Saturday, November 13, 2010

Thoughts on a theme of picture books by number

Many moons ago or so (I have difficulty keeping track of time), we were discussing the NY Times depressing article about the picture book market. I had a hard time believing that parents would really eschew those extraordinary works, but if there is a movement as such, I doubt that it will last.

The other day, my son Isaac and I went into our local chain bookstore, which shall be unnamed, but starts with a B (I know; they both do). I like to go there because we can sit anonymously in large comfy chairs and read for hours. I buy my books, however, at independent bookstores (I buy coffee and hot chocolate at the chain, so they can't complain). Bookstores, especially large ones, have an area where picture books "face out." The decision to face out a picture book (have it shelved so that the full cover shows) is obviously vital to the marketing of that book. As we entered the children's section of the B store, there it was, a whole wall of picture books, facing out, every single one of them Disney; the ones a team writes after the movies come out (as opposed to their publishing arm, Hyperion, which publishes many fine books). Needless to say, I didn't even stay for our requisite hot drinks. Shaking my head and sputtering, we were out of there.

My son is big reader and book buyer, but even when he was little, he knew the rule: I will not buy him a book adapted from a TV show or movie. When I worked at the Scholastic Book fair at his school, I pulled all of those books off the shelves (The other parents definitely thought I was neurotic). When my son sees those books, he makes a face like he's smelled sour milk, so he is well conditioned.

So, after leaving the B store, we went straight to our independent bookstore, Island Books, in Newport, Rhode Island. I wrote about it earlier when I mentioned Shakespeare and Company in Paris. I said I would go in and ask the owner Judy to put a mattress on the floor for me like they have in the Paris bookstore. I figured a piano was too much to ask. Well, when we got there, there was indeed a bed on the floor. It was for a beagle, but still, I was impressed that the bohemian lifestyle was alive and well in Rhode Island. We did sit and read, maybe not long enough to be entitled to move in, but long enough. We had to get drinks at the cafe across the way, but that was fine, because I always worry about spilling on the books.

I've suggested Shrek, by William Steig, for those attending our illustrious residency at Hamline. It's a wonderfully funny book with Steig's usual playfulness with language, and theme of love and devotion. I am using it for the dialogue workshop because it epitomizes idiosyncratic characters and dialogue. Many people now associate Shrek with the movie. It was after Steig's death, that the book of the movie appeared, displacing Steig's real book on many shelves. I don't know for sure, but I can't imagine that it would have been Steig's wish?

All of us have heard or said that writing a picture book is the hardest thing to do. From my experience, that is the case. I have written several, but never had the chutzpah to try to sell the little banal atrocities to anyone. I still think that the best of them are works of art comparable to any other masterpiece.

Many said during the eighties and early nighties that the children's market was stagnant. Guess what? They were wrong. When I tried to sell my first YA novel in the diary form I was told by agents that nobody reads diaries. The agents were wrong. Don't let doomful naysayers (even The New York Times, which has a place of reverence, not to mention makes a big pile, in our house). You be the one, as J.K. Rowling did, to turn the proverbial tides.


  1. I used to work at one of those bookstores that started with a B. Marketing works thusly: Disney pays B stores to face out their books. Orders come down from corporate to place certain books on endcaps, with extra suggestions in case not all of them were in stock.

    I always tried to reserve a section in my store for new picture books, especially ones I liked, but corporate marketing was always invading my space. Forcing me to do a whole table of celebrity author's books while some truly grand picture books sat untouched on the shelf. It always made me sad. I wish we had independent book stores here...sadly my choices are the B stores or Amazon. As much as I dislike the corporate mandates, I would rather shop where the books are tactile than order something over the web.

  2. As a bookstore peruser, I like to take the awesome, neglected books and face them out, right on top of whatever dreck is already facing out. I once redid part of a wall display before I sneaked out. I know, more work for the nice bookstore people, but I do it in hopes that at least one of those books might find an owner before it gets put away.

    (Also did that for Kate DiCamillo when I saw those awful movie novelizations displayed on the wall ... grr.)

  3. I'm of the opinion that the big B bookstores are wrecking the PB industry by way of their overly-commercial marketing tactics. If, indeed, parents are bypassing the PBs for older books, maybe it's because they're not finding anything worth buying on the shelves of their local non-independent bookstores.

    In a most depressing visit, I recently counted something like 27 copies of The Little Train That Could, 52 copies of Where The Wild Things Are, 38 copies of Goodnight Moon in a big B store. Not that I don't love the classics, but you get the idea. They are purposely over-stocking the classics while passing on shelving the new releases from the publishing houses. Why would publishers continue to go to the extra mile to publish full-color, illustrated picture books when they have severe problems distributing them? Seriously, I could count on one hand the number of non-Disney-style new releases on the shelves of this big B store. And one double-B store (not to be named) is now publishing their own double-B brand of dumbed-down literary classics called Classic Starts (Black Beauty, The Secret Garden, Great Expectations, and about 47 more titles all printed in 1/2" bindings). To their credit, they are also printing full versions of the same, but I can't help but feel miserable about the overall turn of events in our marketplace.

    If Ursula Nordstrom were still alive she'd be storming the corporate offices of these big B booksellers. At a recent conference, an editor with Sterling House said that her house has no advantage of getting their picture books placed in a certain big B store, even though they are owned by the same.

    A revolution is in order! Melinda, I'm with you. We need to all act subversively and face worthy books out!