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PUBLISHER FINDS PROVERBIAL POT OF GOLD

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Several generations of American children have grown up with Golden Books either at home or in the classroom. These ubiquitous 24-page children's books with a gold foil spine have been published for more than 50 years, and some titles have become collectibles with mint-quality copies going for as much as $50.

Golden Books are more a publishing phenomenon than a literary one. As the marketing system revolutionized mass production and began to distribute books in convenience stores, supermarkets and airports, marketers realized that books could sell just about anywhere. The vast array of activity and coloring books along with the storybooks dominated the children's market for a time in those locations.The company's initial ploy was to provide the retailer with a rack to display the books and stock the titles as they sold. It was a new idea and proved a profitable one for both publisher and store owner. The distribution network, with more than 100,000 retail outlets, sold an estimated 25 million copies annually; and the sales continue to range in the millions of copies each year.

Golden Press, a subsidiary of Western Publishing in Racine, Wis., realized that most of the books were bought on impulse. For a small sum a book would keep a child happy in a shopping cart or could be a quick present. It was a handy idea that bookstores and libraries could not begin to match. "Actually," said one of the editors, "Golden Books are marketed more like a commodity than a literary product, through a vast network of salesmen and distributors." At one time the brokers who sell Birdseye vegetables to supermarkets handled the placement of books.

The retailers selling the books can't choose the titles they get; rather they are offered collections for holidays or titles that are popular Disney or "Sesame Street" stories. The titles are assembled by the marketing department to include something for everyone: a kitty story, a family story, a girl story, a boy story, a cars-and-trucks story and so on. The system, combined with low prices and profit margin, make most bookstores unwilling to stock Golden Books. Libraries, too, usually choose not to buy Golden Books for various reasons, including lack of literary quality and poor paper and binding quality, both of which the publishers readily admit.

Most Golden Books are printed in a similar format: four-color art with paper or cardboard covers and no dust jackets. The paperbacks are stapled (with no intention of hard use), and flush-cut bindings are stitched, seldom glued.

Fewer than 200 titles are available at a given time. Every year new ones are added to the catalog with a few "out-of-print" titles, sometimes with updated art. The popular titles have been translated into 50 different languages. The editors admit that the splashy covers and the Golden Book name with a minimal price, not the author or the story, prompt the purchase.

"Greeting-card art" with cute, soft and cuddly animals is what sells. The editors say that sophisticated illustrations won't sell in their market, but "you have to keep up with what's popular. There cannot be a word in the titles that is hard to pronounce or frightening. . . . We had a really adorable book called `The Scarebunny,' and it just sat on the racks. So we changed the title to `The Friendly Bunny,' and it's going to do just fine."

One of the most popular titles, "The Poky Little Puppy" by Janette Sebring Lowery, illustrated by Gustaf Tenggren, has sold more than 20 million copies since its initial printing in 1942. The first edition sold 52 years ago for 25 cents, and the book continues to be the best seller for the company. This story of five little puppies that escape by digging under the fence has appeared as a Little Golden Book (8 inches by 8 inches), Big Golden Books (9 inches by 12 inches) and will soon appear in "The Pokey Little Puppy's Busy Counting Book" written by Rita Balduci and illustrated by Jean Chandler.

The authors and illustrators of Golden Books are virtually unknown in the field of children's literature, and "would-be" authors who submit manuscripts are told that unsolicited material is not accepted for consideration. The editorial move to "get away from the greeting cardy puppies and kittens, with the big eyes and big heads, and make things a little more realistic" is barely noticeable in the recent catalog of offerings. One example, however, is "Eastern Birds: A Guide to Field Identification of North American Species" by James Coe, an ornithologist. More than half of the catalog offers Disney and "Sesame Street" adaptations and Richard Scarry reprints.

The trend of multimedia books is seen in the Golden Sound Story Books, which feature sound effects. Music, question and answers, and animal's voices are all available on a "sound strip" requiring a battery (which is always included).

Today, the supermarket and airport racks offer more than Golden Books. Distributors include children's classics and contemporary titles that are more palatable to the "literary conscious" buyer. The mass production of paperbacks has given Golden Books some competition, but there is no doubt that the past and future for this company are "golden."