Publisher Interview: Peggy Tierney of Tanglewood Press

By Cynthia Leitich Smith

Peggy Tierney on Peggy Tierney:

“I grew up in Tulsa, Oklahoma, where I attended community college part-time. I transferred to the American University of Paris in 1990 and received a degree in Comparative Literature in 1992. I then moved to London to marry a man I met in Paris, had a baby, and got my break in publishing as an Americanization editor for Usborne Books.

“In 1999, we decided to try life in the States and moved to Washington, D.C., where I was an editor and then publisher, running the Child Welfare’s League book publishing program.

“After four interesting years, we decided to do a major lifestyle change and moved to Terre Haute, Indiana, where my son could live around extended family and we could try a slower lifestyle. 

“During a farewell luncheon with bestselling author Audrey Penn, she offered to let me publish a pirate novel she had written if I started my own company. We had become quite close, as editor and author often do, and she knew I loved her book, which was important to her. How could I say no to Audrey Penn?

Tanglewood is now seven years old, having published around thirty books.”

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

Plainly put, I have had a mad passion for books since I learned my alphabet. Books have done so much in my life. They’ve entertained me and educated me. They have been my friends. I have laughed with them and cried with them. I hugged them tight, and they whispered answers to my secret questions. They have given me so much, and I loved them for it. I still do.

I publish for kids because I share the belief of many that reading makes us better people. And books can often help kids. It gives them a safe place to explore issues, an escape from life when they need it, and also, for some kids, the message they need the most, which is that they are not alone in the world. That can be a lifesaving message.

Certainly, a good reader will very likely be a good student, and education has the power to transform lives. It did mine–leading me, a blue-collar girl from Oklahoma, to a scholarship at the American University of Paris, a decade of living in Europe, and a career in book publishing.

And beyond that, young readers will hopefully get all the joy, all the lessons, all the messiness and exuberance of life captured in great literature and in lives lived well.

On a less earnest note, I still love reading children’s books, even picture books.

I laugh every time I read Click, Clack, Moo: Cows That Type by Doreen Cronin, illustrated by Betsy Lewin (Simon & Schuster). I smile at the sight of Olivia by Ian Falconer (Atheneum, 2000).

When the last volume of Harry Potter by J.K. Rowling (Scholastic) came out, I let my family know that they could fend for themselves, because I was going to be in an armchair until I reached the end.

Could you tell us about Tanglewood Press? Its history, mission, and growth?

I was working in Washington, D.C. as an editor and then publisher for a large children’s nonprofit there.

When my husband and I decided to move to the Midwest in 2003, Audrey Penn, who is best known for The Kissing Hand (Tanglewood, 2006), offered to let me publish a pirate-themed novel she had just written if I would start my own company. I loved the novel because I knew kids would love it – even if parents didn’t.

And kids did love it. I have more than one story of that book converting a non-reader into a reader.

I want to publish kidcentric books. I want books that speak to kids, whether it’s in a funny or dramatic way. I want smart books–books that respect kids.

Adults are always underestimating just how smart and savvy kids really are. Sure, they love poop and fart books, but they also love irony. They like silliness, but they are also, even from a very young age, looking at the bigger issues in life–who they are going to be, where they belong in the universe.

Kids are amazing.

I want to publish personally–one book at a time for one reader at a time. Every author and illustrator, everyone at Tanglewood, takes personal pride in our books. This is the great advantage of being a small house. I never want to lose sight of that.

I had a wonderful retreat for authors this summer. One author gave a workshop on social media; another two gave workshops on doing school programs. We did a lot of fun stuff, too, like a weenie roast and a hike in a beautiful state park nearby. Just as much as learning some marketing strategies, I think creative people are energized by other creative people, and I wanted to create a space and time to nurture that creativity and those professional bonds. My authors are an incredibly talented and just plain nice bunch of people. It was wonderful.

Tanglewood Press

You’re based in Indiana, yes? How does that give you a different perspective than, say, an east coast U.S. publisher?

