Hilary Macaskill on hype and piracy in children's publishing
Saturday 29 March 1997
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'
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