Children's book publishers have long had to cope with the awkward fact that the people they publish for are rarely the people who buy their books. A child may reach for the slender volume with the gold foil trim or cry out for the latest Lemony Snicket; overwhelmingly, however, it is the parent (or librarian or school administrator) who holds the cash. That being the case, the marketing of children's books has necessarily developed in split-screen fashion, as a balancing act between efforts to capture children's attention and the approval of an increasingly large and diverse mix of book-purchasing adults.
John Newbery, the 18th-century English children's bookseller/publisher for whom the medal is named, grasped the dual nature of the juvenile market from the start. Mixing "instruction and amusement," Newbery offered the first title from his press, A Little Pretty Pocket-Book (1744), with an optional toy ball or pincushion (two pence extra). The energetic bookman, dubbed "Jack Whirler" by Samuel Johnson, stocked patent medicines alongside children's books in his London shop. Some Newbery titles even carried print ads, forthrightly aimed over young readers' heads, for Dr. James's Fever Powder and other house remedies. As the Pierpont Morgan Library's 1990 91 exhibition "Be Merry & Wise" revealed, Newbery and his rivals were dynamos of marketing moxie, willing to try gaudy bindings, offers of free museum tickets and other ploys to make a sale.
Nineteenth-century publishers stumbled onto the momentous discovery that book series, once successfully launched, tended to sell themselves. Leaving nothing to chance, the authors of some series nonetheless enlisted their narrators' services as pitchmen, calling attention (in confidential asides to the reader) to not-to-be-missed companion volumes. American author/publisher Samuel Taylor Goodrich, writing as the avuncular Peter Parley, shamelessly touted his wares in this way. Mark Twain parodied the tradition (all the while exploiting it), in the sly reader's advisory that begins The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn: "You don't know me without you have read a book by the name of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, but that ain't no matter. That book was made by Mr. Mark Twain, and he told the truth, mainly." It was all part of the rascally fun of Anglo-American salesmanship that peaked with the spectacular carnival hucksterism of P.T. Barnum.
What Was a Lady to Do?
As public library service to children spread throughout the United States during the early 1900s, the reform-minded women who took charge of the new children's rooms disparaged series fiction as marketing flimflammery. In 1906, Anne Carroll Moore, the New York Public Library's newly appointed first superintendent of work with children, tossed series novels in the trash with the same fervor with which Carry Nation wielded a hatchet in America's saloons.
With libraries comprising a rapidly expanding market for juveniles, several publishing houses took the dramatic step during the years immediately following World War I of establishing separate editorial departments devoted to the genre. The women chosen to head the departments were often former librarians themselves: who better, after all, to understand and capture the market, which at many houses eventually came to account for up to 80% of juvenile sales. Together, these ambitious, idealistic editors and their librarian-sisters worked to downplay commercialism in favor of industry-wide cooperation and a high-minded concern for children's welfare.
Editors wrote and designed their own catalogues, cultivated library contacts, spoke to civic groups and supported new industry initiatives such as Children's Book Week. They promoted books in all sorts of novel ways. In 1922, Louise Seaman, founding editor of the first of the new departments Macmillan's Department of Books for Boys & Girls took to the airwaves via "that new wonder, radio," and, for half an hour each week, told stories and read from books on the Macmillan list. At Harper, Virginia Kirkus cobbled together an exhibit for the American Library Association convention that highlighted her list by demonstrating the steps involved in one book's printing and manufacture. Kirkus had to talk her skeptical Harper superiors into bankrolling the modest experiment; the display proved to be the talk of the show.
The longest lasting marketing innovations of this formative period were industry-based. Co-founded in 1919 by the "Three Ms" the Boy Scouts's staff librarian Franklin K. Mathiews, Publishers' Weekly's Frederic Melcher and Anne Carroll Moore Children's Book Week was conceived as an annual celebration timed to herald the holiday book-buying season. For one week, editors, librarians, educators, authors, clergymen and public officials chimed in to sing the praises of reading and book ownership. Colorful posters, window displays and bookmarks restated the inspirational message in tangible form for parents and children.
In 1921, Melcher personally funded the establishment of the Newbery Medal in the hope that such a prize would not only benefit the winning authors, but, as children's literature's own "Pulitzer," would also add luster to the field as a whole. Bertha E. Mahony had a similar purpose in mind when, in 1924, she transformed the newsletter of Boston's Bookshop for Boys & Girls into the Horn Book magazine, a review journal dedicated to "blow[ing] the horn for fine books for boys and girls."
