Picture books fight back: what the publishing industry is doing to reinvigorate illustrated books

<p>Caroline Horn</p><p>It is no secret that today's picture book market presents one of the most challenging areas in children's sales. While the international coeditions market is enjoying something of a revival, the home market tells a different story. Away from the bestseller lists, the climate for picture books on the high street is best described as "challenging".</p><p>Both Ottakar's and Borders report a decline in picture book sales compared to last year. Waterstone's, which radically cut back its picture book range in 2005, claims to have maintained sales thanks to aggressive promotions and its focused range. Other booksellers have now followed its lead and reduced their range.</p><p>Julian Exposito, Borders UK senior children's buyer, says: "We have become much more restrictive about what we will stock in that category because sales are so tough."</p><p>Borders is to reduce its picture books range from 4,000 titles, to between 2,500 and 3,000 when it unveils plans for its children's departments this summer. This range review will be less than Waterstone's, which now has an estimated picture books range of fewer than 500 titles. Ottakar's is the only chain not to reduce its range but, as children's director Wayne Winstone points out, neither has it expanded.</p><p>New prices and formats</p><p>In response to retailers' smaller ranges, publishers have become more selective about what they put out. "It's good to see fewer titles that don't cut the mustard," Winstone says. "At Bologna, we saw a much stronger range of seasonal titles for the back end of the year." </p><p>Yet even this more focused approach from both sides of the trade has failed to raise sales of picture books overall. A collaborative approach to growing sales is also developing, as both publishers and booksellers review how picture books are published, priced, merchandised and promoted.</p><p>Pricing is seen as critical. Hardback picture books retail at &#163;10.99 or &#163;11.99; booksellers warned several years ago that consumers would be put off buying picture books once the price rose above &#163;10. The difficulty for publishers is that hardback picture books are expensive to produce. Macmillan has responded to demand for cheaper books by simultaneously printing in paperback and hardback. "We still have library sales for hardbacks, but the paperbacks are available to parents," Emma Hopkin, Macmillan Children's Books, m.d., says.</p><p>For Andersen Press, some titles continue to do well in hardback, such as Ruth Brown's Imagine--with the hardback print run sold out, the company will advance the paperback edition. M.d. Klaus Flugge may also go straight to paperback with some titles, including lesser-known authors and illustrators.</p><p>Retailers hope to see more publishers take the straight-to-paperback route. "It surprises me that so many picture books still come through as hardbacks, given high street sales," Sam Harrison, Waterstone's children's grader, says.</p><p>Random House Children's Books is experimenting with price and format: Benedict Blathwayt's Little Red Train titles are being published in hardback at &#163;6.99 rather than &#163;9.99. "I don't like to bring down price, and it only makes sense if you can attract higher volumes," m.d. Philippa Dickinson says. "We get volume sales for the paperbacks of Little Red Train--we need to see how we can drive sales in hardback."</p><p>Novelty and value</p><p>More emphasis is also being put on adding novelty elements to picture books such as glitter or flaps. Hopkin says: "We are also adding value--including attaching seeds or jigsaws to our books."</p><p>An interesting development last summer was Waterstone's audio picture book promotion, which introduced a new format. Instead of shrink-wrapping CDs inside books or using blister packs, the bookseller asked publishers to use a new format, where the CD is secured inside the back flap, enabling customers to browse the book before buying it. Little Tiger's mass market picture books sold particularly well.</p><p>"We really want more publishers to provide books packaged in this way, so that we can establish a strong and full backlist range of titles in audio," Harrison says. Borders has also expressed an interest in this format.</p><p>Where there is illustrative and authorial talent, and good publishing, picture books can sell just as well as fiction, topping the bestseller lists. Emily Gravett and Oliver Jeffers, as well as the better-established names Julia Donaldson and Axel Scheffler, are good examples.</p><p>Martin Salisbury, course leader for the MA in Children's Illustration at Cambridge School of Art, believes a more creative picture book business, with a variety of artists and products, would drive up sales.</p><p>"I noticed at Bologna how much more conservative British publishing is compared to that of the other European countries," Salisbury says. "Students from the Cambridge MA who go into publishing tend to be mainstream, traditional artists; it's hard for more individual talents to be accepted. Perhaps we need some more risk-taking."</p><p>Time to take a risk?</p><p>Publishers, though, point to a conservative high street environment. They say they would love to take risks on new, quirkier talent, but find it hard to sell these titles into bookshops. Jane Harris, Walker Books UK sales director, believes that better communication will help here. "We need to talk to retailers about what makes picture books so special, the creative process involved. After all, they are the ones promoting the books to customers."</p><p>HarperCollins meets regularly with booksellers' buyers to discuss ideas. "Our sales teams provide editorial with valuable feedback, but this is not a discourse," Sally Gritten, HC Children's Books m.d., says. "Sue [Buswell, picture books editor] can have meaningful discussions with buyers at a more strategic level about what does and does not work."</p><p>HarperCollins is also putting resources into analysing sales data and is sharing that information with retailers. "We are looking more closely at market conditions, and the market share of each of our customers," Gritten says. "This puts us in a position to be able to tell individual retailers: 'You are underperforming with this type of picture book'--which may be books for younger children, or classics, or humour etc. This is not an area that retailers can see themselves."</p><p>In addition, retailers want more support with promotions to help develop authors and illustrators as "brands", as well as to attract attention to individual titles. The picture book market has unique difficulties here in that illustrators, unlike fiction authors, tend to work for multiple publishers, and so it is often hard to build a single, strong brand.</p><p>Also, consumer advertising to the picture books audience--the under fives--must focus on adults as purchasers, costing hundreds of thousands of pounds. An alternative route for publishers is to create regional promotions for authors and illustrators, as well as using the internet.</p><p>Beware the brain drain</p><p>The current challenges in the picture books market have helped to focus publishers' and booksellers' minds, and to spark a dialogue between the two sides of the business.</p><p>As for the future, publishers may have to work much harder to compete for creative talent with industries producing electronic products, and to adapt picture books to continue to appeal to children. Emily Gravett, author and illustrator, warns that it will become more difficult for publishers to attract the best talent.</p><p>Gravett, who studied at Brighton University, was "discovered" as part of the Macmillan Prize for picture book illustrators. "Picture books are just not seen as a trendy or cool option for students, and information about publishing is hard to come by," she says. "I learned about picture books because I read them to my daughter."</p><p>Today's students are much more attracted to graphic design and new technologies than the traditional art forms beloved of picture book publishers, says Professor Aftab Gharda, deputy head of the Department of Visual Communication at Birmingham Institute of Art&amp;Design, at the University of Central England.</p><p>Gharda suggests that changing tastes could also impact on what tomorrow's book buyers want. "Younger readers are much more computer-savvy, and books are such a traditional medium--there needs to be much more interplay between screen-based imagery and books. At the moment they are very divorced."</p><p>Walker Books' move into DVDs, with the animation of some of its bestselling picture books, may be a step in this direction. The bold imagery in Lucy Cousins' Hooray for Fish has worked particularly well in this format.</p><p>These picture book DVDs will be launched this month, and initially they will be exclusive to Waterstone's stores before opening generally to the trade during the summer months. Helen McAleer, formerly of BBC Worldwide, will now join Walker Books to help drive its products into multimedia formats; it is a move that heralds much more radical change in the picture book market than has been evident to date.</p>