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The Book Business’ Billion-Dollar Baby

<i> See is a West Coast correspondent for Publishers Weekly </i>

One hundred squealing, gibbering, crying, wiggling kids and 200 desperate, sweaty, careworn, utterly determined parents stand in a line that extends outside the bookstore and around the block. One writer, oxygen-deprived and giddy, sits in a corner, inscribing her name as fast as she can. The noise is deafening, the heat intense. By the end of the day, the author will have sold not just the usual two dozen copies to friends and relatives but several hundred copies to collectors, fiends and fanatics. This can’t be the book business! But it is. It’s the children’s-book business.

In the last 15 years, while no one has been paying any particular attention, sales for children’s books have doubled, and doubled, and doubled again. In 1991, sales will top a billion dollars. The most common explanation for this publishing phenomenon is that yuppie parents--with visions of Ivy League colleges dancing in their heads--want their kids to have the very best the world has to offer. During the 1980s, as the number of children under 5 climbed 11.8%, moms and dads spent 48% more on toys and 118% more for children’s books. “These parents are the best-educated generation ever,” says Diane Roback, editor of the children’s-book section for Publishers Weekly. “They know the value of books.”

Today, enterprising publishers, tireless children’s booksellers, hardy librarians and a new group of prolific authors and illustrators have formed a profitable but delicate symbiotic relationship. It wasn’t always so.

Fifteen years ago--the Dark Ages, as they’re bitterly remembered--children’s-book authors and illustrators were patronized, regarded as a lower species by their “adult” colleagues. Opportunities for new talent were scarce. “There was a time when if you were bright and gifted, you didn’t go into a field that was moribund,” recalls Mimi Kayden, vice president and director of hardcover children’s marketing for Penguin USA.

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The books that did get published fell within the dusty domain of “fuddy-duddy” librarians. But even that refuge was in peril as, across the country, legislatures slashed school and public-library budgets. Publishers, accustomed to selling 95% of their product to libraries, realized they either had to downgrade or find new markets. But the most obvious prospects, independent bookstores, were in no position to experiment, because they were in the throes of their own life-or-death struggle with the large chains.

At this low point, a few industry visionaries predicted that the wave of the future lay in specialization. A handful of librarians, former teachers and educators took that advice to heart and, very tentatively at first, opened children’s-only bookstores. From an original dozen or so, today close to 400 children’s-only bookstores dot the nation. Southern California, with 35 stores, has the largest number of any region in the country.

Contrary to conventional bookseller wisdom, many of these pioneers opened in strip malls, where parents could pick up a prescription, the dry cleaning and a new book for junior in one stop. These energetic entrepreneurs began holding in-store events that went far beyond the customary autograph party.

At Pages Books for Children in Tarzana, the weekly calendar is crammed with everything from story hours to arts-and-crafts workshops to mini-concerts where, weather permitting, 100 to 500 kids and parents clamor for seats in the store’s patio to listen to children’s recording artists. “We’re at the center of a network of grown-ups who care about young people,” says Darlene Daniel, owner of Pages and president of the Southern California Children’s Booksellers Assn. (SCCBA). “We see Pages as a place for people interested in children to make connections. It’s the center of the community.”

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Once publishers realized that they could sell to the retail market, the types of books being published changed. “Books have become more commercial, more mass-market,” concedes Louise Howton, director of the children’s-book division for Harcourt Brace Jovanovich. “Books designed to be bought as gifts must be different than those designed for the library market. Pop-up books, baby board books, and gorgeous picture books fit into retail space better than in libraries.”

As publishers started manufacturing overseas, printing in full-color at a price that both publisher and book buyer could afford, artistic and editorial qualities flowered. Houses matched innovative and whimsical writers with exotic, sometimes naughty, illustrators. Of course, the tried-and-true--Sendak, Suess, Cleary and Blume--thrive and prosper, but they have been joined by newcomers such as Chris Van Allsberg (“The Polar Express”) and David MacCauley (“The Way Things Work”).

