Dealing with a Downsized Market:
Top Ten List of Things to Do
(Based on a keynote speech I gave at the Houston SCBW-I February 14, 1998 conference, this covers many topics you'll also find addressed elsewhere on my WWW site, built around a central critical point: things may have changed in the downsized market of the late 1990's, but much has stayed the same. Copyright © 1998 by Harold D. Underdown.)
I'm glad to be talking about downsizing... I think. It's an important subject. But the problem is, how do I talk about this phenomenon without depressing everybody? Certainly THE big change in children's books in the past several years has been downsizing. Everyone talks about it, lots of people were affected by it. And I have a personal connection to the subject. Like many other editors, I was laid off myself three years ago. So there's a lot to be said, and getting the right perspective on how to deal with the downsizing isn't an easy thing to do. Such a complicated thing as the children's book publishing industry is hard to get your mind around in the first place. It's tempting to generalize or simplify. It's very easy to slide into upbeat feel-good encouragement, or start to bemoan the difficulty of the situation. But the world is a complicated place and to my mind can't be looked at from just one point of view.
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So instead of expounding on one theme, with no apologies at all to David Letterman I have come up with a list of the Top Ten Things to Do When Dealing with a Downsized Market. Between them I think they cover all the basics of survival in the children's publishing world of the '90's--and if not, I've made lots more information available elsewhere.
10. is !
This is serious! Don't take this lightly! Children's publishing will never be the same again!
OK, sorry, take a deep breath and relax again.
Really, there have been serious changes, and you do need to take them seriously. Sales of hardcover books are down from the peak they hit in 1992, and even paperbacks saw a decline last year. There is no major children's book publisher that has not laid off staff in the past five years and many well-known imprints have closed. Such respected names as Macmillan Children's Books, Bradbury Press, Cobblehill Books, Joy Street Books, and Four Winds Press no longer exist. Having cut staff, many publishers will not look at unsolicited submissions--they just don't need to. All the books they need will come in from their current authors and illustrators and the occasional addition from an agent. And titles have been canceled or postponed in large numbers.
Some might argue that this is a healthy development, in that there was excess capacity in the market. Whether it is necessary or not, the situation is not easy to deal with. Publishers of hardcover trade books (the quality books that so many people want to illustrate or write) and--even more so--publishers of books aimed specifically at libraries (those useful nonfiction series that help keep the money coming in) are not as healthy a market for authors and illustrators and you must take this into account.
9. After you panic, think again. Take some more deep breaths. Ask yourself, "Is the situation really that bad?" Try to look beyond the obvious. Much of the reporting of sales figures is based on limited information, typically by compiling reports from members of organizations like the Association of American Publishers (the AAP). But what about non-members, or members who don't report? I know from personal experience that there are smaller publishers who are growing--I work at one of them. And our numbers aren't included in those figures. Our growing sales and the growth of other companies like us may not entirely make up for the stagnation of the established companies, but we do offer opportunities.
Also, many of the editors who were downsized have found or created new situations for themselves. Some, like me, have moved into an up-and-coming company. Others, like Anne Schwartz and Judith Whipple, have started new imprints. Others, like Virginia Buckley, have found new positions within the established NY companies. So, this leads me to
8. Widen your focus! It's easy to think of children's publishing as essentially consisting of those publishers whose names we all know, the ones who published such well-known names as Dr. Seuss and Laura Ingalls Wilder and Robert McCloskey--Random House, Harper and Row (now HarperCollins), Viking, Houghton Mifflin, and so on. But as I've said many of these publishers are not growing. They have stable programs with even less room in them for new talent, now that they have cut back. So look beyond them for opportunities, to smaller publishers like Charlesbridge, to regional publishers like Pelican, to magazines and specialty publications. The industry is large and diverse, and careful research will help you see that the best-known publishers aren't always the best opportunities.
To do all of this research you will, of course, have to:
7. Through all of this, PERSIST! Working in this field requires it. Though a few people may get lucky and have their first submission plucked from the mail and turned into a book, many of the writers and illustrators I know took years from the time they were "aspiring" to the time they got that coveted first contract, and even then they still had to keep pushing. People describe this as serving your apprenticeship, and that's a good way to look at it. It's going to last a long time, and there's going to be a good bit of drudgery. This has always been true but is perhaps more true now, at a time when even published authors and illustrators saw books canceled or postponed. They had to persist and must still persist to get back on track, and others trying to get started have to try even harder.
There's a parallel in this to my own experiences. From the time I was laid off until I found the right new job was 2 and a half years of simultaneous freelancing and job hunting. But I knew it would take time, because I wanted just the right job, and turnover is slow in this business. So I stuck it out.
