December 1, 2015
It was a typical evening in our home. Our fifteen-year-old boy had just finished chasing his two little sisters around the house to get them good and wound up before bedtime. I was in the middle of explaining to our five-year-old why she couldn’t sleep in the cat’s bed, when our six-and-a-half-year-old (that half is very important), asked me:
‘When you stick up your middle finger, does that mean the F-word?’
If you’ve got kids, you’ll know that tricky questions can come at you out of nowhere. I suppressed the urge to laugh, partly because I didn’t want to make a big thing of this, but also because I want my kids to feel comfortable asking me questions and swearing is a serious business which everyone should learn to do properly. Apparently, she’d brought it up because it was the subject of some serious conversation in school. She goes to a small country school, where first and second class are in one room together, meaning you can have kids of six to nine all learning together, which is a pretty big gap in development. And not every lesson is being delivered by the teacher. Particularly when the older ones have older brothers or sisters they’re learning from and then passing that knowledge on.
Swearing is a life skill, and when my girls grow up, I want to be sure they’re doing it with some fluency. As my father once solemnly told me, you have to save up your swearing for when you really need it, so it has the greatest effect. And he was a psychologist, so he knew what he was talking about. That said, I don’t feel swearing is a life skill that a six-and-a-half-year-old necessarily needs, so I didn’t try to explain that, at least when I was growing up, two fingers meant ‘Fuck Off’, while flipping the finger up at someone meant ‘Up Yours’ (a phrase that sadly seems to have fallen out of favour in recent times) and, in our area at least, we were pretty specific about the differences. This distinction is open to interpretation in various places around the world, but I settled for telling her that ‘No, it doesn’t normally mean the F-word, it means another rude word.’
‘I’m not going to start teaching you how to swear yet, honey.’
I only realized after I’d said it, that I’d included the word ‘yet’. She remembers stuff like that.
‘The S-word is only a bit rude,’ our five-year-old added helpfully, as she continued to eye up the cat’s bed.
‘It is still pretty rude,’ I told her. ‘And I don’t want you using it.’
I was a bit late on this one, as she’d already used it a couple of times in the past (that I knew of), casually and in proper context. Fuck knows where they pick this shit up, but then having a little kid can be like having a walking voice recorder following you around. One that can play back key phrases when you’re all out in public. Anyway, there was our six-and-a-half-year-old in school, having conversations about swearing and it got me thinking about books (it doesn’t take much to get me thinking about books, but sometimes it’s actually relevant).
For a writer, dialogue is a vital way of defining your character. Each one should be distinctive and so, as in real life, they should speak in distinctive ways. When your characters cannot be permitted to swear, you’re hobbled in the ways you can have your characters expressing themselves, and it means it’s harder to reflect how people speak in real life.
If you work in children’s books, this is a restraint you accept. It comes with the job.
Sometimes, though, it feels like we’re applying just a bit too much restraint. This recent discussion with my daughter was further evidence of the fact that children’s books are perpetually behind the development of children when it comes to any area where parents’ inhibitions create an awkwardness and result in prohibition. We’re embarrassed to talk about it, so we ban any discussion of it. This, in turn, drives the child to seek their information on personal issues from other sources. Sources which can often be less than reliable.
Most of us teach our young kids not to swear. This is very natural, as we want them to use language appropriately and swearing can be unpleasant, disrespectful and, at times, very hurtful. We want to teach them to speak properly, to communicate well, before they venture into the murky world of foul language. If you write children’s books, this is one of the thorniest areas to navigate – the restraints are tight enough in Ireland and the UK, but look towards the US market and you have to cut back even further.
I write for different age groups and with different publishers, and standards vary slightly from company to company, even from editor to editor, but it is largely decided by what is considered acceptable in schools. And schools can tolerate very little in the way of bad language. For books aimed at primary school level, you’d be lucky to get away with terms like: ‘bloody’, ‘flippin”, ‘crap’, ‘damn’ or even the mildest blasphemy. What can be accepted in the classroom comes down to an individual teacher’s judgement and they regard it as a practical issue; feature this language in books used in school and it’s feared the kids will start using it in class. And nobody wants kids swearing at teachers – that way lies educational armageddon. And children’s publishers want to sell into schools, ‘cos that’s a big part of their market. So the writers who work with those publishers willingly conform to those expectations.
I’d be delighted if books were the biggest influence on a child’s language. As with any subject that we are reluctant to broach with our kids, like nudity and sex, for example (which I’ve already written about), when we fail to provide the necessary information, children go looking for it elsewhere. They’re going to pick up stuff from other kids around them, and from us, their parents, of course, in those moments when we fail to censor our own language, but it doesn’t stop there. Even with the best filters in the world (which we normally fail to apply), kids will pick up words on the web that would have us wincing in social anguish. Which is fair enough – I mean, hardly any of us learned our meatiest obscenities from reputable sources.
But their range of sources is infinitely wider than when most of us were young and what’s more, the stakes are far higher. Because once they get involved in social networks, they’re not just talking, they’re publishing. Everything they say is accessible to a potentially huge audience and could cause much greater hurt, offence or misunderstanding. And could be permanently on display.
The range of influences on teenagers’ language, for instance, is enormous – and I think it’s making them more sophisticated as a result, both in terms of vocabulary and comprehension. They are more aware of the nuances of language, more conscious of how they use it, because they are exposed to so many people who use it well. But in terms of understanding the potential consequences of what they might say, most of them are way behind where they need to be. And given that media-savvy celebrities, politicians and other public figures are constantly being caught out and made to suffer for it, we can’t hope to train young people not to say stupid things online. I’m a forty-two-year-old professional writer, more conscious than most of the meaning of words, and I still spew more verbal shite than I’d like to admit.
Not here, obviously. These are pearls, I’m giving you here. Pearls, I tell ya.
Speech is still our primary form of expression, of communicating ideas – most of us still talk more than we read – though written words are now giving speech a run for its money, and our ever-present phones are blurring the difference between the two. The advantage of the written word used to be that we tended to think a bit more before we wrote. Now, with texts and social networks? Not so much. Those fingers can dump you in it every bit as fast as your mouth can. And those words can hang there, reaching one person after the next, long after we’ve stopped thinking about them. Unlike speech, they don’t evaporate the moment they’re created.
Which is why kids need to start learning, and learning early, the difference between expressive but relatively harmless swearwords, potentially hurtful insults and the kind of language that borders on a hate crime. And because this is often just a matter of degrees, of nuance and the character of the people who might hear or read it, it should be part of their education in communication. The best we can hope for, is that we give them decent foundations to work from, which is what the education system tries to do.
In fiction, we should be able to go a bit further. I have had a discussion with an editor about whether an unpleasant character should utter a racist comment. She had misgivings because . . . then there’d be a racist comment in the book – and this was in a novel, with ‘Unsuitable for Younger Readers’ printed on the back. The same has happened with a homophobic comment. It was only reflective of how that teenager would speak, but I had to argue to have it in. Never mind that that is the kind of language that a child will encounter in real life. Let’s be clear about this, I wasn’t using these terms as my voice in the narration; these were uttered by characters in scenes I was depicting, scenes that I wanted to make as realistic as possible. But we had to mull over whether they could be permitted or not.
