The industry is "haemorrhaging talent" as authors and illustrators are finding it increasingly difficult to make a living in the children's sector.
Agent Caroline Sheldon said that she estimated that fewer than half of the children's authors who previously made a living from writing five or 10 years ago are now doing so. She said: "The big things are getting bigger and the middle area is getting squeezed." While authors used to be able to diversify outside their main area, cutbacks in publishers' lists have made extra work scarce, she added.
Agent Laura Cecil pointed to a collapse in royalty payments for books sold, leaving authors dependent on advances for income. She said: "Prices for children's books have barely risen since the mid-1990s, and this makes it hard for children's authors to clear their advances and receive royalties." She compared this to the adult market, where many r.r.p.s are now in the region of £20.
Sheldon said authors who had written three books, for example, are finding it hard to get any more contracts, unless their books have already become bestsellers. She cited Antony Horowitz and Michael Morpurgo, who both took many years to become established. She said: "There used to be a longer maturing period when publishers would work with authors to help them break through. Now careers are being lost after book three."
Children's authors contacted by The Bookseller agreed that life is tougher. Julia Jarman said: "Royalties are down, advances are down, and publishers are offering less for new books." She said she now relies on paid visits to schools, rather than book sales, for the bulk of her income. "School visits used to represent a third of my income but is now two-thirds; it has swapped places with my income from books." However, some authors said they have seen income from school visits decline as budgets are cut.
Fiction and non-fiction author Anne Rooney said children's non-fiction has been hit hardest in the downturn. "Over the past three years, I've gone from turning work away to a point where schools and libraries commissions are virtually zero." She said the majority of the commissions she was receiving were at a lower price than they were two years ago.
New writers are equally dispirited. Nick Green said: "I am not going to kid myself that I can support my family by writing fiction. At best it is extra pocket money. I would never give up the day job—not even if my next advance was six-figures, because another might never come again."
Author Wendy Meddour, who gave up her job to write fiction and picture books, said the gap between commission and publication, sometimes up to four years, makes it hard to make money.
Publishers' terms are also getting tougher for new authors. One author, who declined to be named, said her publisher had refused to sign her completed second book until they saw how her first book sold. She added: "I've been told that it doesn't look good to move to another publisher, but it has made my financial situation very difficult."
Agents may also become unaffordable, warned another author who preferred not to be named. "Why pay 15% and VAT when I set up most of the deals myself? It used to be nice to have someone to do the nagging for money and so on, but it's a luxury I can't afford any more."
However, Caroline Walsh at David Higham Associates said: "I believe that the caution among publishers is directly related to the recession rather than any permanent change within the industry."