The Next Chapter
Diane Roback and Shannon Maughan -- 2/14/00
A new century of children's book publishing
The dust from all the millennium hype has settled and nothing seems very different so far. But as we forge ahead in this new century, we thought it would be interesting to ponder what changes lie ahead for the children's book industry. We've already witnessed formidable company mergers and a tidal wave of "dot-com" enterprises, all of which have already begun to alter the children's book landscape. How will publishers, editors and agents be conducting business in the next 100 years? What effect will Internet commerce and other technological advances have on the children's book world? To find out, we polled a group of industry experts.
Associate publisher, children's books
One of the things that will change is the time-frame that we use to look at the business. We are thinking in terms of centuries, and yet the world is operating in more of a nanosecond mode. Publishing at the start and end of the th century is almost like two different universes.
The demographics of who is buying books and the reality of what books are competing against -- both in terms of time and dollars -- is sure to continue to evolve. Therefore, who creates the books -- authors, designers, artists and editors -- and where we sell them should also evolve. The industry could clearly benefit from a broader spectrum of people making and selling books. But that's not something that is likely to happen in any substantive way one company at a time. It's an industry issue. How do you attract a broader spectrum of people to work in publishing? How do you expand the places and vehicles that bring people into contact with books?
As an industry, we might be wise to focus on underscoring the values of books in general. While there was a lot of millennium hype, there is little question that many people used the turning point as a time to take stock. There seems to be a desire for better quality in our lives -- which should in turn translate into readers wanting higher quality books. And as an industry, we have a lot of high-quality books to offer. But we don't really work together to reinforce the overall value of good books. We tend to leave that to literacy groups, but I am thinking more of an effort to battle alliteracy. We assume that the general population values books as much as we do. But there are an awful lot of things competing for the dollars (of schools, libraries, parents, etc.) as well as for the hearts and minds of children. Somehow the industry needs to do a better job of emphasizing the value of its offerings.
Clearly thereis an increasing emphasis on being a global publisher. I do worry that this notion of going global translates in concrete terms to people setting increasingly high sales numbers in terms of determining whether a book has been a success. My worry as an editor is that an author can't afford a failure or a mediocre start to their career. There are a lot of beloved children's book authors/artists whose first books might have been their last if the market process had been so formulaic. That's where independent thinkers come in -- be they publishers, reviewers, booksellers or librarians.
Pippin Properties Inc.
The urge to merge has hit the children's book industry and in all likelihood it will continue. The landscape is changing, and the economies of scale are obvious. What I see are more imprints within the bigger companies, creating the illusion of smaller companies. This works as long as the imprint has a clear identity. As an agent, identity is key in putting together a submission list.
But knowing the politics and inner dynamics of a house is equally important. Whereas two editors used to be at two different houses, now they are often only a few doors or floors apart. So, for submissions, the choices are reduced. Placing a book becomes much more than simply finding the best editor, in some cases. And with the trend to merge, decisions will only get tougher to make.
I see changes coming in the production of books. Finding a fast and economical way to make a book without running a sheet of paper over a drum of red ink, a drum of blue ink, a drum of yellow ink and a drum of black ink (and hoping the colors all match up the right way) is around the corner, and this will be essential to improving printing turnaround time. We will be able to respond in minutes if Rosie O'Donnell or Daniel Pinkwater picks a book.
Marketing books will get more interesting. If you pull out a copy of the New York Times Book Review from 30 years ago, chances are the advertisements look similar to those running now. You'll get a book jacket, an author photo (if the author is appealing) and some quotes. We've got to have more pizzazz!
Looking to the Internet, although Amazon.com may be operating at a loss, there's a huge shift occurring in the way we buy books. I can't walk to work without seeing Amazon.com boxes in garbage cans, and I doubt this is peculiar to New York City. I just read in Entertainment Weekly that Amazon.com was the most visited shopping site on the Internet in December, with 15 million visitors. As publishing people, we have got to figure out how to fully exploit this phenomenon.
I think one of the big positive changes on the editorial side is that we'll see more people coming into editorial without moving through the traditional ranks of the '80s. Houses will look for new editors who maybe have other avenues for finding new talent. There are already more people from the library and retail worlds becoming editors, and I think that's great. There's avery refreshing openness in the industry right now; I think people will be willing to take more chances on what feels unpredictable.
In the new century, I don't see my editorial point of view changing, but my ideas about how I go looking for books have already changed. It's not working anymore to wait for agents to call. It's wonderful to get those calls (and that will always happen), but we're in a smaller pool now and competition feels a little fiercer. We have to get out and do more networking and stay on top of what people are looking for. The Internet will play a huge role in that. There's a lot out there on the Net for editors to plug into -- chats, bulletin boards, etc. The Internet has been very helpful as I've pursued ideas and projects, and it has led to some interesting connections.
There's a real positive side to selling children's books on the Internet, and Amazon, for one, has done it well. But on the flip side of that, I feel like we're losing so many of the handsellers who, over the past 15 years, have supported the riskier and more exciting things we've all been involved in. I think publishers are finding they now have to handsell their titles and pick up that slack.
The ways we put books together are changing, too. We need to be open to the technologies that the new artists are using. Now there are more exceptions and fewer rules -- there are lots of books coming out that really look different.
Vice-president and publisher
Books for Young Readers, Pocket Books
More than the grown-ups, our children and their children are comfortable with electronic formats. We're embarking on the first generations who, unlike us, might not see a physical book as a seminal experience. I'm reminded, too, of Ian Ballantine's monthly lunch tutorials 15 years ago, when he kept warning me that books had better get extremely visual or risk losing their place with future generations.
