Act Normal and self-publish – Why the self publishing revolution is good for girls’ books
Since my children got to the age where they’re starting to read independently, and I started writing the “Act Normal” series of children’s chapter books, I’ve been looking around at what kind of books are out there for young children. And the gender bias in children’s books has really been bugging me.
Ok – I know that lots of boys like poo and dinosaurs, and I know that lots of girls like ponies and fairies, but for goodness sake, do we really need every single book on the shelf to be either a BOYS’ BOOK or a GIRLS’ BOOK? Do we really need to market and promote everything we do as though boys and girls were different species?
It’s not just insulting to the intelligence of our children, and it’s not just pandering to the natural tendencies of the majority. It’s actively creating the divisions that will guide their choices in later life.
I’ve written and illustrated children’s books both through traditional publishing and as an independent self-published author, and I think the problem here comes not from writers, or from readers. I think the problem comes from traditional publishers, and their marketing arms, and I think the solution is in the fresh ideas of independent authors.
How it Happens
Publishing books for younger children is an expensive and competitive business. Kids’ books are big, and have big type with large empty spaces. They’re also illustrated – often in colour – which means paying an illustrator, and higher printing costs.
In addition to that, publishers have to print and distribute thousands of copies of a book before it even stands a chance of making money. And that means long lead times. A traditionally published book takes 2 years to get to the shelves.
If a book doesn’t sell, it’s a big deal, and so marketing campaigns have to be designed, focus groups studied and demographics have to be worked out. Booksellers need to know who exactly they’re selling to, and that audience becomes the driving factor in what gets published and how it’s sold.
This means that experiments are costly, time consuming and dangerous, and there’s huge pressure to stick to what works and what’s safe – and that means gender stereotyping.
It also means aiming for as wide an audience as possible – books which everyone thinks are ‘OK’ are far more attractive to publishers than books which will be loved, and adored, but by fewer people.
The result is row upon row of dull, formulaic and safe children’s books which challenge neither their readers nor the assumptions of the markets.
The questions traditional publishers ask when deciding on a title, then, have to be driven by the demands of the publishing business – not by the questions parents and children ask when they’re choosing a book – and the difference between those needs is getting wider and wider.
The Self-Publishing Revolution Is Different
But there’s a quiet revolution going on… Self-publishing has changed. Authors can now get their work to a global market very quickly, easily and cheaply, and more and more respected and traditionally published authors are taking that route (for some or all of their work).
Self-published authors can experiment with fresh ideas, and vibrant new themes, and get them to their readers soon as they’re ready. And crucially, the author doesn’t need to print a thousand copies. When someone orders a book online, a single copy is printed and sent out to them. The book looks, feels and costs the same to the reader, but the author is much freer to avoid gender stereotypes and tired plots and subjects.
Ok, there’s a lot of rubbish out there – but, when every book on Amazon allows you to read the first couple of chapters as a free sample, it’s fairly easy to spot which books are well written and interesting before you buy.
If I write a book and nobody buys it, I’ve wasted my time, but so what? I’ve taken a risk that didn’t work. A traditional publisher would have a lot more difficulty doing the same, and the result is that if you want an interesting, vibrant, experimental attitude to children’s literature, the place to look is in self-published books.
In addition, I don’t need to pander to the expectations of marketing executives (whose busy jobs in the imploding publishing industry mean they probably haven’t had time make – let alone talk to – children).
I can (as I have) make my main character a girl who likes experiments and dinosaurs, and nobody tells me to throw in some fairies, call it a “girls’ book” or make the cover pink. I can just put it out there as the story it is, and if you, the reader (or the reader’s family) like it, you’ll buy it. If you don’t, I’ll do something else.
And I’m not alone……I’m seeing more and more adventurous children’s fiction coming out of small and independent publishers (for example, take a look at the Tara Binns series of picture books by Lisa Rajan and Eerika Omiyale).
If you’re annoyed by the predictability of modern children’s books, and you want an interesting, vibrant, experimental attitude to children’s literature, take a look at some of the independently published books around. You might just be surprised.
… and if you find anything you think other parents might appreciate, post it here as a comment so others can check it out: