Saturday, 28 November 2015

Publishing is not a charity - Clémentine Beauvais

On November 14th, at the IBBY UK conference which took place at Roehampton University (see reports there), Nicky Singer gave a fantastic, passionate, moving talk about her struggle to get a 'quiet book', as she called it, published in the UK - a struggle which eventually led her to crowdfund her work, which worked beyond all expectations, ending up with Island, a novel with a cover designed by Chris Riddell.
Lest you should think that this was a fairy-taleish sort of talk, Nicky sternly reminded the audience at the end: "Crowdfunding is not a long-term solution. It worked this time but I won't be able to do it each time I want to publish a not-easily-marketable book. And it ate up nine months of my life. Nine months when I had to teach myself how to raise money, promote the book, reach out to people. I don't want to spend nine months of my life doing that; I'm a writer - if I don't write, I die."

She could barely finish her sentence as she was choking back tears - and then she actually started crying. Her emotion was extremely contagious, and I don't think I was the only one in the audience who welled up. It was extremely poignant, and indeed it should be extremely poignant, to hear about an enthusiastic, sensitive, committed writer having so much difficulty getting a good book out. The kind of book that many children will cherish and reread: the kind of book that was written with passion and talent. But the kind that isn't franchisable, and would not have sold in the tens of thousands.

The kind of book we're constantly told by the publishing industry is funded by the big bestsellers. You've heard this as much as I have. "We need the big bestsellers because they fund the quiet books". Thanks be to the big bestsellers! Glory be to thee, benevolent worldwide franchise! It's thanks to them that they exist, those authors whose books do not sell in the hundreds of thousands. They are constantly reminded that they're indebted to those big franchises.

But where are all these quiet/ politically committed/ socially aware/ aesthetically daring books that we are told get funded so generously by the big bestsellers? sure, there ARE some, but I'm not the only one who doesn't think there's enough of them. Julia Eccleshare, in an equally passionate talk at the International Research Society for Children's Literature conference in August, denounced the sameyness, indeed the copycattiness of much of children's literature production in the UK, and deplored the domination of a tiny number of authors, genres and types of books. And every single author I've talked to about this has had a similar experience: a manuscript or proposal rejected because it was too quiet, or too niche, or too different. Why is it so difficult for Nicky, in a world of publishing bountifully funded by bestsellers, to publish her book with a traditional publisher?

David Maybury, in his talk that same day, gave us a few clues: no book will be a bestseller if you don't invest at least £30,000 in its promotion. These days, he added (I think it was him, but I may be wrong), you can more or less buy your way into bestseller lists. And we authors all know, though we don't mention it very often in public, that publishers split books into two groups: those that will become bestsellers, and those that won't. Those that will are the ones for which there is fertile ground: they might be a bit like another recent bestseller, or very intense/ adventurous, or likely to be turned into a film, etc. They're 'hot' books. And they put their money and promotional push where the 'hot' book is. Some books, but very few, are surprise bestsellers. 

Well, in this context, it's not exactly shocking that bestsellers should 'fund' the quiet books. It's only fair, seeing as they'd had a head start the whole time.  No?

But perhaps that's not the right way to look at it. Perhaps those 'hot' books are just more funded and more pushed because that's what a majority of people want, so that's what brings in money. And UK/US publishers are very relaxed with the idea that publishing is mostly about the money. That's another oft-repeated mantra of publishing: 'Publishing isn't a charity'. We hear this over and over again. So quiet books which don't make money shouldn't actually expect to be funded, even by bestsellers. This is a business. Why would we make books that we know will not sell?

Because we will have made them. I think we really, really need to adopt a different attitude to failure and success. A quiet book, a politically committed book, a book about a slice of society or a theme that doesn't appeal to everyone, succeeds by the very fact of its existence. We need to be much more open to the possibility that a book might sell less than a thousand copies and still be a success, because that book exists.

This isn't just wishy-washy let-everyone-have-their-chance hippie dreaming. It's not like this initial openness to 'failure' would mean never making back that first investment. Because a thousand quiet books that sell a thousand copies each will be ten thousand quiet books spreading their quiet ideas and quiet tone, which gets readers, and, perhaps more importantly, the publishing industry itself, used to the idea that such books are not pointless luxuries or a waste of money, but an important slice of the market.

