A daft question, you think? Just take a sample of non-fiction titles from library or classroom and look closely at the publishing information. You’ll find out more than the date of publication; in those closely packed little blocks of text lurks a fascinating and often complicated story about the origin and creation of the book you have in your hand. A story which inevitably also involves all of us who buy books and offer them to children. Are you sitting comfortably? Then we’ll begin.
We started by doing exactly what we suggested you might try. We took an armful of books published in the last year or so and tried to find out where they came from. Some, like the Hamish Hamilton Building a… series, had a cosy, predictable life story. Typeset in Oxford, printed in East Kilbride, published in Great Britain. You know where you are with a book like that. Then there was All About Wheels published by Dent in Great Britain (1985) – originally published in German by Otto Maier Verlag, Ravensburg in 1975. Printed in Italy. A book which had obviously been about a bit – and had two lives. And Snail in the A & C Black Stopwatch series, first published by Forlaget Apostrof, Copenhagen, Denmark (1985), which had apparently raced across the North Sea (having been filmset in St Helens and printed in Hong Kong) to be published here in the same year. Had Barrie Watts’ Butterfly and Caterpillar in the same series, with the same St Helens/Hong Kong experience, gone in the opposite direction to make its debut in Denmark? Another story there we thought. And what about the very new Passport to series? That tells us it was `first published’ by Franklin Watts at three different addresses in Great Britain, the USA and Australia – with colour reproduction in Hong Kong and printing in Belgium.
An International Market
Why all this globe-trotting? As you might guess it’s all to do with money – and that inevitably means, in the end, the price we have to pay for the books. Publishers will have their books produced – typesetting, colour picture processing, printing and binding – where they think they get the best value for money; and that may be in Italy, Belgium, Hong Kong, Colombia or Britain.
Another big cost in publishing is ‘origination’, creating the book in the first place: its text, illustrations, design, editing. So it can be beneficial for publishers to buy (and sell) the rights to publish each other’s books especially if they are picture books or heavily illustrated non-fiction where all the expensive bit has been `originated’. British hardback publishers of course don’t buy from each other; they will buy from European, American or Australian companies. Frequently, as with All About Wheels, the text has to be translated but as that involves only the black part of the printing it is not so costly. This kind of buying and selling goes on all the time but especially at the International Children’s Book Fair which takes place every year in Bologna. Publishers spend several crowded days looking at each other’s wares and doing deals. This may be after the book has been published but increasingly a publisher will arrange to sell a book to other countries beforeit is printed, or even before it is written. These international co-editions mean more copies can be printed, which keeps costs down (more of that later). If a publisher is already an international company – like Franklin Watts, Hamlyn, Hodder & Stoughton, Viking Kestrel – then plans can be made for a book created in Britain to be published simultaneously by its other imprints in English-speaking America, Canada, Australia or South Africa.
The story was beginning to unwind and make itself clear. Then back with our armful of books we made another discovery – books with, it seemed, two publishers. Methuen’s flap book, Nature Hide Seek: Oceans, was created by Imago Publishing; BMX Tricks Games Competitions, published by Collins Willow Books, was `devised, designed and produced by Michael Balfour Ltd’; the Faber How it is Made series was `conceived, designed and produced by Threshold Books’. We found Sceptre Books, Pamino Publications, BLA Publishing and, over and over again, Aladdin Books in association with Hamish Hamilton, Collins and Franklin Watts. Who were all these people?
We went on the trail of Aladdin Books and found Charles Nicholas, its Managing Director, who introduced us to the world of The Packagers.
Unwrapping the package
Packaging – as a publishing activity – started and rapidly mushroomed into a huge business in the late 1960s. Names associated with its beginnings include George Rainbird – remember all those huge glossy art books? – and Mitchell Beazley, creators of the million-selling Hugh Johnson Wine Atlas. Adult non-fiction titles became worldwide bestsellers; the coffee table book had arrived. Eventually packaging came to children’s books and is still an important part of non-fiction publishing.
What is a packager? Let’s start with a very over-simplified account. Packagers produce books: they think up, design, write, illustrate, print and bind books which they sell to publishers. A publisher buys X copies of a book at a price, publishes it at another price and tries to sell it. The publisher has no origination or production costs but is left with the cost of warehousing, marketing, selling and distribution AND the risk that the book may not sell!
In reality, of course, publishers and packagers are involved with each other long before the books are produced. The name ‘packager’ comes from the original design ‘package’ which the company takes to the publisher. This consists of a design, a visual layout – a mock-up of a couple of page spreads and a cover, a synopsis and perhaps a sample chapter. Currently this costs about £5,000 to develop and produce. If the package sells and the company gets assurance from publishers that they will take a certain number of copies, it will go ahead and produce the book. It’s not enough for a British publisher to decide to take books; the packager needs international sales to make the project worthwhile.
A packaging company like Aladdin Books may have a particular relationship with a publisher which means that ideas for books which might fill a gap in the market can be discussed even before the ‘package’ stage. Franklin Watts produce about 140 books a year. 80 of these they will produce themselves with their own team of editors, designers, etc. About 60 they will take from packagers and Charles Nicholas at Aladdin Books can expect to get about 40 of these if he can come up with the right new ideas.
