Diamonds are a TOON’s Best Friend: An Interview with Kimberly Guise
In May 2015, TOON Books and Diamond negotiated a new distribution agreement, with Diamond taking on international distribution outside of the US and Canada in comic markets. TOON Books, founded by The New Yorker’s Françoise Mouly, publishes quality comics for younger readers that engage them through both art and narrative.
I had a chance to speak with Kimberly Guise, Marketing Director of TOON Books, about the distribution agreement, the publisher, and, of course, the comics.
Thank you for taking the time to interview with Women Write about Comics! Tell us a little bit about yourself and your work with TOON Books.
Well for starters, I am our target audience so that certainly helps me in thinking about TOON’s marketing! I came to TOON first as a mom, when my oldest child was five years old and he was just learning to read. As a parent who had spent years reading beautiful award-winning picture books, I quickly grew frustrated by the poor design quality of “early readers” and their rather awful production value. It’s almost as if, right at the moment we want our kids to take a genuine interest in reading, we give them flimsy books that have absolutely no aesthetic appeal! Plus most books for beginning readers are so constrained by limited vocabulary that the stories are just not that interesting. One day Steven, my husband (who’s a comic book fan) suggested I check out TOON Books, founded by Françoise Mouly of The New Yorker. It sounded intriguing so I ordered a few—and my son loved them. Over the next couple months, we collected them all. I was literally chatting up these books to anyone who would listen to me. Eventually, one day at a T-ball game, after he heard me once more talking about TOON, Steven said: “You talk about these books all the time—you really should be working for them.” That night I sat down and wrote an email to email@example.com. I simply expressed my love and deep appreciation for the books and offered to help out with marketing—my background is in educational sales and the creative arts, so it wasn’t out of left field. About a week later I got an email back from Françoise (I confess I nearly jumped out of my skin at the sight of her name in my inbox), saying she did in fact need help. We spoke the next day for two hours and she hired me over the phone. That was about two years ago and I’ve been working at TOON ever since.
Were you a comic book reader growing up, and did that influence your interest in reading and art, and/or your decision to go into the publishing industry?
Honestly, I wasn’t. I simply wasn’t very exposed to comics as a kid—apart from the Sunday comic strips in the newspaper. Steven, on the other hand, was an avid comic book reader, and it’s largely through him—and his enthusiasm for sharing the genre with our children—that I’ve been introduced to the genre as an adult. I’m making up for lost time now with everything from Nancy to Krazy Kat to Asterix to of course, all the TOON Books and TOON Graphics.
What do you like best about working with comic books now, and particularly for young readers?
Since joining TOON, I have discovered so much about the formal aspects of comics. While in some ways comics are “a gateway drug to literacy,” as Art Spiegelman has said, in other ways they are quite demanding. At TOON, we always stress that comics offer multi-modal supports to help guide readers, such as sound effects, gestures, facial expressions, and props. And while all these supports are invaluable to beginning readers, comics also require the child to draw inferences about what’s happening on the page using visual clues. With comics, the words don’t tell the whole story. The reader has to think about what all these pictures mean and what the author is trying to convey through the pictures, including the actions that take place between the panels. It actually requires real thinking to assimilate all this together. When you speak with teachers, you realize that making inferences is the essence of reading—not just sounding out the words, but making sense of it all—that’s reading. So comics are perfect “training wheels” for abstract thinking: it’s a wholly symbolic language. It’s a distinction that’s probably quite obvious to comic fans but for the uninitiated it’s actually quite profound, especially when you witness firsthand the progress a child makes with comics when just learning to read. The “aha” moments are magical!
We make sure that TOON Books are leveled to help guide the parent and the child to find books that are at the appropriate level of challenge. Perhaps the worst thing that can happen to an emerging reader is to be given books that are simply too hard—they get discouraged (or too easy and they get bored). We make it clear what’s required of the reader at each of our three reading levels and this translates into high-success, enjoyable reading for kids. And it really works—I never tire of hearing the positive feedback from parents, teachers, and librarians. It’s immensely gratifying.