In books for children in primary school, I can’t use language that any kid will hear yelled out at a football match. I can’t use the correct anatomical terms for intimate body parts most human beings have. I recently had to take the word ‘pee’ out of a story because it was feared it would cause a disruptively riotous case of the giggles if it was read out in class. Well, no wonder, if they’re never allowed say it. And yet every school has toilets that the students are using every day. But we have to be careful about mentioning what actually happens in these tiled sanctums. In another story, I had to remove a very inoffensive reference to reindeer shit too, for the same reason. Referring to doing a poo or a pee is most definitely not swearing, but it is put in the same category of language.
Even with older readers, those who are reading novels, but don’t quite count as ‘young adults’ yet, if we want to create a situation that illustrates what’s wrong with using the word ‘gay’ as an insult, as a synonym for ‘stupid’, ‘weak’, ‘pathetic’ or ‘uncool’ – as it is so often used – it sometimes feels like we have to sell it as a social issues story, not . . . y’know . . . just a story. This justifies the reference to it in a book. To feature the derogatory uses of the word, even while making it clear why they’re unpleasant, the story almost has to be about being gay.
We could, instead, just show the effect of this kind of abuse on a character our reader has developed some empathy for, as part of a story that’s about something else entirely. The same goes for terms that are racist, sexist, insulting to someone’s religion or bigoted and hurtful in other ways. But writers can’t differentiate between these harsh terms and comparatively harmless swearwords if we can’t use any of them in our stories.
We need to start making these distinctions as early as possible, using language that’s appropriate to the age of the child, rather than the conventions of the school system. By lumping this vast variety of terms into the same category, and banning the whole damn lot of them, we are giving up most of the influence we can have over how they’re used . . . and, a crucial point for the publishing industry, we’re making books seem less relevant to young people’s lives.
And yet it’s in books where this can be handled best. Books are quiet, private and deliberately exact in their language. They have time to be thoughtful, to offer context and can be digested at the reader’s own pace. They also have the advantage of only being accessible to a reader of the intended level or above. Reading is a natural form of filtering or certification. You can’t access the material inside if you’re not able to read it.
But by the time the kids are reading stories where we can explore these issues, they’ll have been wondering for years why nobody swears in books. And they will unconsciously attribute this absence to the suspicious relationship publishing has with the education system.
Fortunately, they don’t need books for this kind of thing, because they are busy surfing the web, as well as writing to and for each other, and they can take delight in being as colourful, expressive and offensive as they like – using terms they can learn and share across ever-expanding networks.
Language is as powerful as it is delicate. It can soothe an upset child or it can convince a nation to go to war. Where swearing is concerned, I think children’s books need to take the gloves off earlier, to play and examine and explore foul language. To relish the imaginative insult and wallow in lyrical profanity. But because of the nature of the beast, it also must be dealt with in context, handled with sensitivity and tact. It can’t be a matter of just throwing more swearwords into books – the usual problems will immediately limit our audience: the books won’t get distribution because publishers will be concerned about the reaction of schools and libraries. Schools and libraries will be concerned about the reactions of parents.
It is not the professionals in the book world who need the most convincing. In my experience, the vast majority of these people are pretty open-minded, liberal types, who just want to see kids reading books. When dealing with children, the pace of change is often set by the most reactionary parent, the one who will express outrage and threaten consequences for those who have tainted the soul of their child. You can’t be seen to be leading people’s kids astray.
And much as I’d like to say ‘Ah, fuck ’em!’, it doesn’t work like that.
Publishers run on tight margins. Even if you were to say we’d only try and sell it through shops, and let each parent decide what they’ll let their kids read, that’s too big a cut in potential sales for most publishers to take.
Short of running a massive advertising campaign aimed at convincing parents to let us use more offensive language in children’s books, it’s hard to see what to do. It’s all to easy to fall back onto bland words that lack impact and sound unconvincing. But as writers, we can start pushing more, stretching those elastic boundaries, consciously searching out spiky terms, earthier language, entertaining insults and killer put-downs. If we can’t get some established term past the filters, find another one, a great sounding one, that does the same job. It’s the kind of thing writers do anyway. And we need to start early.
We can make bad language a topic of conversation, as well as just an embellishment, so that it’s harder to remove it in the editing process. We can use dialogue with deliberate intent; have our characters interrogate meaning – like my six-and-half-year-old is already doing in school with her friends – argue about swearwords, make jokes about them, ask questions about them, wonder why weak ones don’t work, why misplaced ones are funny, what ones you can or can’t use in front of parents or teachers. Demonstrate how a child’s language changes when there is no authority figure around, because it does. Make fun of the contortions parents go into trying not to swear in front of their children. Make us laugh at the innocent questions young kids ask about what they hear.
Pose the questions in stories that we want children to ask themselves about the language they use and how they use it. About what it means, how it sounds. About the effects it can have. This is a tricky thing to do, and it’s important and expressive and it’s fun and those are the best reasons to write anything.
In conclusion, we need to start sneaking more bad language in children’s books. Spread the word.
December 17, 2014
Back in 2003, the O’Brien Press suffered a major cut in Arts Council funding – a huge blow to one of the country’s top publishers, and unquestionably our most successful and influential native children’s publisher. I responded by writing a letter to the council, appealing for that decision to be reversed. I was only one of many, and the following year, most of the funding was reinstated. Once again, OBP have been hit with a bizarre and undermining cut and it is likely to affect their ability to publish children’s books and to maintain their expert and full-time staff at its present levels.
As a writer, illustrator and designer, I have learned firsthand over more than twenty years, that publishing in Ireland is run on a shoestring. The margins are disturbingly narrow.
This is particularly true of children’s books, with the extra expense of attractive and inventive formats and time-consuming illustration work, while having to charge comparatively lower prices. As well as this, they have to compete with the far greater resources, mainstream marketing and much bigger print runs from publishers in the U.K. who represent the tiny percentage of names who dominate the market.
We live in an increasingly global world and it is right that our publishers should face tough competition, it keeps them on their toes. But we pay taxes to a government which is supposed to represent our interests and promote our culture, and as with so many things, that representation should start with the nation’s children.
There is no doubt in anybody’s mind that Ireland’s writers have a tremendous wealth of ability to offer their country, but they can and do offer it to foreign publishers if there is nobody here who can pay them.
Children need to see their own country featuring in stories, they need to see their neighbourhoods, their people and their culture in the books they read. They need to hear their slang, laugh at their humour and empathise with characters with whom they can identify.
We are swamped by books from the U.K. and the U.S. and they provide children with access to a fantastic range of stories, but that range has to include some of Irish origin, or the next generation of children will grow up dreaming of a bright future . . . set in Britain or America.
Being a kid is hard. Every day is a learning experience, you always have to do what you’re told, grown-ups control everything and they rarely want to do what you want to do. And don’t even talk about school. Whoever said that schooldays were the best days of our lives didn’t go to any school I ever heard of – and I can look back and be thankful that my primary and secondary schools were as good as I could have asked for. Adults – particularly those who set policy and funding for schools but don’t work in them – are so concerned with cramming your head with the knowledge they think might be useful, promoting the development of the imagination can end up getting shoved right to the bottom of the list of priorities.
But it’s your imagination that gets you through childhood. Knowledge helps you grow up to be a capable adult, but your dreams are what you grow up for. They give you purpose. Algebra and geometry might be able to put a man or woman into space, but it doesn’t happen unless someone dreams of going into space themselves – only then does that knowledge equip them to do it.
