The Global Kids Connect conference, organized by Publishers Weekly and the Bologna Children’s Book Fair and held December 2 in New York City, offered a wide-ranging look at the impact of digital media, physical books, trends, and the future of reading in a global children’s and young adult book market.
The conference, which also included a separate session on Doing Business in China the following morning, offered an expert lineup of publishers, editors, and agents, who offered professional perspectives on everything from content creation and licensing to doing business in China. Indeed the focus was on learning and sharing perspectives on serving a global marketplace.
“Content may be king, but discovery is the key to the kingdom,” said David Kleeman, senior v-p at Dubit, during a morning presentation about the challenges publishers face in an overcrowded media landscape, as well as the ways children are reading, both in print and online. Drawing on data from Dubit’s own research, Kleeman revealed that 70% of children surveyed “strongly or tend to” prefer print to digital, as well as to share physical books with friends as recommendations.
PW licensing correspondent Karen Raugust moderated a conversation with Peter Yoder of the Cartoon Network and Michael Kelly of Hasbro, during which they discussed the evolution of licensed publishing (a category that “used to have a bad reputation” due in part to “logo slaps” on subpar products, said Kelly), collaborating with publishers, and engaging with fan-created content. “For the most part, we try to embrace what our fans are doing and what our fans are talking about,” said Yoder. Both felt that traditional demographic divisions were softening, with their properties’ appeal stretching across ages and genders. “Years ago, we would have said that My Little Pony is a girl’s brand, and Transformers is a boy’s brand,” said Kelly. “And that’s just such a narrow, limited thinking.”
“It’s much more expensive to originate a book than to translate a book,” said moderator Claudia Zoe Bedrick, publisher of Enchanted Lion Books in Brooklyn, during an afternoon panel about the art and business of translation. Participants included translator Antony Shugaar, Topipittori co-founder Paolo Cantori, and Gecko Press publisher Julia Marshall. “Translation is a very squishy thing to try to describe,” said Shugaar. “The best metaphor for translation is the metaphor. If you try to bring everything over you’re not going to get what the original was.” The panelists agreed that bringing translated works into their home markets can yield surprises. “The least successful [projects] are the ones we as publishers love the most,” said Canton, garnering a few knowing laughs from both the panel and audience. Added Marshall, “The books you think will be quiet books turn out to be the loud ones, and the ones you think will be loud fall into the hole.”
During the panel called Changing Global Trends for Kids and YA, Heather Lennon, managing director of NorthSouth Books, the U.S. arm of Swiss house NordSud Verlag, spoke of “sustained growth and increased title count” in the children’s marketplace, generally. She was echoed by moderator Kate Wilson, managing director of London-based children’s house Nosy Crow, who noted that the U.K. kids’ marketplace was “down a bit but better than 2013.” Indeed she noted that the U.K. children’s marketplace, which does not include YA results, would be in better shape if it did. The panel—which also included Julia Marshall of New Zealand’s Gecko Press and Annie Stone of Alloy Entertainment—examined the power of U.S. media properties on the global market as well as trends in YA fiction.
Stone noted that adult and YA reading habits generally “overlapped,” noting that projects at Alloy are often pitched as a YA version of an adult series. “Teens are reading adult titles and adults are reading YA,” she noted, particularly citing the fantasy genre and popularity of TV shows like Game of Thrones. Wilson noted that “U.S. trends, driven by social media, travel faster,” adding that “kids in the U.K. are very influenced by U.S. media.”
The group also examined trends such as coloring books, coffee table books, and nonfiction for kids (often driven by the Common Core standards), and books by bloggers as well as the growth in popularity of middle-grade graphic novels. Lennon noted that “the picture book audience in America is becoming more and more sophisticated” and U.S. consumers are much comfortable with translated foreign content. “Now with the growth of streaming content on the Internet, people are more open, humor is more sophisticated and subversive,” Lennon said. “Also the books we acquire are more diverse and we think about that when we look for titles overseas.” The panel also noted the controversy over gender-targed books (“the pink and blue” controversy, Wilson said), the growth of “typographic” cover design—more appealing to boys uneasy about reading a girl-branded book—and teen resistance to the YA label. Nevertheless, Lennon said, “there’s a ton of blue and pink books out there.”
The final panel of the day, called Answering the Hard-Hitting Questions, featured Barbara Marcus, president and publisher of Random House Children’s Books U.S., agents Rosemary Stimola and Ginger Clark, and moderator Kate Wilson, who examined such topics as the impact of digital, the status of territorial rights, and the future of the physical books. “Print is not going away. We will keep giving physical books to kids as gifts,” Clark said.
Marcus said that digital was still a small part of sales: “apps are difficult and not money makers, but social media has turned marketing on its head.” Marcus also noted that initial projections that schools would switch over completely to digital reading were wrong, and “kids are still learning on physical books.” Wilson said, “Apps that do work tell the story differently and make us think about what you can do only on paper.” And she noted that digital offered “speed to market and connecting to readers.”
Marcus emphasized that “the kids’ book business is strong and retailers are looking to expand shelving space.” She said the biggest challenges were “access to kids,” and “economics and diversity,” part of a continuing conversation. “Children always want stories. We don’t have to worry about format,” Stimola said. Clark agreed, noting that “we’re better at accepting whatever kids want to read—even a comic book is a book and we’re getting better at accepting graphic novels.”
In a changing children’s marketplace transformed by digital and self-publishing, Wilson challenged the panelists to tell her “what’s a publisher for,” in this new landscape. “Editing, packaging, production, distribution and sales reps that put books in front of retailers. The process is what makes a publisher relevant to authors,” said Marcus. “The challenge of self-publishing has made publishers, as well as agents, better at articulating what it is that we do,” Clark added.
Click here to see our photo essay from the evening's reception for PW's Children's Starred Reviews Issue.
With reporting by John A. Sellers, Natasha Gilmore, and Matia Burnett.