It was a bit difficult in the beginning because I didn’t come from a N.Y. house and no one knew me, so I had to establish some credibility. Because I’ve lived in such a variety of places, from Tulsa to Paris to London to Washington, D.C. and now the Midwest, my preferences or tastes are not necessarily dictated by my current location.

That said, when I first moved here and looked for kids to try things out on, I worried that their taste would be quite different than, say, a kid from California or New York. Instead, I found the opposite. From movies to books to music to clothes, American teens are in sync, regardless of location. Maybe it’s the Internet or maybe it’s television, or maybe it’s the universal subconscious. I don’t know.

How has your list changed and grown over the years?

I have published a few not-very-good books and a few very good books with not-so-good covers, which pretty much doomed them. But I feel like I’ve learned a few things from every book we’ve published. Like other publishers, I’m backing away from picture books and trying to move into middle reader and YA books more.

I published one autobiography, and I’d love to find more nonfiction that is interesting and different, especially biographies or history books on an intriguing, unexplored subject. Overall, though, I’m pretty much looking for the same things I always looked for: books that kids and teens will love.

What are a few of your success stories?

I don’t judge success strictly by numbers, though I’ve certainly had success in that way. It’s when I’m told, without asking, that a Tanglewood book has become a child’s favorite, and has had to be read over and over and over.

I’ve heard that the most about It All Began with a Bean by Katie McKy, illustrated by Tracy Hill (2004) and The Mice of Bistrot des Sept Freres by Marie Letourneau (2007).

Or when yet another parent or child tells me how much The Kissing Hand enriched their lives.

Or the time when a teen looked through all my picture books, slowly and carefully, and then looked up and asked, “Where were you when I was young?”

Or when a blogger said about Ashfall by Mike Mullin (2011) that if she could marry a book, that would be the book. Another said it was one of the best books ever.

Or the times when I heard that a book like Mystery at Blackbeard’s Cove by Audrey Penn (2004) had turned a non-reader into a reader. That happened with my Barnes & Noble sales rep’s daughter. It certainly gave the rep a passion for the book that helped her sell it into the stores.

As much as I love books, a lot of what I do day-to-day isn’t all that fun. The hope of publishing books readers will love is what keeps me going. Corny but true. I’m very prone to earnestness.

What’s new and exciting?

I was so lucky to have some great books to publish this fall. Audrey Penn wrote her first Kissing Hand board book for the little ones, which I think is adorable – A Bedtime Kiss for Chester Raccoon, illustrated by Barbara Leonard Gibson (2011). All of Audrey’s Chester Raccoon books should be a staple on children’s bookshelves.

My Dog, My Cat by Ashlee Fletcher (Tanglewood, 2011) is so young and fresh. It is my designer’s two-year-old daughter’s new favorite.

Wild Rose’s Weaving by Ginger Churchill and illustrated by Nicole Wong (Tanglewood, 2011) is a sweet, beautifully illustrated story of a girl learning to weave a rug from her grandmother, but it’s about so much more: creativity, the interplay of life and art, and the gifts that women pass down to daughters and granddaughters.

Chengli and the Silk Road Caravan by Hildi Kang (Tanglewood, 2011) is a middle reader about an orphan boy joining a Silk Road caravan; it’s a great adventure inspired by the author’s own trip down that trade route. I love finding a book that I think both boys and girls will enjoy.

And then there’s Ashfall by Mike Mullins (Tanglewood, 2011). A book this good doesn’t come along often, and I do think it’s a truly exceptional book, probably one of the best I will ever publish. It’s a dystopian YA about the eruption of the Yellowstone supervolcano. It is just so gripping and so real and so true. Readers love–I mean really love–the characters. The author, Mike, is so hard-working, so talented but humble, such a nice guy and funny, too.

 And he is so generous with other authors–he has championed some other Tanglewood novels he admires and feels need more attention, like Chengli above, and Two Moon Princess by Carmen Ferreiro-Esteban (Tanglewood, 2009). I am one lucky publisher, for all of the above.

