Mary and Domenica asked me, the cofounder of Millbrook Press—of which Twenty-First Century Books (TFCB) became an imprint—to pass along what I know about the history of the imprint, now under the Lerner umbrella.
If a new imprint calling itself Twenty-Second Century Books were to be launched today, we would no doubt expect something over-the-top high-tech. Most of us aren’t quite sure of what a “book” will be in the twenty-second century. The phrase itself even has an awkward sound to it—obviously something that hasn’t cropped up yet in our everyday thinking. Yet, just about eighty years ago ago, when the twentieth century was still fairly young, a new company had the audacity to name itself Twenty-First Century Books.
What was so forward thinking about this company that its founders felt it appropriate to propel themselves so many years into the future? It’s hard to know what they were thinking, but from what I can glean from their early publishing program, it seems that their mind-blowing, futuristic concept was series nonfiction. And to chart even farther into unknown territory, this series nonfiction was going to be aimed at young people—actually old young people, probably called teenagers. (The cleverly euphemistic phrase “young adult” had not yet been coined. But the word teen-age had just come into use.)
Early records don’t exist, but the market must have been solely school and public libraries. Building-level libraries existed in secondary schools—which were part of the wave called the high school movement that started around 1910. So the new company had an easily accessible list of potential customers across the country. There was no such thing as a freelance library sales force in those days, nor were there specific publications aimed at school libraries in which to advertise. Sales were no doubt done by direct mail and visits to large systems, apparently with great success.
The company grew and thrived. The original founders sold the company to Henry Holt in the late 1980s. This was at the time when young adult was coming into its own as a genre, and nonfiction coming from the trade side of publishing was gaining importance as supplemental material to classroom texts. By 1992, TFCB had been assigned to children’s book editor Jeanne Vestal at Holt. She was an experienced editor having been at Lippincott for a number of years and having succeeded me as the editorial director of Franklin Watts, a solid nonfiction imprint. Jeanne expanded the line, upgrading the graphics and venturing beyond the series format with an occasional distinguished single title (such as Threads of Evidence, at right), all the while garnering great reviews and enhancing the imprint’s reputation.
[Stay tuned. Part II of Jean’s blog about TFCB will appear next week!]