Few in children’s publishing were sorry to see the end of 2023. The year was marked by a record level of book bans, softening sales, and concerns over the number of kids reading for fun, which was at an all-time low according to surveys by the National Assessment of Educational Progress in the U.S. and National Literacy Trust in the U.K. The wait for the Chosen One—the Harry Potter–esque breakout book with the potential to create a global phenomenon in the industry—continues. But reflecting on the year ahead, publishers, agents, and editors still find much to feel optimistic about, with a few caveats. Here’s what’s on their minds.
No shortage of talent
Publishers and editors seem to agree that their inboxes are still flooded with submissions. “I always feel positive when I start a new year!” says Sonali Fry, v-p and publisher of Crown Books for Young Readers. “I love anticipating what amazing projects might come my way.”
Some report feeling encouraged by the type and quality of stories out there and are confident that the art of storytelling is alive and well. “I feel very positive about the level of creative ambition I’m seeing among the authors I get to work with,” says Andrew Karre, senior executive editor at Dutton Children’s Books. “The pattern of authors pushing themselves beyond familiar categories and genres in order to try new things is tremendously encouraging and energizing, and it makes me look forward to my work in the year to come. These authors aren’t chasing trends; they’re following their visions, and that can only be good for all of us in children’s publishing.”
Romantasy continues its domination of the YA market, with traditional fantasy, high fantasy, and “grounded” fantasy (lighter on fantastical elements) also making a strong showing, according to multiple editors. Dark academia continues its ascendence as well. A number of publishers and agents report that thrillers and mysteries are still popular, especially in YA.
Graphic novels are maintaining their momentum, especially in middle grade, spanning genres from fantasy to historical, with realistic fiction gaining ground. “As an editor who mostly does commercial fiction, it’s incumbent on me to find ways in with readers who are resistant to what they see as a wall of text,” says Abby McAden, associate publisher at Scholastic. Series such as Aaron Blabey’s the Bad Guys and Cat on the Run are highly illustrated “essentially high-action, black-and-white graphic novels for seven- to 10-year-olds,” she adds. “It’s not a surprise they are a huge hit!”
Publishers offer a few fresh insights about categories to watch. For years, editors have reported a desire to see more humor, and authors appear to be meeting the need. “Books with lots of humor have been popping,” says Rich Thomas, senior v-p and director of publishing at HarperCollins Children’s Books. He cites Jory John and Pete Oswald’s Food Group picture books series and Mac Barnett and Shawn Harris’s First Cat in Space series as examples.
Are kids ready for the next Redwall or Warriors? “I have heard from colleagues that animal fantasy is coming back,” McAden says. “I would like to believe that, because it’s so great. I am ready for some new stories featuring talking animals!” She adds that horror and suspense titles continue to succeed.
According to Jen Klonsky, president and publisher of Putnam Books for Young Readers and Dial Books for Young Readers, “issues of mental health feel urgent,” and that reality continues to be a factor in considering acquisitions.
As new generations of readers age up, dormant categories seem ripe for revival. “I’m starting to see some dystopian again and higher sales in that space,” says agent Michael Bourret of Dystel, Goderich & Bourret.
Biographies and nonfiction picture books have been a bright spot at Eerdmans Books for Young Readers. “We have made a concerted effort to beef up our backmatter in these titles in recent years, and that definitely seems to have an impact on critical reception and sales,” says president and publisher Anita Eerdmans. She adds that she’s encouraged by the growth of books in translation. “It’s been great to see the growing acceptance of these books in the U.S. market, though that also means more competition for the foreign titles among a greater number of publishers doing translated books!” She points to Eerdmans’s Stories from Latin America series, most of which are translations from Spanish titles, as a highlight.
Agent Molly Ker Hawn of the Bent Agency says her inbox is still full of middle grade chosen-one fantasy. “But I’m not sure how many more the market is crying out for,” she notes.
Several publishers cite realistic fiction as a current weak spot in both sales and acquisitions, unless offered in graphic novel format. “Contemporary realistic still feels a bit challenging,” Klonsky says. “But if there’s a sharp elevator pitch, that really helps.”
Author crossovers remain a trend: YA authors writing for adults, adult authors writing for YA, YA authors writing middle grade and picture books. “I am delighted to say we are seeing more and more YA authors making that leap and hopping the fence to the adult side,” says agent Rosemary Stimola of Stimola Literary Studio. “This year alone, three of our own bestselling authors are making their debuts: Adriana Mather, Mary Pearson, and Renée Watson.”
