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Robin Adelson, Executive Director of the CBC and Every Child a Reader, Part 1

Real Talk Publishing: The People Behind the Books

Robin Adelson, Executive Director of the CBC and Every Child a Reader, Part 1

A lot of book jobs are, understandably, inextricably connected to books themselves: writing them, editing them, designing them, publicizing them, selling them...the list goes on. But some book jobs take a step back, and instead focus on promoting literacy and reading itself.

As the Executive Director of the children's book trade association Children's Book Council (CBC) and the nonprofit Every Child a Reader, Robin Adelson has one (well, two) of those jobs. At the CBC, she acts as the face of the children's book publishing industry and makes sure that she addresses publishing professionals' needs and interests. At Every Child a Reader, she works every day to fulfill the organization's mission to "instill a lifelong love of reading in children." 

After heading up the CBC and Every Child a Reader for eight years, Robin is leaving both organizations at the end of 2014. She will surely be missed, and at Teenreads, we wanted to make sure to talk to her about her unique roles in the book world before she left.

Below, find the first part of our interview, where Robin talks about what it was like to enter the publishing world from a completely different industry, her day-to-day responsibilities and how she took Children's Book Week from a poster program to a nationally celebrated extravaganza. Stay tuned for Part 2 on Tuesday, December 23rd! You are the Executive Director of two organizations --- The Children’s Book Council (CBC) and Every Child a Reader (ECAR). What does the CBC do?

Robin Adelson: The CBC is the trade association for children’s book publishing. We provide all sorts of services directly to publishers --- we work to fill the needs that they let us know exist and we try to address their interests. So we offer all sorts of professional development programming, as well as marketing and networking opportunities.

In the marketing realm --- which we find is what publishers really need and want most --- we create all sorts of reading lists, which tend to be viewed as awards. If your book makes it onto a list, then it’s a great way to promote it. We have subject and thematic breakdowns on our website through the “seasonal showcase” and "build your home library" lists for different age groups that we put together with the American Library Association. We definitely like our book lists!

For networking, we give publishers the chance to sit on committees with people from other organizations, including a very vibrant early career committee for people in their first five years in the industry. We also have joint committees with the American Library Association (ALA) and with booksellers.

TRC:  And how about Every Child a Reader?

For a child to truly reach their potential as a student and ultimately as a productive member of society, you need to look beyond just learning the basics of reading.

RA: Every Child a Reader is a charitable organization focusing on literacy. Its mission is to instill a lifelong love of reading in children. It’s not enough to learn how to read. For a child to truly reach their potential as a student and ultimately as a productive member of society, you need to look beyond just learning the basics of reading. And to get beyond the basics, you have to have an appreciation for reading. With all of the things competing for your leisure time, if reading is one of those choices that you'll consider as you grow up, it expands your horizons in ways that ultimately expand your potential.

We try to instill a lifelong love of reading by promoting the joy of reading, so it’s not just associated with school and chores and homework, but is recognized as something entertaining, cultural and artistic.

To do that, Every Child a Reader runs three national programs: The National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature, Children’s Book Week and the Children’s Choice Book Awards. Each one of the Every Child a Reader programs is all about connecting children with the people who write and illustrate the books for them --- we think that opportunities for connection often make the biggest difference.

It was originally organized in 1995 by the Children’s Book Council to help First Book launch its national book bank. Then it just existed on paper but was inactive for a long time. We revived it in 2007. 

TRC: Would you say that the CBC and ECAR are connected, or are they two very separate entities?

RA: They’re separate and connected. They are two legally, full functioning, standalone organizations. I run both and they are staffed by the same people. For publishers there’s a recognition that they are working for the greater good; for people that opt to be in children’s publishing, they’re running businesses where they feel a greater responsibility, a moral responsibility.

At ECAR, we are creating and running programs that they are particularly interested in because they meet the needs of their audience. They are programs that give them a chance to highlight their books, but also give them the chance to be involved in a mission.

TRC: Running both organizations sounds like quite the job! Can you tell me what your overall responsibilities are?

RA: It’s a long list!

When I got here eight years ago, the CBC was not in good shape --- they had embarked on a strategic planning study and were trying to figure out if it made sense to rebuild the organization and move it in a new direction or fold it into another organization. They decided that children’s book publishing had its own issues that needed to be addressed by children’s book publishers and not as part of the larger publishing landscape, so it made sense to try and take the organization in a different direction and see what could be done.

I was looking for a career change at the time --- which as you now know I tend to do every seven or eight years --- and I was actually given a blank slate and told “we want you to do something with Children’s Book Week. Aside from that, we just want you to build this organization into something that is responsive to the needs of publishers and relevant and the voice of the industry.” All of which people were feeling it just wasn’t, at that point. CBC has been around since 1945 and nothing new was happening, and the landscape of publishing was changing so rapidly that something needed to change.

So the part that was clear to me in terms of responsibilities was “fix Children’s Book Week” and “fix the CBC,” which of course is the most unclear instruction you could possibly get!

