Interview: Pelican Publishing Company


Nina Kooij had edited at Pelican Publishing Company since 1987.

Assistant to Publisher

Kathleen C. Nettleton has worked in all facets of the publishing industry during her career with Pelican.

She has been responsible for reinvigorating the convention and promotion initiatives, and strengthening the company’s national profile.

In her current role as assistant to the publisher, she manages the day-to-day operations of this mid-size independent publishing house, encouraging growth and development in many areas including the company’s online presence.

Nettleton attended Louisiana State University, receiving a degree in marketing, and has held an active role in industry organizations including Publishers Association of the South and the Small Press Steering Committee of the Association of American Publishers.

School Sales Manager

Caitlin Smith (pictured) has worked at Pelican as school sales manager since August 2005. It was her first job after graduating from Spring Hill College, where she studied business and English.

She started at Pelican two weeks before Hurricane Katrina struck New Orleans and returned to work after several weeks of evacuation from the city.

At that time, every single Pelican employee who had returned after the storm—including the publisher, Dr. Milburn Calhoun— worked together in the warehouse to ship out the backlog of orders from the company was shut down. “It was an interesting beginning,” Caitlin says, “and things have only gotten more interesting (though, thankfully, in different ways) since then.”

What inspired you to focus your career on books, especially those for young readers?

Nina/editorial: My mother is an editor in the education field, and books were always a part of my family’s life. I excelled in English classes and went on to major in the subject and get a master’s in it. In high school, I edited the literary magazine, and in college. I was the fiction editor of the literary review. I interned at a small press and then was accepted at a summer publishing institute, where I met Pelican’s vice president. Pelican has a strong children’s list, and so I have had the pleasure of editing for young readers for many years.

Kathleen/publisher’s assist: Books have been a part of my world my entire life. My dad was a book scout and then book dealer before purchasing Pelican in 1970. I frequently went with him to second-hand bookstores and thrift shops. When we bought Pelican in 1970, I worked on various projects throughout junior and senior high school. I never thought of any other career.

Caitlin/marketing: I have always had a voracious love for books, instilled by my mother. She was fortunate enough to be a student in Coleen Salley’s class when she attended The University of New Orleans, and Coleen’s insistence on the importance of reading to and with children really stuck with her, and consequently, with me.

I was fortunate enough to work with Coleen, since she was one of Pelican’s authors, and I think anyone who met her would tell you that Coleen was impossible to forget and if she told you something, you had better listen!

I have always believed that books are very powerful things, and the books that you read as a child can have a particular impact on the person you become. I’m also still a bit of a kid at heart. I believe you’re never too old for a good picture book, and YA novels are still among some of my favorite things to read.

Could you tell us about Pelican?

Kathleen/publisher’s assist: Pelican is a medium publisher with 90 to 100 books released each year. Since we are run by an entrepreneur, many of titles reflect his varied interests. We are particularly interested in history–Civil War and World War II, architecture, cookbooks and children. New Orleans and Louisiana books in all categories appear on our list as well.

Caitlin/marketing: Pelican is an independent publisher that has been based in the New Orleans area for over 80 years. We usually publish 40-50 books a season. Those include picture books, middle grade novels, YA, and adult titles.

We’re a smaller company, so all of the employees know each other well, and the different departments are very collaborative. It’s a great place to start a career in publishing because you really get to see how the whole publishing process works, from manuscript evaluation and production to sales and promotion (and even shipping and receiving, after the hurricane!).

Because we are a smaller publisher, we have close relationships with our authors. I am fortunate to work with all of our children’s authors and illustrators (and some of our adult authors as well), and I am in contact with all of them at least once a month through a newsletter I send out and in contact with many of them more frequently than that.

They know they can send me an email or call me directly, and I will answer their questions (or find someone who can). I know who they are. I know what their books are. With many of them, I know about their families. I think that kind of a close relationship is more difficult with a larger publisher.

We’re also committed to keeping books in print for a long time. With some of the major publishers, your book can come out, and if it doesn’t sell like gangbusters right away, it can be remaindered and put out of print in what seems like the blink of an eye. Our authors know their books are going to be available for years to come, and I know they appreciate that.

