Saturday, March 15, 2014

More paperback picturebooks? Please?

Genuine question, oh friends in various literary places: why aren't more picturebooks available in paperback? In virtually every other category of kidlit (excluding graphic novels and, obviously, board books and novelty books), the majority of books come out in hardcover first, but then come to paperback about a year later unless they're by Suzanne Collins or John Green phenomenally popular. But picturebooks aren't nearly as predictable. I don't know the percentage that are available in paperback, but I'd guess it's far less than half of those that have been out in hardcover for more than a year. Major classics - Goodnight Moon, Madeleine, Where the Wild Things Are - generally are available, and there are certain older authors who are paperback standbys - William Steig and Ezra Jack Keats come to mind. But newer backlist books are much less frequently available. (Anecdotally, Candlewick's books seem to be the major exception.)

I understand why in many cases, a hardcover is preferable. If a book aimed at readers under six is going to live in a school, a library, or even a home containing particularly destructive little hands, it needs to be sturdy. But there's a big difference between a two-year-old who's just learning how to treat books and a four- or five-year-old who should know better. If the parents of a toddler want to provide books in the home, it's relatively easy to do so; small board books run about seven or eight dollars. (All prices estimated here are original list prices.) But once that toddler ages into picturebooks, the selection around the same price gets narrow. It's a fairly common occurrence for a parent or gift buyer to wax enthusiastic about a hardcover picturebook until he or she sees the price, and then it's, "Eighteen dollars for ten pages?!?" (I avoid nitpicking on those occasions; to point out that it's actually thirty-two pages might come off as pushy.)

Remember that uproar a few years ago about the supposed death of the picturebook? Faulty though its premise may have been, if it was going to lament losses in picturebook sales (especially in 2010), why not examine the cost of picturebooks? Leveled readers, the next "step up" from picturebooks, are very often paperback originals and tend to cost four or five dollars. Most early chapter books either start out in paperback or get there soon enough; typically, we're talking six or seven bucks. Perhaps a push toward accelerated reading isn't the only reason Mom or Dad wheedles, "wouldn't you rather have this book?"

Publishers, my humble take: Keep printing those hardcovers. They make great, long-lasting gifts. Keep making those e-books, too; there's nothing sweeter than the dad I keep seeing on the bus who reads Curious George to his kids on a tablet. But please, don't forget the kids whose parents will rarely if ever bring home an eighteen-dollar picture book.

You might just see sales go up.