On Casting Book Brands

I am a member of USBBY (U.S. Board On Books For Young People) and received an email this week with a link to Worlds of Words, An International Collection of Children’s and Adolescent Literature. WOW is a part of the University of Arizona’s College of Education. An article “Creating Book Brands” by Ann Parker, University of Arizona, commends the role that independent publishers play in publishing quality literature for children. Her article dove tails with what a librarian said to me last week after having returned from traveling this summer in Montana, Washington, and Vancouver, Canada, where she browsed the YA books at independent bookstores. Most of the stores, which carried a wide variety of choices in the past, had little to offer other than the popular culture books that she often sees in chain stores or airports. She wondered if it was the economy or that the booksellers have little else from which to choose? Or both?

Here are a few excerpts from Ann Parkers article, which can be read in its entirety at: http://wowlit.org/blog/2009/12/21/creating-book-brands/

“…Tom Engelhardt (1991) published an article in Harper’s titled “Reading may be harmful to your kids,” in which he was the first voice of caution to suggest that the new corporate owners of publishing houses such as Bertelsmann (parent company of Random House) and Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation (parent company of HarperCollins) were so intent on spinning toys, clothing, and recordings off of children’s books to make more profit that “the ‘book’ has, in a sense, been freed from the page and can now be encountered in an almost unending variety of audio, video, play, and fashion formats. In the same sense, the habits of reading, listening, viewing, playing, dressing, and buying have come more and more to resemble one another” (p. 58). Books, said Engelhardt, had become just another product, and reading just another method of consumption.

“…Hade (2002) argues that there is less quality control over the books that are published since there is less attention paid to selecting quality literature. In the 1960s and ‘70s, the major markets for children’s books were school and public libraries, and books were purchased by teachers and librarians who were specifically trained in finding and selecting high quality children’s literature. Funding was available to buy books through local, state, and federal programs through such new laws like the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, passed in the 1960s.

Additionally, there were hundreds of small, independent booksellers who worked individually with their customers to determine their interests and to suggest quality books for them and their children. Today, those funds are gone, and libraries can no longer afford to buy books as they once did, so publishers must look elsewhere to make their higher profit margin. Today, that “elsewhere” is chain bookstores where often only a few staff people buy the children’s books for all of the national stores. Hade points out that, in the past, hundreds of owners of independent bookstores would decide for themselves which books to stock, based on their knowledge of their local market; now, big box bookstores like Barnes and Noble hire one person to buy books for each of its categories of children’s books for all of the Barnes and Noble stores across the country. Instead of relying on the interests of its customers, or journals that review children’s books, or librarians, teachers, or parents, this sole buyer relies on the sales records of previous books. As Hade says, these staff people are not looking for quality literature, but rather for a quick sell -– and a quick sell means a recognizable product, whether it is a book written by a celebrity or a book that has been turned into a movie on the big screen.

What does branding mean for the future of children’s books? I would argue that two things are continuing to promote the publishing of quality children’s literature –- the smaller, independent presses who are publishing more multicultural children’s books, and the increased access to quality international books, such as those found in Worlds of Words. ”

I would like to hear your thoughts on this issue.