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Children's Literary Salon in Retrospect: Independent Publishing on December 8, 2012

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[Palmer Cox's famous Brownie books], Digital ID 1704746, New York Public LibraryI have been curious about independent publishing since I have heard other panelists in the Children's Literary Salons talking about it, so I was thrilled to be able to experience a Kid Lit Salon solely on that topic on December 8, 2012 in the South Court Auditorium of the Stephen A. Schwarzman Building.

Betsy Bird, Youth Materials Specialist at NYPL, mentioned that NYPL has recently posted Children's Books 2012: 100 Titles for Reading and Sharing on its web site, and then she introduced the panelists. Cheryl Willis Hudson founded Just Us Books, Inc. with her husband Wade in 1988. Claudia Zoe Bedrick was from Enchanted Lion Press, which was founded in 2003. Vice President Editor-in-Chief Mary Cash was from Holiday House, founded in 1935, and Harriet Ziefert was from Blue Apple Books, founded in 2003. Bird informed the audience that Mary Cash and Cheryl Willis Hudson would be giving separate presentations on their companies, followed by a panel discussion.

Holiday House: Mary Cash then gave a presentation about Holiday House. She stated that the company was founded at the depth of the Great Depression in 1935 by three people. It was the first American publishing house devoted entirely to children. The founders travelled to sell their books, which were produced in a variety of formats, including cloth books, miniature books and broadsides. Glen Rounds was a cowboy that the company helped communicate his story through a children's book. They published more than 60 books by Gail Gibbons, who has a somewhat loose style. Holiday House strives to make learning fun and engaging for the kids by using humor in their books, which are particularly good for struggling readers. They provide books for babies through young adults, and they are creative and they try new things. 

Just Us Books (Black interest Children's Books): Next, Cheryl Willis Hudson gave a presentation on the company she and her husband founded in 1988: Just Us Books, Inc. They wanted to create black interest books for all children because they did not see many on the market. They create African American and multicultural books for babies through young adults. They were able to find and create a niche that they were able to market successfully. They did not set out to become publishers. Hudson simply wanted to publish a black interest book that she wrote, but she could not find anyone to publish it. She self published the book, and realized that there was a market for such books. Then, she and her husband began publishing other authors' books as well.

Bird then invited Hudson, Bedrick, Cash and Ziefert to join her on the stage for a panel discussion.

Bird mentioned that some of the panelists had experience working with large publishers. She wondered if it was a different experience for authors and illustrators to work with small versus large publishers.

Want to Come to Manhattan? Ziefert mentioned Red Cat, Blue Cat. She said that she gave author Jenni Desmond a plane ticket and room and board to come to NYC for a week in order to work with her for a week to figure out the book. Four days work and one day to shop in Manhattan. She also has contact with a Frenchman who comes from Paris to work on books with her. He sketches an average of one book per day. She walks by his desk every half hour to check out what he is doing and says yes or no. If she says no, he noisily crinkles up the paper and discards it. Ziefert stated that Blue Apple Books guarantees that they will publish the books within a year, and they respond to sketches within a week. A lot of books die during the publishing process, and she does not want that to happen at Blue Apple Books; she wants to work closely with authors and illustrators.

Cash mentioned that small publishers provide a different level of access for authors and illustrators than large publishers do. There is always a person answering the phone at Holiday House because the owner wants it to be that way. Also, authors are free to come into the publishing house to speak with staff there.

Born from a Sticky Note: Bedrick said that Enchanted Lion Press is young and small and that they keep open the door and are receptive to new ideas. Someone once approached her in a coffee house because he or she overheard her talking. Another book was born from a sticky note that was left on her door. She meets with people all of the time, and she ends up working with some of them. Some of the work that they encounter may not be right for the company, but she does discover some lovely submissions.

Hudson mentioned that Just Us Books is the same way. She has met authors at book fairs who give her manuscripts, and some of the illustrators that they work with have been in the field for a long time. They will spend the same amount of time on a picture book that they spend on a book for older children. She thinks that it is easier for them to produce picture books than larger publishing companies because the staff is smaller and physically closer to one another.

Ziefert said that authors and illustrators may find it easier to work together in small publishing houses. Large publishing houses often have a middle person working between the two.

Random House & Penguin Merger: Bird said that she would love to get the panelists' perspective on a major event that occurred since she started planning this literary salon — the merger between Random House and Penguin. She wanted to know if the panelists thought that this would help them because mergers can lead to large publishing houses becoming very concerned about constantly producing best sellers.