While library purchases represented their mainstay, publishers also looked to bolster retail sales. Throughout the 1920s and '30s, editors pressed booksellers to feature children's books year-round instead of only at Christmastime. A sign that the point had finally been won came with the establishment in 1936 of the New York Herald Tribune's annual Spring Children's Book Festival. The creation of a second publishing season for children's books influenced the scheduling and content of houses' lists while also presenting fresh opportunities for tie-ins with department stores' Easter and other seasonal promotions.
In all but the largest cities, department stores were the best place to shop for children's books, for most of the last century. By the 1920s, the large upscale stores had become lavish theaters of urban fashion and design. Going shopping made one a part of the show and an ever-changing panorama of displays and events kept up one's interest. In 1944, Chicago's Marshall Field enlisted the services of an elephant and a photographer to celebrate the publication of a Rand McNally picture book, The Elegant Elephant, by New Yorker artist and Chicago resident Susanne Suba.
At a time when most marketing activity consisted of discreet contacts between key librarians and editors or their newly minted "library promotion specialists," an enterprising artist or writer might decide to make his or her own publicity hay. In the fall of 1946, Margaret Wise Brown, a bestselling picture-book author who took a sporting interest in self-promotion, arranged for a celebrity profile of herself in the coveted pages of Life. Tongues clucked in the library world at the mercurial author's defiantly glamorous self-presentation. The following year, Clement Hurd gamely incorporated a painting from The Runaway Bunny, his 1942 collaboration with Brown, into the décor of the Great Green Room of Goodnight Moon. In 1949, to promote The Important Book, Brown persuaded Harper to issue a sort of commemorative stamp featuring side-by-side portraits of herself and artist Leonard Weisgard, who was a recent Caldecott winner.
Because children's book authors still rarely made out-of-town appearances, the publishing world took note when, in 1948, Bill Martin Jr. and his brother Bernard masterminded a nationwide road show to promote the picture books they wrote, illustrated and self-published through their Kansas City based Tell-Well Press. The brothers Martin did impeccable advance work, supplying book and department stores with ready-made press releases, model ads, suggestions for posters and window displays, and the like. The planning paid off. At Milwaukee's The Boston Store, Bill Martin sold 1,500 copies in a single day.
Author signings remained a rarity, however. The next noteworthy tour came when, capitalizing on the phenomenal success of The Cat in the Hat, Random House sent Dr. Seuss on a national victory lap with the 1958 sequel, The Cat in the Hat Comes Back. The 1950s also saw the creation of annual fall children's book fairs in Chicago, Cleveland and Little Rock, Ark. an informal circuit of major events to which publishers began to send their star authors.
Marketing innovations often came from younger houses. In 1940, Simon & Schuster, a still relatively new firm with a maverick reputation, launched Pat the Bunny with tongue-in-cheek newspaper advertising that favorably compared Dorothy Kunhardt's novelty to For Whom the Bell Tolls. Golden Books (a joint venture of Simon & Schuster and the Western Printing Company) rapidly established itself during the 1940s by selling its low-priced picture books in drugstores and five-and-dimes, bypassing the library market. In 1950, Golden teamed up with Johnson & Johnson to promote Doctor Dan, the Bandage Man, a Little Golden Book that came with six Band-Aids. The huge first printing of 1.5 million copies was supported by a national advertising campaign the largest ever for a mass-market children's book including television commercials paid for by the healthcare-products giant.
The Library Explosion
In 1952, as television was first becoming an important news, entertainment and publicity medium, NBC launched Ding Dong School, a half-hour program for preschoolers that regularly featured picture books. Offscreen, the show's kindly host, "Miss Frances," was chairperson of the department of education of Chicago's Roosevelt College. One publisher who shared Dr. Frances Horwich's progressive philosophy, William R. Scott of Young Scott Books, eagerly cooperated by granting NBC free performance rights to its books. Not all publishers in those early television days thought it worth their while to do so. By the mid-'50s, however, with the advent of such other popular children's shows as Wonderama and Captain Kangaroo, the potential impact of television exposure on the sale of a particular book had become obvious to all.
