Not long ago I had a back-and-forth email conversation with an editor at a major children’s publishing house. We’d worked together on a number of non-fiction books and I valued her opinion and her gentle, but firm approach – even when it meant, as it did in this case, that she was rejecting my proposal.
“Children’s non-fiction is tough sell right now,” she wrote. She cited a few reasons. The high cost of production. Stiff competition from big leaguers like National Geographic. Print-on-demand and ebooks taking a slice of the publishing pie. The rise of the Internet where every child with a computer, tablet or cell phone has access to information in an instant.
My editor-friend added that of dozens in-the-works projects on her desk, only a few were non-fiction. Those were of two types. Books about sports, especially hockey (no surprise there), and books about military history (cross-hairs are locked on WWI and WWII anniversary dates). “Our marketers,” she added. “are reluctant to invest in other subjects.”
Is this an accurate assessment of non-fiction’s current status? In a letter to The Guardian in 2012, a group of twenty-six British children’s authors argued that almost overnight, the market for children’s non-fiction had ‘vanished’. “We got to the end of our collective tethers,” Jenny Vaughan, one of the twenty-six said. “We thought that something had to be done – that we’ve got to start making a noise about this before children’s non-fiction is obsolete.”
Many reasons cited in the letter echo the ones my editor-friend mentioned, but the group also blamed shifting library and school markets. Rather than simply being repositories of books and information, libraries were redefining their purpose in the face of new technology, shifting their focus away from being guardians of information to becoming conduits in the information-gathering process. With a greater chunk of the budget going to purchasing computers, tablets, smart boards and software, fewer dollars remained to purchase books.
On a recent book tour, I noticed this trend in many of the schools I visited. Instead of libraries, many schools had ‘learning commons’ – open spaces peppered with computers and surrounded by only a few shelves of books. Instead of teacher-librarians, ‘technology assistants’ manned the places. The focus was no longer on pulling dusty books off the shelf, but on manning students with the means of finding current information for themselves.
So is children’s non-fiction really in decline? If we’re talking traditional book publishing, perhaps. With so much available online, with access so easy, and with the focus changing to do-it-yourself research of daily fresh sources, traditional book publishers face stiff competition.
That’s not to say that the market has dried up completely, but it does mean that non-fiction writers have to be clever. There will always be a need for current, clear and concise information and writers who can deliver it in a palatable and interesting way to children. But we have turned a corner and there is no going back. To survive, writers must adapt and seek new venues beyond traditional print forms, or at the very least produce material that surpasses whatever young readers can find so easily for themselves with a click of a mouse and a leap on to the Internet. Creative slants, fresh takes, inventive forms, vibrant writing, new topics that challenge, entertain, and raise questions beyond the obvious – books with these ingredients, I believe, still have a place on bookshelves.