`Baby-Sitters Club' Series A Big Business For Creator

ULSTER COUNTY, N.Y. - Ten years ago, when she left her publishing job to write children's books full time, Ann M. Martin thought she knew what she was getting into. She would publish a couple of books a year, if fate and editors were kind. She would have a peaceful, semi-anonymous life. Such prospects as unlisted phone numbers and security guards at bookstore appearances never entered the picture.

"I don't like being onstage," Martin says. She is slipping off her shoes and tucking her feet beneath her on the sofa; a striped kitten named Woody takes up residence in her lap. "I thought I'd write a book, see it in the bookstores, then go home and write another. This isn't something I would have chosen for myself."

This being the hoopla - floods of fan mail, promotional tours, merchandising and, now, the movie - that comes with being one of the world's bestselling juvenile authors. A decade ago a Scholastic Inc. editor noticed that titles featuring clubs and titles about baby-sitting registered strong sales and suggested that Martin attempt a series of girls' novels about a baby-sitting club. As an idea, this was roughly akin to, say, envisioning that Americans might wear trousers made from riveted denim.

"Who knew what they would become?" recalls Diane Roback, children's book editor of Publishers Weekly. "The industry hadn't seen that kind of phenomenal success with a series before. Or that staying power over many years."

The new Nancy Drews

Grade-school girls everywhere now wait impatiently for each month's new volume of "The Baby-Sitters Club," set in fictional Stoneybrook, Conn., where a covey of 13-year-olds weathers interpersonal crises and triumphs over adversities.

Fans of the series are apt to amass dozens of the 200-plus titles, including spinoff series and various special editions. Kristy, Claudia, Stacey et al. are probably the most read-about girls since Nancy Drew and her chums.

The BSC's conquest of children's bestseller lists inspired an even more successful Scholastic series, R.L. Stine's boy-friendly "Goosebumps" books, that has lured away some of Martin's potential readers. The BSC movie that opened here Aug. 18 was in the works for three years and may have materialized just in time to stop a sales decline. But Martin's girls, their sales reaching 125 million volumes, remain well ahead of whoever's in third place. How does she do it all?

Martin still seems a bit startled by it all. Here in her country house, with an expanse of the rolling Catskills visible from the rocking chairs on the porch, it's easy to imagine the simple existence - one woman, two cats, novels written longhand on legal pads - she originally had in mind. But Ann M. Martin isn't just a writer these days; she's an industry. A brand name.

"I'm responsible for 12 Baby-Sitters Club books a year," she says, ticking off her daunting workload. "Twelve Little Sister books (the spinoff for younger girls). Six mysteries and about four Ms. Colman books (another Scholastic series about to debut) and two or three other titles. . . . It totals over 30 books a year. I don't think even Stephen King could do it."

As a result, Martin no longer actually writes all the books that bear her name, though she does outline and edit them all, tinkering until other writers' manuscripts sound Martin-like. "Kids know I'm not the actual author of each one," she says. This is nowhere acknowledged on the book jackets, but "it's gotten out. They ask how I can write them all and I say, `I can't.' "

In addition to a stable of ghostwriters (and translators, since the books appear in 19 languages), the Baby-Sitters biz includes people who handle Martin's mail - 17,000 letters annually. And people who monitor the Baby-Sitters Club conference on Prodigy, selecting several letters a week for Martin to respond to online. And a child psychologist, a consultant to Scholastic, who replies (over Martin's signature, of course) to communications from troubled kids.

There are merchandise specialists busily licensing BSC trading cards, dolls, board games. "I didn't want a lot of makeup stuff," says the author, who rides herd on everything related to her creation. "A makeup kit for 9-year-olds? We settled on bath soaps."

And now there are movie publicists as well, as the Baby-Sitters - previously seen on cable - hit the big screen. Martin read every version of the script, talked with director Melanie Mayron, viewed young actresses' audition tapes.

More like "Mary Anne"

Like many of her young readers, Martin particularly identifies with one of the Baby-Sitters. It would be helpful - given the film premiere in Los Angeles and an upcoming tour hitting every single state over two years - if that character were Kristy, the ebullient and slightly self-promoting club founder and president. Alas, Martin feels closest to sweet but introverted Mary Anne.

Growing up in Stoneybrookish Princeton, N.J., "I was definitely her personality - shy, quiet and, especially when I was younger, not very outspoken," she says.

Martin, who just turned 40, was briefly an elementary school teacher before beginning her publishing career, but no classroom could have prepared Martin for crowds at bookstore appearances that average 400 kids, and sometimes swell to 1,000. A security detail has become mandatory.

Her phone is unlisted here and in Greenwich Village, where she spends half the week. Wary of being approached, she asks visitors to her country home not to publicize the town where she lives.

Aside from the loss of privacy, though, Martin is having a nice life, thanks. "I like the ideas the books promote," she says. "Friendship, volunteerism, running one's own business, being independent. If kids reading the books get a dose of that, that's great."