"A physical picture book is an opportunity for a parent and child to make a connection," said children's book author and illustrator John Rocco during the Children's Publishing Conference held just before BookExpo America, organized by Publishing Perspectives, co-hosted by Scholastic and entitled "What Makes a Children's Book Great?"
Now e-picture books have the potential to make the same parent-child connection, especially as they expand into the digital marketplace, a phenomenon that until relatively recently was inconceivable.
"We're the only game in town," declared Kevin O'Connor, head of business development and publishing relations for Barnes & Noble's Nook Kids. O'Connor, who gave a brief presentation regarding the Nook Kids platform, identified interactivity and functionality, including animations and sound effects, as key factors to the success of digital picture books.
Despite the growth in sales of digital picture books and other children's books, physical sales remain strong. Several speakers, including Roger Sutton, editor-in-chief of the Horn Book, and author/illustrator Peter Brown, touted the emotional significance of print books. Said Sutton: "People treasure the physical experience of reading with a child.... It keeps picture books safe."
|Roger Sutton, Pamela Paul, David Levithan and Shelf Awareness children's editor Jennifer Brown, moderator.
Sales of YA books, meanwhile, have been much greater than children's books. Both Pamela Paul, children's book editor for the New York Times Book Review, and author and publisher David Levithan spoke of the widespread presence of YA authors on social media networks and in the blogosphere. But speakers expressed a range of opinions on the usefulness of social networks and blogs to YA and children's book authors.
Levithan described the online interactions of bloggers, authors and teenage fans as the "amazing street team" of YA publicity. Graphic novelist Raina Telgemeier was a staunch supporter of social networks and blogs, saying, "[Give] them a little piece of yourself, then the books will follow." "Connect [with your audience] before you start to write the book," added YA author Beth Kephart. "Work to create a personal and authentic relationship." On the other hand, Peter Brown described librarians as the people who "really put books in kids' hands."
Panelists also discussed the ongoing trend of adult readers flocking to YA titles. Pamela Paul posited that this could be a result of YA's tendency to focus on plot- and character-driven storytelling, as opposed to the interior focus and psychology found in much adult fiction. By contrast, David Levithan maintained that this trend simply "illuminates the bulls**t distinction" between YA and adult fiction.
Several speakers, including Scholastic president and CEO Richard Robinson, touched on how quality control remains paramount in children's publishing, contributing to its relative stability and endurance. Robinson warned, however, that as children's publishing pushes further and further into the digital marketplace and the availability of children's books greatly increases, the challenge will become maintaining that quality.
One explanation for the consistent level of quality found in children's publishing is the relative lack of self-publishing. While there may be some real gems among self-published books, they are rare, was the consensus of the speakers. Rosemary Stimola, founder and president of the Stimola Literary Studio, described the problem of self-publishing as one of quality control, creating "a sea of un-juried, un-vetted and unedited work... another form of slush pile."
The two other literary agents, Erica Rand Silverman of Sterling Lord Literistic, and Ken Wright of Writers House, identified a "growing impatience" by authors, who turn to self-publishing sometimes too soon. Stimola asserted that the blame rests not solely on authors but also on publishers and editors, who sometimes put too much emphasis on finding the next hit or blockbuster.
Fittingly, the last topic of the day perhaps answered the conference's titular question: What makes a children's book great? Peter Brown said, "If I read a story and relate to it, if it lingers in my imagination, then it's a great book." --Alex Mutter
photo: Publishing Perspectives