If you couldn’t make it to The Bookseller’s Children’s Conference this week, I’ll give you the general theme: this stuff matters. If you are sitting comfortably, I’ll go through a few of the details. It won’t take long.
First, stop sitting comfortably. The children’s books business gets a lot right - but despite the market rise, not enough children are reading, and many still don’t feel represented in the books published. One of the best speeches of the day was also one of the shortest, with teacher and writer Darren Chetty talking about the underlying racism in the novels he read as a child, their impact on him, and why those books continue to resonate today. “There is not only a business case, but a moral case for children’s publishing to actively seek to bring change and repair through its practices,” said Chetty.
Phil Henderson, books buying manager at Asda, spoke about meeting a child in a school who did not have access to books at her home: “It took everything in me not to say, ‘Right, that’s it, we’re off to Waterstones to buy your books’.” According to World Book Day, which this week launches its 2018 titles, for one in four children (one in three among those receiving free school meals), the book they bought with their 2016 £1 book token was the first they had ever owned.
Second, the opportunity for publishers has become obvious: to be, in the words of Hachette Children’s Group’s c.e.o. Hilary Murray Hill, agents of “social change”. That’s quite some goal, and one that’s easier to say than do. What is not in doubt though is that the tool we have in “the book” remains uniquely powerful and positioned. As DK c.e.o. Ian Hudson put it: “The very form of a physical children’s book is a brand in its own right, with its own brand values of trust, efficacy, longevity and learning.” Publishers are the custodians of this, he added.
Third, much of this applies to adult publishing too. Children’s publishers have a particular responsibility - speaking to young audiences at a time when they are discovering the world and finding their place in it. But adults face a similar set of dilemmas and complex situations - none of them made easier by the events of the past 18 months. KidZania director of education Dr Ger Graus spoke about the risk of narrowing, with book choices or the educational system inhibiting rather than facilitating ambition: “Children can only aspire to what they know exists.” Books, like travel, broaden the mind.
Publishing’s greatest trick is its stickability. Books stay with us, even bad ones. That we are an industry that matters should make us all sit up. Books matter because they get in deep. They matter because they shape lives. What happens next, matters.
Philip Jones is editor of The Bookseller.