Tag Archive for Scholastic Book Clubs

Fan Mail Wednesday #130: My First Book

Here’s one I loved . . .


My mom dug out some of my old books from when I was a kid, and I got my old copy of Maxx Trax: Avalanche Rescue back.  I remember loving this book when I was a kid, I was really into the artwork.  I remember seeing another book in the Maxx Trax series at some point, but can’t remember what it was called.  How many books were in this series?  The art is really great, very eighties in its sensibility.  I was reading through the book and got the impression that the trucks were left behind after an armageddon, since there were no humans, and the trucks had to cross over a pile of abandoned cars, and the snow seemed to indicate a nuclear winter.  I was just curious about your take and inspirations for these books, I am an artist myself now, and appreciate the vehicle designs, and interested in the origins of one of my favorite books when I was a kid.


I replied:
Eli! Thanks so much for that letter. Maxx Trax: Avalanche Rescue was my first published book, back in 1986 when I was a mere pup, 25 years old — and that was the little book that launched this Incredible (Unstoppable! Unflappable!) Publishing Empire.
Thank you, thank you very much (in Elvis voice).
Actually, I have great fondness for that book. It’s been out-of-print for nearly two decades, but when it was first offered on Scholastic Book Clubs, they put it on the front cover of SeeSaw Book Club and it sold through the roof, eventually moving more than 1,000,000 copies. Crazy, I know. But because it was my first book, and worked in-house as a junior copywriter, I was paid a flat fee, no royalties, so I earned $2,500 on the deal. But I’m not bitter!
The book began with a Star Wars-inspired introduction, epic and overblown.
It’s a little embarrassing, but also, I think, the tone we were going for.
Even worse, when it came time for the sequel, Scholastic inexplicably fired the original illustrator, Joe Lapinski, who did such a pitch-perfect job on the original. He nailed it. But I suspect that Joe wanted more money for the next book, and corporate had other ideas.
The illustrations for the follow-up book, Maxx Trax: Monster Truck Adventure, featured a new, experimental technique: computer graphics, and it did not turn out very well. I remember when my editor told me about it. I was like, “Why didn’t you just rehire Lapinski? He was great.” Oh well. The technology was too new, too primitive. Think early Pac Man but in picture book form. I looked at that second book and my heart sank. I knew that no kid would go for it. And that was the end of the series. (Buy, hey, on the bright side: corporate saved money on the illustrator!)
Yeah, sure, a nuclear winter makes sense to me. I’m not sure if I understood the backstory in those words, exactly. Perhaps I didn’t even think about it that deeply. I just kind of accepted the circumstances as fact and told the story from there — a world seemingly without people, with trucks that communicate and perform . . . all sorts of . . . amazing . . . truck-ish type feats. With lasers!
Here’s the killer. When I visit schools, which I do fairly often, I’ll sometimes pull that book out. Students always ask about my first book. And every time, the boys see it and freak out. They want to buy it right there, right now. And I have to say, “Sorry, I’ve got two copies to my name, that’s it. The book is out of print. You can’t buy it anymore.” If I’ve learned anything about the children’s book business in the past 25 years, it’s that I know Maxx Trax would sell today. It’s so cool, so much fun, so right for boy readers. Trucks and adventure.
Quick, get Lapinski on the phone! Come on, Scholastic. Wake up, already. I’ve already got the title of the next — Maxx Trax: Tsunami Rescue!
The Dawn of Maxx Trax must rise again . . .
Seriously, Eli, thanks for writing. In every author’s heart there’s a special place for his first book. It was awfully kind of you to take the time to write to me. You’re a good soul. Good luck with your own artistic efforts — keep on believing in yourself, keep on feeding that brain of yours, and work hard. Send me a JPEG or something. I’d love to see what you’re up to.
My best,

Scholastic Book Clubs Criticized in The New York Times

The New York Times today, in an article by Motoko Rich, reports some criticism of Scholastic Book Clubs. Here’s the lead:

Scholastic Inc., the children’s publisher of favorites like the Harry Potter, Goosebumps and Clifford series, may be best known for its books, but a consumer watchdog group accuses the company of using its classroom book clubs to push video games, jewelry kits and toy cars.

The Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood, an advocacy group based in Boston, said that it had reviewed monthly fliers distributed by Scholastic last year and found that one-third of the items sold in these brochures were either not books or books packaged with other items.

I worked on the book clubs from 1985-90, and this kind of thing has always been an issue. Back then, it was more centered on the types of books offered — media tie-ins (Voltron, Transformers, Care Bears) vs. “real” books. Poster sales have always been an issue.

A page from Lucky Book Club.

Of course, there are profits in the non-book items. But the company always has to be careful in striking a balance, because teachers are the gate-keepers: They either hand out the book clubs, or throw them in the trash. I think this kind of watchdog group plays a vital role, and I’m glad to see it. Moreover, many teachers don’t realize the kind of power they wield. Believe me, complaints and comments are taken very seriously. Teachers function as sales representatives for Scholastic; and if they — or you — are not happy with the product, they — or you — have the ability to effect positive change.

What do you think? Is this a tempest in a teapot, or a real issue?

For me, it’s an issue that touches home.  “Book-and-thing” publishing — most effectively pioneered, I believe, by Workman Press, has become a staple for Scholastic. Sometimes it’s value added, sometimes it’s simply a way to raise revenue (witness the 39 Clues marketing machine at work). New Jigsaw Jones titles are no longer sold in trade. I get the opportunity to write one when the clubs make that call — and they will sell it the best way they can. My latest title, which I’ve documented here, will be packaged with a “Spy Ear.” It’s a cool item, I think, and I weaved it directly into the story (at Scholastic’s request, and with my complete agreement). I’m excited about it, the creative process was fun, and I think everybody involved is trying to make a quality product that kids will read and enjoy. The book is very good, in my biased opinion, and could certainly stand alone; my only regret is that it will be available exclusively through the clubs, nowhere else. But on the other hand, I see how my series, something I’m very proud of, is in a way being turned into merchandise. But if not, does it go away completely? Is it “book and more” or “book as Other?” Where is the line?

At the same time, we live in the real world. Books are products, and they need to sell. The only difference here is the role of the teachers as gatekeepers, and Scholastic’s unique position in schools. It is the checks and balances of capitalism. Scholastic will only go as far as teachers, and parents, allow them to go.