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Dogged determination Featured

9:57am EDT January 30, 2002
It's ironic, but true. Children's book publishing --which often produces stories that teach young readers about caring, fairness and compassion -- is a cutthroat business.

Sandra Philipson knew this even before she started writing children's books based on her springer spaniels Max and Annie. In the 1970s, she was the first female marketing manager at Macmillan Publishing Co. in New York City. She worked the phones and pounded the pavement of universities selling science, history and English textbooks to professors and instructors.

But even with a marketing machine like Macmillan behind her, books were still a tough sell.

"These nice people who want to write children's books look at you so sadly when you tell them this," Philipson says. "It is a huge, competitive business, and the big companies have all the advantages."

Her first book was based on her dog, Annie, who lost her front left leg to cancer. The incident inspired Philipson to write "Annie Loses Her Leg But Finds Her Way," which she felt would help children learn about loss and recovery. A second book, "Max's Wild Goose Chase," followed.

She didn't know what to do with her first story until her neighbor put her in touch with artist Robert Takatch, whom she asked to do sketches for the story. She was so impressed with his work that she decided her story could be much more than something to share with her family, but she was reluctant to submit it to a large publishing company.

"When you're working with a large publishing company, you don't have any control," she says. "They choose the illustrator. You would have no control over your cover, what the book looked like, and they would choose how the book will be marketed."

So Philipson decided to publish the books herself. But before she took them to the printer, she wrote a business plan with the help of two Cleveland State University business professors.

Based on their feedback, Philipson formed a Limited Liability Company made up of herself, Takatch and her husband, Elliot. After a first run of 6,000 copies, 3,000 of each book, Philipson planned her marketing campaign.

In less than two years, she has sold more than 11,000 books, mostly in Northeast Ohio. The rest of country is next.

"We knew that even if you have the best book in the world, people have to want to buy it," she says. "That's where the marketing comes in. I knew there needed to be a huge marketing push because there is a tremendous amount of competition.

"The big companies have the dollars and the marketing machine."

But limited funding doesn't mean you can't market; you just have to work harder. Philipson packed up her books and dogs and traveled to schools, dog shows, libraries and hospitals to push her product. A former economics, history and sociology teacher, Philipson called her education contacts to create a buzz. Even former First Lady Barbara Bush received copies of the books, and promptly sent Philipson a lengthy thank you note.

The word spread about Max & Annie. Philipson appeared on the cable network Animal Planet with her dogs. A mutual friend mentioned the books to Steve Austin, chief executive of Tag Entertainment, a Los Angeles motion picture company that produces family movies.

Austin negotiated with Philipson for several months before they agreed on a film adaptation of her first book. Filming is set to begin in March in Chagrin Falls.

The movie will star Robert Hays of the legendary "Airplane" movies and Robert Wagner, who is best known for his TV role in "Hart to Hart" but has recently appeared in several comedies, including the blockbuster "Austin Powers" movies.

"Today, people are staying at home and concentrating on families and looking for family entertainment," says Patricia Gillum of Tag Entertainment. "Animals relate very well to children. With many of our movies, the interaction of animals with human drama is intrinsic and our main goal." How to reach: Max & Annie LLC, (440) 893-9250

Morgan Lewis Jr. (mlewis@sbnnet.com) is senior reporter at SBN Magazine.

Hit the streets

Sandra Philipson's strategic marketing tips for success

Test the product

Sandra Philipson called every friend she had in education and asked to read her book, "Annie Loses Her Leg But Finds Her Way," to students. She read to a variety of age groups, using two versions of the book, one with illustrations and one without.

She also tested it with elementary school teachers and librarians and made changes based on their suggestions.

"That's a very important market because they are on the front lines with the kids," she says. "They know what kids like, what inspires them, what interests them. I'm an educator, but elementary education was not my forte."

Analyze your market

Young families were an obvious market for Philipson, but she hadn't thought of two other specialized markets -- schools and medical centers.

So she created a step-by-step educational presentation about how she wrote and designed the books, then packed up her dogs and started making school visits. In last 18 months, she's been to 52 schools in the Midwest. Medical centers, while a natural fit for books like Philipson's, required a more delicate approach in the marketing effort.

"One thing I'm very careful about is I do not ever want anyone to perceive or think that I wrote this book to make money off children with cancer," Philipson says. "That is not the goal, and it's actually a very small part of our market."

Spread the word

Philipson held a book release party in Chagrin Falls, where she is based, and invited everyone she could think of, including friends of her husband, her illustrator and her book designer. She continues to market the books at every public event she attends, including conferences, speaking engagements and dog shows.

"I try to be out there," she says. "I try to be seen, to meet people, to tell them about my products, to tell them about my books and tell them about the educational program. You can't just sit in your ivory tower and hope to sell anything."

Build the brand

To help create a buzz behind her Max & Annie characters, Philipson found an area designer to create a plush stuffed Annie toy to sell with the books. She then found a stuffed animal toy company that already produced a springer spaniel stuffed toy and licensed it for the Max character.

"This could be the next 'Harry Potter,'" Philipson says. "The market for children is waiting for new characters. Max and Annie are those characters."

Morgan Lewis Jr.