A Numbers Thing

Credit: almogaver | morguefile.com

Credit: almogaver | morguefile.com

My publishing career began in 1976, forty years ago, and the very roundness of that number—and the fact that I was to be speaking at LoonSong, a retreat for writers in the glorious wilderness of northern Minnesota—has prompted me to take a look back.  So drawing from information gathered for that lecture, I’d like to pause to examine some numbers, not my usual territory.LoonSong facility

In 1976, my first novel, Shelter from the Wind, was published along with 2,209 other books meant for children and young adults.  (Or what was being called young adult in that time, then meaning books for eleven to thirteen-year-olds.)

In 2015, the most recent year for which statistics are available, the total number of children’s and YA books published was 15,032.  That breaks down, now that young adult is truly young adult and more legitimately its own publishing category, to 12,988 children’s books and 4,338 YA.

(I have K.T. Horning of the Cooperative Children’s Book Center in Madison, Wisconsin, to thank for locating those statistics for me.  The 1976 numbers come from Bowker Annual of the Library and Book Trade, 23rd edition, and the second from Library and Book Trade Almanac, 61st edition, same publication, new name. )

Even if we eliminate all of today’s YA books as a category that didn’t quite exist in 1976, those numbers represent nearly a six-fold increase over the numbers published forty years ago.  And that doesn’t count all the self-published books indistinguishable from traditionally published books on sites such as Amazon.com.  Nor, of course, does it consider the thousands and thousands of books available in publishers’ backlists.

All seeking buyers.

What do these facts mean for children’s and young-adult writers?

First, the bright side.  Despite the dark clouds that have been hanging over publishing in recent years, that means nearly six times as many books are being published today than were being published forty years ago.  Six times as many occasions when an editor said, “Yes.”  That’s good news!

And the downside?  Once published, how much more difficult it is today to get our books—even our very best books—noticed.  The manuscript we labored over with such love has to compete with those 15,031 others for shelf space in book stores, in libraries, in schools, for attention on the Internet.

And again, add in the self-published books, lots of self-published books, not just the occasional vanity press offerings we used to see, and then add in that deep back list, too.  That’s our competition for the book-buyer’s dollar.  No wonder books—excellent books—are published every day and then disappear with barely a whimper.

Has the juvenile population increased in these same years?  Do we need six times as many books?  Yes, it has.  In 1975, according to Pew Research (Sharon McDonald searched out these numbers for me), the U.S. population fifteen and under totaled just over 55 million.  In 2015 it was just over 63 million.  An increase to be certain, but nowhere near six-fold.

And all those extra books are competing for the attention of kids with electronic devices in their hands.

What do we do then to keep our own books from being published and then disappearing?  Well, we have the Internet.  That gives us opportunities, unimaginable forty years ago, to broadcast our own good news.  The problem, of course, is that everyone else has the Internet, too, and rising to the top of that load of information becomes more difficult every day.  But at least the Internet is a resource we can learn and use without a great deal of cost.  That is a blessing, though a blessing that can feel like a curse for those of us who would rather spend our time writing than learning new technology.  A blessing nonetheless.

Another blessing.  In the last forty years I have seen children’s books rise significantly in stature.  It’s something I can feel rather than quantify.  But there is a quantifiable reason why we are no longer the step-children of the industry.  Children’s books, the whole big gathering of children’s books and a few record-busting best sellers, are holding up the bottom line for many publishers.  Even the big guys.  Which, of course, is another number thing, making our books—and us—serious business.  And serious business gets respect.

So . . . too many books and too few buyers?  Yes.  But increased opportunities to get our books out there.  And an industry less inclined to relegate us to the “cute” corner.

I’m okay with those numbers.