Six children’s book editors from the U.S. and Canada traveled to Germany in mid-June with Riky Stock, director of the German Book Office in New York City, as part of the GBO’s 13th editors’ trip to promote German literature.
With a full schedule that included meetings with large and small publishers, as well as visits to a German bookstore and an artists’ studio, and meetings with a professor of children’s literature and an agent, the group got a weeklong lesson in international publishing.
Invited participants in this year’s trip, which took place June 16–22, were Stacey Barney, editor at Penguin/Firebird; Sheila Barry, publisher at Groundwood Books; Connie Hsu, editor at Little, Brown Books for Young Readers; Grace Maccarone, executive editor at Holiday House; Ben Rosenthal, acquisitions editor at Enslow/Scarlet Voyage; and Reka Simonsen, executive editor at Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.
According to Stock, picture books were the “hot topic” of the trip and the resulting conversations were sometimes heated, but always helpful. Some of the topics the visitors and their hosts discussed were where books are printed, if and when illustrators should be included in discussions on cover art for imports, illustration styles and sensibilities, and the target age for picture books.
While there are a few commonalities between the North American and German picture book markets, the editors noted that there are more differences than similarities. “The most noticeable similarities are not surprising. Picture books introduce young children to reading,” Rosenthal said. “In addition, there’s a focus on branding characters and merchandising. However, one major difference I noticed is that German picture books tend to have more text on the pages. The books are often longer, indicating more reading at an earlier age.”
Barry remarked on another difference. “Many of the publishers we met with do not see a market for picture books for children older than six years old,” she said. “Several of them bridge the gap between picture books and chapter books with a category that doesn’t really exist in North America, the “family book,” which is a longer work or an anthology that is meant to be read aloud by an adult. It still has some illustrations, but also has a great deal more text we would find in a picture book.” Simonsen agreed, adding, “Older kids don’t like to be seen with babyish picture books – yet these books are far more text-heavy than most American picture books for this age range.”
For Hsu, the similarities were in how “the successful commercial picture books seemed to branch out into franchise brands, [like] Fancy Nancy and Bad Kitty have done. One of their biggest brands – in fact, one of Europe’s biggest brands – is The Gruffalo by Julia Donaldson, illustrated by Axel Scheffler.” However, due to the fact that there is not much of a school and library market in Germany, Hsu said, “Their top-selling picture books had more of a mass market, commercial appeal, while in our market, more literary styles by artists such as Jon Klassen, Peter Brown, and Oliver Jeffers are able to hit the bestseller list.”
Picture books make up less than 20% of the German children’s book market, yet publishers do not fear that number decreasing, for a few reasons. As Rosenthal noted, “Fixed book pricing in Germany allows the markets to remain relatively stable, including the picture book market.” And because retailers are not allowed to discount books without publishers’ approval, Hsu said, “I learned that books are seen culturally as collectibles, items people cherish and keep on their shelves, rather than discount items that are meant to be tossed away.”
Retailing, Collaborating, Connecting
While in Hamburg, the editors toured a branch of Thalia, a chain of 300 bookstores located throughout Germany, Switzerland, and Austria. All of the visitors noted the interesting way that picture books are displayed in Germany. “The store had the picture books stacked vertically, face out, in bins similar to how records and CDs are displayed in our music stores,” said Rosenthal. As Hsu observed, “The advantage is that books don’t get lost on the shelves, since picture book spines are so thin.” German bookstores are set apart from those in North America in another way. “The staff receives professional training for three years, and they are very knowledgeable,” Maccarone said.
Stock said that there seems to be a surge of talented German artists making their way onto the book scene, and some of them are working together in an interesting way. Six artists who call themselves Das Labor share a studio in Frankfurt. They work on their own projects, but they have also pooled their talents for a series of books. “They came up with Kinder Kuenstler-Kritzelbuch, which translates to Children’s Artist Doodlebook, and they are the most innovative books,” said Stock. Beltz & Gelberg is publishing the series.
As for whether the trip will spawn a crop of German translations making their way to North America, that might well be the case. In fact, a few of the editors already had relationships with German publishers, and others have German translations on forthcoming lists. Holiday House has Best Foot Forward by Ingo Arndt on its fall 2013 list, and Scarlet Voyage, Enslow’s new YA imprint, is publishing two German novels in January 2014, Freak City by Kathrin Schrocke and In the River Darkness by Marlene Röder. Groundwood has been publishing foreign titles for years, and for publisher Barry, the trip was an opportunity to make new connections. “It is a sad fact that North American children are not as aware of the rest of the world as they could be,” she said. “The more books we can make available in translation, the more we are opening the world up for children, and what could be more important than that?” Barney said she is always looking for international voices for Penguin, and was surprised to learn that “only 46 German books [adult and children’s combined] were translated into the U.S. market last year.” But on the flip side, she said, “Half of the German market is made up of U.S. licenses. I do think the American market can take a lesson from this and bring in more international voices.”
The new relationships formed will help make the possibility of more German books making their way into the North American market more real, but there is still a fairly large barrier to any publisher taking on imports: translation costs. Rosenthal summed it up well when he said, “If American and German publishers – or any international publishers – can work together more with foreign authors, translators, and agents to get books published here, we could see a growth of translations in the U.S. However, it has to be a more collaborative process, and we need to discuss new models to make it happen more efficiently and productively.”