Well, I will admit to thinking that if Marketing truly had their way, the title for every book would be an artless string of words broadcasting its selling appeal. The Hunger Games would be called ACTION PACKED DYSTOPIAN LOVE TRIANGLE.
It’s an evolution on all those titles from a few years ago which emphasise a woman’s relationship to a man. The [X’s] Daughter/Wife and so on.
Book titles are like book covers — not decided by authors but by marketing departments.
This ‘girl’ trend probably started with the phenomenal success of The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, and marketing departments are hoping to replicate that success.
There may be something about ‘girl’ that promises a character arc (with the ‘girl’ becoming a ‘woman’, regardless of the fact she’s already a woman in years at the beginning of the story.)
I am slightly disturbed by the stat that when men write books with girl in the title the girl is significantly more likely to be dead by the end of the story than when the book is written by a woman. This leads to the question: Are male authors more likely to kill characters of any gender than female authors, or do best-selling male authors take a particular pleasure in killing off girls?
Those are my takeaway points but the entire article is well worth a read.
Basically, books with girl in the title tell the reader that this is a ‘psychological thriller about middle class white women with jobs’.
Contrast with the ‘boy version’ of the book, reinforcing for everyone that when girls have power it’s ‘girl power’, but boy power is the unmarked version.
It may be 2016, but be very suspicious about books for young readers which emphasise gender on the cover.
YA titles are a slightly different matter.
Girl Titles In YA
The basic criticism of all those adult novels with girl in the title is about the infantalisation of women. This isn’t an argument when it comes to YA characters who are, indeed, minors.
While Mandel’s article looks only at books marketed at an adult audience, I wondered if those bestselling adult thrillers were influencing marketing decisions in the YA department.
On the Barnes and Noble list of bestselling YA 2016 (so far) we have a standout collection of titles about kings and queens, with a not-insignificant number of covers which are quite obviously hoping to attract Stieg Larsson crossover audiences. When a YA book has ‘girl’ in the title in 2016, it’ll probably be a gritty crime thriller.
The word ‘gone’ in the Heidi Heilig cover will also appeal to the Gone Girl audience. (About fifty percent of YA readers are adult women.)
This book doesn’t have ‘girl’ in the title but the cover design is very reminiscent of ‘Gone Girl’. Same font, perhaps?
Moth Girls is a YA thriller. The book tells the story of Mandy, and her friends Petra and Tina. Petra and Tina had gone into an old local house years before and never been seen again. Mandy is only around because she refused to go in with them.
In case the American Girl series with the expensive dolls springs immediately to mind, this new publication is a YA crime thriller focusing on a 15-year-old who runs away to Los Angeles to live with her D-list actress sister. The sisters are based on the Manson sisters, who the author researched heavily.
This book is marketed across the pond as My Favourite Manson Girl. So, same book, different English speaking cultures, both with girl in the title.
If I Was Your Girl breaks the mould. This isn’t a crime/thriller but a realistic coming-of-age novel about a transgender girl by a transgender woman.
This Goodreads question gave me a chuckle:
What will 2017 look like for YA?
I predict more books about transgender because there is a need there, and those books are highly likely to indicate gender in the title or title graphic somehow.
Mandel is hoping adult titles will evolve to include woman in place of girl, and offers an example of that starting to happen. But we’ll have to wait and see, I guess.
In the early 1980s, to encourage aggressive sales, the U.S. government raised the taxes charge on goods left in warehouses at the end of each year. As applied to books, this meant that publishers could no longer afford to keep large numbers of titles on their backlists (the still-available books published in previous years). Books that had been in print for decades suddenly became unavailable. Now, only those titles that still sell well remain in print for very long.
– The Pleasures of Children’s Literature, Nodelman and Reimer
(Add it to the list of other reasons you already are sure to know about.)
As outlined by Nodelman and Reimer in The Pleasures of Children’s Literature, here are the common-characteristics of best-selling modern children’s books.
They are written and sold as part of a series.
