What drives children’s book sales? Is it genre? Fan base? High street bookshop promotions? Children’s word of mouth? Literary prizes? Alex Hamilton provides the ultimate in children’s bestseller charts, both for titles published in 2003 and for all time greats, and dissects the possible reasons for their success.
In 2003 Nestlé’s bought 4.5million Puffin paperbacks to give away in Cheerio cereal packets. Presumably the children, spotting them through the cute window in the packet, read rather than ate them, and found them tasty. Mothers were delighted to find, instead of a tawdry plastic item, something that would, in Dr Johnson’s phrase, stretch and stimulate their little minds.
That Potterish total, divided evenly among six such titles as Ten in a Bed, and Attack of the Tentacled Terror, would place them high on any chart. But I’ve ruled out promos – despite the power of cereals. Henryk Wesolowski of Walker Books remembers, while at Kingfisher, being approached by Weetabix. ‘They had a promo with Dahl and he’d recently died, and asked us to fill in. They took the I Wonder Why series, quite collectable, and put them on the back. We sold them 1.19 million copies. At Walker we did Where’s Wally? with spaghetti. You’d have some tins, and in one was Wally working as a voucher. Sold about 20,000. The good thing is that they never come back.’ With no booksellers to return unsold stock, no wonder publishers like promotions such as these.
Books charts: an inexact science
Book charts are never flexible enough to give everything a fair shake. Publishers may use these as sales tools, as with all bestseller lists, but they’re not meant to be competitive. My 2003 Bestsellers Chart lists home sales for 2003, all formats, ages and original dates welcomed; the big numbers of the All Time Greats Bestsellers Chart include a sampling of evergreens for ‘lifetime’ sales, though some had previous lives with different publishers, or their figures are lost in antique archives. Computers, alas, have no folk memory. Furthermore, one title in different guises may collect many ISBNs. These charts, showing publishers’ figures, are not about Stage 3, SATS or study aids, nor encyclopaedias (Usborne have seven info and puzzle works each selling more than a million since 1991), nor bibles (Parragon have done 831,500 of My First Bible) or babies’ prayer books. They’re general books, mostly fiction, sold in schools and to libraries and through book clubs, possibly a hundred independent children’s bookshops, along with supermarkets and the trade in the high street. (Nearly half this maze of distribution is not covered by the Nielsen Bookscan system that posts its bestseller lists in magazines and newspapers.)
Defining by age group or genre?
In a chart, defining children’s books by age group is more important than the adult classification by genre. It begins in the pram with Buggie Buddies and Fairy Phones, novelties with widgety bits of the kind produced by Campbell Books, through board books, flats and pop-ups for school, short stories that ease into ‘chapter books’, and longer novels for pre-teen, before flowing into the estuary of 12 and up, teenage and ‘crossover’. Altogether these cover 10,000 titles a year (a rise last year of 2,000) in a total UK book-production of 125,000.
Nevertheless there are genres. They come, they go. Series that sold in millions, like Fighting Fantasies or Dungeons and Dragons, were inspired by electronic games and eventually overwhelmed by them. Among the most popular books there’s always a seesaw between reality partnered by humour, and fantasy partnered by horror. Just now fantasy is riding high. Witchcraft has cast a glamour on the scene. Children’s publishers, whom Peter de Vries once described in a novel as ‘the furry people’, are brisk and bushy-tailed. Tolkien is virtually a posthumous business on his own. J K Rowling is a billionaire (albeit a lowly one) with a turnover like a small nation (albeit third world). You can buy broomsticks in the Rowling district of Hamley’s toyshop. Philip Pullman goes tête-à-tête with the Archbishop of Canterbury. HarperCollins’ reissue of the Chrestomanci series by Diana Wynne Jones, the influence most often cited by young witchcraft writers, has sold 742,000 copies. Add G P Taylor’s fastselling The Shadowmancer, full of sound and fury. There should be an annual award, the Broomsticks perhaps.
What drives sales?
