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Publishers Weekly Children's Features

Breaking Out of Format Formulas
-- 11/9/98

Publishers are coming up with some innovative looks for fiction and series

Thumbing through publishers' latest catalogues or strolling through the kids' section of a bookstore, an observer will notice an abundance of new fall titles in tried-and-true formats: horizontal or vertical hardcover picture books, digest-size paperbacks targeted at readers between the ages of eight and 12 and rack-size paperback novels for teenagers. But increasingly visible are children's books with less conventional specs. Conversations with publishers and booksellers revealed the thinking behind some of these experiments, as well as the reactions of bookstore buyers and consumers.

The search for something unusual, as is often the case in publishing, appears in part to have been motivated by a surfeit of titles in certain genres, making it difficult for individual titles to stand out. Jean Feiwel, publisher of Scholastic, the company that gave grateful booksellers and millions of young devotees digest-size paperback series such as the Baby-sitters Club, Goosebumps and Animorphs, observed, "Paperback series for middle-grade readers can still work, but there is an awfully lot of space already spoken for -- and certainly we have most of it. Yet our recent moves in new directions don't mean that we don't feel traditional paperback series publishing is no longer viable."

Several booksellers credited one recent Scholastic move with sparking what appears to be a trend toward issuing children's series in hardcover. In fall 1996, the publisher brought out the first three installments of its Dear America series, diaries of fictitious girls writing from various points in American history. Currently, 12 Dear America books are available, with a total of 3.5 million copies of them in print.

In an attempt to reach out to boy readers, Scholastic this fall introduced My Name Is America, an identically formatted companion series viewing historical periods through the journals of young men. Launching the series with first printings of 100,000 copies each, the two debut books focus on boys living in pre-Revolutionary War Boston and in Virginia during the Civil War.

Creating a Winning Package

Selecting a fitting format for the Dear America line was not difficult, Feiwel said, recalling that "the idea for this series sprung fully formed in terms of content and format together. We wanted these books to have a special, enduring quality to them. Our intention was to create a book that was a replica of an actual diary -- almost as if a reader stumbled upon a diary left behind by someone who lived long ago."

To this end, the publisher decided to give the series a trim size traditionally associated with personal journals, a bit smaller than a standard children's hardcover. In addition, a satiny ribbon, an age-old feature in diaries, is bound into each volume to serve as a bookmark.

Feiwel observed that Dear America's hardcover format has also helped convey immediately -- to booksellers as well as their customers -- what she described as "the high quality of the writing found within. There seems to be an expectation in the industry that series books may not be great literature. We wanted this series to fly in the face of that thinking. We wanted to make it very clear that we are serious about these books and about their authors."Buyers for retail stores were quick to praise the quality of Dear America's package and content, as well as the perceived value of the volumes, which at $9.95 are priced significantly lower than standard hardcovers. Colleen Shipman, manager and children's buyer at The Book Rack and Children's Pages in Winooski, Vt., remarked, "With the caliber of the authors Scholastic has selected to write these books [including Patricia McKissack and Mary Pope Osborne], I am happy to stand behind this series, and we are doing extremely well with it. I find that people are more willing to take a chance on an author they may not be familiar with when a book is priced at $9.95 rather than $14.95. And they are definitely willing to spend more than they would pay for a paperback because of these books' historical aspect. Both teachers and parents are aware that this series has an educational value for kids, and that makes it worth the price."

Similarly, Celeste Risko, a children's book buyer for the 228-store Borders chain, has discovered that the historical angle of this series has also hooked teachers, who view the diaries as useful supplementary reading in their classrooms. In Risko's words, "Not just any series can work in this format, and I wondered at first about selling books in a series for $9.95. But part of the success here is the inclusion of historical information. This makes the books appealing to parents and teachers, who are accustomed to paying more for nonfiction than for fiction."