It’s harder than it looks, though, according to Klonsky. “It’s actually quite difficult for an author with success in one category to find success in another,” she says. “But I’ll happily cite Adam Rubin [author of Dragons Love Tacos], who broke into middle grade with The Ice Cream Machine, which was a #1 New York Times bestseller, and Ali Hazelwood, a bestselling adult author, who broke into YA with her #1 New York Times bestseller Check & Mate.”
Successes like these don’t happen by accident. “We work very closely with our colleagues in the adult divisions at HarperCollins to maximize those opportunities for crossover, ensuring that our authors reach the widest possible audience regardless of their age,” Thomas says. “We do have authors who have been successfully crossing over from their traditional categories, and these forays don’t appear to be at the expense of newer talent.”
Uncertainty in middle grade
Concerns over the state of middle grade books, especially fiction, have been a constant for at least the past four quarters. “I’m seeing a real slowdown in middle grade,” says Ker Hawn at the Bent Agency. “I’ve had conversations with a number of Big Five publisher–level colleagues about this, and they’re all anxious about middle grade sales and discoverability.”
McAden echoes this worry. “Middle grade is the heart of the Scholastic fiction list, and it’s become increasingly hard to break new authors out or establish a successful series. We’ve found that we really need to get to book three for a series to gain traction, but attention spans and bookseller commitments are hard to command.” Books with innovative formats such as Andy Marino’s Escape from Chernobyl series are notable exceptions, she says.
Bourret cites recent changes to Barnes & Noble’s buying policies as hitting middle grade particularly hard. “Launching new books is significantly harder than it used to be without the opportunity to market directly to your consumer—which is the case with middle grade,” he says. However, he remains optimistic. “I’ve been in this industry so long now, I’ve seen so many different boom and bust cycles. The only thing I know for sure is that everything is cyclical. Whenever we think a category is flat and it’s over, something comes along and refreshes it. Middle grade is having a tough time, but I’m still actively looking for middle grade. I am convinced something’s going to come along and it’s going to be a big, undeniable thing and turn the category around. We’ve seen it time and again.”
The middle grade slowdown also hasn’t hit all publishers equally. “I don’t share the concern about middle grade. We have a smaller list, but it’s highly supported. We’re actually growing our middle grade program,” says Adam Lerner, CEO of Lerner Publishing, which publishes both fiction and nonfiction for the trade and school/library markets. “We’re not reliant on trade. We sell there, but we don’t overpublish. Every book we publish has a specific audience. If you publish the right books and have the channels to read the market, they’ll still read. People recognize that it’s important for middle graders to read.
Discoverability remains tricky
Across the board, publishers point to several factors in the continued challenges of discoverability. “The pause on in-person learning, library programs, book fairs, school visits, book festivals, and signings during the pandemic created a kind of speedbump that we’re still feeling the effects of,” Thomas says. “Momentum is clearly improving now that these pathways to discovery are again open, but a whole wave of books published during the pandemic continue to be affected by the pause in the traditional methods of discovery that these long-tail, slow-build categories depend upon. This has resulted in a softening, likely temporary, of the affected categories.”
Publishers seem to agree they are still in transition and are rebuilding new ways to reach audiences. “Discovery is increasingly decentralized,” Karre says. “Old authorities remain important, but social media of all sorts continues to grow and connect readers and books in unpredictable ways.”
“I think it’s still the combination of parents and educators, peers, and known media properties that cause readers to discover books,” McAden says. “A book’s inexorable spread onto state reading lists is another flicker of success. As pockets of readers and gatekeepers figure out a book is great, the success can spread to other areas of the marketplace and then you’re up and running!” She adds that there’s not always one big, obvious avenue to bestsellerdom, but rather a book’s reach increases from “piecing together small successes and building on them.”
For John Mendelson, who opened U.K. publisher Nosy Crow’s U.S. office as president in 2022 and launched its first list last year, the benefit of a recognized brand is important, especially for a small publisher. Parents look for and recognize quality and uniqueness in books, he says. In its marketing, the company tries to make connections on a personal level through those who care about children reading.
“Books reach a child by a chain, and that chain has to stay intact all the way through,” Mendelson notes. “We, as a publisher, have an obligation to protect that chain.”
Thomas says that in light of school budget cuts impacting libraries and media specialists, bookstores are filling the gaps in discoverability. Programs such as Barnes & Noble’s monthly picks, ABA’s Indies Introduce/Indie Next Picks, and banned book displays have taken on increased importance for children’s publishers.
Book bans strengthen resolve
After a bruising year of continued and expanding book bans, publishers see wide-ranging effects on sales but remain firm in their determination to support diverse authors and their books. “We’re seeing that when a book is added to one list of challenges it tends to be picked up by the other growing lists of challenged books,” Thomas says. “This creates a chilling effect for the title and author.”