The 1950s also saw a dramatic expansion of school library service to children. Morrow and Crowell were among the houses that developed their lists with this growing market in mind. Working under editorial director Elizabeth Riley, promotion director Esther Hautzig coordinated Crowell's promotional activities for the educational as well as the library and trade markets. Hautzig, who later summed up as "plug work" the kinds of efforts that characterized her job, noted that promotion was a "cumulative process... the results [of which were] often not to be seen for several years." The point was borne out by the remarkable career of Sophie Silberberg, who, while directing promotional work at World, McGraw-Hill and Knopf, trained a generation of young people in her specialty. Silberberg's fervor for children's literature may have had another positive long-term consequence for the field: the serious attention given for decades to books for young people by the Saturday Review, edited by her brother, Norman Cousins.
The school market expanded again during the mid-1960s, when the Johnson administration's Great Society made substantial sums available for public schools to purchase children's trade books. This second industry growth spurt resulted in a major increase in the number of institutional book-purchasers whom publishers needed to court. Publishers took more exhibition space, and entertained more lavishly at ALA and other annual trade conventions. Throughout the year, promotion specialists spent more time visiting individual school and library administrators around the country.
As Atheneum's library promotion director starting in the late 1960s, Suzanne Glazer traveled 18 weeks a year a frantic schedule by later standards. Yet in retrospect, Glazer sees this period as the last time of centralized authority within the institutional world. "Those were the days when you knew where the money was and who was in charge of it. My job was to take to the trail and follow the money!" The women responsible for city- and countywide library systems and state reading circles knew a great deal about children's books. As a former librarian, Glazer says, "I was able to talk their language."
Glazer and Mimi Kayden, who managed school and library promotion at Dutton, often traveled and even entertained book purchasers together; with the cooperative spirit then prevalent within the industry, no one questioned the arrangement. Publishers and librarians, who talked ardently about putting "the right book in the right child's hands," assumed that each house had something unique to offer and that their books were therefore not necessarily in direct competition with each other.
As houses grew, each publisher found its own way to cluster the functions variously termed marketing, publicity and promotion. At Random House in the late 1960s, the institutional marketing department had the major responsibility for promoting the firm's juveniles. But as Lauren Wohl recalls, the newly formed and completely independent Random House's children's publicity department was also beginning to make its mark, by orchestrating, for example, a glamorous (albeit Saturday morning) Radio City premiere for the movie based on Ian Fleming's Chitty Chitty Bang Bang.
The perennially strong retail sale of children's books by E.B. White and Laura Ingalls Wilder prompted Harper, earlier than most other houses, to devote resources to media publicity. Mimi Kayden, at Harper in the late 1950s, recalls, "I was far more concerned about the Toledo Blade than I was about Rosemary Livesay [head of children's services of the Los Angeles Public Library]."
At Harper, the institutional market was and continues to be the concern of William C. Morris. Starting under Ursula Nordstrom, Morris developed a focused list of librarians and educators and quietly proceeded to win their trust. Morris proved a master at putting new books into the hands of the opinion-makers most likely to help them along. Conventions became major occasions for personal diplomacy, and for introducing the growing ranks of traveling authors and artists to the people who reviewed, purchased and otherwise used their work.
Corporate structures continually changed. When Janet Schulman arrived at Macmillan in 1961, the advertising department wrote jacket and catalogue copy for the adult and juvenile trade lists. Starting in advertising, Schulman carved out a niche for herself by concentrating on children's books. Then came two reorganizations. First, Schulman was reassigned to one of several new division-wide marketing departments (hers trade marketing generated advertising, publicity and promotion materials for both adult and children's titles); then, in 1966, when trade marketing split in two, she became Macmillan's first children's marketing director.
Drawing on her advertising background, Schulman produced catalogues that looked and read like magazines, with lots of author photos, interviews and the like. When Macmillan's Department of Books for Boys and Girls, led by Susan Hirschman, discovered an important young writer named Virginia Hamilton, Schulman applied copywriting techniques new to children's publishing in an effort to help solidify the newcomer's rapidly growing reputation. A full-page ad in the October 1971 issue of the Horn Book, for instance, announced the publication of Hamilton's The Planet of Junior Brown, over the dramatic headline: "Virginia Hamilton has written a story that could happen tomorrow a book urgently needed today." Other ads simply declared: "Virginia Hamilton has something to say." The Planet of Junior Brown won a 1972 Newbery Honor and Hamilton's next novel, M.C. Higgins, the Great, was awarded the 1975 Newbery Medal. Of course, the ads did not secure for Hamilton either of these well-deserved prizes. But did marketing efforts of this kind make a difference? Increasingly, publishers believed they could.
