Thursday, March 14, 2019

"There is nothing original under the sun" or "How do some picture books even get greenlit?" - A ReadItTorial

We have entered the twilight zone, that time in a book blogger's "career" when their youngling has reached peak fussiness and starts to become more and more critical of certain books.

When we started out, I made a point of telling everyone that our blog was nothing without C's opinions and input, and that still holds true today. But those who have a "Tweenager" at home will know and understand what it's like when they start laying the groundwork for the concrete foundations of cynicism that will see them through their teens, and well into their early 20s.

With picture books, C has already got to the stage where they have to be nigh-on blisteringly brilliant to get more than 3 out of 5 (though we 'internally' mark books this way, we now opt to summarise our joint opinions of a book in a single quotable sentence. Marking stuff with numbers never worked for us, though it's good to see that it does for others).

So we got our post as usual, and as we gleefully ripped open the parcels (as we still do, yes even after nearly 10 years of this game it's still like Christmas Morning every time the parcel post arrives) we came across a pair of books that made us pause for a moment, and consider just how the publishing industry actually works internally.

One was a non-fiction title, one a picturebook story for younger readers.

Both books were undeniably nicely put together. Both had their accompanying press sheets claiming them to be the "next best thing" but both were, for want of a better word, hugely derivative of other titles.

C takes these things almost personally and it's cute of her to point out that in the huge number of rejections I've received for my own writing, someone somewhere read the manuscripts for these two books and thought they'd fly off shelves (or at least trickle off).

She had a quite massive, spectacular and surprisingly well informed rant about this. We talked about the books we'd had so far this year, and how many have been truly stunning and more than worthy of our "Book of the Week" slot - but there were also the 'also ran' books that would never see an awards ceremony, never sell in huge numbers, never feature in the Telegraph's children's book roundup or find themselves nestling between the pages of the Mighty Phoenix Comic in their Book slot.

With both books the real problem was that C is not exactly your average book consumer. We get sent a lot of books to review, and I had to point out that this is part of the reason she feels that certain books are not original, and just tread on already well-trodden ground. If you're relatively well read in kidlit you'll understand how the industry works a little better than C. Book trends come and go, as do book fairs, as do publishers who get non-fiction written to order to address a current topic-du-jour.

Non-fiction books arriving in themed clusters is easy to explain away then, but what of fiction?

We were really puzzled by a recent picture book which the press release claimed to be from a debut author illustrator described as "the next big thing by Bookseller Magazine". Fair enough, we thought. But diving into the book it was absolutely apparent that the story, the set-up and even a couple of cheeky art cues weren't so much of an homage, more a direct lift from a well loved children's classic.

Given that most agents will have a universal knowledge of children's books we really couldn't understand how this particular book could even get past the pitch stage.

C was absolutely furious about it and refused to have anything to do with the book until after a bit of gentle coaxing we read through, and though there are close links between this book and the well-loved classics, there's a different core message and perhaps just enough charm and appeal that someone out there will find this book, read it, love it and it will become their daily bedtime read.

That's really what it's all about, but phew, trying to explain that to C was tough. She has a very similar view with movies now (possibly my bad influence) and really doesn't get on well with the constant stream of reboots, remakes or Disney Live Action stuff that's going on at the moment while a zillion other IPs that would make stunning movies go largely unnoticed. Trying to find a polite way to phrase "This got made, and a zillion other books with better ideas than this got binned" but the upside of having C get tougher and tougher (and even more brutally honest than she was as a younger kid) is that you can bet your butts that if we praise a book, it's worth that praise.

In the industry it's all about offsetting risk and increasing sales. Risking putting a book into production that is original, perhaps breaks a few of the well-established picture book rules, perhaps has an edgy art style unlike other children's picture books - these all increase the likelihood that the book will end up as next week's Poundland shelf fillers (oh there's a whole other blog post about the stuff we see in Poundland's children's book sections sometimes by the way, CRIMES I SAY, CRIMES!!)

I think we got to the point in the end but finding picture books that really feel fresh, vibrant and original (if anything can ever be truly original) feels like it's getting tougher, or maybe it's just us with a near-ten-year-old view of the whole shebang perhaps? Anyone else out there feel similar? You know what to do, comment or tweet us @readitdaddy and share your brains!