This year's Children's Book Week, which starts today, is shaping up to be a typically low-key event. As in past years, it is being celebrated mostly by teachers, librarians and children's booksellers, who mark the occasion by hanging posters and hosting read-alouds and in-store art contests.
But next year may be a much different story—if the Children's Book Council, which sponsors the week, makes good on its promise to become a more relevant organization.
Raising the profile of Children's Book Week is at the center of the group's plan to become a prominent, media-savvy promoter of children's books year-round. The change is needed, say members, who maintain that the 61-year-old organization has not kept pace as children's publishing has grown into a high-stakes, trade-focused business.
"The CBC has operated in the past as a library, as a reference tool, and I think the days in which we needed to speak to schools and libraries through an organ like CBC has passed," said Rick Richter, president and publisher of Simon & Schuster Children's Publishing and a member of the CBC board. "I think there's an opportunity, from S&S's point of view, for CBC to become more of a PR and marketing operation than it currently is."
Leading the effort is the group's new executive director, Robin Adelson—a former associate general counsel at Primedia Inc. who stepped into the job in September. Adelson's goals include not only increasing awareness of the CBC—and, by extension, children's books—but also finding new sources of money for an organization that has been running at a deficit in recent years. She has already made some progress, for example, teaming up with Martha Stewart Living Radio to plug children's book titles on a weekly radio show and working on building support for establishing a children's laureate. These are early steps toward her ultimate goal: to make the CBC "the foremost resource in the world of children's publishing."
Bringing In an Outsider
An outsider with no experience in children's publishing, Adelson has a starkly different background from her predecessor, Paula Quint, who stepped down in July after 14 years as CBC's executive director and 40 years total within the organization. The choice of Adelson to lead the group speaks to the organization's desire for change—a desire fueled by the findings of a member survey the CBC board commissioned last year. While CBC board members declined to provide PW with a copy of the survey, during the group's annual meeting this fall, board president Simon Boughton described the results. "A fair way to characterize [the survey]," said Boughton, "is that [first] the CBC enjoys tremendous support and respect from its membership, and the second message was a strong feeling that the CBC needs to evolve with the industry. We need an effective trade association."
The CBC was founded to run and promote Children's Book Week. But over the years, its focus shifted to include working with school and library organizations (such as the National Council for Social Studies and the National Science Teachers Association) to help them compile lists of the trade books best suited to their disciplines. It made sense at the time: thanks to the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965, school libraries were granted a great deal of money for book purchases, and institutional sales became the backbone of the children's book industry. Many CBC member publishers benefited from the group's alliances with organizations such as the International Reading Association. "We did take advantage of the IRA/CBC Children's Choice Awards," said Adam Lerner, president and publisher of Lerner Publishing. "I think that was the main benefit to us. We won a lot of those awards."
But now, children's sales are not only much bigger than they were 20 or 30 years ago, they are much more concentrated in retail. According to the BISG, retail accounts for roughly 60% of all domestic children's hardcover sales and 90% of children's paperback sales. "The market has changed, and we need to keep fighting for more publicity for children's books," said Lerner. "We have to continue to be dynamic for our industry."
Getting Their Money's Worth
In addition to hiring a new executive director, the board voted to extend directors' tenure from one year to two years, to give them more time to carry out the initiatives identified in the survey.
Board members admit that some publishers question what they're getting in exchange for their dues, which can run anywhere from $2,000 for a small publisher to tens of thousands of dollars for the largest houses. One publisher, Little, Brown, decided not to renew its membership for 2006 under then-publisher David Ford. Current Little, Brown children's publisher Megan Tingley declined to be interviewed for this story.
Still, most publishers remain loyal to the group, despite their frustrations. Chip Gibson, who took over the helm of Random House's children's book division four years ago, said, "I came in wondering what the CBC was; I think it's wonderful that an organization like this exists, but I was unsure of what it does." Now he believes the leadership is serious about making a change. "I'm very optimistic that the CBC is going to be more proactive in promoting our interests as children's book publishers," he said.
The CBC's challenges include finding a way to offset the decline in revenues from the sale of materials. While its annual operating budget has remained steady at about $1 million for the past several years, the sale of materials (such as posters, bookmarks and award lists) has been declining—from $373,000 in 2001 to just $195,000 in 2006, a reflection of tighter school and library budgets as well as a decrease in the need for materials.
In fiscal 2003, the CBC had a net operating deficit of $75,000, and in fiscal 2004, a one-time write-off of CBC materials ($120,000) contributed to a deficit of $135,000. The group did show a $4,000 surplus in fiscal 2005, largely because it developed less material to sell. In 2006, ended June 30, there was a shortfall of $255,000, largely because of a $47,000 pension payout and a $190,000 severance package for Quint.
To cut down on expenses, while also increasing the amount of promotional materials distributed for Children's Book Week, Adelson would like to develop corporate sponsorships for the event, through CBC's 501(c)(3) entity, Every Child a Reader. "Then we can donate posters for Children's Book Week, rather than sell them, and every school and library can have them," she said.
Adelson wants the CBC to be a resource for parents looking to put together a home library or to find out about the latest awards. The partnership with Martha Stewart Living Radio (on Sirius 112) should help; for a weekly program called Kids' Stuff—the first segment that reflects CBC's involvement aired on October 24—the station alerts the CBC as to the theme for the week (such as manners, evolution, patriotism), and members are invited to recommend books that tie into the theme.
Borrowing an idea from England, Adelson would also like to work with booksellers, teachers and librarians to establish a children's laureate in the United States. "Jacqueline Wilson [the current British children's laureate] has a platform to talk about the importance of books and reading aloud and having books available," Adelson noted. "Because she's so well respected, people notice and listen."
As for Children's Book Week, CBC members are also considering changing the timing of the event, which was established in mid-November as the kick-off week to the holiday shopping season. "My board feels that [ABC] members haven't been taking advantage [of Children's Book Week] because the timing is wrong from a retail point of view," said Kristin McLean, executive director of the Association of Booksellers for Children. "By the time November rolls around, booksellers are in the full swing of their holiday season."
So it's not only too little, but too late. For publishers and booksellers, the changes can't come too soon.