Poor John Newbery.
The 2016 Newbery Medal for children’s literature was awarded to Last Stop on Market Street, written by Matt de la Peña, and the Caldecott Medal for illustration went to Finding Winnie, illustrated by Sophie Blackall*. Among the most coveted literary awards in America, these honors are bestowed by the Association for Library Service to Children, a division of the American Library Association. By way of history, on the ALSC website, illustrator Randolph Caldecott warrants two paragraphs that extol his artistic contributions to publishing.
John Newbery is described only as an “eighteenth-century English bookseller.”
This may be because, with respect to distinguished books, the printer-publisher-bookseller’s legacy is… complicated. His accomplishments were less about literary merit than about hacking out a profitable market for children’s books — which he did by employing a killer instinct for anticipating consumer behavior, relentless hucksterism, and shrewd, egregiously manipulative sales and marketing practices.
And for his efforts, John Newbery should be properly celebrated instead of swept under the nursery rug. So, herewith, a brief and highly opinionated history.
Born in 1713, Newbery inherited a printing establishment from his employer in 1737. Voraciously entrepreneurial, he quickly diversified. In addition to publishing and other interests, he became the manufacturer of Dr. James’ Fever Powder, to better profit from the robust sideline of patent medicines, which were as commonly sold alongside books as cappuccino is today.
Imitating a competitor, in 1744 he published his first book for children, The Pretty Little Pocket-Book, in which learning games and songs alternated with prayers and 163 rules for behavior. The contents set the John Locke-inspired tone of Delectando momimus—“instruction through delight”—that would become one of the hallmarks of Newbery’s list. Another would be his demonstration of astute instincts regarding consumer psychology.
For two pence more than the book alone, The Little Pretty Pocket-Book featured an on-pack ball (for boys) or pincushion (for girls), a merchandising scheme that appealed to the diminutive target audience of retail decision influencers and allowed parents to reward good behavior or punish the bad, thus appealing those who held the purse strings. Strategically crafted messages in the text appealed separately to the kids (the promise of fun and, eventually, wealth) and to Mom and Dad (the promise of well-behaved and, eventually, wealthy offspring) while convincing all of the importance of learning and, by extension, the value of buying books.
The instruction/delight formula worked and Newbery applied it further, eventually publishing close to 100 children’s books in a range of subjects. Even The Newtonian System of Philosophy is absorbed more easily when “Tom Telescope” writes it. Two centuries before Walt Disney would become a household name, the publisher branded himself as “Mr. Newbery,” the benevolent and amusing children’s “old Friend in St. Paul’s Church-yard.”
It’s likely that Newbery himself wrote The Little Pretty Pocket-Book, but as his list expanded, he hired skilled illustrators (and gave them pseudonyms that were slightly misspelled versions of famous artists, for example “Michael Angelo”) and ghostwriters, including established authors Samuel Johnson, Oliver Goldsmith, and Christopher Smart. (Another reason to celebrate the publisher is that he provided gainful employment to the aforementioned, perennially broke writers, who suffered from Tourette’s Syndrome, a gambling addiction, and insanity, respectively.)
Newbery’s printing-publishing firm, the Bible and Sun at 65 St. Paul’s Churchyard, cranked out a wide variety of books and periodicals for all ages and — likely motivated by not wanting to leave half of his market untapped — he progressively addressed “Pretty Miss Pollys” as well as “Little Master Tommys.” With a 43-person national book- and patent medicine sales force, he created awareness for his products with newspaper advertising and printed handbills. In a crude precursor of today’s online promotional practices, Newbery used the literal “page views” in published books to cross-promote works that would appeal to similar audiences. (While today some series include lists of appropriate books or excerpts from the same author, “back-ads” — promotions for books other than the author’s own — are often contractually prohibited.)
Newbery offered bulk discounts to teachers, and packaged teaching games with books (“ancillaries” in today’s textbook sale parlance). He published books with holiday titles, like The Christmas Box and The Valentine’s-Gift, which would’ve ensured seasonal promotional opportunities. “Trade and Plumb-cake forever — huzza!” a line from The Twelfth Day-Gift, indicates that its publisher was pretty self-aware.
Newbery prodigiously employed the practice of “puffing” — the product placement of a specific one or more of his books within the text of another. In 1765 with the publication of The History of Little Goody Two-Shoes he hit what might’ve been an all-time high puffing-to-text proportion.
In the story, Margery Two-Shoes (aka Goody) overcomes great hardship and single sole-dom to become a “trotting tutoress,” improving her material success by way of reading and moral goodness (with a little help from an advantageous marriage and a conveniently early widowhood — this was the eighteenth century, after all). Goody Two-Shoes adhered to the Newbery brand promise mixing entertainment (a ghost scare, “pyrates”) with socio-political commentary and “lessons for a moral life,” the alphabet and syllables, talking animals, prayers and a version of the Twenty-Third Psalm.
As Goody was a teacher, it doesn’t seem so unnatural that a list of the forty-three “books usually read by the Scholars of Mrs. Two-Shoes” would be conveniently provided, along with the information that they would be “sold at Mr. Newbery’s.” Or that a song she sung “may be found in the Little Pretty Play Thing, published by Mr. Newbery.” However, the list of patent medicines available from him seems a somewhat less natural a fit for the material.
Nowhere is Newbery’s promotional audacity more evident than in the opening paragraph of the book: “Care and Discontent shortened the Days of Little Margery’s Father. He was forced from his Family, and seized with a violent Fever in a Place where Dr. James’s Powder was not to be had, and where he died miserably.” Understandably, similar drug company product placement is prohibited in children’s media today.
It would be easy to pass judgment on Newbery’s methods, and Goody Two-Shoes might be more “branded content” than Newbery Medal material but twenty-nine editions of the book were published between 1765 and 1800, and numerous reprints and adaptations appeared for at least another century on both sides of the Atlantic. Along with the rest of Newbery’s children’s list, Margery the trotting tutoress not only entertained and informed — and perhaps encouraged greater ambition in — children of both sexes, but also helped jumpstart an industry that encouraged young readers and enriched the lives of kids for the generations that followed.
And Newbery wasn’t all about profit. He set up a lending library, gave promotional copies of books away to children, and donated to charity. He worked hard to protect copyright and committed only one poet (the aforementioned Smart) to an insane asylum. And he kept Oliver Goldsmith out of debtor’s prison.
Goldsmith’s work for Newbery included writing a commercially successful children’s History of England and he is even rumored to be the author of Goody Two-Shoes. But when Newbery advanced money to a desperate Goldsmith for an adult novel of uncertain market value and paid the author’s rent so he could write uninterrupted, the publisher undoubtedly knew in The Vicar of Wakefield, he was subsidizing something very different.
Despite the fact that a number of authors owed him money, Newbery died a wealthy man, mostly thanks to Dr. James Fever Powder. Then, as now, there was more money in pharmaceutical sales than in book publishing.
In 2010, NBC’s Today Show broke forever with a 10-year custom of having the Newbery and Caldecott winners appear on their book segment the day of the announcement. Instead, on the morning of the awards, Jersey Shore’s Nicole “Snooki” LaValle (nee Polizzi) hawked her first book, which, according to The New York Times, “… she undoubtedly never read.” Since then, the competition for eyeballs has become such that even Mr. Newbery would find it challenging to get morning show time for his list (though I can imagine fever powder product placement on reality TV and, certainly, the infomercial).
Writing might be an art but publishing (like TV) is a business and, as both an author and a marketing pro, I can authoritatively admit that writing a book, while certainly not easy, is at least a straightforward goal: words on a page. Getting the attention of consumers and getting a book into readers’ hands is and always has been incredibly complex and challenging—strategy and hustle, sweat and hope by people who don’t generally get any credit. But for those who write and love and work with books it’s a worthwhile and vital effort.
The announcement of the 2016 ALA Youth Media Awards winners was webcast live from Boston and I, along with many around the country, watched it on my computer. The news was spread via Twitter and Tumblr and Facebook and established writers like myself will write and post essays on blogs and social media and on platforms that can’t quite be defined in our legacy media terms.
So while we celebrate the winners and honor books each year, let us also acknowledge our trailblazing old friend in St. Paul’s Churchyard and the booksellers and sales reps and publicists and marketers who have come after him. They are, like he was, innovating and working hard to find and create new audiences, to keep the publishing industry vital and, ultimately, help instruct and delight readers. Because now, same as it was in Mr. Newbery’s day, there is no “plumb-cake” without “trade.”
*Full disclosure of a complete coincidence — Sophie Blackhall is one of the illustrators of my first book, Cookie Craft (which I co-authored with Janice Fryer). Check out the full details of all the wonderful, worthy ALA Youth Media Awards and honor books.
**I confess, I did not check with any pharmaceutical companies to confirm this assumption.