No to Age Banding

Philip Pullman's address

I thought it would be useful to begin by summing up where we are and how we got here, as fairly and impartially as I could. But then I thought that we all know how we got here, and we don’t need a history lesson; so I’m going to ask why this scheme is such a bad thing, and then look at what I think lies behind it; because its origins are not in books or publishing at all.

So: what could be the possible objection to guiding adults towards an appropriate book to buy for a child?

Well, I don’t have any objection to that. The more information people can have, the better. What I object to is something that looks like information, but isn’t; something that involves my book, and by implication me, in a piece of dishonesty; something, in short, that is a lie. There are many reasons to find fault with this scheme, but for myself, the strongest objection is a moral one. I don’t mind booksellers putting my books on a shelf marked 9-11; I don’t mind reviewers saying about a book of mine that it would be suitable for ages 10 and over. Everyone is entitled to an opinion.

But I mind very much when my own book says, with an air of final authority, that it is intended for children of 9 and upwards, and everyone else can leave it alone. It’s not for them.

Because, as I say, that is not information. It’s not true. I did not intend the book for this age, and not that; for one class of reader, and not others. I wrote it for anyone who wants to read it, and I want as many readers as I can get, and I want to meet them honestly. And the effect of this little printed figure will be to put at risk the relationship between the author and the reader, by introducing a falsehood into it. For a book to claim “This was written for children of 11+”, when it simply wasn’t, is to tell an untruth.

And readers trust the writers of the books they love. They trust us to deal fairly and to tell the truth about things – even things they know to be fictional. They know there’s no such person as Tracy Beaker, and yet they trust Jackie to tell truthful things about her. They know that the world of Noughts and Crosses is made, up, and yet they trust Malorie to tell us the truth about what it’s like to live there. For our books to tell a lie about themselves is to betray that trust. What will happen when we say to a child of 10, who might love this book of ours, “I wrote this for you,” when the cover says it’s for children of 11+? Who will they believe, the author who wrote the book and says “This is for you,” or the grown-up who looks at the label and says “This isn’t for you?” Should they believe the content of the book, which agrees with us, or the cover, which contradicts us? Are we teaching children about trust, here, or about cynicism?

I want to look next at this famous research, which was apparently so persuasive that even those publishers who’d previously been sceptical about the idea of age guidance were simply knocked to the ground when they saw it, like Saul on the road to Damascus, blinded by the revelation of a truth that was almost divine in its compelling and awe-inspiring majesty.

Well, strangely enough, like all such research, whether commercial or political, it comes to exactly the conclusion that those who paid for it wanted to hear. You want to carry out a particular policy – you need a convincing reason – you pay someone to find something you can call evidence. The words “weapons of mass destruction” and “45 minutes” come to mind.

Firstly, you’d have thought, wouldn’t you, that it might be a good idea for the publishers to ask us what we thought about this scheme before commissioning expensive research. It would have been the easiest thing in the world, not to mention pretty well the cheapest activity all this nonsense has thrown up, for them to write to each of us and say “We’re thinking about doing this, but before we go any further we’d like to know what you think.” It would have been courteous, don’t you think? Sensible? They would have found out painlessly four years ago what they’re finding out much more publicly now.

But they didn’t. Not once did they ask us whether we thought it was a good idea. Not at any time from four years ago, when the Publishers Association got some money out of the Arts Council for their first piece of research, not in the Acacia Avenue survey that had the road-to-Damascus-effect, not when the PA met the CWIG group at the Society of Authors. Never. Not once were we asked our opinion.

Instead, the original proposal from Acacia Avenue, the market research company, contained this sentence in the very second paragraph:

A recent trade survey has shown a general preference to move to age ranging, although with some strongly held contrary views, but now what’s needed is a piece of research that delivers some definitive answers from the people who matter most – book customers and readers.

The people who matter most?

