When A. J. Ayer was asked what he would have done had he not been an Oxford philosopher, he said: “I would have been a publisher. That’s the easiest occupation I can think of.” Reading that remark just after attending a children’s publishing conference made me realize that we need to shout to the outside world a bit more about how complex and important publishing is.
Publishers connect writers and audiences, bringing to projects their experience of what is possible, and making things happen that authors alone could never achieve. Eric Carle’s The Very Hungry Caterpillar would not have become a 50-million-copy book still in print after 53 years were it not for his publishers finding a way to mass produce the holes. In more recent times imprints like Two Hoots and Nosy Crow have pushed the boundaries of foil and flaps, and Magic Cat is creating puzzles and toys to supplement its innovative books.
Publishers do more than enhance physical product. They open young minds to the possibility of lifestyles and values that differ from their own experience. Companies like Hope Road, Otter-Barry, Old Barn, or Sweet Cherry bring books into the U.K. marketplace from fresh and diverse backgrounds around the world. (I would like to highlight Juan Villoro’s The Wild Book, from Mexico, which is not only a hugely engaging story but a wonderful celebration of why books matter.)
Publishers can choose to support stories about difficult issues, and so allow children to learn about them in a safe way. Judith Kerr’s When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit gives access to some of the darkest events humankind has ever perpetrated, but has never been out of print since publication in 1971. Publishers like Barrington Stoke make it possible for dyslexic children to engage with stories on their own. And there is clear evidence that listening to audiobooks encourages reading (https://literacytrust.org.uk/). In every case, the publisher is risking its resources, making a considered bet on the viability of a project.
The values that children acquire in early years will shape their outlook and behavior in later life, and thus in due course the society of which they are part. More than two thousand years ago, Plato was arguing in Republic [speaking as a guardian in Athenian society], “Our first job is to oversee the work of the story-writers, and to accept any good story they write, but reject the others.” Writing this just as Banned Book Week ends in the U.S. prompts the thought that “reject the others” is difficult to square with a very proper fear of censorship, but it is worth making explicit the power and responsibility we have.
All this creativity and productivity is useless if the audience cannot get access. As Cassie Chatterton from World Book Day said at the conference, “Let children choose what they want to read, and celebrate that choice. Develop a reading for pleasure pattern. All children need to see their own world properly represented.” And in another session, Katie Sparks from Cloudaloud observed that “accessibility starts with availability—we must make stories available widely and in different formats.” Books have to be part of the furniture in everyday life. It is easy for us in publishing, who have almost certainly grown up surrounded by books, to forget that for many children this is not the normal state of affairs. That is why books, in all formats, are so important in schools and libraries.
Schemes like that run by The Bookery at Crediton in Devon, which ensures that books in schools are both in the libraries and for sale, can do a lot to ensure availability for all regardless of financial means, as can audio platforms like Cloudaloud or Borrow Box. Books allow children to explore what is possible, and as they grow older decide for themselves with sufficient information how they can and should shape the society that they will then be part of.
No, Freddie Ayer, publishing is not easy—but it is important.
Nicholas Jones has run the Strathmore Studios in London since 2005, recording many children’s audiobooks, and recently founded the children’s audio platform Cloudaloud to bring children’s audiobooks to both individuals and schools.