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.