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Publishers Weekly Children's Features

Board Book Editions Approach Saturation
Karen Raugust -- 5/11/98
It's a crowded arena, but a few standouts seem destined to become classics

Board book adaptations of picture books, and those featuring classic and beloved characters, first appeared on the market in the fall of 1991, when HarperCollins published a Goodnight Moon board book, followed by The Runaway Bunny the next spring. In the past few years, the category has exploded, and booksellers and publishers predict that weaker titles will be weeded out. Top-performing adaptations, of which there are many, are expected to remain strong.

Steve Geck, director of children's books at Barnes &Noble, said that board books as a whole are the second fastest-growing category in the stores, and cited Goodnight Moon, Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See?, Go, Dog. Go!, Mr. Brown Can Moo! Can You? and I Spy among current favorites. He noted, however, that others have not sold as consistently.

Independent booksellers have seen mixed results as well. At Hobbit Hall Children's Bookstore in Roswell, Ga., Brown Bear, Brown Bear, Polar Bear, Polar Bear, What Do You Hear?, Goodnight Moon and DK's My First Word Board Book are doing well, while Good Dog, Carl is "hardly selling at all," according to Martin Keefer, director of school services. He noted that the Dr. Seuss titles did well at first, but have slowed.

Sidney Jackson, frontlist buyer for children's books at Tattered Cover in Denver also has had success with Brown Bear, Goodnight Moon and The Runaway Bunny, as well as More, More, Said the Baby and Jamberry. Less successful titles in her store include Strega Nona, Dinosaur Bob, George Shrinks, Curious George and The Mitten, which have longer texts, more characters and more involved story lines.

The rush to create board book editions began for several reasons. Publishers believed that the board book format could handle more text than was traditionally used, and that it did not have to be confined to alphabet or concept books. "Four- and five-year-olds still like to hold board books," said Mary Ann Sabia, v-p and associate publisher of Charlesbridge's trade division. In addition, younger kids liked the stories featured in classic picture books, making a lower-priced format (that they could play with, chew and even ruin) attractive to parents.

Three characteristics seem to account for the success of most bestselling adaptations, according to publishers and retailers. First, they are based on picture books with proven track records; second, they are age-appropriate for infants and toddlers; and, third, the art work is transferred effectively to the smaller board book trim size.

When deciding which titles to convert, said Mary Alice Moore, v-p and editorial director of HarperFestival, "Obviously, we look carefully at hardcover and paperback sales." Both Moore and Sabia agreed, however, that not all bestsellers are apt choices for a conversion into board books. "They also have to be appropriate for a younger age," Moore noted.

"The ones that work are the ones that appeal to kids under three," Jackson said, naming Brown Bear, Brown Bear and Jamberry as examples. Those that do not succeed are "the ones with too much story," such as Strega Nona or Curious George. "There is a time and a place for Curious George, and I think it's after age three," she added.

Kate Klimo, publisher of Random House Children's Publishing, suggested that as a publisher it is tempting to make a board book out of any bestselling title, but the only logical ones are those that are "baby- and toddler-friendly." Dr. Seuss's Mr. Brown Can Moo! Can You? is appropriate, she said, while The Cat in the Hat and Green Eggs and Ham are not. Of the last two, "many of the hundreds of thousands we sell a year may inadvertently be bought for babies out of well-intentioned ignorance, but they're not meant for babies."

In general, books originally written for older kids must be adapted and abridged for a board book-age audience. Publishers differ on the amount of adaptation they believe is necessary to make the transition to board book, however. Some completely rewrite the text and rethink the artwork, while others choose titles they feel are appropriate with little or no alteration.

"These are not just versions that are shrunk down," said Jean Feiwel, publisher and editor-in-chief of Scholastic, which markets the I Spy Little Book and Miss Spider's Tea Party: The Counting Book, which were both released in 1997. For Miss Spider, which has sold close to 200,000 copies in trade channels since last March, the board book took the counting aspect of the original story and brought it to the forefront. The full-size hardcover Miss Spider's Tea Party (1996), which was the first book to feature the popular arachnid, has 660,000 copies in print.

For I Spy, author Jean Marzollo wrote new riddles and tested them on two-year-olds; photos were assembled from a variety of earlier I Spy titles. The board book has sold 150,000 copies in trade since last October; the original hardcover, published in 1992, has 1.5 million copies in print. "You can't just look at what you have and make it shorter, fatter and younger, despite the temptation to do so," said Feiwel. "If it d sn't work, you haven't served the audience or the property very well."

