Read it and Reap: Museum Publishing for Children

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A museum expends a great deal of energy trying to attract an audience and present itself as both appealing and vital. If people visit once, the museum wants them to keep coming back for more. If it can maintain a connection with its audience between visits, it will be able to build a real community.

Successful community building requires an ability to connect the public to products that promote the museum’s identity and proprietary content. Publishing is a great way to develop ongoing relationships with people, particularly children. Properly executed, children’s publishing can help museums develop a constituency of visitors who will become connected to the institution’s programs at an early age and maintain that link throughout their adult years.

As commercial publishers know, a museum book imprint lends credibility to a publishing venture. “The buyer perceives the product to have educational merit and, therefore, added value,” says Simone Dennis, editor of Raincoast Books in Vancouver.

That reassurance is particularly important for parents who want to be sure that the books they buy are suitable for their kids. Children’s books from museums are not just attractive products. “They are actually something parents want,” says Terrence Winch, publishing director of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian, in Washington, D.C. School and public libraries covet museum-published books for the same reason. In an era of budget cutbacks and uneasiness about acquisition decisions, libraries know the purchase of a museum product will usually go unquestioned.

However, like beauty, museum imprints are skin-deep—or, in this case, paper-thin. To retain the readers’ interest, the books have to be good. “If the book isn’t well conceived, even the name ‘Smithsonian’ won’t help,” notes Bill Burnham of Soundprints, a publisher in Norwalk, Connecticut.

The Canadian Children’s Book Market: Final Report, a November 2001 study commissioned by the Association of Canadian Publishers (ACP), recommends that nonfiction for kids be light-hearted, even frivolous. According to the study, kids look for a good story; if they pick up some knowledge along the way, that’s a value-added feature that parents will appreciate. But kids are turned off by the heavy-handed tone of many books that are produced for them. In other words, if museums can’t transform their content into amusing and compelling stories with interesting characters and images, they’ll lose a large and valuable audience.

Being able to give young readers what they want requires a blend of fact, fun, and fiction, and an avoidance of the urge to cover everything at once. Above all, it requires talented writers. “Museums need good storytellers capable of engaging kids, and should not pretend that staff can write for children,” says Bruce Williams, manager of information services at the Canadian Museum of Nature in Ottawa.

Providing “edutainment” may be a huge leap of faith for a scholarly institution, but museums should understand why resisting this trend can hurt them. “Publishing exposes the museum’s intellectual blueprint,” says Terrence Winch. Therefore, publishing should be a critical tool of the institution’s strategy. Unfortunately, at many museums, it isn’t.

In their book Museum Strategy and Marketing: Designing Missions, Building Audiences, Generating Revenues and Resources (1998), Neil and Philip Kotler describe the clash of old-versus-new mindsets within museums: traditionalists striving to protect the purity of the mission battling the commercial side that demands that the institution become more responsive to the needs of the marketplace. Such conflicts present huge barriers for museums seeking to introduce history, art, or science to young people as a way to expand their constituencies.

Institutions must understand that children’s publishing is a highly specialized process. Museums need outside help to ensure that children can relate easily to their products and are entertained in the process. In theory, publishers and museums should be ideal collaborators. But in practice, their relationships are often awkward and, consequently, unsuccessful.

Nonprofits typically underestimate their value when seeking out partnerships. But when it comes to publishing, museums often do the opposite—they put too much value on their own style of presentation and resist the changes that will make the content marketable. Consequently, publishers have come to view museums as institutions that are reluctant to produce commercially viable projects. A museum’s insistence on owning the publishing process—from idea generation to completed work—will undermine its success.

The perception that there is curatorial resistance to popular publishing—and marketing in general—may be misinformed, but the relationship between curators and publishers is often less than smooth. As gatekeepers of content, curators can easily frustrate the publisher if they see their involvement as a burden rather than as a positive initiative. Even acting as a project advisor may be problematic: most of the museum’s collections are not set up for public access; only a small selection will ever be displayed and the rest will remain uninterpreted. Supervising work on unexplored materials quickly becomes a distraction for curators because they feel as though they are working outside their mandates. Sensing a gap between the publisher’s motivation and the museum’s, some curators respond by being, in the words of one children’s publisher, “actively hostile.”

Many curators understand that children’s publishing has dramatic marketing power, but they feel it simply does not fit with the existing skills of the museum and its scholarly apparatus. “They also may be concerned that marketing to children will undermine museum objectives,” says Terrence Winch. Others simply feel intimidated, lacking experience and understanding about the nuances of children’s publishing.

Museum managers should educate curators—and the whole exhibit team—about how marketing complements their work and develop a system that aims to find, then publish, the best stories. To overcome the perception of resistance, museums should also indicate their willingness to work with a publisher to create a saleable product. “All [a museum needs] is a theme and the will to make a book,” says Patricia Aldana of Groundwood, a Toronto—based publisher. “If it is a good subject, the publisher can fill in the blanks.”

