Doug Whiteman Interview

Doug Whiteman

President, Penguin Young Readers Group

You oversee nearly a dozen juvenile imprints. Could you outline the individual appeal of each imprint for the relevant target audience?

Sure, we actually have nine full-service imprints, and then a handful of imprints that are really subsets of the others. Except as noted, each of these publishes books ranging from very young (infant-level) appeal right up to things that cross into the adult marketplace.

G.P. Putnam’s is our largest hardcover imprint; they are best-known for classic authors such as Jan Brett, Tomie dePaola and Paula Danziger, and also publish the “Spot” series.

Philomel is a small, eclectic hardcover imprint that publishes only about 30 books per year, but those include new works by Eric Carle, Brian Jacques, and Patricia Polacco, so Philomel makes a lot of noise with very few books!

Viking is a long-established hardcover imprint that features many classic picture books, such as the Madeline books, the Corduroy books, and Ox-Cart Man, among others. More recently, their list has featured the picture books of Jon Scieszka and Lane Smith, and fiction by Lauri Halse Anderson and Sarah Dessen. Viking also handles another imprint, Frederick Warne, which features all of the original classic Peter Rabbit books.

Dutton is another classic hardcover imprint, with the original “Winnie the Pooh” books in its collection. They now publish the “Walter the Farting Dog” books as well, so that’s a pretty good span of appeal.

Dial is a hardcover imprint that is relatively new (established in the 1960’s). Their specialty is books of ethnic origin and some of their classic authors and illustrators are Jerry Pinkney, Julius Lester, Tom Feelings and Richard Peck.

Razorbill is our newest imprint. This line is very specifically targeted at teens, and features both fiction and manga that would be considered “edgy and hip.”

Puffin is our paperback imprint; they draw on virtually all of our other imprints, putting the cream of the crop into paperback anywhere from one to three years after the hardcover has appeared. Puffin also has several “sub-imprints”: Speak, which publishes only teen-appropriate fiction; Firebird, which publishes fantasy; and Puffin Graphics, which publishes graphic novels.

Grosset and Dunlap is our mass market and licensing imprint, meaning they do lots of the books you would see in places like Wal Mart and the warehouse clubs. They publish Strawberry Shortcake, the Wiggles, the Dick & Jane books, and also have one of the great classics of all time, The Little Engine That Could.

Price/Stern/Sloan also is somewhat mass market oriented, but their publishing is more novelty-based in general. They have classic lines such as Mad Libs and Wee Sing.

How many titles would you ultimately be responsible for? (inc. all imprints)

We publish approximately 700 new titles per year, and our backlist is around 7500 titles.

Do you take a more 'hands-on' approach to certain imprints and if so, why is this?

Since I’m not an editor by trade, I tend not to get terribly involved on the creative side of things, but I do jump in when it comes to author relations and contractual negotiations, and I do that across the board. I’m probably more involved in Grosset & Dunlap than any other imprint, because by its nature it’s not editorially-driven; their product is very sales and marketing oriented, meaning they’re open to input from people like me!

In your experience, what inspires a publisher to commission a book - is it always a compelling piece of copy or is it sometimes due to a striking visual?

Those are both reasons that a publisher will go after something, but there are others too; sometimes it’s the whole book (if it’s been fully written before an auction); sometimes it’s market forces (such as when everything “fantasy” was hot and in demand); and sometimes it’s simply an editor wishing to work with a particular author or illustrator who they’ve had their eye on.

How does the American children's publishing market differ from the rest of the world?

Retail exposure is probably the biggest difference. It’s amazing to me how much better-displayed our children’s sections are than what you see in other countries, and as a result our per capita children’s sales are much higher than most other countries. We are also a self-sufficient market in that we can afford to print our own editions of just about anything. Many smaller countries have to buy books from the US or from England, as their market can’t justify print runs.

Would you say that America sets the trends for children's publishing and if so, what would be your prediction for the type of children's books that will become bestsellers in 2005?

Actually, it seems that England has been responsible for a number of recent trends, and of course Japan originated manga, which is one of the biggest growth categories today. As for 2005, the next Harry Potter will probably be the biggest book of the year (again), and after that we think that licensed publishing and graphic novels will continue to grow significantly.

What project have you found most enjoyable to work on and why?

I love collaboration, so the most fun I’ve had recently has been our “Dick & Jane” books. A sister company of ours, Pearson Education, owns Scott, Foresman, the original publishers of Dick & Jane. Alongside them and one of the major mass retailers, we’ve been able to create a terrific consumer program featuring nostalgia, new retro-looking graphics, and large elements of fun that perhaps didn’t exist in the “Dick & Jane” books we grew up with.

Do you have a favourite children's author?

When you work with as many people as I do, that becomes a very dangerous question, so I’ll just say that I have many!

The Very Hungry Caterpillar (published by Philomel Books, a penguin imprint) is one of the most famous picture books. Why would you say this book has been so successful?

There’s a magical quality to any book that sells millions of copies, and I think any of us would be hard-pressed to explain the specifics. But in general, a book that has beautiful art, an interactive novelty element, and a great story that has a message has an excellent chance of sticking around for a long time. That last bit is very important, by the way; I’ve seen many books that were pretty and fun, but that didn’t hold up for the ages. You HAVE to have a b story – kids can’t be fooled!

What's your all-time favourite picture book and why?

I love “Where the Wild Things Are” by Maurice Sendak (which is not one of my books!). It’s a true classic; funny, great art, and a lasting message. It was also one of my son’s favourite books, so I’ve read it many times! We’re even naming our summer house in upstate New York “Wild Things Lodge” in honor of this book.

During your college years, you managed two independent bookstores. What valuable lessons did you learn about the industry in those early years that have helped you in the position you currently hold today?

I learned most of what I know today in those years. All the dynamics of our business, the nature of what the various publishers do both stylistically and promotionally, and most of all how to work with authors were all experiences that I got from my bookstore days. Those times, although they’re long ago, were invaluable to my career.

If you could change any aspect of children's publishing what would it be?

Returns, without a doubt. I believe that some day some very smart people are going to lock themselves in a room and figure out how to eliminate the monumental waste brought on by returns.

What three key pieces of advice would you offer to unpublished writers and illustrators reading this interview?

1. Do your homework. Get out to the stores, investigate what other writers are doing, how their books are being marketed, and what specifically is being featured by the stores.
2. Get to know someone in sales and marketing. Other than your editor, there is no other department that will have as much bearing on your book’s success.
3. Be fresh! We don’t want recycled versions of other writers’ ideas. Your best chance of getting published today is by being completely yourself, completely original.

What children's title should no school or home be without?

The Little Engine That Could. It’s the classic story of overcoming, of working hard and coming out on top. Kids need motivation today more than ever before, and messages like the one in this book are vital.

Away from the office. How do you relax?

By reading, of course!

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