Two years ago John Mason, one of the founders of the school bookshop movement during his time at Penguin, left his job in charge of publicity at Methuen Children’s Books and moved to New York. He is now Promotion and Publicity Manager for children’s books at Putnam.
He sent us these impressions of the American children’s book scene which he finds
The Same – But Different
I do all the familiar things that I used to do in London – catalogues, advertising, press releases, promotional give-aways, exhibitions. Checking the proofs of a catalogue in New York is much the same as in London. Schools still ring up and say, ‘We want an author for our book bonanza – can you suggest anyone?’ And there is the same feeling of cosy intimacy among children’s book people – the same small world of dedicated specialists and crusaders, reviewers and librarians.
But there is one big difference. America is 3,000 miles across. In England, nearly everywhere is within a few hours’ car journey of everywhere else. ‘Book people’ meet frequently and informally. In America, the ‘cosy intimacy’ has to be maintained mainly by relying on meeting people at two or three major national conventions each year. These conventions are vast social jamborees on a scale unheard of in England. The main ones for children’s books are organised by the IRA (no, not the IRA you’re thinking of, but the International Reading Association, to which the British UKRA is affiliated) and the ALA (the American Library Association). There is also the NCTE, the National Council of Teachers of English, to which the English NATE is affiliated.
The ALA, which has its headquarters in Chicago, is a huge organisation consisting of various major divisions (one of which, the American Association of School Librarians, holds its own annual meeting), and literally scores of sub-divisions, committees, sub-committees, working parties and discussion groups, some with very intriguing-sounding names like the ‘Social Responsibilities Round Table’, and the `Office of Intellectual Freedom’, which campaigns against censorship.
Each year at the ALA Annual Convention close to 20,000 librarians from all across the nation gather for five days of intensive seminars, workshops, lectures and colloquia – and social activity. The publishers, who predominate among the hundreds of exhibitors displaying their wares to this audience, invite leading children’s librarians and reviewers to a hectic merry-go-round of breakfasts, lunches, cocktail parties and dinners. Some are intimate tete-a-tetes with a select few, others lavish entertainments for scores or hundreds in opulent hotel suites. Many people get so heavily booked up that if you haven’t sent out your invitations to every meal and party at least three months before, you’re socially out of the running.
The climax of the show is the annual presentations of the prestigious Newbery and Caldecott Awards (the American equivalent of the British Carnegie and Kate Greenaway Awards) for the best novel and the best picture book of the year. Here, the lucky winners make their acceptance speeches to an audience of several thousand, and the party then adjourns for an evening of fun and games: this used to be a full-scale banquet, but in the last two years it has been down-graded to a buffet supper eaten to the accompaniment of jazz-bands, troupes of street artists performing clown shows, juggling acts and the like, and other more economical entertainments for these budget-conscious times. The first time I witnessed this, accustomed as I was to modest prize-givings in London’s National Book League introduced by the sober remarks of its high-minded director Martyn Goff, I wondered in wide-eyed amazement what on earth any of this had to do with children’s literature, or books, or reading, or anything! But in fact, for 364 days of the year most of these people, too, are earnestly and conscientiously working in their local communities to bring children and books together. The only difference is that in America, when they let their hair down, they really let it down and make no apologies for doing so!
Another aspect of these conventions is that authors and artists who are participating usually spend much of the time at their publishers’ booths signing books which are then sold like crazy to an eager throng of purchasers. That’s another difference. Any publisher who sold books from his exhibition at a library or educational conference in England would be frowned upon especially by local booksellers. In America. there is no net book agreement to inhibit publishers from selling books direct to the public, at any price they choose.
Recently I was at the Texas Library Association Convention where Eric Carle was the guest speaker at their Children’s Round Table ‘Brunch’. Before his speech (in front of 1,000 people) there was a presentation of the Texas Bluebonnet Award (named after the state flower of Texas), given this year to Judy Blume. Since Judy could not attend in person, her publishers presented a videotape of her acceptance speech, in which she was seen stepping out of the shower explaining that that was where she got most of her ideas! After this diversion, Eric made a 40-minute speech, and began signing books at our booth. Within a few hours, we had sold 400 copies of The Very Hungry Caterpillar alone – in hardback. The next day, I boarded the plane for New York clutching an envelope containing our takings – $5,000 in cash! I kept a particularly sharp lookout for muggers on the way home that night.