Whoever wrote that – whoever read that and believed it – needs to be reminded that without us, without our work, our talent, our willingness to put up with almost anything in the way of reduced royalties, humiliating treatment over jacket design, endless travels to this bookshop, that school, that library, anything to help our books reach the readers – without us there would be no editors, no designers, no marketing teams, no publicity people, no secretaries, no helpful personal assistants, no senior executives, no expense account lunches, no pension schemes, no company cars, no sales conferences in attractive places, no publishing industry whatsoever. Any of the people who do those other things could be replaced with very little difference. Take us away, and you’ve lost everything. The people who matter most? Authors and illustrators are the people who matter most, and no publisher with any sense of what’s right and true would have allowed that sentence, and that attitude, to stand.

The second point I’d make about the research is the entirely unexamined matter of whether age-guidance is really possible at all, and what they mean by it anyway. There is an assumption throughout all of it that there is a naturally occurring and objectively determinable number that applies to each book, which for various reasons has been concealed until now, and which the publishers are magnanimously proposing to display, to the benefit of everyone. Utter nonsense, of course. Each book is unique, and so is each reader. Nor do they know what it – the number – will refer to. The Acacia Avenue presentation asks the question of whether it will refer to reading age or to interest level, and decides that there will be “no content advice” – their words – it will be reading age. The Chief Executive of the PA, however, wrote a piece for the Guardian on 12 June, in which he said this, and again these are his words: “Age guidance isn’t actually about reading age – it is about content.” They can’t even get their act together long enough to agree on what they’re talking about.

My third point about the research concerns some of the figures in the presentation. Publishers have talked about the “great prize” that would be won by selling lots more books once they had an age-guidance figure on them. But as their own figures reveal, books are already by far the easiest present for adults to buy, rating high above DVDs, clothes, CDs, and video or computer games. 88% of people are already happy with the way things are. That figure would satisfy the most gung-ho political pollster in any country except North Korea. Where on earth is this “great prize” going to come from, with a figure like that?

And then, much has been made of the claim that 40% of people say they’d buy more books if they had an age-guidance figure on them. Take that claim with a very big handful of salt. In market surveys, opinion polls and so on, people always say what they think will gain them credit or approval, whereas their real behaviour in private may be quite different. This is such a well-known phenomenon that it’s even got a name: it’s called the Bradley effect, after the mayor of Los Angeles in 1982, who was black, and who was running for Governor of California. All the polls said that he was going to win, whereas in fact he lost, and research afterwards showed that the polls had been misled by white voters saying they’d vote for him, not wanting to seem racist, when in the privacy of the voting booth, they did otherwise.

And on a different scale, and in a different realm, the Bradley effect is exactly what is happening here. Buying books is seen as a good thing, an approved-of thing, the sort of thing adults get Brownie points for. It’s only too likely that people will say “Yes, I would buy more books,” in order to be thought well of. Would they really? That figure of 40% is the phoniest in the whole research.

And yet as a consequence of that figure and others like it, we have been told over and over again that “The customers want this.” But people want all sorts of things that they can’t have. They want to stop global warming, and they want cheap flights to Spain. They want a thriving National Health Service, and they want tax cuts. I’ve no doubt that if the publishers offered them a 10% cashback with each book they bought, and proposed to give it to them by paying us no more royalties, they’d want that too. That doesn’t mean it would be a good idea to do it.

I began my criticism of the research by pointing out that it didn’t include us: that we were never asked what we thought about the scheme. There are other people, closely and professionally involved with books and children, who weren’t consulted either. I’m talking about the teachers, the librarians, the people concerned with bringing books to children and adults with reading difficulties, or those with English as a second language, or those learning to read in prison. A very large number of the responses to our statement have come from people working in this area, and what they have all said is that this scheme will cause far more damage than the publishers have dreamed of.

