The Empty Shelves

As I was queueing in the post office, the line snaked past the few shelves of books for sale, and an all too familiar situation caught my eye. There were three shelves of books for children. Of these one was entirely filled with Disney franchise books, another had colouring books, and books of stickers, the third had books for older children. On this last shelf were nine different titles – all but one were by the same two celebrity authors. All were the same genre.

This upset me, but perhaps not for the reasons you expect. As an author and campaigner for the rights of authors, this does frustrate me because it limits the opportunity for other authors to get their work into the hands of readers, but it’s more than that.  As a children’s librarian my frustration is doubled.

Let me explain.

I have worked with children’s books and reading for over thirty years, and I have worked with many national groups supporting children’s literacy. I’ve sat on working groups looking at the development of readers, taught hundreds of teachers how to tackle reader development in their schools, and have personally taught almost a thousand children how to read or improve their reading. So you might say I know a thing or two about reading!

People often ask me what the key to success in reader development is, and the single best piece of advice I can give anyone – be it parent, bookseller, librarian or teacher – is that the first important thing is choice. A wide, free, voluntary choice.

I live in a small rural town and, like many other towns, we are a fifty mile round trip to a large bookshop. We are very lucky in that the community fought to keep the little bookshop open. Most small towns (and indeed many larger ones too) have no bookshop at all, and the only access to purchasable reading material is the supermarket, or the few shelves in the newsagent or post office. The few books available on these shelves do not represent a wide, free, voluntary choice because they represent what the supplier wants the retailer to sell. This limits the choice available and skews the popularity (and sales figures) of the book.

In my experience I would say that roughly 30% of children coming into the primary school library choose a funny book. That’s fantastic! As a genre, funny books certainly command a decent chunk of the market share, and feature highly in the national lending figures for libraries. The most popular funny books in my library were always the ones that were a bit smarter than basic fart gags. I love a funny book and am in awe of writers who can make a reader howl with laughter. However, farts are not the only fruit.

I was chatting to bookseller, Tamsin Rosewell from Kenilworth Books, and she says that the figures for children purchasing this genre of books is far lower, and says that around 5- 10 % ask for a funny book.

“Within that, they are very selective”, Rosewell says. “When a child comes into the bookshop, or someone asks for help choosing a book for a child, the first question is “what sort of person are they?” A great many want to see situations and characters they understand to be real.”

We talked about this difference between what is borrowed, and what is bought, and theorised that the reason for this may be that when it comes to ownership, and children have the choice, they lean towards a much wider variety of genres and therefore the money is more evenly spread across the board.

We also talked about the mass-market approach to publishing.

“I’m fascinated by the way today’s book market is polarising,” said Rosewell, “and which parts of it are the focus of deep discounting. The combination of celebrity books being heavily discounted on release, and the fact almost all children’s celeb books are humour, means we are in effect creating an environment in which one genre is having its perceived value reduced.”

Most primary school age children couldn’t care less about the celebrity of the author, and were more interested in the content than the author. This situation was changed when the only books available were from celeb authors. In some of the schools where I have worked, the only authors the children knew were the ones they saw on the telly, or in the supermarket. Their free, voluntary choice had been altered by their lack of choice. They had only the illusion of choice thanks to deprivation or lack of access to other reading materials.

“If we can accept that these celeb books are a brand,” Rosewell says, “then what we have is a high-cost brand marketing campaign targeted directly at children. If it is extremely costly marketing that drives high sales, then please let’s call it marketing and acknowledge that these books are often marketed well beyond their quality.

How many adult readers realise how the big retailers and publishers are manipulating them towards the books they want to sell? Are customers of those big bookshop chains aware that publishers have paid a lot of money to have that book on a display table, and even more to be displayed in the window? Do people realise that to get on those celeb book lists the publisher has paid a vast sum?

The big publishers offer huge discounts to retailers who stock their big names. I do some work in our small community bookshop, and I am stunned at how large the discounts are for some of the big celeb names. I’ve seen new children’s titles offered to us at up to 60% discount. This is very tempting for retailers because we can sell them at full price and make a tidy profit. Of course this does mean that many retailers feel they have no choice but to give up valuable shelf space to… you guessed it… the same limited pool of authors.

All of this means the entire system is skewed towards a very limited pool of authors, and this ends up with that shelf in the post office with only celeb authors, and only one genre of books. These books obviously appear at the top of the bestseller lists, and this is hardly surprising given they dominate available retail space and command marketing budgets that would make most authors weep with envy. Every year the pool of authors who are heavily pushed in this way seems to get smaller and smaller. This means in turn we have nothing here that is diverse, inclusive or challenging. Go into any retailer who stocks books as a sideline – be it post office, supermarket, train station or airport – and no matter where you are in the UK you will see exactly the same authors, and exactly the same books.

