Saturday, 9 September 2017

The low value of the invaluable

There was an encouraging article in The Guardian last week about how popular children's books are, how much children like to read physical books, and what a large share of the publishing industry they represent. All good things. Yet a careful reading of the article reveals a few familiar contradictions:

  • In 2016, sales of children’s titles rose 16% to £365m
  • All book sales rose 7% - so the rise in children's books is disproportionate (and the rise in adult books clearly less than 7%)
  • Children's books now represent 24% of sales in paper books.

Unfortunately, it's not clear whether 'sales' means volume (number of books) or value (amount in £). It's easy to raise sales if you sell books for 25p each, an increasing trend that has escaped from the discount stores into the mainstream. But let's go with the optimistic bit and ignore the volume/value issue for a moment.  This suggests the nation values children's books, which must be a good thing.

There is even a new print magazine for children, Scoop, which has confounded expectations by surviving for a year. It's edited by children's publisher par excellence Sarah Odedina, and if anyone could pull it off, she can. Scoop is a collection of writing - fictional and factual - commissioned from  a variety of writers. Here the usual snipes sneak into the Guardian's account: it's supported by 'heavyweights such as the playwright Tom Stoppard, plus children’s writers such as Raymond Briggs.' Since when was Raymond Briggs less of a 'heavyweight' than Tom Stoppard? Oh, of course, he writes for children... He has far more readers than Stoppard, is far more relevant to a magazine for children, but let's dismiss him anyway. I'm sure parents are going to be more likely to buy their kid a magazine with articles by Tom Stoppard than by someone who, you know, writes for children.

But that's all OK because the magazine also publishes some bits by children (no comment - I wouldn't do that, but I can see why they might choose to) and 'pays all contributors, high and low, the same rate – 10p a word.' Equal payment is a good thing generally, though I query the suggestion that something written by a professional with 20 years' experience is worth the same as something dashed off by a ten-year-old. But paying only £100 per 1,000 words is not a good thing in any circumstances. The lowest rate for magazine writing - for small, low-circulation magazines - given as reasonable by the National Union of Journalists is £250/1000 words. A quick look at their collected figures for reported fees puts Scoop in the bottom 20% over the last three years - but then, it's for children, so what do you expect? (This makes it, in NUJ terms,  a 'category D' publication, a classification that 'covers a multitude of sins, down to those that are either very small or very stingy': 'some get away with paying £150 per thousand - especially those that hold a virtual monopoly on a specialist field or where the field is infested with enthusiastic amateurs.')

This is symptomatic of a wider problem, that affects not just children's writers but all writers - though it's often worse for children's writers because we're not, you know, 'real' writers like Tom Stoppard. The time and effort spent crafting something so compelling it will turn children on to reading and open up potential for their whole lives is not as valuable or impressive as the time and effort spent amusing the literati in a London theatre for a couple of hours, obviously. It's rather depressing that even an article on the wonderfulness of children's books takes these attitudes for granted. The public might love us and our books/words - they just don't want to pay for them or acknowledge that there is any expertise involved in producing them. Even, it seems, people who write for the Books section of the Guardian (which under a 'house agreement' dating to 2012 pays a minimum of £312/1,000 words - words for adults, obviously.)


catdownunder said...

Well said!

Lynne Benton said...

Definitely well said, Anne! Grrr...

Susan Price said...

Agreed. That dismissal of Raymond Briggs really grates.

Sue Bursztynski said...

I was paid A$600 for my most recent article for the NSW School Magazine. That's about £366, for 2000 words. I was happy with that. It's more than I've been paid for small press fantasy fiction for adults. And this market pays you on acceptance, only asks for first publication rights - they don't care what you do with it afterwards, they even let you know if someone else asks them if they can reprint it - and, if they want to reprint it themselves, they ask permission and pay you again, for no extra work. I've been paid as many as three times for the same article, by the same publisher! :-) (The magazine has been around for a long time, so they sometimes reprint for a new lot of kids)

The most successful writers in this country write for children. The only thing is, the PRIZES for adult writing are higher.

Rowena House said...

"A specialist field or where the field is infested with enthusiastic amateurs."

Guardian didn't offer a cent for an online article from me (NUJ member since 1983 now, apparently, an enthusiastic amateur author for young people).

Sue Bursztynski said...

Rowena, my sister offered an article to a local Murdoch newspaper and was told that they would publish it, but not pay her, because they had a stable of writers already. They have plenty of money and no excuse not to pay for something they're willing to publish. And by publishing an unpaid article they were not publishing someone else's paid work. I have no doubt that they would say they're not a charity, but the authors should say the same.

Stroppy Author said...

Sue, did your sister allow them to publish it on those terms? That is disgraceful (on their part, to offer it)