Independent Publishers Group Logo

Sign up today...
for featured titles, special offers, bestsellers, and more, in your inbox!

Subscribe to receive special offers, monthly books suggestions, seasonal selections, and more!


IPG Publisher Spotlight: blue manatee press

Share This Post

Dr. John Hutton, renowned child development researcher, pediatrician, literacy expert, author, and owner of blue manatee press and blue manatee children’s bookstore, sits down to discuss how he broke into the publishing industry, his work with The Reach Out and Read Program, and the effect that digital readers have on the brain development of a child.

IPG: First off, the big question—how did you move from pediatrics to the book industry?

Dr. John Hutton: It was about 2001, and I had just finished medical school and started a residency program, and I just wasn’t quite sure what I wanted to do. I’d always liked the idea of writing books. I didn’t think about publishing or anything, but I’ve always loved writing and reading to our kids. I was a big reader when I was little.

At this same time, our local bookshop, then called The Blue Marble, was going out of business. My wife, who’s an artist and a Montessori teacher by training, didn’t want to see it die. So we went in and got into a conversation with the story-time lady and, believe it or not, signed a contract in green crayon saying that we promised to keep the store open as long as they could teach us how to do it. Taking over the store was what really inspired me to dive headfirst into children’s books. I started writing more, and I actually went on leave from medicine for a total of about seven years. I walked away from the hospital (on good terms) because I wanted to invest myself in books.

After enough time passed, increasing research on the health effects of screen time really started to percolate. I had maintained my identity as a doctor and decided to go back to residency with a complete focus on screen time, literacy and reading. Now, through my research, I’m trying to combine my worlds between health and books.

Read Baby, Every Day w logo

IPG: So you started with the bookshop in 2001. When did you get the idea to start blue manatee press?

Dr. John Hutton: That came about around 2011. We were just coming off of my first series, Baby Unplugged Books, and I‘d been shopping them around for a long time. I’d gone to a number of workshops and it became increasingly clear that publishing original board books seemed next to impossible. So a friend of mine who’s an editor at Viking said, “Why don’t you just do this yourself. You have a platform!”  So we did.

Originally we were distributing by ourselves by just calling other bookstores and things of that nature. Then we sent them to IPG and you guys were very responsive. Mary Rowles was the first person we talked to there and everyone was just really, really supportive and positive so we signed on with you guys I think in 2012 or 2013. Since then we have brought on a couple of new staff and really started to build on our list so that now it’s more than just my stuff. It’s mostly other people’s stuff!

We’re now working with authors and illustrators. We started in Cincinnati, but now we have people from a bunch of different states—still baby and picture books. We have plans to expand on our themes, but all with the same emphasis on healthy development and high-quality, interesting, good read-aloud books.

IPG: You mentioned that you just returned from a great conference on the Reach Out and Read program. Can you tell us a little more about that?

Reach Out and Read

Dr. John Hutton: Reach Out and Read is a great international program based in pediatrics and other primary care clinics that serves mostly low-income families. Essentially the way it works is, from six months old to five years old, every child’s pediatrician or family doctor provides a free, age-appropriate book and talks to families about the importance of reading to their child. There’s good evidence that it makes a significant difference towards their future attitudes toward reading and education.

IPG: Tell me about your Love Baby Healthy series.

Dr. John Hutton: Love Baby Healthy was inspired by the Baby Unplugged model, and currently has five titles covering a range of topics that address different infant health issues. The first one was aimed at SIDS reduction, in partnership with a non-profit called Charlie’s Kids. Since then we added titles on calming and crying, breastfeeding, the importance of reading and talking to babies (in partnership with Reach Out and Read), and one on developmental milestones. They’ve been very well-received by home visitors and other public health agencies who use them not only to provide more books to families but also to cover these important topics in a very nonthreatening, user-friendly way, with bookstore quality and aesthetic. They also have been popular baby shower gifts.

IPG: Can you talk a bit about the creative process behind the two series that you’ve authored yourself, Baby Unplugged and Love Baby Healthy?

Dr. John Hutton: It started when I was in residence training here at Cincinnati Children’s. I got really interested in the health effects of excessive screen time on kids, especially very young kids. I did a big research project on the subject and what struck me was that the big driver of excessive screen time is the marketing of apps, videos, etc. as “educational,” even though there’s no evidence that they work. Baby Einstein was the obvious example at the time, and there was a study that had just come out connecting the series and language deficiencies in babies. I also noticed that there really wasn’t so much out there to counter that negative influence.

Baby UnpluggedSo, since we ran the bookstore and I was always interested in writing, I decided to write a children’s book series about all the other things that a child can and should be doing instead of sitting in front of a TV or tablet screen. We called it Baby Unplugged, and I wrote nine of them. The goal wasn’t to beat families over the head and say, “Don’t watch TV.” It was more, “Here are all of the other things you can do that are going to be healthy for your baby, like playing with a ball, or your pets, or in the ocean.”

IPG: It seems like you’ve gotten a lot of really great feedback on these two series. Why do you think they’ve been so well-received?