What drives children’s book sales? In a literary agency, it’s finding they’re not all low-income; in a publishing house, the editor feeling she’s not alone, that her colleagues are on board; at the London and Bologna Book Fairs, the illustrations. Children’s books over a century have saved the art of literary illustration. For a colossal picture book bestseller, the perfect marriage between author and illustrator is made in the art director’s office.
In a school, it’s the authors, especially Stakhanovites such as Jacqueline Wilson, and others who in return for a coffee doggedly build up their fan-base school by school (there are 25,000 junior schools). ‘The writers were always poorly paid,’ says Puffin’s Elaine McQuade, ‘and the majority still are.’ In addition to bookselling services like Askews and the specialist Peters, and school suppliers like Hope Education or Books for Students, Scholastic, originally a US schools bookselling operation, provides ‘book fair’ weeks in schools, where children buy at a discount, with teachers collecting and despatching the money. School book clubs are likewise cost-effective, with publishers filling a hundred orders in one box. Every publisher dreams of selling direct in schools, but trying to administer 25,000 small accounts would be a nightmare. Send in debt collectors to defaulters? Unthinkable.
‘The best writers in the universe’
Directors of children’s publishing – such as Philippa Dickinson of Random House, Sally Gritten of HarperCollins, Kate Wilson of Macmillan and Elaine McQuade – believe that many teachers also need introducing to children’s books, and with the Arts Council on side, lobby the Department for Education and Skills for teacher training to add a course on children’s literature to the existing one on literacy. Given that children’s publishing embraces, in Dickinson’s words, ‘the best writers in the universe’, that shouldn’t be a hardship.
David Fickling, with his own imprint under the Random House umbrella, rather blames the educational system, ‘the increased speed, the level of activity needed to report back about, which takes away from the teaching… and the quite terrible loop between educational publishers, government and teachers, making a huge mound of books that are a great enemy to anybody liking a book at all.’ He has a tantrum: ‘I’ve almost become a terrorist, blowing up educational warehouses full of endless project books, and books that have had every last drop of imagination and excitement squeezed out of them. Having a school ethos has become more important than children being happy. I feel that in two hundred years’ time people will look back and think that the way we teach now is very like the slate and dunce’s cap. Pope had it right when he said “I got the language by reading the stories.”’
In the high street, promotional support comes with the retailer feeling he’s ahead of the game and backed by publishing money. Sally Gritten outlines a common view: ‘The chains are doing better; I think they have a long way to go. The Waterstones, Smiths and so on are committed, but they try to fit the selling of children’s books into the adult model. It actually should be turned on its head. They do the usual promotional things, 3-for-2, book-of-the-month and all that, to get children’s books up front. For people who go into bookshops these are effective techniques. Unfortunately most people don’t go into bookshops. It’s still a very fragmented market. Wonderful books, that nobody outside the children’s world would even know about, sell in huge numbers. That comes down primarily to librarians and grass roots movements. There’s not enough advertising or marketing spend to break through the clutter. The best thing that sells children’s books is children. No question.’
Catching the headlines
For a headline launch, invent a stunt creating maximum hysteria among children and inconvenience for parents, deadline it nationwide for midnight. Be ready, like Jacqueline Wilson in Bournemouth, to sign 3,000 copies in an 8-hour day. (Really? Six a minute? Practise!) A loaded title helps: Walker’s Guess How Much I Love You is boosted by Valentine’s Day, while Puffin’s The Snowman sells like warm underwear every winter.
For the media, big awards are sexy, such as the overall Whitbread, or news of a large advance (£150,000 is high, but occasionally there’s more for a three-book contract – hence, perhaps, the spate of trilogies and chronicles doing well: Lemony Snicket’s ‘Unfortunate Events’, Eoin Colfer’s ‘Artemis Fowl’, Pullman’s ‘His Dark Materials’, Crossley-Holland’s ‘Arthur’, and diTerlizzi’s ‘Spiderwick’). Then there’s the good ‘back story’, such as the precocity and looks of home-educated American Christopher Paulini, who began at 15, and at 19 has a trilogy fantasy contract and a million American sale of his boy-and-dragon fantasy, Eragon. Here, since January, it’s reached 80,000 hardcover. Young genius stories don’t always work: when French publishers extolled eight-year-old poet Minou Drouet as a ‘child of genius’ Jean Cocteau retorted, ‘All children have genius, except Minou Drouet.’ Are you there, Madame? You can come out now.
