An Interview with Neal Porter

neal porterNeal Porter launched his thirty-five-year-long publishing career in 1979 when he assumed the post of director of library services and academic sales at Farrar, Straus and Giroux, where William Steig, Maurice Sendak, and Madeleine L’Engle were among the brightest stars on an extraordinary list. Porter went on to hold editorial and executive positions at Macmillan, Walker Books (UK), Orchard, and Dorling Kindersley before co-founding Roaring Brook Press (a division of Macmillan), where he now directs the Neal Porter Books imprint. As a child, a precocious, word-struck young baby boomer, Porter himself largely skipped over picture books, but he has made the genre a major focus of his publishing efforts in lists that have featured work by Ed Young, Ted Lewin, Rebecca and Ed Emberley, Brian Floca, Amy Schwartz, Ross MacDonald, Laura Vaccaro Seeger, Yuyi Morales, and Philip and Erin Stead, among others. In the wide-ranging conversation that follows, Porter takes a dry-eyed look at the current state of the picture book as an art form, artifact, and business proposition in the Digital Age.

Leonard S. Marcus: What were your favorite picture books as a child?

Neal Porter: They tell me I was a precocious reader and that I was reading at around the age of three — soup can labels at the supermarket to begin with. I zoomed through the picture book phase rather quickly, although I do remember loving the Sasek travel books and Harold and the Purple Crayon, the latter because it was about creativity and because its hero was a solitary child like me.

LSM: Why, as a publisher, are you drawn to the picture book genre now?

NP: It has to do with my dual interest in words and art. I’ve always doodled and enjoyed going to museums and looking at art. I am a frustrated artist! It also has to do with my theater background. My undergraduate degree is in theater history and dramatic literature. It is striking to realize how many other theater people have found their way to the children’s book world, too: publisher Dick Jackson, for one; Madeleine L’Engle, for another. And then there are the artists like Maurice Sendak for whom making picture books naturally segued into working in the theater as well as the opera and ballet. A good picture book is like a well-made play, with a rising action and a climax and a denouement.

LSM: How many picture books do you publish annually?

NP: I now do approximately eighteen books annually, across three publishing seasons, of which fifteen or sixteen are picture books.

LSM: What does the market for picture books look like now, and how has it changed?

NP: In the early 1980s, with the rise of independent children’s-only bookshops, there was a lot more focus on the retail possibilities for children’s books. Picture books, being so visually appealing, made the perfect gift. That led to a boom, with publishers greatly expanding their lists. Then the world changed. The birthrate fell off, and the younger children who had been reading picture books a few years earlier grew a bit older. It was right around then that the publishing phenomena of Harry Potter and Lemony Snicket and Twilight came along, and the focus shifted away from picture books for a time. Picture books, after all, are not the most economical kinds of book to produce. You have the cost of four-color printing and the cost of shipping books from China where they are printed, as well as the difficulty of receiving inventory on a timely basis. In contrast, a novel can be produced domestically and without color printing. Publishing tends to be cyclical, however, and I suspect we’re now heading into the next uptick in interest in the visual.

LSM: Did the rise of the big-box bookstores impact the kinds of picture books that have been published in recent years? Picture books seemed to get bigger and bigger, for instance, presumably for the sake of standing out in a vast array of choices.

NP: Yes, they did get bigger and bigger — until finally they no longer fit on big-box-store standardized fixtures. Celebrity picture books were another result. In the absence of knowledgeable staff members who could offer shoppers appropriate suggestions, books by recognizable “names” from film or TV or the music world were encouraged and supported by the chains. Then there were all the shiny, pink, and sparkly covers, and similar attention-grabbing “special effects,” as we’ve come to call them in the industry.

LSM: Are we still in that phase?

NP: Barnes & Noble remains a major factor in the market even as they face growing competition from Amazon and other internet booksellers. Barnes & Noble continues to express strong views about the book jackets we design.

LSM: How resilient is the library market?

Ballet for Martha by Jan Greenberg and Sandra JordanNP: Funding is regional, and the financial well-being of libraries varies accordingly. Ballet for Martha, a book I am especially proud of having published, is not a book that I would expect to have a very high profile in Target or Walmart or Barnes & Noble. But it’s a book that the library market has supported. It is because this is so that I am able to do more books of that kind, books that challenge young readers.

LSM: Why are there so many picture-book biographies just now?

NP: They’re a very good way to convey information to relatively young children. The subject matter for the genre has broadened enormously, and I am proud to have participated in that development. When I published Action Jackson, some of my colleagues were stupefied at the very notion of a picture book about Jackson Pollock. Now you see picture books being done about Charles Ives, Gertrude Stein, and Erik Satie.

