Thursday, 24 May 2018

Are children's books becoming more 'elitist / classist' as publishing becomes increasingly dominated by the "Middle Class"? - A ReadItTorial

Where are all the books by the fellah on the right?
Diversity in children's books - we hear that phrase being thrown around a lot lately don't we (and it's about bloomin' time too) but what of social diversity?

As a long-standing member of 'the group the guy on the right belongs to' in the header pic (yes, working class, folks!) I've tried to cover the 'class' issue on the blog many times, with varying degrees of success. Recently the debate has flared up again on Twitter with many folk echoing something we've been banging on about for years.

The truth is, and there's really no getting away from it, Children's Publishing really does 'belong' to the fellah in the dreadful tweed suit above rather than our mac-wearing flat-capped friend.

Though the above sketch first aired in the 1960s, and though we did think that things were getting better when we initially made a fuss about this a year ago, there's still a lot of work to be done in ensuring that working class authors and artists can become part of a hugely successful creative industry and get an equal chance as Mr Bowler Hat and Mr Trilby above.

We also need to keep ensuring that kids from working class backgrounds continue to see themselves in children's books, see their parents too - and see situations and surroundings that more accurately reflect their day-to-day lives.

An article recently published in the Guardian lays things out with some pretty horrific stats, with less than 10% of published authors hailing from 'working class' backgrounds, 41% from professional middle-class backgrounds.

The key concern is that the industry wants to be seen to be making huge strides in increasing diversity in children's publishing, but seemingly wants to brush this particular issue under the carpet. There are times when, as an observer from outside the industry looking in, that you'd firmly believe the industry likes things this way and doesn't really want to do anything to accelerate change.

It undoubtedly is an industry that is incredibly tough on working authors who put in 37 hours a week doing their 'day job' while chipping away at their own manuscripts in their spare time, often lacking the resources or backing of an industry that seems to be fuelled by something akin to the 'old boy network' in politics.

It really is about who you know and who you network with, not necessarily about what you know, nor your ability to spin a fantastic story or two.

There's another wrinkle to the whole 'class war in publishing' issue as well.

There are so many agencies and organisations, mentoring programmes and professional services that exist to try and give would-be authors a leg up in the industry - and often again the subscription fees or charges from these organisations are far beyond the means of folk who are already struggling to make ends meet in light of the ridiculous levels of poverty we're experiencing at the moment.

So immediately they are also cut off from the opportunities offered through those channels, left with little choice but to try and crack the industry by 'cold-calling' agents or (hah) trying their luck through the meagre open submissions offerings from publishers. Even recent startup publishers that claim to be reinventing the industry and making huge strides in diversification don't seem to be doing anything that comes even close to tackling this thorny issue.

There are two views here then. There's a view that the current state of affairs is fine, and that the successful children's publishing industry can roll on as it has been for decades.

So what if you're poor and can't afford to join a creative industry?

Tough luck, work harder, work your way out of poverty and debt and THEN you can join the club and serve up those comfortable slices of middle-class middle-grade nonsense that kids just love to read.

(What a horrible thought).

There is, of course, the alternative view that increasingly a lot of normal everyday kids no longer find they're represented enough in children's books - a lack of representation that has nothing to do with colour, creed, sexual orientation or religious belief - and at the core of this is a huge lack working class folk telling stories that draw from their own experiences, rather than a mere secondhand (and often over-idyllic) view of what living hand to mouth is actually like.

It basically boils down to a huge chunk of society being considered too poor to join the industry, regardless of how creative they are, how original their stories are, and how relevant they would be to other readers and their intended audience not being worth marketing to because they don't buy enough books.

Sure enough, hugely successful writers who realistically could quit tomorrow and never have to work another day in their lives often write comfortable (and quite often sickeningly twee) books about poverty, hardship and people that, socially, they're extremely far removed from which for some may feel like it's just adding insult to injury.

When I was growing up in the 1970s, it felt far more common to see working class writers naturally writing working class stories (quite often dystopian fantasy novels that imagined a future where the class divide was even more pronounced than it is now).

Take John Christopher's landmark novel "The Guardians" (a novel that I continue to be completely amazed hasn't been snapped up for a better movie / TV treatment).

There's no better description of an imagined future society where class divisions are so clearly described and what happens if you try to 'hop the fence' (literally, in the case of Rob Randall, the novel's main protagonist).

The novel is chilling for many reasons (not least of all the way that Christopher almost prophetically  describes what happened to libraries in his imagined future society where those crammed into sprawling cities, and the landed gentry in the shires are continually at odds while dark forces on both sides are actively engaged in secretive plans to maintain the status quo).

Samuel Youd (Christopher's real name) grew up in modest surroundings and only managed to become a professional writer thanks to a scholarship. His keen observational eye for describing various levels of society so chillingly and accurately could only have come from the experience of growing up in pre-WWII Lancashire and experiencing those hardships himself, tempered with later success in life when his writing career took off.

It sometimes feels like you just don't see writing like that, or writers who have come up through any kind of a system that makes sense. In some ways it's almost completely random happenstance that'll see you getting any kind of a publishing deal regardless of class but certainly if you are financially comfortably well off, you will stand a far better chance than anyone working a 37 hour (or longer) week and earning just enough to scrape by on.

Even if you do crack the industry, you'll never be in it for financial reward( sorry folks, you have as much chance of selling the sort of numbers that'll set you up for life financially as you'd have of winning the lottery).

Again in an industry that sees massive growth in sales year on year in the children's publishing sector, right across all genres and formats, you'd expect some of that good fortune to leak its way down to the creative folk driving that industry wouldn't you? But that's a debate for another day.

So what would change things for the better at the grass roots of actually getting (or should that be 'allowing') more socially diverse talent into the industry, perhaps giving the whole thing a much needed shot in the arm when it comes to originality and energy?

What could possibly be an effective enough change in the industry that would ensure that those without the financial means to set themselves up in a professional writing career were perhaps given their chance to do so?

Do publishers, agents and mentorship organisations need to do more for lower income folk? Do they need to better publicise any programmes that can offer support (financially or otherwise)?

Absolutely they do

...and though I do sometimes maintain a belief /  fear that the industry is secretly rather happy with things as they are, there are people out there who would dearly like to see change and I'm most definitely one of them.

I'm quite sure if you scratch the surface on Twitter (and follow Lorraine (@authorontheedge) Gregory's excellent debate on this issue that's currently bubbling along nicely) you might meet others who feel the same way too, regardless of class.

Now..about that 'fair pay' debate...

Footnote and useful links:

The Writers and Artists Yearbook and sites like can be an invaluable resource for low income authors and artists who are outside the industry looking in, and want just SOME IDEA of how to get started. Have a look, there's some great stuff on there about low income support, competition links etc. (thanks to Jodie Hodges - a literary agent - for the heads up on that one).

Chris Naylor helpfully provided a link to the Writers and Artists Yearbook, and said that it did actually help him get an agent and get published. If you've got £18 to spare, it might be worth a try:…

A great thread from Nikesh Shulka with some useful Twitter contacts and resources to help authors get a leg up:…

Some useful links from Lou Treleaven on publishers / agents who allow open submissions:…

Sarah MacIntyre (who is like a one-woman superhero force for good in the industry) has a great FAQ page full of useful tips on getting started in Children's Publishing:

Great stuff from @bearsGetCrafty with a link to the SCWBI pages that have tons of great info:

And from Emma Perry and a few others, a link to the SCWBI facebook page for those of you who use Facebook. Free to join and often has a LOT of useful links and info from other members: