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13 Million Copies and Counting: The Free Spirit Publishing Story

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13 Million Copies and Counting: The Free Spirit Story

October 2013

by Linda Carlson

Judy Galbraith insists that she no longer has the energy to work the 60-hour weeks that were common when she was starting Free Spirit Publishing at age 29, but she bubbles with enthusiasm for the company’s new lines, her staff, and even the building where she recently moved all its operations. She’s also full of advice for new and would-be publishers, including, “Be willing to do the work: if publishing were easy, lots more people would be doing it.”

That’s a statement that led to chuckles during our recent conversation, when Galbraith confessed that her first book resulted from an effort to get out of work. A middle-school teacher who had moved into the management of programs for gifted kids, she was completing a master’s degree when the question of a thesis arose. She says she couldn’t bear the idea of writing a traditional thesis that would then get shelved, never benefiting anyone, and she asked if she could instead survey gifted students and report on the findings. “Little did I know how much more work that would be!”

That first survey resulted in The Gifted Kids’ Survival Guide, introduced in 1983 and now in its fourth edition as The Gifted Teen Survival Guide: Smart, Sharp, and Ready for (Almost) Anything, with 280,000 copies in print, and copies in more than 400 libraries.

It also launched the Minneapolis-based Free Spirit as the source of information for what Galbraith believes continues to be an underserved market: bright, high-achieving kids, their parents, and their educators. In its 30 years, Free Spirit has published some 400 titles, and today it has almost 13 million copies of its books in print in English alone.

In recent years, Galbraith has seen other publishers enter this market, but many haven’t been successful. “Some don’t realize how hard it is to do what we do,” she points out. “You don’t just water down adult material.” To ensure that Free Spirit’s material is relevant and authentic, Galbraith continues to use tools such as surveys when updating the titles she writes. For the new Gifted Teen Survival Guide, for example, she had 1,400 completed surveys to draw on for information about what today’s bright kids worry about.

Pointers and Pluses

Galbraith’s recommendations for publishers include: Don’t get in over your head in debt. “Being poor” when she got into business for herself has helped her in many ways, she believes—even leading to Free Spirit’s first title for a general audience, the 1985 Fighting Invisible Tigers: Stress Management for Teens, now in its third edition with 235,000 copies in print, including copies in 600 libraries. She was teaching part-time to finance her publishing efforts, and the very positive response to a classroom guest speaker on stress management showed her the potential of addressing kids’ sources of tension.

Another recommendation: Know your niche. Free Spirit’s is education—defined not as textbooks, but as the other materials that students, teachers, school social workers, psychologists, librarians, and parents use. Today Galbraith perceives the education market as a whole to be very challenging. School budgets have been reduced in each of the past few years, she points out, and although federal mandates ensure that special education classes continue, programs for gifted kids are among the first to be slashed. Besides the difficulty of selling to customers who have smaller and smaller budgets, there’s the continuing issue of a fragmented market. “How do we find that moving target?” the publisher asks.

Galbraith also advises publishers: Resolve to be successful, resolve that failure is not an option. Although this was always part of her mindset, Galbraith says it has become more important as she’s watched education budgets dry up. “We can’t continue to use that as an excuse; we have to be creative and find new markets.”

One advantage Free Spirit has, she notes, is that “we’re small, and we can be nimble. We have no layers of decision-makers: I make the decisions.” For example, when periodicals call to say they have a last-minute advertising opportunity at fire-sale rates, Free Spirit can turn on the proverbial dime to get an ad written and designed—sometimes in less than 24 hours.

Galbraith says that she seldom needs time to deliberate over such decisions, and credits her staff of 24 for ability to spot opportunities. “We’re all independent thinkers—and they’re empowered to try new things. We’re pretty fearless. We’ll try anything we can afford!”

She has other praise for her employees as well. They work in collaboration, and they are kind, she says. “You can’t be a mean person, given the topics we handle.”

New Focuses, New Formats

That may be especially important as Free Spirit moves into books for the very young. The books it now publishes to be read to children include information at the back for parents and educators, and the company is adding titles for early childhood educators.

“Early childhood education has always been the right thing to do in terms of a child’s development, but now there’s such media attention to the economic value of early education,” says Galbraith. “We’re poised to do more in this area, and we’re excited about the opportunity.”

With the new focus on the Common Core State Standards adopted by most states, Free Spirit continues to work on resources for teachers of K–12 kids—print, digital, and online. Many components of the standards, such as critical thinking, have always been part of good gifted education programs, and Galbraith is delighted to see the emphasis on these. “Our workforce needs both critical and creative thinking,” she points out.

Free Spirit currently offers some children’s and adult titles in both print and digital formats, and it is committed to doing more digital titles, although print remains its most popular format, as sales of its all-time bestseller show. First published in 1994, What Kids Need to Succeed: Proven, Practical Ways to Raise Good Kids, is now in its third edition, with 655,000 copies sold in paperback—but only about 100 of the e-book, which has been available since May 2011.

The company is not large enough to handle digital formatting in-house, Galbraith notes, observing, “It’s very time-consuming to determine which third-party vendor to use, and it’s time-consuming to work with the conversion of files.”

To reduce costs in an industry where margins are slim and growing slimmer each year, and to ensure that educators can access Free Spirit material even if a CD-ROM is missing or damaged, the company is moving the material now packaged with books on CD-ROMs online

International Action

Watching margins is important when you’re publishing 25 to 30 new titles a year, as Free Spirit does, with a backlist of more than 200 titles plus 60 ancillary items such as posters, card deck games, and “Choices in a Jar.”

So far, more than 140 Free Spirit titles have been sold for editions in more than 25 languages including Croatian, Japanese, and Icelandic, creating a small but growing revenue stream. And the company’s Learning to Get Along series has had what publicist Anastasia Scott calls “incredible success” in China, selling 50,000-plus sets of all 15 books. “Foreign rights is a profitable part of our business,” says Galbraith, “and it’s exciting to see our material used around the world.”

Another revenue stream comes from distributing books for a few other publishers. And in mid-2011, the company acquired North American English-language distribution rights for the Our Emotions & Behavior series of early childhood titles published in the United Kingdom by Franklin Watts, a London-based division of Hachette Children’s Books. Buying rights from publishers overseas has been a challenge, Galbraith says, because few titles from other countries include illustrations that portray the diversity of characters necessary for an American market.

But as you probably know by now, “challenge” is not something that frightens Judy Galbraith—or the crew she’s assembled at Free Spirit. Unlike those who want quick fixes for kids’ social or emotional development, or quick fixes for the challenges that face publishers today, the people at Free Spirit have a long-term commitment to creating the best possible information for parents, professionals, children, and teenagers, and to reaching the best possible audiences for their materials.

Linda Carlson writes for the Independent from Seattle, where she spent years advocating for gifted programs in the public schools.


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