They have a simple and straightforward writing style.
The central characters are enough like their intended audience for readers to relate to and identify with them. These characters tend to be underdogs (weak/poor/young/otherwise powerless). In the story, these underdogs will need to deal with theoretically more powerful enemies.
There’s a clear distinction between the “goodies” and “baddies”. There’s not much moral ambiguity.
The plots are straightforward and focus on action rather than description/setting/characters’ thoughts and motivations.
Best-selling children’s books operate as wish-fulfillment fantasies for their readers. Despite their theoretical lack of power, main characters perform well under pressure, win against great odds and win the admiration of others as a result.
Unfortunately we weren’t able to attend the Bookseller’s Children’s Conference held in London last month, mostly because we live on the other side of the world. Nevertheless, I read children’s book news with keen interest. Kate Wilson of Nosy Crow was indeed at this conference, and I was interested to read her response to something which was said by a respected critic of children’s literature. Here’s Kate’s summary, which is what I have to go on:
Nicolette [Jones] said that she had “reservations” about picture book apps, on the basis that the printed book “does it better”, and went on to say that the “technology of the app interferes with the story”. She worried that “interactivity in apps replaces the space in children’s imagination”, and that “the app doesn’t go through the adult”. She said that the only apps she’d found successful were apps like the Touchpress Warhorse app, and Hot Key’s Maggot Moon app which provided additional material around each book, which, in itself, remains unaffected by the surrounding multimedia or animation material.
I’m not the slightest bit surprised to read this, and a large part of me wants to ignore it. After all, if you’re not ‘in the ring’, your opinion as a critic ain’t worth all that much to me. On the other hand, this kind of thing directly affects our sales. And sales are, unfortunately, relevant in this discussion. As noted by Philip Jones at FutureBook:
[The] combination of huge abundance and the difficulties of commercialising the products should not be under-estimated when looking at book apps. We seem to spend an inordinate amount of time discussing whether particular apps work, or don’t, but not enough time figuring out how the market conditions may be impacting these developments.
I have suspected a dismissive attitude towards book apps from longtime children’s literature critics and established printbook authors for a while now, and I’m glad to see it voiced, as it gives those of us in App Land a chance to respond to something concrete.
ARE YOU THERE, CRITICS? IT’S WE, BOOK APPS.
As you may notice from the digital badge to the upper right of our website, our second picturebook app Midnight Feast won a mention in the BolognaRagazzi Digital Awards earlier this year. There are few literature prizes open to digital picturebooks — most we must pay to enter and are therefore not worth a damn — but the BolognaRagazzi is the one big exception. So we were thrilled when our book app was judged as one of the top three fiction apps of the year (alongside an app by Nosy Crow, as it happens). Of course, a literature prize is not a running race — individual tastes of the judges are relevant rather than a millisecond on a stopwatch, and so we must always take literature prizes for what they’re worth. The fact is, any of the shortlisted apps as judged by the BolognaRagazzi panel is a heavyweight. If you’re interested in checking out the jurors’ commentary, you’ll see this is not an effusive bunch. Each member of the panel is suitably critical and careful when it comes to literary use and abuse of new technologies.
So, what happens to your app after it wins a mention in a big prize these days? Less than you might think*. Organisers of the BolognaRagazzi Digital Prize asked us for fifteen promo codes which were to be distributed to reviewers and critics over the course of the book fair. The wonderful advantage about being in the business of apps (rather than in printed materials) is that Apple provides us with unambiguous statistics. We can tell you via our stats that of the fifteen promocodes requested by Bologna, only three of them were actually redeemed, and none of them was redeemed by a user with a UK iTunes account. It’s possible that Bologna did not get around to sending out the codes, or perhaps they sent them to the wrong people at the wrong time. But when influential critics publicly dismiss the entire shebang, I’m inclined to err on the side of, ‘critics weren’t interested in them’. Lest it be thought that I am focusing these thoughts on the single critic Nicolette Jones, this is obviously a bigger issue. I am asking the question: Which influential people in Children’s Literature world (not Tech World, not Teaching World, not Parent World) are seeking out the award winning picture book apps before dismissing them? Nicolette Jones is not personally responsible for evaluating our book apps in particular, especially since we never sent her any promocodes. I’m pointing out that Children’s Literature World, in general, is increasingly closed to creators of picturebook apps. I do wonder if the promoters of award-winning printed picture books have any trouble giving them away at book fairs?
