I've always noticed August House books whenever I'm searching through bookstores or libraries for children's books on mythology or folk tales. The distinctive label always stands out. So it was pretty cool when I got an e-mail last year from Steve Floyd, the president of August House, asking if they could start sending me free stuff. I thought it would be interesting to pick his brain:
How did you get involved in publishing?
Unlike most other publishers, I came from decades of work in developing media using new communications technology. I'd co-founded and sold three multi-media technology companies, but knew little about the print business or the challenges of distributing books.
After 9/11, I felt the need to do something more meaningful with my life, to somehow make a lasting contribution.
I'd grown up as a voracious reader myself, and found myself frustrated with the state of children's content – in print, television, online, etc.- which was available for my young sons. Most stories seemed devoid of a substantive plot line, and lacked any meaningful content. Sometimes they were fun, but the majority were nothing more than junk food for a young child's developing mind.
I'm not sure I share your disdain for the overall state of children's literature, though I only became a father in 2005, so perhaps I wasn't as attune to it before then.
It wasn't disdain. It's more like I was frustrated with the sheer numbers of books and other media vs. the quality of children's literature, especially since we were "bookaholics" and our children's bookshelves were full of many of the same titles that my wife and I had loved as kids.
At the same time, the number of independent book stores was decreasing rapidly and the large chains were stocked with "safe" products with high turnover and staffed by too few people who neither cared about books nor had the time to guide thoughtful customers.
It was during that period of discovery that I ran across Howard Gardener's groundbreaking work in Multiple Intelligences and stories. I was captivated by his theories and the important role that stories play in developing young minds.
One day, I had lunch with a successful actor friend, Rob Cleveland, with whom I had worked with before producing corporate sales video for Coca-Cola. He told me how he had extended his professional repertoire by performing Bible stories at Churches and Synagogues. First, he did it as a stand up routine, and then as the congregation was having fun, he would explore some of the deeper meanings behind the stories with them.
As Rob was telling me how much fun he was having reinvigorating these classic stories, it hit me that folktales could have a huge impact on children if they were authentic and offered in multiple formats: animated, online, in books, on television, performed live and recorded for audio.
That must be the same Rob Cleveland who wrote How Tiger Got His Stripes.
At the same time, I was also looking at how to launch a business with another friend, Graham Anthony, that could not only be meaningful but also have an impact by leveraging the power of Flash technology to position a product or a company.
After all, these timeless stories had originally been passed along orally, so they should be relatively easy to package for other media. And if they weren't great stories, they wouldn't have survived for the centuries. Plus, they were originally used by tribes or villages to pass on important life lessons and character values, so they clearly had a purpose.
My quest of meaning went into overdrive! We could do the something similar for children's stories as I had for Fortune 500 corporate clients. Just as I had put together sales materials and marketing information in multiple formats using a range of media, we could likewise package these folk stories with lesson plans and learning activities.
So Rob, Graham and I started looking for folktales that we could adapt and package in multiple formats. We spent about a year researching, prototyping stories and testing them with children and educators in different formats and with different support materials. We wanted to provide stories that could be experienced actively by young children in any format.
A strategic aspect of our business plan was to create a series with PBSKids. They patiently explained how Public Broadcasting worked, that we needed to line up corporate sponsors and then produce the program with a local PBS affiliate. So we contacted YAHOO, Chick-fil-A, Coca-Cola and Wachovia. Each company gave us almost an identical response: we love the concept but why would we risk an established brand on a start-up?
So, back to the drawing board. But we were still convinced that we were on to something worthwhile.
We contracted with an investment bank to help us plan our next steps. As we researched stories from the oral tradition, we kept running across books published by August House; the collection was filled with a wide range of award-winning picture books, resource books and CD's recorded by leading storytellers.
In a meeting with bankers, someone raised the point that, "Its always easier to buy something and build on it, rather than start from scratch." We immediately gravitated back to August House.
August House not only focused on publishing authentic folktales from the world's great oral traditions, it had also built a very credible and trusted brand with librarians and educators. We recognized that they could serve as a corner stone for our model of publishing great stories in multiple formats.
Was August House for sale at the time you made the offer?
Not at the time. Our Investment banker called the original owners out of the blue.
Six weeks later, we signed the purchase agreement and suddenly found ourselves in the publishing business, an industry that contrasted dramatically with the rough and tumble chaotic world of technology start-ups and that didn't operate at the whirlwind speed of internet businesses.
Because the company had its roots in storytelling and the oral tradition, 90% of the authors since the founding of the company were also professional storytellers. The fact that these stories were great performance pieces that had been honed by professionals meant that when we went to market, we could be confident that we had a set of stories that had already been beta tested with the toughest group – young children.
