I don’t write every day. Sometimes I work with other people’s words. Recently I’ve been doing exactly that to a well-known picture book, and I thought you might like to hear about it because it’s a somewhat unusual area for the blog. It’s about things that happen to books long after they’re finished.
If you go to the children’s section of a bookshop, you’ll see that some picture books have been made into ‘brands’ and have their own shelving space. Their content has been taken and reshaped into new ‘formats’ – a word that basically means a book’s shape and size. The content of the picture book might be re-used - with flaps, pop-ups, gatefolds, touch and feel texture, sounds, and all manner of interesting page effects.
This kind of thing has happened a lot over the years with licensed TV characters, but it has recently started to occur with well-known picture books. A top seller may be deemed popular enough to extend into a brand, because parent buyers are familiar with the book. They recognize it, trust it as a good piece of work and are likely to buy others in the series.
That’s where I come in. Authors are busy people and their in-house editors tend to be very busy folk, too, so publishers occasionally ask me to come up with initial ideas for creating a new range. I’ve been asked to do this both for picture books and children’s non-fiction, too.
I start by getting a detailed brief from the publisher. Then I start thinking.
How do people perceive this book? What does it do, exactly? Does it help to teach concepts, for example, or actions or feelings, perhaps? What can be done with it without stretching it too far and ruining the original spirit?
Then there are ‘price points’ to consider– prices that the public are used to paying for specific types of book. It’s no use me suggesting anything too expensive. Equally, the publisher and the author won’t want anything that looks cheap and nasty.
There is safety testing to consider. There’s no point in me suggesting some clever-clever idea that is unlikely to pass the stringent safety tests for the age-group.
I take a long hard look at the illustrations. Can they be taken out of the page to make individual ‘spot art’ – for an add-on poster, for example - or will the publisher need to get more illustrations?
I go shopping to check out what else is being made and sold, for what price, and how successful or otherwise the adapted books are. Some new versions work well, while some betray lack of thought for the end user and the spirit of the original material.
At last I’m ready to come up with a list of format ideas and some general suggestions for making the brand identity strong.
Why did I get asked to do this kind of commission? I once worked for a couple of companies who specialized in creating unusual formats, in the days before apps when the only way to make a picture move was to add some paper-engineering. I’ve been responsible for creating in-house ranges for well-known supermarkets, who are extremely price-conscious and sensitive to the type of customers they want to attract.
I’m also a consumer of children’s books and I hate a disappointing format that seems to have no purpose, gets damaged quickly and adds nothing to the experience of reading.
Most importantly I’m an author and editor myself, and I have spent all my professional life working with words and illustrations. That helps me to judge how successfully a new format might satisfy both the reader and the person who came up with the idea in the first place. In the case of a picture book with royalties attached, the author gets the final say about what they might or might not want for their work.
Some may consider that this type of branding devalues the spirit of picture book creation, but I say ‘the more the merrier’ because I strongly believe that very expensive one-off books tend only to reach educated families who read reviews and browse bookshops. Expanding the range of a picture book, and sometimes bringing the price down, means it gets into the hands of more children. I’ve spent all my professional life believing that and I’m proud of it.
It also helps the printed picture book market to survive by keeping publishers profitable, and it helps successful authors to make more from their work.
Of course, this all relies on one thing - Someone creating a wonderful book in the first place!