Most children’s book franchises fade over time, but Dr. Seuss’s fantastical empire is hatching more sales than ever; Horton trumpets ‘Anti-Bullying Day’
By ANNA RUSSELL
Aug. 28, 2014
Theodor Seuss Geisel died in 1991. The LIFE Images Collection/Getty Images
In the early 1950s, a former ad man and modestly successful children’s book author published a series of illustrated stories for children in magazines like Redbook. They were short, two-to-three page spreads with stamp-sized drawings and minimal coloring. He hoped to publish them in book form but another project gained steam.
In 1957, he published a book that became an immediate best seller, turning him into a global publishing phenomenon. By approaching learning to read as zany and fun instead of boring and dull, the book altered the children’s literature landscape. His name was Theodor Seuss Geisel and the book was called “The Cat in the Hat.” While some of the magazine stories eventually made it into a book during his lifetime, others never did.
Cathy Goldsmith, an executive for Random House, is the last remaining employee to have worked directly with Geisel. Noah Rabinowitz for The Wall Street Journal
On Sept. 9, Random House will publish “Horton and the Kwuggerbug and More Lost Stories,” the second collection of Dr. Seuss’s forgotten magazine work. The previous volume, “The Bippolo Seed and Other Lost Stories,” reached No.1 on the New York Times best-seller list when it was released in 2011. Random House is betting even bigger on “Horton,” with an extensive marketing campaign and a large first print-run of 250,000 copies. “It tickles me that a whole new generation will get to read and experience these characters, some new and some familiar,” said Audrey Geisel, Ted’s 93-year-old widow and head of his estate Dr. Seuss Enterprises.
The Grinch MGM/Everett Collection
‘The Cat in the Hat’ ©Hanna-Barbera/Everett Collection
The book’s four stories feature familiar Seuss characters and locations. The wide-eyed Horton, from “Horton Hatches the Egg” and “Horton Hears a Who!,” makes an appearance, as do Marco from “And to Think That I Saw it On Mulberry Street” and an early iteration of the Grinch. The small illustrations from the magazine spreads have been blown up, recolored, and fashioned into a full-size picture book, supplemented with archival drawings. “It happened last May, on a very nice day,” the first story begins, “While the Elephant Horton was walking, they say.”
Publication of the “lost” stories is the latest effort from a carefully tended publishing and entertainment machine that has kept Dr. Seuss a hugely profitable force since the author’s death in 1991. While most children’s publishing franchises fade after their heydays—remember Carolyn Haywood’s “Betsy” and “Eddie” series?—Seuss keeps gaining in popularity. Some 600 million Seuss books have sold in 17 languages and 95 countries, according to the books’ publisher. Movie adaptations have grossed more than $1.1 billion world-wide, according to media tracker Rentrak, with 2012′s “The Lorax,” voiced by Zac Efron, Taylor Swift, and Danny DeVito, the most successful yet. Each year on March 2, Geisel’s birthday, millions of schoolchildren don red-and-white striped hats to celebrate the National Education Associations’s “Read Across America” day. At Christmas, many others tune in to the annual airing of the 1966 animated short, “How the Grinch Stole Christmas!,” narrated by Boris Karloff, the horror-movie legend.
Inside Random House, a team of about a dozen people work closely with the Seuss estate to orchestrate targeted-marketing campaigns pegged to schools, holidays and pop-culture moments. They are constantly weighing opportunities to expand sales while rejecting anything that isn’t consistent with the Seuss image. “Dr. Seuss is a brand and our job is to keep growing it even though he’s been passed away quite a while,” says Barbara Marcus, president and publisher of Random House Children’s Books.
Most of the activity surrounding Dr. Seuss book sales comes from works he wrote during his lifetime. Geisel wrote 44 illustrated books under the name “Dr. Seuss” before his death at age 87, and publishers and editors have been mining those titles ever since.
Ebook versions of his books were released for the first time last year in collaboration with Dr. Seuss Enterprises. In addition to Seussville.com, which receives 6 million visitors annually, Dr. Seuss has two Facebook pages and an online birthday club in which members are assigned a specific character based on their birthday month, like a zodiac sign.
Random House will publish a collection of Dr. Seuss’s ‘lost’ stories on Sept. 9. The publisher has been able to sell more Seuss books, like the one shown, with targeted marketing campaigns around holiday and pop-culture events TM & copyright © by Dr. Seuss Enterprises, L.P. 2014
A vital part of the Seuss machine is Cathy Goldsmith, the last remaining employee to have worked directly with Geisel at Random House. At the top of the publisher’s headquarters in Midtown Manhattan earlier this month, Ms. Goldsmith, 65, tended to the Aralia plants on the windowsill outside her office. Now vice president and associate publishing director of Random House/Golden Books Young Readers, she keeps a picture of Geisel at his 80th birthday party above her desk.