The Potter factor?
Does all this – five children’s authors in the top ten library borrowings, Big Read hype, enviable prizes – owe everything to the awareness created by the Potter craze? Some feel it has lifted fiction, if nothing else. Kate Wilson has reservations: ‘Interesting question, whether individual success does translate to other people. Book Marketing’s figures suggest that if you strip Potter’s figures out, you’re not actually looking at something different. I’m glad they’re not perpetuating the deception that children’s publishing is a licence to print money.’ Do agents come with greater expectations? ‘There’s very much a seller’s market at the moment.’ For the few.
Richard Scrivener of Scholastic, publisher of a wildly diverse range across Goosebumps, Horrible Histories and Philip Pullman, says, ‘It’s children’s books becoming more like adult books. Publishers are being sent a synopsis and told “We need your offer by six o’clock. We’re looking for a 6-figure advance, and we’re offering rights in Essex and Suffolk.” People worry whether this is the next Big Hit, can they afford to let it go? But I think it’ll blow itself out.’ Philippa Dickinson, overseeing eight separate children’s imprints, used to sweat over £50,000, but these days stays calm facing six figures. ‘In the last ten years children’s publishing has grown up at last, and we know what we’re doing. All the big publishers do, with older books – question is, how do we do it with younger fiction?’
Some books have problems. You can almost rely on Melvin Burgess to create problems. He followed Junk with another raw teenage novel, of sex games where nobody wins. His publisher, Klaus Flugge, says the Andersen Press sold nearly 10,000 in hardcover of Doing It, but expects big numbers from the paperback. Elaine McQuade says booksellers weren’t sure how to position it, but ‘we sell a lot of books that are hard-hitting and we put Penguins on them, not Puffins, because it’s a sign to the parent of a nine-year-old who may be a very good reader, that nevertheless this isn’t the right book. It’s not about being able to read, it’s about being old enough to cope with it.’
Scrivener says that while children have a great relish for comic grotesque, ‘like when in The Terrible Tudors your guts explode if you had the plague, or whatever,’ and that at his peak R L Stine’s horror stories were a unique publishing tidal wave (a million units a month in the States), ‘reading about sex would make them feel pretty uncomfortable. It doesn’t really work in the book context. They think, “I don’t want to deal with this.”’ What they are interested in, he believes, apart from horror and the grotesque, and the anarchy in a book that’s not their real life experience, is the illusion of power that allows them to assert themselves over adults.
Dickinson, who first worked with Kaye Webb at Puffin in the 1970s, says, ‘There’s more sex in children’s books than when I started. But now, so many read explicit magazines and watch explicit TV – boys are perhaps more often embarrassed than girls, who tend to mature earlier.’ Among her authors with some explicit sex scenes is Malorie Blackman, a rare example of a black writer with big numbers. Blackman manages effortlessly to bypass another barrier: she writes about black characters that could be anyone. ‘That’s what’s great about her. But it’s difficult. Our culture has such a long way to go.’
Children’s publishing is a world without celebrities, unless Madonna or McCartney drop by. Only Dahl has thought his life would interest children enough to write a whole book about it (he guessed right, Going Solo sold another 115,982 last year). It’s a feel-good society, providing an amusing or exciting base for a future reader’s private culture. It’s a mixture of skills, compared with the adult publisher’s search for ‘the next great paper-burger’. Plus the Bologna children’s book fair is so much pleasanter than the Frankfurt Book Fair – and in Bologna, books for nodding off to are a commercial asset.
Alex Hamilton is a novelist, journalist and compiler for 25 years of annual fastseller lists.