The Elephant in the Reading Room

I’m writing to you because I’ve just read Caroline Horn’s article about age-banding in ‘Books For Keeps’. The article carried far more information about the survey on which the publishers’ decision was based than the letter I received from RHCB informing me that the decision had already been made and that was that.

I am against it, I’ve already made that clear, but I don’t want to re-hash all the arguments that have already been trotted out for and against. There’s enough of that going on already.

Instead, I want to address the fact that is driving the decision, which was made clear in the article; that the number of books sold in 2006 and 2007 are virtually identical, but the value of those books is steadily declining. Despite an apparent boom in the perception and marketing of children’s books in the last ten years, we are making less money from our sales.

In response to this, as ever, the children’s publishing industry’s approach to this marketing problem is to look at the channels they have used time and again to try to fix it that way: How can the booksellers, librarians and teachers help us? How can we provoke discussion among the literary media? Will a new website help? How can we make the books look different to attract more buyers?

None of which, of course, cost much money.

I’ll get to the upcoming problems posed by ebook readers in a minute; first let me draw your attention to the elephant in the reading room.

Publishing is the only industry I know of where a manufacturer releases a new product onto the market and expects it to sell without advertising it. It is the only industry where the provider of the raw material, rather than the manufacturer itself, is expected to do the bulk of the marketing. The only close parallel is the music industry, and they have two broadcasting media – radio and television – that are constantly relying on them for new content.

We are in the pleasure industry and our competitors – those selling films, television, games, music, clothes, fashion accessories and toys – are much, much better at marketing than we are.

We almost never advertise to the end-user, the kids, the ones who increasingly have their own income and are buying their own books. That’s worth saying again: Our marketing is not reaching the kids. How can that be? Nobody is going to buy a book if they don’t know it’s there.

I am absolutely against advertising to kids who are too young to understand what ads are, but I am sure that everyone reading this started reading adult books at the age of twelve or younger. These readers are fair game, as are their parents – and our products won’t them make obese, chemically addicted, sick or violent.

If somebody wants to talk about the narrow margins we work on and the lack of money for marketing budgets for each book, well, the same can be said about the music industry and even more so for film industry – those big marketing budgets only go to the chosen few and they are spending money to make money. The difference is that these forms of entertainment don’t rely on their own markets to do their advertising for them.

Age-banding is not going to solve the drop in the value of books. Books are consumer goods, a form of entertainment. We need to ADVERTISE them and we need to be far more innovative about it. We have to reach the people who don’t walk into bookshops, or libraries, who don’t stop to look at the bookshelves in Tescos because it doesn’t occur to them. We have to get out of our comfort zone.

I recently visited a very posh girls’ school in a very posh area of Dublin. They had one of the lowest levels of interest in books I had ever come across, despite valiant attempts by their teachers. Their attention was grabbed by more media-savvy brands and the girls’ generous allowances were spent on celebrity mags and fashionable pastimes. That is the power of marketing. It’s not going away, so let’s learn from it.

We know that word of mouth is the most effective form of advertising – that’s what got Harry Potter off the ground – but something has to start it off. We have to reach the kids, and though I have a great respect for teachers, librarians and reviewers, they are not exactly icons of cool. Writers suffer from the same problem. We need to go beyond the book people. And this is something the publishing industry has to approach as a whole, because what’s coming over the horizon is going to land us in deep, deep trouble.

The film and music industries are already suffering because of illegal downloads. When ebook readers achieve mainstream popularity in the UK and Ireland, someone is going to figure out how to get our books and replicate them for free – and teenagers are going to be leading the charge. This is going to put publishers out of business.

Let’s learn from the mistakes of the film and music industries. The answer to this problem is not to spend hundreds of thousands on lawyers who will wrestle over licensing agreements – agreements that will be completely ignored by anyone who downloads illegally. The answer is to pre-empt it with marketing. Find ways to make more money out of books – digital versions being an obvious starting point – before we start losing it wholesale. Here are a few ideas; perhaps some these have been/are being tried, but I haven’t heard of them:

