With 2021 well underway, Publishers Weekly spoke with the heads of several children’s publishing divisions to see how the industry weathered the onset of the pandemic and the months that followed, and to discuss what comes next in the midst of persistent uncertainty. Among the chief concerns related to new Covid practices were frontlist sales and launching debut authors, the reinvention of office culture with the advent of near-universal remote working, and the health of bricks-and-mortar stores. Yet for all the disruption the pandemic wrought, the unprecedented year also, in equally unanticipated ways, paved the way for opportunities that may set the standard for how the industry functions in a post-Covid world.

During the course of our survey on how Covid has affected all facets of the industry, the need for greater diversity, in both acquisition and staffing, was repeatedly cited as a top priority for children’s publishers. While there are issues of equity and diversity entangled in pandemic publishing—such as marketing BIPOC creators at a time when traditional tools are no longer available—it became clear that documenting how the industry responded to last summer’s Black Lives Matter protests, and the work that must be done going forward, merited a dedicated, meaningful story—one PW will publish in a future issue.

The new virtual reality

Nearly every publisher PW spoke with said the pivot from in-person events was among the biggest hurdles of the last year, and that it came with a steep learning curve. The shift, though, was not without its silver linings.

Ellie Berger, president of Scholastic Trade, says that when it comes to virtual tours, the team has learned over the last 10 months that “quality prevails over quantity,” noting, “A 20-city, in-person tour where the author could repeat their presentation does not resonate as well in the virtual world, where each stop needs to offer something different to keep readers coming back for more.” Instead, Scholastic often opts for three to five “robust” and varied events to combat “Zoom fatigue,” as Berger puts it. Tami Charles’s virtual tour for her new YA novel, Muted, for example, featured a discussion with The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air actor Karyn Parsons on the exploitation of Black women in the entertainment industry, as well as a conversation about the #MeToo movement with CNN senior legal analyst Laura Coates, among other events.

Suzanne Murphy, president and publisher of HarperCollins Children’s Books, says that the organization has thus far seen “great success” with its virtual tours. Among what they’ve discovered works in the digital space: ticketed events, unique pairings of conversational partners, and special incentives. HarperCollins implemented the latter for the launch of Angie Thomas’s Concrete Rose, sending shoelaces themed on the book to the first 100 people to RSVP to each of the author’s tour events. “We’re embracing both the live views for author events and the audience who watches later,” Murphy says. “It’s a long tail.”

At a time when so much of personal and professional life feels curtailed and isolated, the forced pivot has, for all of its challenges, in fact opened up the world of publishing to new readers—especially those who may not be able to afford or have access to travel. HarperCollins Children’s Books will continue to rely on virtual events and digital promotions for at least the next six months, according to Murphy. “They have become so much more accessible for our authors to participate in and for readers to join,” she says. “I hope that as we transition back into in-person events, we keep the expansion of access as a top priority.”

Jen Loja, president and publisher at Penguin Young Readers, agrees, noting that “one of the huge positives is that readers who live in remote parts of the country, or who have mobility constraints, can now attend virtual book readings with their favorite authors.” She adds that Penguin has seen more virtual teacher engagement, and it has been able to connect authors with students across the country through large-scale literacy events with digital education platforms like Microsoft Education and Flipgrid. Loja believes even when the pandemic is in the rear-view mirror, book tours will continue to include a combination of in-person and virtual programming.

“The pivot to virtual consumer-facing events has allowed us to connect authors with readers in exciting ways that we weren’t previously able to in the past,” says Jon Anderson, president and publisher at Simon & Schuster Children’s Publishing. “While the experience of physically meeting an author in person can’t be replicated, virtual events have allowed us to pair two or more authors who aren’t in the same geographic area, for an engaging conversation, and have authors who live outside of the U.S. connect with a U.S. audience virtually. We’ve had debut authors connect with readers across the country, rather than in just their local regions. Readers seem to really enjoy the opportunity to visit with their favorite authors from the comfort of their own living rooms.”

The buzz factor

The cancellation of in-person events redirected the typical word-of-mouth channels to the virtual space. And, according to many publishers we spoke with, the obliteration of the traditional ecosystem for prepublication buzz—industry conferences and book fairs alongside the distribution of physical galleys—is most problematic when it comes to launching new authors without existing platforms or readerships.

“That word-of-mouth buzz is particularly important for our debut authors,” Scholastic’s Berger says. “We are acquiring new, exciting talent and have made great strides to diversify our list. These new authors and illustrators don’t have the opportunity to meet tastemakers in person, so we want to shine a spotlight wherever we can. It’s so important to launch debuts with gusto, despite publishing in a moment when discoverability is challenged.”