Ms. Goldsmith was about 30-years old and a senior designer when she met Geisel in the late 1970s and she worked with him on his last six books. She remembers him as tall, thin, and fond of bow ties. He would come to the office with a finished manuscript and read it aloud to the assembled staff. “You actually did not know what he was working on until it arrived full-blown and marvelous,” she said. “I don’t want to say it was like meeting God, but it was kind of like meeting publishing God.”
Seuss on Screen
Seuss movie adaptations have grossed more than $1.1 billion worldwide.
‘Dr. Seuss’ The Lorax’ (2012)
Zac Efron, Taylor Swift, and Danny DeVito as a curmudgeonly Lorax, brought a contemporary edge to this adaptation.
‘Dr. Seuss’ Horton Hears a Who!’ (2008)
Jim Carrey as the elephant Horton, voiced this Seuss standard, along with Steve Carell, and Will Arnett.
‘Dr. Seuss’ The Cat in the Hat’ (2003)
Mike Myers donned the Cat’s classic red-and-white hat for this live-action adaptation, a critical flop.
‘Dr. Seuss’ How the Grinch Stole Christmas’ (2000)
Ron Howard directed this holiday tale, with Jim Carrey as the Grinch and Taylor Momsen as Cindy Lou Who.
After the publication of “The Cat in the Hat” in 1957, Geisel became a Random House employee and president of the new line of “Beginner Books.” Though he rarely came into the office in his later years, Ms. Goldsmith remembers him as a meticulous and involved editor. “When he was alive, he saw every piece of every Beginner Book we published,” she said, “even those he didn’t write and illustrate,” she said.
Petite, with a dark bob, Ms. Goldsmith moved quickly around her office pulling out early editions of Dr. Seuss books. “I call this my magic drawer,” she said of the cabinet where she keeps them. “I’ve also got my magic box up there. I keep them out of the light mostly because the light fades them.”
Part of her job is to maintain the color quality of new editions of Seuss books. She refers to the early editions often to check the exact shades of their illustrations. “I watched the quality of the color on the reproduction on all his reprints, because he was very particular about that kind of thing,” she said.
On a whim, around 2000, Ms. Goldsmith ran a search for Dr. Seuss items on eBay. Sifting through the results, she found a two-page magazine spread listed as an illustrated Seuss story. “I looked at it and I thought to myself, the drawing is absolutely, categorically Ted’s, and so is the writing,” she recalled. “And then I thought I’m going to try to buy this because maybe Random House doesn’t know about this, maybe there’s a book in here somewhere.”
The magazine spread was listed by Charles D. Cohen, a dentist in South Deerfield, Mass. and an avid collector of all things Seuss. After Ms. Goldsmith purchased a few magazines containing Seuss stories from him, Mr. Cohen contacted her to ask if she was the same Cathy Goldsmith that had worked with Geisel. Ms. Goldsmith later visited his home, where thousands of Seuss items were stacked around the living room. Mr. Cohen collaborated with Random House on several projects. When he proposed a book of the “lost” magazine stories, the publisher contacted Dr. Seuss Enterprises, which owns the rights to the stories, and obtained approval.
“Finally getting some of these stories to the public in book form, which is markedly different than magazine form, feels like getting something done for Ted that he didn’t get around to finishing in his lifetime,” said Mr. Cohen, 53, in an email interview.
Random House and the estate have kept the Seuss machine running through constant promotions and events, particularly with schools, every year. Sales of Dr. Seuss books climbed to 4.8 million units in the U.S. last year from 3.2 million in 2010, according to Nielsen BookScan.
The Dr. Seuss marketing calendar begins March 2 with Geisel’s birthday, according to John Adamo, head of marketing at Random House Children’s Books. The Seuss estate scored a coup in 1997 when the NEA adopted the date as “Read Across America” day, and Random House jumped on board. To promote the date, the publisher offers discounted books through organizations like First Book, a nonprofit that provides new books and other resources to schools serving kids in need. This year, the NEA purchased an estimated 36,000 discounted Seuss books through First Book for events related to the date, up from about 18,000 in 2013. The NEA distributes the books through tours, events at schools and libraries, bookstores, and children’s museums.
