The second annual Global Kids Connect conference, organized by Publishers Weekly and the Bologna Children’s Book Fair, covered a broad range of topics in a jam-packed daylong program held December 7 in New York City. The morning session started off with a look at the booming Chinese children’s book market, which is growing at a rate of 10%–15% a year according to Renee Huang, founder and publisher of Everafter Books, part of Trustbridge Publishing.
In a detailed presentation called “Finding Success in China Today,” Huang outlined a Chinese children’s-book market led by the growth of picture books and English-learning titles and bursting with opportunities for online sales of titles through popular Chinese social media channels such as WeChat. Huang noted the growth of private publishing ventures, including new Chinese firms and international publishers such as Bonnier, in a Chinese book marketplace dominated by state-owned publishing entities. Out of the 582 state publishers, only about 30 are focused on children’s publishing.
Auction-driven advances for picture books are “skyrocketing and unreasonably high,” Huang reported (the average advance, she said, has grown from about $3,000 to about $20,000). She said that the Chinese prose market is focused on middle grade novels (the YA category doesn’t really exist in China) and is dominated by big-name Chinese authors, along with the sporadic appearances of some popular Western franchises. Children’s books, Huang said, represent about 44% of revenue generated by Chinese physical bookstores and about 32% of book sales at online booksellers.
Literary agent Ginger Clark led a lively discussion on “Sales and Acquisitions in an Unpredictable Marketplace” with a panel of scouts and rights directors that included Kelly Farber, Rachel Hecht, and Allison Hellegers. Farber confirmed the strong market for picture books in China, saying, “They want a sample of every single picture book sent to them.” The group pointed to renewed rights sales in Brazil, Spain, and throughout Latin America after a period of reduced rights activity from those regions.
And while the German and French markets for children’s properties were characterized as “stable,” there was much discussion of the weakness of the British pound, which has lost about one-sixth of its value since the vote to leave the European Union in June. “In U.S. deals, U.K. author advances are going to be higher,” Hellegers said. Farber explained that while the weak pound makes U.K. books cheaper to buy and very competitive with U.S. rights, British publishers should be wary of “overconfidence” based on a currency advantage that she said was likely “unsustainable.”
For the day’s final panel, “Answering the Hard-Hitting Questions,” Guardian children’s books editor Julia Eccleshare sat down with three of the biggest names in American children’s publishing to tackle some of the sector’s most vexing questions: What changes might be in store for publishers in the wake of the election of right-leaning populists in the West? Are publishers still willing to take risks? What happens to publishing if Barnes & Noble dies? What happens if the e-book dies?
For her part, Random House Children’s Books president and publisher Barbara Marcus remained mostly optimistic. Though she noted that there is a “reticence about publishing and rights” in a global sense and a general concern about “what kind of publishing will travel,” she concluded that “one beautiful thing about publishing is the camaraderie that exists in our little world. We publish things together. We try things together.”
One concern Marcus did voice was regarding the willingness, on the part of retailers, to stick out their necks for a book. “In some ways, our retailers have gotten a little less flexible in taking a chance, and I think it’s actually more true in children’s than in adult,” she said. That makes it hard, sometimes, on the publisher—which can’t always pivot toward the retailer’s needs in the midst of a busy production schedule.
Suzanne Murphy, president and publisher of HarperCollins Children’s Books, brushed off the possibility of a B&N collapse by saying, “We’re not thinking that way at all.” Marcus concurred. Murphy also noted that children’s publishing has a strong bulwark against risk. “I think we are able to have our backlist be very healthy, and that helps make us be less afraid of what we might think of as risk,” she said, before noting that children’s publishers still don’t typically take the same sorts of risks as adult publishers. “I think children’s publishers probably do have more in their tool kit [in terms of promotion],” she added, naming children’s librarians and parents as two vital sources of promotion.
Amy Berkower, chairman of the Writers House literary agency, however, wasn’t so optimistic about B&N’s perceived durability. “I think it would be tough, and there are signs of weakness,” she said. “Maybe another chain would open up, but it wouldn’t be good.”
The three panelists primarily agreed on e-books, with Marcus asserting that “we are a print business” and Murphy adding that the e-book is simply not a novelty for this new generation, which has grown up with digital content. Berkower, looking at the falling numbers in e-books, sees a new trend: “E is down in adult, but [only] adult trade,” she said. “If you look at self-pubbed books published on Amazon, and you add them to the e-books [numbers], e is not down.”
But numbers, Berkower noted, can only go so far. “Real trade books—I don’t think algorithms are going to really help,” she said. While acknowledging that “they’re important in terms of data,” she emphasized that in a business such as publishing, data isn’t everything. “I don’t want to belittle the fact that we now have a lot of this information,” she said, “but I think that’s what makes this business so interesting. It’s an art.”
After the panels concluded, PW held a party for the children’s authors and illustrators who received a starred review from PW during the year. Among those in attendance were Sophie Blackall, Patricia McCormick, Richard Peck, Jerry and Gloria Pinkney, Chris Rascha, and Paul O. Zelinsky.
Editor’s Note: More conference coverage will be featured in this week’s Children’s BookShelf.