Cash does not know what the repercussions would be. She said that the merger would affect bookstores and distributions of books, and that small publishers fill a niche.

Ziefert mentioned that the merger would be good for Blue Apple Books. She has associated with Random House. She thinks that if people brand themselves, they have a niche and they fill a need, they have a chance at success. Sometimes things can be either too big to fail or too big to succeed, depending on the way that the tides turn. She described the situation as turning the radius of a large battleship. She predicts that the conglomerate might prove to be too unwieldy, and that it might break up into smaller segments at some point. She stated that sometimes it takes a long time, like a couple of years before the effects of such a momentous business move becomes apparent to people.

Hudson mentioned that their first book was published in 1987, and that not much black interest children's literature was produced before then. Learning about publishing, creating a niche, and marketing the books is the same process of promotion of books today as it was in the 1980's. It is the same battle that they have been fighting for decades.

Working with Bookstores: Bedrick stated that some authors and illustrators are devoted to their publishers. Enchanted Lion Press is interested in independent bookstores. Many times, their sales representatives have had fruitful discussions at bookstores about which books they are supplying to their customers and why. She thinks that the merger will work in favor of their company. Many of their customers love the fact that they are small, independent, and located in Brooklyn. Currently, it seems to be a trend to be interested in anything small and independent.

Ziefert mentioned that some things small and big publishers both can do, but large publishers have a huge advantage due to their size and capital.

Cash stated that big publishers often experience inter-departmental rivalry and competition for resources.

Bedrick said that big companies have the advantage of more easily getting their books to libraries and larger customers. It is very costly for small publishing houses to do outreach to create more business.

Start Your Own Children's Publishing Business?: Bird mentioned that three out of the four panelists were relatively new in the publishing world. Two of the companies were started in 2003, before the economic downturn of 2008. Enchanted Lion Press and Blue Apple Books will both have their 10th anniversaries in 2013. She wondered how easy it would be to create an independent press today.

Hudson said that it would be very difficult. She originally decided to publish one of her books herself because she could not find anyone to publish it. Then, she and her husband discovered a market for black interest books. It takes a lot of capital to start a business. The market is growing and there is room for growth, but it takes tenacity and many other skills to start a publishing house.

Ziefert says that she has confidence that entrepreneurs can create children's publishing houses, as long as they have a bank behind them. Now would possibly be a good time for electronic children's publishing houses to be born. It is very difficult, but why not? Cubicles in large publishing houses can be twenty square feet, and some people do not want that. 

Bedrick stated that it can be accomplished, but it is perhaps not easier to do now than it was ten years ago. However, now there are many more platforms available for self-publishing. For example, there are now many blogs on the Internet. Ten years ago, she would hand review copies to a handful of people. If they did not like her work, she did not know where else to go. She thinks that if someone has passion and is willing to devote enormous amounts of time and can pay the printing costs, that it is quite possible to succeed.

Ebooks and small children's publishers: Bird said that she heard ebooks and electronic resources mentioned several times. She has heard this referred to as "the Wild West" and "Brave New World." She asked if smaller presses have an advantage over larger presses on this multimedia communication format.

Ziefert stated that smaller presses have an advantage with this. They have a personal touch that large publishers cannot provide. Publishing houses cannot convert a print book into an ebook without the rights. She has sold the copyrights on some of her books to large publishing houses, who have converted them to electronic books. She is adamant that small children need physical books. Songs, activities, ipads and physical books work together as an entire package, and this is a legitimate educational package for kids. However, the isolated bells and whistles of an ebook serve to encourage children to become focused on the animation, and they may lose the story in the process. If the kids get to know a book before the iPad, they can get something out of it.

Hudson mentioned that it is difficult to get people to purchase black interest books, except during the month of February. Ebooks have been a new avenue for Just Us Books, and they have found it helpful to collaborate with people who have a platform. They sold the rights for a print book to a publishing company who converted the ebook to their platform. One of the goals for the company is to create an ebook themselves for their 25th anniversary in 2013.

Cash mentioned that partnerships are very important. Holiday House has worked with a company that has produced 60 ebooks with apps from their print books. It is easier for that company to work with Holiday House since there is less bureaucratic red tape to get through with a small company.

Ziefert stated that she likes text-only ebooks, followed by apps that are games. Some of the ebooks out there are saturated with animation, but she likes a fairly straightforward and plain ebook followed by a game.

Bird mentioned that Enchanted Lion Press does many translations of their books into other languages.

