This week’s MA Publishing Masterclass was delivered by the Marketing and Publicity director for Oxford University Press children’s books, Elaine McQuade. Elaine joins us for the second time, having given a similarly lively talk last year.
So what – if anything – can we add?
Elaine describes a market in 2011 that is still going strong – 98 million books were sold last year in an industry worth £434 million. However, she argues, publishers have a role to play in making sure children are reading for pleasure rather than only for educational purposes.
Using the OECD Progress in Reading Literary Reports of 2001 and 2006, Elaine demonstrated that high attainment of reading skills in schools actually impacts negatively on reading for pleasure, i.e. schools are not creating ‘real readers’. She says teachers need to take a more creative approach to the curriculum in order to stimulate children to read for pleasure. This is important because children who read in this way have been found to develop vital social and cognitive skills in later life; in contrast, ‘non-reading children turn into non-reading adults’.
She highlights several ways in which the publishing industry is contributing toward this effort:
- World Book Day
- The naming of a Children’s Laureate, currently Julia Donaldson.
- Children’s Reading Partners
- Working with educationalists
- ‘Campaign for the book’, run by Alan Gibbons.
- Author events in schools
- Book gifting and Sure Start
The deepening recession often means for many editorial teams in publishers that commissioning allows more control for a publisher over their market than acquisition. One fairly surprising aspect for me was that publishers tend to choose illustrators themselves, to put to purely text-based works by authors. The editor and art director work closely with the illustrator in a ‘specialist and creative partnership’. The resulting illustrated book is very carefully and thoughtfully put together based on the themes, moods, and ideas within the original story.
Elaine used the bestseller Stick Man to demonstrate this. Children’s books often use very few words (one Dr. Seuss book, for instance, had only 28); so, she suggests, ‘don’t waste words when a picture can move the story on for you’. The illustrations in Stick Man succinctly present the passing of time and seasons, geographical context, emotion, mood, and the covering of distance, all of which strengthen the words in a mutual, and surprisingly complex, relationship. Elaine noted that most submissions containing both the text and the illustrations do not live up to this intricate combination, which is the result only of the partnership between various parties in a publishing house.
One key area of prosperity, Elaine suggests, is transnational branding – the British market is not enough to guarantee stability in children’s publishing. In children’s TV, she points to the Wombles and other British children’s’ programmes that died out as they never reached overseas markets. In contrast I would suggest Sesame Street and the Muppets, which are fairly immortal – as per a recent Muppets film and the show’s TV revival 50 years later. Rights departments scour the world for places that a book can sell, in order to provide higher and more long-term sales.
Topped off with lively readings from some wonderful children’s literature, Elaine’s passionate and colourful talk was a hit with the room, who could tell our speaker had a genuine love of children’s publishing as an irreplaceable tool for early development.