It’s a family-owned publisher, yes?

Kathleen/publisher’s assist: Yes, Pelican is owned by Milburn and Nancy Calhoun and Jim Calhoun (Milburn’s brother). Jim Calhoun now handles a few projects a year. Milburn is still actively running the company. My mom, Nancy, was the first salesman for Pelican and did conventions for years. She has since retired.

As mentioned above, I have worked in some capacity in the company since we purchased. I have been full-time in the office since my graduation from college.

My brother, David worked as an editor during college and prior to attending graduate school. He is now a college professor and no longer works at the company. This summer his two oldest children – Susan and Leslie Calhoun -will be interning at Pelican.

Caitlin/marketing: That’s right. Pelican has been owned by the Calhoun family for over 40 years. Dr. Milburn Calhoun is our president and publisher; his wife, Nancy Calhoun, is Vice President; their daughter, Kathleen Calhoun Nettleton, is assistant to the publisher; and James Calhoun, Dr. Calhoun’s brother, is our special projects editor.

When they bought the company, Kathleen was just a child, and Dr. Calhoun was still working as a physician as well as publisher at Pelican, but he has since retired from medicine.

Could you share with us some of the history of the company?

Kathleen/publisher’s assist: Pelican started in 1926 and has had several owners. The current owner/publisher is Milburn Calhoun. He purchased the company in 1970, and for many years ran it on the side of his main job. His “main” job was a family doctor.

This means that we had to set up a communication system. This was particularly important in the days before answer phones and email! He set up a system where each employee sends items home in a folder each day. He looks at this and responds. This system continues to this day and is known as “the box.”

Prior to retiring, he would call every day at lunch to talk to any staffers that had immediate questions. He retired from the medical practice in 1997 and expanded his time with Pelican.

We have had some challenges– in December 1997, we had a fire that totally destroyed the building along with about 60% of our stock. There are many challenges after this type of disaster, from finding a location to replacing lost stock. We had been looking for a building to expand but had not purchased anything at that point. We ended up in a temporary location for almost three years with the warehouse being in another location. Since we have always been in the same building, this did require an adjustment.

Another next big challenge was Katrina (August 29, 2005). There was significant damage to the building and stock. One of our dock doors was torn off of the hinges, which meant the building was open.

The publisher returned one week later to access the damage and then had to leave. He returned with one employee at two weeks. Other Pelican employees started returning as they were able throughout September.

All staff were doing things that were not exactly in their job description, but it enabled us to get back up and running faster. Twenty percent of our employees decided not to return to New Orleans, so the company had to recover from that. We have had another challenge with the BP oil spill in April 2010. This affected our customers, which in turn affected Pelican.

Caitlin/marketing: In 1970, the Calhouns acquired Pelican Publishing House from Betty and Hodding Carter and restored its name to Pelican Publishing Company. Its history embraces such names as William Faulkner, whose first trade publication was published by Pelican, Stuart O. Landry, whose vision kept the company alive from 1926 to 1966, and the Calhoun family, who expanded a small, ailing regional publishing house into an internationally successful company.

The company has survived several disasters, including a fire that totally destroyed the building that housed Pelican’s offices and approximately half of its stock of books in 1997 and then the damage caused by Hurricane Katrina in 2005. Many of our children’s books feature illustrated gators, but the Pelican warehouse was visited by a real, live alligator at one point, which animal control had to remove.

How about the history specifically with regard to children’s book publishing?

Kathleen/publisher’s assist: One of our first early successes was a children’s book. The publisher heard an ad for Bergeron Plymouth, which included a “Night Before Christmas” poem with a Cajun slant. Milburn Calhoun knew immediately that it would be a great children’s book, but it would need an illustrator–who could draw alligators.

Within the next few weeks, James Rice drove up on his motorcycle with a sketchbook showing his first book.

Milburn Calhoun asked him if he could draw alligators.

Jim’s response was: “Give me a few weeks, and I will be back.”

Cajun Night Before Christmas was the beginning of a beautiful partnership between James Rice and Pelican until his death in June 2004. James Rice had always wanted to be a book illustrator. He traveled year around promoting books in schools and bookstores.

