Do you ever go into a bookshop intent on buying a book for someone, then leave without making a purchase? I do, but I've always thought it was just me being hopeless. Now research shows that, when it comes to children's books, a high proportion of people run away, confused. The findings of a children's survey carried out for the industry's trade body were unveiled last week to a chastened gathering of publishers and book sellers. But what really drew rueful chuckles from the delegates was a video showing two confused mothers trying to find books for six-year-olds. The camera scanned anonymous shelves that offered no clue to which age-groups the books catered for - and featured an assistant (overtones of the legendary Woolworth's sales girl) who responded to pleas for help with the sullen advice to "look for yourself". Vivienne Creevey, deputy managing director of HarperCollins children's division, and with two small children of her own, said bookshops had to find ways of seducing their customers. "I'm not suggesting they install microwaves to warm the baby's bottles, but some form of entertainment for the child, and more guidance and easy access" for the parent. As if to prove the point, I hurried to my nearest large bookshop the next day to buy The Rescue Party by Nick Butterworth. (This book, about saving rabbits from a well, is apparently such a hit it is to be made into a film). I could find no trace of it, and once again left empty-handed.
The book marketing conference took place on the day that Pentos, owner of Dillons, was rescued by Thorn EMI. It gave me an insight into the pressures the industry is under. Alan Giles, managing director of the rival Waterstone's, opened with a heartfelt plea for publishers to stop publishing so many books. While the book trade recovers from a year of stagnant sales and customer resistance to overpriced hardbacks, new titles rose to 88,700 last year, up 50 per cent on six years ago. "I find it very hard to understand in whose interest it is to bang out more and more titles in the hope that something will stick. Most publishers should be thinking harder," Giles warned. And as for bookshops: "We must learn to say no to new titles that add nothing to what we have on our shelves."
Presumably that means no more fluffy animal rescue stories?
Escape from my computer terminal for lunch at a restaurant called Daphne's, across the road from the Conran Shop in south-west London. This is gossip- column territory. It is easily spotted because a group of paparazzi hang around aimlessly outside in the hope of bagging celebrities who supposedly lunch there (I spot only evolved Sloanes). James Baker, director of programmes for Nickelodeon, the children's satellite channel which spread from America to Britain 18 months ago, arrived ahead of me, panicking over visas. He is travelling the world looking for new outlets for the channel. I was amazed to hear that Kiev, in the Ukraine, is the base for a flourishing pirate terrestrial TV empire, TV Tet. Baker is hoping to negotiate a deal: you can't ignore such a big operator, even if it's illegal, he says.
His channel has had such a problem since it launched on the Sky package that to increase its popularity it has decided to allow children to schedule programmes themselves every Wednesday of the holidays: as each half-hour junction approaches they can vote on two options by freephone. On the Wednesday of half term the channel took 500,000 calls and trebled its ratings. The moral: "Children are reacting against TV as a passive medium, which looks just like a library of programmes. They like it to be rough at the edges."
And of course, they love using phones. Parents used to marvel at the way babies could work video recorders. My smallest child, not even two, can switch on a mobile phone, pull up the aerial and redial the last number called.Reuse content