Capitalizing on trends, having big-picture visions, and making project pitches stand out while also appealing to niche audiences were some of the topics addressed during an April 16 American Book Producers Association panel called “Straight Talk on Juvenile Publishing.” The panel featured three speakers: Wesley Adams, executive editor at Farrar, Straus and Giroux Books for Young Readers; Sarah Fabiny, editor-in-chief for series and licenses at Grosset & Dunlap and PSS, in the Penguin Young Readers Group; and Beverly Horowitz, v-p and publisher at Random House/Delacorte. ABPA treasurer Valerie Tomaselli served as moderator.

After a round of introductions, during which Horowitz reflected on the evolution of children’s books from “second-class citizens” to the darlings of the book world, the panelists got down to business, addressing the specifics of what publishing houses are currently seeking.

In the spirit of collaboration and the shared goal of creating memorable books, Adams reached out to the audience with a plea to agents and authors to develop savvy and attention-grabbing elevator pitches for new projects that include relevant editorial and sales comparisons, contextualizing a book in terms of audience and marketing. “The pitch given to me is the pitch I want to use in-house,” he said.

Fabiny remarked on the value of having a vision for a book and the “need for the right ammunition” when pitching a project to a publisher. Horowitz agreed on the importance of succinct, streamlined messaging and of envisioning a book’s niche in the world from the get-go. However, she pointed out that while cogent comparisons between a new project and existing books are helpful, pitches should also emphasize how a book is exceptional and will stand out from previous titles: “There are many projects that seem to be too similar,” she said.

Taking Stock of New State Standards

Sometimes change is the only constant – and a recent sea change has been causing some ripples in the industry, particularly regarding school and library marketing. The educational policies of No Child Left Behind are giving way to the hot new topic: the Common Core. Citing abundant recent coverage of the initiative, Horowitz volunteered her own definition of the state standards: “Common Core is helping young people have facts and learn to think,” she said. “That makes nonfiction a broader and more important category than a few years ago.” And smartly crafted, well-tailored nonfiction books, she believes, can be an invaluable asset in an age where online misinformation is ubiquitous. However, in addition to carefully selecting topics of interest to young readers and including captivating visuals, it’s critical for book publishers and book packagers to keep in mind an e-book platform during book design.

While the panelists agreed that they have not actively modified their acquisition practices with regard to Common Core, Horowitz and Adams acknowledged that it does offer an exciting opportunity to expand and enrich their nonfiction lists.

Fabiny is on the lookout for “fun and funky” nonfiction books that “shouldn’t look like homework.” Adams reported that FSG’s parent company, Macmillan, has published a modest but steady number of nonfiction titles over the years, and has had particular success with children’s adaptations of adult nonfiction titles, most notably Bill O’Reilly’s Lincoln’s Last Days, a middle reader version of the author’s bestselling adult book, Killing Lincoln; in addition, a young reader’s adaptation of O’Reilly’s Killing Kennedy: The End of Camelot will be published in June as Kennedy’s Last Days.

Adams also noted that a significant number of the properties outsourced from publishers to book packagers are nonfiction titles. His segue was welcomed by the audience members, who were eager to learn more about whether Common Core might translate to a higher demand for packaging services.

To Package or Not to Package?

Having cofounded the children’s book packager Pinwheel Publishing, Fabiny recognizes the value of the service and empathizes with some of the roadblocks that packagers face. In her current position, she has observed some resistance to using packagers, particularly from those in the production and contracts departments, who feel that using an outside packager can result in having less internal control over a project.

At Delacorte, Horowitz has worked minimally with packagers. She explained that “we have been pretty inventive ourselves,” in terms of packaging and exploring innovative rebranding. For example, in anticipation of Caroline B. Cooney’s final book in the Janie series, Janie Face to Face, the imprint reissued all of Cooney’s previous books in the series, beginning with The Face on the Milk Carton. The titles feature new cover art with potentially greater appeal for a new generation of readers. While she says she is “not against” packagers, Horowitz feels that envisioning a book’s total package (so to speak) – from concept design to positioning in bookstores – is a primary responsibility of the editors.

Adams described the process of acquiring books from U.K. publishers as “a kind of packaging situation,” and one that has presented quite a few wrinkles. However, he is currently working with packager Alloy Entertainment on three books, and the collaboration has been quite fruitful. He reported that his imprint even based the finished covers on Alloy’s preliminary designs. He cited this as an example of a book producer offering a vision of a book’s essence, its intended audience, and a marketing angle from the start.

Middle Grade, Visually Oriented Books, and the Return of Contemporary Fiction

On the subject of intended audiences and marketing niches, Tomaselli steered the conversation to trends in middle-grade literature, specifically referencing the use of illustrations in chapter books.

Horowitz agreed that illustrations in middle-grade books are on the uptrend, and said it’s easy to see why. From the Internet and phone apps to movies and television, “kids are visually inundated,” and such a visual culture, she said, requires “thinking more inventively for young readers” who may not be accustomed to heavy blocks of text flow. At one time kids were discouraged from reading highly visual books into their middle grade years; today, such books flood the market – most notably, in the trend of diary-format books that began with the hugely successful Wimpy Kid series. Even YA books are becoming more visual, breaking up text with the language of text messages, e-mails, journals, letters, and drawings, Horowitz said. However, while the tendency toward more visual books may be invaluable for reluctant readers, Adams expressed some concern over teens – and many adults – becoming overly accustomed to reading pictures rather than words.

Questions from the audience sparked discussions about additional changes in the industry over the past couple of decades, the kinds of books that publishers are seeking now, and speculation about things to come. Horowitz pointed out that the unauthorized pop biography – once a hot commodity – seems to have become largely extinct since the Internet made the blitzkrieg of celebrity gossip available with the click of a mouse.

The panelists agreed that the YA pendulum is swinging from the paranormal back to contemporary fiction (though it was always there; it just wasn’t a marketing focus). According to Horowitz, mystery and thrillers are also trickling down from the adult book world. On the topic of the New Adult category, the speakers were largely mum – except for Adams, who joked, “It sounds like porn.”

As was clear throughout the lunchtime discussion, many factors play into a book’s potential: bold ideas that may build upon but are not derivative of previous projects; a title’s e-book adaptability; and the potential for a project to expand to different platforms. Oh, and first and foremost: the panelists agreed that the ineffable, oft-elusive quality of good writing still matters.