Publishing has always been an unpredictable business and changes in the last couple of decades have made it still more so. Publishers and booksellers can reap greater rewards than ever before by identifying and supporting the next bestseller but the risks are greater, too, and publishers are far more exposed than they have ever been. Caroline Horn explains.
Children’s publishing is a cyclical business and over the last couple of decades fashions have ranged from series such as Fighting Fantasies and Sweet Valley High to picture books giants like Guess How Much I Love You. Some five or 10 years hence, children’s publishers will be sighing nostalgically over the fantasy trilogies, cross-over fiction and chick lit that currently dominate our shelves. ‘Do you remember the time when we could sell fiction – to teenagers?’ publishers will mourn, as they nurture the next non-fiction bestseller into life.
This may sound a little over-optimistic for the non-fiction market, but who knows? As one agent put it, ‘If you mentioned “fantasy” to a publisher ten years ago, their eyes would glaze over with boredom.’ Today, fantasy dominates the market.
Publishers have as much chance of identifying the next big trend as toy manufacturers of deciding what will be in demand for Christmas two years hence. No one knows whether the fantasy trilogies currently being bought will still be in demand a year or two down the line and, given that six and seven figure sums are being spent on them, mistakes could be very expensive.
Market forces are playing a greater role in shaping publishers’ output than ever before – and it’s making it harder than ever to predict tomorrow’s winners. This is a trend that started with business developments back in the ’80s and early ’90s. On a corporate level, there was a spree of company acquisitions in the mid ’80s. Publishing houses got bigger with the driver being not size, but ‘vertical integration’ – that is, publishers producing their titles in both hardback and paperback. Prior to this, one publishing house would create an original hardback title and then a different company would produce the paperback. Publishers realised that it made more financial sense to originate and paperback their own titles.
Penguin was one of the main paperbacking houses but its acquisition of Thomson Books in 1985, which included the hardback lists Michael Joseph and Hamish Hamilton, allowed it to integrate both hardback and paperback production. Other publishers followed suit. In the children’s world, too, publishers shifted to vertical integration with companies like Walker Books and Random House Children’s Books setting up their own paperback lists. Until that point, Puffin had dominated the paperbacking scene.
Today, publishers have much more control over the hardback and paperback publishing cycles and can decide, for example, whether a picture book or fiction title will be published straight into paperback rather than hardback. This is just as well in the current market, since hardback sales have been hit by lower library and school spend and since many young readers prefer paperbacks. Publishers are also more likely to take a gamble on a new author or title if they can paperback it, since this is cheaper to produce.
How books are now sold
The other shift towards conglomeration in the ’80s occurred in retail and this has had a significant impact on how books are sold, and especially on what booksellers will stock. In 1982, Waterstone’s opened its first store and ushered in an entirely new look for bookselling in the high street, which had been dominated by W H Smith. The children’s market has subsequently benefited from the growth of chains such as Dillons (acquired by Waterstone’s in 1995) and Ottakars, which developed good practice in children’s sales. Supermarkets also started selling children’s books with Walker Books agreeing a deal to produce exclusive titles for Sainsbury’s.
Alongside the growth in the bookselling chains and supermarket interest came the development of EPoS (Electronic Point of Sale). This was introduced by W H Smith in the mid eighties and was soon taken up by other chains. Philippa Dickinson, managing director of Random House Children’s Books, says the impact of this cannot be underestimated: ‘Retailers increasingly relied on what their EPoS system told them was selling, rather than relying on gut instinct or publishers’ information.’
It became harder for publishers to convince retailers to keep supporting authors whom they felt did not justify shelf space. She says: ‘Today you can probably keep booksellers’ enthusiasm for an author’s first three books whereas in the past, authors would have had five or six books to become established.’ Even once they get to the shelves, books will only have about six months to prove themselves – and only three months or so if it’s a new author.
By the 1990s, publishers were facing a variety of new challenges including the declining book spend by libraries and schools (who traditionally bought the same titles year on year), a greater dependency on fluid high street sales, and the fact that more children were making their own buying choices through direct sales operations such as school book fairs and catalogues.
The discovery of The Bestseller
The overall result of these changes was a shift from a market dominated by the likes of Roald Dahl in the ’80s, to one that was keen for new titles and new voices, says agent and former MD of Puffin, Philippa Milnes-Smith. There was also the realisation that successful authors like Jacqueline Wilson could be developed into brands. But it was the discovery of The Bestseller in the children’s market around 2000 that marked the greatest shift in people’s expectations of children’s books.
