Saturday, February 20, 2021

State of the Industry Keynote - Jean Feiwel

Virtual keynotes continue! This time with Jean Feiwel.

Lin starts by asking about Jean's career trajectory: 

Jean started at Avon Books right out of college spending 7 years there, meeting many of her most influential career role models, before moving onto Scholastic. She helped create Baby-sitters Club, Goosebumps, and many other beloved series. Series books that were published monthly, not seasonally(!), as Scholastic Book Club's voracious members demanded and devoured. Jean reminds us that at that time, these series were paperback originals that did not get reviewed or even carried by some bookstores! Jean never saw them as fluff, but as serious books—Baby-Sitters Club has Jean and Ann and other editors' life experiences within those pages, one reason they ring so true and remain so beloved. In February 2006 Jean joined Macmillan as Senior Vice President and Publisher, founding her own imprint, Feiwel and Friends. Jean also started the imprints Square Fish and Swoon Reads, in addition to being named publisher of Henry Holt in 2016. Currently Jean is surrounded by 12 inches of snow in Massachusetts.

Her publishing ethos remains rooted in wanting to expose children to all types of literature, and she's demonstrated that in her commitment to publishing in all genres, categories and formats, from those early paperback original series to the crowd-sourced stories of Swoon. She credits Raina Telgemeier's graphic novel work for changing the face of American publishing and the emergence of the still burgeoning younger comics market. Illustration is incredibly varied and sophisticated and has no boundary for age range unless we force it to, says Jean, and comics are real books. Jean wants educators and the book industry to be ambassadors not gatekeepers to children's books, expose not shield kids from different points of view and types of books.

Lin asks if we are on solid footing in the children's book industry?

Jean thinks the great irony is that 2020 is one of the best years in MacMillan's history, with the backlist having a higher return thanks to comfort reading during the pandemic, in addition to an expansion in digital sales. Except for YA, digital sales are usually not a big sales number for children's books, but all did better in 2020.

Has the pandemic put a crunch on acquisitions? 

Jean says it hasn't! MacMillan is selling more books on Amazon than ever and it is their largest account. Barnes & Noble is going through a seachange, any brick and mortar stores are going through a change right now, but they are still a voice. Target and other big box stores, which were not as much a part of MacMillan's distribution 10 years ago, are now a significant source of business, especially in 2020 as shopping in person for fun was replaced by shopping only in person for necessity. And indie bookstores are still a significant voice in making books happen, Jean says, even as they are grappling with the pandemic closures, and points out the Winter Institute is happening this weekend, too.

Jean says the market is crying out for diversity and expansion. Integrating diversity into mainstream publishing, not just specific imprints, should be the goal. Representation is #1 on the agenda at MacMillan at all levels from acquisitions to hiring. The younger professionals coming up are showing publishing the way, Jean doesn't want people that look like her to be the only one who is dominating the conversation.

Jean believes we need innovators and disrupters in our publishing industry, and from her experience it's really hard to make that happen, but it's going to happen. Though traditional publishers need more innovation and they need it faster. You can look to self-published authors and illustrators who've led in the innovation department and see how that has impacted and disrupted traditional publishing.

Jean's advice to authors and illustrators: Stop looking over your shoulder, be yourself. If you have something to say, say it. And yes, look at the marketplace, but look for new ways of telling stories. 

Lin asks for words to focus on in 2021 and Jean's are: Expect the unexpected and be comfortable with the uncomfortable.

She leaves us with an excerpt from a forthcoming Feiwel & Friends picture book by Cleo Wade, WHAT THE ROAD SAYS

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