Of course, the fall was a particularly busy time promoting the various versions of Night Before Christmas that he had illustrated. James and I did many conventions together, and I do miss him. The book that James Rice brought to Pelican that first day was actually his second book published – Lyn and the Fuzzy. It is still in print today. Cajun Night Before Christmas started two series- Night Before Christmas series and Gaston the Green-Nosed Alligator series.

The Night Before Christmas series includes many views of the classic poem from Texas and Hillbilly to Teachers, Principals and Librarians.

Another long series is Mary Alice Fontenot’s Clovis Crawfish series. She created the character to teach children about swamp characters.

Caitlin/marketing: We eventually branched out into children’s biographies (in picture book and middle reader formats), alphabet books, fairy tales and folklore with a twist, YA, and more.

Pelican is based in Gretna, Louisiana. Does that offer you a different point of view than, say, a NYC-based house? If so, how?

Nina/editorial: I think our size as well as our location helps us provide a more personal touch for authors outside of the major publishing centers. All of us are accessible by phone. We also are open to topics outside the mainstream and authors who are at an early point in their career.

Kathleen/publisher’s assist: I think that most publishers from outside of New York have a different viewpoint that reflects why they are in publishing. Pelican wants to promote New Orleans and the rest of the South through children’s books (as well as adult books). Many of the projects we receive are New Orleans/Louisiana related, but we are also interested in other areas as well.

Caitlin/marketing: I think so. For one, we’re in the New Orleans area, and New Orleanians love the culture and history of our city. We really appreciate our region, which I think also helps us appreciate the special things about other regions in the country; hence, we publish a lot of regional titles. We also publish a lot of titles of Southern interest.

We have a lot of respect for different areas of the country and things that smaller cities and towns have to offer. The city where we’re based is also not as frantic as New York can be, and I think that more relaxed, laid-back atmosphere comes through at Pelican to a certain extent.

By no means does that translate to laziness or lack of care about our work! If anything, we feel we have to work harder because our address is not in New York. It can be harder to earn respect just because we are outside of the Big Apple bubble.

Besides books for young readers, what other types do you publish?

Caitlin/marketing: We publish a very wide variety of titles!

Besides our board books, picture books, chapter books, and YA, we publish history books, art, architecture, political science, coffee table books, cookbooks (which are some of my favorites), memoir, biographies, travel, audio books, and even a small amount of poetry and fiction.

How has the list changed over the years?

Kathleen/publisher’s assist: Children’s books have become a bigger part of the company than I thought it would. Mainly because we are getting more good children’s manuscripts in.

Caitlin/marketing: It has definitely expanded over the years! We publish many more titles per year than we used to, and children’s books are a much larger part of our list than they once were. Our focus has evolved over the years as well. For example, though we still publish travel, we don’t publish as much of it as we once did, and we have a greater focus on lushly illustrated cookbooks, like those in our Classic Recipes Series.

How would you describe the list now?

Kathleen/publisher’s assist: Children’s books continue to be a significant part of the list. We are looking for more nonfiction children’s books to share historical figures. We are looking at more middle readers but being very selective.

Caitlin/marketing: The list is definitely diverse–I sometimes have trouble explaining to people everything that we publish since we cover such a wide array of genres!

I think our children’s list is getting stronger all the time; I am really excited about the new authors and illustrators we’ve been working with over the past few years as well as our strong backlist authors we’ve been working with for years.

We’ve gone from publishing the occasional picture book to having new picture books, chapter books, YA, and/or children’s audio books on our list every season. To give you an idea of how the list has expanded, in our 2011 Fall catalog, there are 49 books included, and 21 of those are children’s books—they’re a very significant part of our list.

Are there any particular books for young readers that you’d like to highlight?

Nina/editorial: We are very excited about our picture-book biographies, such as Eliza’s Cherry Trees, about the woman who brought the famous trees to Washington, D.C.

Kathleen/publisher’s assist: I am very excited about a new book for fall–Annie Jump Cannon, Astronomer. It is a children’s picture book based on her life. She is the one that set up the system for classification of stars. She was fascinated by the stars from a very early age. I think that it shows you can follow your dreams.

