A roundtable featuring three industry leaders—all of them women—discussing the future of storytelling in the book business kicked off BookExpo programming on Wednesday. New York magazine features editor Genevieve Smith moderated the panel, which featured Sourcebooks publisher and CEO Dominique Raccah, Hachette Audio v-p and associate publisher Kim Sayle, and author Jacqueline Woodson.
Smith's unobtrusive moderating style led to a wide-ranging discussion that loosely interpreted the panel’s title, “Storytelling in 2020 and Beyond.” The conversation saw the trio touching on everything from their own publishing origin stories and concerns of voice in storytelling to the proliferation of formats in contemporary publishing, the roles of women in publishing, diversity in the industry, the importance of librarians and booksellers, and how to drum up reader engagement.
The format provided a particularly interesting topic of discussion, with each panelist bringing to bear a very different view of the industry: Raccah’s from the top of an independent publisher who recently sold a 45% stake in her company to Penguin Random House US; Sayle’s from the offices of a major publisher and the audio sector; and Woodson’s as an author writing in pretty much every format and for every audience imaginable—children’s, middle-grade, YA, and adult.
"Right now, we're living in an age where we have a lot of formats available to us,” Raccah said. “I think that's one of the things that's very distinct about book publishing.” She added: “One of the things we're seeing is that people are almost more attached to format—there are people who feel very strongly that they're trade paperback readers, and they're not going to read that book in mass market, and they're not going to read it in hardcover."
Sayle sees something similar occurring in the audiobook sector, which has grown considerably of late thanks to the ease of digital distribution. "It's come so far. Now we have audio dramas and multicast,” she said. “People who've worked in audiobooks have always seen it as a complementary format. I think finally authors and retailers are seeing it as complementary. People are reading and listening."
Sound is also important to Jackson while writing her stories. "Everything I write I have to read out loud,” she said. “I have to hear how it sounds as well as understand what it's doing on the page physically—how the lines are working, how the white space is working.” She added that her sense of storytelling shifts depending on who she’s writing for. "When I'm writing picture books, those are long poems,” she said. “The line breaks are very intentional...and you get right into the story. When I'm writing for middle-graders...I ask myself how old this character is when the book starts, and how old the character is going to be when the book ends." That said, she added: “At the end of the day, all books are for all people. I think people should read picture books until their grave.”
Later in the conversation, Smith pivoted the discussion to diversity. "I've found that these past few years, I don't want to read the Philip Roths of the year. I want to read the stories I haven't heard before.”
Sayle concurred, saying that she saw that same priority in young readers. "I think kids are more open to voices they don't know about than ever before,” she said. “There were no books like that when I was growing up.”
Diverse stories are becoming more popular—but diversity in the publishing industry workforce remains scarce, Woodson noted.
"Inside the publishing houses, small and large, we all know who's inside. I know it comes out of comfort. You hire people you know, who went to the 'right schools,' who you're comfortable around, who are able to afford to live in New York. But how do we hire differently? How do we change the narrative inside of those rooms?"
Raccah responded by calling the hiring process “broken on all sides.” She added: “I'm not sure we're getting talent on the front end that's applying to those jobs. By the time you get to editorial director, you don't get a hiring pool to choose from that is diverse. I think we need to ask ourselves how we can diversify the hiring pool. I think this is a conversation we need to be having.”
To that, Woodson responded, simply, "When?"