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I don’t know if you caught it, but the lead article in today’s Publishing Perspectives is titled: Vitamins 2.0: How Children’s Books Can Change the World in a Digital Age.

The gist: give children beautiful books full of beautiful imagery–rather than digital bells and whistles– and they’ll be better prepared for managing the “high-stimulus” digital future. And start early. The earlier the better.

My reaction: Of course. What took you so long ?

The idea of exposing children to great books isn’t new. In fact, the idea that “great books build great minds” is at the foundation of most progressive literacy initiatives of the last 50 years. I appreciate the new emphasis on the “visual” aspect, but I think it’s just that the mainstream may be waking up to what librarians, teachers, authors, and children’s book publishers have known all along.

There are a wealth of great picture books which have been building imagination and visual perception since the golden age of the mid-twentieth century: Harold and the Purple Crayon, Where the Wild Things Are, and Goodnight Moon to name just a few. No one who has fallen in love with those books thinks the words are doing the heavy lifting.

And I also believe we’ve got a bumper crop of amazing artists right now who are pushing the boundaries of the children’s book artform. Mo Willems, Emily Gravett, Lane Smith, Brian Selznick, Adam Rex, Kevin Henkes, Melissa Sweet, Peter Brown, Antoinette Portis, Loren Long, Shaun Tan, Matthew Reinhart, Peter Reynolds, Bob Shea… I could go on and on.

I don’t think it’s that books need to get flashier or more artistic, and in fact, adding too many bells and whistles can actually get in the way of developing great habits of mind through reading. Just adding more pictures doesn’t add more meaning. It’s hard to imagine how to improve on the bedtime experience of Goodnight Moon, for instance.

Here’s what we need to change: adults need to get better at understanding and encouraging active engagement with media. In general we tend to lack understanding of exactly how sophisticated a learning tool a great children’s book can be. Asking questions about the story, looking for details in the illustrations, anticipating what might happen next–-these kinds of activities create great analytical skills and an empowered reader.

This kind of reader will hopefully go on to ask better questions of all media, evaluate the quality of information, and make thoughtful decisions about what is worthy of their attention. THAT’S a 21st Literacy Skill, not multi-tasking per se.

In fact, I would argue that ATTENTION–-the ability to decide what needs one’s attention at any given time–-a single source, or multiple sources and how to switch back and forth mindfully–-is a much more critical skill.

How many adults do you see wrestling with that one when they are juggling a cell and driving? I’d say they haven’t mastered the literacy of Attention themselves, so how will they teach it to their children? Multi-tasking without the ability to also mindfully focus is just culturally-generated ADD. The successful thinker of the future needs to be able to do both.

What we want from a new crop of children’s books are great stories, and nuanced artwork that engages the imagination. Sometimes this means restraint as opposed to more visuals, so the message is clearer.

If you want to see a BRILLIANT example of this, check out Polly Dunbar’s recent series of Tilly and Friends Books for Candlewick Press. They are so visually rich, and so elegantly spare, they are masterful examples of powerful storytelling for young readers. They are pitch perfect at capturing the zeitgeist of a toddler, and they have some great ideas to teach.

As for older readers, I think there are great opportunities to enhance books with multimedia features like online content, games, and related video, but here’s the catch: these elements should be about inspiring the reader to immerse themselves further, to follow their curiosity, to expand their knowledge, or to participate with others in a community around a book.

They shouldn’t just be there because publishers and developers think kids need the “cool-factor.”  Kids are amazingly sophisticated these days, and they don’t swallow every hook, line, and sinker–especially if it doesn’t have deeper meaning.

Although I’m very happy to see kids books getting this kind of coverage, I think this article misses the point. It’s not enough to say “books prepare kids for a digital future.”

I’d argue that great children’s books and a rich experience of visual storytelling prepare kids for every future, digital and otherwise. They help kids build all the skills they will need for every eventuality: Attention, Empathy, Creativity, Imagination, Writing, Storytelling, Self-Awareness, Logic, Collaboration, Community, and Critical Thinking. It’s hard to beat that, and I think it’s amazing that the larger publishing community is just getting around to discussing it.

Swinging on the vine

Not sure if you’ve been paying attention to the Amazon Vine brouhaha kicked off by Betsy Bird over at Fuse #8 last week, but if you are an industry tracker I’d urge you to take a look.

Here’s Betsy’s original post (make sure you read all comments), an additional perspective from Chasing Ray, as well as author Adam Rex’s opinion over on his blog.

I think this discussion has some larger implications for the industry, which is why it’s going to continue to get play.

Here’s what I find interesting:

sad_amazon

1) Lack of transparency at Amazon

Amazon holds a very influential position in terms of consumer behavior at the moment, and it’s not at all clear, even among Vine Reviewers, how they were picked and exactly how their targeted lists are generated.

Publishers are similarly in the dark. I spoke to the head of marketing at one of the larger publishers yesterday who has not yet participated in the Vine Program because her department is unclear on how it works. They have the same questions we do.

I hope this discussion sheds some light on the issue, because I don’t think it’s a great practice to start a program that gives individuals an influential voice without being clear about who they are and how it works.

It does those chosen individuals a disservice—many of whom have taken the time to comment thoughtfully at Fuse #8 and the Amazon forum—as well as the authors they are reviewing, and it taints all the reviews with the air of mistrust. The credibility of these reviews will only be completely clear when Amazon explains the details.

Because Amazon takes a strictly hands-off approach, it seems like there is no baseline being set for how to write a thoughtful review that tells the readers what they need to know to decide if this book is for THEM. Just saying whether you liked it or not isn’t the same thing. Also, it bears mentioning that Vine members are also reviewing all kinds of consumer goods besides books.

From what I can tell, many Vine reviewers ARE taking the time to write thoughtful reviews, but since the program requires a certain level of review participation, perhaps books that wouldn’t be a reviewer’s first choice are getting posted.

It does appear, however, that in the case of the two books mentioned in Betsy’s post, Tony DiTerlizzi’s Meno, and Mac Barnett & Adam Rex’s Guess Again, the early Vine reviews didn’t reflect a very nuanced range of opinion right out of the gate.

It has ALWAYS been a problem that Amazon reviews can’t be modified in any way, even if the publisher or author feels they are hurtful or wildly inaccurate. The fact that these reviewers are working from advances just exacerbates the problem, because Vine reviews can come out early, and that can dominate the consensus as it did for these authors.

I noticed today that the reviews on the first Meno book are balancing out–to a nice safe 3– now that people are posting some more positive reviews, and it’s remained about the same for Mac & Adam. As Adam points out below, their book wasn’t hit quite so hard to begin with, though.

(BTW: If you have ever met Tony DiTerlizzi, there is nothing “3” about him or his work, and I mean that as a compliment.)

But hey, we live in a blockbuster environment. Early reviews matter, and I for one want them to be as thoughtful and trustworthy as possible.

Heads up, Vine reviewers: this credibility can only come with transparency from Amazon.

