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Worried books may be dying out? Sourcebooks in Naperville has some good news

Dominique Raccah (far right), publisher and CEO of Naperville-based Sourcebooks, ponders imprint logos with her staff (from left to right):
Kelly Barrales-Saylor, Todd Stocke, Nicky Benson, Heather Moore, Jenna Quatraro, Barb Briel and Chris Bauerle. | Neil Steinberg/Sun-Times

Nine sheets of paper. Each bearing five logos, differing in color and font, arranged on the sand-colored carpet last Tuesday in the CEO’s office in one the largest commercial book publishers in the United States, located not in New York, where the book trade traditionally congregates. But in Naperville.

“Nikki, how do you feel about the light orange?” asks Dominique Raccah, publisher, CEO and founder of Sourcebooks, huddling in her office with seven top staffers, all gazing at the logos. “Because I’m not feeling it. I can be either the dark orange or the pink for Wonderland. But the light orange does not feel robust enough to me.”

“I definitely like the orange better than the pink at this point,” says Nicky Benson, publishing manager, who will jointly run the new Wonderland imprint. “But I can see how you would think the light orange is harder to see.”

“I think it’s too similar to our logo orange,” says Kelly Barrales-Saylor, editorial director, of kid’s nonfiction.

“It is our logo orange,” says Chris Bauerle, director of sales and marketing.

OPINION

The logos they’re pondering didn’t exist a few days ago, and in a few hours a few will be shared with the world and featured in a Publishers Weekly article on Sourcebooks’ success — selling so many children’s book, it is dividing the business into four imprints.

If anyone is feeling pressure, it doesn’t show: there is laughter and back-and-forth critique for 15 minutes.

“What’s really different about Sourcebooks is we’re entrepreneurial and agile,” Raccah explains.

Raccah was a former Leo Burnett researcher who, in 1987, struck out on her own as a publisher of financial sourcebooks — hence the company name. By being nimble and collaborative — and at one low point taking a mortgage on Raccah’s home — the company has managed to thrive during changing times.

For the first two years, Raccah was Sourcebooks’ only employee. Now the company employs 139 staffers — 3/4 of them women — and parking at their headquarters can be tight. They’ve had yearly double-digit growth for a decade, thanks in part, to a course change a dozen years ago, when Sourcebooks published its first children’s book.

“Our children’s business is now 53 percent of our business, our children’s list was up 28 percent last year,” Raccah says. “We are the 12th largest children’s publisher in the country.”

Why kids books? Despite the impression that young people fixate on screens, and the narrowing of childhood that has been so devastating for toys companies, books are different.

“It’s hard to replace the physical book experience with a digital ebook product, and trust me, we’ve tried,” says editorial director Todd Stocke. “I’ve made ebooks for kids, picture books that danced and had audio embedded in them. It doesn’t replace the bedtime experience.”

What Sourcebooks has done is created a shelf of offbeat children’s books that catch the attention of busy, highly-educated parents, like Chris Ferrie’s high-tech board books with titles like “ABCs of Engineering,” “Rocket Science for Babies” oand “P is for Pterodactyl,” where each entry word sounds different than its starting letter. Books in general are increasingly quirky and reflecting a greater variety of voices and experiences.

“I think it’s going to be a much bigger world for our children and grandchildren, and I’m excited about that,” Raccah says.

When those kids get older, they need something to tuck under their arm in the halls of middle school. Teenagers buy young adult novels for the same reason investment advisers buy expensive wrist watches.

“For teens, everything is social, so when I read an ebook you can’t tell what I’m reading,” Raccah says. “When I carrying Marieke Nijkamp’s ‘This Is How It Ends,’ you know I care about violence in schools. It’s a social statement. That’s the experience we’re having as an industry.”

About 25 percent of all books sold are given as gifts; for children’s books, that’s 43 percent.

Not that children’s books are all Sourcebooks does.

“We’re an odd duck,” Stocke says. “We do adult fiction. We do adult nonfiction. We have a romance line. Yesterday, we did a launch to a mystery press we just purchased.”

Just that morning, The New York Times called to set up an interview with Marie Benedict: her “The Only Woman in the Room” made their best-seller list.

The doesn’t happen by itself. The marketing department tries to catch attention in our current 24/7 multi-platform howl of communication by, in essence, being open to anything.

“It’s everything all together,” says Valerie Pierce, director of marketing and retail creative services. “A year ago we combined our marketing and publicity departments, because you could see that the landscape was changing.”

A lot of effort goes to prompting influential social media gatekeepers, like Malcom Gladwell, to tweet about a new book.

“Every single thing you do could get you that tweet,” Pierce says. “You do everything to get the notice of those people. The future of marketing is doing the things you know are working and letting go of things you may be attached to but know don’t work.”

Back in Raccah’s office, the logos are narrowed down to the final two candidates, now being measured in terms of playfulness, pop, bounciness and boldness.

“Is everybody pink versus deep orange?” Raccah asks. “So pink is going away, too?”

They pick a set of logos, which are rushed to meet the spinning world. The office empties, a little. Raccah looks back at the selection process that has just transpired and says something also true for her company in general, creating best-sellers in Naperville.

“I think it’s extraordinary that we’ve gotten here.”