A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.
So I said to the Foxes in the Den: “There’s a massive furore going on about age ranging in children’s books. Darren Shan is very passionate on the subject; I’ll email and ask him to do a Soapbox.” It wasn’t until I was half way through writing my request that it dawned on me… this is Darren Shan, the real one, the one whose books I have in pride of place on my bookshelf, I mean I even have a signed copy of Slawter, in silver pen… I pressed send anyway.
Within hours the following popped into my inbox and, in Darren Shan’s own words, “This can stand as my definitive view on age branding“ ….
“Age branding” is an idea that has been knocked around for many years in children’s books — many people want to have an industry-wide age branding tag slapped on every children’s book published in the UK. It would be a bit like a cinema certificate (although far more limiting — in cinema we have U, 12, 15, but on books we would clinically (dare I add cynically) sub-divide our youth up into 5+, 7+, 9+ brackets). As a children’s author, I’ve always been firmly opposed to this — I don’t think it’s necessary; I think it treats the public like morons; and I also think it’s a move towards censorship, giving publishers and booksellers more power than I think it’s healthy for them to have. I think the reading of a book is a very personal experience, and it should be the right of every reader (or every reader’s parent or teacher or librarian) to choose a book that they believe is suitable for them on an individual level.
Several weeks ago, I heard from my publisher that “the industry” had decided to implement age branding, because someone did a survey which stated it would be good for the business, and that authors would sell more books because of it. I immediately objected and said I didn’t want any age branding on my books. I was going to make my objections public at the time, but kept quiet because I was hoping that if enough writers objected to their publishers, that the idea would be dropped like the stupid, harmful, insulting hot potato that it is. (I’m still stunned by the fact that no writers were included in the decision-making process!!!) I never like having to have a go at publishers in public, and I was hoping they would see sense and spare themselves the embarrassment of starting a public war with their authors. Unfortunately they don’t seem to have taken the hint and are still pushing ahead with age branding. So I can hold my peace no longer!!!
I am 100% against age branding, as I see it as (a) a very stupid idea, (b) a definite, irrevocable step towards censorship, and (c) a way for publishers to exert even more control over their authors, to make writers conform to THEIR idea of what a book should be, how it should be pitched and marketed, and – even more crucially and worryingly – how it should be written in the first place. I think it’s very telling that authors were not asked about this in advance of the “decision” being made — I just got an email one day telling me it was going ahead. My response? Well, to quote the late Charlton Heston, “from my cold, dead hands!!!” I refused point-blank to allow age branding be put on my books. And my publishers, HarperCollins, to their credit, respected my stance and have agreed not to put any branding on my books.
But, while I’m obviously relieved on a personal level, I’m worried about how other authors will be affected. Some publishers, sadly, aren’t quite as liberal-minded as HarperCollins — I read a report from Elaine McQuade at Scholastic, and she basically said that authors were perfectly happy to accept age branding, and so they were pressing ahead regardless!!! It’s incredible — like standing on a block of ice in the North Pole in the middle of winter and insisting that actually, no, it’s not cold at all and there’s great weather ahead!!!!! I just can’t understand why intelligent, well-intentioned people would try to misrepresent the wishes of their authors in this way (and virtually all of the people in the publishing industry that I’ve worked with ARE intelligent and well-intentioned). Perhaps part of the problem is that there’s no writers’ union (at least not that I’m aware of). Each writer pretty much exists in a little world of their own when it comes to dealing with publishers. Most of us have an agent to fight our battles for us, but it’s always a personal fight. I have little or no idea of what other writers get in terms of advances or royalties, what terms they have to agree to when selling their books, how they get treated, what happens to them if they get into a creative argument with their publishers, etc. Writing is, by its nature, a solitary profession, and a result of that is that most of us tend to lead very solitary, insular lives. I think, if there was a union for writers, this would never have happened. Because there isn’t, it seems to me that publishers feel they can just steamroll ahead with their plans and ignore their writing stables, confident in the belief that their authors can’t band together to contest their proposals.