Bedrick mentioned that they are not doing ebooks much. Enchanted Lion Press could look into it, but they are not doing it at the moment. If they determine that they need to be producing ebooks in order to survive, perhaps they need to stop and do something different.

Where is Children's Publishing Going? Bird asked the panelists to speak about the directions in which children's publishing might possibly go in the future.

Cash thinks that there are many entrepreneurs out there, and that we need energy and creative new ideas in children's publishing.

Ziefert pointed out the physical structure of offices in publishing houses can largely influence the work processes of the publishing staff. The way that they work at Blue Apple Books is to have five people in an open area rather than giving each staff member a cubicle. This encourages the open exchange and sharing of ideas amongst staff members. They have one weekly meeting on Monday morning. Some of the big publishers have a meeting in the morning, and then they separate to do their work individually. Nowadays, a lot of people are graduating without jobs. She generally works with literature for babies through 10-year-olds, and she is not certain that ebooks are necessarily great for kids of that age. Ebooks are great for romances and literature that people do not want others know that they are reading on the train.

Hudson mentioned that the possible future capabilities of ebooks may not be fully imagined yet. Schools are becoming more digital. Many people did not predict the appearance of the technological devices that we see today, such as the ipad. Kids today learn differently with the technology that we have available to us today than kids did with the tools that we had of yesteryear.

Bedrick hopes to see developments in the field that are marked by innovation. She is optimistic and idealistic, and she does not see print books going anywhere. Books are too beautiful to die in the wayside of technological progression. Enchanted Lion Press produces beautiful books with fabric, foil and textures that people love. Philosophically, a physical book can speak to us in a certain way that computers cannot. People hold print books physically close to themselves while reading.

Cash stated that ebooks and physical books create distinctly different experiences.

Bird then opened up the floor to audience questions.

One audience member asked the panelists to discuss their experiences working with individuals who prefer to illustrate their own books.

Cash mentioned that a lot of people like to do this.

Bedrick said that this was the ideal experience for her.

Ziefert prefers to spend much time with the illustrators. She can then write stories based on ongoing conversations of what someone wants to see in the books.

Hudson made the excellent point that some people think that children's books are easy to write, which is not the case. She wants to fulfill the mission of Just Us Books, and they have worked with new illustrators even though it can be time consuming. It has been a rewarding process.

Bird said that she liked the variety of the panelists' perspectives on these issues in children's publishing.

Ziefert mentioned that Blue Apple Books wanted to stay the same size because they do not want to become a company that they do not want to run.

Cash said that Holiday House is at their maximum capacity.

Printing on Demand: Willis likes to say that their books may be out of stock but they are never out of print. Some of the books' first print runs may be 5,000 copies. However, it can be somewhat profitable to print books on demand, such as to print 250 or 500 copies of a book. They want to continue to make their books accessible to people, especially since they are not many children's publishing companies that focus on black interest books.

Bedrick said that books are expensive to produce, so smaller print runs do not work for them. They do print some overseas books, however.

Ziefert mentioned that smaller publishing houses have smaller overhead costs. Also, if she wrote the book, that helps in determining if she wants to produce additional copies.

Another audience member asked how small publishers differ from larger publishers.

Cash stated that big companies have huge budgets, which department managers vie for.

Ziefert related a story as to how Blue Apple Books was able to secure an advertisement for Red Cat, Blue Cat. Another company dropped out for that ad. The ad would have cost around $10,000 under normal circumstances, which her company never could have afforded. 

Hudson has used T-shirt promotions for Just Us Books. They did a promotion with General Mills and Betty Crocker. People got something from Betty Crocker and Black History A to Z. You have to be very creative with promotions if you do not have a lot of money.

Ziefert mentioned some promotions for one of her books, Good Night, Underwear.

Another audience member asked how the publishing companies prefer that work be submitted to them.

How to Get Your Book Published: Cash said that Holiday House's web site has instructions for book submissions. She said that they look at all of the submissions.

The other panelists concurred; submission information is available on the publishers' web sites.

Future Children's Literary Salons

Children's literary salons are usually held on the first Saturday of the month from 2 p.m. - 3 p.m. at the Stephen A. Schwarzman Building ("the library with the lions").

  • Saturday, January 5: Ethics in Nonfiction for Kids
  • Saturday, February 2: Middle Grade Fiction: Surviving the YA Onslaught
  • Saturday, March 2: Diversity and the State of the Children's Book
  • Saturday, April 6: The Alternative Children's Library

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