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March 15, 2017 BOOKLIST
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This year marks the fiftieth anniversary of Lerner Publishing Group. One of the largest independently owned publishers of books for youth in North America (they boast a staff of nearly 200), Lerner will release approximately 300 titles and 15 new series in 2009 alone. Not too shabby for a company originally founded as Medical Books for Children, which had the express purpose of publishing books for children to page through in the waiting rooms of doctors’ offices.
The rechristened Lerner Publications expanded into music-themed books in 1961; in 1979, they began the On My Own series, which still continues today; 1998 brought a licensing agreement with the cable station A&E to publish the Biography-branded series for children; and in recent years they have continued to expand, acquiring Millbrook Press and Twenty-First Century Books in 2004, winning the Robert F. Sibert Informational Book Medal for Sally M. Walker’s Secrets of a Civil War Submarine (2005), and opening a New York division to house their Carolrhoda Books imprint and new graphic-novel division in 2006.
“We’re lucky that we’ve made it,” says President and Publisher Adam Lerner. “There are very few independent publishers out there owned by the same family that have been in business for 50 years, so it’s a big deal to us, definitely a big deal to my family and my father [founder Harry Lerner], who’s still here—it’s a great achievement for him.”
In the early 1990s, Adam Lerner worked as a store clerk at Barnes & Noble before becoming an assistant at Macmillan. A few years later he left to join Farrar, Straus & Giroux and eventually was named rights director there. In 1998 he joined his father’s company in Minneapolis, where he found his trade experience valuable. “I’ve tried to take the trade approach of taking the care and attention to one book and translating that to every book that we do in a series,” he says. “We make sure each book within a series stands by itself and can be read, can be shelved, and can be enjoyed as a single title.” By the same token, Lerner believes that the trade side of the company’s list benefits from the elements that series books traditionally value, like footnotes and back matter.
“The frustrating thing,” he says, “is that I feel as a series publisher that we’re often pigeonholed, that our books are cookie-cutter when they’re really not.” To keep things vital, Lerner’s staff stays aware of how kids obtain information from the Internet, and uses a strenuous evaluation process, including a library advisory board, to vet new series ideas that “interweave a subject in a narrative way, which electronic media still can’t do effectively,” like their new comic-book-style health series Body Battles. According to Lerner, the two-year cycle from idea to publication really takes off when an author has an engaging yet authoritative voice. “That’s the crux of publishing,” he says. “Factual storytelling.”
Major successes for Lerner Publishing Group include Brian P. Cleary’s Words Are CATegorical series. Originally conceived as a three-book series to be published all at once, Lerner, fresh from New York, used his trade background to advocate releasing the books individually over time. The result is 15 titles so far and millions of copies sold, as well as a companion Web site: brianpcleary.com. Another star has been the Visual Geography series, launched in 1987 and now in its second iteration. “It was the first series where we launched a Web site that features free and value-added content for students doing research—vgsbooks.com.”
But even the most vaunted publishing houses have felt the impact of the staggering economy, and Lerner is aware of the potential pitfalls. “There are too many books and the market isn’t growing,” he says. “Not all publishers will be able to afford to publish as many books, and not all publishers will survive. That’s going to happen naturally given the economic conditions. That’s combined with really stressed budgets in schools and libraries and a stressed tax base in states, counties, and communities.” However, Lerner speculates that the winners could be the consumers—after all, publishers will be forced to focus on their strongest work.
Lerner has hope that President Obama’s administration will help nonfiction publishers in the long run, first by taking a more practical approach to the curriculum and testing. “I think there are a lot of positive aspects to No Child Left Behind, but it’s taken an almost Draconian approach to testing and test scores,” Lerner says, expressing optimism about the proposed new emphasis on early childhood and twenty-first-century learning. “Who knows where successful adults got their inspiration as kids? It probably wasn’t from testing.”
Lerner’s pragmatism is sobering, but his enthusiasm is obvious. “We talk to our librarians, we like to hear what their kids are interested in, what attracts them to reading at school,” he says. “We like to think that we’ve been known for our quality and that’s what separates us from our competition. We just need to continue to publish the very highest quality books.”
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