Monday, 25 July 2016

What parents think of picture books - A small survey. Moira Butterfield


I decided to ask some current picture book users a few questions, so I set up a small survey using Survey Monkey, put it on Facebook and asked friends with young children their views. Now I don’t have a massive number of followers so this was a teeny-tiny survey of acquaintances and not remotely a scientific cross-section of the population. But the answers were interesting nevertheless, and made me think. I hope you find them thought-provoking, too. 

1. “What price do you think is about right for a paperback picture book?”

The answer was overwhelmingly £3 to £4.50. Picture books were seen by everybody as low-cost items, which could be seen as depressing from the creator’s end. But given that all the respondents said they read a picture book every single day to their child, this makes picture books incredible value for money! The best buy a parent can make, surely?  

2. “What is your child’s current favourite picture book?”

Various Julia Donaldson titles won hands-down, by a mile.  These are adults answering the question, of course. The answer could be their favourite book because they find it easy to read the clear rhyme and clear story of a Julia Donaldson book (see question 6). Children will work out that they are going to get a happy one-to-one sharing experience if they ask for a book their parent likes.

This is one to think about. Should would-be picture book authors actually be copying this format for commercial success? Rhymes, super-clear rhythm that you can’t go wrong reading out + a very clear story? Is any kind of experimentation that deviates from that a marketing mistake? Discussion welcomed!

3. “Where do you buy picture books?”

The answer was split pretty much 50/50 between ‘online and ‘supermarkets’, with ‘bookshop’ a distant third. Supermarkets heavily feature well-known books and online sellers direct people along the same lines, so that’d go some way to explaining the overwhelming dominance of Julia Donaldson in the UK, I think. To be honest, it’s hard to see how a new author or illustrator could make a dent if those stats hold in the wider community (I can't say that they do, of course). is that being too defeatist? 

4. “Roughly how often do you read a picture book with your child?”

The answer was mainly “every day” with a couple of complete book heroes who said “Four stories a night” and Multiple times a day”. Everybody salute these incredible parents! About half the respondents stipulated that they read every night before bedtime. Something to think about there when it comes to books with overtly scary pictures and texts. They could be limiting their market.

5. “What would make you buy a picture book?”

I gave multiple answers to choose from here. The overwhelming winner was “You like the look of the art” followed by “It’s a book you remember from your childhood” and then – a little way back - “It’s by an author you like” - followed by “It features a TV or film character your child knows.”

So there is hope for authors but it’s the look that counts in the main, along with buying the tried and tested, with this small group.

Pleasingly not one respondent chose the answer “Because it was written by a celebrity”. 

Those that commented further on the style of art they liked said they preferred lots to spot in the pictures. 

6. “Is there anything about picture books that irritates you?”

Two-thirds of the respondents didn’t add an answer, which shows, I guess, that they were happy about the picture books they read and gave them a big thumbs-up.

The answers I did get were very interesting.

“Scary pictures” was one. Now that feeds into my own view that children’s picture book award short lists can tend to favour unbelievably scary-looking visuals, without thought for the end users. I'm pleased that this year's Kate Greenaway shortlist looks much better than last year's in that respect. 

“Books that start to rhyme and don’t continue to rhyme” was another comment, along with “When it doesn’t flow.” Yup, bad rhyme and bad rhythm is the pits! But there’s another point here for authors, I think. It’s hard for people to read rhythm that isn’t absolutely clear. So while you may think your text rhythm flows (because you know how it should be read) will a reader do so? Are there places where they could trip up? Is the rhythm cast-iron enough for them to not go wrong? Testing the text out on friends, asking them to read it out loud with no guidance at all from you, could help here.

Rhyme is important, according to the person who wrote “Rhyming books are so much easier to read after a long day with the kids.” Interesting point! When you’re tired and haven’t much acting energy left, it’s easy rhymes that you want. Julia Donaldson-style - or Dr. Seuss maybe.