Finally, and I said before, it but I’ll say it again: TOON Books are beautifully designed with exceptional production value. When you hold a TOON Book in your hands, you can literally sense its beauty through both sight and by touch and maybe even by smell! As a mom, this is really important to me. I live in a sea of cheaply made products that seem to penetrate my home no matter how hard I try to keep them out, so I’m doubly glad to be pushing for books I think are treasures worth keeping!
In general terms, what does the new distribution agreement with Diamond mean for the future of TOON Books?
Diamond Bookshelf is an excellent marketing program dedicated to school and library resources and TOON is regularly featured here. Our imprint is now seven years old and our catalog is up to forty-three books. We have bundled our books in collections that are used in schools across the country. While our brand awareness has grown rapidly here in the United States, particularly with the help of libraries and favorable book reviews, we are still virtually unknown in many markets around the world. But because people around the world want their kids to learn English and because comics and TOON Books are uniquely designed with step-by-step vocabulary for English learners, we get emails from parents and teachers overseas who find us on line and want to buy books.
Diamond is perfectly positioned to get our books out internationally. They’re taking TOON to book fairs in Dubai or in India for example. Through Diamond, our books will be reviewed in foreign markets, submitted for awards and reading list consideration; they’ll land into the hands of key booksellers, librarians and educators all over the world. That’s very exciting for us—this is one U.S. export that can do a lot of good to spread an appreciation of both English language books and comics culture.
How long have Toon Books and Diamond been negotiating the agreement?
Not long at all. When Françoise started TOON Books, Diamond was the original distributor, so people at Diamond were already very familiar with our books. Diamond has kept offering TOON Books in the comics market throughout our other distribution arrangements: it’s probably how my husband became aware of them. Comics fans are the most passionate supporters we have, and Diamond is the key player in that world. Diamond has been supportive of the TOON mission from the start—it’s also part of their mission to get good comics in the hands of kids. The focus now is that—as they themselves have grown, they’ll also expand our reach internationally.
Two pages from the upcoming The Wild Piano: A Philomon Adventure, by Fred:
TOON Books launched TOON Graphics, a new imprint for readers 8 and up, within the last year. What does this mean for expansion in the future?
Well I joked with Françoise that she was going to need to grow the line of books to keep pace with my kids growing up, so in a few more years maybe we’ll be doing a line of books for high school kids. Seriously, it was the natural extension after doing the beginning readers to expand the line to meet the demand of older readers. Already we are up to ten TOON Graphics and more are coming. The expansion has also given Françoise greater editorial freedom to publish books that might not otherwise be published, such as the The Philemon Adventures series by Fred, one of France’s most influential and revered cartoonists. Our new Greek Mythology series by Yvan Pommaux offers children an artful alternative to what I’d call the “superhero-ization” of Greek Mythology found in many other comic books. The entire TOON Graphics line has really taken off for us with bestselling titles including Hansel & Gretel by Neil Gaiman and Lorenzo Mattotti, a New York Times Notable Book of 2014, and Lost in NYC: A Subway Adventure by Nadja Spiegelman and Sergio Garcia Sánchez, which has earned a whopping SIX starred reviews.
I’ve now been through several production cycles at TOON and watching a book evolve from an idea to completion is a spectacular process—something I’d like to better document, actually! When you think of our future in terms of getting quality comics in the hands of all kids—there’s a lot still to be done, for every grade. Françoise is the editorial mastermind behind everything TOON releases and I trust that she’ll keep finding new talent and new formats to publish.
What advice would you give to women who want to work in comic publishing?
Only to invest in the underlying product you are hoping to sell. So much of marketing is now about how to convince people that something is good, whether it is or isn’t. I’m always pushing for us to develop extensive educational materials at TOON and it’s become an incredibly valuable part of what we do. In the past two years, we have worked extensively with educators to develop a 30-lesson TOON into Reading Comics Unit. We work as hard on the free CCSS-aligned lesson plans and Educator’s Guides as we do on the books—and I know it makes a difference. My advice is simply to invest all your energy in your product and make it great—that’s your best marketing tool.