Articles


Most of my work over the past 30 or so years has involved writing children’s non-fiction books. Britain used to lead the world in these books, but the market has suffered a serious decline in recent years because of the recession and the Internet. I recently wrote this article about the situation:


RIP  Children’s Non-Fiction?


A recent survey carried out by the Authors’ Licensing and Collecting Society (ALCS) revealed that professional writers in Britain earn an average of only £11,000 a year. That’s not news to authors who work in one part of book publishing that has all but collapsed in the past few years.

When you think of ‘books’, what pops into your mind? Harry Potter? Fifty Shades of Grey? Biography? I’d hazard a guess that you didn’t say children’s non-fiction. Think back to your childhood. Remember those books with wonderful colour illustrations of dinosaurs roaming the Earth, Romans invading Britain, the inner workings of a power station, the life of Henry VIII or a thousand other topics? Britain used to lead the world with these books, but they now occupy a Cinderella corner of publishing that is in danger of disappearing.

When did you last see a children’s non-fiction book? With the exception of one or two publishers who market their product aggressively, you will not have seen more than a handful of these books in your local bookshop. Because of their higher production costs compared to other books, they don’t generate enough profit to interest bookshops and their wholesalers, so children’s non-fiction (CNF) book producers have traditionally relied on alternative markets – mainly schools and public libraries. Then about five years ago, CNF was hit by a perfect storm.

The web was already eroding demand. Then the banking crisis and recession piled on more pressure. School and library budgets were put under severe strain. Hundreds of libraries closed.  CIPFA (the Chartered Institute of Public Finance and Accounting) reported that 201 libraries closed in 2012 and another 74 in 2013.

You might ask – why bother publishing children’s non-fiction books if every conceivable fact can be looked up on the web? If we want to produce a generation that knows a handful of isolated web ‘facts’ that may or may not be correct, then by all means let CNF books fade away. However, if you think professionally researched text that has been subjected to scrutiny by editors, consultants and fact-checkers still has some value, then perhaps CNF publishing deserves to be saved. And if you want ‘reluctant readers’ (i.e. boys) to read more, then CNF publishing certainly deserves to survive.

When Phil Jarrett, Ofsted’s National Adviser for English, was giving evidence to the All-Party Parliamentary Literacy Group Commission on Boys’ Reading in 2012, he said, “We know that boys tend to read different kinds of texts from girls – non-fiction, autobiographies, newspapers and so on – yet the English curriculum largely values certain kinds of narrative-fiction texts”. The commission also reported that three-quarters of UK schools are concerned about boys’ under-achievement in reading. The failure to address this has wider consequences. If boys have largely given up on reading, and therefore miss out on the language and information-handling skills that reading promotes, because the books they’re presented with in school are skewed towards girls’ preferences, is it any wonder that girls now out-perform boys in nearly every subject?

The United States sees non-fiction reading as so important that their Common Core State Standards Initiative, which more than 40 states have adopted, requires at least 50% of a child’s reading to be non-fiction at grade 4 (9-10 years old), rising to 70% non-fiction by grade 12 (17-18 years old). There is no similar government-backed mandate or guidance in Britain.

 

Shrinking fees

One consequence of the shrinking market for children’s non-fiction is that the fees paid to writers of these books have fallen significantly. Professional writers are now routinely paid less to write one of these books than they were ten years ago. The payments are almost universally flat fees. No royalties are paid. The writer’s fee for a typical 32-page or 48-page book covers four or five days’ work, but it can take this long to write a detailed synopsis with illustration briefs, visual references and a picture list with sources, and then revise it as required by the editor (sometimes more than once). Consequently, the publisher or packager gets the manuscript and all the revisions and checking work that follow for nothing. In effect, cash-strapped writers are subsidising publishers and packagers with a great deal of unpaid work.

Every January, writers eagerly await their Public Lending Right statements. Until a few years ago, PLR was a nice little bonus for CNF writers, but writing fees have fallen so much in real terms that PLR now often represents the difference between survival and bankruptcy. You’d think PLR would be raised every year or two to keep pace with rising living costs, but even before the recession the government was cutting PLR funding. It’s a real shame that we can’t feel that the government is with us and values us as writers and educators, but their policies convey the opposite.

Given the reluctance of retailers to stock CNF books, you’d think one answer would be to sell the books directly to the public as ebooks. Some of the publishers and packagers who produce CNF books have vast back-catalogues, most of which the general public has never seen. And many of these books already exist in digital form because text, illustrations, page designs and finished books have been handled digitally for years. However, very few CNF books are published as ebooks.

 

Stopping the rot

To stop children’s non-fiction books from disappearing altogether in Britain, there needs to be recognition of their value, especially to boys, by schools and government. In addition, the book production process has to be streamlined, the cost of the books has to be driven down, the books have to be made more widely available to the general public and they have to be written and illustrated in a way that is more attractive and entertaining to their young readers instead of the stodgy outdated style and tired repetitive topics that some publishers have clung to for too long. All of these things are possible if government, councils, publishers and schools care enough.


Ian Graham is a freelance journalist, author of more than 250 children’s non-fiction books and joint winner of the 2012 Royal Society Young Peoples’ Book Prize. In 2014, he was shortlisted for the Educational Writers’ Award.






How I write

I’ve been a full-time writer all my working life, first in magazines and then in books. For most of that time I’ve been a freelance, so I’ve worked at home for more than 30 years. I work in a small home office. A TV set at the end of my desk provides background noise. Having taken a postgrad course in journalism after my physics degree, I can touch type and use shorthand – both very useful.

Once I have a have a manuscript deadline, I divide the amount of work by the number of days to give me a work target for each day. I tend to work all day every day, seven days a week, until the job’s done. When the work’s going well, I’m oblivious to the hours flying by, but when the flow falters, it’s more difficult to resist the countless distractions that demand attention.

I go through a manuscript several times, revising it in a different way each time. On the first read-through, I search for typos, grammatical errors, factual errors, dates that don’t make sense, inconsistencies in spellings and so on. On the next read-through, I concentrate on improving the story-telling so that the text flows more smoothly and it’s a better read. Then, as I’ve worked as a magazine editor, I read the text as an editor might. This often reveals parts that need more work, perhaps more explanation, and others that can be ditched altogether because they interrupt the story. After a final read, it’s off to the publisher. On to the next job!

This and similar articles by other authors can be found on my agent’s website at http://www.andrewlownie.co.uk/2014/10/31/the-writing-life.







© Ian Graham 2017