Reality Check

Something significant just happened in the book world. For the past eleven years the winners of the Newbery and Caldecott Medals appeared on the Today Show a few days after the award is announced. This year they were pre-empted—by Snooki Polizzi of Jersey Shore! Snook has a book! Matt Lauer, with a straight face, attempted to do a serious interview with her.

I used to live in Red Bank, on the Jersey Shore. Snooki may be vulgar, but she’s no fool. She’s making the most of her fifteen minutes of fame. More power to her. I can’t blame her for wanting to grab as much as she can while it’s still there to grab.

I think the fact that the Today Show chose to put her on in place of the Caldecott/Newbery winners is a sign of things to come. I’ve been feeling this way for some time. My former agent, Sharon Friedman, was extremely media savvy. She taught me a lot. Sharon used to say, “There are no accidents.” This was a decision made at the highest levels of the network. They’re sending a clear message. The Newbery/Caldecott Awards are no longer important enough to be given valuable time on the Today Show. Had they been pre-empted by events in Arizona in the wake of the tragic shootings this weekend, no one would have said anything. A major news story can’t be ignored. But to be shoved aside for Snooki and her book? That’s a deep insult; a slap in the face. The media moguls know that won’t go down well. But they don’t care. Literary juvenile and YA books that are not and will probably never be best sellers are not worthy of attention. Like it or not, that’s the future. I doubt we’ll see the Newbery/Caldecott winners on the major networks again.

I’ve noticed other indications of this. Jenn Laughran, my current agent, told me a few days ago, “All the editors are looking for that manuscript that’s going to sell a million copies.” That’s not necessarily one that’s going to win awards. The Caldecott’s in trouble. Anyone involved in children’s picture books in any way will tell you how hard it is to sell a picture book manuscript. The Caldecott committee is in the ironic position of trying to recognize quality books in a genre that publishers are increasingly phasing out.

Two months ago at the Mazza Conference I talked to Beth Krommes, winner of the 2009 Caldecott Medal for The House In The Night. Beth had some interesting observations. She always assumed that winning a Caldecott meant that she had made it as an illustrator. That’s what it used to mean. Not any more. She hasn’t been getting many contracts or even inquiries from editors. The phone isn’t ringing. If things don’t pick up, she told me, she’s thinking of moving on and designing fabric.

This from an artist whose work is stunning. Beth isn’t the only one. It’s a tale I’ve heard many times from artists and writers who specialize in picture books.

The situation with the Newbery is also one for concern. If I’m remembering my figures correctly, winning either a Caldecott or a Newbery just about guaranteed sales of between 100,000 and 300,000 copies, with the sky the limit if the book really caught on. These days, that’s just not enough. Call it The Curse of Harry or The Curse of the Vampires. The figures for what defines a successful book have been ratcheted way, way up, making it harder for a book to get any serious marketing and harder for a manuscript to even get into print if it doesn’t show signs of becoming a monster hit.

Compounding this is what might be called the Massacre of the Libraries. The ALA Awards were significant because they guaranteed sales to every school and public library in the country. The public libraries are still there, despite severe funding cuts. The same can’t be said for the school libraries. It’s not a matter of there being no budget to acquire new books. There may no longer be a librarian on staff. There may no longer be a library! It’s a story I’m hearing again and again. The Caldecott/Newbery awards call attention to outstanding books. But what good are they if there’s no money to buy the books or anyone in the building who knows or cares about them?

The awards themselves may be less important in the scheme of things than those of us who love and care about quality books think they are. Look at the hoopla going on now for the Golden Globe Awards. How much money have the studios budgeted to publicize the nominees? Look at all the media hype, the fancy dinners, the goody bags? We have none of that in the children’s book field. Yet any publicist will tell you that if you don’t have an adequate marketing budget, you don’t exist.

Maybe that’s what the Today Show is telling us. You’re small potatoes. You have no budget, no marketing muscle. Nobody cares about what you’re offering. Yet you expect us to give you our valuable time for nothing. Well, who needs you?

We have Snooki.

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