The annual meeting of the Children's Book Council on September 15 provided a platform for three leading executives to give their views on the future of children's publishing.

Bookselling online was mentioned by all three as an area they are expecting to see expand. "There's tremendous growth [opportunity] there," said Penguin Group CEO Michael Lynton. "Children's books haven't seen the same growth online [as adult books], not because the parents aren't online, but because they haven't built the right mousetrap."

Scholastic CEO Dick Robinson talked about demographic opportunities afforded by a growing population. "The millennial population will exceed the numbers of the baby boomers," he said, "and the colors and language of that millennial group are quite different." He called for more multicultural books to serve these readers, as well as more people of color on editorial and marketing staffs.

Reaching these new readers through the trade will require imaginative ways of marketing and selling. "We need to find some different and exciting ways of promoting books," Robinson said. "Just creating a wonderful book isn't enough."

And he stressed the need to keep promoting children's reading and literacy (an area in which his company is very active), saying that there are currently 175 literacy groups for children in this country. "We need to work with them, and devote more resources as an industry."

S&S Consumer Publishing chief Jack Romanos also addressed a changing marketplace, but from a sales perspective. He called it "a good thing" that sales have moved beyond the traditional bookstore arena to an expanded retail environment that includes mass merchants, music and video stores, etc., saying, "That's where the kids are."

An expanded market, however, comes with greater risks. Romanos cautioned that publishers are limited in terms of "how deeply you can go into those channels, or how broadly you'd want to go. Also, these are often outlets that are sold indirectly. It's not a good idea to let your distributors be your sole interface with these accounts."

Romanos also made a confession to the audience: until the absorption of Macmillan (and its prodigious backlist) in 1994, "children's books at S&S had never made a dime." Another significant influence on the business came the same year, when Paramount was acquired by Viacom, and corporate expectations for return on investment were greatly increased.

One advantage that the Viacom merger affords S&S is increased opportunity for media-based tie-ins. "Our publishing benefits from the brands at Viacom," Romanos said. Properties like Blue's Clues and Rugrats have "delivered pre-existing audiences." According to him, media-based publishing won't replace regular publishing, but "it's incremental. And highly visible."

A "Flight to Quality"

Penguin's Lynton spoke of what he termed "a very strong flight to quality," and is bullish on the possibilities in the children's book market. "If you deliver books to kids that they want to read," he said, "they are perfectly willing to turn off the TV and go out and buy books."

But he cautioned that "tying books into other media properties can be an extremely tricky proposition. It's very difficult to gauge what translates into a book." And the business is cyclical. "If you're successful, the mass merchants are happy to stock [your books], but they are very quick to turn their back on you when something's not working." Also, he pointed out, media tie-in publishing d sn't build a backlist. "It's very much here today, gone tomorrow."

In conclusion, Lynton said that publishers tend to make the mistake of trying to compete with other media such as TV and film: "It's a mistake to fight them on their own turf." It's much more important, he said, to emphasize "what is distinctive about the experience of children's books. What's unique about reading a book is what has to be embraced."