The Society for Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators hosted 1,588 registered attendees for its recent Summer Conference, and nearly 1,000 of them tuned in to hear views from the other side of the query letter. Editors Tiffany Liao and Namrata Tripathi, and agents Elena Giovinazzo and James Mustilier, spoke with SCBWI advisory board member and media consultant Emma Dryden about “The Current Market for Children’s Publishing” and what has been crossing (or waiting to be read on) their desks in recent months.
Dryden led with a question about how the global pivot during Covid has affected projects. Liao, who joined Zando last year as executive editor, believes that restructured time and supply-chain delays have helped her zero in on “non-negotiable” values. “So much of what we were doing before felt automatic,” she said. “We knew if you wanted to publish a big fantasy, it had to publish on this month [with a certain imprint or editor]. Now we can no longer lock in these guarantees.”
Tripathi, founder/publisher of Penguin’s Kokila imprint, warned authors to expect “hiccups”: pub dates vary, printers get backlogged, and picture book creators may have to settle for a “regular coated paper” over their ideal “toothy uncoated stock…. It is not because we value your book any less; it doesn’t mean any decreased enthusiasm for your book,” she said. “We have a plan B, and there are a lot of smart people thinking about it.”
Liao concurred, saying: “Your readers are still going to find your book, [even though] it’s moved two months out from now. You have that campaign in place, we have these connections. [An] emphasis on pub dates can sometimes lead to a lot of anxiety, but it's not reflective of how readers are finding the books.”
At Pippin Properties, v-p and senior agent Elena Giovinazzo said the industry shake-up has helped her practice “extending grace” across her professional network. Debut authors and high-profile clients alike have “struggled creatively during the pandemic,” she said. From the outside, it may look as though industry successes “breeze through anything,” when actually “people put on a good face.”
On the subject of empathy, however, manuscripts about coping may have already peaked for agents. Although Giovinazzo noted that “there’s always room for something new and different,” she described her experience of “having just gone out on submission with a book about grief. I’ve never gotten so many glowing rejections for a manuscript in my life, but everyone had already acquired two or three grief books in the last year.” Tripathi admitted that writing about our zeitgeist can feel gimmicky, yet she sees room to chronicle our “major civil rights moment” and “reckoning of American history and culture. There’s so much at play that I think we are all transformed by it, and if a thoughtful writer does the work of helping us see the ways in which we change as humans, that's so satisfying.”
Mustelier, an agent with the Bent Agency, sees an opportunity to shine attention on overlooked regions and voices. Publishing is “decentralizing from New York,” he reminded listeners, and agents can pitch stories from outside the mainstream. Tripathi agreed that “arbitrary borders” have determined how and where to work, and whose stories mattered. Not only has a shift to remote offices enabled Kokila to hire from outside New York, but “the decentralizing of publishing may be one of the most effective or meaningful changes to diversity in publishing” for prospective authors too.
Tripathi acknowledged the ongoing seriousness of our health crisis and political moment, and also finds that “having spoken to others from marginalized backgrounds that aren’t as well-represented in publishing, there is a certain ease that comes from being able to have every day from home, and not necessarily put on the armor [for] spaces that are maybe not made for you.” This shift could give writers the clarity to recognize stories they need to tell: “Sometimes your authorial voice is also an extension of who you are as a person. What is the responsibility you’re feeling in this moment? What does it mean for young people to see stories about folks who are not like them?”
On the subject of diversity and politics, Dryden questioned the panelists on whether book challenges give them or their authors pause in regard to subject matter. Giovinazzo—the agent whose perseverance led to Jason Reynolds’s publishing debut—advised authors, “Continue to be fearless in your creativity.” Tripathi agreed that authors and editors shouldn’t shy from censors, while invoking a remark from Reynolds that a book’s censorship “is not a badge of honor, it’s a tragedy. It means that someone who needs that book can’t get it, right?”
Tripathi urged people in the industry to support teachers and librarians at the grassroots level. At the same time, she stated that we must not conflate censorship with a manuscript’s failure to find a publisher. “Receiving critique because maybe your book has not been fully thought through, or you don’t have the expertise to speak for a certain community, is not the same thing as a book being censored in a school district or across an entire state,” she cautioned listeners. Authors still must “question whether [they] are the best person to tell a story,” rather than rush to cry foul on publishers who reject them: “I find that really disingenuous and harmful.”
After a conversation about BookTok (Tripathi sees it less as “a marketing tool” than “a marketing gift we sometimes receive from enthusiastic fans”), Dryden moved on to the question every SCBWI author was waiting for: Who is open to submissions, and what kind? “I am currently open to submissions, but the reality is that my submission inbox is really overwhelming,” Giovinazzo said. “We had 250 queries come in just over the weekend.”
Mustelier is “still getting back to baseline” and not open to queries for the moment, yet he suggested an appetite for a “melding and blending of genres and and literary execution,” as well as “stories that are willing to operate on in different emotional registers at different points,” the way a horror novel can use humor, or a light romance can “take a moment to engage with something heavy and emotionally weighty.”
Liao, who calls herself a “one-woman team,” is bringing on an assistant and is open to middle-grade and YA. As for Tripathi, “At Kokila, we are open to unagented submissions,” and Penguin Young Readers is developing a program to invite the same—which was music to the ears of the hundreds of aspiring SCBWI authors and illustrators who had checked into the editor/agent panel.