Saturday, 17 October 2015

Markets, Institutions and Children's Books: Is there a problem? - Emma Barnes

This post is by way of being a Part 2. In Part 1 I wrote about how different kinds of books  reach a reader's hands in different ways. I used the example of my own favourite childhood reads to show that while some books make their way to the reader directly through the “market” (in my case this was often through the medium of DL's Book Exchange, a bookshop in Edinburgh), others may rely on “non-market” institutions – libraries, schools, prize committees – to champion them, and to allow them to reach what may often be much more of a slow-build or niche readership.
I argued that both the commercial mass market and the non-market institutions had a role to play in championing different kinds of books, and allowing a real variety for all tastes and all readers.
I summarised the advantages and disadvantages of both as follows:

Good Things About the Market

  • Not snobbish – if a child likes it, and parents prepared to buy it, they will publish it.
  • Interested in all age groups and tastes – all “markets” in fact.
  • Respects “genre” books – school stories, humour, ponies, mysteries etc
  • Want books to be attractive and so compete with other entertainment/consumer goods.

Bad Things About Market

  • Publicity potential, celebrity tie-ins, “hooks”, “high concept”, current fashions, may all end up more important than inherent quality.
  • Quieter” books, experimental books, unusual protagonists, niche interests etc may all get overlooked.
  • Responds to purchasing power – which means some groups of readers will be neglected.

Good Things About Non-Market Institutions

  • Don't just have to think about profit
  • May be more likely to reward innovation, experiment or pure literary quality
  • Can allow children to discover more 'educational” or worthy themes, or pursue minority interests by providing slow-burn, non-glitzy books
  • May help to include groups with low purchasing power

Bad Things About the Non-Market Institutions

  • May be overly “worthy” or snobbish – eg about genre books, overtly “commerical” titles – or inversely snobbish (eg the 1970s backlash against “elitist” titles)
  • Has its own fads and fashions
  • Adult-led – danger of losing touch with child readers
  • May have objectives which may come before pure quality or enjoyment.

Where are we now? 

It's often said that we live in a new “Golden Age” of children's books. But I think as a writer, a parent and a children's book lover, there are reasons for concern.

On one level, the market is doing its bit – there are an enormous quantity of books out there: 10,000 new titles for children are published every year in the UK. Most of them are available at the click of a button from Amazon – often very cheaply). There's also evidence at the moment that children's book sales are performing more strongly than other kinds of book.  But many of use know all too well that many kids are not coming into contact with this richness. Bookshops have been closing at a frightening rate. The choice in supermarkets is extremely narrow. (Many of those 10,000 titles surely never appear in a shop at all.) Inevitably, publishers are finding it hard to bring new books to the attention of the book-buying public (the decline in newspaper review space does not help) and to build up new authors: hence the growth in celebrity authors who can garner their own publicity. As for Amazon and co – well, if you don't already know what you want, the millions of titles available at the click of a button really doesn't do you a lot of good.

Meanwhile in schools libraries and librarians often do not exist. School Library Services – which provide vital support and expertise to individual schools – are closing fast. Public libraries have been targeted for closures and cutbacks. (There were 600 fewer libraries in the UK in 2014 than 2004, and 500 of these had closed since 2010. Source: CIPFA public library statistics.) The role of libraries is being squeezed in more subtle ways than simple closures also. For example, for cost reasons librarians often have to rely on private companies to choose their stock – and may have little time to read, assess and choose books. Teachers may also find it hard to choose and recommend books for their pupils's general reading, given that they are given little training in children's literature or time to keep up with new titles.

All this means that the non-market infrastructure is being eroded. The informed discussion about children's books – what's out there, what works and what doesn't – diminishes. That informed discussion doesn't always get it right, but as a counterweight and a complement to the purely commercial, it's important that it exists. These days I doubt very much that anybody would worry about some librarians who decided to go on a vendetta against a popular author such as Enid Blyton. (Thank goodness for that.) But the flip side is that librarians and teachers may no longer have the confidence or the clout to make any impact on market trends.

