Friday, June 06, 2008

The Difference Between Writers and Publishers

If you follow the publishing news, you might have heard that there's a big uproar among authors in the UK over a previously uncontroversial plan to add "age ranging" to books for children. That is: previously a middle-grade reader wouldn't say "Ages 7-10," but now it will.

The plan started because research showed that consumers -- people actually buying books -- were confused about what was right for their children, and wanted some guidance. Publishers, being in the business of selling books to people, and wanting those people to be happy, were enthusiastic about the plan.

There was some early rumbling from booksellers -- as seen in this PW article -- that the age ranging was all a nefarious plot to steal the expertise of booksellers and shift sales of books to supermarkets, but that was pure paranoia. (Those booksellers don't now know the precise reading level of all of the children buying books or having books bought for them, and so they make educated guesses based on age themselves.)

But now a consortium of authors has lept up and started screaming and stomping their feet. Their core complaint, when you boil it down, is that they don't want anything on their books that implies it might not be right for any potential reader. (The list of complaints on that page also have an air of after-the-factness to them; they look like explanations thought up after one has already decided to be against something and is flailing about for reasons why.) The age-banding protesters seem to have avoided bookshops for some time, or they would have noticed that books are organized and categorized by interest and type now -- even within children's sections today, at least in the US -- to help readers find the books they want and need without having to wade through everything in print.

Writers often live in a naive world, assuming that the audience for their book -- particularly if they write fiction -- is "everyone." They harbor delusions that millions and millions of people would love their book if only they read it, and so anything that limits that potential audience is evil.

This is balderdash.

Publishers know that books have audiences, and a book for "everyone" is a book for no one; anything described that way hasn't been properly focused and is very likely to fail. Any book has a core audience; that audience may be large or small, based on age or not, existent or non-. But it can be determined, at least vaguely: the average picture book is for an adult to read to a pre-school child, while the average YA novel is for a 12-14 year old to read herself.

Some writers don't want to hear that; their books are special unique snowflakes that will appeal to the entire world. These authors are deluded, and actively harmful to their own interests.

An alphabet book is not an easy reader is not a middle-grade chapter book is not a YA novel. And 86% of the people surveyed in Britain as part of the research for this plan wanted age guidance. Why are these authors so arrogant that they think they know what readers want better than the readers themselves? Do they honestly think their sales would plummet with age-banding, that they're now getting loads of confused buyers who would go away with better guidance?

Tellingly, the publisher response has been the usual in cases when authors are acting irrationally -- trying to avoid talking about the issue, hoping it will die down of its own accord so that it can be revived later. And, in the US, books commonly have age guidance already, so I'll be happy to reassure the Chicken Littles of Britain that the sky has not fallen.

Making one's audience clear is not the end of the world; it's the beginning of reaching that audience.

1 comment:

Michael A. Burstein said...

The problem is that most writers know very little about marketing. I've been taking classes in publishing, and for one final project I got permission from the instructor to create a marketing plan for my own upcoming collection. It was quite an eye-opener, and it helped me develop some ideas on how to sell the book to its appropriate audience.

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