*To be fair, I’m pretty sure — insofar as anyone can be sure of anything when it comes to the Charlie’s Chocolate Factory which is Apple — that the mention of Midnight Feast in the BolognaRagazzi led to our previous app The Artifacts being featured in the App Store several months later. (Midnight Feast itself is and always will be a hard sell. Nor does it fit neatly into any App Store age category in the Kids’ section.) It’s easy to criticise Apple for failing to help book developers. Apple prefers to promote games. Philip Jones sees ‘very little evidence that Apple is doing anything to help with this transition,’ and I can’t really argue, except to add that Apple has done a darn sight more for our sales figures than any critic of children’s literature. (And I say this knowing it’s easy to say, AFTER a book app of yours has been featured.)
Unredeemed promocodes aside, I would like to share with you Midnight Feast’s sales figures for the United Kingdom* over the year since our ‘award winning app’ has been released: 52. Fifty-two downloads from the UK.
The reason I share all of this is because it’s highly unlikely (though slimly possible, yes) that one of the fifty-two people with a UK iTunes account to download Midnight Feast was the children’s literature critic Nicolette Jones. Children’s book critics are busy. Most wouldn’t have much time to seek out stories they’re not sent. With the avalanche of children’s stories published these days, a children’s literature critic can make a more-than-full-time gig out of sticking to printed picture books alone. And it’s true — we did not send Nicolette Jones a promotional code on the off-chance she’d take a look. She has no history of being a book app enthusiast. We sent one to Stuart Dredge instead, whose attitude towards apps we respect, and who indeed gave us a review.
My point is this: Nicolette Jones of The Sunday Times is a wonderfully knowledgeable critic of children’s literature, but I don’t consider her an expert on picture book apps. At this point, it’s frustrating that she offers an opinion at all, other than to open up the discussion, which is important. Making a value judgement on the other hand, is inappropriate.
UPDATE: I thought it only fair to offer Nicolette James some promocodes. Here’s her response. Irony, indeed.
I wonder if Jones realises what the self-described ‘irony’ is? That she comments regardless upon an area she doesn’t review? I have since replied that I wasn’t actually asking for a review (though it was fair enough that she assumed I was, given how often she would be asked.) I hoped only to change her mind about book apps.
(On a more positive note, Nicolette Jones has since agreed to receive the promocodes I offered.)
A well-known critic of children’s literature would not consider herself widely read in her area of expertise were she unfamiliar with the winners of the Newbery and the Caldecott. Yet apparently it’s okay to make sweeping statements about children’s literature apps, even when you haven’t familiarised yourself with the award winning products from the previous year. Dredge urges developers to use “the considered criticism from experts like Nicolette Jones” as “an incentive for more developers to strain to reach those heights”. But really, what are ‘the heights’ exactly? Instinct tells me to listen to the enthusiasts anyhow, and not the dismissive critics. Rule of thumb for life, that. There are plenty of critics complaining about all those terrible apps out there, but who is willing to put into words what exactly they were looking for when they were at first optimistic about all those possibilities?
There’s only one thing worse than a children’s critic slamming an entire category, and that’s failing to mention it at all. Part of me is glad that critics recognise that book apps count as books. A book app’s lack of an ISBN is problematic to its credibility as a work of literature. But the difference between a critic and a reviewer is surely this: A ‘reviewer’ is welcome to pick and choose from a subcategory of books according to the reviewer’s own interest, whereas a ‘critic’ has a responsibility to read and seek out** award winning and starred reviewed examples of a category before speaking about the category in public as a figure of authority.
