D is for Disappointing: The Reply from The Book People CEO

I hadn’t even looked to see what the D adjective was today, but I came home from a work meeting to find a reply to the email that The Book People had asked me to write, regarding the #LetBooksBeBooks campaign started by @LetToysBeToys

I was going to post it on my blog anyway, as the original letter was posted on here too, but I thought I’d write my D post at the same time. When I checked, it was D for Disappointing – and as that sums up my feelings about the reply, I think my post is done for me. What a shame that as far as the CEO is concerned, if lots of people do something, that makes it right; and there’s no need for them to stand out against it or show a better example.

So here it is in its unedited entirety.

Dear Ms Runham,
I’m so sorry not to have replied sooner, I have been very busy at the children’s book fair in Bologna, reviewing, reading and buying books for the Book People.

Bologna is my favourite book fair, not just because its backdrop is Italy in springtime but because it is full of brilliant publishers, fiercely proud agents, talented authors and illustrators and the fair’s packed halls are heaving with a dynamic mix of experts and enthusiasts, all brought together by the common purpose of championing children’s books.  Meanwhile, our social media team, back at HQ, were nagging me from afar, worried that your open email might quickly escalate into cyber bullying and that they must respond to you quickly for fear that our good name would be besmirched through my less than prompt response.

I was more relaxed than they were because I am very proud of the integrity with which we select books and I do not think there is anything we should change, nor do I believe there is anything within our editorial stance for which we should be apologetic.  Every book we offer has been hand picked by us and we are proud of all the books we sell.  Of course, the books we select are intended to reach a very wide audience but, essentially, we are proud to put books into the hands of people and we are proud of our ability to make books both affordable and accessible.  More than anything, however, I respect our customers who we know are discerning and adventurous, loyal and outspoken and will quickly tell us when they think we’ve got it wrong. They have the habit of surprising us in their choices, too, which contributes to the endless enjoyment of our role as curators.

You’ll be saddened but not at all surprised to learn that one of our most common search terms is “books for boys” followed closely by “books for girls”.  This doesn’t, however, sadden me. I believe that a customer who reaches out for help and advice when choosing a book when there are so many other options available, is something to be celebrated.  Parents, grandparents and all book givers, demonstrate to us on a daily basis that they want as much guidance as possible and want books accurately prescribed to them.  Signposting helps and it is our duty (and pleasure) to make this choice as easy as possible.  I, like you, am not comfortable with gender stereotyping, but I have confidence in our customers that they will buy the books that suit their own children, knowing them and knowing what they like and knowing what they are most likely to respond to.  Giving a child a book is very rarely a bad thing.

I understand that you have had considerable impact on the publishing industry and I admire your tenacity and commitment to your cause.  Publishers are already altering the way that they approach this subject and I suspect that as a result of your campaign we will be offered fewer and fewer gender specific books in the future.  It is interesting to note, however, that if we sell a cookbook for girls next to a cookbook for boys, the combined sales of both will be considerably higher than the sales of a single gender-neutral cookbook.  I don’t believe that this is because parents are trying to influence their childrens’ behaviour, I believe this is because they know what their children will respond to and as far as I am concerned, the more children learning to cook while they learn to read, the better!

We have such a very long way to go, as a nation, to ensure that every home is book-rich and that all children can not just access books but exercise some choice over the books they access.  Over the last quarter of a century the Book People has been involved in an astonishing number of projects, from sponsoring the Imagine Children’s Festival to working with Booked Up, Booktrust, Beanstalk and many other initiatives that share our commitment to reading for pleasure.  But despite all of our best efforts, books are still not an integral part of every childhood.  Let’s all continue to work together to ensure we make book gifting a comfortable, pleasant, fulfilling experience but also let’s do our very best to make it as easy as possible for those people for whom buying a book is not yet habitual or instinctive.  From observing the habits of readers over a very long period of time my firm belief is that the only way to create a reader for life, is to ensure they get their hands on books they enjoy.
Yours sincerely

Seni Glaister
CEO, the Book People

The #LetBooksBeBooks Campaign; an Open Letter to The Book People

Today, with the might of well-known authors Philip Pullman, Malorie Blackman, Carol Ann Duffy, Joanne Harris and Victoria Lamb behind me, not to mention the huge coverage of @LetToysBeToys ‘LetBooksBeBooks campaign, I tweeted The Book People again about their stocking of gender-specific and sexist titles. Would they still ignore me, I asked, now that these well-known names were supporting the cause?

