A rather belated post to report on something almost a week old, with apologies for the delay in getting to it…
Last Tuesday I went to a really interesting event organised by the Children’s Writers and Illustrators Group of the Society of Authors, to discuss the proposals to put age guidance on books for children. (An area we've struggled with throughout the life of the UBGs, for obvious reasons.) This followed some research that the Publishers’ Association had been carrying out over the past couple of years, some of which was presented at the meeting by Elaine McQuade of Scholastic and Mary Vacher of Random House, and Martin (whose surname I didn’t catch and will have to check…) from Acacia Avenue, the consultants who carried out the research exercise.
With hindsight it’s probably not surprising that this subject attracted such a large attendance, nor that everyone who turned up had such passion behind their views. Nor indeed that the view of the publishers and the views of the writers/illustrators should have been in such contrast. Authors who joined in the discussion included Eleanor Updale, Gillian Cross, Elizabeth Laird and Shoo Rayner and many others, and most seemed united in their distrust of the conclusions which were presented to us. In brief, then…
The research comprised both qualitative and quantitative surveys of adults, some of them regular book-buyers and others only very irregular book buyers. The results suggested pretty conclusively that (1) people get greater pleasure buying gifts that they’d invested in personally, thoughtfully etc.; (2) people think books are a good sort of thing to buy as presents; (3) it would be easier to buy books as gifts if there was some sort of age guidance on them (less so of course when buying for children you know well, whose tastes and abilities you know well, but when buying for your kids’ friends, your nieces / nephews / grandchildren and others more distant it would help). Guidance would, in other words, make it easier for you to buy a book as a gift, and not default to an easier but less satisfying (for the giver) gift like a game, which ‘does the job’ but isn’t special or thoughtful.
Age ranging, in other words, will make more people buy books more frequently. (And for those who didn’t need it, no harm would be done.) The evidence on this was pretty comprehensive.
As was pointed out, this research seemed to prove that age guidance of some kind would increase sales (no one seemed to be disputing this), but it didn’t take into account the effect on reading, and whether it’d be increasing copy-sales to the detriment of the reading itself. Would it be limiting to children to classify books in this way?
The worry, of course, is the following:
-- Children with reading difficulties will be stigmatised – if you’re ten and all of your friends are reading books labelled ‘10+’, do you want to be seen reading something labelled ‘7+’?
-- Advanced readers will be held back – while some pushy parents might like the idea of their ten year old reading a ‘12+’ book, others will see the guidance as prescriptive, so children will be held back from approaching books that are a challenge for them. You’re not reading it till you’re twelve and that’s that.
-- All children read at different levels, and there’s no reason why you should feel you should no longer be allowed to read Asterix just because it’s not in your age category. (You often see parents keeping books away from their children when they feel they’re ‘too easy’, and this makes that attitude easier to solidify.)
-- All children are different, so how do you determine what’s supposed to be for a certain age?
-- Who is going to decide on what age is assigned to which book? (Many authors present had had experiences of publishers as they saw it mis-categorising their books which led to their target/expected readers being put off them.) And how?
The answer was that there had been research done with the readers too, though we didn’t get to see this. (That’s something that’d be interesting – I wonder if we could get hold of that document too…) Apparently it suggested no adverse effects on children (who are of course used to age ratings given for games, films, etc.). Without having seen this research, though, it’s hard to gauge how much the concerns above still remain real concerns. (Though it’s hard to imagine even this research proving all that much – a child saying to an adult in a focus group setting that they know what they want to read and wouldn’t be put off by x, y or z evidently isn’t the same as that child in conditions where s/he is surrounded by peers.)
Elaine and Mary did point out that they too had been sceptical of the idea of age guidance on books in the first place, and like everyone else had assumed it was a bad idea, and that over the past couple of years’ research they’ve been turned around to the opposite view and are now fully convinced that it is only a good thing – that someone buying a book rather than not buying a book can surely only be good. But there remained more than a little scepticism among the audience even at the end of the long discussion (I felt rather sorry for Elaine who had a lot of brickbats to dodge, sometimes a little aggressive); but the fact was lost on no one that whether we were convinced or not mattered little, as the decision to go ahead with the scheme had already been taken, and it will be launched later this year. Some annoyance at not having been consulted was in evidence too…
The final question, I suppose, is if this is definitely going ahead, how do you standardise it across the industry, so that what Egmont consider a 9+ is comparable to what Scholastic consider a 9+? (They seem pretty errant at times, going by the catalogues...) A set of guidelines, constant monitoring and moderating, etc. - more complicated than one might anticipate, I suspect, if it's to be done with any kind of rigour...
So... The plan, then, is for some publishers to begin in the autumn marking guidance on new titles; for guidance to be given on suitable age (interest age? reading age?), but not content warnings, and that the ages should be given not as a fixed band (9-11) but just setting a lower limit: 7+, 9+, 11+, etc. (this is the approach adopted in the UTeenBG, incidentally); and the age will be given in black-&-white, quite discreetly, at the bottom of the back cover. These choices mitigate the decision a little for me, and so I suppose I’m not as anti- as I might have been (had the books had ‘FOR NINE-AND-A-HALF-YEAR-OLDS ONLY!!’ in big screaming sparkly red letters in the middle of the front jacket, for example), but I’m yet to be convinced. I hope at least since it's being done it'll be done well. Though importantly, I thought, it wasn’t clear how the success of this will be measured, but we shall see; the only easy measure is sales, but as we know that tells us less about reading than about shopping, and some more reader-centred feedback would be appreciated, if only someone could think how to do that usefully.
And talking about feedback, what do you think?
PS On a quite different matter, having neglected the blog for a fortnight I've not yet said how much I enjoyed my event organised by the Ipswich CBG at Waterstone's Ipswich the other day - thanks to Jayne and everyone in the group who invited me and looked after me!
4 years ago