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SPECIAL SECTION: Children's Books : The Children's Book Boom at HBJ

May 22, 1988|Sonja Bolle | Bolle is a free-lance writer and a former editor at Publishers Weekly

Children are big business, as everyone in the late 1980s must know. Children's literature accordingly has become one of the most dramatic growth areas in book publishing of recent years. Once the step-child of "serious" book publishing and stereotyped as a ghetto of sensible shoes, children's book departments have gained legitimacy and are siring new imprints along with their own publicity and marketing departments.

One example of the boom in children's books is the Southern California-based company, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, publisher of such classics as the Mary Poppins books by P. L. Travers, the Borrowers series by Mary Norton and Antoine de Saint-Exupery's "The Little Prince."

When HBJ moved its editorial offices from New York City to San Diego in 1982, the company already had two well-established children's book imprints, HBJ Children's Books and Voyager Paperbacks. Soon after the move, HBJ began to build up the children's publishing area, and in 1984, it added a third imprint, Gulliver Books. Since launching Gulliver, the department produces twice as many titles per year and has seen a 100% increase in sales of children's books, according to Willa Perlman, director of the children's book division. Perlman's group will issue 70 titles this year and 88 in 1989.

Two changes have just been announced at the children's division: the establishment of a fourth imprint, Jane Yolen Books (the editor is herself a noted children's book author), and the hiring of the company's first marketing director exclusively concerned with children's books. HBJ's expansion in the children's division is particularly noteworthy in a company that took on heavy debt defending itself against a corporate takeover attempt last year.

To fill the position of marketing director, HBJ has employed a proven marketing technique: Hire someone you sell to. The new director, Louise Howton, was for 10 years the owner/manager of The White Rabbit children's bookstore in La Jolla; she sat on the board of the American Booksellers Assn. and was prominent in the growing community of booksellers who cultivate a special-interest clientele.

Publishers' traditional customers for children's books have been libraries and schools, but a major impetus fueling the current growth in children's publishing has been the interest of baby-boom parents in buying their children books. The thrust of HBJ's sales efforts, like that of many children's publishers, has remained toward the institutional market; Howton's experience will help the company expand in the retail direction.

"A lot more could be done to reach the specialty children's book trade," Howton comments. " We're in a marvelous position at HBJ because the Southern California Children's Booksellers Assn. is the largest group of specialty children's stores in the country. I've got the perfect laboratory in my back yard."

Expansion in the retail market has entailed changes not only in sales efforts but also in the type of books children's publishers produce. The first sign of the bookstores' strength was a rapid rise in paperback publishing; libraries predominantly buy the more durable cloth.

The newest "hot area" in retail sales, however, is nonfiction. When Howton opened The White Rabbit 10 years ago, she remembers, she sold primarily picture and storybooks. "Nonfiction was a library-only market," she recalls. "But there was steady growth, and in the last year, it's become explosive. There are a lot of topics to cover."

In response to the retail demand for nonfiction, HBJ will introduce a new book line this fall: Gulliver Travel Guides. Specifically written for children ages 6-12, they differ from other children's guides in that they do not focus on how to travel with children, says Perlman. "There are no hotels listed, for instance--only facts, activities and major attractions a child wants to know about."

The first titles on the slate are "Gulliver Travels: A Kid's Guide to Southern California" and "Gulliver Travels: A Kid's Guide to New York City." "I suppose that choice reflects the dual interests of our editors," Perlman observes. Projected books in the series are Washington and Florida for spring, 1989; National Parks and Texas for fall. The following year will see New England and "historical places connected with the founding fathers," in Perlman's words. "We haven't thought of a title yet."

Designed as they are to be taken along on trips, the travel guides are clearly tailored to retail sales rather than library lending. "It's a departure for us," Perlman admits. But then, that's following the market.

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