Earlier this week I went along to the offices of The Guardian for the presentation of the Guardian Children’s Fiction Prize. By now everybody knows that this year’s winner is Frank Cottrell Boyce for his wonderful book The Unforgotten Coat, a poignant, warm and funny story about immigration, deportation and our common humanity. Frank is a great writer for children – his stories engage with their concerns, and they achieve great depth with a lightness of touch that leaves most of his fellow writers filled with envy. The book is beautifully produced by his publisher Walker, too, but then that’s what I would expect from a publisher with their track record in design.
It was a gathering of the great and good of children’s books (and me!), and I met several people I’ve known for years. Lives were caught up on and gossip exchanged, but I was struck by how gloomy several of the people I spoke to seemed to feel about our business at the moment. The recession, budget cuts, the rise of e-books and the decline of high street bookselling, new authors struggling to get published, older authors struggling to get school visits, publishers worried about the future for their imprints. It wasn’t quite like listening to a group of Jeremiahs predicting the Apocalypse, but it was close. Now it’s been announced that the two mega-corporations that own Penguin and Random House are in ‘merger talks’. More gloom – if such an entity did come into existence (on current figures it would control up to 25% of the UK publishing market), surely it would mean fewer opportunities for writers...
But am I downhearted? No, I’m not. As a judge on the Guardian award this year I was struck by just how many wonderful books had been submitted – and they represented a tiny proportion of the total number of books published. Yes, things might be tough, but as my fellow judge Cressida Cowell said, we must be doing something right in our business if we can produce great books like Frank’s and all the others. Yes, things are changing, but if writers keep producing stories like Frank’s, some entity in some form will want to ‘publish’ them, and people will pay good money for them too. And yes, Penguin and Random House might merge, but that could well be a good thing – we need some players in our industry with the power to take on the new media behemoths of our time, the Apples and Googles and Facebooks.
Life has never been easy for writers, or for publishers, and change is always difficult. Someone told me a while ago that the symbol for ‘change’ in Chinese script is the same as that for ‘opportunity.’ I don’t know if it’s true, but if I can find it I’m going to copy it out on a Post-It note and stick it up over my desk. It’s a tough job, being a writer – but I wouldn’t want it any other way.