Booksellers were a little more cautious about the prospects for another recent Scholastic venture with an experimental format. Rachel Vail's The Friendship Ring, launched in July with If You Only Knew and Please, Please, Please, is a sequence of novels about a 12-year-old and her circle of friends. These small-format books, released simultaneously in a $14.99 hardcover and a $4.99 paperback edition, have a 51/2'' x 5'' pocket-size trim; cloth versions have the same dimensions as a CD and the paperbacks are slightly smaller. With the November publication of the third title, Not That I Care, there will be 350,000 copies of The Friendship Ring books in print.While Dear America's facsimile-journal format was an obvious choice for that series, a good deal more deliberation went into the design of Vail's series, according to Feiwel. "I felt so strongly about what Rachel had written that I wanted people to take notice," she said. "I did not want these books to be put onto bookstore shelves and then be ignored. We also wanted to make a statement that these novels are more sophisticated than much middle-grade fiction, which was another reason to do them in a different format."

When art director David Saylor came up with the idea of a CD-size trim size for the books, Feiwel knew they would be more costly to produce than a standard digest-size volumes, and that publishing in a format that isn't easily displayed on traditional shelving might be chancy. But, she explained, "We all talked long and hard about this and finally Barbara Marcus [executive v-p of Scholastic] and I decided to take the risk. Doing new and different things d sn't always work, but if you don't try, you'll never do anything in a big way."

Greater Interest in Hardcover Series

Those at the marketing and editorial helms at Bantam Doubleday Dell Books for Young Readers have certainly embraced the Dear America-style hardcover series format in a big way. Last fall, Delacorte came out with the inaugural titles in the Portraits of Little Women series, new tales about Louisa May Alcott's March sisters, penned by Susan Beth Pfeffer. Unjacketed, $9.95 hardcovers with a trim size just a bit smaller than the Dear America books, the nine titles in this line also feature ribbon bookmarks. The October publication of Christmas Dreams: Four Stories brings the series' total in-print figure above the 350,000-copy mark. Also in this paper-over-board format (sans bookmark) are the four volumes in Joan Lowery Nixon's Orphan Train Children, a Delacorte series that debuted last March as a follow-up to this author's popular Orphan Train Adventures.

Shedding light on the decision to publish these series in hardcover, Kevin Jones, v-p of marketing and sales development for BDD BFYR, spoke of "what we see as a dramatic shift in the marketplace. Middle-grade and YA series publishing has long been a paperback business, and the rise of these series, starting with Sweet Valley Twins and the Baby-sitters Club, really mirrors the expansion of the mall bookstores. In the last five years there has been a striking decline in bookstore space in malls, where eight-to-12-year-old girls used to go and select their own books, which tended to be the paperback series. And we've also seen that accounts serviced by ID wholesalers, notably supermarket and drugstore chains, are carrying fewer paperback series than in the past."

Given this retail climate, Jones and his colleagues concluded that a wise move in launching a middle-grade series was to follow the attractively priced hardcover route that was smoothly paved by Dear America, which Jones called "a highly visible success story and a nice bit of publishing." The goal, he explained, was to "merchandise our books in such a way that we didn't price ourselves out of mall stores, but publish in a format that superstores and independent bookstores will value. I believe if we had released Portraits of Little Women in paperback, we would not have received the enthusiastic response we were able to get from the superstores and independents, where typical customers are parents and grandparents looking to buy children's books as gifts. The only thing we might have seen was the support of mall stores."

Jones also cited the advantage of publishing books at a higher price point in order to offer more generous co-op policies and receive attention in store newsletters and holiday catalogues, as well as more visible point-of-sales positioning. And a key benefit of the hardcover format, commented Beverly Horowitz, v-p, deputy publisher and editor-in-chief of BDD BFYR, is that it gives series such as Portraits and Orphan Train Children "strong appeal as both gifts and collectibles."

On the basis of their experience selling these series, booksellers were quick to agree. "We must never underestimate the importance of our grandparent customers, who are always looking to buy children's books as gifts." observed Jen Haller, director of book purchasing for Joseph-Beth Booksellers in Cincinnati.

