Kids get their own bestseller book list

Controversy: Publishers not thrilled as Harry Potter books move from the age-old New York Times fiction list to a new list just for children's books.

July 22, 2000|By Athima Chansanchai | Athima Chansanchai,SUN STAFF

New Yorkers, even transplanted ones, are testy tenants. Once a comfortable home is found, it's hard to give it up. One long-standing resident is about to get forcibly evicted - albeit relocated to the penthouse suite. After more than 80 weeks on the adult fiction bestseller list, Harry Potter must settle into new digs tomorrow on a separate children's list in the New York Times. Potter's departure from the old fiction lists will immediately open up four spots for more mature fare.

The change, while getting mixed reviews, is being watched as a barometer of the increasing influence of children's literature.

The house that Harry built is the most vocal critic. "In terms of Scholastic, anything that escalates children's books is thrilling to us," says Judy Corman, senior vice president and head of corporate communications. "On the other hand, to do it now, because of Harry Potter being too long on the list, too many titles ... it doesn't seem quite fair. This is a phenomenal bestseller - 3.8 million already and another 3 million on the way. Of the other three [previously released] books, 40 percent were purchased by someone over 14. Adults are reading it. I don't think it should be taken off the list."

Some other publishers don't like the idea of sitting at the kids' table. "I'm sorry for the adult book publishers who think we've usurped their territory," says Craig Virden, Random House Children's Books president and publisher, "but a book that prints 3.8 million copies is an adult book.

"I guess I feel that despite the fact that more kids books will be recognized - and that's wonderful - it feels to me they want to make sure we continue to be second-class citizens, and that's what ticks me off," adds Virden.

The Times list will have 15 slots and a mix of different types of children's titles that includes fiction and nonfiction, picture and chapter books, hardcover and paperback.

"I've heard some children's publishers aren't happy we haven't done more with breaking down the list by category," says New York Times Book Review editor Charles McGrath. "But it's a work in progress. We may get there."

Although the initial lists will draw from the same sources as the adult list - 4,000 bookstores and wholesalers that sell to an estimated 50,000 outlets - McGrath says recommendations from independent children's bookstores will be added soon.

McGrath says he's received mostly negative reactions to the changes, including e-mails from readers who have asked how the Times could take Harry off the fiction list. "I have to say I'm a bit impatient with the criticism," he says. "There's 100 percent more than what used to be there - zero."

He also bristles at the notion that the new list for children is due to lobbying by adult publishers and advertisers upset about the number of spots Harry Potter books were taking up on the list.

"The decision has not been made because of pressure put on us by adult publishers," says McGrath. "That's all hearsay."

Among those who see the change in the Times' lists as a good thing is Barbara Langridge, manager of Junior Editions children's bookstore in Columbia.

"We're over the moon. We couldn't be more validated. It's so overdue," she says. "Let's just hope it'll be a pathway for children and parents who need guidance on choosing books. Children's authors will get more recognition as well."

"Teachers, parents and librarians could put it to great use and find titles they might otherwise miss," says Anita Silvey, vice-president and publisher of Houghton Mifflin Children's Books, whose own "Henry Hikes to Fitchburg" will be No. 11 on the new list. "I think what is most pleasing is that this list is clearly focusing on new titles. They've gone out of their way to find new titles that are capturing everyone's interest."

Some industry followers have seen the writing on the wall and aren't surprised by the Times' move. "It's all been leading in this direction. It's just been a matter of time," says Paula Quint, president of the Children's Book Council, a nonprofit trade association whose membership includes national publishers. "Children's book publishers do not have large advertising budgets, so they always have an interest in reaching the buying public."

Quint says children's publishers have been lobbying the Times on and off for such a list for at least a decade. In the past, she says, "Children's books appeared irregularly and not in proportion to sales."

Publishers Weekly pioneered the notion of a separate children's bestseller list in 1988. Every month it spotlights 30 titles in four categories of children's literature. The list is compiled from information provided by independent booksellers, children's-only bookstores, chains and wholesalers.

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