Fiction throws aside enough of the rules to let us imagine what could be, to empathise, to put ourselves in other people’s shoes, to imagine other possible lives. And books exercise that imagination far more than films or television, or computer games – the process is more potent because the entertainment is not simply shown to you, or responding to levers and buttons, it demands that you take part in the act of creation. Your imagination has to do some of the work.
If we are to produce bright, inventive and productive adults, we have to get our children to read. And to make them want to read and to relate those stories to real life, we must produce books that make them feel stories could happen to them, not just to others. Play is as important as education to a child, it is crucial to the development of a healthy mind. It is not enough that our children have Irish-made textbooks to inform them; they need Irish-made fiction to inspire them.
Given that OBP is Ireland’s foremost publisher of children’s books, a decision on their part to stop production of children’s titles would be a death knell for the industry’s efforts to provide indigenous works for the nation’s kids. There has long been a trend among most other Irish publishers to avoid children’s books because of the sheer cost of producing them, mainly because they are unable to compete with imported titles. If the leading native publisher gave up, what message would that send to those who have had an even tougher time in the market?
Even now, authors are forced to look abroad for publishers if they hope to make a living, exacerbating the drain of culture from our country. It’s a simple, financial truth: Our market is so small, you could have a bestseller in Ireland every year and never make a living from your writing.
Without Irish stories to frame their ambitions, children will grow up with little expectation of achieving their ambitions in Ireland, having been saturated with media from other countries. The backdrop for their dreams will be decided by what they read in books and see on television and in films. And with a few exceptions, television and film portraying Irish life hasn’t exactly been holding the kids riveted lately, particularly in proportion to the funding those industries receive.
It would be a poor reflection on the Arts Council if our country could not provide a wealth of Irish culture to where it is most needed and would have greatest effect – the nation’s children. Providing grants for our young after their perceptions have already been shaped by other countries’ literature and media would seem a bit redundant, assuming they haven’t already left for those far away hills they’ve been hearing about ever since they learned to read.
When I first started sending my books around, over fifteen years ago, I didn’t even bother approaching Irish publishers – I went straight for agents in Britain. I didn’t see a market for my types of books in Ireland. I was confident that there was a place for them in the international market . . . so why not Ireland? Well, because I originally thought of the Irish market as a stifling place, where the only books I saw from native publishers were history books, textbooks, Irish language texts, local interest material and the carefully packaged glossed culture we sell to tourists. These seemed to be the only areas where Irish publishers could compete with their British counterparts, simply because the U.K. publishers didn’t want them.
I’ve since learned a lot more about what Irish publishers can do – and there have also been huge changes in that time, but these publishers have to continue serving a narrow market to survive, even when they want to expand into other areas. Every plunge into mainstream publishing, targeting popular markets dominated by foreign publishers, is a major risk for native companies and many have stopped taking that risk. So for a writer who wants to make his or her mark in the children’s book market, approaching Irish publishers is not an obvious choice. I would not have sent my books to OBP if I had not already talked to them about illustration work – at that time, they had produced very few books for the audience I was trying to reach. I was contacted by a British agency the week after O’Brien made me an offer for my novels, and it was only the clear commitment and enthusiasm of the people at OBP that kept me from going over to the agency. I now have an agent and have been published by dozens of different companies in different countries, but having been involved in the Irish children’s books community for over a decade, I can appreciate all that our industry has achieved. At the beginning, however, and from the outside, I found it hard to see what Irish publishers could offer aspiring writers.
As for the illustration and design work that was my trade for more than ten years before I was published as a writer, I had to emigrate to London because of the then miserable rates of pay for illustration in Irish publishing. Every illustrator I have met who has tried to make his living solely from book illustration in this country has ended up having to look for work abroad, turning to advertising work (normally an illustrator’s second choice), or giving up altogether. Designers, too, can find better paid work almost anywhere else and the result is that, for a long long time, most Irish-produced books looked second rate compared to their British counterparts. That has changed; publishing in Ireland has become far more professional, more deliberate, imaginative and expert in the work it produces for kids and it was the O’Brien Press who led that charge.
Now, instead of receiving annual funding as an organization, they are being forced to apply for individual funding for one book at a time, when they publish twenty or more children’s books a year. They endured the recession and the digital frenzy, cutting nearly a quarter of their staff in 2009 and reducing everyone else’s salaries. Since this new type of application has been introduced, they have only been successful in getting funding for a few books . . . And they are the only mainstream publisher that has been put in this position. In these applications, their staff’s salaries cannot be included as costs, so it’s as if they’re being encouraged to hire freelancers and part-timers instead of full-time staff – one of the best ways of ensuring people can’t build a long-term career in publishing and contributing to the general sense of insecurity and, ironically, the prioritizing of short-term, economic concerns over more longer-lasting cultural ones. And that’s just the people are who are employed full-time. I’m not going to start ranting on here about the scant possibility of writers making a living.
The O’Brien Press is one of the few companies who have been trying to do more than just survive, by constantly raising their standards and searching for new authors and alternative projects. But it seems as if they have been penalised by the Arts Council for showing that Irish publishing can do more than produce another retelling of the 1916 Rising, or a guide to the Aran Islands, or a local celebrity’s biography.
For OBP’s ongoing efforts to promote quality, far-reaching Irish fiction, and for endeavouring to produce brighter and better children’s books, the Arts Council have drastically reduced their funding.
Other Irish publishers will surely take this lesson to heart.
July 24, 2014
If you spent much time in the world of publishing, you might at some point start to wonder if the people who work in children’s publishing had an inferiority complex. Or if they didn’t, they must surely be on their way to developing one.
The main reason for this, in my opinion, is the perception that writing for children is the easy option. And it is fair to say, that children’s books are, in general, shorter, use simpler language, involve simpler scenarios and simpler plots and often feature less nuanced characters than books aimed at grown-up audiences.
When referring to these different audiences, I have to choose my words carefully here, as ‘adult books’ can imply something entirely different and actually, a lot of adults read children’s and especially YA books. In fact, in some cases, more adults are reading young adult fiction than the young adults themselves.
But the point about our stories having to be simpler to understand is true enough. There is also a lot of formulaic writing in children’s publishing. And though there’s plenty of it in non-children’s publishing too, it’s assumed to be worse in children’s books. Even the word ‘childish’ – to be like a child – is a negative term, referring to the things children like or the ways that they behave, as if they are automatically inferior to adults. Which begs the question, where did all these sophisticated adults come from and at what stage in their development did they become separate from, and superior to, their younger selves?
I don’t want to make any particular points about the quality of the different kinds of writing here, except to say, from over ten years experience of making a living as a writer of fiction, it’s harder to write well, simply and clearly, than to write in an obtuse and complicated way. After all, it’s not about the beauty of the language you use, or the complexity of the emotion you wish to convey, but whether your thoughts are received and understood by the reader. And the more complex or nuanced the idea, the more inventive you have to be to get it across in a focussed, understandable and emotionally engaging way.
It is communication and, in the end, it’s the effect on your reader that counts.