Galley strategies—continuing with physical copies or opting for digital—differ between publishers. “Like our colleagues, we have had to pivot when it comes to the largely digital distribution of advance copies,” Berger says. “Many media outlets, for example, had a very physical and visual method of cataloging what galleys came in the mail to plan their coverage, and have had to overhaul that system. Likewise, we can’t distribute galleys at events, seeding buzz at conferences the way we used to.”

At Peachtree Publishers in Atlanta, president and publisher Margaret Quinlin and her team had completed galley printing for the full year before the shutdown struck last March, which proved fortuitous. “Because we had our galleys in, we offered them at our virtual booths,” she says. “We went into the office and shipped them out to the educators and librarians. People requested them, and were really pleased that we could send them, especially picture books.”

Like Berger, Quinlin is concerned about discoverability in the age of Covid-restricted buzz making. “With the well-known authors, the word is going to get out,” she says. “For those debut authors, or authors without quite the platform, it’s harder to get attention.”

And while Quinlin predicts that the publisher will not attend this year’s Bologna Book Fair (which has moved from April to June), she says that attending conferences virtually has been effective, and sometimes advantageous. “Zoom meetings have actually been really, really good,” she notes. “We’ve had a number of wonderful meetings with our overseas partners, especially in the U.K., where we do a lot of work. You’re seeing more people than you would at Bologna, and you can have longer conversations.”

Jen Besser, who was named president of the Macmillan Children’s Publishing Group at the end of January, saw the benefits of the company’s pandemic galley strategy. “As with virtual events, many of the changes to our review copy distribution practices were born of necessity, but they’ve also offered advantages and opportunities,” she says. “The change to digital galleys has freed up resources, both time and budget, for other marketing efforts, and it’s far better for the environment. We’ve also discovered that the vast majority of gatekeepers we work with have been more receptive to digital review copies than expected, including many who, pre-pandemic, would never have read a book on a screen.” Macmillan saw a year-over-year increase in national media hits for its titles, Besser notes.

Most of the larger children’s houses that ceased printing physical galleys in 2020 have since resumed. “Throughout the pandemic, we have continued to print galleys and advance reading materials for our titles, and will continue to do so,” Anderson says. “Though we may be printing fewer because of the lack of physical shows, we are still mailing galleys to accounts, influencers, reviewers, media, and even virtual show attendees, both trade and consumer, via online submission forms.”

The decision to carry on with distributing physical copies was an important one, according to Anderson. “We saw a significant year-over-year increase in the social media coverage and buzz for our titles, and our ability to provide physical advance copies of our titles was crucial to this outcome,” he says.

Holiday House plans to provide print galleys on select titles going forward, says Derek Stordhal, executive v-p and general manager. “But we’re also watching how expectations change in terms of reviewers and show attendance,” he adds. “We have seen the reviewer, bookseller, and librarian communities adapt to receiving materials in a digital format. At the same time, we’re making sure we provide galleys that do help with buzz, word of mouth, and review coverage.”

Abrams is predominantly using e-galleys across its list and finds that its media coverage is as “robust as ever,” says Andrew Smith, senior v-p and publisher of children’s books.

Barbara Marcus, president and publisher at Random House Children’s Books, says the publisher’s pandemic galley strategy has not negatively impacted overall buzz or reviews. “We have seen remarkable adaptability,” she says, “and we know that while there isn’t a substitute for the experience of reading from a physical copy, reviewers and retailers are adjusting to using digital.”

There is one demographic, according to Marcus, more affected by the cancellation of large industry events than others. “I do think that word of mouth with teens picking up books at shows and festivals is impacted, and we have to be more patient for teens to learn about new books, as we know that was one way that they did,” she says.

In order to reach young readers, Loja says that digital influencer campaigns have emerged as “an invaluable tool for building word of mouth in the Covid era.” She notes, “Building relationships with influential bookstagrammers, YouTubers, and BookTokers of all sizes and backgrounds has allowed us to authentically introduce our books to readers across digital communities and generate significant word of mouth.”

Buoying bookstores

With shutdowns, capacity limitations, and decreased foot traffic, many publishers expressed concern about the well-being of bricks-and-mortar stores. “We continue to keep them front of mind across marketing and sales channels as we navigate this new retail landscape,” Anderson says. The publisher has “marshaled all of the tools in its arsenal”—including its authors and illustrators, social media and other digital channels, and sales reps—to “shine a spotlight on its bookseller partners, drive traffic their way, and provide them with resources.”

Strategies to help stores rebound range from traditional fund-raising to creative social media efforts to direct digital traffic. Abrams partnered with the Book Industry Charitable Foundation on a fund-raising challenge to assist booksellers, resulting in a $200,000 donation, which was double the goal. “Our own authors, artists, partners, employees, and friends of the house contributed with us,” Smith says.