No one's asking publishing to be non-profit, but it's not true that it's simply enslaved to the market and condemned to producing 'what sells'. It can create its own readerly niches. It can foreground its values. It can pave the way for difference. Children's publishing needs to stop hiding behind the claim that it's 'not a charity'. It needs to accept the fact that it has social and a literary responsibility beyond money-making.

At the peak of the refugee 'crisis', for want of a better word, Fred Lavabre at Sarbacane, my French children's publisher, issued a rallying cry to the whole of children's publishing in France. Being children's publishers, 'We have a social responsibility', he said, 'to talk about this to children'. This launched a never-before-seen collaboration of 57 publishers (!), who published in just two months a picturebook promoting empathy, respect and welcome for refugees, Eux, c'est nous (They are us), written by Daniel Pennac and illustrated by Serge Bloch (two major figures in children's literature), with a lexicon by Jessie Magana and Carole Saturno. All proceeds to a refugee charity.

They were going to print 70,000 copies, they had to print 100, 000, by popular demand (especially from bookshops).

It's been top of the children's bestseller list since it came out.

EDIT: thank you to Pippa Goodhart for drawing my attention to Nosy Crow's similar initiative, with Refuge, written by Anne Booth and illustrated by Sam Usher. I should add that my point was not necessarily that everything's better in France, but that it is possible to act in a way that reflects one's awareness of the social responsibility of being a children's publisher. I'm not surprised Nosy Crow did this, by the way. Amazing.


Clementine Beauvais writes in French and English. She blogs here about children's literature and academia.


Penny Dolan said...

Excellent post, especially the French perspective. Thank you, Clementine.

Sue Bursztynski said...

Well said, Clementine!

Catherine Johnson said...

Why haven't we heard about this until now? Great initiative by the French gosh we could learn a thing or too. Thanks for the post Clementine

Pippa Goodhart said...

It brings to mind the wonderful 'refuge', brought out fast by Nosy Crow, written by Anne Booth, illustrated by Sam Usher, and with £5 fro each sale going to War Child to help those refugee children. A brilliant blog, Clementine.

Clémentine Beauvais said...

Great to hear that, Pippa. Independent publishers always lead the way...

Emma Barnes said...

Interesting, but I think it's unfair to heap the blame on publishers. For one thing, they DO publish an enormous range of books, therefore they ARE allowing the bestsellers to subsidise the less popular books. The number of children's titles published each year is vast - but many, many children (and adults) never get to find out about them, and live in a world dominated by a very, very few big names. I think the problem is to do with the wider environment within which the publishers are operating - the closures of libraries and independent bookshops, the dominance of supermarkets, the erosion of an infrastructure of interested adults like school librarians and teachers who once were able to discover and then push the quieter or more niche books.

I've written about this in these blogs: and a part 2

Clémentine Beauvais said...

Emma - I agree of course that there is a wider system which does not encourage publishers to change practices, but I don't think I'm heaping the blame solely on publishers here; just saying that they do have a very strong responsibility too, and that they too often get absolved of that responsibility. It's very uncomfortable for authors to voice these issues, because we know many individuals who work in publishing and we know that they are adorable people, who at a personal level care deeply about these issues, too. We have editors who tell us they wish they could publish such or such book, but it wouldn't go past the Rights team or the publicity team. They are frustrated, and we feel for them and we know they feel for us, and often we are exactly on the same side. Of course that's true on an individual level. But that doesn't absolve the industry of responsibility. It's their representatives who repeat again and again in public talks, interviews, etc, that 'publishing is not a charity' or that 'this is a business', and these are powerful self-fulfilling prophecies. They are responsible on many levels for placing limitations on what they themselves produce. I don't think we should consider it normal that an industry broadly related to education and childhood should be so comfortable with aligning so steadfastedly with market imperatives.

Sophie Grant said...

