Four longtime children’s publishing experts gave an optimistic but realistic view of the children’s book scene, circa 2012, at the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators Winter Conference last weekend in New York City. The panel, “Children’s Books, Today and Tomorrow: Four Expert Impressions,” was chaired by SCBWI executive director Lin Oliver, who asked the speakers to first address the many changes in the children’s book industry that have taken place over the last few years.

Barbara Marcus, strategic innovations advisor to Penguin, advisor to Open Road Integrated Media, and former president of Scholastic Children’s Book Publishing and Distribution, said a big change she has seen is that “traditionally, hardcovers sold to the libraries, primarily middle-grade fiction.” But now, she said, “if you look at bestseller lists, we as children’s publishers can establish bestselling hardcover titles that can sell better than adult publishers – a real credit to all of us.” She used the success of John Green’s new YA novel, The Fault in Our Stars, as an example of “it’s all about getting your core readers. Adult [reader]s are your icing and you’ll hit it out of the park.”

Jean Feiwel, svp and publishing director of the Macmillan Children's Book Group, and founder of the Feiwel and Friends imprint, who ran Scholastic’s editorial department for many years, said that without question, “The size of publishers’ lists has come down. Everyone looked at their lists and made their own kind of correction. It has forced everyone to say what can I do well, what can our house do well. We have to know our own core strengths.”

Feiwel pointed to recent upheavals in the retail landscape. “Borders going out of business has been devastating. We don’t know where those buyers have gone. That was a huge loss, but the whole local market has been very encouraging. Local bookstores have been growing, and they’re responsible for a lot of word of mouth.”

Discussing another aspect of the changes at the retail level, Feiwel stated, “Amazon is a big threat. It’s a huge problem for our bricks and mortar business. They’ve become a huge bully in the room. On the one hand I’m grateful because they made bestsellers for us. But I’m also afraid.”

But the four panelists were bullish about the industry and where it is going. Nancy Paulsen, president and publisher of Nancy Paulsen Books at Penguin, drew cheers from the crowd when she announced, “The picture book form is alive and well.” She said she believes there are still “real opportunities with picture books,” pointing out that parents don’t really want their kids to read picture books on an iPhone.

“Most children’s publishing houses are saying that this has been a good year,” Marcus reported. “Everyone seems to have figured it out. Talk about the importance of going beyond just publishing books you love – you have to go the next five steps, help the sales department sell it, figure out how it’s going to go out of the bookstore.”

Rubin Pfeffer, an agent with the East West Literary Agency, and former publisher of Simon & Schuster Children’s Books, said he was “feeling optimistic” these days. “Remarkable progress has been made in digital publishing becoming a vital part of our industry, if not in the present than in the future,” he said, and cited Apple’s recent digital textbooks announcement as an exciting development.

He also told the crowd that a publisher’s acquisition meetings are not a “death knell” to writers who want to be published. “It’s come to be important because you’re not just publishing a book that an editor is a champion of, but a book that several people are a champion of. We’re publishing fewer titles, we’ve got to publish fewer titles better.”

Marcus conveyed her impressions from the recent Digital Book World conference, saying, “Growth in children’s books is still so small. The devices are expensive, and not very good with children’s books. The people who are in charge of etailers don’t have much of a clue about children’s books.”

She acknowledged the loss of Borders as a sales outlet, though she believes people are finding other places to buy their books. “I worry about the ability to merchandise and have people find books. Discoverability is an issue.”

All of the panelists counseled the audience to help market their books, through social media, through networking, through any means available. Feiwel’s advice: “Build your own communities as you go along. Your publisher needs you to be a partner in that. Be an advocate for your own work. Within a publishing house, it takes a village. The house has to be behind a book.” Pfeffer spoke about how social media entails a new responsibility for writers and illustrators. And Marcus said, “I do think yes, there’s an expectation of being more of a marketer. What organizations might find my story appealing? I do think it’s your role to get the word out.”

With an eye toward where the industry might be heading, Pfeffer talked about “the new kinds of publishers coming to the surface.” Some are rising quickly, he said, citing digital publisher Open Road. “But it’s still content being delivered to an audience.”

Marcus addressed the issue of self-publishing, pointing out that there are pros and cons to taking this approach. “There’s a huge difference between doing it yourself” and having it published for you, she said. “It’s exciting and you do have a lot of options.” But there’s an advantage, she believes, in “having a publisher as an advocate for your book.”

“It is frustrating – not everyone is going to get published,” Feiwel added. “There may come a time when self-publishing is more effective than it is right now.” She gave the example of Nancy Tillman, a self-published illustrator whose books Feiwel discovered and published. “There are success stories,” she said, “and people who end up selling to a traditional house, or not. Nancy said to me, ‘I’m tired of being a distributor. I just want to do my art.’ ” And Pfeffer warned that self-publishing “is not a dumping ground. You still need to have all the same credentials.”

Touching on another reality of the business, Feiwel said that as an author “you have to make money for the company.” She said “the good news and bad news about Harry Potter,” which Feiwel and Marcus published during their long joint tenure at Scholastic, “is that its phenomenal success set the bar very high. If you are a successful publisher, that allows you to do books that are not as successful, but this is a bestseller business.” And “timing is everything,” Marcus pointed out. “If I’ve just acquired three vampire novels and you come in with yours, you’re not going to be the fourth.

All four panelists were asked to give the audience members one piece of advice, in terms of their writing. “Your content should touch the ear, the soul, or the funnybone, however you write it,” Pfeffer said. Marcus advised, “Stick with your network first. Keep getting feedback and keep talking to people. It’s the person that I never expect who gives me the best advice.”

Feiwel and Paulsen were even more succinct. “Stay strong, have fun,” said Feiwel. And Paulsen ended with three words: “Read, read, read.”