In Part 1 I referred to the life story of Kaye Webbe, and how the Puffin imprint she ran flourished in an environment of expanding library services and thriving independent bookstores. That environment is very different now.(In this respect the UK situation seems very different than the USA, where both school and public libraries are still vital and powerful shapers of which children's books succeed.) All this is why even an interested adult, whether teacher or parent, can end up struggling to find the books they need or want for their child, and can feel dependent on a limited choice of bestsellers, celebrity-authored books, or old favourites from childhood. Its frustrating knowing there are so many new books out there, and not being able to identify the ones you really want to buy and read. And certain kinds of books – the more “worthy” or "niche" kind, which maybe need a place on a library shelf where the right child will eventually happen upon them – may be overlooked. 

 Am I being too gloomy here? I hope so. Please let me know what you think...

Emma's Wild Thing series for 8+ about the naughtiest little sister ever. (Cover - Jamie Littler)
"Hilarious and heart-warming" The Scotsman

 Wolfie is a story of wolves, magic and snowy woods...
(Cover: Emma Chichester Clark)
"Funny, clever and satisfying..." Books for Keeps

Emma's Website
Emma’s Facebook Fanpage
Emma on Twitter - @EmmaBarnesWrite


Joan Lennon said...

It is very hard not to be gloomy about all this. Thank you for writing about it.

Sue Bursztynski said...

Well, there are book blogs, anyway. Author web sites of the kind that allow children to communicate directly with their favourites, as opposed to through their agents or publishers who may believe that they need to "protect" their authors from communication with their readers. There are plenty of these and it's easier to make contact than it was when I was growing up. There are children's voted book awards such as the YABBAs we have here in Victoria, Australia, and free or inexpensive events run by the State Library. Thank goodness our public libraries aren't closing yet, here, but school libraries in state schools(private schools still have the money) are being wound back or scrapped and most teacher librarianship courses have closed, except a few online ones. This is what happens under conservative governments, I'm afraid, under the policy of "choice" in how the money should be spent( here's the money, you can have a library or an extra classroom teacher, your choice, your problem). Their own children attend private or selective schools, of course.

These days authors need to take charge, even if it means a bit less time for writing. Have a direct-contact web site or blog, whatever your agent thinks. Kids like to get in touch and ask questions. If they can, they're likely to recommend you to their friends. Answer your fan mail; if there's a lot, you can do what my friend Kate Forsyth does, have a few stock emails for stock questions most of them ask, and maybe tweak them now now and then for slightly different questions. Kate makes a living from her writing, something few writers in this country can do, so her way if doing things must be working.

Those of us who don't have day jobs - I do, so for now can't do as much as I'd like - could make contact with their local state schools and, dare I say it, offer something those schools can afford. There are ways. I know of one author who charges a low per-student rate but requires a minimum number of students to be there. If you have a small school you can arrange to bring students from other local schools. Publicity for the author can be involved too.

I take your point about online booksellers such as Amazon. That's where book blogs like mine can help, with interviews, guest posts, reviews and links to the online sellers. If I really don't want, or have time, to read and review a book, I often invite the author to do a guest post. I have had my students, the target audience, interview authors on my blog.

So, all is not necessarily lost!

Emma Barnes said...

Sue, thanks for your post - I agree the tone of my post was rather negative. I agree about book blogs! They are inspiring and wonderful ways for books to be discussed, and shared. There are other developments too, like so many thriving book festivals, which are really positive. Though as for "Answer your fan mail" - is that something any author would ever fail to do? There is no better feeling than opening a card, letter or email from a fan!

C.J.Busby said...

Great post, Emma, and I share your concerns. Blogs and things like the UKMG and UKYA events and festivals are of course good ways to get those books out there, but it's to quite a small audience compared with those reached by a flourishing number of libraries and local independent bookshops. And teachers have less and less time to explore what's out there and be able to make recommendations to children, with the consequence that they fall back on the best-sellers, thus boosting their dominance even more. As I go round schools on visits I see the same books again and again in the classrooms - Michael Morpurgo, David Walliams, Jeff Kinnear. If child doesn't happen to like silly jokey books with lots of cartoon pictures, or tear-jearking 'serious' historical stories, were do they go?

Katherine Roberts said...

There are many good things happening out there and loads of brilliant books being published for young readers, just not so many good things from the individual author's point of view (unless you happen to be one of the celebrities you mention, or lucky enough to write exactly what the market wants). I wish I were 10 years old today... I would be having a ball!