An excellent post. And haven't we all felt like crying...and giving up in frustration. But I'm sure agents and publishers get frustrated as well, particularly when they find a book they love but know through experience it probably won't sell. It's all about the bottom line, which can and does stifle creativity. They may very well have high ideals when it comes to education and presenting new and radical ideas, but that spreadsheet at the end of the month has a great deal of power.

Milena Mileva Blazic said...

Dear Clemenite,

thank you for this post.

All the best from Slovenia,


Katherine Roberts said...

I am totally with Nicky Singer and the heartache. I have a project that has eaten up ten years of my life (off and on), still unpublished. I am now doing it myself as a low-cost ebook, because I can't live with the thought that all that time and energy has been wasted with nothing to show for it. Sometimes money and chasing the bestseller lists is not the reason people publish things.

On the other hand, publishing is a business and I understand why publishers sometimes (often?) have to turn down projects. The truth is both authors and publishers need to make a living first, before any kind of charitable project is even possible.

C.J.Busby said...

Great post, though I agree with Emma that the problem is wider. In the Anglo-Saxon world, certainly, everything that can be monetised and driven by market principles is being. Health and education, anyone? Is it any wonder publishing is aligning itself in the same way? It is profoundly depressing.

Catherine Butler said...

"A quiet book, a politically committed book, a book about a slice of society or a theme that doesn't appeal to everyone, succeeds by the very fact of its existence."

Absolutely. Great post!

Emma Barnes said...

I'm still not very comfortable with what you're suggesting, Clementine, and that's not because I don't sympathise re the quiet or niche books that are overlooked - believe me, I do, and as a writer I've been there too! But publishers are businesses, and I'd rather they did their job of producing books people want to read, rather than actively adopting an agenda of trying to shape children's social and political values. I don't think that's a job for corporations. I think we need to think about institutions like schools and libraries, and how we can make them stronger, and so make sure that there is a demand for all kinds of books, and that they are actually reaching child readers.

Catherine Butler said...

I don't think it need be a case of its being anyone's job exclusively to encourage children to read. Although publishers are businesses and so need to make money, that is not their entire raison d'etre, or shouldn't be. 'Agenda' seems quite a loaded word: surely promoting social values and the love of good books is everyone's job - not just that of teachers and parents? And of course, all books do promote certain values anyway (even if not always ones we would necessarily approve of!): there's no such thing as a value-neutral or value-free book.

Emma Barnes said...

I agree with that Catherine, but it seems to me that Clementine is suggesting more than that publishers should be promoting "the love of good books" or encouraging children to read (what publisher anywhere would disagree with either of those things?) For example she says of publishing:
"It can create its own readerly niches. It can foreground its values. It can pave the way for difference."
That seems to put quite a big responsibility upon publishers, and does seem to suggest there should be some kind of agenda. (What are "its values"? Who decides?) You also talk about "promoting social values" - whose values?
I'd rather have a range of institutions and lots of different voices, a pluralistic world, rather than try and hand what strikes me as quite a paternalistic role to publishers.

Jennifer Perry said...

So glad that I found this post, Clementine! I'm a book publicist and writer. It is difficult and sad to know this is all true, even harder to explain to a new author full of hope with their new book, and no idea of the jungle out there.

Jill Swanson said...

Thank you for this post. It is so heartening to hear this being voiced. There are many readers, children and adults, who are longing for those quiet books. We effectively edit out their choice when we cater only to the next big, careening series.

Dianne Hofmeyr said...

Brilliant post Clementine and great to air all this through the comments as well. From someone sitting with a novel that is being waved on by Sales and Marketing, I set great store and hope by what Catherine also highlighted in your post – "A quiet book, a politically committed book, a book about a slice of society or a theme that doesn't appeal to everyone, succeeds by the very fact of its existence."

Thank you for your talk at Roehampton too... it was wonderfully refreshing. Sorry not to have found you to say hello but I think we were all a bit numbed by the events of the night before in Paris. The day passed for me in a daze.

Nicky Singer said...

I'm a little late to the party here, Clementine. But thank you. For this, for your wonderful words at the conference itself and for keeping the debate going. Anyone who wants to read my full rant can find it here: Yours in continuing respect and admiration Nickyx