One of my goals for 2014 was to review more non-fiction books for children. So far this year I’ve written 85 pieces on the blog, and 12 have been about non-fiction. Given that non-fiction makes up about 15% of high street children’s book sales in the UK, it seems appropriate that almost the same percentage of my reviews have been about non-fiction titles.
As I’ve increased the number of non-fiction books I’ve reviewed, I’ve had to think about slightly different issues from those which concern me when reviewing fiction/picture books:
Sales of children’s non-fiction in the UK are booming; so far this year about 36% more children’s non-fiction titles have been sold on the high street as compared to last year. Several new imprints either dedicated to non-fiction or with non-fiction as a strong strand have launched in the last 18 months. Usborne – which is almost synonymous with children’s non-fiction here in the UK – has seen its profits jump this year, up 26% on last year.
All this seems like great news for children’s non-fiction.
Children’s non fiction rarely gets reviewed. Whether we’re talking about reviews in mainstream media, or by book bloggers, reviews of non-fiction for children and young people are few and far between generally speaking. Approximately 2% of the reviews of books for children and young people on the Guardian website in the last year were about non-fiction. Another broadsheet managed a 6% review rate. Look around the UK Child/YA bookblogging scene and you’ll see similar low levels of reviews.
Why is this?
One reviewer for a broadsheet told me that she just “doesn’t have time” to review non-fiction. I don’t know about you, but ‘time’ in my world ultimately often corresponds to ‘level of interest’. Another highly regarded mainstream media children’s book reviewer told me that for non-fiction to even get a look in, it had to be exceptional and innovative. I don’t think many reviewers of fiction only review novels or picture books which are ground-breaking. I’d argue that plenty of ‘good-enough’ (fiction) books for children and young people get review space. Is the bar set differently for children’s non-fiction?
Perhaps another barrier to reviewing non-fiction books is our concerns as reviewers about being able to assess the accuracy of the books in question.
In reviewing non-fiction titles I sadly come across errors far more often than I ever thought I would. And I have not once seen these errors mentioned in other reviews of the same books. Indeed, some of these books end up on award shortlists (I’ve seen this twice this year, on two different shortlists) and in eminent ‘Pick of the year’ lists. Is there a culture of silence surrounding mentioning errors? Is it that reviewers are not picking up on errors? Is it that reviewers are fearful of souring relations with authors, illustrators and publishers? Are we swayed more by looks than by content? Do we just find it easier to avoid non-fiction reviews altogether because then we don’t have to consider issues of accuracy?
Accuracy of content really matters to me. When I review a non-fiction title I always fact check at least three randomly chosen facts from the book. Yes, this isn’t much, but it often gives me a rough and ready handle on the book. If with just three fact checks I can find an error…. what does that do to my trust in the rest of the book?
Perhaps there’s a bigger question to ask here: Does factual accuracy actually matter?
I firmly believe that children’s non-fiction is especially important in the age of Google; anyone can post anything on the net without it being checked whereas published books go through a system of checking, hopefully ensuring factual accuracy. But if books turn out not to be reliable, what advantages do they have over the internet? Maybe none, and yet I believe the physical book format is so important for encouraging quiet contemplation rather than quick-fix consumption, the sort of contemplation that is necessary for deeper understanding and the embedding of information. (When arguing for books over googling, I’d also highlight the attention authors pay to ‘readability’ of non-fiction books i.e. creating a pleasant reading experience. Books really can and do offer something different and potentially much better than at bunch a best of loosely curated articles online.)
But, stepping back a moment, maybe factual accuracy just isn’t that important. One parent on twitter admitted to me that whilst accuracy was nice, it wasn’t as important as a book being inspirational and grabbing the child’s attention -that if a non-fiction book got her child excited about the topic in hand, factual errors wouldn’t stop her from buying it.
I personally can’t accept this, at least when it comes to recommending books myself via my blog. I think we do a disservice to our children, and to everyone involved in creating children’s non-fiction if we throw our hands up and say “never mind” when it comes to errors. What do you think?
I’ve read some thought provoking pieces this year about what to consider when reviewing non-fiction titles, for example this discussion of invented dialogue in picture book biographies and this one about accuracy in illustration in non-fiction titles, both by the inimitable Betsy Bird.