The comments thread on Fuse #8 has been the best source of information about the Vine program so far, so I thank all the contributors over there.

herd-of-sheep

2) This opens up the larger discussion about the difference between a crowd-sourced model of review information as opposed to an “establishment” model.

What is different about a review from someone who does it for a living versus someone who does not? Is one better than the other? Is one fairer than another? Is there a way to use a crowd-source model that doesn’t reduce all ratings to 3 stars over time? What about special books that don’t appeal to all readers, but are for a particular audience? Can I still find them in a crowd-sourced review environment? Will publishers be willing to put them there? As the professional sources for mainstream reviews are dwindling, is this the only alternative?

I’m not so sure. I’d like a new model that puts a trusted POV back into the equation, and I’d like not to have to hunt and peck across a thousand blogs to find it. I think it’s interesting what the crowd thinks, but that doesn’t necessarily mean I trust it to align with my own tastes.

In fact, I think it’s the nature of the adoption curve that the more consensus in the mass market, the less interesting it is to me. Does anyone else feel the same?

overworked411

3) How important it is to get the information about audience and content right.

I’m not sure the good folks at Simon & Schuster thought about the possible implications of putting these kinds of offbeat books into the Vine Program. I guarantee they will now.

I think this is particularly true about Tony’s Meno books which are a BIG departure from his previous blockbusters for middle grade readers.

So often in the marketing process books are promoted on the basis of the author’s previous record. The 10 second handle is “The newest book from best-selling author XX.”  This works great for series and genre books, but is an obvious failure for new books that seriously deviate from the author’s previous work. And the truth is, when a publisher/marketer/sales team is dealing with a list of 200 or more books a season, some of the nuance is lost in the presentation.

If it is true that publishers are paying for the Vine program–I’m still unclear about this–I’m sure S&S isn’t happy to pay for the privilege of having its books trashed in early reviews. I agree with Betsy that the obvious reaction to this will be to place less risky books in future.

Some of the blame for this whole tempest-in-a-teapot lies in errors in the information process at the publishers. Marketing departments are crafting materials as the books are being published, and sometimes that info needs to change with the finished book, but can’t once it gets out into the world. Catalog copy is sometimes written before the book is finished, and early bibliographic information is not always accurate. Not pretty, but true.

Sometimes publishers default to set categories: picture books are usually labeled 4-8 as a default, even when they might be better for 5-8 like Mac & Adam’s book.

This becomes particularly tricky for anthologies, gift books, and other kinds of books that really appeal to everyone, but that have to have an age range because of the system. Booksellers generally dislike the age category ALL, because it doesn’t tell them enough to shelve it, even though it might be true from a user POV.

Once the bibliographic information is released by the publishers (way before the book it finished) it’s like letting the genie out of the bottle. What is done can’t be undone, and then anything that draws from that info (like Amazon Vine target lists) is corrupted.

AND, that doesn’t account for reader’s tendencies to pick books above the appropriate age level, even when the information is accurate.  I call that the “My Toddler Reads Shakespeare” syndrome. This has become a real issue in the so-called “tween” market where readers are reaching into the YA category when they may not be ready for some of the more mature content there. But that is another post.

***

I’m sure this discussion will continue to resonate in many different conversations across the industry. In the end authors will need to take an active role in overseeing and commenting on these issues, because that is the place where their voice can be heard.

They aren’t the junior staffers sitting in a cubicle deep in the bowels of a publisher, plugging the bibliographic data into a computer before upload to the web. “4-8 or 5-8? It’s not that big a deal, right?”

Wrong—but the ship has long sailed.

On the Amazon side, we’re seeing the fallout of a large, digitized, algorithmic system. No one at Amazon looks at a book like Tony or Adam’s and says “Hey, that’s not right!” And the person who does notice—the author or the publisher or the librarian or the bookseller—has very little recourse. The system is JUST TOO BIG.

Authors, your readers do care about what you have to say. Speak out, and people will listen. It can be a game changer, and perhaps people all along the chain will be a little more thoughtful the next time they deal with a book in the pipeline.

To all Vine reviewers, keep thinking about what would be helpful to us, the readers. And please think about the authors too. They care about what you say and how you choose to say it. To them it’s not just another book on the pile.

As Vine reviewers, you have a great responsibility, even if you think no one is paying attention.

***

UPDATE 11-4-09: Another really great perspective from Jon Bischke. His concern has to do with the much-discussed positive pressure on AV reviews, and he feels it’s a threat to a phenomenon called Connected Consumption, which is best explained in this paper by Havas Media Lab in the UK.

Big picture stuff, people.

photo_condolence

Dear Jilted Amazon Affiliates Everywhere,

Boy, it sure sucks to be dumped.

There you are, doing a great job of recommending awesome books, handing Amazon the sales, and they just up and leave the party.

To add injury to insult, I’m sure it didn’t feel good to hear from the Wall Street Journal that collective sales from your sites only *account for a relatively small slice of Amazon’s traffic, so the move isn’t likely to cause major damage to the company’s business.*

It’s like the morning after the prom, when in wrinkled dress and wilting corsage you realize they’re just not that into you. At least, not when they may have to collect millions in state sales tax that could help fix bridges, keep schools open and fund libraries at a time when your states are truly suffering.

And they seemed so nice.

Well, I want to invite you to the indie party. While the flashy prom has been happening at the country club, we’ve been holding our own get-together in the gym. What we lack in glamour, we make up for in charm. Like you, we love to recommend books. We think it’s cool that you’re recommending books, and with us there’s no such thing as too small. We won’t marginalize you. And we all pay our local taxes.

Best of all we have an affiliate program too! It’s called IndieBound, and we’d love to have you be a part of it. You’ll get a reward for using it, your readers can keep getting their books off your site, and your state will benefit in the end. Everyone wins.

Again, we’re sorry that you lost your date. (We never really liked them anyway.) We promise we won’t leave you hanging.

Sincerely,

Indie Booksellers Everywhere

###

From Kristen:

Since I wrote this
, there’s been a pretty big kerfuffle. Amazon has notified affiliates in Hawaii, North Carolina, and Rhode Island that they are terminating their agreements. It’s all over Twitter, and quickly spinning out of control.

I have to believe that in their hubris, Amazon really believes that the bad PR this will generate on the part of the thousands of mom and pop affiliates out there is outweighed by their not having to collect those taxes and yield the competitive advantage they have built their model on.

I don’t believe that the aggregate sales from the hundreds of thousands of affiliate partners that may be affected represents an insignificant number regardless of what they say. Especially when you consider the marketing value of those millions of little Amazon links on websites everywhere. I think they are throwing their weight around to get their way but they better be careful.

Hell knows no wrath like a knitter scorned.

Andy Ross, former owner of the wonderful bookstore Cody’s in Berkeley, CA and now the principal of  The Andy Ross Agency has been following the issue in relation to a similar initiative in his state. He has long been fighting for e-fairness.

