The variegated publishing world is divided into sectors that behave differently, especially vis-à-vis the future of the industry. Perhaps one of the most energetic is that of books for children, mistakenly grouped with textbooks. Nowadays, without a doubt, one of the most robust and healthiest communities is children’s publishing, wide-ranging, heterogeneous, and very creative, because it develops very diverse publishing profiles, and because the book as an object itself intervenes—unlike in other sectors—such that it can bring together distinct languages to enlighten and delight the reader. It’s not only the text that takes center stage; rather, the illustrations, the design, and the medium itself form part of the publisher’s outlook. Because of this, when we speak about the traditional job of publishing, in the case of books for children, we are referring to a more complex and multifaceted task.
The children’s book scene, today, is much more encompassing and central than some twenty or thirty years ago, not only because of the consecration of specific spaces such as the Bologna Book Fair (which brings together children’s book publishers from the world over every year), but rather because no self-respecting fair marginalizes the sector and children’s programming any longer. Additionally, children’s pavilions attract a vigorous flow of visitors because they appeal to families, they maintain active programming for different readers, and because visits that are planned by schools favor them.
In the same way, many groups are made visible within the context of these fairs, such as communities specializing in picture books, in poetry and prose for children, illustrators, and creators of comics and graphic novels, in addition to storytellers and mediators whose vocation it is to promote books and reading among this audience.
Prizes with enormous international prestige such as the Hans Christian Andersen, which acknowledges the body of work of an author or illustrator, and the Astrid Lindgren Memorial Award, with one of the greatest endowments in the world, contribute enormously to the diffusion of creators of this type of literature; in addition to initiatives with a long tradition like the Caldecott, John Newbery, and Kate Greenaway medals, the Bratislava Biennial, and Los Mejores del Banco del Libro, among others, that invigorate the circulation of books in this market.
In this context of consolidated institutions and dramatic growth of academic spaces—which show a growing interest in the universe of books published for children—the publishing profession takes on a colossal dimension: in order to publish authentic and valuable books, numerous obstacles must be dealt with, starting with the temptation of listening to the siren calls of the market promising the key to success to whomever finds the formula for the bestseller, or satisfies the stereotypes of massive consumption, or accommodates the demands of what’s politically correct, so much on the minds of these consumers.
Tendencies supporting the buying of digital and interactive books, sought after by children and young adults, and audiobooks, closer to the natural passion to listen to stories among the youngest, open up new paths in the art of publishing children’s content, which lead to other industries and other modes of production. However, at the base of these new cultural products, a few inestimable criteria remain, such as the search for authenticity from the child’s perspective, the building of a deep and powerful message, the nonredundant coexistence of distinct languages, and the creative and coherent use of strength and supports to transmit emotion and enchantment, because wonder definitely continues to be a natural refuge of childhood.
What Does It Mean to Publish Books for Children?
Notable books are those that connect in a special way with the reader. In a system that is adult-centric, in which books for children are conceptualized, written, illustrated, designed, promoted, and bought by adults, how do you attain the necessary authenticity and freshness to win over readers in a genuine way? This is a fundamental question that an editor must not lose sight of, because that child that is still within him is not enough to guarantee that connection. Said child is buried under layers of adult experiences that weaken a fresh look and a true connection with contemporary readers. Without a doubt, a condition for this craft is the link with real readers, in different ways, making it possible to know their interests, preferences, and ways of reading. Native digital readers and active users of networking sites read in a very different way: their attention spans are much shorter, the presence of visual elements is more engaging, and their ways of putting all the pieces together are not governed by traditional linearity.
All of these changes impact the way discourses are constructed, and this is reflected in changes in cultural products: the dominance of the picture book and the silent book in the sector; the development of short chapters in works of prose; the emergence of categories such as the graphic novel; the wager on dystopian worlds; the preference for serials, sequels, and prequels; the expansion of a fictional world in different media (so-called transmedia storytelling); and the emergence of a new gamut of themes are some of the issues with which a publisher has to deal with currently. As a matter of fact, the publishing profession has changed due to the heightened presence of the digital context and the tools that emerge to optimize processes that used to be performed analogically, such as typographic and spelling corrections, or communication among the creators involved. If one thing is specific to this trade, it is its collective vocation; teamwork, which demands from the editor the ability to turn into an orchestra conductor, bringing together talent and putting together the contributions of every professional involved.
