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Meet Madonna's Publisher : Nicholas Callaway

Published by The New York Sun on 2005-04-19

"There's never been a lack of possibilities in my life," said Nicholas Callaway, founder of Callaway Editions, and the man known most prominently as Madonna's publisher. "But there've been so many directions in which to go. How does one choose when there are so many possibilities in life?"

He wanted to be a writer as a child, meticulously typing out his own manuscripts such as "The History of the World," and "The Age of the Dinosaurs." His mother, Jeanne, encouraged him by gifting a Smith-Corona electric typewriter. The manuscripts were produced as ersatz books, complete with art work that Mr. Callaway, not quite 10, organized.

"At an age when most boys are involved in sports and other things, I was also paying keen attention to things like design and form," Mr. Callaway said over lunch.

That interest continued through his years at Phillips Exeter Academy in New Hampshire. After that, the Connecticut-born and Philadelphia-bred Mr. Callaway attended studied classics and comparative literature at Harvard, reading Greek and Latin with Robert Fitzgerald, the translator of The Iliad and The Odyssey. From Harvard it was on to Paris, to work at the fabled Zabriskie Gallery, and also become a photographer in his own right.

In those years, greats such as Henri Cartier-Bresson would come to the gallery. The ebullient Mr. Callaway developed sturdy friendships. He also developed a yearning to be a publisher, and in short order, came to New York, and set up his own company.

He brought out elegantly designed books on Constantin Brancusi's sculptures, and on 20th century icons of photography such as Alfred Stieglitz, Georgia O'Keeffe, and Irving Penn. He also brought out books featuring the work of David LaChapelle; a book of early Parisian photographs by Frenchman Eugene Atget was undertaken in cooperation with the Museum of Modern Art.

Although such books received critical acclaim, it wasn't until the entertainer Madonna - known for her hugely selling pop music and for her colorful lifestyle - decided to author "Sex," a book of text and pictures in 1992, that Mr. Callaway's fortunes improved dramatically. More than 1.4 million copies of the book sold at the retail price of $50. "Sex" was translated into 8 languages.

"I'd brought out 150 assorted volumes before the Madonna book," Mr. Callaway said. "I was well prepared to understand the joys and terrors of being Madonna's publisher."

The publisher became wealthy. He also became famous.

But fame wasn't an alien notion for Mr. Callaway. His late father, Ely Reeves Callaway Jr., started Callaway Golf in 1983, which manufactures Big Bertha - used by Phil Mickelson -- and other models of best-selling golf clubs and equipment; earlier, he'd founded Callaway Vineyard & Winery in 1970 in California. His brother, Ely Reeves Callaway III, turns out sports cars.

So, naturally, there were high expectations of Nicholas Callaway. The reporter sensed that his guest wasn't one to allow timidity to get ahead of him. Now, as Mr. Callaway revels in the success of his downtown publishing company, he allows that he inherited something immensely useful from his father, who died in 2001.

"I have a certain ability to see ahead," Mr. Callaway said. "I do have a sense of what would interest people - even before they sense that interest. But being a publisher is like being a baker. You've got to keep pushing those loaves out of the oven."

Enter Madonna, again.

Mr. Callaway had attended an event at the Beacon Theater in 1996, where a night-gowned Madonna read out children's stories for a young audience. "I saw how Madonna, in the way she read those stories, turned a nightclub into a schoolroom," he recalled.

That triggered an idea. Why not get the star to write books for children?

"Here was this entertainment figure with global name recognition," Mr. Callaway said. "She had cross-cultural appeal."

The question was, of course, how Madonna would "cross over" into the world of children's literature where critics - adults, that is - were notoriously persnickety. But Mr. Callaway already had had plenty of experience by then with producing children's books. He had signed on David Kirk, an author and illustrator, whose "Miss Spider" books had sold in the millions. (Mr. Kirk continues to work with Mr. Callaway, and now produces not only books but also toys, television, and DVDs. The publisher has sold more than 5 million of Mr. Kirk's books.)

"I'm a good discoverer and purveyor of talent," Mr. Callaway said, with a broad smile. He also knew that Madonna was "a master of re-invention - and so her books were bound to succeed."

It took a few years for him to persuade Madonna - not the least because she had other commitments, including marriage and motherhood.

"She sent me the manuscript for five stories at the same time, suggesting that they might be published in one volume," Mr. Callaway said. "I suggested that they be published individually and the first of them, 'The English Roses,' was released in 40 languages simultaneously in September 2003 - a broader simultaneous co-edition than had ever been achieved in publishing."

The series has sold more than 2 million copies worldwide in the last 18 months, with more than 1 million for "The English Roses" alone. Illustrators for each book were selected from different parts of the world. The fifth book of Madonna's series, "Lotsa de Casha," will be released globally on June 7.
Madonna and Mr. Callaway are now working on a sixth book, a sequel to "The English Roses"; it's expected to be published in Fall 2006.

Asked by the New York Sun what it was like working with Mr. Callaway, Madonna said: "I enjoy collaborating with Nicholas because he has impeccable taste. He has been especially helpful in identifying and working with illustrators for each book. I look forward to continuing work with him on future books."

Mr. Callaway is canny enough to know that a small-sized, private-held publishing company such as his - irrespective of the success that he's obtained - needs to expand beyond books. He's developed partnerships with Nickelodeon, Scholastic, and Target. He's produced a hit computer-animated preschool TV series on Nick Jr., "Miss Spider's Sunny Patch Friends," based on Mr. Kirk's Miss Spider books. He's turning out video games. Feature films are in the works.

"As publishers, we need to be broadband in our sensibility," Mr. Callaway said. "Creating and owning intellectual property can be an excellent business model."

That model is nourished by his 20-person, closely-knit team of editors, designers and computer animators. And Mr. Callaway has his own "ongoing R&D team" - his children, Nikeyu, 13, and Issey, 10, who, along with his wife, Yukine, are "quite forthright" in giving their opinion about his ideas.

"When I look back on the trajectory of my career, I realize that it's been a very long road from creating something for a small audience to a very large global audience," Mr. Callaway said. "And that's been thrilling."

Pranay Gupte,
Senior Writer and Global-Affairs Columnist


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