Andrew Wooldridge is the publisher at Orca Book Publishers, a pioneer in producing reluctant reader books. He is also the editor of Orca Soundings series.
Q: When did Orca first publish books for reluctant readers and why?
A: In 2002 we published two books, not really knowing the market or what we were really getting into. When we saw a real demand for those books, we started publishing more. So far, we’ve published 75 original titles in our Soundings series for high schoolers, 45 in our Currents series for middle schoolers, and 35 in our sports action series. Now we have a series for adult readers.
Q: You’re one of the pioneers of reluctant reader books, correct?
A: There were very few when we started, mostly educational publishers with books written to a formula for a certain market. We captured a market others were missing because the quality of books wasn’t always there. I think Soundings was successful because story is the most important aspect for us; we use authors who write well and we wanted to make sure our books were compelling regardless of the reader’s reading level. That’s why they also work well for strong readers who just want a short book.
Q: How has the market grown?
A: There are a lot more people publishing books like this now, a number of publishers focusing on reluctant reader books. In ten years, we’ve sold more than a million copies in the Soundings series, and half a million in the Currents series. In ten years, we have gone from two to 75 titles in the Sounding series alone, and every one of our books is still in print and reprinting continuously. Some of the bestselling titles have sold 35,000 to 45,000 copies. Educational publishers may sell more books, but the feedback I get from teachers and librarians is that Orca books are the only books some kids will read.
Q: Why has this niche exploded? Are there more reluctant readers or were they simply underserved before?
A: I don’t think there are more reluctant readers; it is just more of a recognized issue. People realize the number of kids struggling with reading. A lot has to do with standardized testing. It has created a push in schools for kids to be reading at a certain grade level. I think that focus is dangerous, but it is definitely contributing to the success of reluctant reader books. Also, there’s wider recognition that reading is becoming more important. We’re surrounded by text, especially with technology being so prevalent. Kids have to be more literate.
Q: What kind of feedback do you get on your books?
A: There’s a real interest in shorter novels. Part of it is attention span and part of it is time. You get a good story well-told quickly without a lot of extra fluff. Kids who read our books are kids who have never read a book in their lives. And then they read another, and another and another. And eventually a full-length novel. I hear from librarians that kids will read one and then go on to read every Orca book they can. There are kids who feel they’ve finally found something that doesn’t intimidate them, and then there are those who enjoy a good story no matter what.
Q: What kind of authors do you look for and what direction do you give them?
A: Any author who writes well, tells a good story. We don’t give much direction. We don’t want them writing to a formula. We say between 15,000 and 17,000 words, 12 to 15 chapters. I prefer first person because it makes a more immediate story. We prefer not much in the way of subplots or flashbacks. We want an immediate, straightforward story that can be told in short time frame. A reasonably detailed story but no extra details. It needs to feel quite compelling. With our Sounding series, we look for books that appeal to kids in high school, where kids are exposed to a fair amount of edgy material in everything else they’re listening to. With our middle-grade Currents series, we stay away from edgy material.
Q: There are parents who do not want to see their children reading reluctant-reader books; they want to see their children reading more literary material. What would you say to them?
A: There’s definitely a bias against books like this, especially when they’re classified “hi-lo” (high-interest, low readability). Parents don’t want their kids considered one of the slow ones. They want their kids to be reading Shakespeare by the age of 10. But that bias is disappearing a bit. It’s important that kids read no matter what they read. You can control for content regarding their age, but it doesn’t have to be educational and good for you all the time. It’s okay to read something simpler, and then something harder at a later time. Pushing difficult material on your child can definitely turn them off reading altogether. Kids need to feel that what they’re reading is not a chore or punishment, not like vitamins that are good for you, but fun.