Publishers Weekly titled its recent story about Little Pickle Press “Big Ideas for Young Readers,” and it could as easily have said, “Big Ideas for New Millennium Publishers.” Founder Rana DiOrio is full of ideas about children’s media, and those ideas spill out like water overflowing a fountain. Whether or not you publish children’s books, there’s lots to learn from the attorney and investment banker who now calls herself Chief Executive Pickle. Established in 2009, the Belvedere, CA–based Little Pickle Press expects to have a dozen books in print by June. It started with picture books and now is introducing chapter books, all with eye-catching illustrations and themes that include imagination, homesickness, the environment, health, citizenship, and physical, emotional, social, and cyber safety. Most are described as a means of sparking meaningful conversations between kids and adults. The press also offers an almost dizzying collection of complementary media for each title: digital versions, apps, teacher guides, posters, and even original music. “Digital has been part of the equation since the beginning,” the publisher explains. Until this year, DiOrio financed all the growth herself, but now she’s bringing investors in from outside publishing. All of them so far are entrepreneurs, and all but one “came out of my Rolodex,” DiOrio says, chuckling. Her scores of contacts in high technology and finance link back to her 15 years of helping software startups get funded, go public, and get acquired. A second infusion of capital is coming this spring from institutional investors. The publisher has targeted three categories: impact (or “social capital”) investors (that is, DiOrio explains, “investors who care as much about the positive impact a company has on the world as about the positive return on their investment”); investors who back women entrepreneurs; and investors committed to children’s media and education.
Despite the focus on new media, books are the foundation of Little Pickle Press, in part because books are what DiOrio herself wants when she cuddles up with her three young children to read bedtime stories. And, she points out, publishing in print has given Little Pickle Press more credibility. “I was very careful to establish a company that would be respected,” she says. And respected her company is. “Hitting a ball out of the park with our first title helped us tremendously,” DiOrio reports, citing the industry awards each of the initial titles won. “And that feature in Publishers Weekly was really important—having the mainstream industry press acknowledge us helped in raising capital.” It has also helped Little Pickle Press attract big-name talent. The company’s freelancers include people with decades of experience at major New York publishers, and DiOrio has been able to sign authors such as Coleen Paratore, who has a two-book contract with Little Pickle Press after being published by Scholastic, Simon & Schuster, FreeSpirit, and Charlesbridge. Paratore told Publishers Weekly that she plans to continue publishing with publishers such as Scholastic, but that she also likes Little Pickle’s mission and message for small children. DiOrio is publishing the kind of books she would have gobbled up for her own boys when they were younger, she said. Perhaps even more important, she’s delighted by the way Little Pickle Press does business. As she told me, “The manuscript for big, my latest picture book, seemed perfect for the type of inspiring, socially conscious and fun books Little Pickle is quickly becoming known for, and so my agent sent it to Rana. The contract and advance arrived pronto, and after that the publication process moved at what, with my experience in the publishing industry, can only be described as lightning-strike speed.” “I was involved in the process at every step along the way,” Paratore adds, “and we had finished books within the year.” Authors including Paratore and JoAnne Deak, a psychologist known for her books Girls Will Be Girls and How Girls Thrive, have been offered their choice of traditional royalty or joint venture arrangements. Although Deak chose a royalty when Little Pickle published her Your Fantastic Elastic Brain in 2010, Shawn Achor, formerly a Harvard instructor, is among those who like the joint venture option. The “positive psychology” author of The Happiness Advantage (Crown), Achor replied to DiOrio’s “cold call” email in six hours, and that led to Ripple’s Effect, created by Achor and his sister Amy Blankson. PW described the joint venture as providing an unusual financial incentive for the authors. Instead of the typical royalty deal, Little Pickle offered Achor and Blankson a 60-40 publisher/author split of sales revenue net of cost of goods sold (which includes all editing, illustrations, and production costs). The company is testing this as a publishing model, and the ratio of each publisher-author split may differ, DiOrio explains, based on what the author brings to the project. “Thanks to my years in investment banking, I know how to do a deal,” she points out, “and with such positive feedback from people like Achor, I feel as if I can approach anyone.”