Then if children were actively engaged with the stories, the stories could also be useful as reading supplements, they could be used in social studies to learn about other cultures or shared to explore character values, etc. We loved the flexible nature of these great, timeless stories that can still be used in so many ways and for so many different purposes.
Since that dramatic moment, almost 9 years ago, we've evolved and learned a lot through our mistakes but fortunately, the industry is now embracing our original business model of distributing titles in multiple formats: in print, as digital books, ebooks, animated stories, audio books, in video with leveled reading and lesson plans aligned to education standards, etc.
If money were no object, what do you fantasize about the ultimate August House multimedia product being?
The ultimate product would be cross media or integrated platform beginning with an animated PBS series featuring Maynard Moose hosted by Willy Claflin that was supported by a highly interactive web site with all kinds of entertaining ways to explore and experience the story.
In addition, a supplemental online educational component would include interactive learning activities (for children in 2nd thru 4th grade) based on their skill levels and correlated to the Common Core Standards.
In addition to that, a writing and storytelling contest for kids to make their own Maynard Moose fan fiction and invent their own versions of his exploits in the Piney Woods. The event would include online as well as regional story festivals featuring Willy and Maynard celebrating the creative work of young writers in 3rd-5th grade – the Maynard Moose Story Project Hosted by Willy Claflin. Complemented by a series of 50 Maynard Moose adventure books available in print and as ebooks.
All of these components would use the same assets or objects - they would be tagged and integrated across media formats - in different ways for different stories with different purposes (entertainment, education, reading skills, games, etc.).
So, an integrated platform with great entertainment and educational value – for kids of all ages 8 to 80. We would offer multiple opportunities for kids to experience and explore these stories in any way they wanted to develop their own relationships with Maynard.
That pretty well sums up why we got into this business and where we would ideally like to go with Maynard Moose and - in fact - all of our folktale properties. We would love to develop these timeless stories across the board in multiple formats. You can see the archetype for this model at http://www.storycove.com and selecting "Sample Story."
The challenge is securing financing with sponsorships which we have attempted over the years with a variety of corporate entities. Everyone loves it, but no one has bitten.
Do you still feel frustrated by the overall state of children's content, or do you think it's evolved over the years as well?
Now I'm able to appreciate how difficult children's publishing is as a business. Creating a good book is one thing, but getting people to care about it and want to buy it and then share it is another issue that offers it's own set challenges, especially in today's increasing volatile market place.
Since there really wasn't much of a children's publishing industry until the 1950's and 60's, I actually think that we are seeing more good writing and illustrating in the last 15-20 years than ever before.
Today the greatest challenge in publishing is distribution and discoverability. As a result, sites like yours are more important than ever to discerning readers, new authors and independent publishers.
The metadata about a book, including author bios, BISAC headings, page count, etc. is also more important than ever, as are online aggregate review sites like Netgalley and Goodreads. They all play an increasingly important role for people who want to discover meaningful, engaging content, regardless of the genre.
But there are also more distractions than before and the sheer volume of books in any genre is overwhelming, not to mention the ease of access and availability of other media like apps, iTunes, video-on-demand, games, etc. Whether we're talking about discovering an Indie rock band or a launching a new author, discoverability is more challenging for educators, parents and content publishers than ever before.
Another challenge for both readers and publishers is that customer reviews on Amazon are just as credible - if not more so - than "professionals" who review books, such as librarians or reading teachers who bring a depth of perspective and years of experience to their reviews. For example, if you had 5 reviews from highly respected professional journals, it might not be nearly as impactful as 25 reviews (positive or negative) posted by consumers. Consumer posts are very helpful but they can also be misleading and sometimes it is hard to judge the experience or perspective of the person who posts the review.
Since publishers are also playing the role of curator, it is a challenge to present a product in the best light to the target demographic. As publishers we are also biased about the quality of a product that we have invested in financially and with many hours of work when it is finally released in the market.
Children's publishing is a combination of intuition, quantitative analysis of data and subjective opinion since the decision makers and influencers are ultimately only part of the sale process. Ultimately, whether I like a book, an expert reviewer likes a book or a librarian loves it, a professional book buyer thinks it will sell, etc., it doesn't really matter since we really aren't the audience that counts.
Depending on the target market, if a 7 year-old doesn't like the illustrations, or a 5 year-old thinks the story is boring, then our analysis and opinions are meaningless and we failed at some level. As a very insightful mother told me years ago when we were test marketing some folktales for Story Cove, "I'll buy the first one, but if my son doesn't like it, then that's it." So the challenge is we have to be discovered by librarians, teachers and parents serving as gate keepers and then the book will have an opportunity to bring pleasure and enjoyment to a child.
So it is a complicated and challenging business, to say the least.