He had this to say via an e-mail response earlier today:

When I was a bookseller out here, I worked for about 10 years with Hut Landon and Bill Petrocelli to get a law passed like the NY law. It got thwarted by the Tech industry.

So Hawaii has a similar bill. And Amazon threatened the same thing (as they have done in North Carolina). I just heard that the Gov of Hawaii vetoed the Amazon bill. So they are having an impact.

The affiliate program with Amazon is huge (I think) not just because it is driving sales to Amazon, but because of the huge promotional factor that this creates.

But I suppose that Amazon’s ability to evade sales tax gives them such a competitive advantage over local businesses that it trumps the affiliate programs. Really, it is like the state of California (and most other states), giving a tax break so that an out of state company can get a competitive advantage over a local company. This is like jumping down the rabbit hole.

I’ve been following this story closely for about 10 years. Amazon has, protean-like, changed their excuse why they should be excused from collecting these taxes.

First they said that they shouldn’t have to collect sales tax because the Internet was a frail and delicate bird  and should be given a break to build this new economic engine. At the same time they said that the Internet was the economic juggernaut that was driving the new economy. (How Internet commerce could be both a frail bird and an economic juggernaut has always been puzzling to me.)

Then they said that they were totally flummoxed by the complexity of having to collect so many different amounts of sales tax from the 5000 discrete tax districts in America. This from the company who had no problem keeping track of the reading habits of 20,000,000 consumers.

Then they said that the laws were unconstitutional. Hmm. I always thought that it was the Supreme Court who made that determination.

As Tennessee Williams famously said: “I smell the smell of mendacity in this room”.

Amen, brother.

Layout 1

In case you missed it, make sure you check out the text of Jason Epstein’s keynote on the future of publishing in the digital world, as presented at the O’Reilly Tools of Change for Publishing (TOC) conference.

In it he lays out a great case for human nature, and how it will save us from the undifferentiated content streaming through the WWW.

Also he articulates his vision for good content (authors must eat), e-readers (yes), large publishing houses (will die), print-on-demand (Gutenberg x 10), and lots of other stuff.

If you don’t know who Epstein is, he has worked in the publishing industry for fifty years as an editor and a publisher, and is responsible for many innovations.  He created Anchor Books at Doubleday, which was the first Trade Paperback imprint, and he is the co-founder of On Demand Books, which markets the Espresso Book Machine, which can print and bind a 320 page book on demand in about 4  minutes.

Ten years ago he did a series of lectures on the publishing industry at the New York Public Library which became Book Business: Publishing Past, Present, and Future. I highly recommend it.

books-in-the-trash

It seems like everyone is worrying about the e-book these days.

In meetings, in the press, at professional gatherings and in the hallways, there’s a lot of chatter going on. “What will it mean for sales? For wholesalers? For reps? For the printed book? What about children’s books? Will we ever see a digital picture book? Will this change my job? Will I have a job?”

Very few people are asking what this means for readers (except Amazon), but readers will make their feelings known as time goes on.

My advice to the industry: don’t panic, but don’t be stupid either.

Let me also say that I have absolutely no problem with e-books. It’s a great format for certain kinds of books, and for certain kinds of readers. I’m no Henny Penny.

What I am concerned about is whether we are approaching the innovation in a smart way with a view to the long term future. In our anxiety, I’m not sure we’re asking the right questions.

It’s one thing if the book evolves away from the hard copy as an outcome of market forces. That’s natural selection, and when we get there, that will be what it is.

It will be quite another if the industry kills the hard copy inadvertently through a shortage of vision. That would be a Darwin Award, which is something else all together.

***

ostrich

I was inspired to write this essay after reading a comment by an industry professional in Shelf Awareness that “E-books are an avoidable and discretionary layer of production cost and administrative complexity laid on top of a relatively efficient form of publishing that has existed for centuries.”

At best this position is wishful thinking, and at worse it’s fatally flawed for anyone involved in the book industry.

The book has been a constantly evolving technology, and it’s a mistake to think otherwise. (Clay tablets, anyone? Papyrus scrolls? How about an illuminated manuscript? Lead typesetting? Offset printing? Digital production?)

E-books are here to stay. Consumers are driving the trend, and it won’t work to simply dismiss them. They are not a huge chunk of the market–about 1%–but they are a growing one–up 68% over last year–and soon there will be a loyal customer who prefers them to hard copy.

How fast this segment will grow is open for debate, but as an industry we better get ahead of it, figure out a sustainable cost structure, and serve those customers broadly or Amazon really will dictate the market terms for everyone.

***

Talking ’bout my generation

In addition to a technological debate, this is a generational debate both for consumers and for us in the industry. For the next twenty to thirty years, we are going to have to serve three really different demographics, each with a unique consumer pattern, and each with influence over the outcome.

On one end you have the Baby Boomers.

All 70 million of them.

red-book-white-backgroundBy and large, this generation loves its books, and will be much more reluctant adopters of the e-book. Some members of this group will never embrace electronic technology at all. By and large this group is economically better off than the generation before them, and they have a higher degree of education than previous generations.

These guys are a major economic powerhouse that will be driving hard books sales for some time to come, and they will exert a measure of industry balance against the Gen-Z group when it comes to how far and how fast e-books will bloom.

We already know how to serve this customer very well, but sooner or later they’re going to leave us.

***

In the middle you have Gen-X, and Gen-Y. This group, which includes folks that came of age as computers came of age (born between 1965-1999), are a transitional crowd. (I recently heard someone call this generation Digital Immigrants, which I love.)

kindle_w_booksThey read books. They own books. They also own computers, blackberries, and can get around the wired world.

They adopt new technologies without throwing out the old. The Kindle and Sony E-reader are their thing. If a better, more integrated solution comes along for e-books, they’ll pick it up instead.

They will gravitate to e-books for formats and reasons that make sense to their lifestyle, like taking it on the road, organizing many references into a handy package, and for cost reasons. They also will continue to buy paper books for pleasure, but will understand they don’t HAVE to buy something in a hard copy if they don’t want to. They are discriminating.

We’re serving this group pretty well, but they’re not buying everything we’re selling.

***

On the other end you have the Gen-Z readers, the post-electronic generation born after 2000 who will be completely wired, and who will no longer think of a book solely as something made of paper you hold in your hands. This generation, which is gaining strength with every baby born today, will be the real force behind e-books. (These guys? They’re Digital Natives.)

ipod-touch2This reader isn’t going to buy a Kindle, because they’d rather download an e-book to their 9-inch iPod, or whatever other fancy integrated machine is available when they hit the consumer market. Why buy a separate machine when they’re already using their handheld for everything else?

This generation will be super literate, and they will be absorbing media in all forms interchangeably. This includes some hard copy books, e-books, and web content, but they will be predisposed to the speed and seamlessness of the electronic world. Web 3.0 will be their playground.

This group will drive the market, not the other way around, and it’s this customer we need to get in front of (if we can.)