Stuart Dredge quotes Jones directly:
“I’ve never seen a picture book-app that does something that a book doesn’t do better.”
**I know that critics are not accustomed to ‘seeking things out’. They are sent an avalanche of material every week (50 printed picturebooks for Nicolette Jones, according to reports from Stuart Dredge) and for them it’s a matter of culling them. But we are now in a different place when it comes to publishing, and Ron Charles explains brusquely in the Washington Post ‘No, I don’t want to read your self-published book’ why critics and review sites simply cannot respond to everything. I understand, fully. Our apps are self-published, and largely ignored. My response to that: Nor may they comment on the quality of everything. And if they are interested in commenting on the quality of what’s being self-published, a time-efficient way of seeking out the best would be to seek out the prize winners.
I would prefer Nicolette Jones to add, ‘but I am not a particular enthusiast of picturebook apps and I certainly don’t pretend to have done a wide survey of them’. Note that Jones spoke of the most expertly marketed picture book apps:
“I can see some publishers like Nosy Crow doing fantastically well with very interesting apps, and trying to reproduce the quality of a book. [Aw, bless!] There’s a lot of energy and creativity and intelligence going into this, and I don’t want to be too dismissive,” she said [dismissively].
This should be a red flag. Would you listen to a games critic dismiss mobile apps if he offered the example of Angry Birds to make his main point? The Nosy Crow picture book apps are the Angry Birds of App Picturebook World, known to anyone who’s had even the most passing interest in the category.
BUT WHY THE HIERARCHY, ANYWAY?
So, ‘I’ve never seen a picture book-app that does something a book doesn’t do better,’ she said.
I’m hearing two distinct but conflicting messages from those of you who know children’s literature:
1. Apps should be simple. You’re encouraging us to think very hard and long about interaction and animation. This is good. I’m thinking. Hard.
2. Apps have to offer something more than a print book does. For less cost to the consumer, by the way.
But we didn’t go into this industry hoping to add something more than print books can achieve.
Printed picture books are an excellent medium. I can’t see a single way in which the print book fails. [There are fewer ways in which to cock it up.] The best of them do a great job of sparking imagination, transporting children to other worlds, offering the gift of story and creating a love of reading.
Can a digital medium possibly offer more oomph than that? And should the savvy consumer expect it to?
When Jones says that she’s never seen a picture book app that a book doesn’t ‘do better’, I am very suspicious: Has she actually seen and studied picture book apps (like ours) which were created for a touch screen? Our products do not exist alongside printed versions. They exist in their own right. A comparison, let alone a hierarchy, is therefore difficult. In order to even make a statement that includes the word ‘better’, a critic would have to compare a printed picture book alongside its appified version. If a critic were to approach Midnight Feast or The Artifacts in this way, she would have to imagine-up a printed version of the story — one which exists only inside her head. Here’s the thing about things that exist inside heads: They are always better than any real-world product. (Any creative’ll tell ya.)
THE DEVICE ISN’T NECESSARILY ‘OVER THERE’
From Stuart Dredge’s summary of Nicolette Jones’ comments:
“If you look at a book with a small child, it’s a hug,” [Jones] said, making a gesture to show a parent with a child sitting in their lap, and an open book in front of them.
“With a device over here, there isn’t that relationship, and it doesn’t go through the adult,” said Jones, motioning to an imaginary tablet by a child’s side.
Cutesy hug metaphors aside, this is frustrating. I mean, it’s ridiculous to blame app developers for adults who may (or may not be!) using our products as substitutes for (rather than as complements to) parent-child interactive reading. Although I sense Jones isn’t talking about the ‘point of purchase’ when she says that a picture book app ‘doesn’t go through the adult’, it’s worth pointing out that an adult with a credit card is required in order for a book app to appear in front of a child in the first place. We’re not just leaving them lying around in gutters, for instance, like discarded bottles of rum, ready for two-year-olds to clap their chubby hands upon. Is there hard evidence, even, that an adult who has just selected and installed an app is throwing the device into the lap of the child before briskly leaving the room? Our own anecdotal evidence suggests that any adults who buy and share our apps care very much about what their children are reading. I see it in the quality of their App Store reviews. Ours are some of the most coherent on the store. (I know that’s not saying much, but still.)
