Touching on everything from Clifford the Big Red Dog to Gossip Girl, the amazing conversation at the annual children’s publishing panel captivated the NYU Summer Publishing Institute (SPI) students. Every detail counted for the audience that was quick to clap and gasp at the mention of a cherished series, an interesting fact, or an upcoming new release from authors like Matthew Quick and Cassandra Clare. We were so fortunate to listen to a lineup of children’s publishing rock stars. Jonathan Yaged, President, Macmillan Children’s Publishing Group, moderated. The panel consisted of Megan Tingley, Senior Vice President, Hachette Book Group USA and Publisher, Little, Brown Books for Young Readers; Deborah Forte, President, Scholastic Media and Executive Vice President, Scholastic, Inc.; Judith Haut, Senior Vice President and Associate Publisher, Random House Children’s Books; Jennifer Loja, Vice President and Associate Publisher, Penguin Young Readers Group; Sara Shandler, Senior Vice President for Editorial, Alloy Entertainment; and Justin Chanda, Vice President and Publisher, Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers, Atheneum Books for Young Readers, and Margaret K. McElderry Books. Each panelist presented us with five slides in five minutes about their surprise successes, challenges, and strategies.
The panelists joked about how they struggled to keep their presentations to the allotted five minutes, but the more-the-merrier rule definitely presided here and no one minded. The SPI crew found the world of children’s book publishing to be dynamic and fascinating. Each panelist discussed what set their particular company or imprint apart. Sara Shandler, for example, explained the business model employed at Alloy, an atypical publishing house that she referred to as “a production company.” “We develop ideas in-house,” Shandler explained. The editorial staff pitches the ideas, assigns the concept to a writer, and then develops a film or a television show in tandem with the book series. The hit book and television series Pretty Little Liars, for example, came out of an in-house brainstorming session focused on: “What is Desperate Housewives for teens?”
Moving to a discussion of a different publishing model, Judith Haut of Random House described the importance of augmenting a great frontlist with a strong backlist. For example, at Random House, they celebrate the anniversaries of favorite Dr. Seuss books to bring the stories to new readers. Explaining the magic of such a robust backlist, Haut noted: “That’s the power of a classic children’s book. You want to read it to your kids.”
Aside from heaps of information about the ins-and-outs of children’s book publishing, the SPI students received two major takeaways from the panel. First, we learned that we have devoted our energies to the right career track. The panelists reiterated with vigor and enthusiasm that publishing is a thriving industry. Said Megan Tingley of Little, Brown, “You all are entering—hopefully—careers in the publishing industry at a really, really exciting time.”
Part of the excitement is digital. As ebooks and ereaders change the way consumers select and read books, industry professionals need to respond with creativity in all departments. Tingley added that particularly intriguing areas of the industry right now are marketing and design. Deborah Forte of Scholastic expanded on the influence of multimedia on the publishing industry, saying, “My job is taking books and translating and migrating them to the screen.”
The same digital and multimedia innovations that provide a new frontier for aspiring publishing professionals also revolutionize the way children read and learn. Forte discussed how digital tools such as Storia, Scholastic’s e-reading app for kids, have helped support children’s reading skills, involve parents and teachers, and also showcase great content in a way that print can’t. According to Forte, Storia “removes many roadblocks for reluctant readers and makes them so much more passionate about reading.”
Encouraging and empowering children and young adults to read is the main goal for all of the children’s imprints present at the panel, regardless of their various approaches. Said Justin Chanda of Simon & Schuster: “Children’s book people are the most passionate out there.” He added: “Kids’ books are just books for younger people. They’re not dumbed down. We don’t care if kids are reading a print book or an ebook, as long as they’re reading.”
The panelists then explained what they each believe is the “one thing” that makes for great children’s literature. To note just a few, moderator Jonathan Yaged said that “compelling characters” make for an excellent children’s or young adult story. Jennifer Loja highlighted the importance of a great writer who knows the audience.
Loja also noted the importance of “the intern effect.” As she explained, “Fans become your partners when the YA market grows up.” We SPIers grew up with the children’s and YA titles on the publishers’ backlists and love the YA/crossover titles released today. Members of our generation are now getting jobs in media, helping to promote the old titles and generate the new titles we love.
The second major take-away from the panel—a revelation met with instant applause—was that The Magic School Bus is now available on Netflix. Deborah Forte of Scholastic was thrilled by the twenty-somethings’ enthusiastic response. “That made my morning worth it!” she said. The sentiment from all of us—that the morning was a high point of the program—was absolutely mutual.
by Megan Radogna