Hilary Macaskill on hype and piracy in children's publishing

The final straw came when I received The Pizza Pals from Reader's Digest Children's Books. "A fun-filled box of pre-school books, each shaped as pizza, and each featuring a colourful Pizza Pal character ... get a pizza the action," trumpeted the press release.

What did they expect? That I would tear open the brightly chequered pizza box with shouts of glee, pausing only to note the cunning puns emanating from Pepperoni Pete and Tommy Tomato ("We deliver a real treat"; "We're just what you ordered!") and cry "What a wonderful idea - how is it that no one has thought of this before?"

What I actually did was decide that after 14 years of involvement in children's books, I had had enough. lt is time to stem the tide of books, often unsolicited, flowing into my house; time to put a stop to studying books that look like pizzas or lunchboxes or trains; books in baskets, that squeak, or turn into houses; books that suffer from multiple personality disorder (the original, followed by the book of the film, game, activity, quiz and board books). No more Popposites, Flip-Flap Books or Fingerwiggle Board Books.

Children's publishing has become increasingly frenzied, the scramble for new ideas ever more desperate. One strategy is already foundering: the dash into multimedia has gone into reverse, with Penguin, HarperCollins and Random House pulling back abruptly from the CD-ROM market. But the number of titles - and absurdities - continues to rise.

Marketing is now ever more important, often at the expense of content. Publicity departments (with two or three good exceptions) fire out products at random. Speed of production appears more frenetic, with the number of titles increasing. At book launches I hear from people who have worked in publishing for a long time: "I just wish we did fewer books"; "There is no time to think ahead"; "What we are lacking is the development time."

lt leads to mistakes. The winner of this year's TES Information Book Award was Usborne's The World of Shakespeare. This otherwise excellent and enlightening book has, to name but two errors, Hamlet wounded in a "dual" and a picture of a pillory with a caption about stocks.

The ingenuity of children's books these days is undoubted. Unlike some commentators, I have no argument with those books that bridge the gap between books and toys. Many work well: a book that rolls may, in fact, very satisfactorily fulfil two purposes. But novelties no longer have novelty value; they have become the norm. And the competition to be more exceptional is driving publishers to ever-zanier extremes.

A breakthrough by one publisher is swiftly followed by something remarkably similar from another. Piracy is not unknown. Dorling Kindersley, at the last Bologna Children's Book Fair, had a fortress-like stand with all new books tucked away inside. It is probably a wise precaution. The front of David Bennett Books was also bare of books: two years ago someone helped himself to a prototype on display and took it to a printer to get a quote for producing a copy. A single theme can be latched onto by many publishers at once. Last autumn, like falling leaves, came several books about death or serious illness. Unbelievably, there was even another pizza book.

Picture books are sold in greater numbers than ever before, with co-editions all over the world facilitating print runs of hundreds of thousands.

This leads to the urge to make the majority of books all things to all people. While some illustrators and authors transcend this movement, by retaining their individuality and continually presenting stunning work, many do not. And as this homogeneous product is being spread throughout the globe, the inward traffic is similarly watered down. There are fewer translations than ever before. Grimm's Fairy Tales, Heidi, Pippi Longstocking would probably never have made it into English if published now.

Last autumn the Marsh Award for Children's Literature in Translation was set up. Titles published since 1990 were eligible for the first award but three of the five-strong shortlist were out of print, as was the eventual winner: A Dog's Day by Christine Nostlinger, translated by Anthea Bell.

The tough world of bookselling plays its part. As a small publisher (of adult non-fiction), concentrating on backlist, I am relieved to be no longer involved in the hurly burly of selling new titles into bookshops. Now books are considered dead if not sold in the first month; thus many potential classics disappear into obscurity. There was even talk last year of charging publishers to present their lists to WH Smith, once renowned for its support of small publishers. Specialist children's booksellers are an endangered species. And meanwhile, amid this avalanche of new titles, libraries are starved of money, as are the schools that often depend on remainder dealers and pyramid-selling to make depleted funds go further. Never have so many books been produced for so few consumers.

Children's literature remains of fundamental importance. But what of the wave of hysteria that threatens to submerge the real gems? I will, at least, no longer be swamped myself - if, that is, I can persuade publicity departments to listen to me.

`The unwholesome exhalation lingered in the air, sidled up Theo's nose, and wiped its greasy boots on the back of his tongue'