America the world’s melting pot – is a land of great cultural diversity. With so many different viewpoints, how can any group of people reach a consensus or agree on a course of action? By forming a committee! Committees are fair, committees are democratic, and Americans love committees! In England Elaine Moss in the past and Barbara Sherrard-Smith now relied on their own judgement in selecting titles for the National Book League’s annual Children’s Books of the Year. In America this kind of work is felt to have more validity if it is done by a committee of twelve people. There’s a bewildering plethora of children’s book awards in America, all run by earnest and well–meaning committees of enthusiasts.
The ALA itself has committees to select the Newbery and Caldecott winners, the Best Books for Young Adults, and the ALA Notable Children’s Books. Numerous organizations have committees to award prizes to books that satisfy certain criteria – such as books that highlight Jewish culture, books about the handicapped, books about Blacks, books that encourage international peace and brotherhood, and so on. The Children’s Book Council (CBC) and certain teacher organizations have joint committees that arrange for lists of ‘Outstanding Science Trade Books for Children’ and ‘Notable Children’s Trade Books in the Field of Social Studies’ to be drawn up. There are regional prizes for the best book set in the South-East, or the North-West. Then there are the many State awards, of which the Texas Bluebonnet Award is one. These are the most democratic of all – children from all over the state nominate their favourite books and then study them intensely for a year, and finally vote on the winner (for the publisher, this means big sales of the nominated books in that state even if they don’t eventually win the award). Most ambitious of all is the elaborate selection process administered by a CBC-IRA joint committee to establish a nationwide list of ‘Children’s Choices’. For the publicist faced with all these committees clamouring for his attention, it’s almost a full-time job just submitting the right books to the right committees at the right time. Keeping track of all the awards and citations for catalogues and other publicity pieces is a major feat of organization too.
Children’s book publishing in America is undergoing some changes in the eighties. Throughout the sixties and early seventies, when vast amounts of public money were being pumped into services including schools and libraries, American children’s book publishers concentrated almost entirely on the institutional market. The promotion or publicity staff for children’s books were always (and in many firms still are) referred to as the `School and Library Department’.
Members of these departments travelled the country attending not just the national conventions but many of the State ones as well (nowadays, the Texas Library Association Convention is the only State one that most children’s publishers still attend). Many books-for example, picture books in two or three flat colours, which are virtually unknown in England – were published exclusively for the library market and were not expected to sell in bookshops. They were even published in special ‘library editions’ with reinforced bindings, and bookshops could only order them at a short discount, as they do in England with ‘non net’ books. But with the cut-backs of the last few years this institutional market had declined, and publishers have suddenly woken up to the fact that there is, after all, a large potential market for children’s books amongst the general book-buying public, in hardback as well as paperback. Publishers’ offerings are now brighter, more colourful, more commercial. Many publishers have given up ‘library binding’ editions and just publish trade books.
The American domestic market is still by far the largest in the English-speaking Western world, but American publishers who for years had little need to look beyond it are now catching up with their European colleagues and keeping costs down by going in for international co-editions. The works of British artists like John Burningham, Helen Oxenbury and Jan Pienkowski are now well-known here, while Eric Hill’s Spot books are bestsellers on the Putnam list.
Specialist children’s bookshops are flourishing – there are some 200 dotted around the country, some with intriguing names like ‘A Likely Story’ (Portland, Maine), ‘Trespassers William’ (Albuquerque, New Mexico), and ‘The Alligator Tooth Popsicles’ (Seattle), and more are starting up all the time. The CBC in conjunction with the ABA (American Booksellers Association) encourages them by circulating an annual exhibition of recent top-sellers under the title ‘Children’s Books Mean Business’.
Oddly, none of them seem to have heard of school bookshops, but, from conversations I have had with them, many seem ripe for conversion to the idea. More and more newsletters for parents about children’s books are being put out by booksellers or by other parents. Children’s books are also selling increasingly well in toy shops and other ‘non book’ outlets, and in mail order catalogues. American publishers have discovered that there’s a whole new goldmine in children’s books, and they’re digging furiously.