Children's book publishers are still reeling from the New York Times front-page story back in October called "Picture Books No Longer a Staple for Children." Was the venerable newspaper right? Or do publishers consider the article and its alarming title the kid-lit equivalent of "Dewey Defeats Truman"?
The evidence: BookScan figures show that last year, picture books represented 10.8% of the overall children's market—virtually the same as in 2005, when they represented 10.7%. "For us right now, picture books are still vibrant and thriving," said HarperCollins Children's Books president Susan Katz.
Several publishers PW spoke with disagreed with the Times reporter who wrote about the declining importance and popularity of picture books. "I don't really see this phenomenon she's talking about," said Karen Lotz, publisher of Candlewick Press. "I definitely don't think it's so bleak," said Mary Ann Sabia, v-p and associate publisher of Charlesbridge Publishing.
Some reported surprise that the Times placed the story on its front page. "It really felt like filler to me," said Chip Gibson, president and publisher of Random House Children's Books. His division's hardcover picture-book sales have grown and remain among the house's most profitable lines. Sales of jacketed picture books (not even including backlist staple Dr. Seuss) are strong and based on a broad list, "not just three or four superstar things," he said. "It's a very pleasurable business culturally, aesthetically, and economically."
"[The article] made the team here at Harper first sad and then mad, because we don't see it that way," said Katz. The market is hardest for midlist books that sell 10,000 to 15,000 copies, she said, but titles such as Knuffle Bunny Free, My Mommy Hung the Moon, Scaredy-Cat, Splat, Pinkalicious, and Fancy Nancy are selling "like hotcakes. Go to any retail outlet or library, sit in the area where the picture books are, watch the kids come in with their parents and caregivers, and see what you think."
Booksellers, too, disagree with the Times piece. "I was very surprised by it, and disappointed, too," said Diane Capriola, co-owner of Little Shop of Stories in Decatur, Ga. For her, picture book sales are up about 20% over last year. They're also slightly higher this year at Devaney Doak & Garrett Booksellers in Farmington, Maine. Owner Kenny Brechner, who sighs over "ill-advised" celebrity books and too many sequels, said, "The picture books that do the best are a real marriage of writing and illustration."
The article upset agents as well. "I remember having my coffee early that morning, and I let out a shriek," said George Nicholson, senior agent at Sterling Lord and a former publisher. He noted the "eight pages of letters, all quite indignant," in the online letters section. "A number of people who had been interviewed for the article felt they spent a lot of time with her and had been much more nuanced in what they said," Nicholson said. His biggest worry about the piece? "A lot of the damage is the reckless headline. It gives the suits at the top a chance to say it's a dying business."
The story also overlooked Ben Franklin's brainchild: libraries. "They were looking at it from the perspective of booksellers as opposed to libraries," said Karen MacPherson, the children and youth services coordinator at Takoma Park Library in Maryland and a writer for Scripps. In her children's section, picture books are "very popular"—a close second to graphic novels when it comes to circulation.
Just what is going on with children's picture books? The true story is more complicated, involving the cyclical nature of the economy, the strong interest in picture books in public libraries, and the changing retail market.
Even if they're being conservative with their cash, parents say they value books above TV, Web sites, board games, and magazines, according to an Association of Booksellers for Children/Bowker PubTrack study that will be released in January. Still, ABC executive director Kristen McLean acknowledged challenges for bookstores and libraries. For example, picture books "require a tremendous amount of shelf space" and are difficult to display because they're large-sized and have thin spines.