About the Basics
Despite this confidence in herself and her business model, “Chief Executive Pickle” admits she knew nothing about publishing when she wrote two children’s books while pregnant with her third child. As soon as she decided to publish books herself, DiOrio notes, she joined IBPA. “I immersed myself in what it offers, and I went to every publishing workshop and conference I could afford, and I listened.” Having read how-to books written by IBPA veterans, she’s now delighted to serve on the IBPA board with some of them. It was through an IBPA program that Little Pickle Press arranged for wholesale distribution by Baker & Taylor. Because of an early emphasis on sales to schools and libraries, the company also contracted right away with Follett, Star Education, and Macklin. Today it also has four sales rep groups that call on some 700 independent booksellers, and two in-house salespeople who work with schools and with specialty accounts that include museums. Schools are such an important focus for DiOrio that she has a strong preference for authors who speak in schools, although she appreciates authors who do bookstore appearances. When authors keep the Little Pickle Press staff advised of their school schedules, the staff does as much local publicity as possible and tries to work through parent groups for book sales. And when schools provide contact information for parents, the press donates 25 percent of the resulting book sales revenue to the school. Using social media is also important. “We like authors who are proficient with Facebook and Twitter,” says DiOrio. “That’s where they can engage with their readers.” And DiOrio has made a huge commitment to “green” business practices. Little Pickle books are manufactured in Wisconsin with soy inks and recycled paper. They’re packed in cartons made with recycled cardboard, and when gift wrap is requested, the press uses paper ribbon with recycled content, printed with soy ink. Early on Little Pickle pursued certification as a B Corporation, and it has just been recertified. (For more information on certifier B Lab, which describes B Corp certification for sustainable business as what Fair Trade certification is to coffee or USDA Organic certification is to milk, see https://www.bcorporation.net).
Eyes on Today and Tomorrow
When the publisher refers to Little Pickle Press as a 21st-century company, she means far more than that it uses social media and makes environmentally responsible choices about ink, paper, and gift wrap. She’s eschewed a fancy office—in fact, any office—and a big staff. Today, Little Pickle has five people on its payroll, including the publisher, and all of them work from home. In addition, the press uses about 40 freelancers, including editors, as projects require. “It’s a really effective way to work and gives people tons of discretion in how they do their jobs,” DiOrio explains. “And this is not a short-term plan. It’s our strategy to stay virtual, to put money into content instead of infrastructure.” The virtual office does have some challenges, she admits, especially given that staff members, authors, and contributors are spread across the United States and even outside its borders. “It can be tough to establish a corporate culture, and while some people excel in this environment, others do not,” DiOrio observes. Little Pickle Press does have a work schedule for its far-flung staff. On Tuesdays, they gather in person and via conference call at DiOrio’s home. There’s an “all hands” meeting for a couple of hours, and then people break into groups for on-the-spot or virtual committee meetings. This isn’t the only way Little Pickle Press differs from other publishers of children’s books. “I don’t see the Big Six as my competitors,” DiOrio says, referring to Hachette, Macmillan, Penguin Group, HarperCollins, Random House, and Simon & Schuster. “It’s the boutique publishers, the ones with extraordinarily well-curated collections of content, that I want to compete with.” Chief Executive Pickle believes her crew is “more fluid” with digital than some other respected publishers of children’s books, and she is more likely to select titles with many media applications rather than sideline options. “I won’t do a stuffie to go with my titles to save my life,” she exclaims. DiOrio is particularly proud that her app, Being Global, developed in partnership with KiteReaders and based on her What Does It Mean to Be Global? beat out the much-praised Disney app, It’s a Small World, in the “multicultural media” category of last year’s Appy Awards. “To me, this demonstrates that the playing field is leveled. Small publishers and content creators can compete effectively against the titans of the industry. It’s the quality of the content that matters.” As her children and her books’ fans grow, DiOrio is letting the reading levels of the books grow with them. “We acquired our first readers when they were prereaders and grew with them as they learned to read, and I want to continue to provide for them as they enter middle and high school,” she says. “My intention is to create engaging and meaningful content for children ages 4 to 17, and we will be doing just that by the end of 2014.” Given DiOrio’s background in helping companies get started and then sold, I couldn’t resist asking if that’s what she has in mind for Little Pickle Press. “We have already demonstrated a competency with content—and content is king,” she replied. “I expect that we will be acquired someday. We would welcome the opportunity to partner with a larger publisher or media company that has resources that would allow us to achieve our objectives more effectively.”