Arts and Entertainment
Emo rockers Fall Out Boy

music

Arts and Entertainment
Jamie Dornan as Christian Grey in Fifty Shades of Grey

film Sex scene trailer sees a shirtless Jamie Dornan turn up the heat

Arts and Entertainment

film

Arts and Entertainment
A sketch of Van Gogh has been discovered in the archives of Kunsthalle Bremen in Germany
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Eleanor Catton has hit back after being accused of 'treachery' for criticising the government.
books
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Taylor Swift is heading to Norwich for Radio 1's Big Weekend

music
Arts and Entertainment
Beer as folk: Vincent Franklin and Cyril Nri (centre) in ‘Cucumber’
tvReview: This slice of gay life in Manchester has universal appeal
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
‘A Day at the Races’ still stands up well today
film
Arts and Entertainment
‘The Royals’ – a ‘twisted, soapy take on England’s first family’
tvAnd its producers have already announced a second season...
Arts and Entertainment
Kraftwerk performing at the Neue Nationalgalerie (New National Gallery) museum in Berlin earlier this month
musicWhy a bunch of academics consider German electropoppers Kraftwerk worthy of their own symposium
Arts and Entertainment
Icelandic singer Bjork has been forced to release her album early after an online leak

music
Arts and Entertainment
Colin Firth as Harry Hart in Kingsman: The Secret Service

film
Arts and Entertainment
Brian Blessed as King Lear in the Guildford Shakespeare Company's performance of the play

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
In the picture: Anthony LaPaglia and Martin Freeman in 'The Eichmann Show'

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Anne Kirkbride and Bill Roache as Deirdre and Ken Barlow in Coronation Street

tvThe actress has died aged 60
Arts and Entertainment
Marianne Jean-Baptiste defends Joe Miller in Broadchurch series two

tv
Arts and Entertainment
The frill of it all: Hattie Morahan in 'The Changeling'

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Gillian Anderson and David Duchovny may reunite for The X Files

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Jeremy Clarkson, left, and Richard Hammond upset the locals in South America
TV
News
A young woman punched a police officer after attending a gig by US rapper Snoop Dogg
people
Arts and Entertainment
Reese Witherspoon starring in 'Wild'

It's hard not to warm to Reese Witherspoon's heroismfilm
Arts and Entertainment
Word up: Robbie Coltrane as dictionary guru Doctor Johnson in the classic sitcom Blackadder the Third
books

Arts and Entertainment
The Oscar nominations are due to be announced today

Oscars 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Hacked off: Maisie Williams in ‘Cyberbully’

Maisie Williams single-handedly rises to the challenge

TV
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    As in 1942, Germany must show restraint over Greece

    As in 1942, Germany must show restraint over Greece

    Mussolini tried to warn his ally of the danger of bringing the country to its knees. So should we, says Patrick Cockburn
    Britain's widening poverty gap should be causing outrage at the start of the election campaign

    The short stroll that should be our walk of shame

    Courting the global elite has failed to benefit Britain, as the vast disparity in wealth on display in the capital shows
    Homeless Veterans appeal: The rise of the working poor: when having a job cannot prevent poverty

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    The rise of the working poor: when having a job cannot prevent poverty
    Prince Charles the saviour of the nation? A new book highlights concerns about how political he will be when he eventually becomes king

    Prince Charles the saviour of the nation?

    A new book highlights concerns about how political he will be when he eventually becomes king
    How books can defeat Isis: Patrick Cockburn was able to update his agenda-setting 'The Rise of Islamic State' while under attack in Baghdad

    How books can defeat Isis

    Patrick Cockburn was able to update his agenda-setting 'The Rise of Islamic State' while under attack in Baghdad
    Judith Hackitt: The myths of elf 'n' safety

    Judith Hackitt: The myths of elf 'n' safety

    She may be in charge of minimising our risks of injury, but the chair of the Health and Safety Executive still wants children to be able to hurt themselves
    The open loathing between Barack Obama and Benjamin Netanyahu just got worse

    The open loathing between Obama and Netanyahu just got worse

    The Israeli PM's relationship with the Obama has always been chilly, but going over the President's head on Iran will do him no favours, says Rupert Cornwell
    French chefs get 'le huff' as nation slips down global cuisine rankings

    French chefs get 'le huff' as nation slips down global cuisine rankings

    Fury at British best restaurants survey sees French magazine produce a rival list
    Star choreographer Matthew Bourne gives young carers a chance to perform at Sadler's Wells

    Young carers to make dance debut

    What happened when superstar choreographer Matthew Bourne encouraged 27 teenage carers to think about themselves for once?
    Design Council's 70th anniversary: Four of the most intriguing prototypes from Ones to Watch

    Design Council's 70th anniversary

    Four of the most intriguing prototypes from Ones to Watch
    Dame Harriet Walter: The actress on learning what it is to age, plastic surgery, and her unease at being honoured by the establishment

    Dame Harriet Walter interview

    The actress on learning what it is to age, plastic surgery, and her unease at being honoured by the establishment
    Art should not be a slave to the ideas driving it

    Art should not be a slave to the ideas driving it

    Critics of Tom Stoppard's new play seem to agree that cerebral can never trump character, says DJ Taylor
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's winter salads will make you feel energised through February

    Bill Granger's winter salads

    Salads aren't just a bit on the side, says our chef - their crunch, colour and natural goodness are perfect for a midwinter pick-me-up
    England vs Wales: Cool head George Ford ready to put out dragon fire

    George Ford: Cool head ready to put out dragon fire

    No 10’s calmness under pressure will be key for England in Cardiff
    Michael Calvin: Time for Old Firm to put aside bigotry and forge new links

    Michael Calvin's Last Word

    Time for Old Firm to put aside bigotry and forge new links