Sunday 23 January 2022

Who are you writing for?


The audience for children’s books is complicated and I think it’s worth considering.


When you write it’s important to please yourself first, to strive to create a story that satisfies all your wishes about stories. You will probably never be completely satisfied with your own story because that’s the way creativity goes, but the joy is that once you have got as near as you can, you get to start again, to get nearer.


Of course, children. You need to tailor your book to your child audience. That means, on the whole, that your use of language is going to be more straightforward than it might be for an adult book. It means your story structure is likely to be simpler. It means that you cannot assume your reader has knowledge of things that are known to you as an adult. It’s vital to engage children quickly in your story – they have other things that demand their attention more insistently than books, and there are lots of other books to read that will satisfy their urge for funny or spooky or exciting or emotional right away. And, for me, ending with hope is non-negotiable in a children’s book. That doesn’t necessarily mean ‘happy ever after’, but there must be an element of positive closure. Oh, and closure itself is important: it’s cheating your child reader to end a book end without closing the central story so that they are obliged to seek out the next in the series (which may be a year away if this is a newly published book). Children are growing up – they want the whole story right now. Next year may be too late.


Audience vs purchaser

This is where the difference between children’s books and adult books lies. Children sometimes buy books for themselves. They sometimes select books to read from a library. But there’s a whole set of people who do most of the buying on their behalf or who advocate on behalf of books to children.


Parents, carers and gift-buyers
Parents and carers don’t necessarily know anything about the children’s books that are available. (Of course some do, but I’m thinking about the majority of parents and carers who, even if they are readers themselves, aren’t necessarily interested in children’s books.) They know about the books they enjoyed as a child. They recognise big name authors and celebrities. If a lot of children are reading a particular author or book, they may become aware of it. If a child is a reader or if they need or want a book by a particular author or for a particular reason, the parent or carer might consult a bookseller or librarian. Otherwise, they’re probably going to go for something they recognise or pick up something that looks appealing from the bookshop display tables. How do you, as a children’s book creator, grab these people’s attention? I don’t know.


Primary school teachers want children to read books and they want books that children will listen to and understand and find engaging. Some teachers are hungry for knowledge about new children’s books that will engage readers and listeners. They want to know about all sorts of books to fit all sorts of readers. For class reading books, they may like books with issues they can discuss or a relevance to the local area or full of beautiful language or ideas or extraordinary flights of imagination. They may want funny or thrilling stories to capture the children who are not yet sold on the idea of the book as entertainment. They like books that come with free resources that are useful in their classrooms.

In an ideal world, where primary teachers would have time to engage with the world of children’s books and with the reading needs of individual children, and would have access to funds to buy all the books they want and need, teachers would be the key to your child audience. But we have to face facts. Primary school teachers have enormous burdens on their time and mental energy. Books are just a small part of all the things they need to learn about themselves and engage children with. Budgets for school libraries are puny and irregular. A lot of school libraries only get new books when parents donate books their children have grown out of.


Ah, librarians! These are the glorious champions of children’s books. It’s their job. A children’s librarian is on the lookout for books that will engage and excite children. They want all sorts of books in their library to suit all sorts of readers. They’re not just looking at the books that shout at them because of celebrity authors and zeitgeist; they’re looking at everything the publishing world produces. They have knowledge to share and they’re prepared to share it. But how many schools actually have a dedicated librarian? How many public libraries have a children’s librarian?


Book reviewers and bloggers
The space given to children’s book reviews in newspapers is hugely disproportionate to their position in the market. The reason for this, I presume, is that children are unlikely to be reading the newspaper. But that’s nonsense, of course, because on the whole children aren’t the ones buying books. *sigh* There are other places, children’s book magazines and review blogs. The writers of these are part of the audience for children’s books, but of course, they’re not who you’re writing for. But they are important, nonetheless. Engaged parents and teachers and librarians will use this source of information about children’s books. So even if you’re not writing for them, you need to be thinking about them when you start marketing your book.


Agents and Publishers
Are you writing for agents and publishers? Unless you're planning to self-publish, then you certainly ought to be thinking about them. It's the job of agents and publishers to think about the market for your book. Personally, I suggest leaving this bit to them. Don't write for them. Think about the book you want to write and write it, then do your best to put it in the hands of an agent or publisher who is likely to want it. You can find out what they're looking for on their websites, or sometimes on Twitter or blogs. Or look at other things they publish and decide if your book fits their list. 


What does all this mean? It means that you may be thinking about how your book will satisfy yourself and your child audience, but agents and publishers will consider your book in the light of the purchasers and champions who will get your book into the hands of children. Write what you want to write, but bear this in mind when it comes time to send your book out into the world.



My latest book, Snippets, is out now.

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