Five Publishers Give an Industry-Wide Picture

Editors Debra Dorfman, Beverly Horowitz, Jennifer Hunt, Allyn Johnston, and Julie Strauss-Gabel all spoke on a panel at the 2011 SCBWI LA Conference about the current state of the children’s book industry. Big issues like self-publishing, e-books, and digital trends were discussed, but deep down it seems that content is king. The following is my transcription of the panel discussion. Please note that these are my notes and not direct quotes from the editors mouth.

Moderator: Please introduce yourself and your company.

Allyn Johnston: VP of Beach Lane Books which she runs with one other colleague. They put out 18-20 books per year. Mostly these are picture books for very young kids and a few middle grade or YA titles.

Julie Strauss Gabel: VP at Dutton Children’s Books, which she has worked at for a decade. Dutton has moved to become a boutique company that does mostly MG and YA. She acquires 10-12 books per year (more YA now) and is looking for things that are literary and commercial.

Jennifer Hunt: VP at Dial Books for Young Readers. She just moved to this new company. Previously she worked as an editor at Little Brown. She is looking to build a high-quality literary book list and is interested in partnerships that broaden what a book can be.

Beverly Horowitz:  VP at Delacorte Press. Delacorte has evolved over the years and is now focused on MG and a wide variety of YA. The Newbery winner this year came from Delacorte and is a debut author! Their books include Fallen to Maze Runner, but they’re always looking for little gems (though that’s not the norm). Looking for books that will translate into international fairs, and she likes voices from other cultures.

Debra Dorfman: VP at Scholastic where they do everything from baby books to YA. In fact, lots of YA recently. Her focus is on middle grade and chapter books. Her group does hardcover series’ and works closely with book clubs/fair for paperback series’.

Moderator: Are there any genres that are endangered or growth spurting right now? (i.e. picture book, fantasy, etc.)

Beverly: With the demise of Borders we have to begin new thinking. Genres aren’t going to die, but they do cycle. Certain strong genres lead the pack. Borders demise is a sad thing. There’s an opportunity for independents to have great potential, but we should also not be afraid of the e-book. Be nimble! Big box stores are opening up to YA (stores like Walmart), though maybe not picture books yet. Everyone is going to need to re-think the business. With that, new ideas and opportunities will arise. The adult book world may have a harder time (in the short term).

Deb: I think there will be books moving to non-bookstore markets (mass retailers).

Beverly: Be optimistic AND realistic. Walmart and Target are not innovators. Don’t be too tough on the electronic future.

Julie: There is not one way to publish a book to success. Not being in Target is not the end of the world. Each will find their way. If the content is there it will find its audience. Take your time. Target can be a skewed view of the YA market.

Jen: Kids are always at the forefront of innovation. Meanwhile books with a 30th anniversary edition is an example of content that stays. Content is king.

Beverly: Sometimes you can be before a trend. Some cycle and come around. As publishers we look to the backlist to repackage a book. Suddenly a repackaged book can become big as it’s new to the audience ten years later. The kids market has a lot of turnover. Don’t use the old system. It doesn’t work anymore.

Moderator: What kind of skills does an author or illustrator need? What do you expect from them more than just the ability to write?

Deb: Put yourself out there. Websites, school visits, etc. Talk with your publisher. It helps if you create your own buzz.

Julie: Social media only works when it’s genuine to who you are. Do you want to do it? Do what’s natural to your marketing voice. Don’t force yourself to blog and tweet. It’s not what we expect. Do what’s genuine.

Jen: I agree. There’s a lot of anxiety for writers with social media. Focus on your writing.

Moderator: What about Self Publishing?

Deb: Amanda Hocking is a really interesting self publishing phenomenon. She’s been selling her paranormal YA novel online for 99 cents and gotten herself a multi-million dollar contract out of it. There’s a lot of different ways to do things now. In Japan girls are writing  YA novels and texting them to each other. People are putting things online and when it gets enough hits publishers are taking notice. However, these guys are the outlier and not the norm.

Beverly: It’s like Justin Bieber – he’s an outlier.

Jen: Independent publishing can be good for under-represented communities. That’s important. The LA Times did an article on the shifting face of what a family is and kids want to see themselves in print.

Julie: I firmly believe in voices finding their way. But beware of the “I submitted to some houses, got no’s, so they must be idiots” attitude. I believe in editing, and gate keeping. The book can be better! Or maybe it’s the 4th book you write that get’s published. We need moments of personal honesty.

