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Children's Books in Hard Times:
Our Industry in 2011

I spoke at the New England SCBWI Conference on May 15, 2011 in Fitchburg, Massachusetts, about the state of children's publishing, with some help from two special guests. This is an unedited version of that presentation.

You'll find links to earlier articles about the state of the business and a resource page I created for the presentation at the end of the article.


OK, it's the final keynote, and you know, I have a daunting task. Not only have you all had a busy weekend, and have gained knowledge, friends, and, I hope, energy. But the speakers who came before me! I know I'm not a goddess. I don't do numinous, and I'm not sure how funny I can be when talking about the business.

So in the action-adventure tradition, I have a secret weapon! [Slide] No, not that kind of secret weapon. You know, there's so much going on, some of it good news, some of it bad news. So when planning this presentation, I decided that I needed to bring two of my coworkers, Mr. P. and Mr. O, out of retirement.

[Slide] This is Mr. P. He sees the cloud around every silver lining, the glass that is half empty, and dangers lurking everywhere—in ebooks, in social media, and most of all in the economy and politics.

[Slide] Mr. O., on the other hand, sees the silver lining in the cloud, the glass that is half full, and exciting possibilities in ebooks, in social media, and even in the economy and politics. So Mr P. will be speaking to you today about what he sees as some of the problems of our industry, while Mr. O will be bringing up reasons for hope.

Mr. Pessimist

It's hard to know where to start—there are so many problems.

For one thing, children's book publishing is now dominated by multinational corporations. Children's publishers started out as small parts of larger companies, staffed by children's librarians, publishing for the library market. As companies have become aware of the good earnings to be made in this area, and as reductions in library funding have reduced sales in that area, publishers have gone after the consumer market (I'm oversimplifying a bit here, but not much), and editors are no longer former librarians.

Like many changes in the business, this was driven by outside influences. Mergers have been a part of publishing for some time, and many companies have gone from being relatively small, independent, US-only publishing companies to being a part of an enormous and global media companies. So the big are getting bigger, though it's also true that small presses are flourishing, for reasons to do with changes in technology, which I'll get to next.

The Big Five in children's publishing – Random House, Scholastic, Penguin, HarperCollins, and Simon and Schuster – have been joined by Disney and Macmillan US, to form what you could call the Big Seven. [Slide] These huge companies account for about half of all children's book sales in the US when you add up the output of their multiple imprints, and are likely to continue to do so, even as ebooks seem to beckon with the – false! – promise of improving access to the market. This concentration, of course, is not a good thing.

What has corporate publishing, focused on bookstores, led to? Twenty years ago, just about all companies were willing to look at manuscripts from unpublished, unagented authors—in fact relatively few authors had agents. Now more authors (SCBWI has been a victim of its own success) are chasing relatively fewer "slots" on the futures list, and one by one the big houses have closed their doors. Agents have sprung up and become increasingly necessary. Now in some areas, especially commercial fiction, you almost have to have to have one to get anywhere.

Technology—entire industry has been transformed by computers and electronic workflow, and not, to my mind, to the good! What do I mean? I mean manuscripts delivered as document files, rather than on paper. Design done on screen rather than by pasteup. Books even get proofread on screen. And so book designs end up too elaborate just because they can be, or get endlessly tweaked because they can be. People communicate by email instead of face to face. Perhaps worst of all, those big corporations feel that they can cut staff--and they do--to take advantage of the "efficiencies" possible when using an electronic workflow.

And that leads to our next big problem: the loss of institutional memory. Publishing used to be a business in which junior staff were mentored or apprenticed for years by an experienced editor. Now, at many houses, the senior staff are too busy to do that, or aren't there any more, having been laid off or driven out. Or the junior editors themselves jump from house to house in an effort to achieve a salary that one can actually live on in New York City. This leads to books that aren't as child-focused as they might be, to editors following their tastes as adults as they struggle to find books that parents will buy.

And so there are more not-so-good books being published, books being published not because of their quality but because of the name on the cover, or because of some clever design or novelty feature. Trade companies do spinoffs from their classics—[SLIDES] Narnia, Babar, Curious George, and many others—rather than create new ones. In the mass market, we see movie and TV tie-in books instead of the carefully written and illustrated books that Golden Books used to be famous for in the 1950's. I don't think you need to see examples of those—you know the books I mean. You may even have them in your book collections, hmm?

On top of all this, we are still in the worst recession since the Great Depression and it looks like we won't start to climb out of it until next year, or longer. It's already been a long haul, with book sales flat or down in 2008 and 2009 and 2010, and down again so far this year by several percent in both hardcover and paperback children's books [AAP numbers—see slide]. This is the Association of American Publishers and I'd encourage you to check them out for details. In response, many publishers made layoffs or put in salary freezes, were and still are cautious about their acquisitions. Children's books have always been helped by the fact that they sell into two different markets—what I call the institutional market (schools and libraries) and the retail market (bookstores). If one was doing poorly usually the other would help to carry the load. Now we face declines in bookstore sales at the same time as state and local governments are cutting funding. We may start to see reductions in the number of titles published, not just the size of the print runs, as a result.

This is the context in which ebooks have become the so-called bright spot in publishing. Why they aren't:

Looking at ebooks, I see two very different kinds. There are the plain vanilla ebooks that you can buy for the Kindle or other simple readers. They have text, limited illustrations, no design to speak of, and few if any added features. People, these are nothing more than another format, like a paperback without the paper. And yet they are proving to be very popular and are fueling a race to the bottom in pricing, with many authors charging 99 cents for original fiction. Publishers of fiction are feeling the heat—commodity hell looms! [Slide] You all know what commodity hell is, don't you? Explain.

And then there are the apps. This is software, actually, much of it similar to what Broderbund used to deliver on CD-ROMs for $20 and more. These cost money to produce—so we see many of them being based on brand-name authors such as Dr. Seuss and Miss Spider, or created from public-domain materials such as Peter Rabbit and the Three Little Pigs.

Many believe that ebooks will change things in our business—will provide opportunities, and democratize the business. It's just a possible that they'll further concentrate power in the hands of the corporations.

Parts 2 and 3 to come

Resources for Children's Books in Hard Times

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