Tuesday, 29 May 2012

Stories with knobs on – Rebranding a picture book by Moira Butterfield

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!


  1. Wow! This was such an interesting post - so much more about being in marketing or business rather than straight forward writing. It must be so useful to have that skill range, Moira! I would love to be able to apply that business brain to my books - I bet it helps your own work. Thanks for sharing the process.

  2. The real skill, I guess, would be in predicting the big 'hit' in the first place, and I don't think anyone can do that for sure. Books can be heavily marketed to make them hits, of course, but the real classic - the one that lasts through the decades - can't be created by marketing alone, only by an author tapping into something very special

  3. This is really interesting, Moira - it's always good to hear more about the business side of things, how it all works. Thank you.

  4. This is really interesting, Moira - it's always good to hear more about the business side of things, how it all works. Thank you.

  5. Really enjoyed your blog post. It sounds such an interesting extension to writing picture books (I'm jealous!). Being constantly aware of the 'market' and what children enjoy (and also attracts parents and suppliers) must help a lot when writing your own books.

  6. It's none of it rocket science. It's all common sense, basically, isn't it. It's just that I have the time to do it and happen to have some experience, I guess. Does it help with writing? The jury's out on that! But I'd advise any writer and illustrator to spend a little time looking at what's out there selling - not to copy, but just to let it permeate into the background of the mind.

  7. I'd never really thought about this side of the industry, Moira, so I found your post very interesting and informative.

  8. Fascinating post. Where do you do your research, other than bookshops?

  9. I surf the internet, too, to see what's out there internationally, and I go to non-bookshop outlets such as toy shops and supermarkets. I even go to stationary shops. I particularly like art gallery and museum shops myself and I'm always having to be dragged away from book sections wherever I visit. I keep an eye on friends' children and what they're finding fun. My own children are a bit too old for all of that now!

  10. As someone who's quite recently entered this field, I found your post fascinating and informative.

    Moira, would you get in touch with me off/pbd, please? Because I'm having a few problems with one of my pulishers. Don't want to name names on a public site - but would appreciate some SASsie advice/opinions if you'd be prepared to offer them. XX

  11. Please excuse the strange typo.

  12. Once upon a time my target was to get a picture book published. Once I managed this I wanted to write a book where a follow-on title was asked for. I've just done this and with luck that second book will be out at the end of this year. My next target is to see my story as part of a brand. So this post gives me something to think about. Thanks!

    1. You will, Lynne! You have an amazing positive vibe going on!

  13. I am so intrigued by your post I want to see what you've done with the book!

  14. It is rare to get such an informative insight into publishing - you obviously know this world very well. I thoroughly enjoyed this post and am more than a little envious of your job!

  15. I only do this occasionally, when asked. Most of the time I'm freelancing away in the writing mine (feels like that today when the weather outside looks so good). It's all confidential so I can't name names. Hush, hush, y' know. Had to drop the branding report under a rock in a park...

  16. What a fascinating look into a side of the industry I've never really thought about before. Now that I think about it, I've seen this type of re-branding in action at my local Barnes and Noble and indie store. However, I never really thought before about HOW this happens. Thanks for shedding some light on the process. It sounds like a peach of a job.

  17. Notes from an insider and valuable for that - thanks for sharing, Moira. There need to be some gems to mine, but have you ever thought that a new iteration was better than the original picturebook?

  18. Thank you, Moira. Really interesting. I've never thought about that side of things before...