McAden calls the continued bans “shocking and dispiriting.” “Precisely the reasons so many titles are being challenged is because they are so very powerful,” she says. “Reading stretches your mind and plants the seeds of perspective and empathy, even if you thought you were just in it for the jump scares of Goosebumps or laughs from Dav Pilkey.”
Bans disproportionately affect LGBTQ authors, diminishing their ability to do school visits—a vital source of discoverability. Bourret says he’s heard of authors being asked not to talk about LGBTQ topics if they do visit, as well as educators backing off their support, not necessarily because they don’t believe in the book, but because of the repercussions their support will have.
“I’m so glad to see PRH fighting this in court,” he states. “I’m hopeful that by pushing back we can make some changes, and I’m disappointed in other publishers for not joining in that lawsuit, because it would only make it stronger.” He adds that though “this will pass,” the damage will be lasting.
Stimola says bans have, in a sense, rearranged the map in kids’ books. “There are geographies in which certain titles are not going to fly,” she says. “In some areas, a banned book actually garners greater attention.” But, she adds, readers remain defiant: “If you tell me I can’t read it, I will!”
Authors and publishers reflect that spirit, too. “In the end, we cannot allow such censoring to dissuade us from supporting those stories out there and keeping them on the shelves,” Stimola says. “I would never discourage any of my authors from writing a book we anticipate will be banned. On the contrary.”
That sense of defiance applies to readers, too. “Choosing to read a particular book can be an act of rebellion,” Mendelson says.
Supporting reading shouldn’t be seen as political, Lerner says, adding that exposure to different points of view is an important American value. “It’s good for kids to read about viewpoints that aren’t necessarily where they are coming from,” he says. “It’s good for their critical thinking skills and good for democracy.”
Because librarians are among the greatest advocates for reading and young readers, several publishers voiced concern and solidarity for their position on the frontlines of the culture war assaults on their profession. “I’m worried about librarians being able to do what they are trained to do,” Lerner says. “Their professional abilities should be respected. Schools with media specialists perform better. They are positive resources for communities and it’s tough to see them being attacked. We support them very strongly in their duty to their community.”
Frontlist, backlist, and forecasts
Whether it’s postpandemic effects, the rise of BookTok, or declining interest in reading, reading the tea leaves on trends has become increasingly complex. “It’s not that the industry isn’t selling books,” Bourret says. “The industry is selling books—lots of them. There is some surprise that unit sales haven’t dropped more. They continue to be strong. But it’s really concentrated in a small number of frontlist books and spread across backlist. When you look at what’s selling, it’s not new books.”
“This is my 20th year in the business, and I cannot recall anyone saying, ‘You know what? It seems like breaking out new authors got easier last year,’ Karre says, adding that it’s always been challenging and “continues to find new ways to be challenging.”
For Mendelson, a tighter list can have its advantages. “Being a small publisher, we’re in the business of launching new creators—authors, not books. Author care and nurturing careers is something we are really good at.”
Lerner says authors should take another look at midsize publishers, who sell a lot of books and publish a range of authors. With their established bookstore and educator connections, they can offer an entry point and strong support for a start or a whole career. “We can’t always compete in terms of advances, but we put in a lot of effort and attention to support our authors,” he says. “They’re really important to us.”
Despite the many challenges, Fry says, “the picture book market is healthy and thriving, which is wonderful, but that leads us to the question of ‘what hasn’t been done yet?’ There’s been an explosion of stories from diverse creators on so many topics, and that’s been great to see. There’s still a need for more diverse illustrators to be paired with our texts, and I’m always excited to work with new talent.”
While AI has publishing on alert about copyright issues and the lack of regulation, Lerner says the industry’s long lead time offers an opportunity to “keep an eye on things and see how they evolve” rather than rushing in with a response. That built-in waiting period, he says, may end up being an advantage.
As sales remain uncertain in the school and library market, Mendelson says he’s hopeful that we’ll see more trade books in the classroom.
Publishers seem to feel ready to respond to the new ways that kids encounter and enjoy books. “There’s a lot of understanding that kids need to read long-form narratives and see how a book unfolds, not just get their information in sound bites,” Lerner says. “Once you get past the noise and get their attention, there’s a lot of support. Kids know there’s a world out there beyond the one on their screens. Books are one of the last respites.”
“I continue to be optimistic,” Bourret says.
Joanne O’Sullivan is a journalist, author, and editor in Asheville, N.C.