The Method Takes Shape

This is the second a in series of seven posts that we’ll feature in the coming months commemorating the 25th anniversary of Stenhouse Publishers.

When Stenhouse founders Philippa Stratton and Tom Seavey entered the publishing business, they knew the market to be a furious rat race with very high entry costs. “If we tried to go up against the big boys,” recalled Seavey, “we would be lunch.”

Undercapitalized, they knew they had to find a kind of publishing microclimate, a sheltered place in which to take root. Leading Heinemann’s first foray into the U.S. market would be challenging.

With a few successful titles under their belt, Stratton initiated a method that would help define her publishing at Heinemann U.S. and later at Stenhouse: She got out of the office to talk to the educators who would be authors and readers of the books she published. She visited universities and education conferences, listening and taking notes. Persistence was also part of her modus operandi—a steadfast adherence to her own taste and judgment, along with a willingness to follow up with a potential author. Donald Graves’s research on children’s development as writers caught her attention. His book Writing: Teachers & Children at Work was a breakthrough title for Heinemann U.S. Others soon followed, including the bestseller by Lucy Calkins, Lessons from a Child: On the Teaching and Learning of Writing.

While Stratton worked to develop a list for Heinemann U.S., Seavey energetically plowed his own furrow; his job was to find readers—a market—for a different kind of book about learning and teaching.

The direct mail catalogue was his main device. He created mailing lists of teachers who seemed among the most engaged, forward thinking, and ambitious. An actual name went on every envelope. The catalogues fully explained each book.

By the late 1980s, it was clear that Seavey and Stratton had helped Heinemann U.S. find gold: readable books about teaching.

It was also during this period that they decided to act on their dream to start their own publishing house.

They found the ideal investor and partner in Highlights for Children, whose leaders also believed in the value of active, participatory learning and the powerful benefits it could yield.

Why “Stenhouse”? Lawrence Stenhouse (1926 -1982) was an original, provocative, and influential British educational thinker who profoundly affected Philippa Stratton. He possessed that rare ability to make connections between seemingly disparate ideas, and to put them together to create something new.

Stratton and Seavey knew that was their task as well.  They assembled a national network of distributors and connected to Canadian readers through Pembroke Publishers, a like-minded publisher of professional literature for teachers. By the fall of 1994, they put out six books and one video.  A year later, distributors were selling Stenhouse books in 25 states. Within five years, the start-up became profitable and would remain robustly and consistently so. Stenhouse continually drew loyal customers through its videos that showed teacher-authors at work with students in their classrooms, an e-newsletter, and virtual community of educators. By 2001, Stenhouse was publishing 20 books a year in its well-defined niche.

Stiff headwinds came in the early 2000s.

Add comment July 27th, 2018

Jambalaya and Stenhouse

The House That Teachers Built

Since its founding 25 years ago, Stenhouse Publishers has brought together teachers—as authors and as readers, as researchers and practitioners—to exchange ideas through books. Join us we recall our roots and celebrate our enduring mission to publish books by teachers.

Founders Philippa Stratton and Tom Seavey built their careers by creating a new kind of professional book for teachers and creating a market for them. In establishing Stenhouse Publishers, they invited authors—teachers themselves—to build the Stenhouse list, one book at a time.

Stenhouse is a publisher with a mission and a carefully honed point of view. Every book that Stenhouse publishes is grounded in sound theory and research and informed by years of experience in the classroom. Starting in 1993 with two employees and six titles in its first list, Stenhouse has grown to dozens of employees contributing to a catalog of more than 300 books and videos.

This is the first a in series of seven posts that we’ll feature in the coming months.

Jambalaya and Stenhouse

The seeds of Stenhouse were planted in 1967, when Stratton walked into a classroom of six- and seven-year-olds in North London to embark on a teaching career. She was excited to begin. Growing up in a village in southwest England had left her with warm memories of learning and teaching in the context of an extended family. Inspired by the progressive ideas circulating among educators at the time—a reform movement reflecting broader social trends of the 1960s—Stratton hoped to turn a page on the authoritarian teaching and rote learning of the past to accomplish something wonderful with her young pupils.

But she soon discovered that none of the new ideas she’d absorbed during her teacher training had seeded themselves in her small publicly funded school. What would it take to do that?

At the same time across the Atlantic, Maine native Tom Seavey was accruing his own early professional experiences, marketing college texts for the educational books division of a large American publisher. He began to wonder why none of his buyers were teachers. Seavey was curious: Had anyone tried to sell professional books to the millions of teachers out there?

It would be a full decade before either one would revisit their queries.

***

It was at a home economics conference in 1978 in New Orleans that the paths of Stratton and Seavey, now working in quite different capacities for the same company—Heinemann Education—fatefully crossed. Over a series of fine meals in New Orleans, the two came alive to the appealing qualities of the person across the table. Thy found each other funny and smart. They shared a sense of adventure and an independent streak. The pair parted reluctantly at the end of the week, but before long they were visiting each other whenever they could. By late 1979, they were ready to throw in their lots together. At the same time, Heinemann’s leadership had decided the company was ready to try publishing its own books in the United States. Perhaps the two would like to take that on?

The couple married in Exeter, New Hampshire, and established the two-person office of Heinemann.

They knew the American publishing market to be a furious rat race with very high entry costs. “If we tried to go up against the big boys,” recalled Seavey, “we would be lunch.”

Undercapitalized, they knew they had to find a kind of publishing microclimate, a sheltered place in which to take root.

(End of Part I)

Coming next: The Method Takes Shape

Add comment July 13th, 2018


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