Editor and author Ken Geist recently spoke at the New England Children’s Booksellers Advisory Council, asking  independent booksellers to get behind picture books, as reported by Publishers Weekly.

Why the impassioned plea? While picture books aren’t disappearing from the market, they have been a tough sell lately. Jacketed picture books are $16.99–not an inexpensive purchase–and customers seem unwilling to buy unjacketed titles. Lower-cost paperbacks aren’t usually produced until the hardcover has proven sales. And big retailer Barnes & Noble is removing its picture book wall and instead showcasing higher-margin activity books. (Say it isn’t so!)

The most interesting tidbit from the article–one that contradicts the word count guidelines heard lately (500 to 700 words, the less, the better)–is that “many [consumers] don’t know what a picture book is, and those who do are looking for more text.”

More text?

Can it be that picture book consumers feel slighted by the $16.99 price tag when they only get 400 words? Does this mean picture book word counts might be on the rise? This is difficult to tell, considering the article also mentioned that 4- and 5-year-olds are being pushed toward chapter books. Lower word counts serve the younger audience this suggests. But do we believe that 4-, 5- and even 6-year-olds are going to give up on picture books completely? Are teachers going to stop using them in their Kindergarten, 1st and 2nd grade classrooms?

And could picture book series be turning off some parents? Once there’s a hit book, publishers release new titles with the same character. Is this strategy a sure money maker, or are parents getting tired of the same premise repeated a half dozen times?

On one hand, familiarity is a strong selling point. Think of the popularity of chain restaurants–customers know the menu is the same in Boston or Boise, so they are assured an enjoyable meal. So a picture book with a character they and their children already know is appetizing, but when do they get full? Editors have been asking for character-driven manuscripts to take advantage of sequel potential, but will this trend level off?

I’m curious to see if publishers will change their acquisitions strategies in light of bookseller changes. What do you think?

One of the booksellers at the event suggested a grass-roots effort to make 2011 “The Year of the Picture Book.” I’m all for that! Who’s with me? What can we do to help a sagging picture book market? (Besides the obvious–write awesome books!)