LSM: You would think we were living in a cultural paradise. Yet arts education has often been the first thing to be cut at budget-strapped schools across the country.

NP: Publishing books on the arts has been a way for publishers to try to help fill that particular void. I should add that it is never just the subject that justifies publishing a picture book biography. The approach to the subject is critically important. The book has to tell a story that will challenge and excite young readers.

LSM: Art museums have expanded their education departments in recent years in an effort to build new audiences and because it is generally easier to secure grant money for “education” than it is for “culture.” Are museum shops becoming an increasingly important outlet for picture books?

NP: That’s a really interesting theory, but I don’t have the specifics to back it up. Certainly we have looked pretty aggressively for new, nontraditional outlets for picture books as the retail market has continued to change; as Borders closed and independent bookstores have gone out of business one after another. Stores like Anthropologie and Urban Outfitters stock picture books that have a retro or hipster appeal for their customers. To my initial surprise, Pottery Barn has taken books that are well designed and otherwise fit with their mission.

bataille_abc 3dSome of my picture books have had clear crossover appeal for design students and other adult readers, notably Marion Bataille’s pop-up, ABC3D, which I found at the Bologna Children’s Book Fair. The originating French publisher, an old friend of mine, said, “I think I have a book for you, Mr. Porter,” and handed me the book. A millisecond later, I replied, “If you sell this to anyone else, I will break your legs!” I have always been interested in typography and letterforms. It was clearly my kind of book. This was in the early days of social media, and when it was time to present the book to our sales force, our enterprising marketing associate said, “Why don’t we make a little video of the book?” Several million YouTube hits later, people began coming to me asking me to appear on panels about internet marketing — something I knew absolutely nothing about.

LSM: What is your goal when you go to Bologna?

NP: It has shifted over the years. When I started going to the fair in the 1980s for the old Macmillan, my mandate was to build a retail list, and one way to do that quickly was to go to Bologna and see what was on offer. I have gone most years ever since. When we started Roaring Brook in 2001, we were so tiny that we all wore several hats, and I became the de facto rights director. My focus then was more on selling our books rather than buying. Now I go principally to buy — to fall in love with some special book for my list. It does not always happen!

LSM: You seem to fall in love with French books more often than with others.

NP: Because the British market for picture books is so small, there is a tendency there to make them generic enough to appeal to all markets, with the result that British picture books often strike me as bland. France and Australia are doing some of the most exciting and bravest publishing. Australia has a subscription arrangement for the sale of picture books that guarantees a certain minimum sale for each new book. That arrangement in turn allows publishers to take more risks.

jolivet_zoo-ology LSM: Then there are the extravagantly oversized picture books of French illustrator Joelle Jolivet. I’ve heard that because booksellers did not know where to put her books, many put them in the window, with the result that customers came in asking for them.

NP: The indie booksellers also stacked them high on the floor, which was also great for sales. To the surprise of some, Zoo-ology became one of Roaring Brook’s best-selling titles ever.

LSM: Picture books are coming from new corners around the world: Argentina, Mexico, and Korea, among other countries.

NP: I am going to a big conference in Mexico next week. Singapore is beginning to develop an indigenous publishing program.

LSM: Especially in the case of Spanish language picture books, are you thinking of publishing bilingual editions?

NP: I publish Yuyi Morales, who after many years of living in the Bay Area has just moved back to Mexico. I’m interested in finding new audiences for the kinds of books she does. As a matter of fact, this year we’ll be publishing Yuyi’s book about Frida Kahlo bilingually. In general, U.S. publishers have not been very effective at knowing how to reach the Spanish-speaking communities in this country. I learned recently that many of Borders’ stores were located in or near Latino communities and that the loss of Borders hit the Spanish-speaking population particularly hard.

LSM: What does winning the Caldecott Medal mean these days for the artist? Has the impact of the award changed during your time in the business?

NP: The Caldecott has always served as a kind of Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval in both the retail and library markets, resulting in substantial sales.

LSM: Has the effect on the retail side been magnified in recent years?

stead_sick day for amos mcgeeNP: It all depends on the book. Some medal winners have become perennial strong sellers, while others have faded. A Sick Day for Amos McGee was Erin Stead’s first book. It was a quiet book. It was not pink and sparkly. It did not have a sales hook per se. I remember saying in an early launch meeting that I thought the book was very special and that I hoped it would find its audience. I don’t think any of us were prepared for what the size of the audience turned out to be. Word of mouth started well before the awarding of the medal. We had a very small initial printing and found ourselves going back to press again and again. It just kept building and building, which was lovely to see.

LSM: Where do you see e-books going?

