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The Book Business' Billion-Dollar Baby

December 16, 1990|LISA SEE | See is a West Coast correspondent for Publishers Weekly

One hundred squealing, gibbering, crying, wiggling kids and 200 desperate, sweaty, careworn, utterly determined parents stand in a line that extends outside the bookstore and around the block. One writer, oxygen-deprived and giddy, sits in a corner, inscribing her name as fast as she can. The noise is deafening, the heat intense. By the end of the day, the author will have sold not just the usual two dozen copies to friends and relatives but several hundred copies to collectors, fiends and fanatics. This can't be the book business! But it is. It's the children's-book business.

In the last 15 years, while no one has been paying any particular attention, sales for children's books have doubled, and doubled, and doubled again. In 1991, sales will top a billion dollars. The most common explanation for this publishing phenomenon is that yuppie parents--with visions of Ivy League colleges dancing in their heads--want their kids to have the very best the world has to offer. During the 1980s, as the number of children under 5 climbed 11.8%, moms and dads spent 48% more on toys and 118% more for children's books. "These parents are the best-educated generation ever," says Diane Roback, editor of the children's-book section for Publishers Weekly. "They know the value of books."

Today, enterprising publishers, tireless children's booksellers, hardy librarians and a new group of prolific authors and illustrators have formed a profitable but delicate symbiotic relationship. It wasn't always so.

Fifteen years ago--the Dark Ages, as they're bitterly remembered--children's-book authors and illustrators were patronized, regarded as a lower species by their "adult" colleagues. Opportunities for new talent were scarce. "There was a time when if you were bright and gifted, you didn't go into a field that was moribund," recalls Mimi Kayden, vice president and director of hardcover children's marketing for Penguin USA.

The books that did get published fell within the dusty domain of "fuddy-duddy" librarians. But even that refuge was in peril as, across the country, legislatures slashed school and public-library budgets. Publishers, accustomed to selling 95% of their product to libraries, realized they either had to downgrade or find new markets. But the most obvious prospects, independent bookstores, were in no position to experiment, because they were in the throes of their own life-or-death struggle with the large chains.

At this low point, a few industry visionaries predicted that the wave of the future lay in specialization. A handful of librarians, former teachers and educators took that advice to heart and, very tentatively at first, opened children's-only bookstores. From an original dozen or so, today close to 400 children's-only bookstores dot the nation. Southern California, with 35 stores, has the largest number of any region in the country.

Contrary to conventional bookseller wisdom, many of these pioneers opened in strip malls, where parents could pick up a prescription, the dry cleaning and a new book for junior in one stop. These energetic entrepreneurs began holding in-store events that went far beyond the customary autograph party.

At Pages Books for Children in Tarzana, the weekly calendar is crammed with everything from story hours to arts-and-crafts workshops to mini-concerts where, weather permitting, 100 to 500 kids and parents clamor for seats in the store's patio to listen to children's recording artists. "We're at the center of a network of grown-ups who care about young people," says Darlene Daniel, owner of Pages and president of the Southern California Children's Booksellers Assn. (SCCBA). "We see Pages as a place for people interested in children to make connections. It's the center of the community."

Once publishers realized that they could sell to the retail market, the types of books being published changed. "Books have become more commercial, more mass-market," concedes Louise Howton, director of the children's-book division for Harcourt Brace Jovanovich. "Books designed to be bought as gifts must be different than those designed for the library market. Pop-up books, baby board books, and gorgeous picture books fit into retail space better than in libraries."

As publishers started manufacturing overseas, printing in full-color at a price that both publisher and book buyer could afford, artistic and editorial qualities flowered. Houses matched innovative and whimsical writers with exotic, sometimes naughty, illustrators. Of course, the tried-and-true--Sendak, Suess, Cleary and Blume--thrive and prosper, but they have been joined by newcomers such as Chris Van Allsberg ("The Polar Express") and David MacCauley ("The Way Things Work").

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