***

Question Mark

We’re asking the wrong questions

It’s a big challenge to figure out how to meet these divergent readers, especially with all of the channels competing for consumer attention.

However, I believe the biggest issue we face as an industry is not how fast e-books will gain market share, but how we will price them properly so that they accurately reflect the costs involved in making them.

Up until now, we have had a tendency to think e-books are somehow cheaper to produce than regular books. More to the point, that is the consumer perception, which makes sense unless you understand exactly what goes into a book’s real cost.

There is definitely efficiency to be gained by not printing, storing, and shipping a hard copy of a book, but a book costs exactly the same to bring to the point of market readiness no matter what format it ultimately takes. (Assuming that it is a professionally written and produced book, that is.)

There are rights, advances, editorial, copy-editing, and proofing expenses, as well as set-up and general overhead. Furthermore, for e-books there is a whole set of digital readiness costs like IT overhead, web design, data management, data servers, networking costs, and other very real expenses.

How much of a book’s cost is made up of these various elements? More than consumers think.

As was rightly pointed out by Carolyn K. Reidy, of Simon & Schuster, it’s not a foregone conclusion that an e-book should be cheaper. It really depends on the upfront costs. The last thing we need is to habituate the consumer to an unsustainable and artificially cheap price point. There will be no going back once their expectations have been set.

If a book was only going to be put out electronically, what would the cost be then? Electronic books are only much cheaper if we’ve invested in the upfront costs already for its hardcover sister. We need to think very carefully about this as an industry, and we better do it quick.

Do publishers really want to be in a situation down the road where they have two products selling side by side in equal numbers, with the same content, and where one is less than half the price of the other? That’s a great way to kill the hard copy book for sure. Can our industry support its costs solely on sales of e-books at $9.99? In a hypothetical world where only e-books are bought, can a publisher afford half the revenues on the same number of units? Are we really going to make it up by doubling the e-units sold?

I’m not convinced, especially as sheer consumer demographics are on the Baby Boomer end of things these days. We already know that the pool of active readers isn’t expanding, and now some of our most committed readers are going to be dying off.

If I was a publisher, I’d be thinking not just about the next three years when I price this content, but about the next 30, when all those Baby Boomer book sales go away.

***

read-or-die-bag

We’d best make a choice and make it quick

On the retail side, the big question is how to sell e-books—a format that is tailor-made for downloading—in a bricks-and-mortar store. And this is not just a question for indie bookstores, but for all retailers who currently sell books. So far, the best (and perhaps the only viable) suggestion I’ve heard has come from Bob Miller, head of HarperStudio.

At ABA’s recent Winter Institute, as part of the opening keynote on the state of the industry, he suggested a model where we sell an enhanced hard copy of a book that includes codes for the consumer to also acquire the e-book and/or the audio book via download with one purchase. So, for an extra amount—$2.00, let’s say—the customer will get the “whole” book in multiple formats.

Some folks have questioned whether the consumer wants the extra formats. That’s missing the point. One of the principals of retail is to sell them the things they don’t know they want, but are happy to have. If the price point is right, it will make sense to most consumers especially as e-books gain traction, and is an excellent opportunity to up-sell.

This is an elegant solution that avoids difficult-to-maintain systems like cards, kiosks, and other messy gap solutions. Frankly, it’s the only solution I’ve heard that makes sense.

Publishers will be selling hard copies of books plus the bonus of added e-book revenue through all channels, stores will get a piece of the business regardless of whether they are tech-savvy or not, and consumers will get their content across multiple platforms in a single purchase. And they’ll have more than one choice when it comes to where they get their content.

Again, time is of the essence. As an industry, we have to figure this out, or we will be completely run over and at the mercy of consumer patterns out of our control.

We can either innovate like we’ve never innovated before, or sit and see what the tide of shifting consumer patterns brings our way.

Which would you rather do?

To my mind, it seems like a pretty cold time for a swim.

***

Part of this essay first appeared in Shelf Awareness on 2/12/09.

lottery balls

 

If you want to get rich, pick another industry. Seriously.

 

Do not write about your dog, your grandkids, horses, rainbows, puppies, feelings, or fairies. Be careful about wizards too.

 

Get a [good] agent.

 

Work with a professional editor.

 

Work with a professional book designer.

 

Assume the publisher will assign the illustrator.

 

Know that it’s a numbers game.

 

Writing a book is much harder than you think.

 

There is no such thing as a shortcut that works in children’s publishing.

 

Get comfortable with rejection.

 

When you think you’re finished, cut 200 pages.

 

Understand the difference between guerilla marketing and gorilla marketing. The first is okay; the second is not okay.

 

Seek to broaden your understanding beyond writer’s societies.

 

Become a prospective bookseller.

 

Become a prospective publisher.

 

Know that the market over-publishes, and only the strong survive the first printing.

 

Understand the difference between frontlist, backlist, and midlist.

 

Don’t call yourself a publisher unless you have more than six different books by different authors in print and you own the ISBNs.

 

Present yourself professionally.

 

Don’t try to start a viral campaign under an assumed name.

 

If you self-publish, expect skepticism.

 

Invest in professional design for your website.

 

Even award-winning authors have trouble moving books.

 

Publishers and booksellers talk; your reputation for difficulty will precede you.

 

Stop reading bestsellers if you want to write.

 

The way to the universal is through the deeply personal.

 

None of this $#%@$! matters unless you write a good book.

heart cookies

One of the most perennial topics of discussion that comes up among members of the ABC is the (sometimes tricky) relationship between booksellers and authors.

In rare moments of quiet, booksellers on the front lines share their war stories about off-putting cold calls, misguided interruptions, unpublished manuscripts about pets and grandchildren, and frustration at the number of would-be authors who want stores to carry their self-published books on consignment.

On the other side, ABC fields hundreds of calls from authors and publishers every year about who we are, and whether or not we can help them promote their books. (We can’t, other than providing a great network should they want to join.) Clearly, there is a hunger to figure out a way to penetrate the market.

To be sure, we sympathize with their position because getting a book published is like threading a very fine needle. And once that book is published, getting it into the hearts and minds of independent booksellers is even tougher. After all, not every single book coming out of a publishing house can receive the same amount of marketing resources. That’s just the reality of publishing in an age where thousands of new books are released every season.

More and more, authors in the current publishing climate think that a little guerrilla marketing might help them get ahead. That perhaps by hustling on behalf of their projects they can do their part to get the word out. (That is—when they’re not writing, or illustrating, or doing free school visits, or running their business, or taking a shower and putting the kids to bed—to paraphrase my delightful friend author/illustrator Mary Newell de Palma.)

They recognize that building relationships with booksellers is important. And they are right, but how to do it? What’s most effective?

In a recent guest column entitled The Proper Care and Feeding of Booksellers, and How It Can Work for You, blogger Bookseller Chick put out a call for authors to dispense cookies liberally when visiting bookstores. The theory here is that a bookseller will form a favorable opinion of the visiting author, and will recommend that author’s book next time they have an opportunity.

