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An Interview with George M. Nicholson

George M. Nicholson introduced and popularized high-quality paperback publishing for young people in the United States. He ran a number of major houses before finding a new career as an agent, remaining throughout an innovative, knowledgeable, and influential figure in the children’s book industry.

George NicholsonLEONARD S. MARCUS: How did you come to work in children’s book publishing?

GEORGE M. NICHOLSON: In September 1959, I came to New York on my way to graduate school. Albert Leventhal, the father of a friend of mine, was the president of Artists and Writers Guild, the company [part publisher and part packager, half-owned by Golden Press and half-owned by the Western Printing and Lithographing Company] that published Golden Books. Albert, who played hunches all the time and was very kind to his children’s friends, took me to lunch, rather glamorously, at the Rainbow Room, and said: “Ugh! You don’t want to be a college professor. I have an opening in our Catholic children’s book department. You could start here on Monday.” When I blanched, he said, “No, no. I’m not asking if you’re a good Catholic, just whether you know about being one.” I said I did know, and so the next week I reported for work at Artists and Writers’ offices in Rockefeller Center, where for the next five years I did everything under the sun.

LSM: What were your first impressions of publishing?

GMN: I didn’t know much about the other houses then, but at Artists and Writers you got a chance to do everything. I cleared permissions, did layout and design, prepared indexes, wrote copy; in other words, I assembled books. One was very conscious of the fact that we weren’t publishing great literature, but it was a great training ground. I took the week-long Western Printing  Publishing Course, which was offered by Western to anyone in publishing, as part of which you were taken out to Western’s various plants to see full-color presses in operation. You ended up truly understanding how book manufacturing worked. Later, this experience made me realize how little most people at publishing houses knew about the printing process.

In those days there was a massive gulf between so-called mass-market publishing and so-called trade publishing. Both terms were really misnomers: mass market because it’s a distribution term — it doesn’t necessarily characterize the content of the book at all, but simply refers to the sale of books in nonbook outlets; and trade because the trade houses then largely sold their children’s books to school and p’ublic libraries, not through the retail trade. Because Artists and Writers was a mass-market house, most of the books I worked on were never reviewed. Yet remarkable work was being done there. From its beginnings in the early 1940s, Golden Books had been an attempt to make better books available to every child. They were child-oriented, brightly packaged, very cheap, and they were everywhere.

LSM: What books did you work on at Artists and Writers?

GMN: The Catholic books were pretty frightful. There were pop-up books on the Mass. Little prayer books. To my hideous embarrassment, I was credited as the anthologist of The Catholic Children’s Book of Verse. Every so often I would have to go up to Yonkers to get the bishop’s imprimatur. That was fascinating! The imprint was called Guild Press Books. After a few years,  Artists and Writers sold it off.

The first time I got really interested in children’s literature was while working on a project with Science Research Associates, who were producing books for schools and asked Artists and Writers to do all the editorial work. For a year I went back and forth between New York and Chicago to work on these seventy-two individual booklets, written at different grade levels, which were sold as a boxed set. Artists and Writers made a lot of money by doing editorial work of this kind, acting essentially as a packager for other publishers while publishing their own books, too.

LSM: What was the atmosphere like in the office?

GMN: There was a familial atmosphere. People were on a first-name basis and, one felt, on an equal footing. Albert’s second in command was Lucille Ogle, a brilliant editor and businesswoman who was very kind to the young people as long as they did their work. She had a teacherish manner and took no foolishness from anybody. She was known on occasion to hurl things.

There was a remarkable older woman in the office called Pres who had a house in Connecticut and would ask us up for weekends. Many of the Golden artists would go. One weekend, we were having a costume party and one of the artists found a couple of beams, lashed them together, dressed himself in a loincloth, and strode across the lawn as Jesus — to the cheers of the crowd.  Things like that were always going on.

LSM: Tell me more about Albert Leventhal.

