At its most basic level, the word “marketing” refers to the “action of buying or selling” (Oxford English Dictionary [OED]) and always implies some sort of exchange, usually involving goods, services, or ideas—and money. A common usage of “marketing” that directly affects children’s literature is “the action, business, or process of promoting and selling a product” (OED). Since the advent of the printing press, literature has been intimately related to marketing. It is self-evident that developing technologies made widespread literacy possible; what may take some explaining is that marketing is as essential to the development and dissemination of children’s literature as technology was.
“Marketing” is a term that arouses both suspicion and admiration. John Clarke in New Keywords (2005) explains that “a certain ambivalence persists towards markets. Perceived as necessary, they are not to be trusted…. This creates a sense of refusal—the view that not everything can or should be commodified.” At the same time, others focus on the benefits of marketing, either implicitly or explicitly linked to capitalism as a system, and see it as essential to the progress and development of civilization. Indeed, to library historians Brian Alderson and Felix de Marez Oyens (2006), the modern concept of childhood came about not because philosophers such as John Locke and Jean-Jacques Rousseau argued for changes in the understanding of childhood—they only came up with the ideas—but because of the “economic base and the continuing momentum of a specialist publishing industry” that put those ideas into culture through marketing. In addition to childhood, even “‘children’s literature’ was a genre mostly created by publishers.”
Publishers also helped create a reading public. As historian Kathleen Rassuli (1988) argues, “[E]arly printers were engaged in practices similar to those of present-day marketers.” Using the first printing press in England, William Caxton became a publisher, printing books in vernacular English, not Latin: he wanted to serve “popular tastes” and announced the intended audience on the first pages of many of his publications, a strategy Rassuli links to the contemporary marketing practice of segmentation. He printed such instructions as “not for a rude or uplandish man,” “for every man,” for “alle Englisshmen,” and for “yonge children” (quoted in Rassuli 1988). Included in Caxton’s publications for children were the first hornbooks, early primers intended to teach children to read, which were responsible for making widespread literacy possible.
Perhaps the most famous name to be associated with the marketing of children’s literature is John Newbery, the eighteenth-century publisher credited as the first person to recognize that children’s literature was a market, in the sense of being a product ideally poised to be abundantly sold and purchased. His bibliographer Sydney Roscoe explains, “John Newbery’s achievement was not to invent… juvenile books, not even to start a fashion for them, but to so produce them as to make a permanent and profitable market for them, to make them a class of book to be taken seriously as a recognized and important branch of the book trade” (quoted in Rose 1995). Such laudatory descriptions of Newbery’s importance contrast with the more restrained comments of Betsy Hearne (1986–87), who argues that “John Newbery’s early publishing efforts were seen as an extension and booster of toy sales, not a new literary vision.” While Hearne’s seeming dismissal of Newbery reveals that he is not universally revered, it also corroborates that the perception of Newbery as a marketer is a commonplace.
A consummate marketer and one of the first publishers for children, Newbery employed selling strategies that persist, and which are sometimes seen as coercive today, such as advertising his other books within the pages of the bound children’s book. Newbery may have been the first to use the “tie-in”—that is, he would include playthings along with the books he sold. A child’s copy of A Little Pretty Pocket-Book came with a ball or pincushion, depending on the sex of the child for whom the book was purchased. In other books, Newbery would have a character mention additional items he sold. The famous character Goody Two-Shoes is orphaned because her father was “seized with a violent fever in a place where Dr. James’s Fever Powder was not to be had”—Dr. James’s Fever Powder being Newbery’s own patent medicine (quoted in Rose 1995). Today, this sort of cross-marketing is called “product placement” and is often treated with suspicion. Whether or not Newbery’s reading public shared that suspicion, The History of Little Goody Two-Shoes was Newbery’s most popular book, running through twenty-nine editions between 1765 and 1800 (Rose 1995).
The award that bears his name furthers Newbery’s legacy as a marketer. Conferred annually by the American Library Association since 1922, the Newbery Award goes to the best children’s book published in the United States. Newbery’s prominence in the library world demonstrates the extent to which libraries and librarians themselves are wrapped up in the marketing of children’s literature: receipt of the award guarantees sales because libraries buy Newbery winners.