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What a well curated choice looks like in a small bookshop.

What this aggressive marketing means is that the majority of children looking at the shelves in any large supermarket or newsagent would only see a limited choice, and would probably not see anything that they can identify with. This does not mean they won’t end up owning these celeb or funny books, because well-meaning family will see these books occupying 90% of the available bookshelves in retailers and they buy them because they believe they are doing the right thing. If it’s there, it must be popular and what every child wants, right?

Wrong. It’s not what the child who favours fantasy, or real-life stories, or non-fiction, or poetry, or thrillers wants. For these children the shelves may as well be empty.

Reading for Pleasure has a whole range of wider benefits (as detailed in the Reading Agency’s report Reading for Pleasure and Empowerment, a report for which I was honoured to sit on the steering group). However, to gain the wider benefits of reading for pleasure it must be two things – a free voluntary choice, and a pleasure. This means that to support national literacy and to wider spread the benefits of reading for pleasure, people must have more available choice.

My field is, obviously, children’s books, but I know that you will see the same limited pool of authors and genres for adult books. The books the publisher wants you to buy. The authors representing the biggest investment the publisher has made so they desperately need to claw back that huge advance. Publishing is, after all, a business and the book is not a sacred object, it is a product they need to shift in large quantities in order to help their business survive. We can’t blame a retailer for stocking what serves them the largest margin of profit either.

What can be done about this? I would suggest that the only person who can actually change this situation is the shopper. Tell the retailer that you want more choice, or shop elsewhere. Seek out a retailer who is not in the sway of the super-massive publisher. It’s not easy to find an independent bookshop, but you can always use Hive and order online. Independent bookstores are more able to make independent decisions about what they stock, and they can strike deals with indie publishers and often have a far more diverse and interesting selection of books. If you’re buying books for a child as a gift, don’t be influenced by the small number of same-olds in display, ask the child who their favourite writers are and then seek professional guidance on who else writes like that. A real bookseller or librarian will be able to help you. If you don’t have one nearby, you can find them all over social media or online. If you regularly buy books, I’d suggest using the excellent services of Who Else Writes Like….? This is often also available free via the digital offerings of your public library.

Which brings me neatly to the library.

If you really want your child to grow up to become a lifelong reader, they will need choice. Lots of it. The library is a key factor in turning your child into an accomplished reader – precisely because of that treasure trove of choice. Where else can your child stand in the midst of hundreds of different titles and grab whatever catches their eye for free? Where else can your child try loads of different things until they work out which genre suits them? The school and public library should be like a groaning buffet table where children can try loads of different tastes and flavours to work out what they want to feast on for the rest of their lives. When they’ve decided what they like, then it’s time for ownership. Then it’s time to make sure that every penny spent on books is heading in the direction of something they ACTUALLY want, and not just something marketing departments have told them they SHOULD want.

Avid and developing readers deserve to have choice, and in denying them choice we are also ignoring the fact that this should be a golden age of children’s literature. In my three decades working with children’s books, I can honestly say I have never seen books of such variety, and such a high standard, as those being published today. Books are published all the time in every genre that are dazzling, challenging, diverse, inclusive, magical and addictive. I read hundreds of books for young readers every year, and the standard in the last decade has been consistently rising. Once upon a time excellent books for children were as rare as hen’s teeth, today a dozen are published every month that I would consider future classics. So why are so many being published only to never find their way onto the shelves of bookshops or retailers?

I’m afraid I don’t have an answer for that one, all I know is that I read these books and I want to recommend them but they are not in any shops so people won’t find them. Given that over 95% of the coverage of new books in the media is for adult books and hardly any attention is given to books for younger readers, it’s not really surprising people have no idea how many outstanding books miss their moment – despite many being every bit as good as books from our own childhood that are considered classics.

It’s absolutely fine to have celeb books (and fart-funny books!) in the market. Many are great, and definitely deserve space on the shelves, but they don’t deserve all the space on the shelves. Choice. This is what every reading expert knows can turn a non-reader into a reader. It’s what every reader deserves.

This is why I rail against the same-old-same-old stuff on the ever diminishing bookshelves in our communities – because it matters to us all.

At least, it should.

Dawn Finch is a children’s author, librarian and community bookseller. She works extensively in the field of children’s books and writes both fiction and non-fiction for children. She is former president of CILIP (the UK library and information association) and a member of the Children’s Writers and Illustrators Committee for the Society of Authors.

Her most recent publications include an educational book about Hadrian’s Wall, and a book for the School Library Association about historical fiction.

@dawnafinch

www.dawnfinch.com

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