Nice author + cookie = sale.

So, should authors everywhere get out their oven mitts? Does the cookie theory work?

Fortune cookies

The question sparked a lively debate among ABC members. Here’s what Carol Chittenden, the owner of Eight Cousins bookstore, and the hardworking children’s buyer for Bookstream had to say about it on a recent post to the ABC list serv:

“There are plenty of opportunities for good relationships between authors and booksellers. At the head of the list—waaay above everything else—is to WRITE A TRULY EXCELLENT BOOK, of course. But I’m adding some others, and hope other booksellers might chime in.

  • Offer a day’s gift-wrapping backup during the holiday season.
  • Put up posters for bookstore events.
  • Help staff an out-of-store event.
  • Help read and evaluate galleys.

Those are just a few of the things that take time but not much training, and help an author see the world from the back room perspective. And any bookseller is prepared to respond to the offer to sign stock: they’ve handled it before, or else it’s time they figure out a gracious response. No need to be shy: tactful will do nicely.

And none of this should be construed as a disdain for cookies. I am the Cookie Troll at Eight Cousins: there’s even a remodeled troll doll (green pantsuit, flowered scarf, silver in the hair, glasses, button that reads “I Love Cookies”) that stands alert atop my computer. But I’d rather have a fine, fine book than a cookie any day.”

Clearly, there is more at play here than just slinging cookies. The principal of being nice to bookstores and booksellers goes a long way, but I would urge authors to dig a little deeper. At the most basic level, creating successful and long-lasting relationships in the children’s book business is really about understanding and helping booksellers do their jobs better.

Want to make friends with a bookseller? Then help them build their business.

Cookie Stack

Here’s my top five suggestions:

1) Patronize your local independent bookstore. Be a regular. Nothing shows your commitment to independent bookstores like putting your money where your mouth is. Your loyalty will go a long way in building a successful and honest relationship. All of Carol Chittenden’s excellent suggestions above speak to this. Get involved.

2) Put a Booksense link on your website. It’s amazing how many authors talk about loving independents, but then send their web visitors directly to Amazon. A Booksense.com link is such an easy thing to do, and independent booksellers notice. Believe me.

3) Know your audience. When communicating with booksellers, keep it short, sweet, and respectful. A written communication trumps a cold call or a visit. If you are visiting a store for the first time, be very sensitive of a bookseller’s time and priorities. Introduce yourself, [hand over the cookies], get an e-mail, and ask if you can send information about your book. Don’t let your passion for your own project blind you to a bookseller’s priorities and make you pushy.

4) Act like a publishing professional. Learn everything you can about the business. At the very least, subscribe to Publisher’s Weekly, and to a bookselling newsletter like Shelf Awareness. Talk knowledgeably and intelligently about the business. Booksellers work with thousands of titles and authors every year, and they do not need all of the fluffy marketing language you might use for end readers. They don’t want the emotional presentation, they want the publishing facts. Specifications, season, publisher, BRIEF synopsis, notable review successes, publicity, a local angle, a sales success, why this book is different than others in the same category. Don’t inadvertently piss them off by talking about how well it’s selling on Amazon or in the chains. And don’t be like the author that called the ABC office recently and read their entire book about feelings over the telephone. If your verbal pitch lasts more than twenty seconds and your written pitch doesn’t fit in three short paragraphs, you’re talking too much.

5) When developing materials, think about things that would be really useful to booksellers in building their business. Go beyond bookmarks, postcards, and such. Think authorless event kits, downloadable materials for kids, essays in your area of expertise that would be great parent resources. One ABC author member who does this really well is Debra Frasier. Check out the materials she has designed at her website. She regularly does things just for bookstores, and always lets us know when something is available. This is a way to reach a wide audience effectively and cheaply. If you take it on the road, put together a presentation that makes it easy and fun for booksellers. One great example of this is author Brian Lies‘ package for his book Bats at the Beach. We’ve heard nothing but raves about this program, how well planned it was, and how well it worked. (Also, notice the links to independent stores where he’s appearing. Bravo!) Don’t think you have to convert your car into the Batmobile to pull a successful program together. A thoughtful program with an advance kit that might include a poster and press release, good structure, interactive activities, and inexpensive giveaways is great.

Conversely, here’s the five LEAST effective things you can do to work with independent bookstores:

  • Mail a single flyer and then follow up with a hard sell either by phone or in person
  • Make a cold call to a bookseller, and then monopolize their precious time with a lengthy sales pitch
  • Interrupt a bookseller who is working with a customer to talk about your book
  • Pull a primadonna and ask why a store isn’t stocking 15 of your book
  • Launch your book tour in the chain store down the street

As a final caveat, I would echo Carol Chittenden’s sound advice: Write a good book.

All the cookies in the world won’t save a badly written book. If the book doesn’t have what it takes—good writing, good design, professional illustration, appropriate format, a real binding, a tangible sense of success—it doesn’t matter how nice you are. Bookstores aren’t charities; they’re there to make a living for the people who own them, and it’s a very difficult thing to do these days. Know the hard truth: bookstores can’t carry every book, and they may have to say no to yours.

However, if you’ve got a good book and you know and love your local bookstore, a good cookie can go a long way.

Cookie bite

*************************************

Addendum 8/27/07

 Check out these FABULOUS cookies made by Sarah Varon, author of Robot Dreams for a recent store appearance. (Let me just say, I *heart* her books, and will review this new one in an upcoming post.) Here’s an author with a wonderful book and wonderful cookies.

 varon cookies

robot dreams

WOZ

Well, fair readers, another Book Expo America is behind us.

As far as Book Expos go, this one was neither the best nor the worst I have ever attended.

Just the most crowded.

(As it always is in NYC–preliminary figures have attendance at 30,000, up from 22,366 in DC last year. It felt like a deodorant commercial directed by Busby Berkeley.)

For those of you who do not know the history of this show, once upon a time it was run by the American Bookseller’s Association (ABA), and it was the place where publishers went to share their fall lists with booksellers. At a certain point it got too unwieldy for ABA, and it made more sense to let Reed Business take it over. (They are behind a ton of major trade shows, including Comicon and the NY Anime Show.) However, more has changed over the years than just who was running it.

I always find BEA to be a little trippy. On one hand, you have the super-swanky mega-booths from the major publishers, complete with Saturday afternoon cocktail service and leather couches to rest your weary behind. (To give you some sense of the cost—it will run you $45.00 to rent a folding chair at this show.) Free autographed first editions run like wine, and many will end up on ebay before the day is out. On the other hand, you have would-be published authors trying all kinds of guerrilla marketing techniques on innocent passers-by.

My favorite of this year was a woman who asked me to auction off her book–written with her mom about a mouse and some cheese–from the podium of my industry dinner on Friday. In return she would write ABC a check for $5,000. I was so flabbergasted at the audacity and inappropriateness of the request, it was all I could do to wrap my lips around the word NO. She felt that “donating” her book was no different than the artists who had donated their work to the ABC auction.