Have you adjusted your marketing strategies during the economic downturn?

I am not doing less marketing overall, just different marketing. I’m doing more ads and mailings and trying to use any opportunity that arises. Like other publishers, I’m going to have to learn how to market directly to readers due to the growth of e-books. Assuming that I won’t have any additional money to do it, it’s going to be challenging.

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

I have several dream authors in real life. But overall, the dream author will be unafraid to promote him/herself, will share in the task of marketing.

Unfortunately, a lot of authors think that writing the book is the end of their duties, but it’s not. Publishing is a collaboration, a partnership, and both sides have to work all the way through the process. Authors can market to the general public in ways that I can’t: write a blog or Twitter, ask for an endorsement, do a signing or a school visit.

Publishers are not interesting to most people. But authors are!

Peggy’s office

I have to do a lot of things that are behind the scenes, to bookstores and librarians, that authors never see. I have actually read published authors talking about how their publishers are only doing the “normal” stuff – taking the book to shows, sending it out on a media mailing, sending out samples. They have no idea how much money and time those activities take. For the record: a lot.

For an illustrator, the two biggest things are meeting deadlines and being open to input, to change. I’ve had two books sabotaged by the illustrators missing deadlines. I’ve had new illustrators become overly defensive and difficult to work with. They just didn’t get that it’s not like a college art project where everything is totally their vision. Again, it’s a collaboration, and they need to be open to that or they need to be in a different area of art.

Do you accept unagented work?

Yes, we do accept unagented work. Unfortunately, there are a lot of people trying to get published out there. I had to hire an acquisitions editor to help, it was so overwhelming. In spite of our small size, we get probably several thousand manuscripts a year. Out of those, I might sign one or two.

But it is what it is. I try to tell everyone who writes a story to please keep it, bind it, and put it safely away for their grandchildren to discover. It will be a family heirloom. It’s never time wasted.

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

I think it’s tragic that the picture book is being sidelined. Kids love picture books, even when they get older. There are so many wonderful, interesting picture books published each year – and not nearly enough get on bookstore shelves or into schools and libraries.

Kids are being pushed to read chapter books at a younger age, which I also think is tragic. When a child is pushed to read before they are ready, it causes all kinds of problems that are long-term and very harmful. I didn’t even learn my alphabet until I was six, yet I became a very advanced reader.

Tanglewood conference room

6 thoughts on “Publisher Interview: Peggy Tierney of Tanglewood Press

  1. This is so great to learn more about the woman behind this little press. I was in a workshop with one of her authors this summer, Laurisa White Reyes, and I read an ARC of Ashfall which I loved. She's doing big things for such a small publisher. It's very cool.

  2. Peggy gave me my first significant break as a Children's book illustrator when she worked in D.C. I will always be grateful for that opportunity and have been illustrating books ever since. So nice to read about her publishing ventures at Tanglewood!

    Joan Waites

  3. Wonderful interview of someone I've come to greatly admire and appreciate. I'm thrilled to be on her team. And hey!Sherrie! How are you??? We had a blast at the retreat, didn't we? You are the best Karaoke singer in the world!

  4. Thanks for a really interesting interview! It's nice to "get to know" a smaller publisher on such a personal level. I know only too well the problems with the popular trend of forcing kids to read too early. My 2 Ethiopian daughters have been lucky enough to take their time, and now LOVE to read!

  5. Sherrie, how terrific that you had a chance to workshop with Laurisa and that you loved Ashfall. I believe that small publishers are key to a diversity of voices and innovations.

    Joan, thanks for sharing Peggy's important role in your journey! Here's to your continued success.

    LW, so glad you enjoyed it. Yes, her enthusiasm definitely shines through.

    Laurisa, there you are! And karaoke? Sounds like you two had a terrific time.

    Verbenabeth, one of my goals for 2011 was to highlight more small, quality publishers. I'm glad your daughters are such avid readers!

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