World Book Day – a celebration of writing for children, or a celebrity marketing exercise?
Our culture has become so obsessed with celebrity that we have started to confuse fame with ability, and they are not the same thing at all. We are deeply concerned and disappointed about the dominance of ‘celebrity’ writers on the list for the next World Book Day – to the exclusion of the many really wonderful (non-celebrity!) writers working today. We feel very strongly that this both misses the point of the day’s celebration and is hugely detrimental to the future of the book industry.
To give children and families the impression that books with a celebrity name attached to them have been chosen above all others sends very damaging messages: to be a successful writer you need to be famous or pretty; and: the best books are those by people who are on the telly. The choices on this list are narrow too – most of them are humorous rollicking fun stuff; where is the introduction to historical fiction, and what happened to the pleasing terror of a gothic story (a very important genre that later becomes a serious subject of study from year 7 right the way up to sixth form)? Where’s the poetry? What about biography, adventure, nature-writing? Oh I could go on. To assume that kids will only want silly funny books is a huge insult to their intelligence, and indicates a lack of understanding about what children need to read about. This list does little to introduce children to new genres or to a whole range of really interesting writers whose work we sell every day. Chris Priestley, SF Said, Julian Sedgwick, Eloise Williams, Chloe Daykin, James Mayhew, Jackie Morris, Nicola Davies, Philip Ardagh, Malorie Blackman, Peter Bentley, Robin Stevens, MG Leonard and Karin Celestine are just a very few of the wonderful writers whose work has dominated our best sales recently, attracted delighted reviews from kids, been ordered in bulk by schools and libraries, and praised by parents – so why are none of these names on that list? Not only is this celebrity-dominated list sending the wrong message entirely, but is also enormously depressing for booksellers, who work hard to introduce new readers to work by excellent writers (both new and established) and singularly disheartening to authors who have a lifetime of experience and skill that adds real value to our cultural canon. It is important that children understand that the celebrity names attached to books are most often not the people who actually wrote them. Again, very misleading and unhelpful if you are trying to encourage children in a love of reading and writing.
As a very small, independent bookshop the success of our business relies on our skill as booksellers. If we tried to compete with WHSmiths over the road we would fail; most of the books on display there are heavily discounted mass-market fiction, or celebrity-endorsed publications like cookbooks, celebrity biographies and vloggers’ promotions. To thrive on the high street we need to know our books very well, and we do. We go out of our way to find books to encourage readers, to promote the work of writers and illustrators who we think are the most interesting and talented ones, to provide parents, teachers and school librarians with books that help them cater for all sorts of kids’ needs, both emotional and entertainment.
We also know our adult fiction shelves well enough to be able to support dozen of local book groups’ reading – these people want to be kept on their toes and to be challenged, the latest promo in WHSmiths or Sainbury’s really is not what they are looking for. When World Book Day comes around we buy (bookshops have to pay for the WBD books – they don’t just arrive free of charge) the selection of books chosen and then, basically, we give them away. It isn’t a huge amount of money to buy the books, in fact it costs us more as a business to exchange that World Book Day token for £1 off another book than it does to give away the chosen books for free. Nevertheless, generally speaking this does seem to bring people in to the shop during that period. It is difficult to tell if it is hugely effective as a support for high street bookshops, but that isn’t its main aim anyway. However, when we are confronted with a list of books that actually flies directly against everything we are trying to accomplish as a local indie shop, there seems little point in joining in. Generally speaking we don’t keep celebrity books in the shop, because our customers can walk 20 yards over the square and get them at less than half price in WHSmiths, or order them online for even less. These are not books, they are marketing exercises that are disguised as books. So why would we as a small bookshop with skilled booksellers who already work hard to promote reading in schools, to support new readers, to have close links with our county libraries, and to encourage parents to let their kids explore widely, be helped at all in our task by taking the backwards step of offering kids a celebrity marketing tool instead of a book by an author whose other work we can then talk about with great enthusiasm? World Book Day normally gets this right – there have been some fabulous writers involved in previous years. But this year’s book selection, as a display, is just embarrassing. They have not yet announced the YA/MG lists; I really hope they get this right at least.