Now, there are people who might point out that older readers are more sophisticated, more informed, better educated, that they have years of literary reference, a more worldly perspective, that they have seen more, experienced more, have higher expectations and will recognize work that is unoriginal or clumsy or superficial. Which makes it more challenging to write for adults. And they’d be right about most of that stuff, but if there’s one thing I’ve learned that sets a children’s writer apart from others – at least one who wants to sell enough to make a living from it for any length of time – it is that they must have an awareness of, and curiosity about, a reader who by definition, is not like them.
So . . . writing for kids. The easy option, yeah? Let’s have a look at that.
You might be the most significant writer of the century, with a timeless story to tell, and profound lessons to teach the new generation, but if you can’t get them to turn the pages, it won’t count for anything. People have to put an effort into reading text. Unlike television, film or even audio-books, text requires active audience participation. A bit like bringing someone to hear an orchestra play . . . and handing them an instrument. One cannot read passively. It takes effort. It wears you out.
Now, imagine your reader isn’t very good at reading – that you can make no easy assumptions about their ability to decipher words or to comprehend them (which are two very different things). Imagine your reader has a short attention span, has tastes as arbitrary as any adult, has almost no terms of literary reference, they have an instinctive bullshit detector and are brutally honest with their opinions.
You’re also competing for these new, inexperienced and impressionable readers against films, television and games that offer visually spectacular and often well-written entertainment that’s increasingly easy to access, the like of which the book industry has never faced before. So you have to grab your reader’s interest from the start and hold onto it for dear life.
You’re trying to reach the same minds as the ‘grown-up’ market, you’re just trying to reach them earlier in their life, in a more raw, less developed state, when they’re every bit the individual they’ll be as an adult, they’re just less capable of meeting you halfway in the storytelling, so you have to work that little bit harder. But it does mean you’re reaching those minds at a stage when they’re more receptive and you’ve far greater potential to blow their minds with a book.
If you’re writing books for young readers, you’ll either need to be an illustrator yourself or put your trust in someone else to illustrate your story – to help tell it. So, having written your story, you then have to weave it together with a completely different art form in order for it to be complete. And no, it’s not just a matter of using pictures to decorate or act out your story. They are not just stabilizers for the bike of a weak reader. Done well, illustration should tell a side of your story that doesn’t appear in your words. So how do you write with that in mind?
Now imagine that your readers will always be growing up, so that once you’ve won them over, they will, in a matter of a few years, grow out of the books you’re writing for them, and you’ll have to win over a whole new audience. Your market is in a state of constant turnover.
Welcome to the life of a children’s writer.
As if that wasn’t enough of a challenge, now try getting your head around reading levels. Reading levels are often a subject of debate in the children’s books industry. The single biggest controversy I’ve experienced in my time as an author was the attempt by some UK publishers (including one of mine) to put ‘age guidance’ on the covers of their books. This sparked off a massive dispute over whether publishers should be dictating who should or shouldn’t read what books, and raised the question of what ‘reading level’ even referred to: the difficulty level of the language and story in the books, or the nature of the subject matter.
So a few of our own publishers were trying to place limits on who should be reading our books.
Most writers – and indeed, publishers – want as many people as possible to read their books, are pretty opposed to prescriptive practises and normally scathingly intolerant of censorship. The market itself tends to regulate the subject matter in books – up until our readers hit their teens, we write for kids, but we have to sell through several filters of adults. And a reader’s own ability will quickly decide if a particular book is too difficult to read. As far as I’m concerned, any kid who wants to read a book that is below their reading level should be allowed. Nobody’s going to fall in love with reading if someone’s trying to force them. I still read young kid’s books, and I can read just fine, thanks.
But if you want to be a professional children’s writer, or even if you’re pitching to a publisher and you want to show you understand the industry, you need to have an idea what level of reader you’re writing for. The publisher might disagree about your text, or you might find that during the editing process, you want to change tack, but because children’s ability and tastes change constantly, you need to be able to refer to the different stages for practical reasons.
‘Cos then it comes to marketing and selling our masterpieces.
There are thousands of children’s books published each year in Ireland and the UK. And they’re big sellers – they account for more than a fifth of the total UK book market. If you’re familiar with the literary supplements in any of the mainstream newspapers or magazines, have a look and see what proportion of their reviews are for children’s books. Do they enjoy a fifth of the media’s literary attention? Well, no. Not even close. Most newspapers don’t even have weekly reviews of children’s books.
Like other types of writers, children’s writers are expected to be the main advertisers of their books, setting up their own online presence and doing events in festivals, libraries and schools. Take note: the ability to do school groups is one of the big advantages for a children’s writer. But while other types of writers do events too, as a kids’ writer, an interview format or doing a bit of reading and taking questions doesn’t cut it these days. You’re expected to be a full on children’s entertainer because, frankly, that’s what it takes to hold kids’ attention.
For the difficulties in running a kids’ session, see the problems above when writing for them, then imagine a horde of them is sitting in front of you, waiting expectantly, with each temporarily focussed mind on the verge of wandering in a different direction to the others. All the techniques you use in your writing to grip your reader have be brought into play here too. You have to be an oral storyteller as well as just writing that stuff down.
Despite these extra skills you have to develop, I’ve heard from a number of sources (including one festival organizer) that children’s authors are sometimes paid less for festival events. They are certainly often treated with less prestige than their grown-up-market counterparts, even if their sales and audience numbers are greater. The children’s events schedule in a festival is normally a separate part of the programme and it is invariably at the back of the brochure, after the ‘main’ events.
Some events organizers will try and get you to do events for free – that is to say, work for free, for an event they’re often charging admission to – in return for the publicity and the huge numbers of sales the event will presumably generate. I’ve posted my thoughts on this already.
And while we’re on the subject of money, despite the dizzying sums you hear in the headlines (and I’m never sure how many of them are actually true), advances for writers of children’s books tend to be pretty small and certainly smaller than those for the adult market, which is surprising, until you realize your books are sold for lower prices than non-children’s books.
And finally, to impress upon you how writing for children requires more expertise, not less, than writing for adults, let’s take a look at a parallel: teaching. To teach students in college or university, it is assumed that you’re dealing with self-motivated adults, so when hiring a lecturer, the emphasis is on their qualifications in a given subject. Teaching skills are a distant second. To teach in secondary school, you specialise in a couple of subjects, but you know you’re dealing with teenagers, so a specific qualification in teaching techniques is required. You have to have studied how to get information into young brains.
By the time you reach primary school teaching, the range of subjects has become much broader, requiring greater versatility, allowing for less of that comfortable specialization and critically, the teaching itself has become the most important element. No matter what other expertise you have, the ability to communicate ideas clearly has taken priority over the subjects themselves, because without mastering the skills of teaching, none of those subjects will get taught. And if those primary teaching techniques fail, those adults-to-be will struggle through secondary school and may never even make it to third level.
Children’s writers are not teachers, but we face a similar challenge. This is why writing for children is not only as demanding as writing for adults – we have to craft more carefully what we write to communicate our stories clearly – it is actually more important, as it comes with a greater responsibility. One that many children’s writers, publishers and others in the children’s book community take very seriously.
Because if we don’t do our job right, those kids won’t read, so they won’t grow up reading, so they won’t read all those other books people are writing for when we’re ready to pass those readers on.
And that’s why writing for children is not the easy option. But if you fancy getting into it, it is a lot of fun.
January 10, 2014
I recently read a blog post by Clara Bennathan on the effect porn is having on teenagers’ expectations of sex – especially boys’ expectations. The article is a disturbing, but not very surprising, read and raises a related and difficult issue for children’s book publishing in general . . . and boys’ attitudes in particular.
