This time last year, a range of issues were top of mind for most children’s publishers—supply chain and shipping problems, schedule delays, the price of paper, return to in-office work... or not. As 2023 begins, we asked a number of children’s publishers to reflect on how these issues have been resolved (or not), how they’ve adapted, and what they predict for the year ahead.

Getting back on track

Just how bad did supply chain issues get in 2021 and 2022? In fall 2021, says Ruiko Tokunaga, Hachette’s v-p of production and manufacturing, the western seaboard—from Los Angeles/Long Beach up to Vancouver—experienced not only a lack of containers, trucks, chassis, rail cars, and drivers but delays due to flooding and mudslides. One of the company’s titles was on a freighter that encountered a bad storm, tossing several containers into the sea. Then a fire broke out on board. “You can’t make this stuff up,” she says. “It’s definitely stabilized now.”

In addition to shipping woes, many publishers found that their traditional overseas printing partners could no longer accommodate them. “Finding capacity and then paying exorbitant rates for it was a huge challenge,” says Jon Anderson, president and publisher of Simon & Schuster Children’s Publishing. “After having to find replacement options—sometimes overseas—for some of our domestic b&w work, we’ve been seeing that work returning to our traditional partners. Similarly, we found ourselves needing to seek out new partners overseas, often outside of China. I think we’ll continue to nurture and grow some of the new partnerships we’ve found.”

A number of other publishers have also landed on using a mix of overseas and North American printers. “Scholastic has worked with printers wherever we could find capacity, but as the world has started opening up again, we are now able to better focus on where we can find the best pricing as well as capacity,” says Ellie Berger, president of trade publishing.

For some, the longer lead times (especially for picture books) that were necessary during this period have become standard practice. “We’ve moved everything up,” says Mallory Loehr, senior v-p of Random House Books for Young Readers. “We have to have more buffer time.”

Angus Yuen-Killick, publisher of Red Comet Press, says his company has adapted the same strategy. “We print much earlier than before, by one or two months. We are wary of getting burned by delays, which affected so many publishers—especially in fall 2020, when pub dates were being pushed out by months and months. Fortunately, despite one delay at Long Beach of a few weeks, we haven’t missed a single pub date, but I know it could happen and we have virtually no control over such events.”

The paper chase

Acquiring paper—the very substance of a book—has been difficult over the past two years. “Issues around paper production and availability quickly escalated as mills focused on the production of such products as tea bags, toilet paper, and paper towels,” Berger says. “As a result, we have dealt with paper allocations for the past few years, and many issues are still ongoing as the mills have tried to catch up with industry demand.” That situation has stabilized in the past few months, she adds, brightening the outlook especially for Scholastic’s illustrated list including both picture books and graphic novels.

Tokunaga reports that paper supply issues have indeed improved. “At the moment, all of our suppliers have plentiful inventories of our most commonly used stocks,” she says. “There are sometimes longer lead times for special papers. We can’t change the marketplace, but I think we’ve adapted very well.” Advance planning helps, she adds. “We monitor our hot titles carefully and try to plan ahead for any eventuality. We did this for our two Caldecott Honor books [Berry Song by Michaela Goade and Knight Owl by Christopher Denise] so we did not have to scramble, as we have sometimes had to do with past wins. The silver lining to all of these challenges is that it’s forced us to be even more innovative, strategic, and resourceful.”

ARCs and F&Gs

F&Gs and ARCs have long been mainstays on the marketing end of the business, but when the pandemic hit, some publishers went completely digital. With a return to in-person work and an improvement in printing and shipping processes, publishers are adopting a flexible approach.

“We try to listen to what the people we work with need,” says Shimul Tolia, chief executive officer of Little Bee Books. “Some people are happy with just Edelweiss; some are happy with PDFs. Because we’re all book lovers, we understand the people who just really want a physical book. If there’s a need, we’ll create something for that demand. We don’t really do dummies for board or novelty books unless it’s a different kind of novelty book that people haven’t seen before.”

Anderson at S&S says, “We never stopped printing galleys/ARCs and F&Gs throughout the pandemic. We continue to offer review copies in the way that best suits the needs of individual accounts, reviewers, educators and librarians, and media—via physical advance copies and/or digitally.”

Jackie Engel, v-p and deputy publisher of Little, Brown Books for Young Readers, says the company has adopted a more tailored approach. “Our sales, marketing, and publicity teams still find value in physical sales materials for our titles, and we continue to produce them, some as print on demand, which has allowed us great flexibility in scaling up as needed.”

Scholastic has followed a similar course, Berger says. “We cut back on the number and quantity of galleys/ARCs and F&Gs we printed during the pandemic, providing digital alternatives instead. We continue to move toward producing more solicitation materials digitally. We don’t believe this has had any significant negative impact on our business, and it has an added benefit: fewer printed materials mean a lighter carbon footprint.”

In the room where it happens

Publishers “make a physical object,” Loehr says. So how has the business of making tangible, hold-in-your-hands products adapted to a remote or hybrid world?

“What is new to so many of us is the acquisition of new books with so little in-person contact with the people either selling to us or with the authors and illustrators we work with,” Yuen-Killick says. “I recently met an author-illustrator for coffee in Manhattan to share proofs of her book. We had been working together for almost a year on the book. She lives in Jersey City, and I live in Brooklyn. In the before times, I’m sure we would have met in person sooner.” But this new way of work has its upsides, too. Prior to the pandemic, he notes, “I don’t recall sharing files and information in the same efficient way.”

