Monday, 1 February 2016

#CoverKidsBooks – The Facts


"It's a fantastic time to be writing children's and YA fiction," Frances Hardinge told the world last week.  The Lie Tree had just become the second children's book in history to win the overall Costa Book Of TheYear.  "For those who think children's and YA fiction is not their thing: please do come and explore.  There's a beautiful jungle out there."


The jungle is beautiful indeed.  It's getting more beautiful all the time, as more and more brilliant writers are attracted to the infinite imaginative space it offers. 

It's also getting bigger.  Children's literature – by which I mean the entire range of books for young readers, from the youngest picture book to the oldest YA, including fiction, non-fiction and poetry – is growing every year.  According to The Bookseller, sales of children's books overtook adult fiction for the first time in 2014, and they now account for over 30% of the UK publishing market.

So this is a golden age for children's literature.  But how do you navigate your way through a jungle?  Book reviews and other media coverage should be guiding the public, helping them discover the riches of contemporary children's books.  Are they?

#CoverKidsBooks commissioned some research into the question.  Imogen Russell Williams, a children's literature critic who writes for The Guardian, Metro and MG Strikes Back, spent a month last year counting the number of reviews and column inches given to children's books in UK national newspapers.  Here are her findings. 

Weekend newspapers, August 2015

Newspaper
All Book Reviews
Children's Book Reviews
Percentage Children's Book Reviews
All Book Reviews (Inches)
Children's Book Reviews (Inches)
Percentage Children's Book Inches
Times
110
7
6.4
1117
42
3.8
Sunday Times
95
3
3.2
891
12
1.3
Guardian
104
4
3.8
1645.5
58
3.5
Observer
61
2
3.3
792
29
3.7
Independent
73
2
2.7
871
25
2.9
Independent On Sunday
67
3
4.4
392
21
4.3
FT
41
0
0
699
0
0
Telegraph
52
13
25
723.5
58.5
8
Sunday Telegraph
42
1
2.4
352.5
2
0.6
Daily Express
1
0
0
1
0
0
Sunday Express
41
1
2.4
137.7
2
1.5
The Sun On Sunday
5
0
0
7
0
0
Sunday Mail
60
1
1.7
405
1
0.2
TOTAL
752
37
4.9
8034.2
250.5
3.1

Three things stand out to me. 

Quantity
Children's books currently get just 3% of all book review space, despite accounting for over 30% of the market.  That is an entire order of magnitude of under-representation.

Frequency
In the period monitored, only one newspaper published a children's book review every week.  Almost all newspapers average fewer than one review a week.  For most newspapers, most weeks see no children's books reviewed at all.

Length
Children's book reviews are typically shorter than other book reviews.  That's why the figure for column inches is almost half that for the number of reviews.  So even when children's book reviews do appear, they get less space than other book reviews. 

The research shows how children's books are under-represented and under-valued across the board.  Very few children's books are currently being reviewed, representing a very narrow range.  Yet this was not always the case.  Julia Eccleshare, The Guardian children's books editor, remembers a very different situation in the 1970s, when she began working in journalism.

"There was a serious commitment to children's books among the national newspapers," she recalls.  "Brian Alderson was children's books editor of The Times, John Rowe Townsend was children's book editor of The Guardian, Naomi Lewis wrote for The Observer – there was a named person at each newspaper who had a role.  These people made their living out of reviewing children's books.  And people talked about reviews of children's books, because that's how they found out about children's books.  How else would they have known about them?"


One newspaper made a particularly strong commitment to children's books.  The Times Literary Supplement ran four children's literature supplements a year, each of which contained at least 24 pages of children's book reviews.  That averages two pages of children's book reviews a week.  These supplements were regular and comprehensive.  As such, they attracted a large, loyal following.

"You could cover a lot of titles," says Eccleshare, who worked at the TLS at the time.  "We did fiction and non-fiction, picture books, the whole range.  It was supported by The Times; they thought it was a good thing to do.  It was taken by all the librarians, and as you can imagine, the readers of the TLS who were parents fell on this thing, and it was hugely influential and opinion-forming."

The situation changed in the 1980s.  Newspaper coverage of children's books declined, and the TLS stopped publishing those supplements.  What happened?

"It was a very low point for children's books," says Eccleshare.  "They were getting shorter and shorter, because people were less and less confident that children would read them.  It was a moment when it felt like television was going to rule the world and books were going to vanish.  And once you don't have a good time for children's books, you're not going to get the coverage.  So it fell off the perch."

But something unexpected happened in the 1990s.  Children's books didn't vanish.  Instead, they became the biggest phenomenon in publishing.  That was when the current golden age of children's literature began; when it started to expand to become the most dynamic sector of the industry. 


"This children's books boom has gone on for a long time now," says Eccleshare.  "It's nearly 20 years since the publication of Harry Potter and His Dark Materials.  I don't think it's going to go away."

