On February 10, as part of this year’s SCBWI winter conference in New York City, an authoritative panel of agents and editors explained what they are seeing in children’s book publishing: more narrative and fun nonfiction, more heavily illustrated middle grade books, and young adult novels with strong voices. They are seeing more graphic novels—and more flexibility by publishers about what format those books take. They are also seeing more creative marketing, such as subscription boxes or partnerships with video game companies. And slowly, they are seeing more diversity.
Moderator Lin Oliver, executive director of SCBWI, asked the panelists to describe and discuss the “current creative atmosphere.”
Tanusri Prasanna, agent at Foundry Literary + Media, sees interest in biographies of “forgotten” women from the past, illustrated middle grade, strong nonfiction, fantasy, and picture books that “teach children how to be better human beings.”
Rachel Ekstrom, agent at Folio Literary Management, has noticed more interest for nonfiction “that is not didactic or boring, ” at both YA and middle grade levels. She also is seeing more adult writers interested in writing for children, and vice versa.
Alexander Slater, agent at Trident Media Group, commented on a huge rise in graphic novels. “There are absolutely no rules to them right now… publishers are giving creators the reins.” He said he has reached out to illustrators to see if they have graphic novel ideas.
Mekisha Telfer, associate editor at Roaring Brook Press, is likewise seeing interest in graphic novels. She is also seeing more novels of all kinds about the LBGTQ community.
Maria Barbo, senior editor at HarperCollins Children’s Books, sees a broadening of what publishers are looking for overall, as marketers think about “creating a book for every reader.” She has a soft spot for “books that use humor to help give kids the tools to navigate their world. “
Kate Egan, editorial director at KCP Loft, is seeking only YA. She believes that “getting to know your reader” is most vital for YA authors and illustrators, “understanding what they want but do not have yet.”
Next, Lin Oliver asked about the progress of diversity in children’s books. All agreed things are evolving, but problems remain. “There is definitely still work to do for decades to come,” Telfer said. Children’s books still largely represent white American children. Publishers are seeking more authors and illustrators from diverse backgrounds and are receptive to more “non-European folklore-inspired projects,” Ekstrom said. The real problem, Prasanna said, is that the gatekeepers—publishers, editors, agents and other employees who decide which books are acquired and how they are marketed—need far more diversity in their ranks.
Asked about marketing trends in children’s book publishing, Slater said he recently was approached by two big video game companies interested in turning some of his clients’ books into video games. Ekstrom said, “I’m seeing more creativity in how to get books out there.” She said bookstores and libraries are still key, including a crop of new independent bookstores. Also, subscription box programs are increasing. “You get a box… there’s some sort of fee. Every month a box is shipped to you. It is filled with books that are hand-selected around the theme, and sometimes there are other gifts that are tied into the book,” she said. If your book is chosen for one of the boxes, “It can really drive a nice chunk of sales and awareness.”
Slater got a big laugh when he said, “I always tell my clients that we need to think of marketing ideas that cost the publisher nothing.”
What about “quieter” books—do they still have a place in the market? Egan said that getting acquisitions teams to buy them is a thrill and that it hurts when such books are turned away. “Of course, everyone wants a bestseller,” Egan said, “but at the end of the day it’s understood that not everyone can be a bestseller, and I try to make a point of not dismissing the quiet books, because sometimes they are the sleeper hits.” Prasanna urged authors to skip trying to write to a trend. “Write what you are bursting to write.”
Similarly, panelists urged authors and illustrators to devote most of their time in writing or drawing wonderful books and less time prematurely trying to make themselves into a brand. “A brand is something that comes organically from you as an artist. It’s your voice that will shine through,” Slater said. Barbo agreed: “If it’s forced, the audience will know.” Ekstrom, who was formerly a publicist, said, “There is too much emphasis on branding too early. If you’re not published yet, you need to get that book done first.”
Oliver asked the panelists about whether writers should try to write to “what will sell” or stick with what really excites them. To figure out the difference, Barbo said, craft a 25-word, 30-second elevator pitch. “If you can explain it in a sentence, and that sentence excites you, and it excites strangers, then you have a great idea on your hands.” Egan reminded the audience to hang out with kids, saying, “Ultimately we are making the books for them.”
For authors who have been published and want to continue being successful, the panelists urged them to expand their network of contacts and support other authors, which can be reciprocal. In addition, Ekstrom said, “Think about how you can reach the people who already like your book and how you can spark word of mouth.”
And what about aspiring authors and illustrators? Read plenty of children’s books—recent ones—to get a feel for what’s out there, the speakers urged. Slater said “it gets boring” to received queries that use only older books as comparisons. Prasanna urged writers to hone their craft, and “get the work as polished as you can.” She said some authors spend more time creating dazzling query letters than focusing on the quality of their manuscripts. In addition, she said, “you must read within the genre,” to keep abreast of what’s new, but don’t lose your originality.
Egan urged new writers to actually read children’s writing to get a feel of what is interesting and important to them. Ekstrom said authors and illustrators need to develop thick skin, to “get really comfortable with feedback, and get comfortable with ‘no,’ ‘not quite,’ ‘close but no cigar.’ ” Barbo added, “Manage expectations. Set your own definition of what success is.”
The SCBWI summer conference will be held August 9–12 in Los Angeles.