THERE ARE ACTUALLY A FEW THINGS THAT PICTURE BOOK APPS CAN DO BETTER.
It’s true that interactive books can be somewhat overhyped. Developers are quick to label something as ‘educational’ in the same way food companies are keen to label products as ‘natural’. (i.e. It’s meaningless.) I have my own reservations about certain taken-for-granted enhancements; in particular I’m waiting for more research about the benefits of text-highlighting, or for a study which will lead developers into best practice.
I’m not a big fan of heavily animated book apps, mainly for aesthetic reasons. I’m very wary about games which pull a reader out of the story. Perhaps my biggest reservation of all about e-reading in general is that when a book exists on a device, it exists alongside push-button access to games, TV and the Internet. I’ve noticed from my own experience of reading ebooks on a tablet that it’s harder to become immersed in a novel when you know you can dart here there and everywhere to look up a word, then dilly-dally back to the story-at-hand via a quick few games of Boggle. Still, I’m not going to blame publishers of my favourite ebooks for that.
So sure, let’s take a moment to indulge in the undying need for hierarchies. I have given much thought to what book apps can achieve and what printed books can’t, partly as a way of deciding the future for our own indie company: Is it worth it, to spend years creating picture book apps when the environment is basically hostile? I might include a number of other more obvious benefits of the touchscreens themselves, such as the ability for a teacher in a classroom to share and discuss a picturebook via the big screen, without needing to buy a slightly larger printed version of a popular book, seen best by those sitting at the front of the mat, or of publishing advantages, such as the ability to sell your stories in Saudi Arabia, and to keep a book app in the App Store for as long as it needs to be there, even if it doesn’t immediately take off. (The Artifacts took 2 and a half years to be featured by Apple. If it had been on a bookstore shelf it would’ve most likely have disappeared forever after 6 months.)
Happily, we’re not the only ones asking questions about how touch screens might be integrated in children’s literature. The academics care a lot and some of them are all over it. Junko Yokota spoke on this very topic for her keynote at the International Research Society Children’s Literature conference 2013 in Maastricht. You can watch her speak here. I highly recommend it, to developers, reviewers and critics alike. But when it comes to ‘interactivity’, as far as we’re concerned at Slap Happy Larry, the main ‘interaction’ happens between the screen and the reader’s brain.
I’m not arguing against age censorship. Like pants sizes, consumers need a guide. But I am constantly surprised at the ways in which we can’t predict a child’s response to a story. Our five year old watched Terminator 2 last week and slept like a log all night. Several days later I showed her The Polar Express and she woke several times from nightmares. Not that frequency of nightmares can be used as any indicator of longterm effects, I guess, but my husband woke from a rare nightmare last week — our chickens (plus one extra terrifying bird) hid in his sock drawer, then jumped out and pecked his arm off. I pointed out that he’d spent the afternoon watching 127 Hours, then sitting at his Apple Mac in the kitchen area, where our chickens have developed the super annoying habit of pecking on the window for scraps. While I can completely understand the trauma of watching 127 Hours (I couldn’t watch it past the inciting incident — my ears actually started to ring) there is nothing inherently terrifying about our freerange chickens.
All of this goes to prove, naturally, that little red hens should come with a PG-13 tag attached to their skinny wee legs.
A number of questions are starting to get boring. The first is ‘What does it mean to be human?’ Seriously, didn’t we work that one out with the Human Genome Project?
For those of us making storybook apps/enhanced books/interactive reading material, whatever marketing term you prefer, another pretty uninspiring question keeps cropping up in my feed: ‘What Is A Book?’