American librarians’ influence on children’s book marketing dates to the late nineteenth century. Jacalyn Eddy’s Bookwomen: Creating an Empire in Children’s Book Publishing, 1919–1939 (2006) begins with discussion, not of a publisher, but of a famous librarian, Anne Carroll Moore of the New York Public Library (NYPL). Moore, whose librarian career began in the late 1890s and extended through much of the twentieth century, saw herself and other librarians as public servants of democracy who were responsible for “providing a crucial foundation for citizenship.” Moore believed that only certain kinds of books produced model citizens, and she accordingly privileged those that were “traditional,” “classics,” “soothing,” “idyllic,” and “reinforcing positive qualities ([such as] courage, loyalty)” (Eddy 2006). With money to spend for the NYPL children’s collection, Moore wanted to purchase only books that met her standards. Believing that publishers were “careless” and were producing “mediocre” books, Moore set out to influence them. In 1918, she became the children’s book reviewer for the magazine Bookman and argued for “good” children’s books. Eddy demonstrates how publishers responded to Moore’s column, bringing out more books of the sort Moore advocated.
Although some librarians continued to view publishers with suspicion and disdained “commercialization,” Louise Seaman—who in 1919 at Macmillan became head of publishing’s first children’s division—and other editors knew that librarians’ expertise was not only “good for business” but “indispensable… to the process of making books for children” (Eddy 2006). During the 1920s, children’s book editors often consulted librarians. For her part, while Moore “remained associated with the noncommercial library enterprise, [she was] astutely, if ambivalently, aware that an expanded market was crucial to enhanced quality for children’s books” (Eddy 2006). Book editors had to market their books directly to librarians, and librarians needed publishers.
At this time, publishing was a growing industry that encompassed the full range of reading options for children. While “gentleman publishers” and the young women editors they began to appoint in the 1920s saw themselves as public servants who, like librarians, were responsible for democracy and good taste, other publishing companies happily produced comic books, “cheap” paperbacks, dime novels, and Stratemeyer series books. Most of the time, these books could not be found in libraries. Despite trade publishers’ and librarians’ best efforts, an American Library Association survey undertaken in 1926 found, after asking 36,000 students in thirty-four states what their favorite book was, that fully 98 percent named a book issued by the Stratemeyer Syndicate, publisher of series such as Nancy Drew and the Hardy Boys (Marcus 2008).
The books that would ultimately undo the power of the librarians to influence the book-buying public, however, were not Stratemeyer’s but the Little Golden Books, first published in 1942 by Simon and Schuster in conjunction with the Western Printing and Lithography Company. Sold in five-and-dime, grocery, and department stores, Little Golden Books cost a mere twenty-five cents, much less than other hardcover books. Parents were attracted to the bright colors, seeming durability, and low cost of the books, and many appreciated not having to go to high-end bookstores or libraries to find them (a situation that aptly illustrates that marketing to children often, if not always, includes marketing to adults, as they are the ones with the purchasing power). The books were as available as apples. Despite first going on sale in the midst of World War II paper shortages, the Golden Books were a smashing success. Heretofore, if a book failed to be reviewed in the Horn Book magazine, or if it wasn’t mentioned in the New York Public Library’s annual holiday list, librarians could not know of it, and the book had almost no chance of selling (Marcus 2008). But Little Golden Books “bypassed the old review system altogether” by appearing on grocery store shelves, and a publishing phenomenon was born (Marcus 2008).
The conflict between reviewers and marketers flourished, courtesy of another cultural behemoth, The Walt Disney Company. For example, in the early 1930s, Disney gave Western Printing exclusive rights to publish books featuring its cartoon characters. Leonard Marcus (2008) explains that Disney’s huge marketing successes were “the realization of [Anne Carroll Moore’s and other librarians’] worst nightmares.” Despite librarians’ nightmares, “old school” publishing did not die out. Throughout the twentieth century, major publishing houses continued to produce high-quality children’s books, in steadily increasing numbers. To be competitive, these publishing houses had to develop marketing strategies. By the mid-1960s, all large publishing companies had a promotions department, separate from the editorial department (Marcus 2008).
