Elizabeth and Fred Crary of Parenting Press were no strangers to instant bestsellers when they published It’s MY Body in 1983. By then they’d been in business for four years and had seen her first parenting guide, Without Spanking or Spoiling, sell through its first printing of 5,000 in less than a year.
Second, third, fourth, and fifth printings of Without Spanking had gone equally fast. A second parenting book and three books for kids had also been well received. But that didn’t mean the Crarys were prepared for the runaway success of It’s MY Body. Hardly more than a booklet, this 24-page children’s book by a preschool teacher told the very young how to speak up if they didn’t like being touched.
Originally published by a Northwest Washington chapter of Planned Parenthood, which did a run of 1,000 copies, It’s My Body had been submitted to several large publishers of children’s books by author Lory Freeman. Only the Crarys were interested. (In the early 1980s, sexual abuse of children was still an almost unmentionable topic.) But as one of the first books for preschoolers that didn’t get lost in abstract concepts or vague references to the dangers of strangers, It’s MY Body drew immediate rave reviews from dozens of publications ranging from School Library Journal to feminist newsletters, from women’s magazines to preschool bulletins.
Back to Press, Back to Press, Back to Press
It went through 3,000 copies in the first six months, more than 10,000 in the second six months–and then sales really took off. By the end of the second year, Parenting Press had sold more than 60,000 copies. Elizabeth Crary, who has always tried to maintain a six- to 12-month inventory of each title, could never bring herself to order more than 10,000 copies at a time; as a result, she was back at the printer every four to six weeks during peak sales periods.
Her sales figures didn’t escape the notice of large publishers and soon there were other similar books. The competition did cut into It’s My Body’s share of the market, but by the end of the third year Parenting Press had still sold 82,000 copies of the book. Today it remains the company’s bestseller, with annual sales of about 5,000 and a total of 236,000 copies in print. In addition, foreign rights have been sold for Japan, Norway, Iceland, and Germany. In Japan, the book’s progress mirrored that of the U.S.–no major publisher would consider the topic, and so in 1990, a parent educator founded her own publishing company and published the book herself. The first Japanese print run sold out in three weeks.
What did Parenting Press learn from It’s MY Body? First, don’t be afraid to take risks–but make the risks calculated. A book on child sexual abuse was very different than the Crarys’ parenting guides but it had the same kind of nonjudgmental, how-to theme. The company used the same strategy in 2000, when it published its first children’s picture book. The Way I Feel looks like a complete departure from the Parenting Press philosophy–until you see the nonjudgmental text, gender-neutral illustrations, and emphasis on identifying emotions that also characterize It’s MY Body.
Other important lessons:
- Research your market carefully.
None of the early Parenting Press books had any significant competition when they were published, and the Crarys monitored sales carefully to ensure that they weren’t caught with huge inventories when demand abated.
- Stay focused and publish for the long run.
Even in Parenting Press’s early years, Elizabeth Crary wanted to create books that could be “modern classics”; that is, books with timeless advice that parents would pull off their shelves repeatedly, regardless of their children’s ages.
It’s MY Body
was so carefully written and illustrated that it’s never needed revision.
- Pursue nontraditional markets.
Parenting Press has never depended only on bookstore sales. It didn’t have a catalog when
It’s MY Body
was published, but the Crarys and a colleague with a similar book did mail out flyers to every parent educator and appropriate association that they could reach. Today, with a 50-page catalog, a popular Web site
and frequent group-sale opportunities, Parenting Press generates a significant proportion of its sales outside bookstores.
Twice Parenting Press has had to take action against publishers–one American, one foreign–trying to sell pirated copies of
It’s MY Body.
Linda Carlson works for Parenting Press on a consulting basis, handling projects like author profiles for its online media kits and a quarterly newsletter the Press does for a professional audience of parent educators. She is the author of 10 published books, including “The Publicity and Promotion Handbook,” a marketing guide for small businesses; and “How to Find a Good Job in Seattle,” among other regional job search titles.