Children's Conference 2019: Q&A with Scholastic UK's Catherine Bell

Children's Conference 2019: Q&A with Scholastic UK's Catherine Bell

The woman at the helm of one of the UK’s largest children’s specialists discusses the challenges and opportunities in the modern-day global publishing market.

What, in your opinion, are the biggest challenges facing children’s publishing at the moment?

Like all UK publishing colleagues, dealing with reprints and new publishing coming into and going out of the UK around a certain event—one potentially happening at the end of October—will be a challenge. We have been working hard on our plan, with colour books printing all over the world scheduled to arrive to ensure Christmas supply, despite the potential commercial disruption. Specifically in children’s, the challenge is how to best launch new voices in the most commercial way with limited levers to pull within the market. We enjoy the challenge of finding inventive ways to reach new audiences.

And what are the opportunities?

The audio market growth that adult publishers have experienced is moving into the children’s area, and we see funny writing and illustration always winning out in every category. From all our research, that’s what children want to read.

What have been Scholastic’s publishing successes in the past year?

Craig Smith and Katz Cowley’s The Wonky Donkey brought pleasure to existing book readers and non-book readers alike last year, and continues to sell and sell.

Can You See Me? is a book we were all really proud to publish this year: Ellie Berger, our US vice-president and publisher, heard an interview with Libby Scott, an 11-year-old who had written an amazing blog about what it is like to live with autism. We got in touch and Libby joined forces with [writer] Rebecca Westcott, and together they gave us an amazing account of what life is like for both Tally, the fictional lead character, and her family. It’s an important, uplifting book, and above all a book that enables you to stand in the shoes of others (and it reached fourth in the charts in its first week).

How global is publishing now?

Our children are global beings who know the YouTubers of Santa Monica as well as the ones based in Brighton. Children are active, demand a voice, and are more connected than ever. With that in mind, as publishers we have to think, plan and work together globally, from acquisition to launch.

And what is still localised? 

New voices and passion. You have to have strong local passion and an understanding of new voices to kick-start the publishing process with the energy and commitment required to make a book a success. 

Is publishing moving fast enough when it comes to working with authors from under-represented backgrounds? 

There is always more we can do as we aim to reach all children with books that truly appeal and reflect their experience. Publishers have made progress, and finding commercial routes to make an impact is imperative. Last year Alesha Dixon’s Lightning Girl was the top début in the UK, according to Nielsen, and there was nothing better than seeing mums sharing pictures of children dressed up as [Dixon’s protagonist] Aurora Beam on World Book Day. We are also proud of our new non- fiction series, Voices, with stories from Bali Rai and Patrice Lawrence. Telling the stories of all people has to be at the core of all we do.

What can attendees expect from your talk?

A look at how we can give children more of what they want and engage them in a life-changing skill: reading. We know that reading in England is still falling behind the progress made in maths and the affectionately known SPAG [spelling, punctuation and grammar], so how do we make reading more accessible and engaging for all?

Catherine Bell has been co-managing director of Scholastic UK since 2012. She will deliver a keynote talk at this year’s Children’s Conference, entitled “Raise the Roof: Putting on a Show to Wow all Children”.