Viewpoints From the Children’s Books Salon: Trends, Concerns, and Publishing Pride

In News by Porter Anderson

The observations made by these diverse publishers during at the first Children’s Books Salon in New York speak to their common faith in the social power of books.

Editor Huang Jingcao of Shanghai Juvenile and Children’s Publishing House looks at the Children’s Books Salon display of titles at New York’s Goethe-Institut. Image: John Harris

By Porter Anderson, Editor-in-Chief | @Porter_Anderson

Highlights from the Children’s Books Salon in New York
After the success of the first Children’s Books Salon last month, we followed up with several of the international editors, publishing directors, and agents who participated in this inaugural event to learn more about children’s book publishing in their home markets and what they learned at this international gathering.

The Children’s Books Salon, organized by the Frankfurter Buchmesse New York and Publishing Perspectives, brought together roughly 30 publishers from outside the States and more than 40 US acquiring editors, publishers, and rights directors.

Here are some highlights from those interviews, which produced thoughtful observations about what sustains and inspires the people of the publishing industry.

As you’ll read Mark Koli of Helsinki saying, “We all, big or small, really have very similar ways of recognizing what makes a great book.”

Frankfurter Buchmesse New York’s Riky Stock introduces a panel of editors from Macmillan at the Children’s Books Salon. Image: John Harris

Mari Koli

CEO, Schildts & Söderströms, Finland

Publishing Perspectives: Tell us about Schildts & Söderströms and your titles.

Mari Koli

Mari Koli: Schildts & Söderströms has been publishing books since 1891. Today we’re the biggest publisher of literature and educational literature in Swedish in Finland. Finland has two official languages, Finnish and Swedish. Some 5.2 percent of the population speaks Swedish as their mother tongue. We also publish books in Finnish: Kustantamo S&S is one of our imprints.

We publish 70 new titles annually in Swedish and Finnish in a wide range of genres from books for children and juveniles to fiction and nonfiction, also translations from other languages.

PP: What was your experience in coming to the Children’s Books Salon?

The best part was learning so much new about the US market, including statistics and trends. And making new contacts with North American publishers was a big plus, as well as meeting with old friends among the invited group. Since the salon, I’ve felt energized, bubbling with new ideas that I want to try in my own market. A few of the titles that the US and Canadian publishers showed us will hopefully land on our lists, and I’ll most definitely continue following their lists in the future.

PP: Were you surprised at something you heard or learned during the events of the salon?

MK: Surprises? The counter-attack to Trumpianism that seems to penetrate children’s books as a whole in the US—this gives us all so much hope for the future. Such empowering stories and feminism, the emphasis on diversity, and stories about caring for other while showing respect and empathy.

In their talks about their actual day-to-day work, many editors mentioned trusting their instincts, and that they’re always looking for that strong voice. These are both things I absolutely can agree with, and this was also, in a way, reassuring to hear: we all, big or small, really have very similar ways of recognizing what makes a great book.

Mirjam Ilvas and colleagues at the Children’s Book Salon. Image: John Harris

Mirjam Ilvas

Publisher, Kustantamo S&S, Finland

Publishing Perspectives: Tell us about Kunstantamo.

Mirjam Ilvas: Kustantamo S&S is an mid-sized publisher, and we have books in all genres. In a sense, S&S has been around a very long time, over a hundred years, as it’s part of an old Finland-Swedish publishing house, Schildts & Söderströms.

But in Finnish, which is the language I work in, we’ve published books for about 20 years. Ever since two traditional Finland-Swedish publishing houses merged in 2012, we’ve sharpened our Finnish profile, and emerged, I believe, as a new, fresh and interesting publisher to the Finnish publishing scene.

PP: What do you find to be the main successes of your publishing work?

MK: In the past few years, we’ve had success with commissioned, mostly nonfiction, books—books based on our own ideas, which we’ve sourced authors for . . . this spring a book we commissioned will be published not only here in Finland but also in the US, in June, by HarperCollins, called Pantsdrunk: Kalsarikanni, The Finnish Path to Relaxation by Miska Rantanen.

It’s a parodic take on the Nordic lifestyle trends like hygge, and there’s also an actual—although not entirely serious—philosophy in the book, I think. We’ve sold this title to about 10 countries even before it’s published.

PP: What was your main interest in coming to the Children’s Books Salon?