Lord save me from all of the other authors who would also like to “donate” their books to publishers. These conversations always start off benignly enough, and then take a turn for the worse with the following sentence: “I have a children’s book, and I was wondering…”. Pretty soon you’re caught in a conversation about cats, goats, or grandchildren, and someone is handing you some color xeroxes. (Listen up, those of you who want to write. Don’t let your passion get in the way of good manners.) Don’t get me wrong. I spend a lot of time talking to would-be authors, and I feel for them because they have obviously poured their hearts into their projects. Like all those salmon trying to get up stream, only a few are going to get to reproduce.

But I digress.

Ostensibly, BEA is still supposed to be about the booksellers, and ABA is still prominently involved, but if I had to say what the show is really about, I would say it’s about publishers showing off for other publishers and for the industry at large. This show used to be about selling books, but that is less and less important. Because of pressure from the chains and big box stores for earlier and earlier schedules, the big deals are made elsewhere these days. Booksellers are becoming marginalized in terms of how the show floor operates. Unlike other major book shows like the American Library Association (ALA) or the International Reading Association (IRA), there are relatively few books on display and a lot of smoke and mirrors. (See Alison Morris’ excellent post at PW for more on this.)

It’s a little bit like Oz in that respect.

It is the premier networking event in publishing, and there are some very swanky parties. It is also the place where you can do the best celebrity stalking outside of LA. (Ohmygosh! Next year it will be in L.A.–those of you with celebrity life-lists better make your plans.) As the percentage of books sold through bookstores gets smaller, this show will continue to become less about frontline booksellers, and even more self-referential. Like a snake eating its tale, I wonder where this is heading.

In the meantime, grab those canapes and run.

Comic-WW

Well, my little graphic novel digression sparked a very interesting conversation with Elzey over at the excelsior file, and I encourage anyone interested in this topic to go check it out. The discussion has made me want to dip my pen into this well a little deeper.

In his well-reasoned and well-documented post he points out that this whole “children’s graphic novel trend” is really at least 20, and perhaps more like 50 years in the making, and I have to agree with him. On the shoulders of giants, as it were.

As someone who has always been drawn to graphic work–(starting with Wonder Woman, Tintin and Asterix, and continuing down the shelf to things like Optic Nerve, Ghost World, and Dave McKean’s Cages)–I have a great appreciation for the groundwork laid by everyone from Windsor McCay and Hergé, to Will Eisner and Art Spiegelman, as well as more contemporary voices like Chris Ware, Adriane Tomine, Joe Sacco, Daniel Clowes, and Jamie Hewlett.

Current success stories like Marjane Satrapi, and the recent graphic adaptation of the 9/11 report by Sid Jacobson and Ernie Colon continue to raise the visibility and credibility of graphic novels in the mainstream book buying market. (The fact that Jacobson and Colon are also the industry veterans behind Richie Rich and Casper the Friendly Ghost makes the whole 9/11 project just that much more brilliant for so many reasons beyond their great artwork.)

It was not my intention to suggest below that this whole children’s graphic Trendwatch is coming from nowhere. There’s no such thing in culture as the virgin birth. In fact, I would argue that what’s happening here isn’t so much that there’s a new genre in town, but rather, that mainstream publishing is finally catching on to something the underground has been into for years.

Comic-Thrilling

Here’s what IS new

  • Libraries and bookstores are carving out dedicated sections for graphic forms IN THE CHILDREN”S SECTION. (Previously, something like Tintin or Little Lit would wander between the picture book section and the comic anthologies over near humor somewhere)
  • Mainstream publishers are launching graphic imprints at an astounding rate
  • Adult graphic novels are suddenly being edited and published in the regular fiction lists of big publishing houses along side the next Oprah pick
  • Graphic novels are inspiring pleasant dreams of $$ for the upper management in big publishing houses in a market that has been flat
  • Suddenly my mother knows what a graphic novel is

I have noticed a funny thing about cultural ideas that suddenly hit the mainstream like this. There seems to be a direct inverse relationship between the number of times a buzzword is used in the press, in marketing meetings, and at cocktail parties, and the corresponding depth of people’s actual knowledge of the word. It’s like the word or concept gets stripped of its nutritional value, and all we know of it is its candy coated shell. Tastes great, but not much fiber inside.

Comic-Chaperone

What really interests me in this whole discussion is why now? What’s the tipping point—(thanks Malcom Gladwell)—that’s pushing this over the edge? Is there really an honest demand on the part of children for this, or are we creating our own market and making it so? I do think there is something to the idea that the post-computer, post-gameboy generations are more primed to relate to the world on a fast moving visual basis. I also think there’s something to the idea that publishers have latched onto this trend as the next “big thing”, and are milking it for all that it’s worth.

Toward the end of his recent post, Elzey makes some really important points about the precarious place we find ourselves in right now regarding the future of this “trend” in the children’s market:

  • Everyone seems to agree that graphic novels are a valid literary form, but there’s much confusion over what constitutes “good or worthy graphic literature”.
  • In an effort to cope, “Booksellers either don’t carry graphic novels because they don’t understand the genre or, as with the larger chains, they carry large amounts of what is carried by the major publishers in a scattershot somethings-bound-to-click-with-the-public manner.”
  • It’s not a graphic novel just because you take a book and draw it out rather than write it out. Especially if it’s bad to begin with. Likewise, re-purposing existing property by putting it in a graphic format—read: Nancy Drew, The Time-Warp Trio, Goosebumps—does not a quality graphic novel make.
  • If we’re going to consider graphic novels as literature, we need to apply some rigorous criteria to determine what is good. This is especially true as publishers gear up to flood the market. As someone who represents independent booksellers, I would welcome this, as would my overworked constituents.
  • If we’re going to give away awards to graphic novels, let’s not get into the tricky business of comparing them in the same category as written fiction. In Elzey’s words “I think we need to give them their own category and not spend a lot of time wringing hands over comparing apples to oranges.”

For sure, there’s some really great work being done in this field right now, and I hope it gets its just rewards. Some of the most promising new launches are being done with vision and passion, (see my comment about 01:First Second below), and the great graphic imprints like Drawn and Quarterly and Fantagraphics continue to stick to their mission. Artists like Regis Faller are making wonderful books for children that bridge the genre gap, and backlist classics that were way ahead of their time are no longer orphaned. They now have a home in a dedicated children’s graphic section.

Comic-Unleashing

What lies ahead? I expect the usual rubber-band effect. For awhile there will be a real glut of graphic work for children, and much of it will be marginal to awful. The gems will be there, and discerning booksellers and librarians will find them, and hug them to their collective bosoms. Those gems will join the classic backlist to form the bones of a really good children’s graphic section, and those great new works will be wonderful publishing success stories. After saturation, there will be a cooling both of the market, and of upper management’s enthusiasm, and we’ll be back on the ground, further ahead than we were when we started, with some great books to show for the effort.