Authors like Jacqueline Wilson and Anne Fine had built solid careers over many years of writing but the success of newcomer J K Rowling with Harry Potter indicated that quicker and substantial gains were to be had, given the right support. Puffin’s aggressive publishing of Eoin Colfer’s Artemis Fowl in 2001 highlighted the fact that backing winners to the hilt produced results.
Marketing spend is crucial now in a book’s success because it buys display and shelf space in stores says Pat Shepherd, sales director at Random House Children’s Books. ‘We are becoming front-list driven, like the adult market.’ But while children’s marketing budgets are creeping up to support this change, it is only happening on certain books. ‘The emphasis is on the big books. While we have other books on the list that we believe in, we simply don’t have the marketing budgets for them,’ says Shepherd.
Promotional spend, not merit
As a result, publishers and retailers have significantly reduced their ranges. On the one hand this is good because publishers have cut back on titles that were never going to set the world on fire. But it also means that the consumer has less choice and that well crafted but ‘quiet’ titles are harder to sell. Books are also being promoted to customers on the back of promotional spend, rather than through individual enthusiasm or merit.
The future for books that do not have the support of a marketing budget – and for children’s backlist titles in general – is becoming bleak. Backlists have been declining year on year since the mid ’90s, says Milnes-Smith, and authors may no longer be able to rely on royalties from their backlists for their future income.
A huge explosion of talent
On the other hand, this competitive environment has created one of the most exciting phases the children’s book market has ever seen. Booksellers are actively helping books find their feet in the market and publishers are supporting that with a more imaginative approach to marketing. Even adult writers like Philip Kerr and celebrity Madonna are flocking to the children’s arena, which is basking in the glow of media interest and huge advances.
But it is the creative climate that is most intriguing publishers and agents, who are uncovering talent as fast as they can sell it. Agent Rosemary Canter says: ‘I’m interested in why there is this huge explosion of talent. I have never known a time when there were so many wonderful writers and I have had so many strong manuscripts on my table.’
One reason could be that publishers have more faith in the kind of books that authors have always wanted to write. Canter describes the shift away from gritty realism of ten years ago as ‘a gorgeous explosion of light and colour’. Philip Pullman and J K Rowling’s successes have loosened books from the constraints of length and simple plot lines, says agent Caroline Sheldon. ‘Ten years ago, no one believed that a children’s book could be more than 30,000 words long. Now, the more adventurous the better. Books that would have been considered risky in the past have been seen to work, but on a very selective basis. Nor do books have to be fantasy. It can be adventure, rites of passage etc – it’s an open time and very exciting. Imaginative fiction is key.’
However, the market for fiction for older readers is becoming crowded and publishers are turning their attention to gaps in market provision. ‘The market feels quite sated with teen titles and fantasy and there’s been a rush to the seven to nine years market, an area that has suffered from quite mediocre publishing for some time,’ says Canter. She also sees room for another kind of contemporary novel that reflects real life and emotions, such as strong love stories for teens.
Others hope for the return of series publishing, such as Random’s Sweet Valley High. Scholastic is preparing to relaunch Goosebumps and, according to Shepherd, there is still a place for collectable series that appeal to readers who may not have a high reading ability but who enjoy following appealing series. If these are to be successful, they will need support from W H Smith, which has an ideal market positioning for this kind of product.
Picture book publishing
The outlook for one particular sector of children’s publishing, though, remains tough, and that is the picture book. Because picture books are expensive to produce, they are ideally first sold as hardback titles but the lack of budgets in schools and libraries has dramatically reduced hardback sales. It has also become much harder for British publishers to sell picture book titles into their traditional coedition markets, the US and Europe. Combined, this has resulted in a fall-off in picture book output and a lack of risk-taking, says Sheldon. ‘No one takes any risks, everyone plays so safe it’s terrifying because they can’t afford to publish without coedition partners.’ A number of artists and illustrators who once made a living in the picture book world have returned to other careers to support themselves.
Picture book publishing can still be hugely successful, as Macmillan Children’s Books has shown with Axel Scheffler and Julia Donaldson’s The Gruffalo, and Orion with Francesca Simon and Kevin McAleenan’s Horrid Henry titles. But the volume and variety of children’s picture book titles that were once being published are simply not there. Even so, publishers remain optimistic that the glory time of the picture book will return. Publishing is, after all, a cyclical business.
Caroline Horn compiles Children’s Book News for the Bookseller.