For a moment, before this Picture Book issue went to press, it looked, because of the unprecedented amount of advertising space, as if we might publish a 36-page, or even a 40-page, edition of BfK! Then, sadly, two of the advertisers rescheduled their bookings. It happens; it’s a reality we know how to live with and we went back to 32. A shame, because in 74 issues, we have never broken the 32-page barrier and with an extra four or eight pages there is so much more we could do in the magazine.
The relationship between editorial and advertising is something we are very sensitive about. Without our advertisers, BfK would almost certainly be in big trouble. Luckily we have always enjoyed magnificent support from our publishing friends. There’s never enough, but it has kept us alive and we are grateful for their confidence in us. Because virtually all our ads are from publishers providing additional book information, we take the view that BfK and its readers benefit beyond the merely financial. But we do have a rule of thumb that the editorial/advertising ratio should be about four to one, otherwise the whole thing begins to feel unbalanced.
I remember, back in 1979 when we were planning the launch of BfK, being warned in the sternest possible manner that to take advertising at all was immoral, that we wouldn’t be taken seriously, that we would be seen to be `in the pockets’ of publishers, etc. etc. Twelve years on from that fierce debate, BfK has not only survived but blossomed and flourished. Indeed, during the worst recession most of us have ever experienced, one in which we hear of business failures every day, BfK, against all the odds, is enjoying its best year yet. Why?
You tell me because I can’t adequately explain it. The answer may partly lie in the wider context of children’s book sales throughout the period of the current economic difficulties. The talk amongst some children’s booksellers is of buoyant sales figures; this is probably not universal, yet it does offset the exceptional gloom surrounding adult retail book sales. Explanations abound for what some are privately reporting as a 10-20% increase in children’s book sales: it is said that there was a lot of institutional money sloshing around and being spent at the end of this last financial year. More interestingly, that the advent of LMS has apparently diverted funds back to books. Put into an even larger context, there is the feeling, when you look at all the recessions since the sixties, that the book world has tended to ride the storms, not untouched but less scathed than other industries.
The problem with all this, as ever in the children’s book world, is the almost total lack of reliable, accessible or intelligible data. Nobody knows for certain but there does seem to be a lot of hearsay evidence pointing to a business bucking the national trend, not to mention important and prestigious sectors of its own industry. Contrary to this is the sight of some publishers cutting back their lists, ‘pruning dead wood’ or going in for a bout of `good housekeeping’, much, I imagine, to the consternation of fiction editors who see titles allowed to go out of print prematurely. Plus, of course, the dismaying picture of a beleagered Library Service.
Bewilderment is nothing new to the book world. For all its self-proclaimed certainties, there remains an awesome degree of ignorance about itself. Perhaps it is like a great balloon which, sat upon, expands here but contracts there. Even so, where success occurs, as it most certainly does, this provokes a sense amongst many children’s book publishers and booksellers that credit is not being given from those in high places in the industry for the financial role being played by children’s book lists, never mind the cultural and educational ones. This is another old and never-ending, woeful tale of patronising platitudes, undervaluation and lack of understanding. We all know, don’t we, that there are hundreds, probably thousands, of dedicated people in schools, colleges, libraries, publishing houses and bookshops who have all played their part in the richly deserved success story of the children’s book in Britain. Perhaps we should declare a cultural UDI, as devolution is on several other people’s agendas!
Which all goes some way to explaining BfK’s relative success. Don’t get me wrong, we’re not about to become millionaires; but we are still here and, much to the bank manager’s confounded disbelieving corporate mind-set, in the black – for the moment. There’s another crucial factor however – our readership. Yes, you. Amazingly loyal, many of you have been with us since the beginning, and continue to renew your subscriptions in large numbers. Also, the response to our suggestion in the last issue that you take our new, all-colour, publicity leaflet to distribute was quite breathtaking. We stopped counting after five thousand leaflets had been despatched to you. Thank you all very much, it is wonderful and extraordinarily helpful. Needless to say the offer still stands; if you would like leaflets, just phone 081 852 4953.
Now I’ve left myself no room to parade the delights that follow. One of the great glories of children’s book publishing is the picture book. As we do each May, we celebrate this spring’s new crop and look at various aspects of a genre that, perhaps, more than any other vividly testifies to the vibrant world of children’s books.
PS – Chris Powling is on sabbatical. He’ll be returning as Editor of BfK in September.