There have always been a few celebrity writers around; but the announcement of this first list of 2018 World Book Day books feels like we have had an avalanche that has tipped the balance away from valuing the skills of a writer, and towards the notion that celebrity is an important factor in children’s writing. One of the central messages of World Book Day is that children, particularly those who might not otherwise get the chance to do so, get to choose their own book.
Do primary school children know who these celebrities are? Do they care? Evidence from library studies shows that the name of an author plays only a very small role in the way a child chooses a book. Illustration, cover design and subject are the main factors influencing a child’s choice. It is far more likely that celebrity names will appeal to parents, and not be a significant factor in a picking a book off the shelf for a child. So either this is aimed at the parents actually deciding for the child (which defeats the purpose) or it is aimed at introducing celebrity brands to children in preference to writing for the sake of its interest and quality. Now in theory having celebrity names on World Book Day books would offer a route in for non-reading parents, and that sounds like a fabulous idea. Doesn’t that just break down barriers and act as a gateway to get kids off TV and into books? No. It’s a lovely notion that kids from non-reading families will suddenly become readers if they know the people off the telly and see their picture on the back of a book. But what a celebrity dominated book market actually does is to extend the ‘brand’ of a celebrity, and push children and families even further away from the recognition that there is a whole other world out there of really amazing stories and poems by professional writers and poets. This isn’t at all about kids from non-reading families recognising celebrity names; it is about the connection that has been forged between World Book Day and the major supermarket retailers. To shift huge numbers of books to families, one of the best routes would be to arrange for that to happen during the family shop (and if the 10p per book that the supermarket has invested in the collection of WBD books is the tool that also sells a £12.99 costume, then all the better). The supermarkets were never created to support kids’ reading. Why would they have the least understanding or interest in who wrote (or didn’t write) a book? Why would they be interested in having a good range of books representing many types from non-fiction to poetry, thrillers, comedy, and historical fiction? Their knowledge is of their customers, not of literary variety. They know how to sell large amounts of stock and what will interest their customers, and sell the add-ons that go with it. And this is where the problem lies. The involvement of the supermarkets is not a problem per se; the problem is that if WBD then bases their judgement of success on how many of the vouchers have come back in (which would be the easy thing to calculate – rather than take the far more difficult course and find way to judge how many children have joined a library, or asked to go to a bookshop, after the activities of World Book Day) then you at only going to get a measure of how well WBD judged what would sell in a supermarket.
I think there is a comment to be made about illustration too. Probably the only people who might benefit from a celebrity dominated World Book Day are the illustrators chosen to have their names alongside the ‘celebs. Every bookseller in the country knows that illustration and book cover design is an important factor in whether a book sells or not. Children are far more likely to pick up a book for its illustration than for a celebrity name. While I’m delighted that the illustrators involved in this are benefitting (about time they did benefit from this industry as they have spent decades being left off data-listings, accidently not given copyright, sometimes not named at all and generally playing second fiddle to an author), World Book Day has missed a huge opportunity in not promoting noisily the names of all the illustrators involved. There is a page about wonderful illustrator Jim Field on their website, but none of the other illustrators get much of a mention. As the pictures are actually what sells books, particularly young kids books, why was there no press release that led with ‘Vibrant illustration dominates books created for World Book Day!’? Or ‘Some of Britain’s greatest illustrators chosen to work alongside major Celebrities for World Book Day!’? This horrible tangle of celebrity branding, misplaced credit and some very unsavoury messages wafting about in the publicity does make me wonder if the team at World Book Day has any idea at all what actually attracts a child to a book.
