Spirits were high during a candid and informal American Book Producers Association discussion about shifts and trends in the children’s publishing industry, held on April 22 in New York City. The speakers were Jennifer Emmett, v-p and editorial director for children’s books at National Geographic; Kenn Goin, president and publisher of Bearport Publishing; and Celia Lee, assistant editor of Scholastic/Cartwheel Books. They spoke before a packed room of fellow publishers, book packagers, and other colleagues. Valerie Tomaselli, president of MTM Publishing and ABPA treasurer, moderated.

The state of the union is strong and nonfiction is booming, the speakers agreed, discussing how print remains ubiquitous and book sales point to an unwavering commitment on the part of parents to purchase reading material for their children. Emmett noted that National Geographic is “poised for growth,” increasing its children’s book production to up to 100 books per year – an auspicious sign in an industry that has met with uncertainty in recent years. “We’ve had a lot of success in finding new markets and meeting demand,” Emmett said. She described how, from a marketing perspective, it has been helpful to concretely envision the ways that kids acquire books. There are those titles that are likely to be given as gifts by parents, grandparents, or others; those that find a niche in the school or library markets; and finally, the “kid-driven” books, which is the largest and most successful category. These are the titles that have a strong, natural appeal for young readers and which they are likely to snag off the shelves.

According to Goin, whose house primarily focuses on photographic nonfiction, this category is rapidly growing in popularity. Series like Dog Heroes, which features true stories about dogs’ heroic actions or against-the-odds survival, are particularly successful in the school market and beyond. Real-life dogs are having their day at National Geographic, too, with the recent release of Stubby the War Dog, about a stray that served alongside a World War I regiment.

Nonfiction books that include biographical material about the authors and their reasons for writing a particular book have also hit a sweet spot with kids, as have topics that aim to entertain while still being informative. Bearport’s Scary Places series, for example, explores spooky locations, such as abandoned hospitals and prisons. The books contain creepy pictures and the promise of a paranormal angle, yet beneath the surface, “it’s all history,” Goin said.

Down to the Core

With the advent of Common Core, publishers of nonfiction seem poised to reap the benefits. According to Goin, although the standards have resulted in renewed interest in nonfiction books, the STEM book category is in particularly high demand.

Emmett acknowledges that the standards have “been a huge asset to our list because it encourages more nonfiction” and books that promote critical thinking. Particularly exciting to Emmett is the fact that backlist titles are gaining renewed attention because of Common Core: “Books we did 15 years ago are coming back,” she said. However, since Common Core remains controversial, National Geographic rarely ties books explicitly to the standards. “We get in there without evoking Common Core necessarily,” she added, often using a blend of “facts, photos, and fun” to garner interest.

Environmentally themed titles and those that encourage readers to spend time outdoors are trending as well, Emmett said. She pointed to what she sees as the abundance of “tweens committed to causes,” noting that the National Geographic Kids Mission series, which inspires kids to campaign for animal welfare and provides them with resources to do so, is a big seller.

The Whole Package

With Cartwheel catering to an audience of pre-readers, Common Core isn’t much of a concern when designing their list, Lee said. What does matter to parents, she believes, is the Scholastic branding. Describing the Cartwheel imprint as “mass with class,” Lee said that some of the most successful titles are holiday books that celebrate “sweet, tender childhood moments” and which are often sold through mass market venues like Target and Walmart. Cartwheel, she added, seeks out “innovation in packaging” and books that have a “chunky, hands-on format, so it helps to work with a packager who “really thinks [in terms of] the entire picture.”

Other publishers said they do their packaging in-house, with notable exceptions. Emmett explained that National Geographic will outsource a “big book that’s too big for our staff.” In those cases, the publisher will typically create a prototype and solicit a packager to execute the final product. Using photographs can sometimes warrant the use of outside sources, too. Though National Geographic does have a massive collection of photographs, “we’re looking for good pictures wherever we can find them,” Emmett said, adding that the publisher usually assists the packager with photo editing. Goin said that Bearport is “increasingly working with packagers” due to the cost of producing everything in-house.

Despite the natural ebb and flow of the market, the panelists agreed that the children’s industry is humming along. With the “balance between print and e-books stabilizing,” Emmett believes that fears of a digital takeover have largely subsided. “Parents still consider books the most important resource” for their children’s development, she said. “There are very optimistic signs.”