Creative partnerships, perfect packaging and brand extensions help children’s publishers buck the trend

By Camilla Schroeder, MA Publishing student at Kingston University.

As a children’s literature enthusiast, I was really looking forward to Elaine McQuade’s 2012 Masterclass at Kingston University. Elaine is Head of Marketing and Publicity for children’s books at Oxford University Press. Although I had watched the talks she gave in 2010 and 2011, she managed to capture my attention yet again.

What really makes Elaine’s job satisfying is that the more you sell, the more children read. It’s a business, but an educational one. Publishing children’s books is profitable, and also increases children’s social and economic chances in life. According to figures Elaine showed us, 94 million copies of children’s books were sold in Britain in 2011 – in a market worth £440 million – compared to 87 million books sold in 2010. Even better, while adult fiction sales between January and August this year were down 5% compared with the same period in 2011, children’s fiction grew by 0.2%.

In the UK, 65% of children are read to by adults. Photo: stock.xchng

In a study carried out by Bowker Market Research, reading was found to be one of the leading activities among children, after watching TV and movies. 68% of children in Britain read for pleasure; 65% are read to by their parents or another adult.

The decline in reading tends to occur in the teenage years, when social media starts driving girls away from reading, as video games do for boys. However, children who have read from 4 to 10 years old are more likely to go back to reading in their twenties or thirties.

The role of a children’s publisher

Children’s books help young people develop creative skills, logical thinking and writing competence. But what attracts children to a book and what should the publisher consider? Elaine divided the role of the children’s publisher into three parts: the creative process (in picture books and in fiction), product packaging and brand extensions.

The creative process for picture books (usually 32 highly illustrated pages) is complex and time-consuming: most texts come without pictures, and the publisher chooses an illustrator. Successful partnerships, like Julia Donaldson and Axel Scheffler, live long. The Gruffalo, ZOG and Stick Man are among the bestselling picture books in the UK, the latter having inspired a theatre play now live in London.

Watch Axel Scheffler, illustrator of  The Gruffalo, talk to the Guardian about the central role the publisher plays in managing the writer-illustrator partnership:

Unlike adults, who may wade through meandering pages of prose, children want a great story, which keeps them excited from beginning to end. With excerpts from Roald Dahl’s The BFG and Morris Gleitzman’s Bumface, Elaine demonstrated exactly how catchy books for children must be.

Oxford have repackaged the Winnie the Witch series for a range of different ages

The packaging of children’s books is especially important, as over 35% of books are bought after being seen in a bookshop. A beautiful cover, some nice artwork (glitter for girls, monsters for boys) and interesting bindings make the jacket complete. It must appeal to both children and the adults who may buy the books for them. Not surprisingly, many books aimed at young adults have been attracting more and more adult fans.

Brand extensions can come in different forms. One example is the reissuing of a title for different audiences, like the different jackets for the children’s and adult editions of Phillip Pullmann’s His Dark Materials. Another example is using a character in different formats: Winnie the Witch has featured in picture books, sticker books and now baby books, besides the fun website, thereby extending the brand to both older and  younger audiences.

Camilla Schroeder is a student on the MA Publishing course at Kingston University. She also holds a BA in English Literature and Drama from Kingston, where she focused on Fairy Tales and Children’s Literature.


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