I worked for Spitting Image in the 1990s and I know more than my fair share of comedians; without exception they are the very cleverest of all my friends (sorry other friends), in terms of mental agility and speed of thought there are few that match them. Yes, many of them are also great with words and can string a wonderful sentence together; hilarious anecdotes and fabulous one-liners are a great skill. But there is all the difference in the world between being ‘good with words’ and having the long-practiced skill and knowledge of literary form to be able to create great book. I do indeed know a couple of comedians who have become excellent and very funny children’s writers; but that has been through hard work and learning the skills of a working writer. We need to ensure that there is a next generation of writers, and if our talented kids grow up thinking that the definition of a successful writer is one who has their own TV show (and that books miraculously just appear to support their celebrity status) then we, as a society, stand to lose a great deal. The very best of our writers are not there because they are pretty or have been in a band, or won a reality TV show. The very best of our writers are published because, whatever their background, they have real talent, they work extremely hard and have acquired great skill, they research, they read widely the work of other writers, they have great passions for subjects, and are prepared to write about things that might have caused them pain in the past; and this way they have accumulated vast knowledge about what makes a book powerful, challenging, joyful or thought-provoking. They understand how plot devices work. They know how to create tension in prose. They know how to construct and pace a story in a great arc of narrative that will take you far into the stars, and still bring you home safely. They have also had failures along the way, probably a quite few tears too, and times of self-doubt – but they have persevered. Celebrity books are just battery-operated, trend-driven publishing to satisfy markets and support brands. True authorship is real, trembling, spreading fire, the sparks of which will light up minds for generations.
Of course there is no intrinsic reason why a TV celebrity should not go on to become a good author; but do I believe that a TV reality figure can suddenly become a skilled storyteller overnight just when their next TV series is due to be announced? No, sorry, I don’t believe that for a minute. Becoming a writer takes time and dedication. For those very few known first for their fame, who do go on to write great fiction or non-fiction, this whole tangle of deceptions taints them with the same brush as those who had a go at a couple of chapters and then were handed the skills of a professional copywriter. Ghost writing is an odd and difficult subject, and probably one that needs discussion. Personally I really don’t see that being a hidden ghost writer benefits anyone at all. Publishers have been so anxious to convince us all that these celebrities are sitting there burning the midnight oil, quill in hand and deep in thought that they have tripped over several times. One prominent celebrity writer was on Radio 2 recently talking happily and with great respect about his ‘co-author’ while the publisher is announcing that he writes his own books. There is some excellent practice too though; Jessica Ennis Hill has talked very proudly and publicly about having an association with writer Elen Caldecott, and rightly so. Elen Caldecott has a long list of wonderful books to her name. Elen is named clearly and prominently as the author of the books promoted by Jessica Ennis Hill; I have seen how a clear and open association like this can indeed lead kids to reading books that they would not otherwise have considered ‘for them’. It would be wonderful to see a publishing convention emerge that acknowledges, in the way that Jessica Ennis Hill and Elen Caldecott have done, the name, presence and the great skill of a writer. If the name of the writer is hidden, only muttered quietly in publishing board rooms or between those of us ‘in the know’ then all that publishers are doing is leading children into further belief that celebrity branding is the height of culture. Musician and film writer, Warren Lemming once said ‘If you’re famous, it’s as if you have a golden monkey sitting on your shoulder. When people come up and talk to you, they just see the monkey’. Unless we name and promote publicly with pride and joy the names of the ghost-writers, children will not read a celebrity-named book and suddenly understand that there is a whole world of literature open to them, they will only really see the golden monkey.
Ah, that was a lovely rant. But having a good whinge is little more than mildly therapeutic unless you combine it with doing something practical to counter the damage. We have decided therefore that during the period for which the World Book Day tokens are valid, if you come in and allow us to recommend to you a book by one of our many favourite writers, talk to us as booksellers who love writing, know where the right books are for you, and maybe even for us to show you the work of the people who have ghost-written the ‘celebrity’ books (many of whom have published excellent pieces in their own names too!) then we will donate £1 – which is the value of the World Book Day Tokens – to The Society of Authors. The SoA works to support writers at every stage – from encouraging and financially supporting new writers, to offering help with the complexities of publishing contracts and to then supporting those who are in need. We feel that this is by far the best use of our efforts during the period through which world book day runs.
We are all lucky enough to be living in a truly great age of children’s book writing, to fill a day of book celebrations with celebrity is completely unnecessary; they had an entire casket of shining jewels to choose from, and they picked out the synthetic ones.