Staff at Kenilworth Books are so “deeply concerned and disappointed about the dominance of ‘celebrity’ writers” on this year's list of World Book Day (WBD) titles that they have pledged to donate to the Society of Authors every time a customer takes one of their recommendations instead for the duration of the campaign.
The Warwickshire shop has slammed the raft of celebrity authors featured on the WBD list, revealed on Friday (29th September), which includes Clare Balding, Tom Fletcher, Julian Clary and Nadiya Hussain, among others.
The staff likened the list for the reading campaign, taking place on 1st March 2018, to “having an entire casket of shining jewels to choose from and they [WBD organisers] picked out the synthetic ones”. Staff named a number of children’s authors who they would recommend to customers instead, including books by Chris Priestley, S F Said and Julian Sedgwick.
In response, the store plans to donate £1 to the Society of Authors, a charity which supports writers and promotes their rights, whenever a customer “allows us to recommend to you a book by one of our many favourite writers” for the period for which World Book Day tokens are valid, normally for two or three weeks.
The announcement followed days of frustration voiced on social media by authors including Nicola Morgan, who described the selected titles as a “peak low” in her blog. C J Daugherty tweeted to her 6,000 followers: "This year World Book Day will mostly introduce kids to celebrity brands, I see.”
David Almond posted on his Facebook page: "I couldn't believe it when the list popped up on my screen” while Joanne Harris also dismissed the selection of titles on her blog: “Celebrity authors are the complete opposite of diversity. Celebrity authors reduce children’s fiction to a small group of well-known faces, leaving less room for newcomers, originality, variety."
Middle grade author Patrick Samphire said: "Okay, there are far, far too many celebrity authors selected for World Book Day this year. This is really disappointing”, while fellow writer John K Fulton tweeted: "World Book Day has obviously decided that celebrity is more important than quality. Is this the only way to get kids to read?"
Kenilworth Books' statement, posted on the its Facebook page on Monday (2nd October) morning, read: “We are deeply concerned and disappointed about the dominance of 'celebrity' writers on the list for the next World Book Day - to the exclusion of the many really wonderful (non-celebrity) writers working today. We feel very strongly that this both misses the point of the day's celebration and is hugely detrimental to the future of the book industry.”
The store’s owner Judy Brook and business partner Tamsin Rosewell described the list as “enormously depressing for both booksellers, who work hard to introduce new readers to work by excellent writers (both new and established) and singularly disheartening to authors who have a lifetime of experience and skill that adds real value to our cultural canon”.
They believe that the apparent emphasis on celebrity authors sends out a “very damaging message” to young people.
“To give children and families the impression that books with a celebrity name attached to them have been chosen above all others sends very damaging messages: to be a successful writer you need to be famous or pretty; and: the best books are those by people who are on the telly,” said Brook and Rosewell.
Rosewell told The Bookseller: “If we are saying that you need to be on TV to be a writer, what kind of message is that?”
Rosewell described seeing the list of titles as a “ginormous disappointment” and believes the selection is “entirely counterproductive”, partly because she doesn't believe it will introduce children to new voices.
“The role of celebrity books is almost polarising the market," she said. "We don’t tend to stock celebrity books, places like W H Smith and supermarkets do, [the fact that they do] in some ways it frees us up to stock other books.”
Rosewell has previously spoken out against the heavy discounting of books and put forward an outline of what a modern Net Book Agreement could look like.
She reiterated how the deep discounting of large retailers means it is not financially viable for them to stock the celebrity books, although they will order them in if a customer requests one. Instead the shop works with libraries, schools, and 24 book groups, as well as many of its other regular customers, to maintain its revenue.
Rosewell said she felt compelled to “do something practical” to ensure the shop’s existence in 50 years’ time. She said: “There is also a selfish motive because if we don’t have these authors writing wonderful books then we won’t be able to have a bookshop. If it is all celebrity-led people are who will not be supported.”
Her comments echo the frustration revealed by authors in February, when some hit back at the increasing number of celebrity deals being done in the children's sector. Author and reviewer Amanda Craig described the trend as “enraging” at the time.
Morgan, who also chairs the SoA's Childrren’s Writers and Illustrators Group, said the organisation "vehemently supports" what Kenilworth Books is doing.
"As children's writers and illustrators, and as active members of the Society of Authors, we vehemently support the work and dedication of booksellers and Kenilworth Books' sentiment is tremendous," she said. "We have several ideas of how to harness such generosity genuinely and publicly to celebrate best practice in schools and school libraries and the expert efforts of librarians. Watch this space! Perhaps World Book Day will join us."
In response to the criticism, Kirsten Grant, director of WBD, said “getting the right mix of the £1 books is key” and if a book by a celebrity was the catalyst to encouraging a non-reader to pick up a book, widen the reach and start a nationwide conversation about reading, “then everyone will be better off”.
“Authors and illustrators are instrumental to the WBD campaign, and on this year’s list we have a mix of names that children will already know and love, as well as those that we hope they will discover for the first time,” she said. “In addition, each of the fiction titles will contain an extract by an up-and-coming author, to enable children to continue their reading journey and discover great new authors. There are lots of hugely loved authors and brands on the list, from Mr Men to Paddington, to the Oi! series, as well as fabulous newer stars like Pamela Butchart – and yes, there are celebrity writers on the list (who have written their own books), but if they are the catalyst to encouraging a non-reader to pick up a book, widen the reach and start a nationwide conversation about reading, then everyone will be better off.”
Grant added: “Like Kenilworth Books, we are passionate supporters and promoters of quality writing for children and young people, and have worked with and promoted work by many of the authors on this list and lots more, through our nationwide live tour, our reading recommendations and lesson plans, and more, which we will continue to do.”
Fiona Noble, The Bookseller's children's previewer, says celebrity and branded books can play a positive role in World Book Day, but publishing needs to invest in career authors who are the backbone of the industry.