This marketing strategy applies to non-series publishing as well, as in the case of the latest book -- and first hardcover -- by Lurlene McDaniel, who has written many popular mass-market paperback novels. Just out from Bantam with a 40,000-copy first printing, Starry, Starry Night collects three inspirational holiday stories in an $8.95 paper-over-board volume whose trim size mimics a mass-market paperback.

"Though we are not publishing this as strictly a holiday book," Horowitz remarked, "this is the perfect time of year to market it, when both kids and adults are looking for something gift-like. I think we'll see Lurlene's fans willing to pay a higher price. This is a great chance for her to expand into a new marketplace." Booksellers generally agreed with this assessment, including Borders' Risko, who predicted the book will be "an impulse holiday buy, an easy parent and grandparent sell."

Experimenting at the Younger Age Range

Those in the business of creating reading material for preschoolers and youngest readers have also put much thought -- and research -- into the question of ideal formats for this audience. An obvious example is HarperCollins' Growing Tree imprint, which made its debut last January with a line of board books and paper-over-board picture books whose color-coded spines designate very specific age levels. Mary Alice Moore, v-p and director of brand publishing for HarperCollins Children's Books, explained that after extensively surveying the marketplace, she and fellow staffers concluded that many picture books were age-appropriate in terms of content but their formats were "wildly off."

Workshops with preschool teachers, day-care providers and parents, as well as time spent observing children, confirmed the discovery that, in Moore's words, "The notion that little tiny hands need little tiny books is not at all true. Little hands can't manipulate little books since their fine motor skills are not great. After much testing, we decided on a 7" x 7" format for Growing Tree board books, which are easy for children to hold and large enough to showcase the art. And our picture books are 8 1/4" x 8 1/4", smaller than standard picture books, but an ideal size for lap reading, since the square book becomes horizontal when opened." In a further attempt to be toddler-friendly, all Growing Tree titles have rounded corners, and the picture books feature durable card-stock pages and gatefolds rather than easy-to-rip flaps.

The Growing Tree books have received kudos from booksellers and, if sales are any indication, from parents as well: the publisher has shipped close to 500,000 copies to date of the imprint's 24 titles. Haller of Joseph-Beth gives HarperCollins high marks for the line's precise focus on age levels and the company's marketing efforts. "The publisher has made handselling these books very easy, since booksellers can quickly direct parents to an age-appropriate book," she observed. "And they did a superb job creating a permanent display that has helped establish a strong brand identification."

Optimistic Outlooks

Publishers that have been tweaking traditional formats are uniformly bullish on their recent ventures and seem to have avoided potential pitfalls. The new, more highbrow middle-grade fiction series have reportedly encountered minimal price resistance from either book buyers or consumers, given the perceived value of a hardcover book priced under $10. Even if a company d s not create a specific in-store display for a new hardcover series launch, the departure from standard trim sizes in most cases is not drastic enough to create shelving problems.

And increased production costs are apparently not affecting margins. To this last point, Horowitz credits up-to-date technology for enabling publishers to make early and informed decisions about the look and cost of book projects that call for experimental formats. "With the computers we have, a designer can give us such a strong vision of what a book will look like. And if it's not quite right, he or she can come back, maybe even in 15 minutes, with 10 variations -- in size, in color. This makes a big difference in format issues. We can make decisions early on without impacting finances or creating a time lag."

Asked whether toying with standard formats is a trend that will build, publishers generally agreed that they will continue to be selective in their hardcover ventures but will be on the lookout for additional opportunities to explore new formats. "If you continue to go over the same ground, the grooves just get deeper and deeper," Feiwel commented. "It's much more fun and more challenging to break new ground." And booksellers concurred that they would like to see more middle-grade hardcover series, especially with historical hooks.

But hasn't some of this turf been tilled in the past? "What g s around comes around," Horowitz said, pointing out the cyclical nature of many aspects of the children's book business, including format choices. After all, didn't today's parents of middle-graders read the mysteries of Nancy Drew and The Hardy Boys in paper-over-board editions? Plus ça change...
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