When Philip Pullman's The Amber Spyglass became the first children's book to win the overall Whitbread (now Costa) Book Of The Year, back in 2001, it should have been a moment when newspapers responded by giving more space to all the wonderful new literature that was appearing in a great flood.  Yet somehow, that didn't happen.  Review coverage remained tiny.  The boom in YA fiction that began with books like Twilight and The Hunger Games had no impact either, even as films based on those books received massive review coverage. 


So why is a field with such enormous cultural impact being ignored?  Have newspapers not caught up with what's happened since the 1990s?  

"I think that's right," says Eccleshare.  "They don't realise the frenzy there is around children's books.  In any week, if you follow the bestsellers, children's books are enormous.  And if you follow the PLR, children's borrowing is astonishing.  Nobody's paying enough attention to that."

The argument we often hear for why children's books get so little coverage is because children don't read newspapers.  But this ignores the fact that children aren't the main buyers of children's books.  Huge numbers of adults need to know about what's new in children's literature: booksellers, librarians, teachers, parents, and all the other buyers and recommenders of children's books, as well as adults who read them for their own enjoyment.  Many of these people read newspapers.  I'm going to be talking to some of them in the next #CoverKidsBooks blogs, hearing their views on why children's books coverage matters so much. 

It should be said that there's a lot of brilliant children's books coverage online.  But it's found most often by those who already know about it.  For the general public, the traditional mass media remain vital.  As Eccleshare says of newspapers: "Their discoverability level is so high.  And the whole point about newspapers is that they are the place of record.  I think it devalues children's literature not to be recording it.  If we don't have reviews, we are belittling the crucible of reading.  And if we don't have reviews, there is only noise."


#CoverKidsBooks believes it's time for newspapers to make a serious commitment to covering children's literature again.  Perhaps it could start with the simple, achievable goal of every newspaper running at least one children's book review every week.  But just imagine what might happen if a newspaper gave a page a week to them – or even two pages, as the TLS did in the 1970s, when children's literature was nowhere near as significant, culturally or commercially, as it is now.

Because there is a moment right now – with The Lie Tree winning the Costa, and The Fox And The Star becoming Waterstones Book Of TheYear – when children's books are very much in the public eye.  Readers who love those books will want to know where to go next.  But with over 10,000 children's books published a year in the UK, unless children's literature is properly reviewed, most people will never know where to start. 

They will never explore the beautiful jungle.  They may never even realise that it exists.

#CoverKidsBooks invites you to join in a public conversation about children's books.  Leave a comment, write a blog of your own, or tweet about it using the hashtag.  Tell us why children's books matter to you, and what you'd like to see the media do to #CoverKidsBooks!


27 comments:

  1. Good points very well made! Frustrating and confusing to be part of the 'beautiful jungle' Frances Hardinge talked about, that gets so little coverage. The publication day of my book in April 2014 received a few promising online reviews, but no reviews in the main press, not even the Times who sponsored the Times Chicken a House Children's Fiction competition that I'd won. That must've happened to so many others, particularly debut authors, who know nothing of this amazing jungle, where at least we do find support from fellow writers

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    1. The Times reviewed my book when I won in 2010. But that was before they slashed the word limit for children's reviews and sacked Amanda Craig. Things have gone steadily downhill.

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  2. This is the crucial point: "children aren't the main buyers of children's books". That's the same reason that children's books sales are overwhelmingly still print-based rather than ebooks. Parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, friends - these people all buy books for children, so of course they need reviews in the newspapers to guide them.

    Wendy - I'm shocked that The Times didn't review your book. I would have thought it would be a matter of course.

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  3. A great article with some very good points. But it's not only children's books that don't get reviewed. When was the last time you saw a newspaper review of any novel that could be classed as "romantic"? Sales figures and library lending don't cut any ice there, either. Women buy most of the books but men's ideas and preferences govern most of the reviewing. Sad.

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  4. Fantastic piece SF. I work in TV development and have spent a LOT of time over the last couple of years attempting to get a children's book show commissioned. The main problem I see is one of perception. Children's books still aren't taken seriously by the arts establishment, and are considered a 'genre'. So you might get a series or programme made every now and then, in the same way you might occasionally see something made about thrillers or murder mysteries. Once that's been made it's assumed that children's books have been 'done', so there's no need for any further coverage for the next few years. Also such programmes will invariably be about classic children's lit. The chances of raising interest in vibrant contemporary children's books or YA is pretty much zero. Perhaps Frances Hardinge's win will do something to change opinion. But I doubt it. All power to #CoverKidsBooks - it's a campaign that is sorely needed.

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  5. I KNEW the figures would be small, but they are truly teeny. 3% of review space for children's books? And it'll be the same few books being reviewed. Meanwhile, the massive majority of the rest of us are standing behind a double-glazed sheet of glass, waving our books while gazing with forlornly hopeful puppy dog eyes at oblivious potential readers passing by... #CoverKidsBooks - yes please thank you.