While I’m obviously very happy that my books aren’t going to suffer the indignity of branding, I don’t know if authors with less clout and success will be forced to accept age grading. Success brings privileges — I don’t seriously think it was ever a likelihood that Philip Pullman or Terry Pratchett or Jacqueline Wilson’s publishers were going to risk alienating them by forcing them to accept a brand they didn’t want. Those of us who are particularly valuable to our publishers will be given a choice in this matter (well, perhaps not at Scholastic!!!). But what about those lower down on the totem pole, those who haven’t sold millions of books, who are maybe just starting out, or who have been labouring away for many years without ever breaking the top of the best sellers lists? Will publishers address each author individually and ask each writer whether or not they want to have their books branded? If so, I’ve no problem with that — some, maybe even many, will, I’m sure, choose to go along with branding, as publishers claim it will be good for sales. I don’t think every writer should feel as if they have to crusade about this. Many of us think branding will actually be harmful to readers, and are opposing branding regardless of whether it hurts our sales or not. But there’s no reason why everyone should feel so heatedly about the issue — if a writer thinks branding will help boost sales of their book, and if they have no moral qualms about it, then good luck to them!
But freedom of choice is the key to my sense of unease. As long as every author has the freedom to say no to branding if they wish (as I have the right to say no, as Anthony Horowitz and Roddy Doyle and Michael Morpurgo will almost certainly have the right to say no), I’ll retire from this battle a happy, contented man. But what if that’s not the case? What if the authors with less of a voice aren’t asked for their opinion? What if they’re forced to accept branding, whether they like it or not? Is it right that those of us at a higher level should leave them to their own devices, at the mercies of the market? If not, what can we do to help them? To be honest, I don’t know. I know that I certainly do feel a sense of comradeship with my fellow authors, and that I want to do whatever I can to support them if it transpires that they aren’t being given a fair hearing and a free vote on how their books are branded (and I must stress that I don’t know whether they are or not — publishers are being very vague on this point; they say they will discuss it with their authors and take their views into consideration, but what does that actually mean???). But how much can we do as a group? Will the hundreds of authors who’ve supported the rights of writers to choose (check out the No To Age Banding site at http://www.notoagebanding.org/) now dissipate and go their own separate ways again? What can we do to protect the freedoms of our colleagues if they come under threat? How many of us will want to fight another person’s fight?
Only time will tell. There has been no indication yet of how publishers will react to this show of unity and strength, whether they’ll take our opinions on board and re-think their plans, or if they’ll force through their plans on all but their most high-performing authors. There was a writer’s strike in Hollywood last year that wreaked havoc with movies and TV shows. Could the same thing happen here with children’s books??? Could we find ourselves in a situation where top-level authors go out on strike in support of their stable-mates??? I’m hoping publishers all across the UK have the commonsense and respect for their authors not to put us into a position where we have to find out, that they come out with a statement assuring authors that every writer will be consulted about branding, and that every writer will have the final say in the decision as it relates to their own books. If not, and the battle heats up, and talk of strike action starts to gather pace … Well, I know whose side I’d take in such an unfortunate situation, and I think the rapid and heartfelt response by so many children’s authors on the No To Age Banding site is a clear indication of where most of my contemporaries and peers would stand too.