I’m not one to shy away from violence in my books, partly because it adds drama to a story, but also because it is one of many different challenges to the protagonists that help create perspective. By imagining fictional lives and worlds that are very different from our own, we can look at some of the uglier aspects of life, and make judgements about them, without having to experience them. And I know boys like violence, so that’s another incentive to have it in stories, because I want boys as well as girls to read and I especially want them to read my stories. But I think there’s a responsibility here too. The more realistic the violence in my stories, the more serious I make the consequences for the characters – something my readers are unlikely to see in the violent games they play, and often in the films they watch. It’s one of the advantages of a book. You have the time and depth of field to show consequence.
Those consequences are key – and they can be handled in books better than anywhere else, because the reader is already halfway there, investing their own imagination in the creation of the story. They have created an empathic link of their own.
But in the real world, violence is something most people avoid at all costs and it’s certainly something we hope our children don’t experience firsthand. Sex, on the other hand, is something we hope they’ll get round to once they’re old enough. And yet, as we all know, anything that might have anything to do with sex is a far more delicate subject to broach in children’s literature – much more so even than violence.
This is mostly because any discussion of sex in relation to the word ‘children’, raises the ugly head of paedophilia. Something else that threatens huge damage from the untamed jungle that is the web, and yet – like teenage access to violent porn – the attempts to combat it always seem to be struggling to catch up with the horrific reality of it.
Anyway . . . ours is a strange industry, where it is far more acceptable to show someone killing someone else in a children’s book than to show two adults fondling each other.
Which is odd when you ask yourself, which of these two activities do we want kids indulging in when they’re older?
Which do we need them to be knowledgeable about if they’re to have healthy relationships and lead happy lives? How are we to do something as fundamental as propagating our species without knowing how best to do it? And it is these earthy fundamentals that appeal to boys . . .
Well, and girls too.
Why are we so reluctant to show naked people in young children’s books? Why is it we can’t show body parts the children have themselves and see every day in family life? Writers and illustrators don’t even try most of the time, because we know what the answer will be. I once had a disagreement with an editor over a scene in an illustrated book for confident readers, where two boys have a pissing contest – something boys do from the point where they can stand up and aim (or not). Both boys had their clothes on in the illustration, there were no willies in view and there was a girl with a suitably disgusted look on her face to provide some balance. The editor was an open-minded, very liberal and easy-going person, but her job demanded that she worry about the reactions of parents and teachers. And their expectations of what one should, or should not, see in a children’s book. She was just representing the views of the publisher, and the publisher was effectively bound by the conventions of the industry.
In the end, the scene stayed in (as did the illustration), but it left me feeling frustrated about those conventions, and what they do and do not allow.
We really need to ask ourselves when the portrayal of our bodies, and more especially our bodily fluids and where they come out, became such a distasteful subject. Surely, being able to talk openly and frankly about these things is vital for our health and well-being. Instead, discussion about our bodily parts – and what springs from them – is considered rude, disgusting and many younger children seem to be of the opinion that the anatomical terms for these things are no different from the swearwords that have been derived from them. There are even adults who think the same way.
I’ll be doing another post sometime soon on swearing.
We have made this, most important of subjects, a dirty joke, a taboo subject and in doing so, have made it almost impossible to broach with children in a reasonable and mature way before they actually start finding out about it for themselves. And what’s worse, is we’ve effectively forced them to go online, hoping to find out what the adult world refuses to tell them. These things are either dealt with as a subject of toilet humour in our entertainment, or cold biology in education or as ‘social issues’. We rarely treat them as if they’re just normal.
I can really only speak from a boy’s point of view here, but then as far as the teenage obsession with porn is concerned, boys are the real problem. Speaking as someone who, as a young man, once believed nothing in his life could ever be more important than sex, I can fully understand the mind-altering urges lads get and how they can lead them astray. I do find most porn distasteful, not because I don’t like watching sex – I absolutely do – but because of the way the porn industry treats human beings in general and women in particular. And their stories are usually rubbish, which really breaks the spell. Thankfully, my imagination was better than most of the photos or films I saw as a young man (and still is).
But back when I was a teenager, there was only so much a boy in Ireland could access. Things have changed. Now the really hardcore stuff is out there, it’s viral, it can be got for free and it’s far more extreme and abusive than anything my generation would have been likely to encounter. And what’s most troubling, is the attitude towards women and the violence that is associated with this stuff. And some boys are becoming convinced that this is normal – and are now trying to get girls to reproduce this crap and even record it for themselves.
But what has all this got to do with children’s books? I mean . . . come on, Oisin. I mean, books that aren’t aimed at teenagers. I mean, books for younger kids? Really? It’s not like we’re going to start putting adult sex scenes in those, is it?
Well, no. For the simple reason that it’d be really hard to get right and it would probably be commercial suicide.
But . . . we all know the average boy becomes fascinated with his penis long before he knows anything about sex. He has his first erection long before he knows what he’s supposed to do with it (it is, quite frankly, a bizarre experience when you become aware of it). And given that his body is all there is of him in this world, it’s only natural that it fascinates him. Saliva, sweat, blood, urine, faeces, flatulence, mucus, vomit, semen – whether it disgusts you or not, this is the stuff of life. It’s what we’re made of. We are hardwired to react to each of these things in a different way, because our very survival may depend on it. The most complex part of writing – understanding and provoking emotions – starts with the basics. Biology. To get anyone reading, a writer must provide something that sparks their interest, and like the majority of us when we were young, the average boy is most interested in himself.
And the parts of himself that he is most fascinated by are the tangible, physical bits. The things he can see, hear, feel, taste and smell. The things that provoke the strongest emotions for him, are those that stimulate or threaten these parts of him, and they are the base emotions: disgust, anger, fear, satisfying a physical need, or sexual arousal. So the stories boys seek out most often are those that appeal to their base instincts – at least at the start. And the fact that these things are often considered disgusting or unsuitable or even immoral just makes stories about them funnier, more interesting and more exciting.
But it also convinces children that these things are socially unacceptable, so if they’re curious about finding out more, they’re going to have to do it in secret. That’s where the real problem lies.
Unfortunately, in my opinion, in the children’s book industry, we don’t acknowledge children’s earthy appetites enough. When we’re not ignoring the subject outright, we treat it with distaste and disgust, we don’t do enough to sate it and what little we do, we do too late. We are not honest with our children. In a sincere attempt to protect their innocence, we make them ashamed of their bodies. We leave them with too narrow a perspective and too uninformed, ill-equipped to deal with these issues when they begin exploring for themselves.
In Ireland, I believe the pledge Catholics take at their confirmation to not drink alcohol until they’re eighteen has done untold damage, because it encourages secrecy. Teenagers don’t avoid drinking, they just avoid drinking in front of adults who could promote a mature attitude to it. As a result, they plough in unprepared, they binge drink and that’s where the real damage is done.
We’ve done the same thing with our attitudes to our bodies. Long before they strike out on their own, kids have started contrasting the normal bodies they see around them – the ones they’ve been taught not to look at, not to talk about – with the bodies they see displayed in magazines on racks in every newsagent and on millions of websites.
