Tuesday, April 3, 2007

Interview: David Saylor of Scholastic Graphics

This week, we have an interview with one of the very first folks to take up the graphic novel banner at a major children’s publisher – David Saylor of Scholastic Graphix. Scholastic is, according to its website, “the largest publisher and distributor of children's books and related products to home and school,” distributing approximately 400 million books in 2006. So far the Graphix imprint has released two volumes of Raina Telgemeier’s adaptation of The Babysitters Club, a first volume of Goosebumps adaptations, Chynna Clugston’s Queen Bee, and four color volumes of Jeff Smith’s classic, Bone.

All-ages Reads: With so many people saying, "Comics aren't for kids anymore," it's wonderful to see a large publisher bring all-ages work out in a big way. Where did the idea for a Scholastic line of all-ages graphic novels originate and what are your goals for the imprint?

David Saylor: The first thing I'd love to change is the perception that “comics aren’t for kids anymore”. Perhaps it would be wiser to say: "Comics ARE for kids (and for everyone else, too)". In the push to make comics respectable and noteworthy, comics for kids have been somewhat ignored in the last 20 years. I believe strongly that now is the time for publishers to create wonderful comics for kids: we’re poised for an explosion of graphic novels, and perhaps even a new golden age. I want GRAPHIX to be a part of that. About 4 or 5 years ago, the buzz about Graphic novels was heating up again due to the incredible talents of creators like Jeff Smith, Kazu Kibuishi, Marjane Satrapi, and Craig Thompson. At that time, too, I began reading graphic novels and I rediscovered a love for comics originating from when I was eight years old. But when I was around ten or eleven, I stopped reading comics (except for the comics in MAD Magazine), and I think it was partly because there wasn’t a broad range of comics available for me to read, beyond superhero comics. The comics I liked best then were character-based stories with Donald Duck, Uncle Scrooge, Little Lotta, and Richie Rich. And I definitely liked reading longer comics that felt more substantial. Anyway, while I was discovering these great graphic novels for adults and thinking back on my childhood reading patterns, it suddenly seemed clear that today’s kids who love comics weren’t being especially well served by comic book publishers, and worse, were being completely ignored by mainstream children's publishers. And that made no sense: kids love comics; we publish books for kids. Why weren’t we publishing comics for kids? It seemed so obvious. So that’s what spurred me to create the GRAPHIX imprint at Scholastic.

Another nice confluence happened when I hired Janna Morishima to be my assistant, and it turned out that she loved comics as much as I did. Our passion and quiet determination helped launch the GRAPHIX imprint at Scholastic, though it only came together with the addition of the talented editor and comics advocate, Sheila Keenan, and the vision of our then publisher, Jean Feiwel. And now here we are, going into our third year of publishing.

AAR: So, how is it going so far? Are you getting the response and sales figures you wanted or expected?

DS: The response has been great from everyone so far: retailers, comics aficionados, and, most happily, kids. I think our timing was good. We launched in 2005 and we seem to be riding a very nice wave, one that grew from the grassroots of the comics world, swelled from the enthusiasm of Librarians (who quickly embraced graphic novels for kids), and is now surging forward on the excitement of retailers and the book-buying public. Teachers, too, are starting to join the swim. Everyone is looking for ways to get kids reading and I think graphic novels and comics are the new answer to an old problem. As far as sales go, we’ve been doing well, and in some cases the sales have been spectacular, as with Jeff Smith's BONE books. The first four BONE books combined have sold over a million copies in all of Scholastic’s distribution channels (Trade, Book Fairs, and Clubs). Those figures verify for me that when kids connect with comics, it's a really powerful phenomenon.

AAR: Scholastic's distribution model is distinctly different than Diamond's direct market approach or even most mainstream book publishers - kids can buy Scholastic books at school. For those readers who don't have kids in school, can you explain the Book Clubs and Book Fairs and how they impact your sales?

DS: Scholastic is very unusual in that we have three areas of distribution: Trade, Book Fairs, and Clubs. The Trade market consists of traditional book stores, comic book stores, mass superstores (Walmart, Target, Sam’s Club, Costco, for example) and other retailers and wholesalers. This is the territory that every publisher is selling to.

