Writers are calling on parents and grandparents to buy a book by a non-celebrity this Christmas as authors such as David Walliams are set to top the festive charts.
With big names including Tom Fletcher, Jamie Oliver, Geri Horner and Paul McCartney recently releasing or announcing children’s books, the fear is that the authors and illustrators who make a living from them are going to lose out.
It is not sour grapes on the part of children’s authors, though — a survey last week by the Authors’ Licensing and Collecting Society (ALCS) said that the median earnings for a professional author are now just £7,000 a year.
Former Britain’s Got Talent presenter Walliams’s latest work, Spaceboy, probably earned far more than that on the day of release, having sold 35,000 copies in its first week.
Piers Torday, award-winning author of The Last Wild trilogy and There May Be a Castle, among others, said that it becomes an extremely unlevel playing field once celebrities decide to put pen to paper and promotional budgets are poured into marketing their books.
“The issue is with celebrities from other fields who have previously shown no interest in creative writing and see the children’s book market as a fairly pain-free way to extend their brand,” he said.
“If harried adults don’t have time to keep up with reviews, they’ll just go into Sainsbury’s and if they’ve heard the name, they’ll just grab it.”
Claire Wilson of the RCW literary agency said: “Readers are not well-served if the first thing that they see on every shelf is mediocre writing put into a celebrity package.
“It remains the case that the offering in supermarkets and other chains is dominated by a static selection of the biggest brands and most recognisable names. I would love to see a new generation of authors brought into the public conversation and given a chance to find their readership.”
Anthony McGowan, who won the 2020 Carnegie medal for children’s books for his novel Lark, said that when buying books this Christmas, we should think of the books that have stayed with us since our own childhoods.
“Which ones have implanted themselves in your heart?” he said. “It’s unlikely to be celebrity authors. It’ll be writers who have developed their craft over years, writers who have that gift of remembering their own childhoods, of turning those memories and experience into rich, complex, powerful, moving stories and of connecting with young readers.
“It probably isn’t going to be someone who became famous by being amusing on a sofa on a TV set.”
Oliver’s book, Billy and the Giant Adventure, will not be out until next year, as will the fruits of former Spice Girl Horner’s two-book deal featuring the adventures of Rosie Frost.
“I just feel like: ‘Oh, Jamie, why do you need to do it?’” said Torday. “You’re already a successful cook and you already do really great things, but we just don’t need a children’s book from you. I mean, I’m not about to inflict my cooking on anyone.”
Celebrities are seen to be hoovering up not just the available money for advances from publishers, but also the marketing budgets that see them booked for chatshows and programmes such as The One Show.
The literary agent Jo Unwin said: “The most telling difference is how hard the author is put to work by the publisher: a celeb might have a couple of contractual days going on chatshows to talk about their book, but an unknown author is expected to do schools visits up and down the country to establish a fanbase from the ground up.”
Independent booksellers are doing their best to sell works by children’s authors to those who come in looking for the latest celebrity book. Alex Call of Bert’s Books in Swindon said: “We get a lot of customers – children and parents alike – who come in looking for some of the big celebrity names. Their presence on our shelves helps build a level of trust with readers.
“The fact that we stock books by authors such as David Walliams means I find they’re more likely to accept our recommendations for other books and we usually focus on those that don’t get their fair share of marketing.”
For Michael Rosen, who was children’s laureate from 2007 to 2009, the main problem is the general promotion of the children’s book industry on a wider scale. He said: “Some writers object to the fact that it seems as if celeb children’s book writers siphon off media attention from other children’s books. Another way of looking at it is that this attention isn’t there for children’s books in the first place.
“We are the Cinderellas of the book business, with very little media attention, so it’s small wonder that some children’s writers feel miffed by the fact that seemingly the only attention given to a children’s book is because the writer is already a star.”