Saturday, March 21, 2009

The very lucrative caterpillar

Eric Carle's The Very Hungry Caterpillar is 40 years old. It is special for me as it was a book I remember loving when I was very young and was a rare occasion when I finally picked it up for my daughter she loved it as well. I guess it was the almost unique combination of eating and mathematics that really worked for her. And let's not forget the whole non-standard page and hole form that almost scuttled it from ever being published.

What travels less through time is the whole notion that the caterpillar being a caterpillar was somewhat less 'good' than the butterfly it became. And if you think that I am stretching this interpretation too far, consider what the author himself says:
"My friends, my family, my editors, my publisher, we all wondered why it's been so successful," Carle says. "It is a book about hope. If you're an insignificant caterpillar, you can grow up to be a big butterfly in the world."
Let's face it the whole Ugly Duckling resolution just doesn't stack up these days with our general attempts to have children by happy with what they are. Then again, the caterpillar transformation is more natural and less societal, and gives us days of the week to boot.

Al Roth notes just how lucrative the whole inter-generational children's book industry is.
Bestsellers in any category are what make publishing profitable. But childrens' books must be very special, because a bestseller can have high sales for a long time, as new generations of the target audience are born. I've always thought that this must be especially true for those books made of thick cardboard, suitable for chewing on as well as reading, since each new reader needs a new copy (chewing cuts down on the used book/hand me down market). But I hadn't guessed just how big the revenue stream is.
And that revenue stream is $50 million annually. A quick walk around my house and I can see why. We have the original paperback I bought my daughter, and then the board book I bought because I wanted the paperback to survive until the next child. But we also have a nice hardcover version that we never let out (maybe that is for future grandkids) and also a mini pocket version that I think came with a plush of the very hungry caterpillar itself. Finally, there is a jigsaw puzzle. That's alot of merchandise for a single book and a quick look at Amazon suggests that we didn't even touch the surface there. Take it from me: one book is enough.