At some houses, the boundary between marketing and editorial decision-making had begun to blur. In 1970, it was Schulman who initiated Macmillan's first list of picture-book paperback reprints. She was able to do so in part by forging an alliance with a book club whose advance orders guaranteed cost-cutting larger press runs. To help promote the line, she also devised a successful seven-book "excursion pack," a boxed set of the 95-cent books targeted at vacationing families. Within two years, according to Schulman, paperbacks a format traditionally shunned by most children's book publishers and librarians accounted for 25% of Macmillan's juvenile trade sales. As the independent children's bookstore movement and then the chains grew during the 1970s and '80s, market-driven packages of all sorts, and promotional products such as mobiles, posters and "dumps," proliferated to meet retailers' needs.
During the merger- and acquisition-driven 1980s, the term "marketing" acquired a new, quasi-scientific and quasi-mystical cachet. "What does Marketing say?" became the mantra as publishers scrambled to get with the program of their new corporate overlords. Publishers Weekly initiated a "Marketing Front" column to track the trend.
Market Shifts and Consolidation
For children's book publishers, two key shifts in the market converged to lend urgency to the marketing gurus' promises of greater efficiency and higher profits. As public school and library systems throughout the United States moved toward greater democratization via decentralization in book purchase decision-making, publishers were increasingly unsure how to reach the thousands of individuals who each now controlled a tiny piece of the pie.
At the same time that the institutional market was fragmenting, the retail market after having first expanded significantly during the 1970s and after was now undergoing rapid consolidation. Here the problem for publishers consisted not of reaching the handful of big-pencil purchasers at the book chain and chain discount stores but of anticipating the kinds of books (or "product," as books were increasing called within this side of the business) these purchasers believed they could sell. Publishers' sales reps were expected to present the house's marketing plans for each new book on the list; at the larger houses, this necessity led, at first, to increased staffing and specialization within the marketing field.
In 1978, Janet Schulman joined Random House Inc. as head of children's and adult library marketing. Two years later, she moved to editorial and in 1983 joined the new Random House "Merch Group" a first-of-its-kind, freestanding unit within the house that had its own sales force as well as editorial and marketing staff. Children's books and related spinoffs were the Merch Group's stock in trade. Over the following decade, every publishing house would have to rethink the balance it had struck in apportioning its resources between the institutional and trade sides of the market. In the fall of 1994, Random House followed Putnam in becoming one of the first major houses to disband its children's library marketing department altogether.
The baby boom of the 1980s and '90s created the largest retail market for children's books ever. In 1992, 4.1 million births were registered in the United States, as compared with 3.2 million in the late 1970s. The new crop of college-educated parents were eager to instill a love of reading in their children. This did not mean, however, that they necessarily had the information needed to choose intelligently from among the thousands of children's titles filling the stores. Publishers turned to a variety of marketing techniques and strategies to fill the void.
To meet the rising demand for books for the youngest ages, countless picture books were reformatted as board books whether or not the new format made editorial sense. Frontlist picture books appeared in larger and larger trim sizes. As cavernous superstores emerged as the likeliest venue for encountering new titles, books were increasingly conceived as posters or point-of-purchase advertisements for themselves.
Celebrities able to garner coveted television airtime had little trouble finding a publisher when an idea for a children's book occurred to them. Bestselling authors and artists within the field received concentrated attention aimed at "branding" their names. The proliferation of books featuring licensed characters and even trademarked cookies and candy represented another variation on the theme of familiarity as a selling point. Ironically, John Newbery, in whose name the award for the "most distinguished contribution to American literature for children" is given annually, would have understood all this perfectly.
In the frenzied atmosphere created by the confluence of corporate consolidation and popular culture, marketing efforts all too often became an end in themselves: the rationale for publishing a given book, rather than the means of putting an editorially sound book before its potential audience. Disturbingly, both publishers' and consumers' options seem to have narrowed dramatically in the process. It remains to be seen whether the Internet or other new technologies, unleashing their potential in dog-year leaps and bounds, might still point children's book publishing toward unprecedented opportunities for customization and freedom of choice; or whether a new wave of small and mid-sized houses might be preparing to re-take the lead in publishing innovation. Amid the growing confusion of this transitional time, effective marketing strategies seem more needed than ever. But perhaps most needed of all is a moment's pause to remember the children for whom children's books are ultimately published.