Scholastic Book Fairs are like a book store set up by schools in their library, gym, or even a hallway for several days or up to a week. Kids and parents come to the fair and are able to buy books at good prices from all publishers, not just Scholastic, and so there’s a great variety of books to choose from. Each fair is managed and staffed by volunteers from the community--kids and adults alike--and they put enormous energy into making it a success. The essential part is that each school receives a percentage of sales from their fair, and that money is then used to support programs at that school. Beyond income for the school, it also generates plenty of excitement about books. I’ve been to several fairs and it’s always incredibly energizing to see kids get so excited by books they’ve picked out for themselves. The fairs are a great way for kids to explore the pleasure of reading.

The Scholastic Book Clubs distribute book catalogs through teachers who then distribute them to kids in the classroom. The Clubs are all about great value: wonderful books at amazing prices. And again, they offer books from all publishers, not just Scholastic. I have great memories of ordering from the Scholastic Book Clubs when I was a kid. It was the first time that I got to choose books for myself. And I ordered anything that piqued my interest: mysteries, joke books, adventure stories. It was very empowering to be able to order what I wanted and to realize that the world was full of so many different kinds of books that I might love to read. So, when it comes to getting books to children, Scholastic is incredibly effective: it’s astonishing how many kids we can reach. We’re the largest publisher and distributor of children's books in the world.

AAR: When I was teaching, my entire classroom library came from Scholastic Book Order bonus points! Scholastic’s presence in the schools is huge. How are books selected for the Book Club flyers? Is there the possibility of an all graphic novel flyer in the future?

DS: Book Club selections are made by a team of editors at the Book Clubs. They review books sent to them by various publishers who are eager to license a Scholastic edition of their books to the Book Clubs. The editors pick books that they feel are right for the age group and for the particular book club (there are a few different Clubs, mostly differentiated by ages/grades and content). Naturally all books are screened for content to make sure that it’s age appropriate and therefore many Teen graphic novels would not work for Book Clubs based on that criteria. As to what’s featured in the flyers, these are also decisions made by the Book Club editors. Graphic novels can be submitted to Teresa Imperato, Director of Product Development. The idea of doing an “all graphic novel flyer” is interesting, but my guess is that there would have to be enough interest among kids and teachers to justify the expense of creating and marketing a separate flyer, which is enormous. And at this point, the demand is not yet there.

AAR: Your PDF publication aimed at teachers, Using Graphic Novels in the Classroom, is excellent. I think every teacher and librarian should have a copy. Who wrote it? Has it been well-received?

DS: It's a great pamphlet and it's available as a free download on our website: http://scholastic.com/graphix/ There’s a box on the homepage that says, “Click here for Teaching with Graphix”. Click, and you can download the PDF file. It was written by Philip Crawford and Stephen Weiner, two authors who are each highly regarded experts in the field of graphic novels for youth librarians and teachers, and edited by our Director of Library Marketing, John Mason.

AAR: Graphix has gone with some proven winners, like Bone, and adapted some popular prose series, like The Babysitters Club and Goosebumps. When evaluating existing titles that could be added to the Graphix line, what do you look for?

DS: The first thing to think about is whether or not a book feels like it can be successfully adapted into a graphic novel. Not every book or series we've published is going to be right for visual adaptation. Nor would we want to try: most books intended as prose works are just perfect as they are. Why adapt them unless there’s a compelling reason to do so? In the case of Goosebumps and The Babysitters Club, both were series that had been out in the world in several different forms, including spin-offs and movie versions, so they were ready for a graphic novel incarnation. With Goosebumps, it felt like a natural next step, so we created anthologies, putting three scary stories in one volume that we knew would be fun see as a comic. And it’s a great way for us to work with well-known artists who can’t fit a longer volume into their schedule: a 40-page story is very do-able. So far we’ve worked with Greg Ruth, Scott Morse, Gabriel Hernandez, Amy Kim Ganter, Jill Thompson, Jaime Tolagson, Kyle Baker, Ted Naifeh, and Dean Haspiel.

With the Babysitters Club, we weren’t sure at first if it could be done, until we found the perfect person to adapt them, Raina Telgemeier. She grew up reading The Babysitters Club, and she realized that reading Ann M. Martin greatly influenced her own writing voice. So when she told us that it was something she'd love to do, we were very excited to see how she’d handle it. After seeing her first sketches, we knew she was the perfect person to adapt this series. At the moment, we’re open to adapting other series, but we don’t have any immediate plans.