Charlesbridge simplified its M&M's board book from the original hardcover's concept, focusing on counting rather than higher math skills (e.g. counting by twos). The M&M's Counting Board Book, which was published in spring 1997, currently has 200,000 copies in print. "[The original] was such a successful book for us that a board book seemed the next logical step," Sabia said.

Candlewick abridged My Very First Mother Goose into four board books, which were released in fall 1997 and have sold more than 52,000 copies each, selecting only age-appropriate nursery rhymes. The company's Guess How Much I Love You?, on the other hand, contains the complete text and illustrations of the original hardcover edition, which has sold 1.4 million copies since March 1995. Candlewick expects to sell its two millionth copy of the Guess How Much I Love You? board book this fall, according to marketing director Deborah Sloan.

HarperFestival d s not adapt any of its titles, Moore said, but rather creates 32-page board book versions by reducing the film to the smaller trim size. Random House also generally selects titles that do not need extensive changes, according to Klimo, although there are exceptions, such as P.D. Eastman's Go, Dog. Go!, which was transformed from a beginning reader into a concept book.

How much the text and art are adapted "varies from book to book and publisher to publisher," said Geck at Barnes &Noble. He lauded Random House's Dr. Seuss books, citing them as instances where the publisher understood the board book concept and tailored the type size, font and art to the format. "Some publishers have really compressed the art and distorted the graphics," he said. "In the rush to get the book out, they didn't think through the design as well as they did for the original."

The Nuts and Bolts of Miniaturization

Transferring the art from an original hardcover to a board book may require shrinking the original, cutting and pasting, enlarging and then trimming the art, or assembling graphics from more than one original version. In addition, the film used for the original may not be usable and the original artwork may no longer be available.

Many board books, including some of the bestsellers, are very similar to but lower-priced than the original versions -- most sell in the $5 to $10 range, with those from $5 to $7 doing the best, according to Geck -- raising the question of whether board books negatively affect sales of the titles on which they were based. Perhaps surprisingly, most publishers and booksellers interviewed by PW said no. "We didn't see any cannibalization in our stores," Geck said, noting that toddler and picture books, as well as board books, are areas of growth at Barnes &Noble.

In fact, board books seem to have expanded the audience for some titles to a lower age group, and consumers will often buy both versions of some titles. Geck said that some parents purchase a board book and then upgrade to the hardcover when the child gets older. Jackson pointed out that customers might acquire the picture book first and, if it becomes the child's favorite, they will buy the board book as well. And some families like to keep the original at home where it will remain in good shape while the board book stays with the child, Sloan noted. (The durability factor has led many publishers to go straight from hardcover to board book, skipping a paperback version.)

"That was certainly a question we asked ourselves," Sabia admitted of the cannibalization issue. "But there's really been no dip in sales of the paperbacks," she said, noting that in the case of the Charlesbridge adaptations, the two versions attract different ages and skill levels. The same is true at Scholastic. "The books are different enough in focus and presentation that they don't cannibalize each other," Feiwel said.

Even in cases where the hardcover and/or paperback versions are very similar to the board book editions, sales of the original are not greatly affected. For example, at HarperFestival board books did not cut into the performance of the hardcovers or paperbacks "to any substantial degree," said Moore.

"There are some Beginner Books that have suffered a diminution in sales due to the Early Beginner board books," Klimo said. Yet she mentioned that some slower titles received a new lease on life because of the adaptations. "Overall, it's a breakeven," she said, adding that sales of the originals in book clubs are unaffected.

The logic behind successful titles in this category and the high-volume sales achieved by certain board book reprints have led to an overabundance of adaptations. "We're having to be more selective about what we're carrying," Geck said, noting that many of the editions he has seen recently are based on second-tier titles that did not sell enormous quantities in their original format.

Sabia reported that on a recent staff field trip to a children's store, "We were just floored by the number of books that were out in board book form." Remarking that the quality of the books varied significantly, she added, "I don't think people are thinking about what's age-appropriate for board books."While retailers acknowledged that certain board book adaptations sell strongly -- some are well on their way to evergreen status -- they warn of overcrowding. "For a while now, it has sort of reached a saturation point," said Geck.

Yet more titles are on the way. Among the titles forthcoming later this year: a Charlesbridge adaptation of Troll's I Love You, Stinky Face by Lisa McCourt, illustrated by Cyd Moore, and Candlewick's A You're Adorable by Martha Alexander -- a sign that despite the crowded market, most publishers believe there is still room for more, as long as the titles chosen lend themselves to the board book audience and format.
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