I still think it’s a tremendous time for graphic novels and other visual media. I hope that the most worthy artists will be able to take advantage of the favorable climate to kick some creative butt.

I also hope we, as an industry, develop a reputable yardstick for measuring quality very soon, before the fire goes out from too much kindling and not enough air.

Thanks, Elzey for giving me some excellent food for thought.

______________________________________________

Postscript 3/14:

Here’s a couple of really useful links for keeping on top of information on Graphic Novels and Comics for the kid_lit set:

Comics in the Classroom.net – great round up site of news and reviews on graphic media for children written by a teacher from New Brunswick, Canada.

The Graphic Classroom – reviews of graphic media suitable for the elementary classroom

 

Scrotum

Scrotum.

Scrotum, scrotum, scrotum.

Go ahead—say it with me—scrotum.

There—that wasn’t so bad, was it?

I must say, the tempest in a teapot stirred up by the press over this issue these past two weeks says a lot more about the state of information dissemination in this country than anything else.

Here’s the anatomy of a kerfuffle:

Kerfuffle Analysis

1) An author (who also happens to be a public librarian) writes a quiet book about a smart and plucky girl who has a question about an anatomically correct word, and no adult to talk to about it because she has a tough home life

2) A prominent committee of librarians and acknowledged children’s literature experts, working on behalf of a venerable and respected association, picks this relatively unknown book for a major award

3) A group of librarians from various parts of the country debate the worthiness of the committee choice on a closed list serv, and a few get really uppity about a certain word choice

4) A publishing magazine of record takes note and reports on the word and the debate, taking care to talk to people on various sides of the issue (2/15)

5) A national paper of record notices said article, and publishes a less than thorough report on the issue on its front page, fanning the flames of controversy, and capturing the attention of televised media. Kerfuffle is in full swing (2/18)

6) Media talking heads and blogosphere chime in (2/20)

7) The same paper runs a short op-ed piece to balance the scale, bemoaning the crucifixion of “a sweet, funny book”, and throwing in references to The Music Man and Balzac. (2/21)

8 ) A publishing reporter for a national wire service decides to check up on the key players for a follow-up story about how the issue became a story in the first place, and finds inconsistency and hyperbole everywhere (2/22)

9) Embarrassed librarians backtrack

10) Much ado becomes nothing. Kerfuffle subsides

***

I think there are some important observations and lessons to take away from this whole soap opera.

I don’t know about you, but here’s what I’ve gleaned:

 

Shift Lock

Words are powerful.

“Scrotum” is a powerful word.

So is the word “banned”.

In the case of the first word, Susan Patron knew it was powerful. That’s why she used it. It was a deliberate choice, and love it or not, there’s nothing innately wrong with using an anatomically correct word. In a great little interview broadcast Thursday on the CBC radio show As It Happens (part 1, at 14:30 min.), Patron explains her use of the word and her feelings about the controversy it has provoked. (Intentional on the first count, and unrepentant and levelheaded on the second.)

Her character Lucky is a girl whose mother has died, and whose father doesn’t want her. She is also a person who loves words and whose “brain was very complicated”, so that when she hears the word scrotum, she turns it over in her mind and puzzles over its meaning. Says Patron: “Her life is complicated, but it’s not all that different from the lives of so many kids growing up. They’re just really struggling to find out about the world.” A classic theme in children’s literature, and hardly the stuff of inflammatory tabloid writing, yet here we are with our undies in a bundle. It’s amazing the power one word has.

Talking frankly about body parts may make you uncomfortable. Clearly, it has made some librarians uncomfortable. But that has more to do with personal boundaries than any objective moral criteria. Where things get a little murky is when the person with the boundary issues is the gatekeeper for the community. All I can say is that I would rather have the book available and be able to make that choice for my own kid, instead of having someone make it for the whole community by keeping the book out of the library.

Which brings us to the second word, “banned”.

Also a powerful word, and used a little less responsibly this week.

When this story first broke in a pretty level-headed article in Publisher’s Weekly on 2/15, the gist was that Librarians were having some lively debate and strong feelings about the most recent Newbery winner. This is nothing new. Over the years there have been many MANY disagreements about whether a book chosen for the Newbery was the right book. History has also shown us that many past Newbery winners who may have not been the most obvious choice when they were picked have subsequently proved their brilliance. Madeline L’Engle’s classic A Wrinkle in Time, for example.

In fact my friend, the wise and incomparable Anita Silvey, made an excellent point in conversation this past week when she observed that this debate may have more to do with people’s opinions about the Newbery process than anything else, and scrotum was just a convenient peg to hang it on. (The last three Newbery winners have been criticized in certain circles for being a little obscure, and not to the taste of many young readers.)

I can’t help but notice with amusement that no one has objected to another passage in the first chapter of the book that involves a man “who had drunk half a gallon of rum listening to Johnny Cash all morning in his parked ’62 Cadillac, then fallen out of the car when he saw a rattlesnake on the passenger seat…” Apparently rum, drunkenness, and poor taste in automobiles have nothing on scrotums when it comes to getting people in a moral outrage. (I can’t criticize the Johnny Cash. I love Johnny Cash.)

However, putting aside people’s motivations for a moment, there is a big difference between lively debate, free expression of opinion, and banning a book.

This is something I would like to point out to Julie Bosman of the New York Times. In her FRONT PAGE article on 2/18 we see this statement: “The book has already been banned from school libraries in a handful of states in the South, the West and the Northeast, and librarians in other schools have indicated in the online debate that they may well follow suit.”

Them’s fighting words, alright.

No wonder the debate escalated to the TV talk-shows. Do a search this week for “banned book” and you’ll find repeated references to it all over the media, stemming from this one NYT piece.

That’s highly provocative, and in keeping with the overall inflammatory tone of the article. But here’s my question: who exactly is banning the book? Which states? Which libraries? “The South, the West and the Northeast” is a pretty large area. Give me names, details.

Well here’s the funny thing: in a subsequent discussion I had with AP publishing reporter Hillel Italie, who was gathering material for an article he put on the wire Thursday, he told me that when he went back an interviewed the librarians quoted in the original articles, he found no one who actually said they weren’t taking the book. The best he could do was to find some librarians who were still making up their mind, and for sure no one actually said they had “banned” the book. “Even Nilsson [one of the instigators of the whole thing, see below], who complained of the book’s ‘Howard Stern-type shock treatment,’ a reference to the lewd radio personality, told the AP that she is carrying it, although she questions whether it was worthy of a Newbery. Nilsson also said that she did not know of anyone who had refused to stock it.”

I’ll ask one more time….. who is banning this book?

