21 December 2011

Are Today’s Picture Books Too Short?

Last month, the reviewer, author, and former editor Anita Silvey delivered some sharp talk about picture books in School Library Journal, starting with the teapotted tempest about a New York Times article reporting that booksellers saw some parents hurrying their children through picture books to early novels:

I must admit, I’ve grown quite weary over the last few years of the all-too-predictable response from adults who champion children’s and teen books: attack anyone who makes critical comments about them. . . . The basic premise of the New York Times article—that new picture books are increasingly ignored in today’s marketplace—seems completely sound to me. During the 1990s and into the 21st century, picture books brought in about 33 to 35 percent of the revenue of any major publishing house’s list. As Houghton Mifflin’s publisher in the late ’90s, I observed years when picture books made up more than 40 percent of sales. But today that number has slipped to a mere 10 to 11 percent for most publishers. . . .

So outside of obvious demographics (the big teen bubble and adults who now read YA books), why has this magnificent genre [of picture books] fallen on hard times? It’s certainly not because children don’t need or want picture books. In fact, kids today appear happiest when the combination of art and text extends into chapter books like Jeff Kinney’s “Diary of a Wimpy Kid” series and even novels like Brian Selznick’s The Invention of Hugo Cabret.
Silvey thinks the crucial data is that new picture books aren’t selling, but older ones are, and concludes that the older titles offer features the newer ones lack.

One of those features, however, might just be being older. If parents are buying fewer picture books overall, the books they’re most likely to pick up might be those they recognize from their own childhoods.

The article doesn’t offer data for Silvey’s next conclusion: that older picture books are appealing because they’re longer and fuller. It notes the short word counts of two older books, but not the longer word counts of several others, and it’s not clear whether any of those are on the bestseller lists cited earlier.

Nevertheless, I suspect Silvey is right in her diagnosis. As she notes, there’s tremendous pressure on picture-book writers, especially new ones, to write very short, spare manuscripts:
During the last few years, publishers began to maintain that adults wanted shorter texts to read to children—because of the demands on their time and young readers’ shorter attention spans. In the 1990s, publishers believed that kids didn’t want novels longer than 200 pages—until J. K. Rowling set everyone straight.
While demanding that picture books not be “slight,” editors might be hemming authors in so much on word count that it’s extraordinarily difficult not to be. Is there actually a market space for new “picture storybooks,” or is that still simply a label hopeful authors cling to when they don’t want to edit down their wordy picture-book manuscripts? Are there enough readers of picture-book age to generate sufficient demand for a longer form?


Melissa Stewart said...

This is an interesting post and an interesting discussion. About three years ago, Arthur Levine of Scholastic gave a great presentation about the current PB market at an SCBWI conference.

He said he'd looked hard at data from his house and interviewed people with knowledge of the numbers at other major houses. His conclusion was that in terms of actual numbers, PB sales were about the same as they were in the 1990s and early 21st century.

Yes, the percentage of total sales they represent is now smaller, but only because YA sales have exploded in the last decade. And because publishers are in the business of making money, most editors are now focusing more on acquisitions of novels and less on PBs.

Sure the PB market is tough right now, but so are the MG and YA markets. Editors are being cautious about all acquisitions, which is completely understandable given current economic conditions here and abroad.

Even when the economy is plugging right along, it's no easy task to sell a children's manuscript. The simple truth is there's more supply than demand--much more. I suppose this is particularly true for PBs because they seem deceptively easy to write.


Melissa Stewart said...

Even when the economy is plugging right along, it's no easy task to sell a children's manuscript. The simple truth is there's more supply than demand--much more. I suppose this is particularly true for PBs because they seem deceptively easy to write.

And there's another issue. It's easy enough to convert a novel to a digital format, but things get a little tricky when a text is loaded with color illustrations that do much of the storytelling. And publishers wonder if going forward those lovely illustrations will be enough. Will customers demand animated or otherwise enhanced PBs in a few years? Such worries make editors even more cautious. Right now, editors are acquiring for 2014. Who knows what the digital landscape will look like then?

So, back to today's PBs. Some of the most commercially successful recent picture books include Fancy Nancy, Don't Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus, and Bad Kitty. These books are clever and/or feed right into things kids are passionate about. And they all have brief texts. A breakout success this holiday season, Good Night, Good Night Construction Site, has a very short text, indeed.

Classic titles are certainly popular now, as they always have been. The Very Hungry Caterpillar is almost always near the top of lists in sales. But does it have a long text? Nope.


Melissa Stewart said...

Frankly, it shouldn't surprise anyone that parents are buying books they remember fondly from their own childhoods.

One of the reasons classic PBs account for much of backlist sales is because newer books quickly go out of print if they aren't runaway successes. If they aren't available, people can't buy them and they don't land on bestseller lists.

As for bedtime reading, I know plenty of parents who read one short book, have a little discussion about it, and then kiss their child goodnight. As for story hours, surely librarians are capable of choosing two or three titles with some commonality to fill the time. My guess is that today's kids would like the diversity of hearing sebveral books that are somehow related. But this belief is based on anecdotal evidence (reading to and with my own nieces and nephews), not hard data.

And perhaps that's my biggest grip with Ms. Silvey's article. I don't see any stats to back up her thesis. At least Arthur Levine did some real research before he made any claims.


Melissa Stewart said...

My favorite part of the SLJ article is the ending.

"We’re demographically moving into a new baby boom; already this year publishers are reporting more robust picture book sales than expected on new titles. And, in terms of quality, it’s been a particularly good year for new picture books. The optimist in me believes that the pendulum is already swinging back the other way."

Strong recent sales of new picture books and Ms. Silvey's claim that it's been an especially good, innovative year for PBs reflects my own belief that a great book can find an audience.

Sure, there are some low-quality celebrity books out there cluttering up the market and disappointing parents who get sucked in my name recognition, but I still believe that a great book--long or short or even wordless(Have you seen Red Sled by Lita Judge? It's ingenious!)--will eventually find an editor who falls in love and a publisher willing to get it out into the world.

Authors and illustrators may have to work hard and dig deep. They may have to be patient and persistent. To be sure, our profession is full of frustrations. But what profession isn't? And in my opinion, the frustrations are noting compared to the rewards.

So I'll keep on writing and I'll keep on getting plenty of rejections. But sometimes my manuscripts will resonate with an editor and be launched into the world. And maybe, just maybe, they'll change the way a child views the world.