MK: Even though I publish a varied list, there’s a special place for children’s books in my heart. I’d previously attended a hugely interesting children’s book conference in London, and learned a lot about how the children’s and YA market works in the UK. Of course, the Children’s Books Salon tempted me with the chance of getting to learn in a similar way about the US market, and also hearing about current trends, new titles, meeting and networking with some US publishers and international colleagues simultaneously—always inspiring.

The Children’s Books Salon was more than I hoped for. We got to meet all the major US children’s publishers and some independent presses, so we got a really good overall picture of the way things are at the moment on the other side of the Atlantic.

PP: Were you surprised at something you heard or learned or encountered during the events of the salon?

MK: I wasn’t exactly surprised, but perhaps a little overwhelmed by the sheer amount of various “girl power” titles on different US publishers’ lists, and the way editors were talking about this trend made it seem the market isn’t even nearly saturated yet. Which is only great.

PP: And how do you see the big picture in your market today?

MK: The Finnish book market in general struggles with the same problems that the global market does, only on a smaller scale. It’s the competition for consumers’ time with other things, such as TV, streaming apps, and social media. Then, there’s the disappearance of independent book stores and a centralization of the book market on every level in the supply chain.

One new, exciting trend right now is the successful launch of new book-subscription apps that allow consumers to e-read and listen to audiobooks for a small monthly payment. I believe a younger audience can be found through these channels.

Huang Jingcao

Editor, Shanghai Juvenile and Children’s Publishing House, China

Publishing Perspectives: Tell us about your company and titles.

Huang Jingcao

Huang Jingcao:  The Juvenile and  Children’s Publishing House (JCPH) is the first children’s book publisher established in China, founded in 1952.

The best of JCPH’s backlist are found in 365 Bedtime Stories, Five Thousand Years of Chinese Nation, Sanmao’s Big World, and Big Head Son and Small Head Dad, all of which got National Book Awards.

PP: Were you surprised at something you heard or learned or encountered during the Children’s Books Salon?

HJ: I felt a sense of self-assurance and purpose in the careers in the editors I met at the salon. Some of our conversations inspired me to think about new topics that we rarely consider in China.

PP: And how do you see the big picture in your market today?

HJ: Print still has its market in China, and both content and formats are very demanding. We need to provide our children with reading and knowledge services in high technology. We’re truly concerned that traditional book editors can’t understand the changes that publishing’s content may undergo in the coming high-tech conditions.

Norway’s Evy Tillman, right, meets with the Algonquin Books team at the Children’s Books Salon. Image: John Harris

Evy Tillman

Agent, Oslo Literary Agency, Norway

Publishing Perspectives: Tell us about the Oslo Literary Agency.

Evy Tillman

Evy Tillman: Oslo Literary Agency is Norway’s biggest agency, representing authors in the genres of literary fiction, crime, and commercial fiction, plus children’s and YA books and nonfiction. We were established in 2016, replacing the in-house Aschehoug Agency.

PP: And how do you see the big picture in your market today?

ET: I sense that children’s book publishing still has room for a wide range of titles in all genres. From literary to commercial, from board books to YA, standalones and series. Publishers are of course looking for titles that will fit their profile, and titles with bestselling potential, but they’re also interested in titles that they love.

What publishers are concerned about in many countries, though, is how hard it is to achieve sales goals. The markets and sales channels works so differently.

But the biggest challenge in our time, I’d say, is that children instead of reading books prefer to be entertained digitally.

Bärbel Dorweiler, of Germany’s Thienemann-Esslinger talks with Cheryl Klein and Stacy L. Whitman of the United States’ Lee & Low at the Children’s Books Salon. Image: John Harris

Bärbel Dorweiler

Managing director, Thienemann-Esslinger, Germany

Publishing Perspectives: Tell us about Thienemann-Esslinger and its publishing program.

Bärbel Dorweiler

Bärbel Dorweiler: Thienemann-Esslinger goes back a long way: Esslinger was founded as J.F. Schreiber Verlag in the town of Esslingen in 1831; Thienemann in 1849 by K. Thienemann who had worked previously at Schreibers publishing house. So the merger in 2014 brought the two houses together again.

We’re part of Bonnier Media Deutschland and publish children’s book under four imprints: Thienemann, Esslinger, Planet! and Gabriel. Our focus is on books for children and teenagers and covers all ages up to 18, from high-quality picture books to novels for young adults.