“Lack of actual story” was another comment. I can see that, too. Given that most respondents said they read a book at night, and I’m guessing (as above) they’re weary, they could be wanting something straightforward that doesn't require them to do lots of explaining, perhaps.

I hope you’re not depressed by the above and it gives you food for thought. It’s just the comments of a tiny selection of parents, but they're being helpfully honest about their own experience. They’re not remotely connected to the publishing industry. They're the end-users of picture books and I think their views matter. Getting work accepted by publishers relies on it being market-friendly, so it is worth thinking about the experience someone would have reading your story – perhaps in a slightly weary voice by the bedside!

All reactions gratefully received below. 

Moira Butterfield
@moiraworld

Latest picture book work:

“Everybody Feels…” series by QED

11 comments:

  1. Interesting feedback.

    It's no wonder picture book writers can't make a living out of their craft when it's not valued. I now have to consider picture book writing my pleasure writing and if it does get published then that's an added bonus.

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    1. Yes, there has been no price movement on children's paperbacks for a long time, it seems to me. And yet all of us face higher house prices etc. I could not make a living from picture book writing alone.

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  2. It seems a big ask to want to spend so little and yet have lovely artwork and many things to spot. An Illustrator would have to work really long hours on such pictures and yet the price probably won't reflect that extra work (if compared to less detailed pictures). And surely a book that's part of a wider franchise isn't going to make a dent in profits for a bigger company if sold at a reduced price? Which means they have the character/brand clincher as well as the financial muscle to secure sales. It's very easy for parents and kids to buy 'brand' books from Asda, and we have a few, but we also have a rule - no TV shows in books! If kids get to pick everything they are prone to choosing what's familiar. We use the library a lot, and if something sticks, we buy a copy. It looks as though we're in the minority! This is exactly the kind of insight I've been craving - thank you Moira! Reader-focused information. Real food for thought.

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    2. This survey was only a few people, so we can't say what the majority do - it's more food for thought. I think people put down as an answer what they generally pay for books, and I reckon they'd be happy to pay more (I didn't ask that question - would be an interesting one). But supermarkets and the big online retailers use low cost as their way of attracting customers, and picture books have been put in that low-cost category I guess. Everyone who answered used picture books and loved them, and I believe they would pay more.

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  3. As Pippa says, it's disheartening to think that parents only want to spend £3 to £4.50 on a 32 page fully-illustrated picture book when you think that many people will happily spend £2 to £3 on a greetings card bearing a single illustration.

    I have to take issue with the idea that young children generally don't like scary picture books. Some children don't, but others adore them. I lapped up the scariness of Sendak's 'Where the Wild Things Are' as a child, as did my own children for whom it was a regular bedtime read. When the Wild Things was first published it was banned from many schools and libraries in the US for being too frightening, but it's been exciting young readers (and inspiring adult children's authors) ever since. One of my own picture books, "Here Be Monsters" ends with the main characters (a crew of dastardly pirates) being eaten alive. I usually tell parents it is suitable for ages 4 and over, but a mother recently told me that it was her two year old's favourite bedtime read. One size does not fit all. We need a wide range of picture book content that reflects the wide range of children's tastes, from cosy and reassuring to wild and scary.

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  4. Good point, Jonathan, and 'where the wild things are' was one of the faves chosen by one of the respondents. It's not scary - It's brilliant! How interesting that it was banned. It's more, I think, that the parents who replied were put off by very scary-looking art that they thought would induce nightmares, so they didn't buy. They're making a choice based on what they think, of course, not what their child thinks.
    Pippa's point that picture books aren't necessarily for under-5s is a good one, too. But most parents wouldn't see that.

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  5. Interesting, Moira. Number 5 - it's the art that often makes people buy a picture book is so true and also so frustrating for those who only write. There's not much we can do about that. I'm guilty too of buying books if I'm beguiled by the art, BUT I've never purchased a book where I thought the story was good but didn't like the art.

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  6. Thanks for the eye opener, Moira!

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  7. I find the £3-4.50 interesting. I'm a parent and I'm happy to pay around the £7 mark for a picture book

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