Julia Eccleshare sums up the current climate in children’s book publishing after a year of unprecedented change.
Children’s publishing being very much a ‘people’ business, movement amongst high level editorial staff has a significant effect on how lists look at the time of publication which in turn affects what books children in the future will be able to read. As the roll call of distinguished names leaving the profession grows, it becomes increasingly difficult to make predictions about a fast-altering market.
And this when times are openly acknowledged as being hard for children’s books for the first time since the War…
From somewhat whimsical, and certainly amateur origins, at least in terms of financial rewards, children’s books became the darling of the trade in the 1980s with low investment rewarded by strong sales. Children’s books were big business for all concerned.
Companies such as Penguin and HarperCollins who’d long had successful hard and paperback lists found increasing competition from all quarters. Smaller hardback publishers such as Hamish Hamilton, Heinemann and Andre Deutsch increased their output dramatically. Even more significantly, new paperback lists – Magnet, which soon became Mammoth, Red Fox, Transworld, and, most recently both Scholastic and Hodder Children’s Books – moved into the market which expanded with a vengeance.
Being big business has given children’s books both a new profile and a new status. Inextricably bound up with education, children’s books have always been subjected to a literary scrutiny which is applied to only a few adult books. The underlying assumption appeared to be that children should have a one course diet.
With the boom in the late seventies and early eighties, though, came a universal literature for children. The bridge between Blyton – the children’s choice – and Sutcliff – the adults’ – was filled most notably by Dahl but also by scores of others who wrote because they wanted to entertain children in the widest possible ways.
For some adult critics the argument has been that the many mediocre titles have driven out the few quality ones but for most children the explosion in the number of books has been an immense boon, allowing them the opportunity to enter the world of print at a variety of levels. More may not mean better in the sense of every book being of potential classic status but it may well mean better in terms of the kinds of writing made available. While it’s vital that books remain confident about what they do best and do not throw away everything in search of an audience, it’s also essential that books and reading are a central plank in popular culture.
The very fact that publishers went on producing more and more titles showed that children’s books of all kinds were selling. More books selling suggests, even if it doesn’t prove, that more children are reading. Although it’s widely believed that all children before around 1965 were highly literate and that in the absence of TV, CD-Rom, the computer and the rest they devoted their leisure time to the reading of great books, this can hardly be true. Adult illiteracy has only recently been much talked about but its existence is far from new. Also, even literate adults were often not reading.
Publishing is not a charity. It’s a risk business. The boom of the 1980s saw a number of initiatives in books for children. The ordered certainties of how books look were challenged by books which exploited the availability of current technology. Picture books that flapped, popped, squeaked, played tunes, lit up – all of these were widely available. In fiction, stories that were ‘interactive’ had their day while, in general, novels became shorter. Fashions for fantasy and the historical novel changed in favour of gritty realism which, most recently, has become a spate of depressingly bleak portraits of contemporary society. The book as social commentary is no innovation but when it becomes a forceful strand in children’s books it immediately attracts heated, negative attention.
Through taking risks, children’s books have lost the aura of purity that had historically been their hallmark. Just as in education there has been (until the recent introduction of the National Curriculum) a move away from a common cultural core into an education which, in part at least, related to the child it was meant to be instructing, so in children’s books there has been a shift away from the notion of a core of books that must be read. Today’s children have a different starting point from their parents. They still need the experiences which their parents found in books but they also need to be taken into other new worlds to explore their own time and place through stories.
So new books were published for a new audience and the new audience was found through new markets. The traditional bookshop outlet has been threatened on all sides by home bookclubs, school bookclubs, school book fairs and supermarkets. As with the increase in the number of titles, the increase in the number of outlets has meant that different kinds of books have begun to dominate. Books do not really lend themselves to a pile-them-high, sell-them-cheap style of trading and the specialist bookseller still has a vital role to play in making sure that children, parents, teachers and librarians know what they are buying. But children’s books do now sell in shops of all kinds which suggests that they’re reaching a new audience who are liking what they find.