Apart from general stances re factual accuracy, I’ve also learned that there are huge variations in the fact checking process for non-fiction books (in the UK). All the NF authors I’ve spoken to are proud of their rigorous fact checking. Some authors provide fully referenced texts, even if the references don’t make it into the final book. Some publishers never ask for referenced texts. Some publishers will employ a consultant or even two to fact check, as well as a literacy expert where appropriate. But this isn’t always the case. One prolific non-fiction author told me “accuracy is almost entirely in the hands of the author“; “Children’s non-fiction is in such a parlous state that some books don’t even have an editor.”
Through talking extensively with NF authors and publishers I’m convinced they they are all dedicated to creating accurate, informative, enjoyable books, so why have I gone on so long about errors? Because I worry that silence about them – in reviews – and the processes by which they end up in print suggest that as a children’s book-buying, book-reading public we seriously undervalue children’s non-fiction.
We undervalue them in terms of publishing time and resources devoted to them:
Of course in a time of austerity we’re all subject to constraints, but from what I’ve learned this past year about children’s non-fiction, publishers’ time and budgets are being squeezed ever more tightly. There’s lots of pressure on getting books out there, sometimes without all the due care and attention they deserve. Yes, as a parent (and a reviewer) I want to see exciting, imaginative non-fiction, but style shouldn’t win out over substance.
We undervalue them in terms of public recognition of non-fiction authors:
Non-fiction authors are the cinderellas of the book world. Sometimes it can even be hard to find out who the author was of a non-fiction book, with their name not appearing on the cover but hidden inside in small print. Non-fiction reviews are nearly always subject driven rather than author driven and non-fiction author events are proportionally far less common than fiction author events. If you’re not persuaded by my argument that we generally hold non-fiction authors in low regard just test yourself: How many children’s non-fiction authors can you name? And how many fiction authors?
We undervalue them in terms of how much non-fiction authors are paid for the work they do:
Typically such an author earns a flat fee of around £1000 per book (though offers of much less are not infrequent), and receives no % of any sales. I understand that this is significantly less that the typical advance paid to picture book authors (typically 1-4k), who also receive 3-5 % royalties from all sales.
All this tells me that we don’t really value children’s non-fiction.
So here’s my call to arms:
Yes, let’s celebrate children’s non-fiction, the authors and the publishers who help bring adventures in the real world into the lives of our children and teenagers.
Yes, let’s create lots more brilliant non-fiction books for children and young people, recognising that for many non-fiction is their preferred reading of choice. I’m definitely all for more creative approaches to non-fiction and a move away from the look-and-learn style fact books of old, but let’s not cut corners just for the sake of good looks. If you want to create great books you need great authors and illustrators who have been given the time, money and wider support necessary.
Yes, let’s review more non-fiction for children and young people, but let’s not be afraid of reading it closely, reviewing it honestly, and starting debates about it.
Yes, let’s get more great non-fiction into the hands of children and young people. What non-fiction will you be buying for presents this year?
My thanks to all who discussed non-fiction reviewing, publishing, and related issues with me including Damyanti Patel, @ExploraBox1, Sue Cowley, Jonathan Emmett, @childledchaos, Polly Faber, Ian Manley, Cath Senker, Ali Baker, Brian Williams, Isabel Thomas, Ami Segna, Moira Butterfield, Charlotte Guillain, Stewart Ross, Brian Williams, Sean Callery and Nicola Davies. Thank you too to all who chose to remain anonymous. Of course, all opinions here are my own and do not necessarily represent those held by the authors, publishers, reviewers, or parents I spoke to.
Whilst I’ve been somewhat critical in this post, just for the record, let me state how much I do value everyone working in the field of children’s non-fiction. All the industry insiders I have spoken to, from authors to publishers, are full of passion for non-fiction. They are all 100% committed to producing excellent non-fiction. My commitment to the field is hopefully demonstrated by the fact that for all of the month of November I’ve been co-ordinating an initiative which celebrates non-fiction for children and young people, National Non-Fiction November. You can find out more about the various events which have been held, and the articles many different people have contributed here, here, here and here, or by using the hashtag #NNFN on twitter.
UPDATE: Whilst I did of course endeavour to have accurate facts in this post, one NF author has since contacted me to say that in their experience, rates for writing a non-fiction book are more like £1200 to £2200. The figure I quote above (£1000) was originally supplied by two different NF authors. If more NF authors would like to (anonymously) share their rates with me, then I could provide a more accurate picture.