I interviewed a few people from Macmillan last week for a piece I’m writing on crowdsourcing. One of those people was Jean Feiwel, who lists on her bio that working with Ann M. Martin years ago while she was at Scholastic to create The Baby-sitters Club was “one of my proudest accomplishments.”
Since we were talking about whether publishers know what readers want, I had to ask her about this. The Baby-sitters Club was one of the hottest series of all time. I’m guessing many blog readers here can recite the names of the girls in the club (Kristy! Mary Anne! Claudia! etc.) and their attributes, like Mallory having 7 siblings, Stacey having diabetes, and so forth. Millions of girls (myself included) spent babysitting money on these books. Did they know that those would sell when the series started? How did that happen?
Feiwel reminded me that Scholastic has always put out their catalog and distributed it to children. You’ve probably gotten these fliers with kids’ books home from school. Anyway, for a while, they were selling a book called something like “Jenny’s Babysitting Job.” Feiwel told me it wasn’t prominently featured, and it was a very small little square in the catalog. And it has a forgettable title. But “every time the editor put it on the list it was one of the highest selling books.” Looking at that, Feiwel wondered if maybe there wasn’t a sizable audience of girls interested in this way they were making money.
So she worked with Ann M. Martin, a writer who had a reputation for “a great sense of character,” to hash out the start of a series. It would be about a club of sitters. Scholastic commissioned 4 books. The concept took a little time to catch on — remember, this is pre-social media — but by book 3 or so, the slim little volumes of babysitting adventures were flying off shelves. The whole series and its spin-offs sold about 176 million copies. I well remember staying up late when I spent the night at the house of a friend who owned about 88 million of these books, reading through them.
As I wrote in the Wall Street Journal a few years ago, I think that Kristy’s Great Idea was one of the best business concepts of the 1980s. Though, alas, teenage babysitting has declined for reasons that I well understand. Since I’m often hiring sitters because I need to do something and my husband is out of town, I need ones who can drive. I’m not going to wake up all 3 kids to drive her home.
But anyway, I thought this was an interesting insight into how people used feedback from customers before it was instantly available. It reminds me of some of the direct-mail fundraising innovations in the 1970s or so, when political candidates learned to test different messages and see which inspired the most donations.
Did you read The Baby-sitter’s Club books? Who was your favorite character?