Publishers were thinking creatively about making books compete in all markets. For this purpose they were publishing books to snack off as well as books that offer a hearty meal. The assumption and hope is that children will both snack and feed well. They will learn to discriminate between different kinds of books just as adults do. Surely not reading at all because the books available are too weighty cannot be a better way of reading?
The increase in the output of children’s books has permanently changed the nature of children’s publishing. We now have children’s books instead of highly selective, high quality children’s literature. And, yes, with that change there have been some casualties. But, as long as a substantial proportion of the classic titles remain in print, the balance can be held. As with their predecessors, the best of the new books will survive ensuring that in a snappy, consumerist world, permanence, which has so long been a key feature of children books, will survive, too.
Now, however, the bubble which changed the look of children’s books has burst. 1994 seems to be being taken as a watershed but nothing is ever so clear cut. Indications for the Books and Consumer Survey show that sales slowed in 1994 and have declined in 1995. In reality, the growth of sales slowed sometime before that caused by the harsh economics of the outside world. Library budgets have been slashed. School funding is at an all time low and with the introduction of LMS there’s no earmarked money for books. And it’s not just in the institutional markets that things are bad. The retail trade is down in all areas with books affected alongside everything else.
With less money around, fewer books will be published. While popularisation has been criticised for causing adulteration, the consequences of retrenchment may be even more significant. The surviving titles will simply be the best selling ones, unless publishers can persuade their accountants to keep their nerve. And, yet, who can predict the best sellers? When Gollancz published The Sheep Pig, the sixth novel by Dick King-Smith, a retired farmer turned teacher, they can hardly have guessed that it would go on to be grossing over $50 million as a Hollywood blockbuster. Books of all kinds need to be given a chance so that greatness of all kinds can be thrust upon them.
Luckily, publishers remain optimistic about their future business. Phrases such as ‘child-centred publishing’ and ‘clear branding’ are being banded about as the solution to the current malaise. Basically, publishers must strive to balance their responsibilities to their child readers with their need to be a successful business. Different houses are adopting different strategies to make the best of what they have.
The bigger companies with strong backlists, especially if they contain a money-spinning property or two, are exploiting them to the full. Old titles rejacketed are the stuff of the Macmillan list who have a new generation of William readers to serve and who are aiming to do something of the same for Willard Price. The Chalet School stories are reappearing on the Red Fox list looking like new school stories. Puffin is giving two bites to their best selling and best established classic titles by publishing them in Puffin Modern Classic editions alongside the standard Puffin ones.
Smaller and more recent arrivals on the scene are fortifying themselves by focusing on what they know they do best. Orchard Books publish the most attractive gift books. Good themes, good authors and outstanding illustrators make them sure-fire sellers. Piccadilly Press has cornered the market in teenage advice books hitting just the right combination of jokey and serious. Barefoot Books promote wider understanding of world causes through their books and are producing titles which have a small but committed readership.
With all of these, there’s a danger that publishing could stagnate along these already well defined lines, or alternatively, that everyone will play safe by going for formulae which have worked before.
There’s also the danger, evident even when the market was growing, that the big companies will swallow up the smaller companies with the net result that the crucial individuality of editors and their lists will be lost. And which books would go then? Approaches to list cutting are by definition financially rather than creatively driven.
Despite such fears, Philippa Milnes Smith, recently appointed Director of Penguin Children’s Books, is enthusiastic about the future, not only for large companies like Penguin but also for the many smaller companies which make such a significant contribution to children’s books.
‘Writing is serendipitous and so is publishing because it is about risk. The bigger risks are the important ones and if the times are harder you have to take even bigger risks and have ambitious ideas. You have to publish your way out of the recession with high aspirations.’
High aspirations are certainly needed. Publishers must think about the things books do especially well and capitalise on them. Good books are needed for all readers. Providing them should be the ambition of everyone involved with the trade.
Julia Eccleshare has been a Fiction Editor for Puffin and Hamish Hamilton, selector of Children’s Books of the Year and Children’s Books Editor for The Times Literary Supplement. She currently edits the children’s books section of the Bookseller, reviews regularly on BBC radio and was chair of the Smarties Award for 1995.