Saturday, 7 June 2008


Publishing has enough problems, you would have thought, without creating one of its very own. But, yes, they have gone and done it. Age-banding of books. This is a half-arsed idea of truly monumental proportions. Quite aside from all the well-rehearsed arguments against it, some of which can be found at No To Age Banding, it demonstrates how little publishers seem to understand about their products and the people who buy them.

And where did such an idea come from? Who sat down and thought this one up? Who sold it to publishers? I really think we should be told. I would love to know the thinking behind it, because it has me stumped. I used to teach English. Got good marks at college and spent a lot of time working with children of all ages and abilities. Confident readers would pick up anything and try it. If they enjoyed it they would look for more like that. If not they would look elsewhere. Age banding would be wasted on them. Those with less confidence in their ability have a twofold problem. They need books that are suitable to their reading ability. They also need books with content relevant to their age and experience of life. These books exist (although probably not in enough numbers), but can you imagine giving a fifteen year old boy with a reading age of seven a book that is age-banded? It would be hard enough getting someone like that in the same room as a book in the first place. Add this stigma and you have lost them forever.

This is a crime. Nobody in the UK should be leaving primary education without have a reading age the same as their physical age. Bugger the fancy curriculum, the quart squeezed into the proverbial pint pot. They should be able to read fluently. Write cogently and creatively. Be numerate. Be able to converse in more than grunt and ‘yer-knows’. The rest is dressing, because without those the rest cannot be achieved.

Publishers should be assisting in this, producing quality books for all ages and abilities in cheap editions – trusting that teachers (and parents) will teach children to read but also enthuse them to explore the world of books. They shouldn’t be throwing vast sums of money away chasing the next big publishing phenomenon. They should be investing in their own future and the future of authors. They won’t do that but throwing up further barriers to reading for those who need most encouragement.

Age-banding does not make economic sense from a publishing point of view. Well, let us put it this way. It doesn’t make long term economic sense. But I suspect this has a lot to do with short term economics. That is, I believe it is driven by a relatively new market for books – supermarkets. There are already instances of supermarkets dictating to publishers, not just in terms of discount, but also in the design and content of books. I wonder if they have not also had a hand in this, suggesting that they want children’s books age-banded to make life easier for their customers. A bookshop will have a member of staff who can be asked about whether a book would be suitable for a particular child – although goodness alone knows why (a) any adults don’t do a bit of basic research and (b) why children aren’t being allowed to choose.

I hope it isn’t the case that the sticky fingerprints on this are those of the supermarkets. If they are, it is yet more craven behaviour by publishers. Either way, I hope that publishers have the sense to drop the idea, show a little backbone, and start taking back control of the market.

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