So the part that was clear to me in terms of responsibilities was “fix Children’s Book Week” and “fix the CBC,” which of course is the most unclear instruction you could possibly get!

But now, I see my responsibilities as hiring amazing staff, --- I think that’s probably the responsibility I am best at  --- ensuring that all programming is and stays relevant, creating new programming to address the needs and interests of our members and creating partnerships with different organizations with like-minded missions.

There are so many organizations out there that are doing all sorts of interesting things that are not at odds with one another, but they often don’t realize what the synergies are. The opportunities to work together are there and they make everybody so much better and stronger! Because of that, we make a real effort to find and work with partners.

My responsibility is also to work with the Boards of Directors at both organizations --- to make sure they know what the organizations are doing and to listen to what they want the organizations to do. Both to listen and to speak --- really, to connect. Being the voice of the CBC is really being the voice of the children’s book publishing community.

My responsibility extends to being the voice and the face of the CBC and Every Child a Reader. When we get calls from media about trends within the industry and things that are going on, being the voice of the CBC is really being the voice of the children’s book publishing community. So many publishers do their own thing in different ways, but there are certain truths that apply to all of them.

TRC: Do you have a typical day? What would that look like?

RA: I do not have a typical day! I spend a lot of time on the phone and a lot of time on the computer. And I try to minimize the number of times that I go out for lunch, which I would have done anyway because I’m not a big lunch person.

A big part of what I do is communicating --- I talk a lot!

TRC: So who are you talking to? Who are the people that you’re mainly working with in this job?

RA: Certainly one on one with each member of my staff. It’s partly to make sure everybody knows what they’re doing, but largely to make sure that everybody is satisfied professionally and has the knowledge that they need to run programs on their own and to operate independently. To me, that’s very important in a work environment.

I do communicate with my two Boards of Directors. On the CBC side, our members are publishers, so I’m in regular contact with many heads of houses, heads of publicity, associate publishers --- the top level executives --- partly to let them know what we’re doing, and partly to hear what they need us to be doing.

I’m in regular communication with the American Booksellers Association, with the American Libraries Association, with the Center for the Book and the Library of Congress. Those are my regular contacts.

I also talk with groups we can potentially partner with, and, on the Every Child a Reader side, with potential funders.

TRC: What are some strong partnerships that you have now or you’ve had in the past?

RA: Well, we work on reading lists with important partners. We do a joint list of trade books that touch on topics in science with the National Science Teachers Association. We do a list of notable social studies books with the National Council for the Social Studies. This year we are creating a new list of trade books that have a math focus and are co-sponsoring that with the Mathematical Sciences Research Institute.

We also have a joint CBC- ALA committee. A lot of it is so librarians know what publishers are working on and concerned about and publishers know what librarians are concerned about.  But we are collaborating with some of the ALA branches on creating a diversity forum, which I think is one of the big up-and-coming, important and hopefully impactful projects we can work on

We also work with the American Booksellers Association. We have an ABA representative on the Children’s Book Week committee every year and they’ve been very involved in Children’s Book Week and trying to increase the number of official events. They created the second Small Business Saturday just this past May so that it would be timed during Children’s Book Week with authors in stores reading stories.

TRC: You said that when you came to the CBC, it was a career change for you. What were you doing before?

RA: I was a lawyer before. I was a lawyer for a long time.

TRC: And what made you decide to make this big leap?

RA: A lot of things. I had enjoyed what I was doing for a long time, and I had just come to a point where I wasn’t enjoying it as much. I have three daughters, and I wanted them to know that since such a big part of your life is spent working, you could actually enjoy what you’re doing. And you should enjoy what you’re doing. I wanted to shift to something where I felt like I was doing good. I wanted to do meaningful work and I felt that at that point in my legal career, it wasn’t meaningful to me in that way. So I wanted to try something new.

I have three daughters, and I wanted them to know that since such a big part of your life is spent working, you could actually enjoy what you’re doing. And you should enjoy what you’re doing.

But I think I always have been the kind of person that felt there are a lot of things I want to do in my lifetime, and I don’t want to be limited to one career. And that’s very much why I’ve decided to leave now --- I’ve loved doing this for the past eight years, and now I’m ready to see what else I can do.

TRC: So what about the CBC/Every Child a Reader was specifically attractive to you? Have you always been a big reader?

RA: I’ve always been a big reader. I had decided that I wanted to work in the nonprofit world and I’d sat on several boards, so I knew the way nonprofits operate pretty well. I knew that you really can’t commit to nonprofit work unless you are truly passionate about the mission of the organization and the work that the organization does. At that point, my passion was children, and I knew I wanted to do something with children. And literacy is easy to be passionate about.

TRC: What do you think were the benefits of coming to this job from a background other than publishing, and what do you think were some of the challenges?