Moderator: How does New Media affect Picture books?

Allyn: I believe in the traditional format, e-book included. The enhanced book is distracting and disrupts the purity of words and pictures. I’m not interested in moving stuff unless it’s about education.

Beverly: Can we put that in YA? These are questions being asked now. It’s evolving. Some of those enhanced book elements may work better with an older audience.

Julie: The content (or value) isn’t the book (the physical book). It’s the editorial team, the intellectual property, etc. That is the value that goes into the content.

Beverly: As things get cheaper (iPads etc.) the technology changes. Even the homeless have ear-buds in their ears.

Deb:  We are publishing all our YA books simultaneously in e-book and regular book, as well as a lot of MG. A lot of adults are buying and downloading YA today.

Moderator: Can you comment on the fact that NY Times Bestseller lists are not consistent? The hardcopy and e-books have different lists and are selling differently.

Beverly: Kids books are only 4% of the e-book market, while adult books have about 30-40%. We have a lot of room to grow.

Jen: Kids aren’t mini-adults. They are going to interact with technology in their own way.

Beverly: Browsing is the part of the e-book technology that hasn’t been figured out yet.

Moderator: Have you noticed a change in the reading habits of kids?

Deb: Looking to publish earlier chapter books, girls are jumping to chapter books rather than picture books.

Bev: I think it comes down to content. When someone says “My kid is reading Dostoevsky,” sure they understand the words, but do they understand the content? There are emotional needs of a child that need to be nurtured.

Julie: They are sophisticated readers but not emotionally ready. What do we give them? It’s a challenge. What are they ready for as a reader, but not as a person? We need to speak to the head and heart of a child. Older YA can be distinguished through voice or content. Some jump ship to adult books, but they don’t “get it.” They are not a mini-adults.

Jen: Something about the word “crossover” makes me bristle. I’d hate for us to ever not make the best book for that reader in the MG or YA market.

Moderator: Tell us about one of your upcoming books?

Deb: Ghost Buddy – it’s funny, heartfelt, and funny!

Bev: All the Earth Thrown to the Skythis is by an author who was originally an adult writer. It’s literary, compelling, and a lovely story. It’s a little game. I love the beauty of the writing and the passion.

Jen: Counting by Sevens is about exploring family identity and your place in the world.

Julie: I have two. The first is The Fault in Our Stars by John Green. It will blow open everything you know about John Green. And The Disenchantments by Nina Lacour which is a road trip book about figuring out what happens next once you discover that you’ve grown up. There’s a complexity and clarity in how she tells a story.

Allyn:  10 Little Caterpillars which is a poem picture book and Stars by Mary Lynne Rae which is an exploration of all things star.

Debra Dorfman is VP, Publisher Paperbacks, Non-Fiction & Licensed Publishing at Scholastic. She worked in the Scholastic Book Club division for twelve years, then move to Penguin Young Readers Group as President and Publisher of Grosset & Dunlap for seven years. In 2008, she came back to Scholastic. Some of her favorite books include Go, Dog, Go!, Stargirl, and Looking for Alaska.

Jennifer Hunt is VP of Acquisitions and Editor-at-Large for Dial Books. She was formerly Editorial director at Little, Brown Books for Young Readers. She is the editor of many award winning books including The Absolutely True Diary of a Part Time Indian by Sherman Alexie, Ship Breaker by Paolo Bacugalupi, and Story of a Girl by Sara Zarr.

Allyn Johnston is VP and Publisher of Beach Lane Books which focuses on emotionally engaging, lyrical, and highly visual picture books for young readers. Allyn has worked with Mem Fox, Lois Ehlert, Marla Frazee, Avi, and M.T. Anderson.

Beverly Horowitz is VP Publisher of Delacorte Press. She began her career in the editorial department of Little, Brown in Boston. She’s held positions in all aspects of publishing including publicity and promotions, school and library marketing, and editorial. She has worked with Judy Blume, Louis Sachar, and many more!

Julie Strauss-Gabel is VP at Dutton Children’s Books.  A graduate of Amherst College and Harvard University she worked at Hyperion Books and Clarion Books before joining Dutton in 1992. She has worked with the authors: John Green, Galye Forman, Stephanie Perkins, Nina LaCour, Lauren Myracle, and many more.

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