Thursday 5 October 2017

That old "Celebrity written children's books" debate kicks off again, this time thanks to World Book Day - Ten points to consider about the debate - A ReadItTorial

The 'controversial' 2018 World Book Day List. 
I know what you're thinking..."Oh dear, not this again!" and I apologise in advance for the wall of text below. But oh yes, the subject of celebrity children's books doesn't seem to want to go away, and with every publisher keen to find the next David Walliams (confusingly still described as "The Next Roald Dahl" - Who was Roald the "next" of, btw?), it comes as no surprise whatsoever to find the World Book Day 2018 £1 list absolutely 'chock full' of celebrity books.

You can see the books in our header image, and can probably determine all on your own that it's a fairly eclectic mix of titles to suit all tastes, with some of the titles above being penned by folk we'd normally associate with other things (including a TV presenter, a bake show winner, a comedian and a musician).

The arguments have raged over Twitter and on various news websites, even stretching as far as the US where several sites have reported on the list. "Authors slam World Book day Choices" trumpets The Guardian in an article headed by a rather glum looking David Almond, who isn't at all happy about the celebrity book bias in next year's list.

From the perspective of reading and reviewing books (not necessarily an author's perspective, as so far most of the debates I've seen have been a firm "NO THANK YOU VERY MUCH" from Authors), most of the rancour seems to focus around a couple of things...

A) Is the rise in celebrity book publishing shutting out existing and debut authors unfairly?

B)  How much are these people being paid for their 'work' (or more accurately in most cases, the hard work of their illustrators and ghost writers)?

Let's dive in and have a closer look at ten more points that should also be part of the wider debate:

1) Celebrity books are popular, whether we like it or not. 

For better or worse, celebrity books sell - and they sell well. Pretty obvious this one, otherwise publishers just wouldn't bother with them. Children's publishing - just like any other branch of publishing - exists to make money, and regardless of the imagined notions around how that money is used, a great majority of revenue made from the publication of children's books ensures that the publisher stays in business longer, can compete with their peers who will also be signing / publishing celebrity works, and though there's still a lot of contention about what a celebrity will make (money wise as advances or royalties from book sales vs what normal folk will earn) will rage on forever, there's no denying that more books sold (whatever the book), the longer the industry will survive, thrive and grow - which is a GOOD thing, right?

2) There's a huge, HUGE amount of snobbery, cliquey-ness and elitism surrounding children's books and publishing. Not always just from Authors themselves...

It's an ugly truth that will probably earn me a fair old shouting down but oh good god does it ever get really bloody tiresome at times. Most of the snobbery seems to revolve around the perceived notions of what constitutes 'a good book' and normally you only ever see book snobbery and elitism raise their ugly heads whenever one of those fabulous "100 Best Kids Books of All Time" lists is announced in a broadsheet (when newspapers can be bothered to cover kids books at all). They seem to crop up almost quarterly at the moment, so I guess newspaper press about the WBD 2018 list (negative or otherwise) makes for a nice change if nothing else!

It's fair to say that snobbery, cliquey-ness and elitism all exist in practically every other form of media too (and proves to be no less irritating when encountered in those media streams).

But as a good test, ask someone well known to list their top 5 favourite books of all time, and watch them mentally calculate whether they should mention their guilty love of Mills and Boon, or the fact that the last book they read was a surreptitious look at their child's copy of the Beano Annual, and instead do the 'indie kid' thing of listing something so painfully obscure and 'academic' so that they don't look like some sort of ill-read idiot.

Time and again we've seen children's publishing held up as an industry that, more than any other media consumed by kids, has a duty of care to bestow upon its consumers (adults who pay for the books / kids who read the books) to enrich their lives. That is fine and laudable and as it should be, and long term children's authors do not have a problem with this at all - but quite often that enrichment is not seen to be worthwhile unless it's performing some ancillary duty such as (for example) enriching a child's vocabulary or thrusting moral lessons at kids until they sink in and become better people, or covering contentious issues of the day in a firm almost schoolmarmish 'kid friendly' way to hammer home a given message.

In a world obsessed with pushing childhood academic excellence and performance to the point where kids are literally cracking up under the strain, I detest the notion that each and every children's book should always need to be some sort of highbrow moral lesson, or children's authors should be required to fulfil a role that - increasingly - parents and schools seem to no longer want any involvement in.

