A couple weeks ago I attended an SCBWI event at my local indie 57th Street Books, where a panel of children’s book experts discussed “The State of the Industry.” The panelists included Todd Stocke, VP and editorial director of Chicago based publisher Sourcebooks; agent Paul Rodeen of Rodeen Literary Management; and Angela Sherril, collection development manager at Children’s Plus and organizer of the 57th Street Children’s Book Fair.

So, what is the state of Children’s Publishing? Well I think it’s clear to most that of all the categories in publishing, children’s books are doing pretty great. Here’s a short rundown of what these experts had to say: 

  • Picture books are still selling, despite the cry of their death. Today’s picture books need to fill a blank space on the shelf, a different slant on the ordinary. Paul Rodeen used Creepy Carrots by Aaron Reynolds and Peter Brown as an example. (Hey! This just won a Caldecott Honor!) A lot of a picture book is about the art, and it’s a lot easier to sell an author/artist than just a picture book author alone. Rodeen actually finds success in pairing authors and artists before he submits. Oh, and Mo Willems is the king of picture books these days, but was this ever in question? It’s that pigeon and his beady eyes. And maybe a bunny.   
  • Early Chapter books are viable but difficult to sell. The format and audience creates a demand for series. No one reads just one. Series like The Magic Tree House, Junie B. Jones, and Judy Moody are a big success in part because they have big presence on the shelf and kids can keep going back to what’s familiar, but get something different every time, like your favorite TV show. 
  • Middle-Grade is where the magic is. (Don’t I know it!) It’s so versatile. Kids are old enough to read and comprehend difficult things, but the magic and wonder of childhood is still there. You’re not likely to become a best-seller here overnight, though. (Boo!) Best-sellers are almost always established authors. 
  • YA is still hot. It never cooled off. One of the panelists referred to YA as “The black space of the book store.” Meaning physically all black. (I’ve noticed this too!) The undead are not dead and probably never will be. There’s still more room for paranormal fantasy but it can take longer to sell. One of the reasons YA can do so well is because you have teens with disposable income, willing to spend it on books. (Who knew?) And of course there’s crossover appeal, because some of us never quite move from YA to adult fiction. The challenge of voice in YA is very real. If the voice sound like an adult writing for a teen, the teen audience will pick up on on it. 
Other Advice

Don’t follow trends. Aside from my feeling that it really does no credit to your artistic abilities, following trends in publishing makes little business sense. The trends you are seeing on the shelf today were written 2 to 3 or more years ago. Publishing is slooooow. By the time you write a trendy book and it’s finally on the shelf, the trend is out of fashion like stirrup pants. (Watch those make a come back!) 

Marketing can have a lot to do with success. Paul Rodeen used the Lemony Snicket’s Series of Unfortunate Events as an example of brilliant marketing. One of the main themes of this series is that the books are just too awful to read, and this trickled down into every part of his marketing. At every event, in every brochure and catalog, there was something about how this was too awful to look at or read and you should just go home. Of course! Reverse psychology is the best with kids! Except it still is not working in getting my kids to eat spinach. The point is, finding fun, out-of-the-box ways to market your work can help a lot. (I keep thinking of them but they all involve too much potty humor. What’s a gal to do?)

Patience. It takes time to get books into people’s hands and for the word to spread. It’s a Marathon, not a sprint. (As true in the writing process as it is in publishing. This is the business of slooooow.) 

See books from a publisher’s perspective. Publisher have to navigate the system just as much as authors. They get turned away too and have to jump through all sorts of hoops to see a book succeed, and sometimes they see it fail. It’s a risky business, with the financial risk all on their side (unless you quit your day job early. Don’t do that.) So don’t take it too personally when you get a rejection. Your book could be very well written, but there’s so much that goes into this business beyond having a good book. 


6 comments

  1. I saw Lemony Snickett a few months ago. What a talent! What an event! Really, really fun.

  2. Oh, I am so jealous!

    • ilima

    • January 31, 2013

    • 7:55 pm

    These are great insights. Truthful but hopeful. Nice post.

  3. I, for one, will be very disappointed if stirrup pants become trendy again. 😉

    Thanks for the great post!

  4. Wow! What a great post, Liesl. Such a good snapshot.

    • Rachel

    • January 31, 2013

    • 11:50 pm

    I’ve met Lemony Snicket twice now – and he is a HOOT. His marketing is on point even “in character” 🙂 What a great post and I love hearing that these so-called “coming to their deaths” genres are in fact not dead yet!!! Long live children’s publishing! 🙂

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