Suddenly faced with consistent, unprecedented triumphs, publishers redefined their business practices. A 10,000-copy first print used to be ambitious. Not any more. Last fall, Viking Children’s Books released “The True Story of the Three Little Pigs” (by A. Wolf as told to Jon Scieszke) with the requisite 10,000-copy first printing. One year later the book has sold 200,000 copies. With the release of “Where’s Waldo? The Ultimate Fun Book,” Little, Brown is looking at four years, four Waldo books and four million copies by Christmas.

In the young-adult category, Bantam’s “Sweet Valley High” series tapped into the fantasy lives of teen-age girls and now, seven years later, has a stratospheric 62 million copies in print. (“Perfect Summer,” a series “super edition,” became the first young adult title ever to appear on the New York Times paperback-bestseller list.) As with general trade publishing, the big success of individual titles as well as mass market series--"The Baby-Sitters Club,” “Sweet Valley High,” even the “Berenstein Bears"--paved the way for publishers to take chances. “If you’re publishing 125 books a year,” says Betsy Groban, associate publisher and director of marketing for Little, Brown’s children’s division, “you can afford to take some risks with new talent.”

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Finally, the institutional market returned. In 1986, the California Reading Initiative mandated a revolutionary change in school curriculum. Dick and Jane, hero and heroine of the basal reader, were put out to pasture and replaced by the theory of “whole language"--where children learn to read with real books filled with three-dimensional characters. While whole language is exciting to everyone from kids to administrators, problems have occurred. How do you re-train an entire generation of educators to teach reading? How do you tell them what books are available: good, silly, important, and literary? What about the notion of standardized testing? Should kids enjoy reading or follow a more vocabulary-based standard curriculum?

Children’s bookstores, as resource centers, not only supply the answers to many of those questions but also perform countless outreach services. Booksellers help teachers create lesson plans and social- studies units. Some take their stores on the road up to 100 times a year to book fairs at public and private schools. The booksellers also provide lists of local writers and illustrators who are interested in school appearances and will sell the author’s books on the day of the event.

The library market still accounts for the majority of all children’s-book sales. According to Penny Markey, coordinator of youth services for the County of Los Angeles Library, two-thirds of her million-dollar budget goes to the purchase of new titles, with the remaining one-third replacing lost or damaged books. Library visits are rising 5% annually. In the last year alone, 3.5 million books were circulated to children. As in other parts of the industry, libraries are working with children’s booksellers to create special programs.

Moving into the ‘90s, publishers and booksellers wonder if the pendulum will swing back, especially with a recession on the horizon. “Everyone now thinks that children’s books are going to save them,” remarks Kayden. In some cases, booksellers are beginning to buy more than they can sell, reports Diane Roback, whose children’s-book coverage for Publishers Weekly will go weekly beginning in January.

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“Although the children’s-book trade remains focused on its backlist,” she explains, “for the first time booksellers are ‘returning’ new books to make room for next month’s new stock.” (For publishers, this isn’t as devastating as it is with an adult book, because a children’s book can be rejacketed and shipped back out to libraries.)

Booksellers worry about the “basalizing” of trade books. Already teachers have asked for and received a study guide for “Frog and Toad.” “My biggest fear is that they will turn literature into textbooks and take all the fun out of reading,” says Sharon Hearn, owner of Children’s Book World in West Los Angeles. Betty Takeuchi of San Marino Toy and Book Shoppe frets about the abandonment of quality in favor of a publisher’s quest for a healthy bottom line: “I’m seeing fabulously illustrated books with bad editorial content and good content with terrible illustrations. These are not well-drafted books!”

All in all, the trend looks as though it’s here to stay. The baby boom certainly isn’t going anywhere. Kindergarten-through-8th-grade enrollment is expected to peak in 1996, then gradually decline; by the year 2000, there will be 2 million more high school students than there are now.

The business itself continues to stretch and adapt to new concepts such as audio cassettes and children’s-book clubs, while markets are expanding into variety and discount stores. Publishers, flush with success, are creating new imprints, and each imprint has the ability to produce more titles.

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Some editors are exploring a “salad bowl” approach to content and are realizing that nonfiction also can be beautiful. New authors--experiencing the traditional literary perks of limos and jets on their publicity tours--are writing fine literature, and illustrators are producing exquisite art.

Behind it all, says Roback, is the desire to keep kids reading and having fun so that they will grow up to be lifelong book lovers.


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