Now it seems to me that the publishers can answer these critics, these experienced and concerned people, in only three ways. Like the climate-change deniers, they can rubbish the experts – they can say “These people are either lying or mistaken; they don’t know what they’re talking about; there’s not a word of truth in it.” Or they can say “Well, our hearts bleed for those unfortunates who are having trouble reading, but there just aren’t enough of them to matter commercially, so we’re going to ignore them.” Or else they can say “Well, we got this one wrong. We didn’t think about that aspect at all. We’ll have to reconsider.”

Never mind the morality of it, for the moment: just consider the public relations. This is supposed to be the Year of Reading. Which of those answers, this year, do they think will play best with the public?

Now I said at the start of this talk that I was going to consider what lies behind this scheme and the thinking that led to it, so that’s what I’m going to do now. I think the problem lies in two quite different ideas of what the book transaction is – two entirely distinct views of what happens when people buy a book.

One view sees the whole business as a process that culminates in the exchange of money for a copy of the book. That is the point towards which all the activity that went into making it is directed – all the writing, the editing, the designing, the marketing, the advertising – it all comes to this point. The cash is handed over or the PIN number tapped in, the EPOS information is registered, the book is placed in a bag and taken out of the shop. Then it’s all over; the transaction is successfully completed. There’s nothing important left to do.

The other view sees that moment, when book and cash change places, not as the end of the transaction but as the beginning. That is the point at which the reader’s engagement with the book begins. If it’s a successful one, it will take hours and hours; it might take days – it might take a lifetime; it might even change a life. At any rate, it’s a growing relationship that will result, especially in the case of a young reader, in a pleasure and confidence in reading that will do more than anything else to ensure not only a healthy book trade, but a healthy literature.

And that, to the second view, is the whole point: that’s what the book transaction is all about. And that is exactly what’s at risk when you bring in a scheme like this.

Now I’m not saying that all writers embody the second view and all publishers the first. Of course not. As a matter of fact I don’t think publishers are the principal players here. The editors aren’t to blame: most of them, according to what we’ve heard, were not consulted any more than we were. The people above the editors, the people whose names we perhaps know and whom we meet maybe once a year at the annual party, the people who are most responsible for driving this idea through, are not really to blame either. They are hounded night and day themselves by those yet higher than them, people whose names we don’t know at all, people whose faces we’d never recognise, people who operate at a level where the human consequences of what they do are almost microscopic and virtually invisible. At that level, it doesn’t make any difference what business you’re in, whether you publish books or sell books, whether you make plastic bags or manipulate sub-prime mortgages. The people up on those dizzy heights are the high priests of the belief that became first fashionable and then compulsory under the Thatcher government, and which New Labour made into a form of religion: the neo-liberal doctrine that the market knows best.

The result of embracing this belief is that you exalt the market into a sort of god, who must be placated, whose wisdom may not be questioned, before whose needs every other need evaporates like a drop of water in the glorious and radiant effulgence of the noonday sun. So you come to think, for example, that whatever makes things easy for the supermarkets must take precedence over everything else: so that supermarket managers, instead of having to employ someone at a slightly higher rate of pay to look at the books they sell and sort them out by thinking about them, can say to their seventeen-year-old minimum-wage shelf-stackers “See this number on the back of the book? Match it up with the one at the top of the shelf and put them over there. And when you’ve done that, make a start on the baked beans.”

The attitude that leads to that sort of thing will succeed, in the end, by so trashing the planet we live on that there will be nothing left under the blazing sun but bleached bones and shreds of faded plastic.

But never mind – it makes money.

Except that it doesn’t. This is the craziest thing of all – the delusion that behaving as if the market knows best results in making money. The truth is that the high priests, as I have called them, the high priests of the book world have no idea how to make money – not the slightest notion. They blunder from unexpected success to inexplicable failure with no idea what they’re doing. They think the only way to find success is to do this year exactly the same sort of thing that worked last year – asking the customers, in other words. Worshipping the market. And just the like the superstitious followers of some primitive religion, they fear their god and seek to placate him by offering up sacrifices: by handing over vast amounts of money to Tesco’s, for example, in order to bring about a miracle – and sure, enough, the god responds: the book they nominate is labelled No. 1 at Tesco’s, and behold! They have a bestseller.