I am looking forward to The Cajun Nutcracker by Chara Dillon Mock, which is an adaptation of a class Christmas story with the added Cajun twist. This continues our interest in children’s Christmas titles, which started with Cajun Night Before Christmas.

Caitlin/marketing: I work with all of the children’s authors and illustrators, so asking me to choose just a few to highlight is really hard!

I do adore Love the Baby–it is my go-to present when a friend or relative is going to have a second child. Steven Layne‘s hilarious text combined with Ard Hoyt‘s illustrations just can’t be beat.

Mama’s Bayou by Dianne de la Casas, illustrated by Holly Stone-Barker is my go-to for a first baby present–the sweet rhythmic text and highly detailed collage illustrations work so well.

I love Virginia Pilegard‘s Warlord’s Series, since each book contains a really interesting math/science lesson and an activity.

The rhythmic text of David R. Davis‘s Jazz Cats is also fantastic.

Finally, we have two really unusual counting books that I love–one is called Ten Redneck Babies: A Southern Counting Book (too funny!), and one is Glubbery Gray: The Knight-Eating Beast (scroll for cover art above).

What new directions should we know about?

Kathleen/publisher’s assist: We are looking for more historical children’s books like the Annie Jump Cannon book I mentioned–featuring individuals that children need to know about.

Caitlin/marketing: We’re doing e-books now, which some people may not be aware of. For example, Steven Layne’s YA novels This Side of Paradise and Paradise Lost are available on both the Pelican site and on Amazon as e-books.

Many more of our titles, including some of our picture books, are available as e-books through Google, and we are working with other partners to make them more widely available.

Also, illustrators should know that since James Rice’s death, each new title in our Night Before Christmas Series has been illustrated by a different illustrator. That is one of the series that we are best-known for, so it’s an exciting thing to be a part of.

We also just published a title this spring that has the complete text in both Spanish and English: How the Gods Created the Finger People. We have a lot of books with French or Cajun French sprinkled throughout, and we have a very limited number of books with text in Spanish and English, but we’re getting more requests for bilingual books all the time, so I think that is something we would be open to doing more of.

Big picture, what makes Pelican special?

Nina/editorial: We are interested in publishing books that are informative and uplifting.

Kathleen/publisher’s assist: We really think that the publisher-author relationship is important and a partnership. The children’s books that do the best are those by authors that understand their work is not done when the manuscript is turned in. Pelican considers backlist titles a strong part of the mix. There are titles on our list that we continue to promote and work with the authors years after the book has been published.

How do you connect your children’s-YA titles to teachers and librarians?

Caitlin/marketing: At the most basic level, we send out catalogs and make our books available for purchase directly from us (schools and libraries get a 20% discount, unless it is a special event) and make sure they’re available from the major wholesalers as well.

We also have activity guides for many of our books to make using them in the classroom as easy as possible. We send email blasts to those who have purchased from us before when similar titles arrive in which they might be interested. We submit them for awards and state reading lists.

Many of our children’s authors and illustrators also do school and library visits, in addition to speaking at conferences, which is another great way to connect with teachers and librarians. We also try to reach them through Facebook and Twitter as well as our YouTube page.

Many of our authors and illustrators are making book trailers now, and when Paradise Lost by Steven Layne was coming out, we even had a book trailer contest for students, which was fantastic. They did such an excellent job. (See sample trailer below.)

Have your marketing strategies changed during the recent economic downturn? If so, how and what is your rationale?

Caitlin/marketing: We’ve definitely been looking at everything we do a little more closely–looking at the costs and benefits more than once before making any decisions. We know that budgets are being cut everywhere–our budget and our buyers’ budgets.

We’ve been implementing some more low-cost approaches and utilizing more social media. We’ve also been considering what conferences we attend very carefully, but for some of those, though the costs are high, it’s definitely still worth it to have a presence.

We’ve been doing more blog tours for new titles to garner more exposure without the expense of traveling all over the country.

Please describe your dream children’s-YA author, illustrator, and/or author-illustrator.