There will always be room in the children's publishing market for books that really are just there to entertain, perhaps provide a few belly laughs (such as Walliams' various excellent middle grade books) and I think it's fair to say that comedians are unfairly being labelled as the instigators of 'dumbing down' in children's literature. Far from it if you've ever read any of David Baddiel's sharp observational middle grade stuff, which is every bit as sharp as his 'grown up' comedy.

3) The industry needs to be more transparent. No one likes dishonesty, nor to feel they're being 'tricked' out of their hard earned cash.  

This is a biggie and it's clearly what a lot of people would demand on any side of the industry, whether provider or consumer of books. I think this is a huge bone of contention for a lot of folk who love trumpeting on Twitter whenever a celebrity is revealed to be just a 'face and a name' for a book, having not actually contributed anything to the book at all other than some loose-leafed guidance or a cursory nod in the right place.

Can you imagine how the celebrity book debate would pan out if publishers actually had to credit and list whenever a book was extensively ghostwritten, and had to make those credits abundantly clear on the cover of a book?

Would it affect sales? Recent dialogue on Twitter seemed to suggest that people have bought Internet Celebrity Zoella's books in their droves even knowing that she wasn't the actual scribe.

Likewise, in the case of illustrated children's picture books, you have a clear case of certain books actually providing a valuable revenue stream (and that most hated word - exposure) for artists who will undoubtedly do OK out of a celeb book deal, and actually might accrue more work elsewhere (or be given their own deals independently) as a result of a particular book 'doing the numbers' (that's assuming, of course, that publishers ensure that artist is credited somewhere in the book - worth paying heed to that argument, which is still also raging on elsewhere).

Transparency would be great (particularly in press info sent out to reviewers, ahem!) because it would cut through this argument in fairly short order, and I firmly believe that in most cases it wouldn't affect the numbers sold at all.

4) "Authors quit because of celebrity book deals". Excuse me but what the hell...?

This is something I hadn't heard before but again cropped up on Twitter during an evening's debate about this tetchy subject. When book folk tell you that author colleagues have actually quit over there being too many celebrity deals being done, you've got to ask yourself a couple of questions.

A) How could you possibly stop writing if it was your only source of income? What on earth do you fall back on?

B) Why would anyone believe that the celebrity deals mean an absolute end to debut / established authors getting their own publishing deals?

This needs more clarification and definitely feels more like the point Messrs Almond and McGowan were trying to raise in the aforementioned Guardian article.

Perhaps with the industry falling in love with this easy method of generating cash, this cash is not always ploughed into funding or setting deals up for established authors (whose work might have fallen out of favour in recent years) or new / debut authors struggling to get anything out there when new celebrity books are hitting the stands, with a higher level of publicity and point of sale promotion, sometimes perhaps with the same ideas or themes those debut authors have been working on for years (yep, been there, done that!)

There's definitely a point that needs addressing here though, perhaps a debate to be had about the sustainability of a celebrity author / deal vs an established author (as many existing authors have quite rightly said, they're in it for the long haul, they're not just fly-by-nights who want to do this for kicks and giggles for a year or so). Look forward to seeing that one expanded upon if anyone cares to kick it off.

5) Are Ghost Writers now becoming responsible for high levels of 'churn' through celebrity deals? 

There's definitely something in this point, and it's one we're keen to highlight in reviews from time to time. "Book churn" again returns back to and touches on point 2 in our list, where books are perceived to be churned out almost on a production line, all fitting a certain template for whatever's on trend at the moment (and predicting / analysing children's publishing trends is almost as much fun as reading and reviewing children's books in the first place, believe me!)

It is weird sometimes when you're setting up a review schedule for a stack of books that have just arrived, to find that there are so many books by different publishers that eerily follow the same storylines or basic core ideas.

Certainly the industry never shies away from looking for a famous face to attach to a particular trend (must be hugely frustrating to all concerned that Johnny Depp hasn't approached anyone with a fantastic idea for a children's pirate story - but I won't hold my breath that it won't happen) but in most cases these churn books (I think we need to rename them as 'bread and butter' books - as this is what they essentially are to a lot of authors and illustrators) really do show themselves up against titles that definitely go out of their way to innovate, be original and bring something 'new' to the children's publishing table.