In reality, success comes so unpredictably and from such unlikely directions that when it does turn up they can’t recognise it. How many experienced, shrewd, clever men and women with degrees and business qualifications and years in the trade turned down Harry Potter? Didn’t it go to sixteen publishers before finding one that had enough independence and courage to take a risk on it?

And then when Harry Potter went on to be the biggest success in sales terms that the book world has ever known, what did the high priests do with it? Here was a truly golden egg – the most golden of all golden eggs ever bestowed by a gracious goose on a simpleton in the whole history of fairy tales – and what did they do?

They threw it away from them with all the force they could muster. Discount after discount, loss leader after loss leader, every large bookseller or supermarket scrambling in a frenzy to fling more money away, until we saw the truly insane spectacle of independent booksellers having to buy the copies they wanted to sell from supermarkets because they were selling them at lower prices than the wholesalers were charging. In all the history of commercial folly, in all the sad annals of wasted opportunities, this must be the prize example. And these are the people who tell us that they know how to make money, and we don’t! These are the people who know with such certainty that putting a little number on the back of a book will suddenly make untold thousands of people want to buy it when they’ve never been interested in buying books before!

Next time anyone says to you that you’re only a writer, you don’t know anything about business, it’s a jungle out there, it’s dog eat dog, you don’t understand the rough-and-tumble of the commercial world, it’s better to leave it to experts and not bother your little head with it, the market knows best – next time you hear that sort of talk, and we’ve all been treated to it at some point, you’ll know you’re listening to a poor deluded moonstruck dimwit with less idea of reality than a day-old chick. The market knows best? The market knows nothing.

I’m going to end with some words of advice. I’m offering them to the high priests, but they won’t listen. I’m hoping, though, that if I speak clearly enough, and if we all back each other up, they’ll hear.

Firstly, treat your authors with some respect. Don’t take us for granted. Don’t spend four years concocting a policy behind our backs, and hunting through the figures till you find the ones that say what you want, and then spring it on us and expect us to lie down and take it. It won’t work.

Secondly, if you’re in the business of selling things to people, don’t ask them what they want. They don’t know what they want until they see what you’ve got. Relying on focus groups and opinion polls is a truly rotten way of making decisions. Have the courage of your own convictions, and if you haven’t got any convictions, go away and find some. Spend your time and energy making something you believe to be truly good, and then bang the drum as hard as you can, and people will want it all right.

Thirdly, put this age-guidance idea into a dark cupboard, shut the door, and forget it. Leave it to gather dust and fade away. We won’t say any more about it if you don’t. It was a bad idea to start with, and now that you’ve roused all this opposition, it’s an impossible one. It will not work, so walk away and have done with it.

Almost last, a word to us, to my colleagues the authors and illustrators. The publishers are not our enemies. In many cases, they are old and close friends. The real enemy is the religion of the market, and it’s just as brutal and destructive to our friends in publishing as it is to everything else that makes up a decent society. This age-ranging business may look to some people like a fuss about nothing, a storm in a teacup. It is not. It’s a small battle on the field of a very big war, and there are other fronts where other battles have to be fought in the same cause: the slow murder of libraries, the corruption of education by testing and league tables; and we should all, publishers and writers, booksellers and librarians and teachers alike, realise what the stakes are, and strike a blow against this malignant doctrine wherever it crops up, because it will kill us all unless we stop it.

Which leads me to the last point of all. This nonsense all began because people wanted to sell books successfully. If you want to be successful, whether at publishing books or at selling them, at editing them or at writing them, remember that success comes in many forms, and not always at once; but if you really want to be successful, then forget about success. Put it right out of your mind. Don’t begin a task by trying to measure the outcome. Do what you truly believe in, and do it with all your might.

See also: Summary of the session
Anne Fine's report

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