Marketing books, especially children’s books, can be a tricky business. It’s rare to see a commercial for a children’s book on television, and most children don’t read the kinds of print publications, like book review sections in newspapers, that carry book advertisements. Marketers of children’s books have to use marketing techniques other than the traditional mainstays popular since the mid-twentieth century. Today, trade publishers borrow heavily from Stratemeyer, Golden Books, and Disney.
One common strategy, “branding,” involves “the application of a trade mark or brand to a product; the promotion of consumer awareness of a particular brand of goods or services” (OED). Dr. Seuss was an early branding expert, using his artistic creation, the Cat in the Hat, “as a logo not only for his own early reader titles but also for those he commissioned from others as publisher of the Beginner Books imprint” (Marcus 2008).
Series books serve publishers well because when successful they encourage repeat customers. Marketers are particularly interested in “relationship-driven marketing, which emphasizes serving the customer over the long term” (Encyclopaedia Brittanica 2009, s.v. “Marketing”), and series books obviously lend themselves beautifully to long-term relationships. Spectacular series successes, such as the Babysitters’ Club books of the 1980s or the Stratemeyer books of earlier in the century, turned huge profits for their publishing companies.
As major publishing houses consolidated into a few media powerhouses in the late twentieth century, new marketing strategies either unleashed children’s imaginations or exploited them, depending on one’s perspective. In what Kimberly Reynolds and Nicholas Tucker (1998) call “asset stripping,” book characters are valued only in terms of how they can be merchandised. Popular fictional characters such as Harry Potter leap easily from one medium to another, including not just other forms of art, such as films and video games, but also myriad material objects, ranging from lunch boxes to toothpaste. Seeing such marketing “synergy” as “troubling,” Daniel Hade (2002) notes “that the book and each spin-off piece of merchandise and each retelling across another medium becomes a promotion for every other product based upon that story.” While Hade and many others chafe at the seemingly endless extension of the book’s boundaries, others applaud the permeability of the fictional construct, seeing such extension as a kind of liberation of the child’s imagination. Marketers themselves believe that branding is actually good for children, allowing them to feel “joy,” “warmth,” “friendly,” and “empowered” (Del Vecchio 1998). Successful brands, argues Gene del Vecchio, are “defined by aspirations obtained, fantasies fulfilled, or senses gratified. Such brands make a child feel something on the inside.” Regardless of the intellectual or emotional reactions to the highly elastic book character, one thing is certain: the more a character is seen, heard, or used, the more money the companies producing the character make.
Voicing the concern that that these character proliferations and cross-pollinations might destroy books themselves, Reynolds and Tucker observe, “Many of today’s editors watch in dismay as characters from books are moved into independent profit centres and turned into products whose sales are often so much in excess of the fiction that they threaten the very existence of the format for which they were originally conceived.” Others are more sanguine, pointing to the huge Harry Potter tomes that children willingly haul about and read. Children are reading despite the massive marketing of the fictional character; some might argue they are reading because of it.
In 2009, a “watchdog group,” the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood, determined that fully one-third of the items sold through Scholastic’s book-buying club service, in which the huge publishing company distributes catalogues to children through their classrooms, were not books but toys, posters, makeup, jewelry, and other nonliterary products. Parents complained that their children were offered these products under “the guise of a literary book club that is promoted in classrooms” (Rich 2009). In fact, Scholastic reports that more than 75 percent of elementary school teachers participate in the book-buying clubs by distributing the catalogues to their students. Although knowledge of the long association between marketing and children’s books might not soothe these parents’ anxieties, Scholastic’s history of marketing nonbook items with their books continues a practice begun hundreds of years ago with John Newbery.
Historian Ronald Fullerton (1988) reminds us that “Modern Western Marketing is a historical phenomenon, not a universal one…. That this variant of marketing did not always exist in the past implies very strongly that it may not always exist in the future.” The same might be said for children’s books. As difficult as it might be for Americans and Western Europeans to imagine a wholly new economic system that would supplant capitalism, it would be equally difficult to imagine a world without children’s books. Yet both conditions are ultimately imaginable. What does seem impossible to envision, however, is how children’s books could be produced and distributed in our contemporary democratic society without money and marketing. It seems worthwhile, finally, to imagine a world where marketing’s major success was to bring literature to as many children as possible.