Why do publishers use packagers? Why not do the books themselves? Well, it means they can publish more books than their permanent staff could handle; they can make use of a small expert team for a particular kind of book; they can tap into another source of ideas for books, make use of another, perhaps expert, eye on the market. Some publishers like Macdonald and Wayland, who specialise in non-fiction publishing, don’t use packagers. Others with a strong fiction list for example may buy in books to extend their non-fiction output.
Packaged books are always non-fiction; a book will be sold in the main on its visual appeal. The stars of the packaging business are the editorial designers, the people who decide what it will look like, how text and pictures will relate, how the information will be presented. Each Aladdin book usually has two designers and one editor (the wordsmith). Authors and illustrators are taken on freelance for each book or series. Authors are usually ‘experts’, but even they can get things wrong so extensive use is made of specialist consultants – individuals or organisations – to advise, comment and check as the book develops.
Charles Nicholas estimates that at the moment there are about six packaging companies who make a sizeable contribution to children’s information books. Grisewood Dempsey, one of the giants, now has its own publishing house, Kingfisher. But for many the boom years of the sixties and early seventies didn’t last and in 1980 and 1981 a lot of companies went under. The unwary who euphorically went ahead and printed on promises of 10,000 sales were left stranded when recession hit and publishers could take only 3,000 copies. Those in the business today have learned to be more realistic.
To see ourselves…
From a publishing point of view, we are told, the British children’s non-fiction market at the moment is very difficult, particularly in the area in which packagers often work, series publishing with an educational slant. The average `life’ of books has gone from three years to 18 months – competitive titles appear from other publishers and librarians particularly, publishers claim, are concerned about books being `out-of-date’ even in areas of `traditional’ knowledge. The institutional (schools and libraries) market with its frozen and savagely cut book funds is stagnant or even going backwards. (Very little children’s non-fiction except for popular encyclopaedias, dictionaries, atlases and titles for Usborne and Ladybird is sold through bookshops.) So in the main reprints are out and print-runs have been cut back by 35/40% over the last five years.
This situation, says Charles Nicholas, leads to publishers of children’s non-fiction – not particularly progressive at the best of times – playing safe with yet more books on steady, best-selling subjects: Dinosaurs, Space, Racing Cars, Nature and so on, all done in a similar format. Why is children’s non-fiction so unadventurous? Because, say the publishers, institutional purchasers (that’s teachers and librarians) are deeply and essentially conservative. We don’t get exciting, risk-taking books because we wouldn’t buy them if publishers produced them. What we like is the old familiar subjects handled in the old familiar way with the occasional addition of topics like Computers which we suddenly demand in great numbers. Chicken and egg? Do we get the publishing we deserve?
Packagers are affected by this conservatism, whether it originates with publishers or purchasers, because they have to sell their ideas. A big selling-point, in the early days and still, is the packagers’ expertise in design. The book’s visual appeal, its overall `look’, its integrated design are emphasised. But the book has to be about something and packagers know that publishers, however conservative, are on the look out for new ideas, eager to spot gaps in the market and to get ahead of their competitors.
Few publishers have attempted to deal with `hot potato’ subjects: issues and controversies which face us nationally and internationally and inevitably have social, economic and political dimensions. Notable exceptions have been Wayland’s People, Politics and Powers series and Macdonald’s new Debates series which this year has tackled Race, Women, Drugs and Law and Order. Both these series (not packaged) are aimed at the 14+ reader. Franklin Watt new Issues series, packaged by Aladdin Books, takes topics like these to top juniors and lower secondary level. In deciding which subjects to choose for Issues Charles Nicholas had to think international; taking something of concern only in Britain or exploring it only from a British point of view would not sell enough copies. So Acid Rain and Famine in Africa, the first two titles (with The Nuclear Arms Race, Terrorism, The Heroin Trail and The Palestinians which will follow) were selected as subjects of current international concern and developed for an international audience. (The imagined reader is 12 in the UK, though the text has been checked on a bright 10-year-old, and 14 in the USA.) The idea is to bring information into full view and to present the form of the debate. Each book is meant to provide fuel for discussion in classrooms. `It’s not up to us to come to conclusions,’ says Charles Nicholas.
What does all this mean for us?
Well, aside from questions about how conservative we are as purchasers, whether we really know what we want, how to communicate our needs to publishers, exactly what use we make of books in schools, there is the realisation that a significant proportion of the books on offer to us have been created for the international market. It’s the price we have to pay for keeping down the price of full colour books with beautiful photographs, quality graphics and classy design. We, and the children, have become used to a high standard of production and design and, as we keep saying, books are competing with TV. Will children look at black and white pictures? They may have to if we are to have books which are specifically addressed to the British reader or on specifically British subjects at affordable prices. As we learn to put up with American spelling to keep down the cost of fiction must we learn to forgive the European Nature Book whose beautiful illustrations occasionally feature plant or bird not found in our hedgerows? Perhaps publishers will get better at co-editions, and on the plus side there’s a lot to be said for children developing an international point of view.
Of course if we all had much more to spend on books we’d be buying more copies, print runs would go up, co-editions wouldn’t be so vital and publishers could take more risks. As it is we are faced with the image of children all over the world reading the same book! Which raises some interesting questions (especially with publishing power being concentrated into fewer companies) about who decides what is worth knowing and how information, is to be presented.
More and more it will be important to know where information books come from.