I’ve heard some good feedback that it’s starting to make a difference, that people in publishing are more aware of the impact they can make on illustrators’ careers by crediting them for their work. But important lists of illustrated books keep popping up with illustrators’ names omitted, from book-loving people you’d think would know better, and they usually assign the blame to incomplete or faulty digital data.
So how’s it going with the whole metadata issue? Are we any closer to sorting out the problems?
On Wednesday, I met up with Jo McCrum and Nicola Solomon from Society of Authors, Loretta Schauer from Society of Children’s Book Writers & Illustrators, journalist Charlotte Eyre from The Bookseller magazine and Andre Breedt from Nielsen, the company which compiles and provides the majority of book data. Andre Breedt was incredibly helpful and supportive of the campaign, and explained to us some of the bare bones of how the book data system works, and spent time thinking with us about ways we could try to improve the situation for illustrators (and translators). Here are some of the things I learned, and some conclusions we drew from the meeting, about what we all need to do to make things work better:
* Illustrators and illustrator agents: you need to be more attentive with CONTRACTS. The best way for a illustrator to get his or her name on the front cover of a book is to get that promise in writing. Illustrators, you or your agents need to HAVE THIS DISCUSSION with your publisher. (This is particularly important if you're illustrating educational material, so-called 'middle-grade fiction' or 'illustrated chapter books'.)
Don’t wait until you’ve finished illustrating half the book to finalise this stuff. Don’t work on the promise of a contract. Get it before you begin working or it may be too late; you may get a nasty surprise when the book comes out uncredited to you.
A phrase recommended in your contract by the Society of Authors lawyer at the meeting was ‘front cover credit with due prominence’. You can haggle with how big the lettering needs to be, but at least your name will be on the front cover. If you’ve done a lot of illustrations and the publisher refuses to put you on the front cover, this is a big deal, a blow to your branding, and may mean you have a harder time getting festival appearances and paid author visits. In that case, you need to decide (with your agent, if you have one):
1. If the publisher insists on not crediting you at all, will the publisher pay you a significant extra amount of money to compensate for this?
2. If you can come to another arrangement (say, your name on the title page, back cover, etc), are you happy with the pay and do you think the credit accurately reflects the amount of work you’ve contributed to the overall book?
3. After negotiating this, is the job still worth it, or should you turn it down?
The most important thing is that you’re clear about this important negotiation point from the beginning and the decision isn’t some sales team afterthought.
* Book charities and organisations, people who run award schemes, booksellers, journalists: assess your own practice. You may be in a rush, but don’t blindly accept what you’re given when you cut and paste data. If you’re making the effort to single out the books for recognition, take the time to make sure you’re correctly crediting the people who made them.
You may need to look at an actual copy of the book.
* Publishers: assess how your data works. To get illustrator data right, we need you to do three things:
1. Be sure you're using standardised data (more about this in a moment).
2. Be sure you (or your intern) fill out the box that asks for the illustrator's name (or 'populate the field' in data-speak).
3. When you request data, be sure to ask for the field that includes the illustrator data. If you don't ask for it, Nielsen won't force it on you.
Let me unpack those a bit.
1. Be sure you're using standardised data. The reason we keep having problems is that no one has a brand-new system. Almost everyone has what data people call 'legacy systems', which were designed for a certain purpose, years ago. As the book trade evolved, people made little additions and repairs along the way, instead of getting brand-new system.
For example, a lot of systems were designed for warehouse use, to help people shift around big boxes of books. For the purpose of moving boxes, all they needed to know was if the right books were in the right boxes, how much they'd weigh, and how they'd fit onto a lorry. So there was no reason they would pay to add extra information about an illustrator to the system; it genuinely didn't matter for those purposes.
