Illustrating a need for publishing reforms: A #FutureChat recap

Illustrating a need for publishing reforms: A #FutureChat recap

Yes, she has to draw you a picture.

Since our #FutureChat of Friday (15th May), we've had the news that illustrators Axel Scheffler, Chris Riddell, Birgitta Sif, and others — including the irrepressible Sarah McIntyre — are among contributors featured in a new book, Creatures, to be published by Macmillan Children's Books in September. As our colleague at The Bookseller Charlotte Eyre writes:

Stephanie Barton, publisher at the 0-6 division at MCB, said the book “holds up a central truth about storytelling and about visual literacy” because it entices children to create and communicate through drawing. “Children are not only in on the visual jokes but they provide the visual punchlines,” she said. “The format of the book is key because it lies flat so children can really concentrate on their drawing without breaking the spine of the book.”

Eyre adds: "The book will also highlight the importance of illustrators."

And what an odd thing -- not that Eyre would write it but that she would have to. It's like the Pope coming out for peace. Could there be a more obvious no-brainer than the importance of illustrators? Good on Macmillan for highlighting it, yes. Sad that someone might have to.

Publishing has suffered many embarrassments in recent years — from its bad pay and contracts for writers to protracted production schedules and a perceived resistance to the inevitable arrival of digital reality. Wouldn't you think that crediting its illustrators, maybe even championing its illustrators, would be an obvious course of action?

The mechanics of the problem — otherwise known as the cost factor — is that metadata entry and tracking aren't being handled with consistency or standards. In Nielsen calls for debate over crediting illustrators, Eyre writes:

Andre Breedt, director of Nielsen’s UK book research arm, said he would love to be able to create an illustrators’ chart but added that the industry needed to agree on when and how illustrators should be credited. Currently, this is a manual process...Most publishers—including Penguin, Egmont, Nosy Crow and Little Tiger Press—were keen to stress that they always credit illustrators, especially when it comes to picture books, and many input data about illustrators into a software programme (Penguin uses Biblio, for example) which feeds into Nielsen. However, unless an illustrator is listed in the author field, the record may not show on BookScan.

In fact, it sounds as if any publisher (no surprise here) will say that crediting illustrators is important. Of course. These are good folks. But the corporate stance may differ: without going to the expense of reforming data-input so that software-standardisation delivers that information uniformly, how earnest is publishing's support? The world may not believe "Oh, it's a software problem." Maybe it looks like publishers being awful to illustrators. 

Breedt to Eyre:

“It would be good for the industry to have a debate about this because there is a lot more complexity to it than people realise. We would like to work with the industry to create a chart of illustrators or illustrated titles.”

The readers who love illustraters best may be the ones who count the most: young ones. Publishing understands that young readers are turning  to video, TV, gaming, and other digital enticements, turning away from the custom and habit of immersive text. Can we not see the work of illustrators as one of publishing's best investments in the battle for the imaginations of potential lifelong readers?

Accordingly, the picture that McIntyre has drawn for her publishing colleagues wings its stubby way high above the fear that publishing has a streak of mean-spirited negligence. Taken along with publishing's past apparent condescension to authors — the indispensable creative core — and what critics say is its zeal for pouring resources into blockbusters that eclipse its own most worthy work, it's hard for some to think that there haven't been, in the past, some unconscionable players at the helm. But where McIntyre — whose Dinosaur Police is out this month from Scholastic in the UK and US — points her pen is at the market rationale, with her hashtagged slogan #PicturesMeanBusiness.

She's right. She's also giddy. Or plays herself to be. (Hey, it works with the kids, right?) All I'd say if I were asked — and no, I haven't been — is that I would't throw too much chiffon at such an ugly fact as a failure to establish cooperative standards that permit proper credit.

UPDATE: McIntyre has answered me since this story first was published with a new illustration on Twitter, "Giddy No More!" and the intenstivied hashtag: #PicturesMeanVerySeriousBusiness. Wouldn't it be great if everyone in publishing had such a gracious sense of humor?

This goes well beyond just being nice. This goes to corporate leadership and priorities, to systems operations and data-management protocols. In #FutureChat, one participant mentioned that staff re-education might be required. So re-educate them. These fall-throughs can mean lost jobs, lost sales, and lost income, let alone the nasty image of a business that doesn't care for its own. No wonder some observers might like to see McIntyre's blue Pegasus kick some horse sense into a few executives. That would be an illustration worth an animated GIF.

It might also make the industry understand that other associated creative workers, including its translators, are to be credited every time, as well, without question, and readily. As author Philip Ardagh said in #FutureChat, "How could 'Illustrated by Axel Scheffler' work against me?"

Note the rightful honor that The Booker Prize International is making in splitting a translation prize in the work of László Krasznahorkai (pictured) between George Szirtes (pictured next, the translator of Satantango and The Melancholy of Resistance) and Ottilie Mulzet (pictured, translator of Seiobo There Below).

In her report from last night's ceremony (19th May) at the Victoria and Albert, The Bookseller's Benedicte Page notes "Szirtes was present on the night to receive his accolade alongside Krasznahorkai."

How good is that? How right. And how often do we get to see an illustrator stand beside her or his author on an awards stage? How frequently is a book cover designer — whose work very likely is what snagged most readers online and in bookstores and brought us that sale — acclaimed along with the writers of our best books?

The word is reform

Even as McIntyre chooses the cackle of comedy to frame her truths, her commentary in The Bookseller edition currently on the stands — Credit where it's due — makes it clear that her points are hardly child's play:

Writers are always credited, but illustrators quietly despair as our names get dropped from listings. It’s not an ego issue; making a career in books today relies more and more on branding. If an illustrator’s name isn’t attached to a book, it does little to keep that illustrator in work...If you type my name into Nielsen, you will only see the three books I have both written and illustrated; I’m untrackable as an illustrator, which means I’m worthless in business calculations. Another reason to credit illustrators is we can promote—many of us travel the country doing events. But it’s difficult to feature a book we haven’t obviously co-created. Kids lose a potential hero.

We all lose when publishing sacrifices more of its credibility in the world by not crediting one or another form of literary merit. Are we to believe that our publishing houses can't afford to stop and put some decent policies, procedures and standardisation into place?

Reform may not look crucial in sequins and funny eyeglasses but you'll note in the selection of comments here from #FutureChat that McIntyre is getting across. Popping me into a Porter Wagoner country-western jacket for the occasion, she hurls herself into the tweet-stream, not at all the cartoon you might think she is.

My thanks to McIntyre for her buoyant efforts in calling publishing's attention to a disturbing trend in its customs. Rarely do we have such an easily answered issue in books. Can publishing afford not to address this?










Join us Fridays for #FutureChat on topics in digital publishing at 4:00 p.m. London (BST), 3:00 p.m. GMT, 5:00 p.m. Rome (CEST), 11:00 a.m. New York (ET), 10:00 a.m. Chicago (CT), 9:00 a.m. Denver (MT), 8:00 a.m. Los Angeles (PT), 5:00 a.m. Honolulu (HAST). Main image - Sarah McIntyre, Dinosaur Police