Founded in 2005, Bellwether Media has a mission to improve literacy around the world. The company publishes engaging and accessible reading materials for beginning and struggling readers. Its products, published under the Blastoff! Readers and Torque Books brands, can now be found in most libraries throughout the United States. The company also has a significant international presence including Canada, South Africa, and the far East.
We’re sitting down with John Martin, President and Founder of Bellwether Media for the third in our Publisher Profile series celebrating companies who, like BigUniverse.com, are dedicated to literacy in all its forms.
Big Universe: How did you come to be involved in the children’s publishing industry? What is your role within the industry?
John Martin: Upon graduation from college with an English degree, I came into a very tough job market. I had a degree but little experience, so finding a job was difficult. I worked long hours for low wages at an office retail products store as well as a sandwich shop. It was my passion for Apple Macintosh computers that landed me my first job in publishing. During that time, educational publishers were still using traditional typesetting methods. My knowledge of the Mac as well as Pages and Quark X-press software enabled me to show a small startup publishing company how to speed up the publishing process–as well as save a lot of money along the way.
After setting up the office with the technology for desktop publishing, I progressed to fact-checking, then design and layout, and eventually editing. Originally, I worked on large, collective biographies of important historical figures. After a couple of years, I was approached by another company to help them publish sports books for struggling readers. It was my dream job–and still is.
John: It is amazing how much has changed in the past three years. We’ve gone from our two foundational imprints – Blastoff! Readers and Torque – up to five imprints. A year ago we created Pilot, which is an imprint that focuses on reluctant readers. The two newest imprints that were just released this past August are Epic and Express.
Epic books are designed to have an interest level of grades 3-7 but are written for students that have a reading level of grades 1-2. We had been hearing about older students in need of books with a mature design but low reading level. This is what motivated us to launch Epic.
Express is our creative imprint that shows students how to do amazing things with arts and crafts. Our first series in this imprint is a drawing series that shows readers how to draw different subjects and also teaches about these subjects. We wanted to start creating titles that not only help children read but that will allow them to use and develop creative skills.
Big Universe: In looking at the current front list and the upcoming season, are there any specific themes that you’ve focused on in the catalog?
John: We don’t normally focus too heavily on any one specific theme, and I believe that is evident in our upcoming season. We are expanding a large variety of subjects across all imprints instead of focusing on any one or two subjects. That being said, we are expanding our newer imprints – Pilot, Epic, and Express – more aggressively this season than Blastoff! Readers or Torque.
Big Universe: Do you have a personal favorite from the current catalog that isn’t getting lots of ‘buzz’? What is it about that book that sets it apart for you?
John: I think my favorite series that doesn’t do as well as some of our other series is Outdoor Adventures. This series is a part of our Pilot imprint so it is for students who read at a fourth grade level. These titles are beautifully designed with great artwork and great photography. You can get a sense of what it would feel like out in nature. In this age of technology, I think a lot of students have probably never experienced what it is like to canoe down a river, go rock climbing, or hike amazing trails. I think this is a hidden gem of a series that will inspire students to put down their digital devices and go explore the outdoors.
Big Universe: What is the book that has been the biggest surprise to you?
John: I think the biggest surprise has been how popular Pro Wrestling Champions has been. This is the first series Bellwether has done that has focused on one particular sport, and it appears to be one that boys really enjoy. We have spent a lot of time researching each wrestler, their personal history as well as their character in the ring, and have searched far and wide for the best images available. I am glad to see that the librarians and students appreciate the effort we put into it.
Big Universe: What’s next for Bellwether? Do you have any new series or product lines on the horizon?
John: Much of what we’ll be doing over the next year is extending existing series and filling out our new imprints. There are plans to create some new series down the road that will pertain to geography, animals, and the unexplained.
Big Universe: And now some questions about you. Who or what turned you into a reader?
John: I have been an avid reader as long as I can remember. I think it largely had to do with my parents, as they loved to read to us as kids. As we got older we also had reading time every night before we went to bed. I think growing up in that kind of atmosphere had a huge impact as all of my family members share a love for reading.
Big Universe: Have you had the opportunity to personally share your books with the target audience? Do you have a favorite experience? What have kids taught you about publishing books for young readers?
John: When you make a product to create a better experience for children, there is an endless number of great experiences. Here is the e-mail that I received regarding a little boy who had lost all will to read:
“Last week, during the hectic March Break, I had parents drop a young lad, Grade 1, off to a program and then ask my advice. They reported that his teacher told them he was one of the poorest readers in her class. He has been struggling, and is of course, very discouraged andunhappy about his reading. The usual evening battles to get him to read a page, no enthusiasm at all left in the poor kid. Of course, his older brother is a super reader, so what were they doing wrong? The teacher had suggested, of all things, a novel! Even a short chapter book was going to just hammer home failure to this kid.
So I talked to them about things he likes, and sure enough he enjoys learning about animals, nature, and fixing things. Real guy stuff. I gave them three Blastoff! Readers to try. That was Thursday.
They were back yesterday with big grins all round. Who knew? Boys like fact books, and fact books with pictures. These three books had been
read four times in five days with great success. He chose six more, asked if he could start them in the car on the way home, read one while his
parents chatted with me (and he really read it, we could hear him!), and smiled the whole time. He actually talked to me about what he liked! His parents are thrilled and relieved, but the best news is that he was happy about books and reading.
I would never have discovered the value of these books without you sharing them. It makes my job that much easier and enjoyable, and the best part, it makes a real difference in the life of one small boy or girl.
Thanks so much.”
This is why I started Bellwether Media, and to hear stories like this just confirms that we are on the right track.