GMN: He was an innovator as a publisher, a natty man, a generous spirit, and enormous fun. His protégés included Robert  Bernstein (later president of Random House), Robert Gottlieb (who became editor in chief of Knopf and The New Yorker), Bud Baker (who became president of Western and cofounded Baker and Taylor), and many others. Susan Hirschman worked for him briefly. Albert himself had grown up at Simon & Schuster, where he was the sales manager for many years.

Albert usually knew when someone had gone as far in the company as he could go, and at the end of my fifth year he called me in. “You’re beginning to be bored,” he said. I didn’t admit to it, but it was true. Then Albert said, “I think it’s time for you to leave.” I was startled — even though it was clear he wasn’t firing me. “I’d like to call Helen Meyer,” he said, “and tell her I have this young man who is energetic and interested and has a great background.” Helen was the president of Dell Publishing and the most powerful woman in American publishing. She had worked her way up under George Delacorte, who had started a publishing empire based, at first, on humor and movie magazines and pulp-fiction paperbacks. It was Helen who presided over the sale of Dell to Doubleday in 1976.

By the mid-1960s, Western had been printing Dell paperbacks and magazines for many years, and Albert and Helen were well aware of each other. So it wasn’t surprising that Albert knew she was thinking just then about paperback books for children. I went to work at Dell in 1964.

LSM: Did Helen Meyer become a mentor to you?

GMN: She was very helpful. Dell was still best known as a publisher of fairly low-grade magazines — Inside Detective, Modern Romances — and comics such as Dick Tracy and The Lone Ranger. It was fascinating going to work in the morning because you’d  walk into the waiting room and find people dressed in leather and chains or in evening gowns — actors and models who had come to pose for the lurid covers of those magazines. The joke at the time was that Helen was finding God in children’s books.

LSM: Well, you did know that bishop in Yonkers.

GMN: When I was hired by Dell, two other houses, Grosset and Ace, were already publishing some paperbacks for children, including both originals and reprints, but almost completely limiting themselves to genre titles. No paperback reprints of literary merit were being done, with the exception of those published by Scholastic, which acquired only book-club rights.

The gulf between mass-market and trade was also a social gulf. It was like being from the other side of the tracks. The first thing I did at Dell was to go and see every trade editor in the industry and explain what I was trying to do and say that I hoped we could cooperate. Many of the now-legendary figures were still working then — Margaret K. McElderry, Ursula Nordstrom, Elizabeth Riley.

I also took a close look at every thing that Scholastic published, with the idea that the books that had done well for them would probably also do well for us.

LSM: How did you sell the first Dell Yearlings?

GMN: On the retail side, we were counting on magazine distribution. This was before the time of the big chains; there was no Costco or Wal-Mart. We sold to supermarkets, to chain and drug stores, piggybacking whenever possible on what Golden Books had been doing since the 1940s and 1950s.

We also knew that there was an institutional market, and that it had historically been the market for hardcover children’s books. So we hired a consultant, an elementary education specialist named Charles Reasoner, to help my wonderful assistant Barbara Seuling and me with selection. But it wasn’t easy at first, and in the days before Whole Language, teachers who were used to  working with textbooks would look at Dell Yearlings and say, ‘‘These are library books.”

We worked directly with teachers whenever we could. Richard Peck was an English teacher at Hunter College when I first met him. He began his writing career by editing a couple of poetry anthologies for Laurel-Leaf-Dell’s rack-sized teen line of anthologies and classics, which we launched shortly before Yearling. It wasn’ t until after I had left Dell and gone to Holt that Dick came in one day with the news that he’d written a novel. I read it overnight, loved it, and bought it. Don’t Look and It Won’t Hurt was the first of his twenty-odd novels. And then he quit his teaching job.

LSM: How did the trade houses react to what you were doing?

