A Fishy Story

I began my career with a picture book contract after about seven months of soliciting. The contract was with a very small children’s book imprint that was part of Dodd, Mead and Company, one of the pioneer publishing houses in the United States. During the 1980s when I started, the children’s book industry was diverse, independent, and did just fine selling a few thousand titles of each book they published. Sure, they may have had a few big selling authors in the house, but instead of buying back their own stock and overpaying their CEOs, they used that money to hire more editors and art directors to give more new creators an opportunity to get published. Back then nobody balked if the book wasn’t a best-seller. Readers were able to enjoy new voices with plenty of variety and diversity as the number of new books increased every year.

I was treated like a celebrity with that first book, Pussycat Ate the Dumplings: Cat Rhymes from Mother Goose. They made a promotional poster, and my book was even featured on the front of the 16 page catalog. The reviews were all flattering and the book did well, selling about 8,000 copies.

What I recall happened next was that “the suits” got wind of the booming children’s book side of the publishing business. They saw dollar signs. Editors were replaced by business managers and marketing departments. And, after almost 150 years in business, Dodd, Mead sold to the Putnam Berkley Group. Putnam was primarily interested in their biggest assets, i.e. the Agatha Christie series. However, they did take on the children’s book imprint under G.P. Putnam’s Sons Books for Young Readers, including my next three picture books, which were already under contract.

This Old Man and Dinosaur Dream were released, but the next book — Victoria Flies High by Becky Ayres (now Hickox) — was still in the proofing stage when Putnam dumped our editors and our book became orphaned. Eventually, E.P. Dutton (which had become part of the Penguin Publishing Group in 1986) hired them and thankfully our book was included in that deal. I subsequently published seven more books with Dutton. Our editors had their own imprint called Cobblestone Books. While things seemed to be going well, editors could no longer buy a book based on their love for it. Now they had to submit P&Ls (profit and loss projections) and basically sell the book to the suits.

Meanwhile, ironically I thought, Putnam also became an imprint of the Penguin Group in 1996. Not long after that, the fifth in my early reader series, Chicago and the Cat, was in proofing stage. Before it could be released, my editors were let go, and the contract was cancelled. I honestly don’t remember all the details now, but it all boiled down to the big fish eating the little fish, then a bigger fish comes along, and then a bear shows up.

I started writing this today because I just learned that the Really Most Sincerely biggest fish is being sued over its attempt to merge with another big fish in the publishing industry pool. Penguin Random House (yeah, they merged a few years ago too) has an agreement to buy Simon & Schuster (I have books with them, too) and the DOJ sued them.

What this can mean is being argued. Penguin Random House’s lawyers claim it will be good for authors, who “indisputably will benefit from the transaction. We are fully confident that this merger will only enhance competition across the entire spectrum of the publishing industry.” The DOJ argues that “the combination would reduce advances for top-selling authors and would ultimately harm consumers by resulting in fewer books being published.” And fewer books being published means writers losing contracts or potential contracts. I’ve been there, and am still living it.

My latest picture book is under contract with an independent publisher. It was slated to be released in spring 2021. I spent about ten months on the illustrations and all was approved and ready to go. Then, I never heard another word about it until the following autumn, when I was told the book would be released in spring 2022. It wasn’t, and I haven’t heard a peep out of anyone since last October. I stopped asking but can only guess it’s about money. To note, I only get paid royalties when the book is published.

At this point I am done hustling in this fishy business. However, I am working on a picture book using a completely different style of illustration (for me) which I may just self-publish. And go figure, it’s about a fish. I doubt it will sell that many copies because it’s a “niche book,” but frankly, I don’t care. Here’s the first spread, which has already been revised a few times. Stay tuned, I will blog about it again soon.

3 Comments Add yours

  1. Barb LaFara says:

    I find it interesting to hear the insiders view of an industry. As a book consumer I’d prefer more publishers rather than a merging of all the major players. Thanks for sharing.

  2. Robin Koontz says:

    Thanks, Susie. I’d be dead if I held my breath so I’m movin’ on at this point and it feels all right.

  3. Susan says:

    I found this really interesting Robin. I will still wait optimistically for that bird book and look forward to the quilted fish one. P.S. Happy belated birthday!

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