Why do I dither?
When I do my talks about how authors can market themselves online, I call on my audiences to face up to the New Realities of publishing - the fact is, they simply have no choice, I declare. If authors don't get real and engage with these new realities, they will be contributing to the slow erosion of the culture of the book. But then my talks are about online marketing.
This is what I think the anti-age-ranging list is all about. Apart from all the other strong arguments about pigeonholing children's reading, it is yet another turning away from the special qualities of books. To label a book the way one would label a DVD or a computer game somehow reduces it to the level of commodity. To which, my practical side whispers, but books are commodities, aren't they?
The age banding debate has carved a rift between supporters and detractors within the publishing community.
Witness the intemperate language of commentators to Adele Geras' recent blog on the issue - with the the antis arguing with emotion and more than a little irony and the pros claiming to be on the side of democracy.
Thing is, the list of New Realities in Children's Publishing is stacking up.
A Times article about how Richard and Judy's Book Club has shaken up publishing gives an interesting assessment of the state of the industry:
(The) British book business is, to a rough approximation, incompetent. Since the abolition of retail price maintenance, power has shifted from the publishers to the bookshops, and they, in turn, have aggregated into a few big chains, primarily the near monopoly of Waterstone’s. This has made publishers absurdly timid in their approach to marketing.And then of course, there is the brouhaha over celebrity authors, many of whom don't write their own books.
“They have such a primitive idea about marketing,” (the R&J club's creator and book selector Amanda) Ross says. “I knew nothing about publishing. It is an incredible industry, full of really nice people, much nicer than television. But the thing that surprised me is that they all want their products to be exactly the same. I don’t know about you, but I never want to read the same book twice. Their covers were really similar. If there was a successful book, they put the same cover on other books so people would think they were buying the same book twice.” She was also shocked to discover that publishers were made to pay for display slots in shops. If you see top picks in a bookshop, don’t be fooled: the only picking process is money.
The bookshops have also been apeing the record industry by pulling titles the minute they don’t sell. “A few years ago, they stopped giving books enough time in shops,” Ross says. “Books tend to be word-of-mouth. It’s not like buying an album, going home and listening to it in an hour. By the time you found a book you liked and recommended it to your friends, it had been removed from the shops.”
Interestingly, on the same day the Times demonstrated how daytime telly (Richard and Judy) was killing literary snobbishness, the Guardian reported that the brisk success of celebrity fiction made literary snobs look stuffy.
The Times article, titled 'The book wot I wrote', reported:
A burgeoning section of publishing has opened up with the appearance of books in supermarkets, which relies mainly on celebrities and abuse stories ...Of children's fiction, the article went on to say:
The counter-argument says that using a celebrity's name as a brand is no different from putting the Disney logo on a book, and HarperCollins Children's Books, which publishes (Colin) McLoughlin's Coleen Style Queen series, has been careful not to make claims that won't stand up. "It's very much about Coleen endorsing and inspiring this series," says her publicist, Geraldine Stroud. "She's not in any way trying to claim that she's the sole author."(To those who've been in a coma for the past few days, Coleen of course, is now Mrs Wayne Rooney.)
So here I am, dithering.
Publishing is in the midst of a big shake-up.
If we resist the inevitable, what is at risk?
If we capitulate, are we guilty of speeding the end of the book as we know it?
How do we engage with these realities and still nurture the culture of the book?