Last month, Betsy Groban joined Houghton Mifflin as v-p and publisher of children's books. After a long career at Little, Brown, Groban left in 1996, and became managing director at the WGBH Educational Foundation. We spoke to her about her return to trade publishing, after three weeks on the job.
What has changed about children's publishing since you left?
My primary reaction is how many familiar faces are still around. It seems relatively stable. It feels more similar than dissimilar, because so many of the people are still in their jobs, and there are a lot of the same authors.
I think the books look a whole lot better. The design has gotten a lot more appealing, in picture books as well as novels. Everything looks vastly improved. There's a lot more emphasis on making the books appealing to the kids.
I also notice the huge growth in fiction. That area has really exploded. And there are so many good novels! The quality is unbelieveable. Another thing that's new is the Printz Award for YA books, which is fantastic.
What do people in the non-publishing world know that publishers should?
Public television is ahead of publishers in terms of going to their viewers where they live—in the case of kids, that's online. You have to go where they live, and that's where they live. On pbs.org, millions of viewers are interacting with the content online. That's something I miss in publishing, as a promotional opportunity.
What do you see as some of the biggest issues facing the industry today?
A lot has to do with the Internet. Podcasting is big now, but what are the grandchildren of podcasting? What is the unforeseen technology? Especially since children are early adopters of technology. And what role does a good old-fashioned book play in that? We're trying to ensure that children's books keep pace with the technology and that our core business is still necessary in children's lives.
Are you glad to be back in publishing? What did you miss?
Public television and children's books both have a strong sense of mission. In terms of creating the best possible book or television show, the mission is the same. Public broadcasting is a beleaguered industry these days. There's a constant struggle for funding. In publishing there's a more straightforward financial equation: you have to sell books and make a profit.
I'm hugely glad to be back. I really enjoyed doing something else in the middle of my life, and I enjoyed television, but this feels fantastic. The best thing about being back in publishing is all the reading. I'm so happy that after many years of enforced television watching, my "homework" at night is reading again.