Last October, Penguin Random House launched VESPER (the Virtual Events Support Program), a corporate initiative that offers financial assistance to independent booksellers who are hosting virtual events with its authors. “In addition, we are providing physical and digital merchandising materials to help booksellers capture customer attention,” Penguin’s Loja says, “including upcoming cover blow-ups and window displays.”

Similarly, Scholastic created a Welcome Back kit for independents that included curbside pickup window signs, a safety guidelines poster, and Clifford paw floor decals to help customers stay six feet apart. “We continue to focus on engaging window displays, hoping to bring customers in and increase that foot traffic in the safest way possible, as well as merchandising vehicles that help create an engaging in-store environment,” says Berger. She adds that the publisher is, in particular, working toward building closer relationships with Black-owned bookstores, “from highlighting specific titles for them to partnering with them on virtual events.”

Each week, HarperCollins features five to six independent bookstores via social media, and communicates with booksellers about titles hitting shelves the following week, sharing marketing assets, directly with links to preorder graphics, video book trailers, and social media graphics, in order “to help booksellers be nimble in promoting the books they’re most excited about and to have the tools at their fingertips to do so,” Murphy says. “I think we’re all poised for a renaissance of in-person interaction when we come out of this,” she adds, “including the kind of shopping and event experience only bricks-and-mortar stores can provide.”

Bridging the divide

With many schools operating under limited to zero in-person learning, equitable access to books, especially for children in low-income families, is more problematic than ever. In response, many publishers made certain titles free of charge, and worked with nonprofits to get books to kids in need.

“There are many ‘book deserts’ in this country, and they will unfortunately grow in the aftermath of this pandemic,” Loja says, referring to areas, most often those with high poverty rates, with limited access to printed reading materials. Penguin donated more than half a million physical books in 2020, Loja says, and they will continue those efforts in 2021. Additionally, the publisher, along with many others, extended online storytime permissions for educators and librarians.

“This is such a crisis for our country’s children,” says Karen Lotz, president and publisher of Candlewick Press. “And the gap between wealthy families and those who are less well off, which was far too wide even before the pandemic, has been growing exponentially.” Like many publishers, Candlewick donated books through nonprofits like First Book, the National Book Foundation’s Book Rich Environments Program, and United Through Reading.

“We also found it important to recognize caregivers’, educators’, and librarians’ needs for engaging, shareable content,” Lotz adds. To do so, the publisher created new initiatives such as a virtual summer camp called Camp Candlewick, and the Stay Home with Candlewick Press portal on the company’s website, which offers videos and activities for home learning.

Simon & Schuster has “always been aggressive” with its book donation initiatives to organizations like First Book and the National Book Foundation, and “actively stepped them up in 2020,” according to Anderson, expanding to new charities in the last year, such as the Toys for Tots Literacy Program.

S&S author Jason Reynolds, the current National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature, has a platform built on engaging with “children in underserved, rural communities, many of which were hit hard by the pandemic,” Anderson says. Though the author’s scheduled tour for the October release of his new book, Look Both Ways, was reimagined as a virtual one, Reynolds visited seven school districts through the course of the tour, with 5,000 students receiving a copy of the book.

The Scholastic Education group has been “on the ground” working with districts and foundations to get books in the hands of kids, Berger says. “Scholastic is also uniquely committed to book access for all kids through our clubs and fairs channels, so we partner closely with them on their efforts to pivot during this time.”

Working together, apart

According to a survey conducted by PW at the end of 2020, the majority of publishing houses have not yet set firm dates for employees to return to offices. But even when Covid restrictions ease, some publishers believe the integration of remote working, to varying degrees, may be the new norm.

“People are pretty happy working from home,” Quinlin says. “Unless they have four kids that they have to help educate. I think there are going to be significant changes there. In thinking that through, how do we keep our culture together, keep communicating with each other internally, even though we may be dispersed?”

Lotz, too, predicts that work culture will settle into a new normal. “Sometimes we find ourselves pulling off feats of gathering, and sometimes we frankly fall into the abyss of isolation,” she says. “We definitely will not be returning, post-pandemic, to exactly what was. We hope to engage with our staff and, through the wisdom of our collective experience, come to a new working experience that is even better suited to the needs of the company, of individuals, and their families.”

Marcus believes that in the future, Random House will be working in a hybrid way. “Not that the beginning wasn’t truly difficult,” she says. “But we have figured out how to work using technology, and I think it has made us more focused on certain areas.”

Marcus says that she and her Random House colleagues now “operate more in real time,” and aim to respond more quickly to the feedback they receive. As it became clear that parents are, more than ever, an integral component of their children’s education, she pushed her editors to publish more general nonfiction to aid in at-home learning efforts. “Children’s books remain ever important to families—from education, to entertainment, to emotional balancing, to diversity. In some ways, we are more important than we knew.”

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The publisher name for Angie Thomas's Concrete Rose has been updated.