NP: I think they are not going much of anywhere. The fact remains that there has yet to be a platform that is as effective from a cost point of view as well as from a delivery point of view as the physical book. You can look at a picture book on an iPad or Kindle and you can swish your finger across the page and see the images change, but then you also have to stretch them and pull them back again to see the spread. It’s all so far from the experience of a child holding a book in his or her hand, or a parent reading a book to a child. I’m not anti-digital. I’m not saying it won’t happen in time that e-books will start to provide comparable value as a reading experience, but we’re not there yet. The generally lackluster sales for e-book editions of picture books would seem to bear out that reality. They are also hard to sell. E-books tend to be literal adaptions of a book and cost $9.95, whereas apps cost a lot more to make and must be sold in the vast App Store for between $0.99 and $3.99. It is hard to see how any of this can work.

LSM: I have heard a number of art directors say recently that they are putting more money into enhancing the production values of their traditional picture books with a view to highlighting the possibilities of the printed book.

If You Want to See a WhaleNP: I am doing that, too. For Julie Fogliano and Erin Stead’s If You Want to See a Whale, I did a full cloth case with a “blind” stamp — an impressed image. The idea was to create a sort of sensory experience for the reader. It was the first cloth case I had done in twenty years! For so long we have been effectively “de-spec-ing” our books because of the price-point ceiling we’re faced with in children’s books, which many people expect to cost less regardless of what they are.

LSM: How do the illustrators you meet now compare with those you met earlier in your career?

NP: Many artists who earned their living doing editorial work for magazines and newspapers have seen that world dry up and have now found their way to picture-book making. So I’m seeing more and more cartoonists and editorial illustrators — Matt Davies, for instance, who is a Pulitzer Prize–winning editorial cartoonist, and with whom I am finishing up work now on a second picture book. Younger artists tend to be interested primarily in working digitally. When I visited the Savannah College of Art and Design, I met with students who had been given the assignment of creating an image by nondigital means. What was striking about their work was that even though it was done nondigitally, it looked like digital art. Digital art of course has become much more finely nuanced than it was at the beginning, and is often done in combination with traditional forms and techniques of illustration. Surprisingly, we have found that it is often more difficult when dealing with digital art than with traditional illustration media to match the artist’s intent in the printing process. That is because the original art that exists on the illustrator’s screen may be calibrated differently from the image that appears on the monitor that the publisher or printer is using.

LSM: What does it mean to have an imprint now, in this time of Big Publishing?

NP: It makes me think that much more carefully about each of my publishing decisions. You hope, of course, that your name on a book represents a certain level of quality and style, as was certainly the case for the books published by Margaret McElderry and other publishers who have had their own imprints. And then there is this: a young librarian seated beside me at a Newbery–Caldecott banquet a couple of years ago turned to me and said, “I’ve never sat next to an imprint before. I’m so excited!”

From the March/April 2014 issue of The Horn Book Magazine: Special Issue: Illustration.
Leonard S. Marcus
Leonard S. Marcus
Leonard S. Marcus’s forthcoming books include Helen Oxenbury: A Life in Illustration (Candlewick) and, as editor, The Kairos Novels (Library of America) by Madeleine L’Engle. His exhibition Garth Williams: Illustrator of the Century opens at the Curtis Memorial Library in Brunswick, Maine, on May 1, 2018.
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Vincent X. Kirsch

What an inspiring interview! It is wonderful to know that Mr. Porter (the Sondheim of picture books) comes from theater. That is where I got my start and have always felt that knowing how to put on a show has come in handy when I think of making picture books. Bravo Mr. Porter!

Posted : Apr 20, 2015 10:23

Susan L. Roberts

I kept noticing many of my favorite picture books were Neal Porter books. When I finished reading "Sequoia" this morning--for the 5th time--I decided I needed to look you up. Brilliant. Passionate. You publish my kind of books, more quieter and contemplative. I've now gone through you entire list and have ordered more. Thank you for bravely maintaining your integrity when so many other publishers are living in fear and publishing less appealing books. I will continue to follow you. Thanks, Susan

Posted : Feb 23, 2015 04:39

Emily Lisker

Leonard this was terrific I love Neal Porter. You both are my favorites in this business. Emily

Posted : Feb 20, 2015 02:07

Emma D Dryden, drydenbks LLC

Cheers, Leonard, on a terrific interview! And cheers, Neal, on your vision, sense, and valuable contributions to our beloved business! Here's to many years more!

Posted : Mar 11, 2014 03:31

Susan Williams Beckhorn

Thanks for posting this, Leonard. It's very heartening. I agree with Neal that picture books are best held, savored, smelled, and touched in a child's hands. By the way, I snuck out of I snuck out of SCBWI Manhattan to catch you exhibit at the library. Wonderful!

Posted : Mar 08, 2014 06:52

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