AAR: You've got some original work as well, such as Queen Bee. How do you select creators to work with?

DS: Chynna Clugston, who wrote and drew Queen Bee, channeled exactly the right tone for this story about middle-school girls who are rivals to become the "Queen Bee" of their social set. Girls really love it, and that was part of Chynna's interest in doing this book: to make entertaining comics for girls that they'd love reading. Queen Bee was one of the reasons that GRAPHIX won the Lulu of the Year Award at this year's Comic-con in San Diego. We're committed to creating comics for girls that reflect their interests.

When we're looking for original books, we want three things: rich storytelling, great characters, and wonderful artwork. When those three things come into combination, that's a book we want to publish. For that reason, BONE is really the centerpiece of the GRAPHIX imprint. Jeff Smith created a timeless classic that represents the best of what a comic book writer and artist can achieve. We try to publish books that are creator-driven, meaning that the artists and writers have a strong point-of-view and they express themselves eloquently through their words and artwork.

AAR: How do you feel about the recent discussions regarding content labeling for comics and graphic novels? Do you think it's necessary? Would content labeling change the way Graphix selects or publishes its titles?

DS: Content labeling feels necessary sometimes, if only because when it comes to children's books, people get very nervous and want guidance. With the usual children's prose or illustrated books, it's perhaps easier for consumers to get a book for the right age child because they are shelved within specific age categories inside book stores. But graphic novels for different ages, at least at the moment, are sometimes placed together on the same shelf. It's occasionally unclear (without carefully perusing the book) whether or not a comic book is age appropriate for a certain child. As with most things involving kids, parents (or some other adult) are the guardians and they are responsible to help sort things out. If labeling helps, especially when bookstores are still figuring out where and how to shelve graphic novels and manga, then it seems like it could be useful for everyone: parents, teachers, librarians, and booksellers. In fact, most children's books already have an age range printed on them somewhere, so I don't think it's a problem to offer general content information or age-appropriateness guidelines on kids’ books. So, content labeling would not effect how we select or publish our titles.

One side note: GRAPHIX is about to publish our first graphic novel for teens called, Breaking Up, by Aimee Friedman and Christine Norrie. It has a T for “Teen Content” label and will be in bookstores in January of 2007.

AAR: The Graphix line so far seems aimed at upper elementary and middle school students. I'd love to see some titles for the younger kids, say kindergarten to second grade - I think the graphic novel format is great for beginning readers because it allows them to read more complex stories. Do you have any plans for that age range?

DS: We have the Magic Pickle graphic novel (reissued in full color) and two Magic Pickle chapter books coming from Scott Morse as well as two younger series by Frank Cammuso, Salem Hyde and Knights of the Lunch Table. Aaron Renier is creating two books for us. They both feature a spunky boy, Walker Bean, who fights evil merwitches and thwarts pirates. These will definitely appeal to those younger elementary kids. As GRAPHIX grows, I’m sure we’ll be publishing more for younger readers from K to 2nd grade.

AAR: Jeff Smith's book tour looks like a great undertaking. Any chance of getting some of your creators to visit schools as well as trade shows and bookstores?

DS: This is very much a possibility. In fact, if anyone is interested in setting up a school visit or bookstore visit, then Scholastic can help arrange that. You can reach our author appearance coordinator at: 212-389-3772.

AAR: Thanks so much, David. We’re certainly looking forward to more Graphix!

In addition to more volumes of Bone, The Babysitters Club, and Goosebumps (Kyle Baker and Jill Thompson!), here is a short list of upcoming titles:

The Seventh Voyage adapted and illustrated by Jon J Muth. Caught in a time warp, a hapless astronaut meets his past and future selves as they attempt to fix their broken rocket ship.

The Woodland Chronicles, written and illustrated by Greg Ruth. Fifty years ago a boy named Walt disappeared. Strange woodland creatures seem to be responsible. Can 12-year-old Nathan Superb solve the mystery and save the world from a cataclysmic battle?

Amulet, Book 1 by Kazu Kibuishi
Emily and Navin must rescue their mother after she disappears in the basement of their strange new house. They stumble into a subterranean world of giant robots, human-eating demons, and weird creatures. The brother and sister are befriended by a small mechanical rabbit as they head out on a mysterious and dangerous adventure.


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