In the next century what will change about almost all books, not just children's, is how readers acquire them. It's already begun. How long can the industry or the planet afford the luxury of 25,000-square-foot stores piled high with expensive returns? The alternatives to traditional printing and distribution are now here and increasingly affordable.
I think the whole globalization thing is going to make it harder and harder for licensors to slice the properties as thin as they've done historically. E-commerce will badger the separate territorial deal model. In very short order the Internet will belong to the people, no matter how much companies try to control it.
We're already marketing and selling books differently because of the Web. The way products were promoted at the beginning of the last century, the marketing invented by Coca-Cola and the soap companies, etc., is almost quaint and pretty ineffective now (hold product up, stare at camera, say how great it is). Kids especially don't respond to this type of pitching. On the Net we can be cool, not say we're cool. We can offer incremental pleasures -- games, sweepstakes, additional content -- that are unaffordable in other venues. "One-on-one marketing" is by now a seasoned phrase, but that's what the Net's all about. The consumer develops a relationship with the brand or product, rather than having it shoved down his or her throat in a one-size-fits-all mass marketing effort.
Sterling Lord Literistic Inc.
The world of publishing is changing in striking and, for most, in uncomfortable ways. The uncertainty and sometimes ferocity with which writers, agents and publishers confront one another is downright alarming. Most of the battles concern rights questions, particularly over the new technologies, which neither side has answers to. In children's books the push to turn serious editorial work into some kind of fourth-rate adjunct to the entertainment industry seems inescapable to many.
On a daily basis, few editors are in a position to say, "I'll buy it."Publishing committees abound and what results is not legitimate caution but a slowing down of the entire process of acquisition. To be competitive, response time needs to be shortened rather than elongated.
Real fear is evident among editors; not just caution -- fear. Fear of losing their jobs, fear of making mistakes. Professional managers who come from outside publishing now head publishing companies. Most editorial people are unlikely to end up managers. Many talented editors leave thebusiness early, and mergers and consolidations hasten their departure. A major loss is corporate memory and true pride of work.
With everyone often at loggerheads, it's interesting to note that advances paid for the bulk of children's books published today are proportionately little different from years ago, and royalties are often smaller. The negotiations for new technologies are stalemated, as no one knows what the future holds. But the question in any negotiation is who bears and fulfills the obligation of exploiting rights. The acquirer of rights must utilize those rights or return them. Bullying attitudes too often subsume the partnership of writers and publishers. In part this is true when editors, the originating negotiators, are too rigorously bound to "boilerplates," a widely misused tool for contracts. And children's book departments are often victims of adult publishing procedures, which have little application to the field.
Readers, writers, agents and publishers will be trained differently in the next decades and will approach reading in different ways. I don't think the death of the conventional book is near, because for many it's still the easiest and most aesthetically pleasing way to read. But there's a vast audience for books -- technical books, regional books, special interest books -- that g s far beyond the trade books we in New York usually think of.Experiment will come undoubtedly from outside the trade. And whatever the problems, all of us will survive if our practices are logical and fair and prepared with a greater sense of partnership and mutual respect.
Vice-president of marketing
Random House Children's Books
For all the millennial hubbub and Internet frenzy, I don't think we'll see dramatic changes in the kids' book business. True, kids grow up faster than ever, but they still go through the same developmental and academic stages that we all did. At the risk of oversimplification, I sort kids' books into three groups: books that parents pick for kids; books that teachers and librarians pick for kids; and books that kids pick for themselves. Parents, grandparents, teachers and librarians will continue to guide kids through the world of books pretty much as they do now.
Where we will see change is in the kind of books kids pick out for themselves. Kids have more money, autonomy and entertainment options than ever. We need to continue to be super-creative in terms of content (for both fiction and nonfiction), formats and proactive marketing if we want to stay one step ahead of that hot new CD or video game.
CEO and publisher
I think all publishers are addressing the need for change and working with all the various constituencies in order for us to thoughtfully integrate the new possibilities of technology with our old way of doing things. Today's kids are digital kids. For them, using the Internet is as natural as watching TV was for us. At Winslow Press we were convinced we could marry the two media to preserve the reading experience. We begin by putting the book in the child's hands, and then encourage the child to visit our interactive Web site for further exploration on the topic of the book they have just read.
Technological advancements have affected all aspects of our lives. We now have the ability to communicate instantly with one another globally. Because of this, how we publish, market, distribute and sell our books will most certainly see the need for change, also. For instance, revenues from sales should be greater with this new ability to reach larger, in fact global markets through the Internet. And with our Web site, I see backlists staying alive in a very different way. Deserved literature can stay on the shelf longer because the Web component can be continually refreshed, helping to keep the book alive.
Children's Book-of-the-Month Club
At the present moment, I have never seen more roses and bluebirds adorning the path ahead. Any doubts about the future of literacy have been banished by the dawn of the Information Age. As children's book professionals, we can link arms and declare with confidence: our bacon has been saved.
Speaking for my own little patch of the field, Children's Book-of-the-Month Club, I feel awash in the glow of Purpose and Relevance. Never before has there been such an urgent need for selectivity. The choices confronting a consumer will continue to blur into a bewildering mass. Meanwhile, time, and patience, continue to shrink. Book clubs are in an ideal position to become even more trusted guides and authorities through the vast array of options.
Publishers have never exactly been at the vanguard of change. And no one would ever maintain that publishing is an efficient process. In fact, as an industry publishing spews out more waste than Exxon. Every phase of publishing will go through rapid evolution in the next few years -- let alone the next hundred.
Obviously, this d sn't mean smooth sailing. Publishing is human. So are stubbed t s, paper cuts and vital Post-It notes that somehow end up on the seat of your pants. Without its humanity, publishing would not be nearly as loveable or as resilent.
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