GMN: They were reluctant at first to send us material. The common wisdom was that the appearance of a paperback would end  hardcover sales to libraries. Then one of the greatest things happened. We acquired Charlotte’s Web and Stuart Little from Harper for $37,500, which in 1966 was all the money in the world. But we could never have paid enough money for what that acquisition accomplished. It completely broke the logjam with every other publisher. The way it happened — and I think this story exemplifies a generosity of spirit that no longer exists between houses — is that in order to convince other publishers that paperback sales didn’t diminish hardcover sales, I asked Ursula Nordstrom to write a letter stating that the paperback editions of the White books had had absolutely no impact on sales of the original editions. Ursula was happy to do so and to allow me to show the letter to other publishers. In fact, Harper’s hardcover sales increased.

LSM: But Ursula Nordstrom could also be competitive.

GMN: Harper launched its own paperback imprint, Harper Trophy, exactly seven years later, just as the White licenses expired. Other trade publishers did the same. We had a hunch that this would happen, which is why we also focused so much on building Delacorte as a hardcover trade list, as a feeder line to the paperback list. Having Delacorte allowed Dell to bridge the period when more and more publishers were pulling back paperback rights from Yearling.

I went to see Ursula one day to try to persuade her not to start Harper Trophy. I told her, “Please don’t do this. We have spedal distribution. We can do it better.” I knew it was all hogwash but felt I had to make the effort. Ursula listened to what I’d come to say and then got purple in the face. She started screaming at me, “How dare you tell me what to do! You’re trying to steal my authors!” I’d never seen anything like it and didn’t know what to say, except to deny everything. It was certainly not the case that we were trying to steal her authors, though she was wise enough to see that that might happen down the road. So I finally stood up and said, “I guess this interview is over.” To which she replied, “But aren’t you going to have lunch with me?” We went to lunch and had a wonderful time, and the subject never came up again.

When E. B. White found out about the paperback editions, he contacted us and said, “There is one change I would like to make.” On the first page of Stuart Little, when Stuart is born to the Little family, White changed the word born to arrived. This was in response to Anne Carroll Moore’s criticism of the book twenty years earlier, when it was still in manuscript, when she insisted that children would be terrified to have a mouse born to a human mother. I thought, Oh God, Anne Carroll Moore won!

LSM: What were the economics of paperback publishing then?

GMN: Because the retail price was so low (fifty, sixty, seventy-five, or ninety-five cents each), we made much less money on unit  sales of a paperback — just pennies per book. But if you could sell 500,000 of them, that was pretty good.

What really set off the boom in paperback sales were the federal monies of the late 1960s. Government funding resulted in massive, often indiscriminate buying because the money always had to be spent by a certain deadline. Rather than decide which of the twenty-seven available books about the North Pole was best, schools and libraries bought them all. Paperbacks were one of the best ways you could spend your money because you could get so much more for your dollar.

During the federal-funding period, children’s book publishing emerged from the back of the bus. It was a golden age for editors because nobody questioned your judgment as long as you met your financial goals. Unlike in the adult trade world, there were no speculative acquisitions — no spending three million dollars to get a name author. We acquired S. E. Hinton’s The Outsiders from Viking for sixty-five or seventy thousand dollars, which for us was very big money for those days. We published it first as an adult paperback, and despite all the initial notoriety that surrounded a gang novel written by a sixteen-year-old first-time author, that edition died in the trade. So we reissued it in Laurel-Leaf — and from then onward it just built and built. Dell had The Outsiders for twenty-five years before Viking finally took back the paperback rights.

LSM: Did teens buy The Outsiders with their own money?

GMN: Yes, and that’s where Walden and B. Dalton came in. The basic philosophy of those chains was, “No chatting up at the checkout counter.” Kids could buy anytbng they wanted, no questions asked, whereas a librarian might say to them, “That’s too old for you. You shouldn’t be reading that book.” There was no judgment at at the chains. All they wanted was your cash. The stores became hangouts for teens.

LSM: Judy Blume is another writer whose career was largely built on the success of her paperback editions.

GMN: That’s right. She was originally published by Richard Jackson at Bradbury Press, which was a small independent house — except for the Fudge books, which were published by Dutton. But Judy’s huge success came in paperback, and unquestionably the children made the choice.

LSM: What brought you to Holt, Rinehart and Winston?