And they start learning about sex on the web, because what little they’re being told – often in school – is factual and it’s done in a class situation where they can’t express themselves as openly as they’d like. And frankly, it’s just not entertaining enough to engage them emotionally.
Schools do their best, but by the time they start teaching this stuff, children’s attitudes to their bodies have been cemented by the awkwardness of the grown-ups they know, who are reluctant to discuss it, the frustrating lack of it in children’s entertainment, and the saturation in the wider media of images created by grown-ups who neither know nor care who’s looking at the stuff.
We have, in effect, turned over the sexual education of our children to disinterested strangers whose motives vary from the fairly harmless to the downright abhorrent.
I’m not suggesting that we need to start loading children’s books with graphic sex or try to compete with what’s on the web. I just think that the depiction of the human body in children’s books should be kept in step with children’s knowledge of their own bodies and those around them. They need to see images of ordinary, flawed human bodies and learn to appreciate them for what they are. And they need to see it in a normal context, without making it a Carry On-style joke, or a serious social issue. Children need to develop emotional maturity about nakedness and body parts in preparation for the complicated demands that will be placed on them as they become sexually mature.
The other, darker side of the issue, the treatment of women in porn, is obviously a harder one to address in children’s books – and books already promote positive attitudes between opposite genders, because it’s something the industry is very conscious of. But if we can encourage boys to read more, empathy will be the happy by-product and it’s the only thing that will convince them how awful some of the stuff that’s out there really is.
And as teenagers do become sexually mature, they need to have some idea of where to look to find easy, well thought-out and unembarrassing information on sex, on the web or elsewhere – how to do it right and have fun in the process.
But it all starts with the body and how it’s portrayed. And the earliest and best place to start, is in books.
September 30, 2013
Tomorrow marks the beginning of Children’s Book Festival in libraries and schools across Ireland. For people like me, it’s easily the busiest time of the year for events, and this year I’m booked up for just about every school day (and a few weekend days) between now and the mid-term break.
This month, I’ll be a in few different places in Dublin, as well as Ardee and Drogheda, Skerries, Cashel, Thurles, Nenagh and Roscrea, Ballywaltrim and Bray, Castletymon, Manorhamilton, Cavan, Galway, Ashford and a few different places in Meath.
It’s a weird time, when you’re often exhausted but buzzing, and a couple of years ago, I wrote a piece to try and capture that feeling in the morning when you’re setting out, having already spent about two weeks on the road to different places.
This was a piece I originally wrote as a guest blog for the Children’s Book Ireland blog in 2011. It’s a bit dated, as I haven’t changed anything, but basically it’s an accurate depiction of the feeling mid-festival:
An early start. It’s dark, but the kids are already up. Our youngest, just turned one, isn’t sleeping. So neither are my wife and I. October is mental for both of us – a different kind of day every day. Our two toddlers are confused by our lack of routine. I rise like a zombie. Shower myself into something more human.
Try to remember where I am today. Monaghan? Louth? Leitrim? For places that are further away, I’ll wake in a hotel. A travelling salesman. As our two-year-old says: ‘Dada’s going to tell the girls and boys about books!’. I’m a couple of weeks into the month (which starts for me in September). Early in the morning, the exhaustion feels like it will never lift. Coffee. The kids help me wake up, but often I’m gone before they can jump-start my addled senses.
I have my two cases. One for the novels; one for the easel, the drawing materials, the Mad Grandad story-sheets. Always packed and ready to go. Sometimes I don’t even bother taking them out of the car. Notebook in the pocket of my combats. I’m almost always wearing combats. I like having that pocket.
Get into the car. A chance to sit in the quiet before I go. Take a couple of minutes to look at the map. Recheck the route. Then drive. The radio is always on, or some of my music, or an audio-book, helping eat up the miles. Get there early. Know you’re there, then pull in somewhere nearby and chill for a while. Have a coffee at a garage or in a café. Maybe a sandwich if breakfast was a long time ago. I’ll buy grapes if I can find them in a shop, if they look good. A good compromise snack for travelling.
I have a lap-tray in the car. I can work there if I want, or read, or listen to the radio. I always give myself some time, but that’s time to think about what’s coming. How many different places have I visited? Hundreds, anyway. How many individual sessions? And still the little edge of dread, the tension. A bit of a knot in my stomach. It’s not a reading, or a talk. It’s a one-man show. Time to get into character.
Every visit is a first impression. Every session for me, is the one and only time this particular bunch of kids is likely to meet me. You get one chance to have an effect – the right effect. The same applies when meeting the staff. Be nice to everybody. Remember names! Even if it’s just till you leave. Hundreds of new names every year. Staff rooms and cups of coffee. Turning down offers of scones or biscuits (most of the time). They add up. I used to treat myself to a fry-up any time I travelled. I gave that up pretty quickly.
It’s almost time. Always try and walk in about ten or fifteen minutes early. Time to say hello and shake hands. Use the loo. A bit of time to have a look at the place if I can, before I meet the kids. Check that things are set up right. Sort them if they’re not. But sometimes I’m just walked into a packed classroom and I have to wing it. Looking around and picking out the best place to set up.
Still in the car. I’m dawdling now. Putting it off. Time to go in. That turning in the pit of my stomach. I open the door and get out. Take my cases from the back. The air’s got a chill to it.
I look at the outside of the place. Trying to get a sense of it. Maybe there’s already some faces at the windows, looking out. I’m not so tired now. Almost ready. Meeting the kids, seeing their expectant faces, will kick me into gear – it always does. It’s a privilege to be here, to do what I do. To be the reason they’re having a special day. And yet, you can’t take their respect for granted. If you don’t get their attention in the first five minutes, you may not get it at all. But I’m fine with that – it’s part of the deal. I might be knackered, but I know I’ll be charged up, wired by the end. They have that effect on you.
With a case in each hand, I walk through the front door. Time to tell the girls and boys about books.
November 1, 2011
If you’ve been to any of my talks, you may already have heard me say that, for me, the definition of a ‘Young Adult’ book is something that appeals to both young and adult readers. Looking at it this way, you could say that most of our entertainment – whether it’s written down or shown on-screen – is ‘Young Adult’.
I’m not the only who thinks so. The Library Journal in the US ran a recent article discussing YA literature, and who read it. And the answer to that, it seems, is pretty much everybody. . . . . . . .
There has also been an outcry about the desolate wasteland that children’s publishing apparently threatens to become, due to the lack of interest young people today have for books. Y’know, what with their minds being poisoned by electronic entertainment devices of every kind – though Sam Leith in ‘The Observer’ takes much the same point of view as me, arguing that these are just new ways in to reading.
But surely these new kinds of media are pulling our newest batch of trainee adults away from books? I certainly would have thought so. However, according to an article on Timothy McSweeney’s site entitled ‘Young People are Reading More Than You’, it seems this isn’t the case. Thanks to the Inis blog for pointing the article out.
July 21, 2011
Caroline Horn has an article in ‘The Bookseller’ that tells a sobering story about the current state of the children’s publishing industry in the UK – one that can obviously be applied to Ireland as well. Many well established children’s authors and illustrators are really struggling to make a living, partly due to a reduction in sales, partly due to the decreasing value of the books that are sold (children’s books are priced lower than other books, often despite higher production costs) and partly because publishers have grown extremely cautious, and are publishing fewer books, further apart.
