Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Behind the Books: Are Picture Books Too Short?

One of the great things about the holiday slowdown is that it gave me extra time to catch up on other bloggers’ recent posts. One of the most interesting posts I came across was written by J.L. Bell over at Oz and Ends. It was a discussion of an article Anita Silver recently wrote for School Library Journal.

In it she notes that (1) picture book sales are in a slump compared to the 1990s and early years of the twenty-first century; (2) classic picture books seem to have stronger sales than recently published picture books; (3) in her opinion, contemporary picture books are suffering because there is too much emphasis on keeping texts brief.

I wrote a long comment on Oz and Ends, and I’ve continued to think about it. So I thought I’d share my ideas here.

First of all, are picture book sales really significantly lower than they were a decade ago? There’s no arguing that they represent a lower percentage of revenues (roughly 10-15 percent now vs. 30-40 percent in the 90s), but does that really mean people are buying fewer picture books.

A few years ago, Arthur Levine of Scholastic took a hard look at the actual numbers from his house. He also interviewed people with knowledge of the numbers at other major publishing houses. His conclusion was that PB sales are about the same as they were in the 1990s. The percentage is lower only because YA sales have exploded in the last decade.

Sure the PB market is tough right now, but so are the MG and YA markets. Editors are being cautious about all acquisitions, which is completely understandable given current economic conditions here and abroad.

Even when the economy is plugging along, it's no easy task to sell a children's manuscript. The simple truth is that there's more supply than demand--much more. I would imagine this is particularly true for picture books because they seem deceptively easy to write.

And there's another issue. It's easy enough to convert a novel to a digital format, but things get tricky when a book is loaded with color illustrations that do much of the storytelling. And publishers wonder if, going forward, those lovely illustrations will be enough. Will customers demand animated or otherwise enhanced picture books a few years from now? Since most editor are now acquiring for 2014, they are being very cautious. Who knows what the digital landscape will look like then?
So, back to today's PBs. Some of the most commercially successful recent picture books include Fancy Nancy, Don't Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus, and Bad Kitty. These books are clever and/or feed right into things kids are passionate about. And they all have brief texts. A breakout success this holiday season, Good Night, Good Night Construction Site, has a very short text, indeed.

Classic titles are certainly popular now, as they always have been. The Very Hungry Caterpillar is almost always near the top of lists in sales. But does it have a long text? Nope.

Frankly, it shouldn't surprise anyone that parents are buying books they remember fondly from their own childhoods.

One of the reasons classic PBs account for much of backlist sales is because many of the books being published today don’t get much of a chance to succeed. Due to high inventory costs, if a book isn’t an instance success, it will probably go out of print very quickly. And if a book isn’t available, people can't buy it and it has no chance of ending up on backlist bestseller lists.

As for bedtime reading, I know plenty of parents who read one short book, have a little discussion about it, and then kiss their child goodnight. As for story hours, surely librarians are capable of choosing two or three titles with some commonality to fill the time. My guess is that today's kids would enjoy hearing several books that are somehow related. But this belief is based on anecdotal evidence (reading to and with my own nieces and nephews), not hard data.

And perhaps that's my biggest gripe with Ms. Silvey's article. I don't see any stats to back up her thesis.

My favorite part of the SLJ article is the ending.

"We’re demographically moving into a new baby boom; already this year publishers are reporting more robust picture book sales than expected on new titles. And, in terms of quality, it’s been a particularly good year for new picture books. The optimist in me believes that the pendulum is already swinging back the other way."

Strong recent sales of new picture books and Ms. Silvey's claim that it's been an especially good, innovative year for picture books reflects my own belief that a great book can find an audience.

Sure, there are some low-quality celebrity books out there cluttering up the market, but I still believe that a great book--long or short or even wordless(Have you seen Red Sled by Lita Judge? It's ingenious!)--will eventually find an editor who falls in love with it and a publisher who is excited to launch it into the world.

Authors and illustrators may have to work hard and dig deep. They may have to be patient and persistent. To be sure, our profession is full of frustrations. But what profession isn't? And as far as I’m concerned, the rewards of writing for children far outweigh the frustrations.

So I'll keep on writing, and I'll keep on getting plenty of rejections. But sometimes my manuscripts will resonate with an editor and a marketing department. They will be published and maybe, just maybe, they'll inspire a child or change the way he or she views the world. What could be better than that?


  1. thanks for this thoughtful post. I love contemporary picture books for their combined dependence on both text and pictures to carry the story. I also like older, wordier books ... but picture book artwork is really awesome.

  2. Well said. It would be interesting to me to hear from several veteran designers on whether the enormous improvement in software tools at their disposal has affected picture books. There are certain kinds of layouts you just don't see any more in high end picture books, and I don't think it's simply because they're particularly out of fashion. I think it's because they were always compromises born of the layout and design tools available.

  3. Melissa, thank you for exploring beneath the surface of some of these picture book issues. And I LOVE the optimistic conclusions - I couldn't agree more!