GMN: When Ann Durrell left Holt, taking her entire staff with her to Dutton, I was approached to replace her. The idea of  working for a quality hardcover house — with Lloyd Alexander, Evaline Ness, and others on the list — appealed to me, and I was offered considerably more money, so at the start of 1970 I took the job. When I went in to tell Helen Meyer, she said, “Well, that’s gratitude for you! You’re going to be back, though. Count on it!” And indeed she was right.

LSM: What did Holt hire you to do?

GMN: Holt had a hugely successful school department, and I had become so involved in education that I thought, This is where we’ve got to break in — to get children’s trade books into the classroom by taking advantage of Holt’s extraordinary sales force that sold directly to schools. My task was to meld the trade and school departments.

This did not turn out to be easy. At about the same time I got there, CBS bought Holt and began cutting the budgets of every company it owned. This of course made it harder to carry out my best-laid plans. I also bumped up against a culture clash within Holt. Schools were used to bigger discounts on books than was the custom for trade sales, and no one within the company had the authority to make the trade side go along with deeper discounts in order to make the purchase of trade books attractive enough to school purchasers. Ultimately, CBS broke Holt in two, selling off the textbook and trade divisions to different buyers. I stayed  there for just under two years, during which time I was proud to introduce Richard Peck and Gerald McDermott to the field.

LSM: Gerald McDermott wasn’t a picture book artist when you met him, was he?

GMN: I met Gerald at a small film festival where his animation, Anansi the Spider, was being shown. I had a primitive idea about how to convert his film into a book. We both thought at first that it would be possible simply to cut and paste some of the original animation images. But as he came to realize, it was necessary to redraw and rethink everything for the very differently paced medium of the picture book. A few years later, when he won the Caldecott Medal, Margaret McElderry said to me, “It’s wonderful when you work with somebody who really brings a fresh eye.”

LSM: Did you publish paperbacks at Holt?

GMN: We started Owlet — like Yearling, another small animal! — as a paperback line focused on picture books. Picture books were the one thing that Dell wasn’t doing, and Holt had such a rich backlist.

LSM: Then you went to Viking.

GMN: I was hired in December 1971, weeks after the death of Velma Varner, who had headed the department. Viking was  half-owned by Penguin, a British company, and half-owned by Viking’s original owners, the Guinzburgs. Tom Guinzburg, son of the founder, ran the office. It was exciting to be part of a vast international company. I began to talk with a London-based colleague about how we might do things together. We worked jointly on three or four titles a year and thought we would get points for making this international publishing venture work. Ultimately, I don’t think anybody cared.

Viking had a paperback imprint called Seafarer, but Penguin’s U.K. paperback line, Puffin, was much older and stronger. It  flourished under Kaye Webb, who was the doyenne of British children’s book publishing and a larger-than-life figure. Kaye had been an actress and was married to the cartoonist Ronald Searle. She was capable of anything. One day Kaye went to the  chairman of Penguin and said: “I want to go to New York and work with George Nicholson and get Puffin launched in America. It’s long overdue. And it’s cold there so I want you to buy me a mink coat.” Because it was Kaye speaking, he did. Kaye and I got  on like a house on fire. Gradually, we dropped the Seafarer imprint and decided that because Puffin was so strong in picture  books, we at Viking would push the development of picture books, too.

LSM: Who were some of the artists you published?

GMN: I brought Gerald McDermott to Viking, where his Arrow to the Sun won the 1975 Caldecott Medal, and the Provensens, starting with A Peaceable Kingdom. They won the Caldecott for The Glorious Flight after I had left. Don Freeman, Marie Hall Ets, and Barbara Cooney were still contributing books to the Viking list.

LSM: Did you approach Robert McCloskey about doing more books?

GMN: I made a tremendous effort. It was wonderful talking with him, in part because we were in total agreement politically. He  was ferocious about Nixon. He agreed to let me send him manuscripts, but nothing came of it, and years later he said to me, “You  know, I think my time is done as an illustrator. I worked very hard and very fast in the early days and I think I’m out of fashion.” I  said, “How can you say that? Your books sell better than they ever did.” All he said in reply was, “Well, it’s certainly comforting to get those checks.”