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    1. And of course, when those few children's authors get reviewed, the rest of us might feel a wee pang of "if only"s, but mostly we're just whooping over the fact that One Of Ours made it into the review section at all!

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  6. I'll be joining in from Ireland, SF. Some of our shows and papers are great at covering children's books, so I'll be cheering and encouraging them and also hoping others will improve their coverage. Children's books matter!

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  8. Very well said! And Karen McCombie's comment is very pertinent - the highly uneven structure of publishing success is only magnified by newspaper attention on a tiny subset of high profile books and authors, while the long tail (i.e. everyone else) goes unnoticed.

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  9. Middle Grade and Young People's Fiction has always been marginalized because of this silly idea the main stream media has that to be taken seriously we must always be talking about brutal 'adult' topics, it's the same reason humor books are marginalized.

    Couple that with this strange yet prevalent idea that it isn't the place of Children's Books to be exploring difficult topics and we have this severely under represented medium.

    It's all ridiculous of course.

    Love this hashtag, and will be behind this all the way.

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  10. Great post! Sobering statistics. I am always reminded as well of how important children's literature to its readers. A book read at 12 often stats with us for the rest of our lives.

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  11. Thanks for taking the lead on this SF. The facts speak for themselves, and your suggestions are eminently reasonable, so let's just make sure that they can't be ignored. Certainly each of our publishers should be doing their bit.

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  12. Thanks for this! Sobering stats - now doubly appreciative that my picture book got reviewed by Observer last summer. Wonder if we should ask publishers to see if and how reviews actually affect sales? Though great points by Julia Eccleshare in any case.

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  13. This is an excellent campaign, SF. Not just for us as writers, but for everyone who buys children's books. Waterstones (as practically the only national bookseller) now has too much power over what's available to buyers in a market where there's so little media coverage.

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  14. A great campaign! Just for clarification, were the reviews counted only if they appeared in print editions of national newspapers? What if they only appeared online? Also (to help future comparisons), what month was it that Imogen used for her sampling?

    Whilst I definitely want to see more reviews of books for children and young people in printed national press, I think as a community we also need to be looking at different ways to get news about new books "out there", after all readership of printed national newspapers is in decline. A national TV programme, I'm sure we'd all agree, would be terrific!

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    1. Thank you Zoe! And thanks to everyone for the fantastic comments. I totally agree that a national TV programme would be terrific, as would a national radio show dedicated to children's literature. But I think newspaper reviews remain important and influential. If they were covering children's books, perhaps TV and radio might be more inclined to do so too.

      To answer your questions, Imogen counted reviews that appeared in print editions of the newspapers, and the month was August 2015.

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    2. Thanks SF. I'm so glad you commissioned Imogen to do this research.

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  15. Yes, good point Zoe. This is an excellent campaign but sadly newspaper reviews do have less impact than they used to. A TV programme would be fab. So would children's non-fiction books being given more recognition, especially for the role they play in reading for pleasure. That was also a terrific point about humour too from Blue Books.

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  16. I'd be interested to know if advertising would have any effect. It's not sales where papers make their money, after all. Maybe if children's publishers paid for ads in newspapers, papers would find space for them. It's always about the money, isn't it?

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  17. Great blog! Children's books aren't just for children so the argument that children don't read newspapers is ridiculous. Lots of parents, teachers, carers, grandparents etc. read to kids every day and would welcome reviews and recommendations in this area. I'm a mum of 2 boys and some of my favourite books are classed as YA/middle grade. Pamela Butchart, Gareth P.Jones, Patrick Ness and Neil Gaiman being some recent favourites which I'll pass onto my boys when they're ready.

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  18. Excellent blog for kids, All the book cover and the title is very interesting and fabulous. It is very informative and knowledgable.
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  19. Nice ideas - Speaking of which , people are requiring a IRS 990 , my boss used a fillable version here http://pdf.ac/6A7n1G.

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  20. Fabulous article. Children, and parents, just don't know what books are out there. For 2 years now I have had a timetabled 30 min lesson each week with my year 5 and 6 classes looking purely at books they might read. My website www.knollbestbooks.weekly.com isn't the best designed, but is full of ideas for them. Every kid in those classes now lives reading and has a wish list of books they want to read next. In terms of marketing kids absolutely love book trailers on YouTube, a site putting these together in one place, and publishers making them for all their books, would have a massive effect.

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  21. Great article as a new children's writer and a mother to two young ones I do find it hard to find out where the best place is to read reviews of children's books. Even finding this article was more about luck rather than judgement and I think the # is a great idea. I'll be sure to retweet. However I agree having reviews in the papers on a weekly basis would be good as even my age group don't always have the time to hunt through social media.

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