Targeted campaigns continue with Earth Day on April 22, which Random House prepares for months in advance by sending out educational kits for “The Lorax’s Earth Day.” Last year, the promotion included classroom recycling and trash signs decorated with a worried-looking Lorax and an image of the book’s cover.
Three of the ‘Horton and the Kwuggerbug’ stories appeared in Redbook in 1950-51. TM & copyright © by Dr. Seuss Enterprises, L.P. 2014
The publisher then promotes “Oh the Places You’ll Go!” in stores and schools for May and June graduations. So far this year alone, the book has sold 600,000 copies which Random House says is up sharply from five years ago. Promotions wind up with “How the Grinch Stole Christmas!” Last year, Random House sent out detailed activity kits to bookstores and other retailers that included Grinch buttons and “ideas for your consumer on how to grow their hearts 3 sizes this holiday season, while growing your sales 3x!”
The publisher keeps finding new ways to tie books to current events and popular culture. It is now planning a promotional campaign with schools to link the elephant Horton (who said “A person’s a person, no matter how small”) to Anti-Bullying Day. “We pick moments, and then we pick more moments,” says Ms. Marcus, the Random House Children’s Books president. “You take any one of these books and you go, what is the opportunity with it all year round?”
Random House runs new promotions, and the text and illustrations of new books past Dr. Seuss Enterprises for final approval. “And if they ask for changes we will make them,” Ms. Goldsmith says.
The estate, whose stated mission is “to nurture and safeguard the relationship consumers have with Dr. Seuss characters,” owns the rights to Geisel’s work and is headed by his widow, Audrey. She and Susan Brandt, president of licensing and marketing, work closely with Random House on publishing decisions. Ms. Geisel notes that “Ted had distinct points of view that he ingeniously embedded in his stories.” The estate strives to let “Ted’s work speak for itself. We never soften the edges,” she said.
As a successful ad man for many years, Geisel knew a thing or two about marketing himself. A few years after graduating Dartmouth College in 1925, he worked on ad campaigns for Standard Oil’s Flit bug spray (catchphrase: “Quick, Henry, the Flit!”), the Narragansett Brewing Company and Hankey Bannister Scotch, among others. At the same time, he was writing parodies and satirical cartoons for publications like Life magazine and Vanity Fair. He began writing political cartoons around the early 1940s, and in 1943 he enlisted. He worked with Frank Capra out of a Hollywood studio making propaganda films and informational cartoons for soldiers.
SEUSSOLOGY | Theodor Seuss Geisel, left, died in 1991. Random House will publish a collection of his ‘lost’ stories, right, on Sept. 9. Associated Press (portrait); Everett Collection (3)
When he returned from war, he focused more seriously on writing children’s books. He had published several, including “And to Think That I Saw it On Mulberry Street” and “Horton Hatches the Egg,” but had yet to make any real money from them. Between 1947 and 1956, he published eight more children’s books. This was also the period he published his illustrated magazine stories: Three of the “Horton and the Kwuggerbug” stories appeared in Redbook in 1950-51, and the fourth arrived in 1955.
“The Cat in the Hat” came about after a kind of bet. William Spaulding, an editor at Houghton Mifflin set a challenge for Geisel: could he write a children’s primer using a limited number of words—a few hundred—from a given list? The words were chosen from a list of those that all young children should know. In 1957, he finished the book and Random House published it to rave reviews. It not only became a best seller, it lifted the sales of many of his previous books.
“After that book, Dr. Seuss was known as the children’s book writer not only in the United States, but across the world,” says Donald E. Pease, an English professor at Dartmouth and the author of the 2010 biography “Theodor Seuss Geisel.” “He’s the figure who very early on was responsible for teaching children how to love to read.” The publication of “How the Grinch Stole Christmas!” later that year solidified Dr. Seuss’s reputation.
In her office, among stacked Seuss books and plush toys, Ms. Goldsmith pulled out an early edition of “How the Grinch Stole Christmas!” and opened it to its inside cover. “I love this one here,” she said, “I love the flap on this.” It was a humorous question-and-answer segment about the Grinch from the time when Geisel used to include silly flap copy on his books. “What is a Grinch? A Grinch is SO bad that one of them stole Christmas!” it reads, and later, “Hold on a minute! Who are the Whos?”
“There was a looseness then about it,” said Ms. Goldsmith, looking at the book. “Today we’re more buttoned up. It’s more of a business in the sense that there are things that you do and things that you don’t do anymore. But he was busy breaking rules all the time.”