As time went on, these warehouse systems evolved into what customers used to order books, online shop front (or in data-speak, 'front-end facing') systems. So the same system that dealt with box weight was gradually being asked to deal with customer reviews, star ratings, interesting details about the authors, other book recommendations, etc. And some systems made the transition better than others; transitions costs money. Some companies would get the illustrator data from Nielsen, but their own software wasn't detailed enough for all the data to make the transition to their website, and they could only make manual changes if they wanted to include illustrators for their customers. (Hive Books have been good about adding illustrators when asked, but they're working on improving their overall system.)
For awhile I thought Nielsen didn't actually have a data field for the illustrator. Like most illustrators, I don't have access to their system since I'm not a subscriber, so I couldn't check. But Nielsen DO have this field. Here's the information the Nielsen rep pulled up for my picture book, Dinosaur Police. (And we were both pleased to see Scholastic UK had been filling out all the right data.)
At the meeting with the Nielsen rep, I learned a lot of behind-the-scenes things. If you're trying to understand how it all works, it's important that you understand the roles of these groups:
Nielsen BookData is a business. Nielsen provide a lot of services that help the book trade run effectively behind the scenes. They provide ISBNs for all books published in the UK and Ireland. They collect information on books from publishers, and sent it out to booksellers and libraries, arranged how they want it. They provide electronic ordering services to enable booksellers to order the books for their shops, and they provide the sales and market information, including the bestseller charts. Nielsen data can easily be accessed in standard formats, but if you want a bespoke service, it will take a little longer and cost a little more.
They have two main systems: a bibliographic system and a sales system. So if you're a librarian and want to know all the details about a book, you'll use their bibliographic system. If you're an editor at The Bookseller and want to know whose books are selling best, you'll use the sales system. You can find out which writers' books are selling best, but unfortunately you can only get illustrator information from the bibliographic system. So if you want to know bestselling illustrators, they can get that information, but they have to do it manually. People don't request that information often enough for it to be worth the money they'd need to spend putting illustrator data into the sales system.
Another organisation worth knowing about is BIC, the Book Industry Communications Group.
BIC is an independent body set up to promote standards in the UK book trade. For instance, the ISBN is a standard, and it’s hard to imagine how the book trade could possibly work without it now. Standards help all the players in the industry, and all the different systems, communicate with each other more clearly. BIC’s website statement reads:
BIC is an independent organisation set up and sponsored by the Publishers Association, Booksellers Association, the Chartered Institute of Library and Information Professionals and the British Library to promote supply chain efficiency in all sectors of the book world through e-commerce and the application of standard processes and procedures.
But BIC just deal with UK standardising. (Its director is Karina Luke.) There’s another group that deals with standardising in other countries, particularly European countries, called EDItEUR. (Its director is Graham Bell.)
All these countries doing things differently sounds very complicated, doesn't it? They think so, too. So EDItEUR are trying to set up a huge overarching global classification system for books, called Thema. (The chair of this is Howard Willows, from Nielsen.)
But how do publishers get their data to Nielsen(so they can put it all together in one place and make it useful)? Lots of different ways, apparently. In the old days, they used to send Nielsen actual books, but they get hundreds of thousands every year, so they had to stop doing that. The way they most prefer publishers to submit data is by using a system called ONIX.
ONIX is the system BIC and Nielsen says really works, and ONIX is regularly updated to meet modern publishing needs. You can see it in the recent additions they've made for entering comics data, including colourists, inkers, letterers, etc:
In Nielsen's ideal world, everyone would use ONIX. But the problem is that not all outdated publisher systems can handle ONIX. So BIC have also created a bare-bones system called BIC Basic, and well, if major publishers can't handle the basic data they need for to submit for that, they're really failing us.
But faulty systems aren't all that's happening. Which brings us to the second point about how we need you to fill in all the data fields. Some publishers (or their badly trained interns) aren't filling in even the most basic things, including illustrator name. Fiona Noble at The Bookseller has been noticing this:
Publishers! To support #PicturesMeanBusiness, you **need** to have a meeting with your marketing and publicity people - particularly the young, clueless newbies - and let them know that press releases and Advance Information sheets without illustrator information are Not Good Enough. Fiona will back me up on this, and she's one of the people you're trying to impress. For us to pull out good data, you need to put IN good data.