What’s interesting about the article is not just the piece itself, but also the barrage of comments that come after. It’s a good snapshot of a cross-section of the publishing world. If you’re an up-and-coming writer, you should check it out – it might be educational. If you’re an experienced writer, chances are, you know a lot of this stuff already.
If you’re an illustrator, you’ll already be well used to trying to strike the balance between the work that you love, and the stuff that pays.
As I’ve said before, this is a tough period in the market, and I’d hate to be starting now, but it’s not quite time for new authors to be taking the toaster into the bath. It’s never been a simple matter of just pitching your line out there and sitting waiting for someone to bite. This has always been a tough industry to get started in, and in which to maintain a career. It’s easy to look back over the early part of this decade, see the headline acts, and think that’s how it’s supposed to be. But browse your way back to the dawn of publishing and you’ll find many of the names we hold up as shining examples now just did not make a living from their books.
Things are tough compared to a few years ago, but it was never easy, and in some ways it’s a lot easier now than it used to be. I’m not just talking about the digital media that are supposed to be solving all new authors’ problems, or the greater disposable income people have (even in these raw times – though they might not be spending it on books). These days, it’s automatic for professionals in the industry to immediately go from a book deal, to considering other means of output; foreign rights, newspaper syndication, comic adaptations, audio-book, radio, television, film. These are all much more accessible than they used to be, and the movement between them is more fluid.
Writers have so much more information at their fingertips about how to hone their skills, how to get published, what it’s like to be published and making a living from it. In Ireland alone, we have access to resources such as the Children’s Books Ireland support site at cb info, the Irish Writer’s Centre, the Irish Writers’ Union, Irish PEN and any number of other writers’ centres, workshops, courses and seminars, as well as all the sites supporting writers on the web. We can get funding for projects from the Arts Council. We also have access to a lot of the resources in the UK too.
As far as making the most of the market is concerned, I still believe that there are a lot of opportunities that publishers are missing because their thinking is stuck in a rut. But it’s a hard fact that this weird, passionate and bizarrely hit-and-miss industry works in certain ways, and you have to work with it. I posted a while back about the importance for authors to take the long-term view, but we also have to take responsibility for our careers. If you want to make a living from this malarkey, it’s not enough to be a writer. I am a self-employed businessman, and it’s really down to me to make it work.
This is a long-term commitment. This is my career, and I don’t rely on one publisher, or one stream of income, or one market. I do all I can to promote my books, to put myself in the way of opportunity and I try to be as prepared as I can for when opportunities arise. I’ve published twenty-one books – with more coming out – I’ve had some pretty big sellers and some critical success . . .
And I still can’t count on any kind of security from this line of work . . . but that’s how it is.
In return for working my arse off and taking some pretty big risks – and this unstable career path is one long series of risks – I get up in the morning to a job I absolutely love, and one I feel privileged to have. Getting published was just the start. Now I’m having to earn my keep, and I can’t count on any publisher to do that for me.
May 3, 2011
One of the things about being published by a few different publishers in the same market, is that you can end up with a slightly disjointed approach to selling your work. Even within the one publisher, you can find that different types of books are sold in different ways.
In some cases, this is necessary; the kind of thing that might help get your books into the hands of a bunch of six-year-olds, isn’t likely to work when applied to young adults. Most of the venues I visit to do my sessions ask for promotional materials, and the posters, bookmarks and other bits and pieces sent out by my publishers tend to focus on one book, or a particular level of books (younger readers, fluent readers, young adults etc.).
But in this brand-conscious world, it’s not enough to sell books one at a time – in fact, with so many different media around now, it’s not books we’re selling at all. The way I look at it, I’m selling stories. There’s a major difference. And though these stories may be aimed at various types of readers, and distributed by a number of publishers, they are written in a way that they all have certain elements in common: basically, the things I look for in the stories I like to read.
I should emphasize that, with all this talk of branding and marketing, I still do this for the love of the job. But I want to still be in the job ten years from now. And to do that, I have to sell my stories. Not one book or another, not a particular series. I want people to come looking for an Oisin McGann Story, regardless of the publisher, subject matter, or reading level.
That’s the way I approach my sessions, trying to gauge which of my stories will appeal to the audience that end up in front of me – by asking them what they read before I do any talking at all. And this attempt to create a unified image also decides how I structure my website.
So I decided, since people regularly look for promotional stuff off me, to do up some of my own. Starting with a couple of posters. There’s one for my younger readers, and one for the older ones. I’ll probably do a second one for the novels, and I’m in the middle of doing one for my foreign editions, which I’ll be using in the Etonnants Voyageurs’ Festival in Saint-Malo, France.
For all of the designs, I wanted some way of showing the book covers for a very general level of reader, without the poster looking like a page from a catalogue – which is what usually happens if you try and lump a load of covers onto one page. Hopefully I’ve succeeded, but I’ll let you decide.
And in case you hadn’t seen them already, there are some Mad Grandad activity sheets to found here. Oh, and I haven’t forgotten about the whole ebooks thing I started with ‘The Vile Desire to Scream’. I’ve got a couple more, different types of stories lined up. Now all I need is the time . . .
February 16, 2010
The issue of what, and more importantly how children will read in the future is a battle – not just for hearts and minds, but also for attention spans. In this, the second of this three-part post, I’ll outline how I believe this change in reading will shape publishing as we know it, and how those of us working in publishing now should be taking the initiative.
I was in Eason’s a little while ago and took this picture. It shows the display stand for children’s comics and magazines. The magazines cannot actually fit on the shelves because of the sheer volume of bulging blister packs stuck to the fronts of the mags, containing cheap plastic widgets. In many cases, the mags have to come in plastic bags to contain all the stuff that come with them.
The fact that most of these ‘gifts’ are pure unadulterated shite and will almost immediately be discarded, is disguised by announcing them to the world with words like ‘Mega!’ or ‘Wicked!’ or ‘Awesome!’ in large, colourful print. Bejaysus, those people in marketing are an awful cunning bunch. The cover of one issue of my stepson’s favourite mag used the word ‘Mega! no less than five times to describe their various gifts, competitions, posters etc.
I am somehow reminded of the Europeans buying the American continent off the natives with trinkets and alcohol (and ethnic cleansing). Not that I’m suggesting that the publishers of these mags are subjecting our innocent little darlings to cultural extermination. The business and consumer relationship is a symbiotic one. They are a constant influence on one another. I just think it’s a very clear indicator of where reading – and the absorption of information in general – is headed.
I posted a blog a while back about the difficulties bookshops are facing. Things have changed a lot in the last ten or fifteen years. I spent a lot of time looking at the new stuff in bookshops when I was a kid, but I bought hardly any new books. Most of what I bought came from secondhand bookshops, where marketing didn’t exist and categories were much more general – in fact, books were lucky to be categorized at all. And, of course, because they were secondhand, the authors saw none of the money I spent. There are very few of these kinds of shops around any more, except for the limited ranges in charity shops and places like Chapters on Parnell Street, who have become a kind of a hybrid of both kinds of selling.
I was also a regular at the library; a dark, musty place with a limited selection for children, but I didn’t know any different. Today’s libraries would put it to shame. I’m not indulging in nostalgia here – nor is this a ‘you don’t know how good you have it’ rant. My main point is the limited access I had to text of any kind. Books cost more in proportion to your income. The newsagents had less to offer.There were no mobile phones, very basic home computers and no world wide web.