RA: I think this industry is not so unique in the fact that it is rapidly changing. I think every industry right now is rapidly changing. And when you come to an industry without the baggage of “the way things have always been done,” you’re able to look at it with fresh eyes, fresh perspective and new energy, which is the key to growth and development in any organization.

When you come to an industry without the baggage of “the way things have always been done,” you’re able to look at it with fresh eyes, fresh perspective and new energy...

I think every industry, every job, should be a combination of people who have grown up in that industry and people who don’t know anything about it but are eager and capable of learning. And I think people are capable of learning an industry very quickly. And that’s certainly true in my case --- working in a law firm for a long time teaches you very quickly to jump around from industry to industry; if you’re working with a client, you’ve got to know their industry.

So learning an industry --- as long as it’s an industry I’m interested in --- is a very easy thing. And I don’t think I’m so special. I think we’re all capable of learning what’s what.











Some of the challenges were that I loved books, I’d bought tons of books, I’d bought tons of children’s books and I certainly knew the benefits of reading, but I did not know the publishing process. I don’t think that held me back --- if that was an obstacle in any way, I think it was a helpful obstacle because it forced me to reach out to publishers very early on and say “walk me through what you do.” “What is an ISBN?”  But I don’t think there are true obstacles or unconquerable obstacles if you go to an industry that you didn’t know as long as the passion is there. I think the only obstacle is lack of passion. And if you’re not passionate about something, why are you doing it? 

But in this day and age, everything is changing, and things are changing quickly, and there are new industries popping up and new technologies all the time. The only time to stay current and relevant is to pay attention to the new things that are happening, to try new things and not to be afraid to make mistakes but just go for it --- try and see what happens.

TRC: You mentioned earlier that you were first hired to “fix Children’s Book Week.”  What was the problem with it?

RA: Children’s Book Week is the longest running national literacy initiative in the country; it’s been celebrated every year since 1919, largely with a poster and local celebrations. There was a lot of promotion that went into the poster, and for years it was sold to schools and libraries. But over the years, school and library budgets started to be knocked down and had no money to pay for posters.

Also, it was left to schools, libraries and other local outlets to celebrate however they wanted. Because it took place in November at that point, retail outlets had no interest. It was the middle of November, Thanksgiving was coming, Christmas was coming --- it’s the busiest time for a retail outlet. They didn’t have the time to focus on something else, and they also didn’t need the traffic.

So one of the first things we did was look at the calendar and consult teachers, librarians and bookstores about when it could help teachers to have something to celebrate and when bookstores would have a reason to participate beyond the greater good. Yes, we’d love everybody to do everything for altruistic motives, but we know that doesn’t happen, and that’s fine!

Turns out, May is a good time of year for almost everyone! Schools in the Deep South end early, so it wasn’t great for them, but there is no perfect time of year, and May was really embraced by most groups we consulted with.  

So, when Children’s Book Group moved to May, we decided it was time to centralize the celebration of Children’s Book Week. We thought it was really important to increase awareness of the week and give people an excuse to celebrate --- maybe it was just a poster program, but it had been around forever!

So we created the website, and there are official celebrations happening across the country. We invite CBC member publishers --- so this is another instance where Every Child a Reader and CBC work hand in hand --- to send their authors and illustrators to participate in different official events and connect with kids throughout Children’s Book Week.

We also stopped selling posters. We’ve continued the tradition of creating an original art poster every year, but those posters are distributed free of charge (as are tote bags that feature the poster). We distribute about 150,000 posters a year. We’ve also created a downloadable bookmark that is designed by a different artist and available on the Children’s Book Week website.

We also created the Children’s Choice Book Awards so that it would culminate during Children’s Book Week --- the voting takes place in the couple of months leading up to book week, and the winners would always be announced during Children’s Book Week, which would be another big celebration. 

And we’ve also encouraged CBC publishers to launch big titles during Children’s Book Week and to create events around Children’s Book Week. So Bad Kitty celebrates her birthday during Children’s’ Book Week every year.

So all of that was our way of turning Children’s Book Week into something. And it’s something! Children’s Book Week now gets a tremendous amount of national media attention. Recognition of the week is exponentially higher than it was before, and all different kinds of outlets regularly contact us because they want to be official event venues and want to celebrate Children’s Book Week with us. It’s been pretty satisfying, I have to say.

TRC: Who plans the Children’s Book Week events --- Every Child a Reader, the publishers or the venues hosting the events?

RA: CBC has a hand in everything, but part of the reason CBC and Every Child a Reader are able to do as much as they do is that we recognize the expertise that our different partners bring to the table.

So we will work with a store and find out what they’re interested in doing and we will work with publishers and hear who is available to go to venues in which parts of the country. We will then let the bookstore or the museum or the library or the pizza parlor --- whoever’s running the event --- know who’s available in their area. They’ll let us know who they’re interested in, and we’ll connect the two so that they can then work out the details themselves.

We count on the venues to run their own events and to give us as many details as possible so we can help them promote it --- we are not on the ground in all 50 states during Children’s Book Week, which would be a problem with a staff of five.