But let’s hope we don’t come to that ominous impasse, or indeed come anywhere close to it. A little bit of commonsense on the behalf of publishers across the UK … a clear, unequivocal public statement to show that they respect their authors and will support each writer’s personal decision in this matter … and all the fuss will immediately go away. I’ve always had a good relationship with publishers, and most of the authors I’ve spoken to over the years echo that. The book world is different to those of Hollywood and the music industry, where moguls behind the scenes are often in direct confrontation with the creative talents whose works they represent. It would be a shame if a similar schism was to develop between writers and their publishers, if authors were forced through an act of tyrannical disregard to come to view their publishers as an enemy. A shame … and potentially a disaster for those publishers involved. Because the industry isn’t as united on this issue as authors are. Bloomsbury and some other publishers have refused to join this move towards branding, and if Scholastic and others put themselves in the position of being enemies of writers, then those publishers in the freedom of choice camp will start to look like VERY promising places for children’s authors to take their new and upcoming works. If Elaine McQuade and her cohorts push ahead with their plans, we might just be about to witness the greatest shift in authors from one publishing house to another that the world has ever seen …
UPDATE: 8th June 2008
One quick p.s. to my original post. I did a radio interview about this, and the interviewer challenged me with the old “Movies have age certificates, so why don’t books?” chestnut. I didn’t reply too fluently, as I hadn’t been thinking of it that way — publishers have presented this as an argument about marketing, not censoring, so I’ve been trying not to focus too much on the censorship aspect of age banding. But I did think about it afterwards, and realized I’d missed a golden opportunity that would have highlighted the absurdity of this whole sad, sorry mess. Yes, movies are given age certs — but only to broadly separate adult fare from children’s movies. i.e. in the UK and Ireland there’s G, 12, 15 and 18 (those change every so often, so I’m not sure what the exact current lineup is, but it’s roughly those four certs). I think that’s fair enough — a G to indicate it’s family friendly; a 12 or the equivalent to note that an adult might want to be on hand to watch the film with younger readers; 15 for teen-appropriate movies; 18 for adults. But what if films were sub-divided even further, if a G film had to carry an extra sticker indicating 7+ or 9+ year?!? “This Disney film is suitable for 8 year olds but not 6 years olds.” Even the movie people aren’t THAT crazy!!!!
There’s an inherent degree of snobbery in the book business — I think most of us feel that reading is superior to watching a film, since it demands so much more of us mentally. And I think most of us believe the world of books is more liberal, since we’re not answerable to Hollywood moguls and hardcore religious fundamentalists (unless you’re J K Rowling or Philip Pullman!! And I believe they only get attacked because of the high profile of their book sales). But in this instance the movie gang of supposed loonies and conservatives are showing far more common sense and restraint than those in the publishing industry!!!! That surely HAS to set alarm bells ringing!!!!!!!!!
UPDATE : 12th June 2008
Latest Update. This appeared on The Bookseller site today:
The Society of Authors has called for age-guidance plans to be temporarily suspended pending a review, following the unprecedented author revolt last week.
Novelist Celia Rees, chair of the children’s writers and illustrators group at the Society of Authors, told The Bookseller that if publishers go ahead it should only be with individual authors’ approval. “Not all writers are against age guidance, but given the strong opposition that has emerged in recent days, we have proposed to the Publishers Association that the Children’s Book Group’s plans should be put on hold, pending a review, which would include a number of authors,” she said.
A spokesperson for the CBG said that publishers were continuing to discuss author concerns on an individual basis. “Publishers are getting lots of valuable feedback from authors, which in turn is helping them address the specific issues and concerns that authors are raising. The CBG remains committed to the principle of age guidance, which it sees as one of several tools that will help more adults choose and buy a book for the children in their lives.”
The decision to introduce guidance was taken in April by 13 publishers. Reprints carried the guidance from April, and new titles will be guided from the autumn.
Walker and Usborne said that they were among those playing a “wait and see” game. Jenny Tyler, editorial director at Usborne, said that publishers were “never as united as the first statements indicated”. “We would want to take careful note of what our authors say,” she said. “It would be interesting to see if authors follow their principles to another publishing house.”
Walker has indicated it is in “no hurry” to join the age guidance movement. “We hope to be a publisher that looks after the interests of our authors,” said publishing director Jane Winterbotham.
I think the second last paragraph is particularly interesting — it seems to indicate that certain parties within the publishing industry are trying to push this through even without the full supports of their peers, by trying to convince the rest of us that they have their full, 100% backing. This is the most worrying and distasteful part of the entire “decision” — the lack of a real debate, the refusal to involve everyone concerned, and the blatant slapping about of lies and half-truths. If the individuals who have tried to force this down the throat of the rest of us continue on their path, I think some heads will roll at the upper corporate levels — no editor or MD will relish the job of trying to explain to their board members why all of their authors are jumping ship …
The Book Foxes are very grateful to Darren for giving us his definitive view of age branding in children’s literature.
For more debates from the Soapbox click here.
Picture of the baby fox courtesy of Eric Begin on Flickr