Everything was printed on paper. It was stored and accessed in specific locations, in limited numbers, in a static state. Once printed, it did not change, it did not update itself. If you were seeking information, any reference one piece of text made to anything else had to be accessed through another piece of printed material, which you might or might not be able to find or reach. The ability to access the world’s information was dependent on who you were, where you lived, and how much money you had.
And, of course, your education, your ability to read – to know how to choose between different texts, interpret different styles of writing, and to be able to read at length.
Now our lives are flooded with text – coded information that you have to be able to read to survive in the modern world. Search engines provide an astoundingly efficient way of finding whatever information we want. Young people are growing up thinking of text, not as something printed on page, but as something that is fluid, changeable, something they interact with and can affect. A link to other things.
They are becoming adept at surfing, reading across a wide surface from one subject to another. But, as a result, many readers are investing less time in diving into this sea of information to any great depth. It’s hard to blame them. There’s so much cool stuff out there to distract them.
Them? Hell, I’m as bad myself. I try to research something for a story and end up, several hours later, fascinated by something that has nothing to do with what I was originally looking for.
As a writer, trying to make a living by feeding into this ocean of text, I’m affected in two ways. The first is the way I have to write: As a writer of books, I’m not just competing with other books. My potential readers have to be dragged away from magazines, websites, social networking sites, blogs – never mind games and the telly. So I have to do a Dan Brown, trying to produce stories that protrude with so many hooks you can’t read them without snagging your sleeves. It’s not enough to grip your readers, you have to cling desperately to their leg as they walk away from you. Soon, we could be reduced to the literary equivalent of sticking plastic widgets to our text.
The second way I’m affected is that I’m . . . well . . . getting on in years. At the ripe old age of thirty-six, I am substantially older than most of the readers my books are marketed to. It’s true of most writers for young people. They are not, by and large, young people themselves. Except now they are.
Books are, by nature, longer than the average post on Facebook or a blog (even this one). They take time to write and are therefore, like most published writers, old by the time they are finished. They can take a while to read too. A book does not tell you about your friends and family, it doesn’t interact with you. Professional writers are not just competing with each other. We’re competing with our readers. They are writing for each other. The newspapers discovered this problem some time ago.
The wondrous connectivity of the web has created a text that offers communication with people you can relate to, who speak your language. There is an immediacy, an excitement and sense of techno-cool that is easy to read and easy to access. Something you can share with your friends. Text hasn’t just become part of your social life, it is actually replacing parts of your social life.
But more to the point, the mass production of text, which was once the sole territory of print publishers, has become available to the masses. These advances have allowed the readers to seize the means of production. The nerve of them.
But it doesn’t stop there. Because text is starting to lift off the page and come to life. Audio books are becoming increasingly popular. The Amazon Kindle has text-to-speech software that will read the book to you. It’s like having Stephen Hawking speaking in your ear, but it’s an interesting start.
In the opposite direction, voice recognition software has left its awkward, fumbling days behind and is becoming ever more practical. Google’s Nexus 1 phone boasts that many of its applications can be voice activated. With voice-to-text, you can speak into the mike and see a text write itself before you eyes. The phone can even censor swear words – a feature I find a bit scary.
How will this affect the next generation’s ability to read and write at length – or even do these things at all? I don’t believe that text is going anywhere, but what about the ability to interpret it? At the moment, it’s certainly not the publishing industry who will decide. We may have hardly any influence at all.
Publishing is no longer something that is done and then finished – handed from one small group of people out to another, larger one. It is an ongoing process in which anyone can take part. Which I think poses a couple of questions.
The first has been faced both by publishers and readers ever since manuscripts started being reproduced in large quantities as books: Faced with such a quantity of text, how do we choose what to devote our valuable reading time to? The more sources of text, the harder that question is to answer.
The second question is: How does a professional publishing industry survive in an environment where anyone can publish and access text for free?
And if it doesn’t survive in any recognizable form, what will happen to the quality of the material that continues to be published?
I’ll have a look at that in Part 3.
February 15, 2010
I’m going to post this in three parts – blogging is meant to be an exercise in short, sharp writing and I’m tackling a complicated issue. That brevity in writing will be part of what I want to talk about. In this post, I’d like to put forward an outline of what publishing has been up until now, and in the second part, have a think about the nature of reading and how it’s changing. In the third part, I’ll have a look at how those changes are affecting publishing, and where I think it might be going. And why all of us working in children’s books should be taking an active role in helping direct these developments.
I’m going to start with a question I’m often asked by kids – and some aspiring authors. This bit is largely taken from my FAQ section.
What does a publisher do?
A publisher turns stories into books and distributes them to a mass audience. There are different kinds of people who work in a publishing company and they all have an important role in getting a book to the people who will read it. First, they find a story and read it to see if it will make a good book. If they don’t like it, they won’t publish it. Publishers receive thousands, even hundreds of thousands of submissions every year. Because of the sheer amount of time it can take to deal with all these, many publishers will now only accept submissions from agents. Agents also receive thousands of submissions every year.
If the publisher decides to publish the story, an editor takes the text in the form of a word processing file, and reads it to check for any mistakes and to ensure that the story makes sense and whether it can be improved (always a touchy subject). When the text is ready, they decide if it will need illustrations, photos, etc. Each page is then designed and typeset so that it is attractive and easy to read. Sometimes the designer does all of this on computer themselves, but with novels, the typesetting is often done separately by the printer.
This is all put on a printing machine, which makes thousands of copies of each page . The pages are normally laid out in large sheets with many pages per sheet. The designer also creates the cover of the book using illustrations, photographs or computer graphics. In novels or other less illustrated books, the cover is often printed separately to the rest of the book. When all the internal pages of the book are printed, they are cut or folded down, bound together inside the cover, using stitches, staples or glue, and trimmed on a guillotine.
Once your book is printed, it is the job of the marketing and public relations people to come up with ways to tell everyone about it, including sending it to reviewers. Then the salespeople have to take the books to shops and libraries and persuade them to show the books on their shelves where readers will see them (really important). Then, if all of that works out and people like the look of your book, they might actually buy it and read it. And that’s all that most writers want.
So, to boil it all down, what a publisher traditionally does for a writer is first, they take that story on. That approval is, in itself, a recognition that the story is of a reasonable quality. Then they hone it into something they can sell, produce the printed matter and distribute it to reviewers and the shops. Shops treat books from well-known publishers far more seriously than they do self-published books.
In this way, publishers have always exercised great power. As ‘filters of quality’, they have decided whose writing reaches the market. Obviously this is all relative; the more powerful and influential the publisher, the bigger push it can give to a book.
I found an excellent film a while back on Very Hungry Caterpillar. It shows how books were once printed. And apart from things like the fact that we no longer use molten lead to create blocks of type, not a whole lot has changed. This short piece of film is a must for all bookworms. It is a great demonstration of the basic process that has, for hundreds of years, formed the focus of the whole publishing world.
If you want to see a more detailed demonstration of how printing has developed over the centuries, check out The National Print Museum in Beggar’s Bush Barracks on Haddington Road in Dublin.
But in the last few years, the nature of reading and accessing information has changed. As a result, the key roles that publishers have played in bringing writing to the masses have also changed drastically. And that affects writers and illustrators in a big way too. I’m going to have a look at that in Part 2.