The word “banned” is way too powerful a word for an organization like the New York Times to be throwing around. This is particularly true in a FRONT PAGE article that went to so little trouble to talk to the many authors, librarians, and other children’s book lovers who are defending the book. Indeed, there were some spicy rebuttals in the NYT editorial pages including one from a librarian quoted in the article who resented “being portrayed as pledging ‘to ban the book’”. She goes on to explain that libraries have limited resources, and that every library has to make choices about choosing books that best serve the community. She’s not interested in banning books, but that doesn’t mean she picks up every book that’s printed, even if it has a medal on the front. Coming from a very small town as I do, I know that that’s true.

So Ms. Bosman, say what you like about Patron, at least she knows why she’s choosing particular words, and is happy to explain it.

 

Question Mark

Read the entire book before offering an opinion

Do you think Larry King read this book? How about Barbara Walters? Hummm… yet they both had something to say about it this week, further fanning the flames in the mass media. I’m not even clear that many of the librarians who were chiming in this week, (and who were so prominently quoted in the press) had read the entire book. Afterall, the first appearance of scrotum comes on page 1. Those who felt incensed may not have read any further, even though the whole arc of the story rests on Lucky’s honest question about the meaning of the word.

The most egregious case of hyperbole on this front came from the aforementioned Dana Nilsson, a librarian from Durango, CO who seems to have been at the forefront of the critical wave against the book. Her original post on LM-Net, (and quoted prominently in the NYT piece), compared Patron to a shock-jock.

“‘This book included what I call a Howard Stern-type shock treatment just to see how far they could push the envelope, but they didn’t have the children in mind,’ Dana Nilsson, a teacher and librarian in Durango, Colo., wrote on LM_Net, a mailing list that reaches more than 16,000 school librarians. ‘How very sad.”’

Later on in my favorite quote of the article, and a masterpiece in ironic understatement, Nilsson goes on to say “‘I don’t want to start an issue about censorship,’ she said. ‘But you won’t find men’s genitalia in quality literature…At least not for children,’ she added.” For my part I would point her in the direction of Shakespeare and his codpieces, Brent Runyon’s brilliant The Burn Journals, and Gary Paulsen’s critically acclaimed and very funny Amazing Life of Birds among many others. (Check out this great list compiled by GELF magazine of other children’s books with scrotums specifically.)

A little bit of knowledge is a dangerous thing, and it seems to me that Nilsson went on the record with her comments without taking time to thoroughly digest the story. Subsequently, the whole thing got away from her.

Apparently Patron agrees: “I’m sure that the person who wrote that did not finish reading the book. To be fair, if they had, they would understand that it was not at all used for shock value. It was very deliberately and carefully chosen, as a means for Lucky to…she is trying to grow up, she is trying to learn about the world …she is trying to get the tools she needs to survive emotionally in her little tiny town. And there is no one she can ask about what this word means so when [in a pivotal scene at the end of the book] she is finally able to ask her guardian the meaning of scrotum, the reader knows that we have come to a place of great trust. And that she has really found the parent that she can openly ask this question of, and get a truthful answer. Reading the whole book would give people the context they need.”

As far as I can tell, the only people involved in this whole thing who ACTUALLY read the whole book are the author, and the Newbery Committee.

My money’s on them.

 


Back Space

What you say on a list serv may come back to bite you in the scrotum later

In this day and age, there is no such thing as a private conversation.

Especially if it involves a keyboard.

What’s new here isn’t the discussion or the controversy. As Kathleen Horning of The American Library Association’s ALSC division, (which awards the Newbery) correctly points out in Italie’s recent article “Librarians have these discussions all the time about books and ask each other, ‘How are you handling this situation'”.

This kind of debate has been happening for years anywhere that adults have to make decisions about what books to choose for children, be it in libraries, bookstores, or classrooms. There are children’s book review magazines, tradeshows, review databases, booklists, experts, and trade associations. People who work regularly with children’s books are constantly talking about the pros and cons of particular books. Everyone will have an opinion, they will all be different, and they will all be passionate.

What shifted here was that the debate leapt from the realm of private industry discussion to public discourse in the blink of an eye. I guarantee you that when those dissenting librarians made their posts to LM_Net, they weren’t expecting to be defending themselves in the New York Times.

Those of us who work in the children’s book industry have seen a tremendous shift take place with the rise of list servs, kid-lit blogs, and other electronic media. Where once there were a few established places that were the taste-makers on the subject of children’s books (like The Horn Book, Kirkus, School Library Journal, Publisher’s Weekly, and Booklist, to name a few), today everyone’s a critic. An established kid_lit blogger can be given the same weight as a print reviewer with 25 years experience—in some cases more weight, because an electronic review is so immediate—and a book can take off if a buzz starts on a list serv, even if no official media outlet has reviewed it yet.

What this also means is that the press is paying attention, and a handful of comments can quickly be perceived as a trend. Once the kerfuffle starts, there’s no controlling it. It’s like a wildfire in dry sagebrush.

***

So ultimately what’s the lesson here?

Should people be more aware that a private list serv isn’t really private? Probably.

Should we stop offering honest opinions about books in the quasi-public sector, even if sometimes we’re talking out of our butt? No.

Should children’s authors stop using sensitive words for fear of offending someone? Definitely not.

Should committees stop picking difficult books that challenge young readers, (and apparently some older readers too?) Hell no.

The most salient thing I’m taking away from this whole episode is a reminder about the importance of being thoughtful before offering an opinion, and to keep in mind that old adage about pride going before a fall.

Like my grandfather used to say, “Opinions are like ‘a**holes’; everyone’s got one.”

And at least half of us have scrotums, too.

 

_________________________________________________________

Postscript 2/26: Of course, controversy sells, and in the end Patron and Simon & Schuster will come out on top. Many thanks to A Fuse #8 Production for catching this upbeat and positive 2/24 LA Times article with hometown lucky-girl Patron. Higher Power indeed.

Ever the gentleman, Neil Gaiman has a great post on his blog about how he loves librarians unconditionally, but thinks perhaps some of these scrotum-decrying ones might have gone over to the dark side.

Also, for those of you inclined to walk the walk on this whole subject, head over to Bookshelves of Doom and grab one of Leila’s fabulous T’s, as featured this week on Gawker. You go, girl!

_________________________________________________________

Postscript 2/27: Check out this letter to the editor published in the 2/25 NYT from Kathleen Horning President of Association of Library Service to Children (ALSC), the division of ALA that awards the Newbery, and Cyndi Phillip, the President of the Association of School Librarians (AASL). Clearly these are the librarians Neil loves unconditionally, as we all should.

Also, head on over to From the Inside Out and check out the very wise guidelines for dealing with the press that Cyndi Phillip posted to LM_Net last week following the big dust-up. Many thanks to Liz B. at Pop Goes the Library for helping me find this.

 _________________________________________________________

Postscript 2/28: The very last word in the dust-up comes straight from the author’s mouth in this life affirming LA Times article published yesterday.  Apparently scrotum was, is, and will continue to be a children’s literary tool.

I now declare this kerfuffle finished.

 

 

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Welcome to pixie stix kids pix, the site for reviews and opinions about new and interesting books for children and young adults, by a professional in the children's book industry.

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