At last week’s annual PubWest conference, 225 publishing professionals from around the country focused on the trade show’s central theme: “Practical Solutions for Big Ideas.” While there were no sessions dedicated exclusively to children’s programming, kids’ publishers and booksellers shared a number of ideas and solutions throughout the weekend. “It was very enjoyable and a great learning experience,” said PubWest executive director Kent Watson, who coordinated the program that ran from Feb. 20–22 in Portland, Ore. “We had a great amount of small- and medium-sized publishers this year.”
Friday’s keynote, “Ensuring a More Literate Future for All,” focused on the critical role that children’s publishers, booksellers, librarians, and teachers play in giving children from all backgrounds a chance to experience the transformative power of reading and writing. “We know that writing changes lives. The data tells us so and our experience working with young people tells us so,” said Laura Brief, CEO of 826 National, a nonprofit that teaches creative writing to 80,000 students around the country. “We also know that this tool is not equitably distributed across the United States,” Brief said, urging the publishing professionals in the audience to fight for more diverse voices in the publishing industry and more programs to show all children how to wield the power of writing. “I really look forward to the day when [former] 826 students are sitting in those seats and having a huge impact on the publishing industry themselves,” she said.
Literary Arts executive Andrew Proctor also joined the panel, sharing how his organization connected with a diverse community of young readers through the annual Portland Book Festival and a city-wide youth poetry slam. “Literature is this broad range of storytelling,” he said, outlining the wide variety of programming supported by the nonprofit. “Now we have 1,400 kids come to our poetry slams and we host all kinds of storytelling events.” He encouraged attendees to imagine how they could reach young readers beyond traditional publishing. “We changed the idea about what our mission is, and it was like all this oxygen came blowing into a stuffy room,” he said.
The keynote also included passionate defenses of libraries, a common theme throughout the weekend. “Libraries are truly embedded in their communities. They represent the people that live in those areas,” said keynote moderator Guy LeCharles Gonzalez, who emphasized the role that libraries play in offering children books that reflect the diversity of their neighborhoods. Gonzalez is the project lead at the Panorama Project, an interdisciplinary effort to measure and explore the influence of more than 16,000 public libraries in the United States. “Go to libraries in your region, because they are required to understand their communities,” Gonzalez said. “That’s an easy way to engage directly with providers in the community. If you claim you want to reach other audiences, start right there.”
At the "New Publishing Leaders and How They Can Change the Industry" panel discussion, graduates and current students in Portland State University’s Book Publishing program shared ways publishers can reach more diverse audiences. For example, students from the Book Publishing program staff Ooligan Press, a nonprofit trade publisher. Each May, Ooligan partners with Literary Arts for the "Oregon Writers of Color Showcase." Writers of color can submit work in March, and 10 will be chosen by a committee of writers of color who serve as judges. Those 10 writers will read their work in front of Oregon publishers at the special event in May.
Making Community Connections
Every year, PubWest gives a scholarship so that one young publishing professional can attend the conference. This year, Leah Hernandez won the award for founding Young Authors Publishing, a children’s book publisher who helps share the stories of underrepresented children. The nonprofit offers young authors an eight-week “Experience Program” that helps participants write a children’s book, create a plan to publish their work, and learn some fundamentals of financial literacy. “This is the first time that I’ve actually been in the same room with other publishers and other people in the industry, which is invaluable,” Hernandez said, as she explained her company’s model. “Eighty percent of our book royalties go to a savings account for each young author who is living in poverty or living in low-income communities. We are telling diverse stories from diverse audiences, and their stories need to be shared,” she said.
During the “Connecting in Your Niche,” panel on Saturday, a few publishers with children’s book offerings shared the themes that made them special, ranging from West Margin’s Alaskan folklore picture books to Hazy Dell’s monster-themed board books. “Monsters are an ideal avatar,” said Kyle Sullivan from Hazy Dell, explaining the logic behind his press’s board book’s about legendary monsters like Chupacabra, Sasquatch, and Krampus. “They’re rough around the edges and they make mistakes. They are identifiable by anyone regardless of your gender, socioeconomic background, ethnic background,” he said.
West Margin publishing director Jennifer Newens shared her experience of branching out into a new niche with graphic novels. “I have an editor who comes from comic book and graphic novel publishing, and she’s really passionate about it. So I want to nourish her experience working for me and taking the lead on the graphic novel acquisitions. She has a knowledge base that can help teach us what are the best practices as we enter into this new genre,” she said. Newens spoke about various niches explored in West Margin’s books for adults and children, broadening her advice with a general slide that offered guidelines to help children’s authors or publishers hoping to expand into a new niche:
- Be true to your mission statement
- Tap into the strengths of your team
- Explore the bookstore-look for price points, formats
- Analyze the audience—who is your reader?
- Talk to agents—identify best practices
- Talk to your distributor—identify best practices
- Look into awards—identify what’s getting the attention
- Tie it to an existing genre on your list
- Don’t be a one-hit wonder
- Plan a strategy and be passionate about it
The Power of Reader Engagement
Much of PubWest’s programming encouraged real-world encounters with young readers at libraries, bookstores, schools, or other literary festivals. On Saturday, keynote speaker Charlotte Abbott told the audience that genuine reader engagement matters now more than ever. The founder of FutureProof Content Strategy, Abbott has worked on reader engagement projects with National Public Radio, Brooklyn Public Library, and NetGalley. “Reader engagement makes for a better long-term investment in spending precious marketing dollars,” she said, comparing real-world efforts to money spent “hiring social media influencers on Instagram, YouTube, or chasing rented audiences on Amazon, Google or Facebook.” According to Abbott, that kind of social media marketing carries unpredictable risks. “There’s no guarantee that the audience who advertise today will be there tomorrow,” she said.
At the “Book Festivals: A Practical Approach” panel on Saturday, Liz Olufson, public programs coordinator at Literary Arts, offered advice for children’s programming at literary festivals. Olufson has helped program the Portland Book Festival, Portland Arts & Lectures, The Archive Project, and other events for Literary Arts. She shared one key strategy she learned over the years: letting any kid under 17 get in for free. This makes any literary event more accessible and fun for young readers. Also, having a dedicated YA stage is another way to keep kids excited. “We recognize that this fan base is ravenous, dedicated, and so excited,” Olufson said. “We give them a place where they can go and just nerd out for their entire day.”
All PubWest conversations about children’s publishing eventually returned to the power of public libraries. In the “Relationships with Libraries” discussion, all the panelists agreed that publishers must nurture partnerships with librarians. Sno-Isle Libraries collection services assistant director Jessica Russell stressed importance of a librarian’s role as a literary guide for young patrons. “Reader advisory can be lists, curated collections, and library displays,” she said. “Some of the most powerful reader advisories happen when a librarian is checking a book out to a customer and says, ‘You love Six of Crows. Have you have you read this YA novel?’ ” Moderator Guy LeCharles Gonzalez added his own thoughts. “Libraries are not only a major source of free marketing for books and publishers,” he said. “But they also remain an active nurturer and developer of both current and future readers. So having libraries is a key part of your relationships.”
Finally, the library panelists shared the joy of being able to connect young readers with a particular book—especially when that book speaks to the diversity of the local community. “We want diverse materials with good representation,” said Russell, recalling how her young patrons were looking for books about the Houston rap scene. “A lot of the kids were really interested and immersed in that,” she said, “And there were some small presses that have books that we were able to purchase and make available. That was incredibly exciting and fulfilling, to be able to hand those books to those kids. They felt seen and reflected, and their interest was uplifted.”