Publishers need to be involved at the concept stage. Ultimately, the publisher’s knowledge of the marketplace—how to shape content for different age groups—should determine the selection of stories. In fact, the relationship might break down if the museum tries to dominate the development of the product. Often, the difficult part for the museum is the sharing—exchanging its raw ideas for the publisher’s editorial direction, packaging, and marketing expertise—and letting let the publisher be the publisher. Of course, publishers must respect the intellectual knowledge and integrity of curators, as well as the expertise museums will bring to any project.

Smithsonian Oceanic Collection is a good example of a publishing collaboration that carries the museum message to children in a saleable, understandable way. Soundprints, the publisher of this series, originally approached the Smithsonian about the idea and does all the creative work. The Smithsonian makes sure the messages in the books are accurate. Discovery and interpretation—not storytelling, or book production, or marketing—is the museum’s core capability, so it willingly exchanges its expertise for the publisher’s.

As Kevin Rivette and David Kline write in Rembrandts in the Attic, Unlocking the Hidden Value of Patents (2000), in today’s knowledge economy, intellectual property is a valuable resource and a fundamental requirement for success. Few organizations, however, realize the commercial potential of their hidden intellectual capital assets. Ideas are more than just valuable; they are “the new ethereal gold,” as Jeremy Rifkin calls them in his book, The Age of Access: The New Culture of Hypercapitalism, Where All of Life Is a Paid-for Experience (2000). All museums possess this gold, but finding it requires a map.

To assuage curators’ fears of exploitation, and to truly benefit from publishing partnerships, museums must have a clear handle on their corporate identity and be fully aware of the extent of their intellectual resources. Mapping the organization’s knowledge will help control the exchange of concepts between the museum and its publishing partner, and put the museum in a position of strength.

For a museum to be market-driven doesn’t mean it must become intellectually narrow. But it should cultivate a broad view of the opportunities that can promote its expertise, along with the ability to continuously sense and act on those opportunities. Ideally, all levels of staff will take ownership of this view. Of course, selling the concept becomes easier if there are early successes that clearly link publishing initiatives to the museum’s business objectives.

For years, the Field Museum in Chicago struggled with the concept of publishing for the popular market. But the public’s overwhelming response to the series of children’s books it published about its fossil “Sue” —the largest Tyrannosaurus rex ever found— “gradually eroded curatorial resistance,” says Lori Sadler, the Field’s director of business enterprise.

The Sue books were the first produced by the museum at a commercial level. Early on, the exhibit team sensed that Sue’s story would resonate with the public and made four important decisions: they acknowledged that the Field had no experience publishing for children; they chose not to self-publish; they wanted to develop a series of books; and they wanted the books to appeal to a big market. Realizing that a children’s publisher would know what would sell, the museum engaged an agent, who led them to Scholastic. Today, there are seven titles in the Sue series—each one very successful. And the books are just one part of the 200 different products that have been developed to support the Sue exhibit. As a result, staff are thinking about how to mine other permanent exhibits for book ideas.

The Children’s Museum in Boston considers everything it does as fodder for a potential publication. Its most successful publishing venture to date has been a series of storybooks and teacher guides for the school market, published under the educational arm of Simon & Schuster. In the future, Leslie Swartz, vice president of program development, plans to work with trade publishers who can reach both the commercial and the school markets. But her concept development process is unlikely to change. Swartz brings together various people to talk about ideas that emerge from the museum’s galleries. Then she puts the concepts together and presents them to a literary agent who can position and package the work in a way a publisher understands. The agent also has the contacts Swartz lacks for getting in the door easily. Most important, at each stage in this process, whether with museum staff, agent, or publisher, Swartz is open to advice and to making changes to the museum’s raw content.

Museums like the Smithsonian are showing how to blend this practice into broader institutional strategy. In the early 1990s, the institution created SI Business Ventures (SBV) to mine its intellectual capital for commercial gain. According to Peter Read of SBV’s product and licensing department, curatorial reaction to publishing at the Smithsonian still runs the gamut from those entrenched against commercialism to those who see the big picture. Nevertheless, SBV staff work to make the publishing process as painless as possible so curators can concentrate on their core mandate: uncovering new opportunities, finding the right partnerships to execute new business, and controlling access to museum collections.

Developing a strategy for taking advantage of the museum’s intellectual assets—mapping the knowledge within the institution—requires someone to sort out what’s worth marketing to what groups. Someone like Leslie Swartz, or Peter Read, or Lori Sadler—well—informed, well—connected, innovative people who can pinpoint the most valuable links between corporate knowledge and marketing.

“It’s not enough to make or do things that you can sell,” state Rivette and Klein in Rembrandts in the Attic. “Nor is it necessarily even enough to make or do or sell things in innovative ways…It’s what you do with that innovation—how you manage and utilize your intellectual property assets in conjunction with all the other assets of your company…that determine whether you win or lose.”

(Originally published in Muse (Canadian Museum Association), May-June 2003)

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