  • iTunes managed to succeed by sewing up the means of downloading and playing music. They used a combination of hardware and software to provide a convenient package and control distribution. Amazon is already way ahead on this, but it needs backing… and competition.
  • Expand the marketing campaigns out of the bookshops and libraries and find the kids who aren’t in these places. This happens occasionally in the world of children’s books, but it’s reserved for the hyped books and is spotty at best. Place more ads in football and fashion and lifestyle magazines. Think of unlikely places to find readers, but where there are plenty of kids.
  • Don’t just stick the cover of the book on a blurred-image or coloured background. Use more imagination. Make them look more like film posters. Avoid using the word ‘read’ too often – it has become so associated with academic work that it can put kids off, including those who have no problem reading.
  • The listenership of radio stations is changing. One of the main reasons young people now listen to the radio is to hear new songs, which they subsequently go and download. There is currently no mainstream radio station that I know of that plays stories – I don’t mean literary programmes, I mean stories being played on the radio just as songs are. Why doesn’t the publishing industry start one up? No live DJ’s needed, just a recorded introduction for each story. It will encourage a culture of reading out loud. It’s ideal for the car on the school run or for a long journey, or just to have on in the background while the kids are playing their video games – but it would have to be ADVERTISED! The audio books are already there, ready to be used and authors would be happy for chances to read on radio.
  • Enable kids to listen to stories on their Nintendo or other console. They’re carrying these long before they get a music player and it would be a good compromise for parents at the end of their tether. Break down more of the barriers between reading and audio books, text and oral. Book-lovers get obsessed with the idea of reading, but less passionate readers are just looking for a story – and it’s the story that’s important. Kids who might not read still want stories. Blur the lines between reading and oral storytelling, so that reading is seen less as an academic exercise. Make audio books more available to download and have the text there too if they want it. ADVERTISE IT!
  • Create a website – and advertise it – where kids can download free short stories from famous authors. Writers should be keen to provide short stories that will promote and link through to the books they have on sale. The writers might even record a reading of it for free – doing little videos seems to have become common practise for websites; but let’s have whole stories, Jackanory-style. How many picture books and shorter children’s stories haven’t made it into publication but might still work on computer screen or on audio? It could also have some features like those found on Stories From The Web, with kids doing reviews, or even blogs, book clubs and a forum. It would be important that the publishers worked together to back one excellent universal site, rather than each starting up one of their own for just their books.
    David Fickling’s comic being printed to order is a great idea, but how is it being advertised and can it be downloaded and read on screen for a cheaper rate? Picture books could be made this way for laptops. None of us look forward to the idea of children reading off a screen, but absorbing information off a screen is becoming increasingly common with the likes of V-Tech and Nintendo, and on-screen versions of picture books would chop down production costs and allow for more inter-active features. Blurring the line between books and games. All the better if child-friendly screens, similar to the Epaper technology, can be produced at a reasonable cost. Are publishers backing this development already? They should be.

    As for our good-old fashioned paper books, why not set up a version of eBay that just deals with secondhand books and related items, but adds value that only publishers can provide? Then we could advertise new books to book-lovers, and like Google, customize the advertising to their tastes, or like Amazon do a ‘if you liked that you might like this’ section that includes secondhand titles for sale. Books are being sold this way anyway, book-lovers are often keen web-surfers too, so why not get money out of both types? Remember Swap Shop? The site could have a place where fans of one writer can get one book in return for another.
  • Viral Books: Kids love writing their names on things and leaving their mark on the world around them in general. Why not give them space in books? Encourage them to write a short message in a book if they like it and pass it on to someone else. Books end up in the oddest places and tracking the history of a book that ends up in your hands after a number of readings could be really interesting. It won’t lead to immediate sales, but it’s an excellent way of letting readers take part in the life of books and could lead to them spreading the word and seeking out more from the same author.
  • The World Book Day scheme is an excellent idea and works well, but only the biggest publishers benefit from the marketing of the WBD books. The Bookstart scheme is another good idea, but I know the equivalent scheme in Ireland has had problems with distribution. What are the chances of choosing some popular books that are being remaindered anyway (sadly, not a contradiction in terms) and get the Royal Mail or An Post, along with the relevant department of education, to sponsor a scheme where every child starting school – not a baby, a kid who’ll register the occasion – gets a gift-wrapped pack of books in the post? It’s really exciting for a child to get something in the post and would stimulate an interest in books that might not be there – an interest that is vital if you’re to go to a bookshop or book fair to redeem a voucher or seek out a free pack from Bookstart through your library or health board.
  • Who decided it was a good idea to distribute a pack of free books to first-time readers using libraries? If a building full of free books doesn’t draw them in, what chance has a starter pack got? If the post companies won’t support this, publishers should band together and do it themselves. It’s worth the expense.

The issue of the sales and value of books – particularly in the face of digitization – is the biggest issue we are facing. The age banding and the ham-handed way in which it has been attempted is not only a distraction, but an incredibly divisive one. And just at a time when publishers, authors and illustrators are facing the biggest challenge the industry has seen in a long time.

We need to change – and attempting to pin books into ever smaller boxes as the market opens wider than it ever has before (and antagonizing the people who make them) is just foolish. We all need to face the same direction. We need to be innovative in our approach to selling our product and we need to tackle this hazardous new market before it tackles us.

Oisín McGann, July 2008.