Nina/editorial: In addition to literary and visual talent, they would have some professional experience in the field already and also be established in the public arena: making presentations at schools, storytelling conventions, bookstores, etc.

Caitlin/marketing: My dream author or illustrator is willing and able to do school presentations as well as bookstore signings. She (or he) has some sort of web presence (website, blog, Facebook, Twitter–maybe all of the above!) with easy-to-access information about her books.

She is outgoing, has a well-thought-out and concise pitch for her book to give to prospective buyers. She has her own marketing ideas, is willing to take initiative, and keeps me apprised of what she is doing–and what she is thinking about doing–to market her book so that we can work together effectively.

Pictured: Cindy Dike, cildren’s book manager at Maple Street Bookshop in New Orleans; Johnette Downing, one of our children’s authors; and Caitlin Smith, school sales manager of Pelican (in the blue coat).

Do you accept unagented work?

Caitlin/marketing: We absolutely do. All of our submissions guidelines are on our website. We love receiving submissions from new authors. It is especially gratifying when I meet someone at a conference who later submits and gets accepted—it’s great fun to end up working with them!

What recommendations do you have for writers in the submissions process? What are pitfalls to avoid?

Kathleen/publisher’s assist: I strongly recommend reading the author guidelines located on our website. This will help them submit items properly. Looking at a publishing website can give you ideas on what types of books the publisher is interested in before you submit.

Caitlin/marketing: Follow the guidelines. That’s my number one suggestion. Also, do your research. When you are submitting, make sure your work fits in with what that company publishes. Proofread your submission, and then have someone whose grammatical skills you trust proofread it again. You want your manuscript to be as polished as possible, as good as you can make it, but also be aware that it’s never going to be perfect. At some point, you have to let it go and send it out.

Then, be patient. Be very patient–the submissions process can take a long time. After a few months, it is okay to inquire if your manuscript has been received and where in the process it is–but don’t pester the editor.

Don’t claim your manuscript is the next Harry Potter, and don’t say that it should be published because your cousin’s six-year-old neighbor really thinks it’s terrific.

There’s been a lot of discussion of late about the current state and future of the picture book. What do you think?

Nina/editorial: Parents and kids will always seek out and enjoy picture books, in a variety of platforms.

Kathleen/publisher’s assist: I think that electronic books and technology are changing everything.

Caitlin/marketing: I do think that changing technology is having and will continue to have an impact on how children’s books are created and what is considered a “book.” I do not think, however, that physical picture books are going to die out completely, at least not anytime soon.

There’s something special about sitting with a child in your lap, reading a book, turning the pages, and looking at the pictures–and that’s not going away.

As a reader, what have been your favorite new children’s books of 2010-2011 and why?

Caitlin/marketing: Other than Pelican titles, I loved the Hunger Games trilogy, so I was so excited when I read Mockingjay last year. Suzanne Collins‘s unflinching portrayal of war is incredible.

I thought The Cardturner by Louis Sachar was impeccably written–it made bridge seem as exciting as Saints football. I still want to learn how to play.

I loved Ship Breaker by Paolo Bacigalupi, though the setting was a little scary for those of us living in New Orleans! It definitely deserved the awards.

I also really enjoyed Sisters Red by Jackson Pearce. I loved stories about vampires, werewolves, witches, etc., as a child, and that hasn’t really changed. I have an ARC of Sweetly on my to be read pile–looking forward to that one!

What do you do outside the world of publishing?

Nina/editorial: My hobbies include cooking, traveling, and supporting live music!

Kathleen/publisher’s assist: I read, but at the moment not many children’s books. My husband and I enjoy concerts and try to see many of the classic groups that are touring.

Caitlin/marketing: As I think we all do, I read quite a bit. (Right now, I am reading The Wise Man’s Fear, which I picked up at TLA–it’s great!)

I love to travel, so I do that as much as I can. I’m also an avid swing dancer and lindy hopper. New Orleans has a great swing dance scene, since we have great music for it!

Cynsational Notes

Check out one of the trailers for Paradise Lost:

See also David Davis and Jan Peck visit Britain Elementary School:

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