6) "Writing for children is a craft that can sometimes take years to learn, perfect and polish. So why do celebrities think they can just steam in and take all the publishing deals overnight?"

I've seen this brought up a couple of times in the debate over World Book day and again this feels like a point worthy of closer inspection. This argument somehow implies that you only have worth as a writer if you've been 'doing it for years' (whether published, unpublished, celebrity or nonentity).

I'm not sure I like that notion or entirely agree with it. If only well established published authors who are a 'safe bet' are to be allowed anywhere near publishing deals, where does the new talent come from? More importantly, where do the original ideas come from - as quite often the industry relies on those 'breakthrough' books by debuts to shake publishing up a bit.

I also don't like, and never have liked the insinuation that there's only ever going to be a certain method or formula that works for children's stories, and you don't get to write for children unless you are willing to 'do the pub circuit' first (it feels like it's a very similar argument raised by bands every time someone shuffles off the latest series of X-Factor with a huge record deal, only to become a complete nobody 6 months down the line in most cases when everyone's tuned in to whatever passes as reality TV nowadays instead).

Some have pointed out that the negative reaction to this year's list smacks of writers becoming very 'dog in the manger' about their craft, perhaps even elitist and snobbish themselves. We have read enough books to see that the 'book churn' mentioned above doesn't just happen with celebrity authors or ghost writers.

Well established writers obviously have their 'bread and butter' books. Sometimes there are some pretty stale ideas endlessly recycled, and an awful lot of terrible children's books feel like they're written to fulfil an obligation to a long-running contract perhaps.

The perceived agreement that (as a loose example) because "Writer A has written countless books in the past and had them published, each and every book they turn out from thereon will be worth its weight in gold" is sadly not the case, not even with some of the biggest and best (and even nicest) folk working in kidlit today.

Point summary: We need new talent in the industry all the time, and we definitely always need new ideas, in whatever form and it's not always exclusively celebrity books that are putting their foot through that innovation, originality and progress.

7) Authors become celebrities through their books. Should we start berating them for their successes too?

As far as the Guardian article lays into celebrities as authors, it doesn't seem to lay into celebrity authors. It seems to suggest that there's something rotten afoot in the industry because a larger proportion of the WBD books (the Marvel / comics deal is something else entirely left for another debate) are penned by celebrities, but doesn't seem to shy away from suggesting that it would have been better to have wheeled in a few well known authors in their place.

This seems to instantly cut through the argument that 'better paid celebrities with huge advances' are putting the brakes on the industry. Surely higher profile authors should be tarred with the same brush by that measure (how much do you think Philip Pullman got in advance of "The Book of Dust" and its sequels? I'll give you a clue: Add together the advances of every debut author with a book out this year and double it and you'll probably be close to about a 10th at an ill-educated guess).

Author success is just as good for the industry as increased book sales - in more than just fiscal ways. To many children and adults, authors are becoming like pop stars. The rise and rise and rise in success of book festivals is a clear indication that people not only want to read their books, but want to connect with their favourite authors and illustrators in personal ways - at book signings, events, author workshops etc. Each and every one of these folk started out as a debut author once, and needed (perhaps in some cases even relied on) the children's book industry existing and being hugely successful, so money pumped into the industry from celebrity book sales surely has to have a knock on effect to that?

8) More debate is required around the dreaded 'greed / money' thing at every turn in these types of debate. 

One thing all unpublished / struggling / debut authors are told in no uncertain terms (quite often by well-established authors themselves) when it comes to children's publishing is "Do not go into it for the money" - And yet it feels like there's a certain element of the green eyed monster coming out in this debate whenever there's mention of the sort of anticipated sales / advances / money being made by celebrity books.

No one is under any illusion that if you're lucky enough to snag your first publishing deal you'll be able to quit your job the next day. Most authors and illustrators will need to work for donkeys years to get to that stage and will require a lot of extra support and other income streams being there (Oh god, wouldn't it be an amazing world if creative folk could genuinely start out on day one and make a comfortable or workable living from their craft!)

 If the crux of the debate is that "It's not fair because Celebrity A got a £1 MEEELION QUID Advance for their ghost-written POS when I only got about 2 grand tops from my book" then that kinda sucks.

That's got naff all to do with a 'quality of books / duty of care to literacy' argument at all.