Dr. John Hutton: They reinforce real guidelines, but they do it in a pretty user-friendly and positive way. They have been popular not just in health settings, but also in retail and in libraries. The people that come up to me most often are grandparents who always say something like, “Thank you so much. I remember when my kids were little and there wasn’t all this other stuff out there and it drives us crazy that their kids are in front of their screens all the time.”

So that model of health information through books inspired the Love Baby Healthy books, which started with a collaboration of the SIDS advocacy group Charlie’s Kids. Charlie’s Kids was started by a colleague of mine at Cincinnati Children’s who lost his son Charlie to SIDS when he was about six weeks old. He approached us about the possibility of developing a book, and so I wrote that book in a similar style—conveying health information without saying “don’t do this” or “don’t do that.” It’s from the point of view of the baby saying, “Here’s how I would like you to put me to sleep safely.”

Those have really taken off. They’re distributed all over the place. The main distribution has been through public health agencies. There are several states that are distributing to every baby born in the state.

As for the other books, Read, Baby, Every Day is a title that has really gotten a lot of traction because it’s probably the most accessible. It’s a very simple concept—reading and talking to your baby—and so that’s been really popular not just in the health market but in regular bookstores and libraries as well.

IPG: How would you saying your “No screens before 3” policy affects your relationship with digital publishing?


Dr. John Hutton: There’s an adage in pediatrics that children are not small grownups. What’s increasingly clear is that the wiring in babies’ brains, especially those under three, just isn’t ready for screens. They don’t really understand or get much value out of video-based concepts.  So there are all sorts of screen-based apps and children’s books where you push the buttons and the animation comes to life and they “read the story,” but it probably does more harm than good in terms of separating the parent and the child and putting more emphasis on the device rather than on the process of reading or play.

I think that the first three years are sacred and that the parent and child should be reading and spending time together. Then, gradually, the child will develop more understanding of how screens work and more independence. Digital media is here to stay, but I just think that it needs to be introduced much more gradually. I take a pretty hard stand against it.

I know it’s a reality that a lot of parents use it, but I don’t really see a lot of value in putting children’s books at that age level in the digital format, unless the parent is reading it with them every time.  That’s the catch. If you’re sitting with a child reading on an iPad it’s probably okay if there aren’t a lot of distractions or animations, but that’s hard to do. Not a lot of folks do that. And traditional books are really a perfect tool because you have to actively read them together.

IPG: It seems like screens are sometimes used as a distraction for the child so the parents can get something else done.

Dr. John Hutton: Exactly, and it’s really ironic, because there are several studies out there looking at the difference between ebooks and regular books in really little kids. One in particular was conducted by Sesame Workshop, the creators of Sesame Street (they’re actually a very reliable source). The interesting finding was that when a child reads on an electric device, they know that they can push buttons and they want to hold it themselves, and then once they do they wind up accidentally clicking into the parents’ email or text messages, and then the discussion all of a sudden becomes about the device itself instead of the story.  On the other hand, you can really only do a couple of things with a plain old-fashioned book.  You can turn the page and you can talk about the story. It’s a much better catalyst for quality time.

Eat baby healthy

IPG : What has your experience been with independent publishing? What is the biggest challenge?

Dr. John Hutton: The hardest thing, as you guys know at IPG, is that there are a whole bunch of us out there. It’s funny because as a bookstore owner I often order from small publishers, so I know how hard it is to keep track of us and you want to make ordering and paperwork as efficient as possible, which limits how many publishers you want to order from.

So it’s incredibly helpful to put it all in one catalog like IPG does, but it still takes a lot of work to get onto the radar of a lot of stores. So that’s our biggest challenge. A lot of our orders are through wholesalers and that’s fine. But in terms of getting the attention of stores and libraries you need to do a lot of pretty aggressive marketing, which for a small operation is expensive and can be pretty tough. So it’s just breaking through in that way and we really depend a lot on making our stuff interesting enough that it gets coverage and reviews.

IPG: It sounds like you’ve grown tremendously in the past four years.

Dr. John Hutton: It’s been exciting, I mean I really think we’re just scratching the surface. Or biggest success to date has been with the health titles, but we want to continue to break through with the general public.  It’s hard with so much out there but we keep working to get through to librarians and parents. Every season we get better but it’s a long process..

Lloyd Llama

IPG: What’s next for blue manatee press?

Dr. John Hutton: We continue to grow our list, and have a lot of exciting stuff coming out. We’re continuing the theme of healthy, developmentally-robust, read-aloud books for younger kids, but we’re definitely expanding and enhancing our other offerings. We’re looking to get into phonics-type books, for example.

One of our authors, Sarah Jones (also the illustrator of the Baby Unplugged Series), has had a lot of success, and one of the ways that she tests her books is by reading them during story time at our store. That gives us a platform to “road test” our books to see if they should make it into the catalog. We’ll take manuscripts that aren’t quite ready yet and read them and see what the kids think. So it creates a sort of laboratory, which is really cool.

Meanwhile I am continuing my evangelism as a researcher in reading with kids and hopefully we’ll draw some attention that way. But our aim is to continue to grow and to make books that families want to read and inspire them to spend this important time together.


To learn more about blue manatee press, visit their website.

All books are published by blue manatee press and distributed by IPG. Available in English and Spanish.

Leave a Reply

Leave a Reply