Tuesday, July 8, 2008

More News on the Age-Banding Conflict

Here is a update from Phillip Pullman on the meeting he recently had with some of the major book publishers:

On Thursday 3 July I met with representatives of the publishers: Simon Juden, Chief Executive of the Publishers Association, Philippa Dickinson of Random House, and Elaine McQuade of Scholastic. Also present were Mark Le Fanu (General Secretary) and Celia Rees (Chair of the Children's Writers and Illustrators Group) from the Society of Authors. Anna Ganley of the SoA was taking minutes.

I have to say that this report is based on my personal recollections, because Anna Ganley's minutes are not quite ready yet. If her record conflicts with anything I say here, I shall of course correct it.

Simon Juden opened by acknowledging in guarded and cautious terms that the presentation of this matter from their side had perhaps not been ideal, but that he and the publishers were very anxious to stress that their intention had never been to impose age-guidance (that is the term they prefer to use) on authors without full consultation, and that he thought it would be a good idea to take some of the emotion out of the discussion and simply deal with the facts.

I replied that I'd rather call it passion, and that I'd rather it stayed in, thank you very much, because the sheer volume and intensity of the anger caused by the proposal was entirely part of what we wanted to express. I went on to ask various questions about the research - full details of which had only reached me the evening before on my return from a conference in Sweden, so I had only the morning of the 3rd to digest several hundred pages. But what struck me very forcibly was that not once in all those pages was it acknowledged that authors and illustrators had a point of view that might be worth listening to; and in particular that not once were the concerns of teachers about the effect of printed age-figures on children, which have since been very vividly and cogently expressed, even considered.

Their answer to this was that of course authors and illustrators were immensely important, but that this was simply a market survey based on what customers thought, and that the concerns of the people who created the books were not of direct relevance to that. I then asked why all the excellent and varied reasons against the proposal, which so many of you have sent to us, were not put honestly to the respondents, so that they might have a true idea of the range of the issues involved. I can't recall their answer to that, except that it didn't seem to me to deal with the matter.

The discussion continued with the publishers' saying that they had had a very supportive response from "most" of their authors, with no problems being expressed. In support of that claim they produced a pile of books with age-banding figures on the covers. We didn't examine them closely, but one of them, as Celia Rees and I agreed afterwards when we were talking about it, was a copy of Neil Gaiman's 'Coraline'. This was a surprise to us, because Neil Gaiman is a signatory to this statement. Philippa Dickinson has since admitted to me that they were American editions, "which all carry age-guidance information".

Celia then pointed out the oddness of their claim that "most authors" were in favour of it, because a very recent survey of the members of the Children's Writers and Illustrators Group (with a very large response) showed that 77% were against age-banding, 6% were for it, and 17% were undecided. How could their claim and those figures be reconciled? No answer.
The central issue became this: we wanted them to agree that no book should be age-banded without the author's consent. They refused to agree to this, but offered "full consultation" instead. We pointed out that every author in the world knows what "consultation" means: it means the publishers saying "This is the cover of your new book," and our saying "Well it's horrible," and their replying "Well, tough." "Full" consultation, I suppose, would mean that plus lunch.

Their point was that the cover of the book has traditionally, or by convention, or contractually, been the publisher's domain, just as the text inside has been the author's, and they had the right to put the age-figure there if they wanted to, and they weren't going to agree to anyone having a veto. Our response to that was that while that has been true for everything that normally goes on a cover - artwork, typography, back cover copy, author photo, all that - the age-figure was an entirely new and previously unconsidered thing, and that when any earlier convention or contractual arrangement had come into being, it hadn't existed, so it was quite wrong to claim that age-guidance would automatically be covered by any previous agreement.

They said they thought we were wrong. We said we thought they were wrong.
So in the end we came up with this statement:

'At a meeting involving The Publishers Association, the Society of Authors, and Philip Pullman (on behalf of the signatories of the online statement), the publishers were happy to confirm that there has been, and remains, no question of age guidance being added to a book without full consultation with the author. The remaining point of difference, which is to be considered further, was that those speaking for authors feel strongly that authors should have the right to refuse to have age guidance on their books.'

What that means is that the struggle will continue, and that authors and illustrators in particular should insist on this right of 'full consultation' and exert it to the utmost. The publishers did say that it was "almost inconceivable" that they would put a figure on a book if the author didn't agree, but that, of course, is no guarantee of anything: if it came to a disagreement, they would still impose it.

We should continue to gather evidence, opinions and signatures, and we shall, of course, continue to keep you informed. Thank you very much for your support. This is a fight worth having, even though it's taking up so much of our time. In the end we shall win.
~Philip Pullman

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