6. Network! To persist, you'll need a supportive network of your peers. In fact, making new illustrating or writing friends may be the single most valuable opportunity that this conference will provide for you. Personal contact with me or another editor is unlikely to open doors--I've met hundreds of people at conferences over the years, but only a few of those people ended up working with me. The inspiration that us speakers may generate will wear off, and the information we pass on will become out-of-date. BUT your fellow illustrators and writers can be a constant presence in your life for years to come, through critique groups, chats on the phone or by email, news and gossip that you hear from each other, and so on. In fact, I'm going to give you an assignment. This is the only one I'm giving, so I hope you can find time to complete it. Do not leave today until you have met and gotten to know at least two people you didn't know before. They don't have to be doing just what you do--authors of picture books and young adult novels and illustrators working in cartoon or intensely realistic styles may have something to learn from each other. And artists and writers can learn from each other too. Just be sure to exchange phone numbers, or email addresses, and then stay in touch. I'll be checking next year to make sure you did your homework!
All of this leads up to:
5. Be a professional. It's not enough to want to write powerful books or paint beautiful illustrations, and to sit in a garret and work. You need to involve yourself in your field in the way that other professionals--doctors, lawyers, accountants, software developers--do. How can you do that?
Read current books. I don't mean for you to copy them, just spend enough time with them that you absorb them and your work becomes suffused with your awareness of what's being published. If your field is picture books or similar books, and you don't read and study the illustrations of at least 200 a year, you are not in tune with the zeitgeist. If you're interested in novels or longer nonfiction, you should be reading at least one a week. And make sure that these are books published in the past three years. Times change! The books being published change with them.
Read the journals and magazines. Do you know the difference between a starred review in Publisher's Weekly and a pointer in Kirkus Reviews? You should. Start to develop a sense of what the reviewers are looking for--not just content but the level of quality, the mode of presentation, and so on. Get your hands on a list of recommended books like the ALA Notables or the ABA's "Pick of the Lists."
Go to conferences, and not only writing conferences like this one. Go to the ALA convention if you can possibly manage it, or a reading teacher's conference, or a regional bookseller's convention. You'll be able to see the latest books and see how people are reacting to them.
And make sure you have a good work space, or improve on the space you have. If you treat writing or illustrating as a hobby, that's all it will ever be. Make it your profession.
4. Keep learning. I've now been in children's publishing for almost nine years, and I'm still learning. You should strive to keep learning too. There's always something. If you're a beginner, do you know, for example, the difference between trade and institutional and mass market publishing? Publishers who specialize in these areas (or try to diversify into one of them) are not only trying to reach different customers, they are doing so by creating very different kinds of books. For you this has a powerful consequence; if you are an illustrator whose sophisticated style would suit a trade publisher, you are wasting time and postage sending samples to mass market publishers. For those of you more experienced, do you know, for example, the ins and outs of a contract? What are joint accounting and pass-through clauses and which one would you rather find in a contract?
And don't just learn information. Strive to understand your field and its philosophical issues. What are children's books for? What kind or kinds of writing and illustrating reaches children best? Why?
In a completely different direction,
3. Take action. It's easy to think of publishing companies as vast entities which no individual can hope to influence. But in today's economy they rank pretty low in the pecking order--one summer blockbuster movie would fund the operations of a large children's publisher for a year. More importantly, publishers must respond to their market. They don't create it. If you are disturbed by the tendency of many publishers to move more and more into licensed characters and product tie-ins, remember that this is their response to a market that has changed radically in the past ten years. Publishers can't rely on sales to libraries because library funding has been cut. Rather than folding their hands and going out of business they follow the money--to consumers. So if you want to see a publishing industry that aims for quality, support better funding for libraries and schools. Write your city council, your congresspeople, your state representatives. Support initiatives that will not only mean more books will be bought but that more people will be reading. You can influence what publishers do, if only indirectly.
2. Practice your craft. Never assume that you are good enough! Illustrating and writing (and editing) are life-long avocations in which one can always improve one's skills. Join critique groups, revise your work, take classes. And don't expect your husband or your wife to be an objective critic.
1. Care about what you do. There's no point in working in this field if you don't. None of us, Maurice Sendak excepted, are going to get rich. So it's appropriate that we are having this conference on Valentine's Day, because working in children's books is really something you have to love to do. That doesn't make it easier, but then love isn't easy either. Like love, if you don't find the process of falling into it and then working at it worthwhile, you might as well be doing something else. I hope that all of you do love children's books, and the writing, illustrating, and reading of them, and that in the years to come you succeed in dealing with our downsized market.
You may also want to check out:
Getting Out of the Slush Pile
What Happens Inside a Children's Publisher?