Little Engines That Could: Children’s Publishers in Europe’s Smaller Markets

In anticipation of the Bologna International Book Fair, there’s no shortage of buzz about the fast-emerging kids’ markets in Asia, Latin America, and the Arab world, along with curiosity about how the traditional powerhouses of France, Spain, and Germany are faring. Falling somewhere in between, the smaller European territories are feeling the benefit of Asian markets hungry for content, but also the challenge of staying visible on the global scene as larger European countries develop their digital publishing industries, often at a faster rate.

All children’s publishers in these smaller territories conceded their relative good fortune in contrast to non-children’s publishing colleagues, due to parents’ (and even some governments’) unwillingness to cut corners on what they see as children’s cultural education. In Greece, says Dominique Sandis, Commissioning Editor at Psichigios Publications, juvenile “hasn’t felt the full extent of [the financial crisis’] wrath on publishing,” despite lower production numbers. Children’s publishers in those hardest-hit markets have suffered most in terms of the value of advances they are able to offer, agree Sandis and Hana Whitton, the Director of Oxford Literary in the UK , which represents many Hungarian and Baltic publishers. Several US Scouts and Rights Directors report that it’s only within the past 6 months that Greek publishers have started buying again, suggesting a hopeful upturn in business.

There is also concern over the production cost of small, four-color print runs, and over publishers’ attempts to absorb more costs by offering large discounts. “I’m worried people won’t recognize these prices as low anymore…and it will become impossible to produce good books, especially picture books, anymore,” says Eefje Buenen, Editor at Leopold in the Netherlands. In Finland, the number of children’s/YA titles has seen significant growth, but in a tiny country with tiny (expensive) print runs, the size of the market itself has held steady even as the variety of titles has increased, reports Outi Mäkinen, Director of Children and Juvenile Publishing at Tammi, Bonnier Finland.

Despite the strain of production costs for many of Europe’s small-territory children’s publishers, picture books continue to deliver where other genres can’t. Scandinavia’s legacy of excellent illustrators, with international franchises like Tove Jansson’s Moomins, remains the region’s international calling card. And for Greece, with a historic difficulty selling rights internationally, new picture book versions of internationally beloved classics—especially Greek mythology—are often the only properties which will catch an international publishers’ eye, says Dominique Sandis. For Hungarian and Baltic Countries’ publishers, the importance of a distinctive house style of illustration remains such that most show little interest in licensing international picture books, preferring YA and non-illustrated middle grade, says Hana Whitton.

In contrast to the tried and true legacy of picture book publishing, the drive to keep up with the latest trends in YA remains a compelling one for anyone headed for Bologna. Despite the allure of the next big thing, though, the maturation of the YA market is stirring an interest in distinctive approaches to the saturated fantasy/dystopia genre. As a group, Scandinavian countries report rising international interest in their YA offerings, with a big leap in sales to Korea and China. Suzanne Öhman, Senior Editor at Rabén & Sjögren in Sweden reports that YA has recently replaced picture books as their biggest export item, and Heli Hottinen-Puukko, Editorial Director, Children’s and Young Readers at Otava in Finland, sees Nordic mythology as Scandinavia’s growing asset on the international stage, as publishers out seek as-yet unexhausted corners of the YA Fantasy genre.

At the other end of the spectrum, illustrated narrative nonfiction series have been a big hit in Finland, and have gotten plenty of pre-Bologna attention. From Denmark, Kaya Hoff, Editor at Gyldendal, reports global interest in Danish trademark “raw realism/social realism” in YA. Strong “home-grown” YA has an additional importance in countries like the Netherlands, where high rates of English and digital literacy mean that much of the target 13-25 year-old readership “has already bought the original [international] titles from Amazon by the time they’re translated into Dutch,” says Eefje Buenen. “It’s a real problem Dutch publishers have to face.”

For Europe’s smallest countries, the ability to maintain a unique literary culture—rather than to just efficiently process international bestsellers—becomes all the more important as new markets open and digital access grows. A distinctive list obviously stands out when it comes to international rights sales, but also keeps a small domestic audience coming back for more, even if they can read the next Hunger Games in the original English edition. One such success story is Slovenia, where sales of original Slovenian titles have boomed within the past 12 months. The success has touched all genres (even poetry), and children’s books are no exception. As Slovenian publishers prepare to head to Bologna, it seems rather fitting that for the past two months, every other book in the country—Fifty Shades of Grey included—has been playing second fiddle to Bor the Beaver (published by Mladinska knjiga), a Slovenian picture book with a small but industrious hero.

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  1. By White Raven 2013 | FarLit on March 20, 2013 at 12:37 pm

    […] in some cases surpasses the number of publications in the adult fiction area. In another setting, Publising Trends notes that ‘picture books continue to deliver where other genres can’t,’ and […]

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