12 October 2010

Picture Books, Publishing, Parenting—Perhaps

Last week the New York Times published a provocative article about the state of picture-book publishing in America. It cited information from the two biggest US book retail chains, three respected independent children’s booksellers, and the major publishers Scholastic, Penguin, Simon & Schuster, and Candlewick.

Some in our children’s literature crowd nonetheless dismissed the article, suggesting not only that the headlines “Picture Books Languish as Parents Push ‘Big-Kid Books’” and “Picture Books No Longer a Staple for Children” overstated the trend, but that there was no trend to state. Others answered with paeans to picture books as valuable art and/or educational material, and still popular in libraries. Much of which, I fear, somewhat misses the point.

The Times article is primarily about a market trend. And saying that trend doesn’t, shouldn’t, or needn’t exist won’t make it stop. When Barnes & Noble reworks its shelving to carry fewer picture books, that’s significant for the future of the form. Soulless, money-hungry, trend-chasing retail corporations don’t make major changes simply because someone has a hunch. They do so because they see what’s actually selling best.

For a few years already we’ve heard from editors and agents that the market for picture books is “soft” (i.e., hard to break into). Many agents say they don’t want to see picture-book manuscripts, and firms are cutting back on those titles. This retail downturn appears to come on top of that trend. Even if sales to libraries rise (and the economy makes that dubious), an industry that’s gotten used to selling to middle- and upper-class families is in for tough changes.

Some of the children’s-lit response seems to assume that our current conception of the picture book—usually 32 pages, oversized trim, full-color art, minimal text, priced under $20—is a cultural apogee. But it’s an artifact defined by a complex interplay of economics, production capabilities, and parenting and educational culture. If circumstances change some of those factors, perhaps any of those factors, and we might see something different come out the other end.

The picture-book boom of the 1980s was helped by deals with Asian printers who could deliver high-quality books more cheaply (though they also necessitated a longer lead time). At the same time, a baby boomlet produced more children, especially in the richer classes where book-buying has always been concentrated. Then came the benefits of digital production. Today those factors no longer offer new cost-savings, and picture-book prices might be bumping against a psychological barrier of $20, leaving publishers less room for profit.

Today’s demographics are less promising. Over the past fifteen years or so, a slightly oversized cohort of upper- and middle-class children have grown up, and we’ve successively seen a small picture-book boom, a middle-grade novel boom, and the current young-adult fiction boom. But what comes next? Today’s economy is poor, as the Times article acknowledges, yet those YA novels aren’t hurting. (Indeed, literary agents who have never been involved in children’s books are now proclaiming their interest in repping YA fiction.)

Today’s new technologies appear to have their biggest effect on the consumer end, not on production. People are buying more books online, when the impressive look and size of picture books aren’t so obvious. Digital readers promise more flexibility in formats (no more stricture of 32 pages!), features (sound!), savings (no printing!), and distraction (hey, let’s see what games are on the web).

Only after those factors, I think, do we arrive at the cultural issues that this article focused on. Quoting publisher Justin Chanda of Simon & Schuster and a couple of parents, the reporter suggested that parents want young kids to read “chapter books” earlier, and therefore steer them away from picture books. Is there enough pressure from upper- and middle-class parents and standards-driven schools to affect book sales? Are families getting more interested in other forms of “edutainment” besides books? Are parents simply content with the titles they remember from their own childhoods?

Put all those factors together, and the result may mean long-term shrinkage of the picture-book business as we’ve known it. It won’t disappear, but it may never command as much of the market as it once did. And our mental model of a picture book might have to change. To satisfy parental desires, oversized illustrated books might end up having more text, like those semi-mythical “picture-storybooks” we authors speak of when we don’t want to cut our 2,500-word manuscripts.

As for giving young readers visuals alongside their texts, the past decade has seen an increasing amount of art in middle-grade novels. After decades of cost-cutting, interior illustrations have returned, pushed by Harry Potter and Lemony Snicket. We’ve seen novels with art integrated into the storytelling: Hugo Cabret, Ellie McDoodle, Spiderwick Chronicles, Diary of a Wimpy Kid, True Meaning of Smekday, and so on. We’ve even seen the rise to respectability of the comics form, including TOON Books for beginning readers. So our culture doesn’t lack for books combining pictures and words; perhaps they’re just changing form.


Susan T. said...

Some good points here, Mr. Bell! Question: which do you think came first: the shrinkage of B & N's picture book section (not to mention its financial woes) or the publishers' publishing less? Or was it simultaneous?

Monica Edinger said...

I actually thought my conclusion was similar to yours --- that the format is changing.

J. L. Bell said...

Given the lead time of the format, I think publishers were still issuing picture books in pretty big numbers at the same time that they started slowing their acquisitions of new titles.

Beyond that, I think slower sales drove B&N’s changes and publishers’ choices simultaneously. The chain chose to put its resource of space behind the products that offered the most profit. Publishers don’t really have the money or infrastructure for market research beyond the sales figures they get from booksellers and wholesalers, and B&N is one of their biggest customers, so that change no doubt had a ripple effect back in the editors’ offices.

J. L. Bell said...

Sorry, Monica; I read your essay as concluding that there are new forms coming in addition to today’s typical picture books, whereas I think that our idea of what’s typical about picture books might change. Probably just two ways of looking at or expressing the same ideas.