Publishers gathered to discuss the expanding category of children’s mass market nonfiction during a June 6 event held by the American Book Producers Association at the Jefferson Market Library in New York City. The speakers were Kate Hale, senior editor at National Geographic Kids Books; Francesco Sedita, president and publisher of Penguin Workshop; and Orli Zuravicky, senior editor at Scholastic. Stephanie Fitzgerald, a member of the ABPA board of directors and owner of the book packaging firm Spooky Cheetah Press, moderated the discussion.
The speakers addressed the influx of nonfiction titles within the marketplace, strategies for growing brands, and the ingredients that go into creating successful series for all readers.
Sedita spoke about the power of having a recognizable brand and the benefits of “big distribution” in outlets like Walmart and Target. Readers have no trouble finding titles from series like his company’s successful Who Was? franchise, whether shopping at a bookstore or in line at a department store: “We’re everywhere,” he said. For Zuravicky, all marketing approaches are on the table, whether straight to consumers or through social media outreach: “Whatever we can do, we do it,” she said.
Hale spoke about recent changes in the nonfiction market place—notably, a shift from a school market landscape to mass market. Books produced for the school and library markets typically “pay closer attention to curriculum,” she said, while on the trade side, “there is more flexibility in tone and [room for] more irreverence.” Zuravicky added that there is often overlap between the categories. Sedita agreed that popular titles within the trade market are often adopted by classrooms and that there is “wiggle room” between the categories.
The panelists spoke about the possible influence of Common Core on the expansion of children’s nonfiction and how the Common Core may or may not influence what they choose to publish. Hale said that National Geographic’s books will offer “twists on core curriculum topics,” but aren’t necessarily concerned with aligning with the Common Core. She added that Nat Geo does offer supplemental resources for many of their books that are more explicitly Common Core-connected. For Sedita, while he recognizes that there may be some connection between the Common Core standards and the growth of the nonfiction category over the last several years, he also believes that there has been a general hunger for nonfiction resources in print. “People gave up on ‘just Google it,’ ” he said.
Turning their attention to two timely topics, the speakers discussed gendered books and the influence of #OwnVoices on nonfiction mass market. When acquiring and publishing books today, Zuravicky said she takes a very “thoughtful and sensitive” approach to ensuring that diverse voices are being represented. Scholastic regularly utilizes the services of sensitivity readers to ensure accuracy. Being heavily photograph-based, National Geographic is actively concerned with representing diverse populations. That concern carries over to other areas as well; Hale often thinks about the kinds of foods that casually appear in Nat Geo photos: “Does it have to be a hot dog each time?” she often wonders.
In terms of gender representation, the panelists believe that the gender divide is becoming less and less of a concern. “We’re pushing away from what’s ‘girl’ and what’s ‘boy,’ ” Zuravicky said. Sedita added, “We don’t think in terms of pinks or blues anymore.” When it comes to acquiring material, Sedita tends to think more about what would have appealed to him as a child.
Additional topics of focus for the panelists included their work with book packagers, creating novelty books, and the types of properties that are seeing particular success today. At National Geographic, Hale frequently works with packagers to create products, though “most ideation and cover design is done in-house,” she said. At Scholastic, Zuravicky most frequently works with packagers for books geared toward the youngest readers. When approached by packagers for content, “we look for a fully realized vision and a unique format,” she said. Weighing in on the success of novelty books, Sedita commented, “We took a step back from novelty products, because they can be super expensive [to create] and disappointing when they hit the world.” At Cartwheel, however, “novelty is really, really successful for us,” according to Zuravicky. She believes it’s all about finding the right book at the right time. “You do what works for you.... There’s a big market in novelty if you know the business well,” she said. At National Geographic, because the publisher’s formats are image-based and, as a result, already rather expensive, “we are focused more on flashy covers than novelty,” Hale said.
Finally, panelists spoke about forthcoming projects and what they see catching on in the trade market. For Hale, she sees a “hunger for really interesting science topics.” The trend for National Geographic titles is to feature larger images and full spreads featuring “big facts, photos, and fun.” Zuravicky sees readers being drawn toward nonfiction books that are “super funny,” and that approach nonfiction content in the same exciting, voice-driven manner that readers might find in fiction. She noted the popularity of Ame Dyckman and Scott Magoon’s Misunderstood Shark, which takes place “in a fictional world but with nonfiction facts.” Similarly, Sedita is on the lookout for more nonfiction that explores topics “beyond stagecoaches and petticoats,” he said.