14 June 2008

Banding in Britain

In April, Publishers Weekly reported what seemed like an innocuous development in the British publishing industry:

After more than three years of consultation and research, the Publishers Association's Children's Book Group in the U.K. has announced that from fall 2008, all new children's books will carry age guidance.

Research among retailers and consumers, children and adults alike, shows that 86% of book buyers backed the idea, with 40% stating that they'd be more likely to buy the books if they carried guidance on age suitability. As a result, the guidance, based on content and divided into 5+, 7+, 9+, 11+ and 13+, will be included on book jackets and covers.
It took about a month to produce this website/petition from "writers, illustrators, librarians, teachers, publishers and booksellers" protesting the change. Curiously, though we children's-lit folks disdain "celebrity" when it sells books by people who don't know how to write, the industry press on this petition focuses entirely on the big names among the petitioners: Philip Pullman! Michael Rosen!

These "No to Age Banding" folks say they believe it "highly unlikely, despite the claims made by those publishers promoting the scheme, to make the slightest difference to sales." What's the evidence behind their belief? Do they have their own competing survey, or point to methodological flaws in the one reported above? Nope. In fact, offering no evidence at all, the website reflects ideology rather than knowledge.

I had plenty of discussions about how to designate target readers' ages when I was a full-time book editor. As folks might suspect, it was all about marketing. Of course, so is a lot of publishing. In this case, marketing meant making it easier for your target customers to decide to buy your product. The age level was just one clue buyers wanted, alongside the cover copy, cover art, and their knowledge of their own tastes and interests.

I really have to question the wisdom of children's-book creators and promoters protesting what 86% of their customers say they want. That's dismissing the wishes of six out of seven potential readers--with, as I noted before, no evidence.

My eyebrows go up even higher when I see the campaign's phrase "publishers promoting the scheme," as if there were some nefarious purpose behind this change. Publishers, authors, and booksellers are often at odds over money and other issues, but the one thing they should have in common is wanting to sell more books.


Joseph said...

I think this might have been the UK use of the word "scheme". When I was there this past year studying, I heard it used a lot for institutional programs, especially by the government or by my university. It would be things like Arts and Humanities Scholarship Scheme, Council Garden Renovation Scheme or UK ID Card Scheme. After a quick Google search, it's not popping up on any of those "US vs. UK English" websites. My guess is that "scheme" in this case is just an alternative word for "program" that we don't use in the US (or, at least, I've never seen it used this way). Personally, I prefer cookie vs. biscuit and ladybug vs. ladybird.

J. L. Bell said...

Good point about the possibly benign British uses of the word “scheme.” That said, I’ve seen other rhetoric from age-banding opponents that carries the same connotations, or goes further.

This fall, well after my posting here, I got into a heated discussion on this point with Philip Pullman and others on the Child_Lit listserv. Several comments argued that the British publishing industry was trying to put one over on someone, though why it should do so was unclear.

In the end, there was a hint that the British book industry’s study asked consumers for their responses to age-banding by reading level, but the publishers were planning to incorporate judgments about appropriate content into the labels. I haven’t been able to confirm comments to that effect myself. That’s the only possible “scheming” in the American sense that came up.

During that discussion, I looked at British publishers’ websites and catalogues, and saw that they already indicate the target age ranges for books. Keeping that information off the books themselves is arguably more of a secretive scheme than making it available to the public at the point of purchase.