Secondary point summary: Show me a well established writer who would turn down ghost writing for a celebrity and I'll show you someone who's willing to put their money where their mouth is, principles-wise.

9) Celebrities definitely need to be drummed into being more interested in promoting literacy ideals / national campaigns / 'extra-curricular' beneficial work outside their own publishing deals. 

This is definitely another area I'd like to see more clear evidence and debate on. Many celebrities have become hugely active and a positive force for good when it comes to child literacy, reluctant reader engagement or providing their time and endorsement to worthwhile reading programmes and projects.

Many don't, and could do so much more to enhance their reputations as 'authors' (if they even care about that stuff and aren't doing it just for the dosh, obviously).

If they put some time and effort into being faces or voices for these schemes, it could really change the whole dynamic around stuff like WBD.

Maybe that should become part of any book deal, that the celebrity has to be prepared to do 'community service' as part of a publishing deal, to ensure that they put in the time and do their bit for charitable programmes to pay it forward if you like.

That would be cool and that would definitely get you a big green tick on my 'good egg' list. Gotta be a better way to spend your time than pouting and flashing your bum on Instagram, surely?

10) Last but by no means least, these books are not for YOU (snooty grown ups I mean!)

We saved the best bit till last as so far, no one seems to have bothered asking kids what they think of the list. So we did a very quick, extremely informal poll around the playground with a bunch of middle grade aged kids from Charlotte's school, showing them a selection of new and upcoming books by a mix of authors and illustrators (some celebrity, most not). We did not use the WBD list as we didn't want to pollute the poll for kids who might have already heard their adults ranting about them - these were books picked from our recent review stack at random.

Which do you think were the books that got kids the most excited?

A) The next book in a successful long-running series (by a non-celebrity children's author).

B) Books with cool cover illustrations that looked visually amazing.

C) Books with a really good 'hook' blurb on the back cover, and an exciting sounding story.

D) A book by that bloke who won X-Factor three years ago, who now fancies himself as a children's author "because his kids really love his stories" (ghost written or otherwise).

E) A book about a mighty girl hero by someone who retired from athletics a couple of years ago.

F) A new book by an author that kids were familiar with (not a 'celebrity' - well not in the Guardian article sense of the word).

Can you guess? If you answered mostly A,  B and C you hit the nail right on the head, with F also cropping up a fair amount as kids develop their own favourite author tastes completely independently (who'd have thunk it, eh? Kids knowing things about books. ).

In the cases where D and E were picked, it was because (in the case of C) the book had a drop dead gorgeous cover (usually by, hah, an uncredited artist!) or (in the case of E) because someone really was heavily into athletics and sport, and instantly knew the author and just wanted to read the book because it might have some cool stuff about running in it.

So there you go. Analysis of trends always seems to come from the adult perspective but who's asking the kids? (Well, we are!)

Personally, with more of an interest in seeing the list moving beyond 'booky folk' into a more general level of interest, I actually feel that the World Book Day list has achieved a fairly good mix of titles, importantly with some that will lure in reluctant readers (whether because of or in spite of the celebrity books) but above all else, it's probably going to be the most high profile WBDs there has been in a number of years, so all the better, surely?

If only we could drop the snobbery and pretence, up the level of clarity and transparency - but above all definitely continue the debate without resorting to too much nastiness or name-calling (I got out of writing about videogames for this exact reason, I'd hate to see that sort of thing dragged into kidlit, truly).

Bear in mind that - as an 'outsider' to the industry, one who does not rely on it for an income, this is purely an interested party / consumer perspective of some of the issues that have been raised, or are abundantly clear in this thing. It's very easy to understand why children's authors are absolutely furious about this issue, and take an entirely different view of the WBD list.

Additional reading on this debate - tackling the issue from different perspectives: See also Matt Imrie's (Matt the Librarian) excellent article on this over on Teen Librarian, which I read very soon after I'd put this article together and realised covers a lot of the points I've made above (in a slightly less ranty fashion). Matt knows what he's talking about!

Also, don't miss Jo Cotterill's excellent blog post on the subject, which addresses some of the points raised about elitism - and a really good justification on why 'celeb' authors really wind real children's authors up:

Finally, please also check out the blog post from Kenilworth Books, offering an independent book store's view of the WBD choices and the whole 'celeb as author' thing:…