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How's the Weather?
The Current Climate for Children's Books
By Harold Underdown
Notes from a presentation made in a panel discussion at the SCBW-I conference, August 5-8, 2005
I love the title for this session, because we all have to deal with the changing weather, regardless of who we are. But we all need to learn what we are dealing with. If you got a rejection letter last week from a publisher, what can you conclude about that? If it's just you, maybe that was a passing shower. If lots of people are getting such letters, maybe that was the weather. And if lots of people keep getting such letters -- maybe that says something about the climate.
Seems to me that the weather is what's outside, affecting us right now. The climate is what we live in year to year. The weather changes constantly. And the climate changes slowly.
But how do we distinguish between the two? How can you tell if something that happens to you is no more than a day-to-day weather event, or tied into some children's book equivalent of global warming? Experience helps, and I'll get back to the global warming question, but for now, here is:
My Reading of the Climate
One strong influence on the climate today and for many years past is the reality that many children's books are bought by schools and libraries, and so political decisions and trends affect the children's market somewhat more than they do the adult market. What's the global warming of children's books in the US? I think it's the anti-tax movement, which since the '70's has increasingly affected state and federal budgets. All across the country, there has been less money for schools and libraries, and less of what is called institutional spending.
And publishers have responded. When global warming really starts to affect us, people in low-lying areas will move to higher ground. Publishers have closed or cut back their library imprints--both the ones that publish nonfiction series and the ones that publish "review-driven" books--and have put their money more into the consumer market. That's great if you can "write to spec" for book series based on TV shows, but not so great if you are writing literary novels or serious nonfiction. This shift in focus has been a fact of life since I entered children's publishing in the late 80's, with new developments almost every year.
Publishers themselves are different, which is important to keep in mind when looking at the climate. They are far more corporate than they were 30 or 40 years ago. Previously, steady but unspectacular profits, mostly from backlist sales, were enough for a children's division. Now double-digit returns are expected, as well as profit growth every year. Companies have become more bureaucratic, and more risk-averse, meaning that decisions require more people and take more time.
It's a common statement today, and has been for a few years, that for demographic reasons publishers have shifted focus from picture books to novels. Don't look at this as part of the climate facing you--it's more of a shift in the weather. Plenty of picture books are being published, and will continue to be published, and it will only be a little while longer before the demographic pendulum swings back the other way.
And that leads me into my:
1) Looking just at information I've posted over the past year on my Who's Moving Where page, I can see that that almost all the large companies have been putting resources into what you could call the upper mass market, in what I see as the latest event in the climate change that has been going for the past couple of decades. Examples:
- Little, Brown has started a licensing imprint.
- Random House has started an imprint focused on books by "artists working in TV animation."
- Houghton Mifflin has appointed a new director of "franchise publishing."
- Simon and Schuster has started a new merchandise division dedicated to coloring and activity books.
The books published by these new initiatives will need to be written and illustrated, of course, but those doing so mostly won't be working with a traditional trade contract.
2) Companies have also started some graphic novels recently, and interest in SF and fantasy remains high, to judge by the prices paid in auctions for some high-interest titles and short series. Talk about these developments can be misleading, however, as the number of titles involved is small. Going back to the weather report, if a tornado flattens a house in Nebraska, one can not conclude that hundreds of tornadoes will be appearing all over the US this year.
If you live in Connecticut, you probably don't need to have a tornado cellar, and if you don't want to write graphic novels or fantasy, you don't have to force yourself to do so. It's not a real change in the climate.
3) Many companies have developed easy reader series recently, but again, this is local weather news.
4) More important, the No Child Left Behind Act and the testing it mandates are already affecting the weather, and will continue to do so for years to come. Schools are spending some of their limited funds on testing materials, and using some of their limited time on testing preparation. Less money and time will be spent on "real books." This development just hastens our global warming, pushing publishers further out of the school and library market.
Much of this news is depressing. However, you don't need to let it keep you from doing what you want to do. Be aware of the weather when you step outside, and take an umbrella. Be aware of our changing climate, and drive a hybrid car. But don't stay in your house because the weather looks bad or the climate is changing for the worse. Books of all kinds are still being published. There is still plenty of room for you to do what you want to do, if you work hard, keep trying--and remember to put on your sunblock.
Copyright Harold Underdown, 2005 and 2008. All rights reserved.
- Leonard Marcus' Minders of Make-Believe, a comprehensive and engrossing history of American children's publishing.
- See my November 2006 Purple Crayon Blog entry for notes on a panel discussion about current trends.
- And read this great article on trends in types of books published in 2005 from the CCBC staff.
- A list of links on the state of affairs in 2008.
For more information about the children's book business, browse the offerings on my Articles page.
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