Things were not so collegial on the adult side at Viking after Penguin fully acquired the company, added New American Library, and forced Tom Guinzburg out. Internecine wars began to develop between the Puffin people and the New American Library people over, for instance, whose edition of Jane Eyre to emphasize. In 1979, when the chance to return to Dell came along, I  decided to take it.

By then, Robert Cormier’s editor at Pantheon had retired and his agent, Marilyn Marlow, wanted to move him to another house. We came through with a lot of money for both the hardcover and paperback rights to all his books. It was that agreement that  gave Bob financial independence. Marilyn also decided to move all of S. E. Hinton’s books to Dell. There was growing interest in  the U.S. in contemporary British writers. Joan Aiken, Leon Garfield, and Philippa Pearce all had their work published here, both in cloth and paperback, by Dell. We published Rosemary Sutcliff and Alan Garner in paperback. U.K. publishers, on the other hand, were much less interested in our authors.

LSM: When you left Dell in 1993, it was part of a much larger company. Why did you leave and why did you become an agent?

GMN: I left Dell because I was fired. By that time, Bertelsmann, the vast German publishing conglomerate, had bought Bantam  Doubleday Dell. The firm became increasingly corporate, and I think I fell afoul of that change. I am not altogether certain that  they were wrong in letting me go. I was so confident in my own judgments and experience, I suspect that they felt increasingly  that I wasn’t a team player. I don’t think that was true, ultimately, but there was an intimacy with authors in that period that was at war with corporate needs. After a brief time at Harper, where the politics of a takeover were equally fearful (a group of Scots and English representing the Collins acquisition of Harper were at war with the locals), I was offered a job by Peter Matson and  Sterling Lord at Sterling Lord Literistic Inc. I was grateful, but uncertain of how I would fare as an agent. My former wife, who has remained a great friend, said, “For heaven’s sake, George, do it. Writers need help in today’s publishing world more than ever.” And not for the first time in my life, she was right.

LSM: What are some of the major changes in publishing that you have observed?

GMN: Certainly one change is the marginalization of editorial authority. Editors do not control the lives of their books once the selection process-a process that now often involves committee approval-is over. Contracts now are written in the contract  department. Sales and marketing people are deeply protective of their privileges within the house. Publishers have become so large that one hand doesn’t always know what the other hand is doing.

It’s tougher for the smaller houses, not because they can’t publish wonderful books but because there’s no market for their paperback rights. Yearling, for instance, is so busy turning out the paperback editions of all the books published in hardcover by  Random’s many imprints that there is hardly any room left on the list except for an occasional star title from somewhere else. So midlist books become more encased than ever, with nowhere to go.

The intimacy lost between editors and writers is possibly the main change. Not to get too pietistic about it, but with so much of the pressure now focused on making money, it’s hard to sustain a relationship rooted in a shared sense of mission. There seems to be less exploratory time for editors to talk with writers, to get to know what books they’re reading, what movies they’re seeing, what they’re thinking about.

On the more positive side, one thing that being an agent has in common with being a publisher is the ultimate pleasure of finding a manuscript that is wonderful. I can be bowled over by the activities of the day, but if I close the door and get in an hour’s worth of reading and am lucky enough to stumble onto something that I really like, it totally revitalizes me. And the business itself remains genuinely fascinating. It’s like a giant puzzle that falls apart from time to time. It’s shapeless one minute, but then it takes on a new shape — often a surprising one.

From the March/April 2007 issue of The Horn Book Magazine.

Leonard S. Marcus About Leonard S. Marcus

Leonard S. Marcus’s forthcoming books include Helen Oxenbury: A Life in Illustration (Candlewick) and, as editor, The Kairos Novels (Library of America) by Madeleine L’Engle. His exhibition Garth Williams: Illustrator of the Century opens at the Curtis Memorial Library in Brunswick, Maine, on May 1, 2018.

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