A discussion among four top children’s book publishers and agents closed out the third annual Global Kids Connect Conference, held on December 4 in New York City and produced by Publishers Weekly and the Bologna Children’s Book Fair. Moderated by Kate Wilson, president of Nosy Crow, the panel looked at of-the-moment topics that included the dominance of Amazon, global aspects of the bookselling business, opportunities presented by streaming services and other technologies, and efforts to diversify the children’s book industry.
Wilson opened by asking the panelists about their thoughts on the strength of the U.S. market, particularly with more than 40% of books being sold online: “Are you worried? Are we hooked on Amazon?” Lori Benton, v-p and publisher of Scholastic Trade, responded that “despite the threat of the retail apocalypse” and a “softening” in sales at chain bookstores, she was excited about “resurgent” independent bookstores, sales opportunities in services such as subscription boxes, and Amazon’s ability to “provide new life to backlist and classics.”
“I do wonder what we’re going to do with all of those malls that are being turned into doctor’s offices,” said Mary Ann Naples, v-p and publisher at Disney Book Group. She added that she felt that bookstores, and the chains in particular, have an opportunity to be involved in “creating experience” around books, presumably building on events such as midnight release parties and Camp Half-Blood style events that have proven popular for Rick Riordan’s books.
Asked whether “you operate in a global business, or a local business,” all three panelists agreed that their companies take a global view. “We’re always thinking globally,” said agent Jill Grinberg, president of Jill Grinberg Literary Management, noting that the agency seeks to retain foreign and translation rights whenever possible. “And I’m always interested in work that has the possibility of translation.”
From there, the conversation turned to the role of e-books, though the panelists agreed that their impact has been fairly minimal in the children’s market. “There was never really a major adoption of digital reading at the kids’ level,” said Benton, noting that Scholastic’s own annual Kids Family Reading Report continues to show that children strongly prefer reading print books.
“The digital changes have affected adult publishing so much more,” said Naples, who came to Disney from Rodale. The fact that e-books haven’t taken much of a hold in children’s books, aside from the YA market, “has allowed us to keep going on without too much disruption.”
Where Naples is seeing “glimmers of change” is “around audio and interactive experiences with Alexa, with Siri, with all of the personalities that are emerging from these platforms.” Naples recounted a story about a colleague’s child who asked Alexa to read her a story; Alexa complied. “When the kid can’t get a parent to read the book, are they going to sit down with this very diligent personal assistant?” she wondered.
Wilson then asked if the publishing industry had the potential to “lead rather than follow” when bestsellers are so often linked to major films. “Or is it more realistic to accept that our job is just to make [an existing media property] a bit book-y?”
“I think the streaming services are going to be such an advantage to publishers over the coming years,” said Naples, and Grinberg agreed. “It really does seem to be all about TV,” she said, noting that “TV people are always looking for subcultures.” (Shows like Riverdale come to mind.) Despite the trend of big-name authors being snapped up to write novels set in established fictional universes—Marvel, DC, Star Wars, and so on—Grinberg maintained that she’s “much more interested in my writers coming up with their own ideas.”
On the topic of sensitivity readers, publishing diverse voices, and online pushback to books whose cultural representations fall short, Wilson asked the panelists, “Are publishers running scared where social media is concerned?” Grinberg said that she’s had authors whose books or characters have been criticized publicly. “I know these authors, I know their hearts are in the right place, but it wasn’t received that way,” she said. “I think generally what’s happening—the dialogue, the awareness—is incredibly important. If this is what we have to endure to get to a better place, then so be it.”
“The work we do,” said Benton at Scholastic, “is how kids make sense of the world.” She noted that previous attention toward diversity in children’s books during the 1990s “didn’t have a lot of traction or longevity,” but that “the conversation that is happening now is much more profound and much more important.”
In closing, Naples reflected on the ongoing difficulty of devising a reproducible way, through social media, to ensure that books can be discovered by readers. Benton considered the paradox of trying to reach young readers online while remaining COPA-compliant. (The conference happened to coincide with Facebook’s announcement of a messaging app for children under 13 years old.)
Grinberg, meanwhile, advocated for increased collaboration and more transparency between publishers and agents, since that relationship is so often seen as adversarial. “I would like to know where any given book sits or will sit on the list,” she said, though she understood why a house wants to “send the message that they are doing everything they can” for a given book. “We have to be realistic,” she continued. “Not every book is going to be a frontlist title. I’d rather have a real conversation about that from the beginning. How many copies are we trying to sell? How are we going to do that?”
“My answer as publisher: How the hell do we know?” replied Wilson. “For me, the joy of the industry is the surprise of the industry.”