Loehr says that the company-wide comfort level with video calls increased. “Looking at things together on a screen with an illustrator—we were capable of doing it five years ago, but it just wasn’t normal. It’s wonderful and has been one of the best takeaways [from the switch to a more virtual work model].” Still, for designers and editors (especially in picture books), there are a lot of benefits to being able to print out pages, hold them up, and envision the final product, she adds. “It’s a question of finding the balance.”

Simon & Schuster has found value in large-scale virtual meetings. “In the case of meetings such as sales conferences and launches, we’ve found that Zoom is a huge improvement over what we used to do, and I don’t see us ever going back to the old way we did things,” Anderson says.

For many publishers, hybrid has emerged as the back-to-office solution. Simon & Schuster Children’s has established a voluntary in-office schedule, two days a week. “I think we’re coming to understand that some in-office time can provide tangible benefits in areas ranging from creativity to training, and even improving our work-life balance,” Anderson says.

At Scholastic, according to Berger, “employees are asked to try to work at least one day a week from the office and we are encouraging leaders to create moments for deliberate collaboration, giving employees a reason to come in for in-person meetings, idea exchange, and thought leadership.”

Engel at Little, Brown reports that there have been some delightful benefits to the company’s two-days-in-the-office schedule. “We have been working in a hybrid model since November. One of LBYR’s designated office days overlapped with the ALA Youth Media Awards,” she says. “It was electric to be in the room with the whole team when Amina Luqman-Dawson’s Newbery and Coretta Scott King wins were announced.”

Beyond the workplace, the return of in-person conferences has been a welcome development, Yuen-Killick says, “the library meetings in particular, which are so critical to our business. And the joy of seeing friends and colleagues in person at these events is heightened by the time apart.”

The “I-word” and online sales

While there’s much room for optimism as so many pandemic-era issues have resolved, the inflationary environment has introduced new ones, Tolia reports. In this economic reality, “people are contemplating every dollar they’re spending,” she says. The shift in consumer spending is forcing publishers to make tough decisions.

The current economic uncertainty “inserts itself into the acquisition process,” Tolia says. “Do we still have a customer for this sort of book? If we have the customer, is the account that could sell the book still open? If so, are they still buying? Would the buyer be willing to take a risk on a book that we think is worth taking a risk on publishing? They might be concerned that they don’t have the foot that they used to because people aren’t doing the same discretionary spending. Buyers are becoming tougher not because they want to, but because they have to. It’s easier to take a risk in an economy that’s booming.”

“We are all dealing with it,” Loehr says of the current economic uncertainty. The price of shipping, paper, and everything else has inserted itself as more of a factor in the acquisitions process. Still, she adds, “publishing isn’t going to grind to a halt. It will get better.”

In response to escalating costs, many publishers report having reluctantly raised prices. “We don’t have a crystal ball,” Yuen-Killick says. “We are recalibrating our P&Ls and increasing retail prices ever so slightly. I will say getting a children’s picture book for $20 or less is still a huge bargain, especially when you consider the work that goes into producing it and the fact that adult prices are so much higher.”

During the height of the pandemic, Loehr says, libraries and schools were closed, so parents were buying books specifically online. Now, access to books has broadened. “Going back to the library is still exciting,” Loehr says. With both libraries and bookstores now open, many publishers saw lower online sales in 2022.

The year ahead

So what does all this mean for the 2023 outlook? Considering inflation, recent layoffs both in publishing and tech, and close-of-2022 industry sales reports, a number of publishers expressed concern about the year ahead and are cautious about making predictions. But some have identified trends to watch.

“On the retailer front, the big story is the continued resurgence of bricks-and-mortar, and the decline in sales online, most notably Amazon,” Anderson says. Despite the online dip, Simon & Schuster Children’s remains strong. “After sizable revenue growth in 2020 and 2021, we continued to defy gravity sales-wise in 2022. We feel confident that we can do so again in 2023!”

While Tolia is reluctant to hazard a guess beyond her own house, she says she’s also optimistic about “the tight and smart list we’re coming out with in 2023.” She adds, “In 2020, we had questions, ideas in 2021, more solid answers in 2022. This year we know what we’re doing.”

In the big picture, the old way of producing and marketing children’s books has been permanently altered, Loehr says. “We’re doing a mix of things we used to do and things we learned to do. It’s not going to go back to the way it was.” Random House Children’s Books, she notes, “is really committed to being super inclusive,” both in terms of a hybrid workforce and in DEI initiatives. “Both at Random House and in kids’ lit in general, we have always seen our work through this lens, but now we’re having bigger discussions on a more regular basis.”

As always, members of the children’s publishing community expressed belief that the raison d’être behind the business is strong enough to weather the storms of the past few years. “When things were hard, people turned to books,” Loehr says. “It reminded them how much books meant to them. I don’t think that will fade quickly. Kids who found comfort in books—a
place to learn, to see themselves, to see others, to visit other worlds, or have their world expanded—they will grow up and remember the intensity of that feeling.”

Joanne O’Sullivan is a journalist, author, and editor in Asheville, N.C.

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