for an exceptional price. We haven't totally scrapped the original idea, though; we'll be doing the Groovy Tube Books(tm) for younger children in the spring, and components like beads, laces and pattern blocks will be the foundations of the titles.

We're constantly developing new formats and working on ideas-not much just goes into the "no" pile. We're very determined to get the book right rather than get the book out fast, so if there's an excellent idea, regardless of how crazy, we'll work on it as a team to bring it to publication.