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New Life for Stephen Cosgrove’s Serendipity Books

Animals real, mythical, and imaginary headline Stephen Cosgrove’s Serendipity series of picture books, which is currently being reissued by Clovis, Calif.-based Heritage Builders Publishing. The 72-book series, originally launched in 1974 by Serendipity Press and out of print for a number of years, has sold more than 80 million copies worldwide. Illustrated by Robin James, these paperbacks offer stories addressing common childhood experiences and issues, including friendship, disabilities, fears, prejudice, and the environment.

Heritage Builders, whose books are distributed by PGW, released the inaugural eight Serendipity titles last January, and four more books followed in August. Four additional reissues – Kartusch, Squeakers, Trafalgar True, and Zippity Zoom – are due in October, and three installments are scheduled for spring 2015.

Cosgrove’s series, in fact, had an indisputably serendipitous start. In 1973, Cosgrove, who was at the time working in finance, was shopping at bookstores for his then three-year-old daughter. Frustrated at what he found to be the lack of picture books that are fun to read and also convey positive values, he took it upon himself to write one.

“I really liked the story I wrote, which became Serendipity, the first book in the series,” he said. “Within a few months, I had found Robin James to illustrate it, and sent it off to a big New York publisher. They liked the book, but thought the art was too colorful, and wanted to do it in duotone. So I said, ‘OK, then I’ll publish it myself.’ I found a printer, and Serendipity was off and running.”

And running at quite a speedy clip. Within three or four years, Cosgrove recalled, the first 12 Serendipity books had sold three million copies, and the author, a self-described “one-man band,” was engaging in some inventive marketing strategies. “My first account, which was Safeway, said that they didn’t want the Serendipity books to be in the book department,” he said. “They wanted them displayed in produce! So I created a disposable dump and popped the 12 titles into it, and Safeway immediately ordered 100 dumps. Over the next six months the chain went through four or five thousand dumps – all in produce departments. It was hysterical.”

In 1979, in hopes of “stepping back so that I didn’t have to be on the front lines all the time,” Cosgrove sold Serendipity Press to Price Stern Sloan, and concentrated on other publishing projects. As the Serendipity titles fell out of print, the author received “a flux of letters, and later e-mails, from fans complaining that he couldn’t buy the books any more. When that outcry finally reached a fever pitch about three years ago, I negotiated with Penguin

[which had acquired PSS] to have the rights reverted so I could bring the series back.”When Cosgrove subsequently talked to publishers about picking up the Serendipity line, he discovered that many wanted to “cherry pick” and buy rights to only certain titles, which was not to his liking. The author’s quest ended when he met with Sherm Smith, who founded Heritage Builders in 2009. “Sherm put a really sterling offer on the table, with a program that put no limits on the number of books he’d publish,” said Cosgrove. “He wanted to hear my ideas, and said he wasn’t afraid to let me talk to buyers and get out there in the marketplace.”

Smith, who purchased world rights to the series, was impressed by Serendipity’s fit with Heritage Builders’s mission to publish Christian, family-supportive books as well as “bubble books” that have a wholesome message but are not strictly Christian, with appeal in the trade market as well.

“My kids grew up on Serendipity books, and I knew that these were wonderful stories with solid morals,” he said. “I was thrilled when I learned about the rights availability.” Smith anticipates that his company will release four to eight Serendipity titles each spring and fall season, and plans to bring some of Cosgrove’s other backlist books back into print as well, including Thistle, a title in the ArkAngels series, which will pub in March 2015.