As a matter of fact, this ability to coordinate ideas is possible because the editor, especially when referring to picture books, builds the “editorial concept,” a term that refers to a number of intangible and material elements that make up the end product of the book, its ecosystem of meaning. A great many failed books that circulate on the market went wrong because they were not able to pull together their editorial concept, which makes them come apart “at the seams,” speaking in more colloquial terms.
This capacity to see beyond or to see the forest for the trees as a complete scene is one of the strengths that an experienced editor acquires in the field of children’s publishing, knowing how to gain perspective and understand the equilibrium of that complex relationship between all the parts: the text must hold up its quality and strength without saying it all, in such a way that the illustrations can elaborate, interpret, or contradict what is suggested by the text; the format should be able to consistently contain both languages, either because it offers the ideal space for the story at hand or because it emphasizes its emotional weight; the flyleaves should allow you to open and close that fictional world in an interesting way; the design should encompass and facilitate the coexistence of languages… every detail should be able to justify that marvelous object that will reach the reader’s hands.
Nowadays, the mold of the picture book has expanded to many categories of books for children, such that nonfiction and poetry books have also adopted the pleasantries of a packaging that transforms the book into an aesthetic object.
Literary Texts: A Challenge for Children’s Publishing
Many niche, alternative, and independent publishers have focused on the illustrated book under different categories, including the illustrated book proper, the picture book, the silent book, and the interactive book. Other medium-sized publishers or transnational companies have traditionally focused on the production of books for reading plans, which are acquired by communities of schools, and which favor prose in different genres.
The path of a manuscript that arrives spontaneously is a long one because every publisher works with parameters that involve many decisions that go beyond the literary quality of the text. Adaptation for an age category, the fact that there may already be similar works on the market, the demand for hot themes, the proposal’s originality, its length, its dealing with certain contents, and its complexity all have their weight, without a doubt, when deciding on a given book’s inclusion in a catalog, or on whether to take on its editing.
The process of editing is always unique; each manuscript gives off its own energy and suggests a path for its professional reading. Although there are no static formulas, it is most likely that the editor will do a first reading: perhaps the first ten or twenty pages are enough to realize whether the story catches, whether it has strength and can convince the reader, that first reader who is the editor. Reading manuscripts often requires discipline because on the first look the work has to be conceptualized in its entirety, and this requires one to finish reading it until the end, unless it is unsalvageable. Many texts arrive disarticulated, there isn’t a backbone, or they need a real trimming. That’s precisely why they need some editing. Moving the parts in such a way that they can fit together and plucking out the weeds are fundamental tasks in order to achieve the clarity of a text. The editor, in part, is a pruner; removing what is superfluous is an entire art because you have to know how to discern what needs to be sent to the trash.
A structured and clean text has the virtue of allowing one to understand how that fictional universe functions, if there are voids that need to be filled, how the tension works to keep the reader engaged, and how the characters are transformed through the story. In exchange with the author, these interventions are debated and agreed upon, since in this relationship, the author must feel accompanied. Talking about the suggestions is the best way for the editor to assume the role of specialized reader, without the pretense that the author should write the story the editor wishes to write.
In a way, that distance that comes from looking with another pair of eyes is clarifying: the editor can see from the outside, to understand if the book’s fictional world holds up and is convincing, whether it can really attract, and—more than anything—whether it is told from a perspective that corresponds to both character and reader.
Editing is a profession that requires layers and time. Layers to see with each new reading different elements in the text: first its larger mechanisms and parts, then the nuts and bolts. The secret to this exercise lies in re-readings that are done five, eight, ten times, whatever is necessary to feel that the manuscript can move on to the following phase of the process. A good editor works in tandem with a copyeditor and a proofreader, especially when production is high and deadlines are short.
Much more could be said of this art that has the virtue of producing quality books, but the most meaningful thing is that—after all the ins and outs and the technical procedures that make it possible for a new piece of work to come to life—it can change the lives of its readers forever.