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Children's publishing

Chris Holifield

Long regarded as the Cinderella of the publishing world, children’s publishing has enjoyed a remarkable rate of growth and is now seen by many as one of the most exciting areas to work in. This is not just because of the Harry Potter phenomenon, as many other children’s authors such as Jacqueline Wilson, Philip Pullman and Judy Blume have also produced megasellers which have proved attractive to children all over the world.

In some ways children’s books are innately more stable, as successful authors sell their backlist strongly, with a new generation coming into each age group every year. For many years the sector as a whole was stable in terms of personnel as well, with editors staying in their jobs over a long period and having the chance to build their lists.

The downside of this is that children’s publishing used to be a ghetto, with lower pay and fewer opportunities, but now this is changing too. Recent major successes, such as Michelle Paver, have shown that a new children’s author can rapidly build an audience with good marketing, particularly if a strong series is involved. Now, instead of major literary agencies not being interested in children’s work, many more agents are handling authors focusing on children, with special children's departments and a larger number of agents specialising in children's books.

Submitting to children’s publishers

It’s still just as important for the author to get their material into good shape before submitting it, but in children’s publishing houses there are more editors who do actually edit books, so many do offer really good input to the author. To get the project taken on in the first place, it’s important that your work is as fresh and as original as possible – no-one is going to be interested in the latest J K Rowling or Philip Pulman look-alike at this stage in the game.

Illustrations

For younger children the illustrations are an important element. Most publishers will prefer to marry up the author with an illustrator of their choice, so don’t assume you need to have an illustrator on tap before you submit your work to a publisher. The key thing with picture books is to match up the text and illustrations and many enduringly successful writer and artist partnerships have developed over the years.

Age groups

Age groups are an important element of the way publishers look at publishing for children. The storyline and language must be appropriate for the intended age-group and this is where many writers who haven’t written for children before are likely to go wrong. It pays to pay close attention to this. In books for the very young, picture books and first readers every word counts and must be absolutely right, so children’s publishers always pay very close attention to the text.

The international market

Publishers of children’s books have a strongly international dimension in what they do. In order to cover the start-up costs of a picture book, for instance, they need to build in co-edition sales from the beginning. This involves having powerful subsidiary rights departments focusing on the international market and building up enough of a print run to make the project viable. It also means that children’s publishers need to be acutely aware of what will sell in particular countries and what sensitivities of subject-matter or vocabulary there might be. The US and the UK look like the same English language market, but anyone who sells across the Atlantic, in whichever direction, will confirm that the superficial similarity conceals a mass of small differences of vocabulary and practice.

The market itself has changed radically in recent years. British publishers used to expect to sell to the US, but now American publishers are more interested in originating their own books and selling to the rest of the world. The European markets are very important for children's publishers.The Scandinavian countries are enthusiastic buyers-in of children’s books, Japan, India and Singapore can be great markets, and new markets such as China are rapidly growing in importance. The rights-sellers who deal with international rights need to know each market in detail to get the best deals for their books.

Sales and marketing

Sales and marketing of children’s books have taken on added weight and importance now that big numbers can be involved. Some of the most successful publishers of children’s books, such as Walker Books in the UK, do not publish anything else. Others are part of a larger organisation, such as Random House on both sides of the Atlantic. What seems to be key is that a children’s list should have dedicated sales and marketing focused on their own titles and staffed by real enthusiasts who want to work in children’s books.

In sales and promotion, as elsewhere in children’s publishing, working in the sector is a lifelong commitment and a positive choice, and this dedication does give children’s publishing a different feel.

Most recently, during the recession, children's books have been selling better than books for adults, possibly because parents see books as an educational tool and will prioritise spending on them at the expense of books for themselves.

New writers

For writers trying to get into the field, the best advice has to be to study the market carefully and to read widely, to understand the dynamics of children’s publishing and what is successful, and why. It’s really important not to patronise children and to produce stories which will interest them, as well as being written at the appropriate level in terms of vocabulary, storyline and characterisation. But it is a flourishing sector with lots of excitement, a strong sense of purpose and potentially high rewards.

 

Chris Holifield

 



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