No, I am not saying Nielsen is a series of tubes.
And that brings us to the third point, about requesting illustrator data. If your 'legacy system' is still stuck in warehouse mode, illustration won't be one of the fields you will have requested when you ask for data from Nielsen. The way the system works is you put in data, then you pull out the data you want. If no one wants to pull out illustrator sales data, then Nielsen has no financial incentive to link up their bibliographic illustrator data with their sales illustrator data. They'll make a one-off chart for you for a small fee, but that information won't be easily accessible on a regular basis.
Another reason Nielsen isn't very focused on illustration is because illustrated children’s books are only a tiny part of the books Nielsen deals with. The majority are works of academic non-fiction, and these often have many, and all sorts of, contributors.
Why do so few people want this illustrator sales information? If our economic value can't be assessed, we'll be forgotten by business people and written off as not contributing anything to the economy. Not even The Bookseller credited illustrators in sales charts until March of this year. You could see that Julia Donaldson was ruling the picture book sales charts, but you had no idea how The Gruffalo's illustrator Axel Scheffler's books were doing. In fact, if you entered his names into the Nielsen sales charts, he came out as quite a low moneymaker, since only the books he's written himself were calculated.
This omission plays out in real business decisions: certain airport bookshops ONLY stock books by Julia Donaldson because she's a sure-fire hit with buyers. But who's to say that these sure-fire hits aren't her books with Axel Scheffler? If Axel illustrated books with other writers, might these books sell just as well? They would have that recognisable look of Axel's that makes customers pick them up. The Bookseller have made huge strides recently in supporting illustrators and including them in their magazine. In the 15 May issue, jouralist Charlotte Eyre even commissioned a manually-compiled illustrator sales chart from Nielsen:
But this isn't the case in most media. Children's book coverage is getting smaller and smaller amounts of space in printed newspapers, and if someone wants a sales chart, they have a very limited budget and almost no space to put it in, so they're not going to go out of their way to add space for illustrator names.
When the illustrators get left out of their data, the newspapers forget illustrators have anything to do with books at all. You'll start to notice it now, mentions and reviews of picture books and highly illustrated fiction that only mention the writer's names. It trickles into the wider culture and schools only invite writers to give talks to their children, not realising how inspiring illustrators can be to getting their children reading, writing and drawing, all at the same time. (And many illustrators only survive in business with the supplement of school visit payments.)
So how do we prove our economic value? I don't know. We're not the sort of people who generally go on strike, and we don't have a union. (The Society of Authors is the closest thing we have to a union.) The thought of shelves and shelves of books without illustrations or cover art probably frightens illustrators more than it does publishers:
If we went on strike, books probably wouldn't all go blank. Publishers could probably stumble on for a couple years using in-house designers to do everything, using pre-bought typefaces, clip art and stock images. It would be ugly and start a counter-wave of self-published indie stuff, but their efforts would go on longer than illustrators could afford to sit out unemployed.
We need the help of people who know about metadata. Is that you? #PicturesMeanBusiness isn't an organised team, just a bunch of concerned people; if you're on Twitter, that's the easiest way to jump in, using the #PicturesMeanBusiness hashtag. From what I gather, Nosy Crow publishers are very up to date with digital technology, Usborne are good at crediting everyone, Glen Mehn of The Kitschies Awards has data experience, Georgina Atwell of Toppsta gave a talk on metadata at The Bookseller conference, Sara O'Conner has programming experience.
We may have a hard time solving this data problem. But we can make huge inroads into the cultural problem of illustrators not being credited, and the faster, the better. We need you book people, helping to promote illustration, where you can, right now. And it’s not only because you’re warm-hearted book lovers, it’s because you know that in this culture which relies on images more than ever, it’s our pictures that are selling your books, and you don’t want to miss any tricks: you want to sell more books. It’s business. Support our careers and help us stay in work making your books sell.