Tuesday 17 June 2008

Living with the New Realities of Children's Publishing

I haven't signed the Philip Pullman led No to Age Banding declaration. I haven't signed even though I agree with much that has been said by that side of the debate and although I am tempted to add my name to the formidable list which includes many of my writing heroes - Malorie Blackman, Michael Morpurgo, Michelle Magorian, David Almond, Neil Gaiman and many more.

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.

“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.”

And then of course, there is the brouhaha over celebrity authors, many of whom don't write their own books.

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?


  1. Interesting, Candy and lots of links to follow!! I want to read more about this. I'm still not sure whether I agree with age ranging or not. I can see that it could have some use - but then a good bookseller can advise on appropriate books - but will undoubtedly put some children off. I asked my daughter, who is 12, what she thought and she said that she didn't care if a book said 9+ and has big writing as long as the plot was good and it looked interesting. Sadly, she may be in a minority with this view. Thanks for all the info though - a one stop shop on age ranging!!

    Sue Hyams

  2. I disagree with age banding, as I've said before. I know things have to change, I work in education for goodness sake, things change every other day there, but I worry about the effect that age banding will have on reluctant readers. I have only my own experience to go on but I've seen how books, age banded in schools to help teachers guide pupils can demoralise pupils with SEN. I signed.

  3. Thanks for this really informative article Candy. I think the reason that such emotive language is used is because reading and access to knowledge is so important to a child's development and age-banding could have the very opposite effect of what was intended. Instead of being a handy guide as they say is the intention, it will, in all likelihood pigeon-hole readers.
    Now my eldest son was reading at age 3. He soaked it up and loved it. My daughter had little interest and was very reluctant to read for pleasure. My youngest who is going to be 5 in September won't even learn his sounds. He doesn't even like being read to, much less read himself. Should my reluctant readers be doomed to be shamed by reading books with an age band less than their own age because of some ill-thought out decision by a crowd of marketing executives? My only hope, in continuing to encourage them to love books and reading, is to show them that it's for everyone. And by that I mean all types of readers.

    I love children's books. While I encourage my kids to expand their reading to higher levels, I also encourage them to read all kinds of everything and not limit themselves.

    Then there's my eldest, who at 13, is reading less than he has ever done. He doesn't browse in bookshops or on amazon. He reads what they give him at school or books I buy for myself. (I read mostly YA). I absolutely believe that this is because there isn't a "reading for pleasure" culture in teens. I think that this is because despite there being fantastic YA books out there, they are bunched up with middle grade books in the back child friendly section of the book shop. I really believe that YA should be a completely separate section, with its own classifications.

    I read an article recently which said that YA was the only expanding market in publishing in the US. Surely if that's the case the UK book market should be exploiting it.

    For me age-banding is way too restrictive. I believe the guidance should be more general and reflected in the layout of the bookshop itself with children's, middle grade and YA books being given separate sections. If the worry is about content - well that's a whole 'nother debate!

  4. thanks for the comments, all.

    i was interested in janey's comment that more teens would read if booksellers would give their books a place away from the kiddy sections of the shops.

    these are the same booksellers who dont' have the time, culture or the inclination to engage with customers who don't know which books to buy for children - hence age-ranging.

    the "new" booksellers - supermarkets and big chains (at least Amazon has reader comments)- can make or break a book ... how can publishers stand up to them?

  5. I think Janey's point is very interesting, changing the shopping environment to guide customers seems more subtle.

  6. Candy I love reading your posts... always informative. What are we to do in today's publishing world? Sing a song, get a recording contract, marry a footballer and then get a publishing contract. Not sure reverse order would work so well... know of any authors who then married footballers or released a song? I'd love to know the stats on that.

  7. in the spirit of putting myself forward for my craft, i would willingly marry a footballer to see if it increases my chances. but i'm already spoken for. how about you?


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