PP: What do you find to be the main successes of your publishing work? And what are some of the key challenges?

BD: After the merger, it was important for us to make sure that the four imprints in our house have a clear focus that can be recognized and is valuable to booksellers.

The competition is quite strong in the German children’s book market, and with far more than 7,000 new children’s books published every year, it’s hard to find a place for every title, especially since in the past years, we’ve seen smaller bookshops closing and chains reducing their space.

PP: Were you surprised at something you heard or learned or encountered during the events of the salon?

BD: I was very surprised that imprints at the American publishing houses didn’t seem as sharply defined as we try to define ours.

I was surprised that digital wasn’t an issue in any way, too. Yes, the children’s book market is mostly print as parents both in the US and Europe seem happy to see their kids reading from paper. But what happens when especially young parents do almost everything from electronic devices? What happens when they allow their kids to do the same?

It’s interesting to see which themes are trending in the US—especially the unanimous wish to publish more diverse books. And I also realized that we bought some of these titles, while it wasn’t primarily  because of their “diverse” authors’ voices or themes—for example, Riazi, The Gauntlet and Clayton, The Belles. Other interesting themes and trends: Girl power, activism, kindness/mindfulness.

Hanser’s Saskia Heintz in meetings with rights specialists at the Children’s Books Salon. Image: John Harris

Saskia Heintz

Publishing director for children’s books, Hanser, Germany

Publishing Perspectives: Tell us Hanser and it’s children’s publishing program.

Saskia Heintz: Hanser Children’s and Young Adult Books was founded in 1993 as part of the Carl Hanser Verlag GmbH & Co.KG publishing house. This year we’re celebrating our 25th anniversary.

We’re known for best and bestselling literary quality in fiction for young adults and children. We publish about 34 to 40 books a year: YA, middle grade, picture books and nonfiction. We’re looking for eye-opening, clever, and intense stories from distinct voices, as well as for emotional, heart-warming and funny characters.

PP: Were you surprised at something you heard or learned or encountered during the events of the salon?

SH: I was quite surprised and impressed by the professional approach and innovative power in publishing picture/ board books in the US. While we mostly believe in the creative potential of our illustrators following their ideas, the American way to forge and develop ideas very close to the market is convincing.

I’m willing to focus a bit more on discovering trends and developing them with authors and illustrators than I was in the past. And I also realized that my list is very frontlist-driven. We should focus more on strengthening our backlist.

Two Canadians in conversation at the Children’s Books Salon: Montreal’s Mariève Talbot, facing the camera, talks with Toronto’s Margie Wolfe. Image: John Harris (Our interview with Second Story’s Wolfe is here.)

Mariève Talbot

President, La courte échelle, Québec

Publishing Perspectives: Tell us something about your company and titles.

Mariève Talbot

Mariève Talbot: Created in 1978, La courte échelle is the first publishing house in Québec to specialize in literature for young people. Our catalogue, with more than 700 active titles, appeals to all age groups.

PP: What do you find to be the main successes of your publishing work? And what are some of the key challenges?

MT: I’d say we’ve been quite successful recently with our new “fear collection” for middle-grade as well as hybrid formats—they fall between picture books, comic books, and novels for young children seven and older. A good example of these hybrid formats would be our title Mammouth Rock.

As for the challenges, I guess the fact that we have a small market—not even 10 million francophones are in Canada—makes our print runs quite small, so it’s hard to afford expensive books on such small print runs.

PP: Were you surprised at something you heard or learned or encountered during the events of the salon?

MT: Yes, I was really surprised to hear about the trend going on around the scientific books for very young children.

More on the Children’s Books Salon is here.

About the Author

Porter Anderson

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Porter Anderson has been named International Trade Press Journalist of the Year in London Book Fair's International Excellence Awards. He is Editor-in-Chief of Publishing Perspectives. He formerly was Associate Editor for The FutureBook at London's The Bookseller. Anderson was for more than a decade a senior producer and anchor with, CNN International, and CNN USA. As an arts critic (Fellow, National Critics Institute), he was with The Village Voice, the Dallas Times Herald, and the Tampa Tribune, now the Tampa Bay Times. He co-founded The Hot Sheet, a newsletter for authors, which now is owned and operated by Jane Friedman.