Very quickly they tweeted me back, thanking me for my feedback and asking me to email them at social@thebookpeople.co.uk. I thanked them for the invite, had some lunch and set to…

Hello Book People, and thanks for asking me to email you. I would love to have had this dialogue with you earlier, and did attempt it, but unfortunately it seems it took other people taking up the baton – particularly famous names like Malorie Blackman, Joanne Harris, Victoria Lamb (aka Jane Holland/Elizabeth Moss) and Carol Ann Duffy – to grab your attention. This makes me sad and a little cynical, but frankly anything that brings this important issue to your attention is worthwhile.
The concerns I’ve been tweeting you about for some time have now been neatly encapsulated by the @LetToysBeToys #LetBooksBeBooks campaign, and their petition can be found here. No – don’t click it yet! ? Hold on and I will explain to you why this is important to me –and why it should be important to you too.
Here we are in 2014; and what a journey it’s been. Over the last 100 years, voting rights for women, changes to employment law and of course the Equalities Act of 2010 have been markers on a journey that’s changed the social landscape of our country. Today, men and women have equal rights and equal choice – don’t they?? Nothing that is permitted for one gender is withheld from the other. I’m sure that at the Book People you have male and female staff, and that some of you are parents. How lucky your children are to be born in this era. Your sons know they can be nurses, and realise it’s a worthwhile profession all of its own; they don’t have to be doctors ‘instead’. Your daughters, on the other hand, are never asked if they want to be a nurse, but asked if they want to go into medicine or healthcare; because it’s made clear to them all the time that they can be doctors OR nurses, right? The choice is theirs. The choice is everyone’s.
Everything that a girl or boy could want is available in several colours, so that hopefully they can pick their favourite. It’s fine for boys to wear pink shirts and girls to wear camouflage trousers. Boys can like butterflies, flowers, rabbits and dolls. Girls can like astronauts, soldiers and skateboards and everyone buys them pirate and Buzz Lightyear costumes. Girls and boys both have similar expectations of the future: how far their career might progress, how their behaviour will be judged and how much of the domestic burden will fall on them. Boys and girls know that some Dads stay at home to care for their children, and that some Mums go back to work after having babies (and may be the biggest wage-earner in the house). They respect that. Hopefully they also know that some boys and girls have two mums, or two dads. And they respect that too.
My, what an idyllic world we live in! How far we’ve come!
Or have we? Unfortunately, it seem that this journey of ours towards equality has taken a little detour. In true Bugs Bunny style, someone’s dashed ahead and turned the sign round so that we’re now heading down Double Standards lane.
Although the majority of parents – including all of you there in the Book People office – would say that they want their sons and daughters to grow up feeling they can do anything, BE ANYTHING, what’s the reality? What do children see around them?
Daughters are told that women have equal rights. They watch as their bedroom fills with butterfly stickers, craft activities, baby dolls, pink accessories, toy vacuum cleaners and ovens – just in case they were foolish enough to believe what they were told, they and their expectations have been put firmly back in place by the time they’re five. Yep, by the time they’re at school, mentally those doors are already clanging shut. What they COULD do and what they expect to do are already two different things. Sons can choose caring professions, and should be involved fathers, they’re told… as their world becomes filled with macho, action-packed superheroes, soldiers, racing cars, pirates and astronauts, while domestic play equipment, dolls, animals and anything connected with caring or beauty is relegated to being weak and ‘for girls’ (because obviously those two go together). Not to mention that any liking for these ‘girls’ things’ might make people think – shock horror – that they’re gay. Best keep those impulses locked away… until the misery makes them another teenage suicide statistic.
Books have always reflected our world and sometimes, show us a better one. Their role in shaping children’s beliefs and expectations is every bit as vital as that of toys and other forms of media. The Equalities Act becomes just a piece of paper if we are not living our lives – and writing, designing and marketing our books – to support its principles and ensure our children can expect to live and be judged by them.
Girls need to know that pink is not the only colour – and to lose the expectation that everything pink is aimed at them. They need to open a book and be surprised by the contents, not already condemned to expect page upon page of butterflies, fairies, make-up tips and tales of princesses who got everything they wanted – once a guy showed up to sort out their life for them. Boys need to know that they are ALLOWED to like pink, and butterflies, and rabbits, and dolls. They don’t have to be an astronaut, builder, soldier or train driver, and they don’t have to live with the pressure of expecting to be the breadwinner, rescuer, knight on a white horse. They need to know that sometimes THEY will need rescuing – and that’s okay. If we adults do our job well, perhaps those boys will realise that the person who rescues them might be a girl; a girl with no make-up on, riding a Harley Davidson without a pink pony in sight.
If you want freedom of choice for your own children, and value their right to keep an open mind – and see only open doors in their future – then surely you want the same freedom for all children. So come on Book People, what do you say? You don’t need to stock gender-specific, sexist titles entitled ‘stories for girls’ or ‘cooking with mummy’. You could choose not to. You could be the first retailer (because we only have publishers so far) to make a stand and say no. I can assure you, with all the major newspapers reporting on this campaign and radio and TV taking an interest now too, if you make this stand today everyone will know about it by tomorrow. You will be Equality Heroes – and have the satisfaction of knowing that you used your power for good. Join us!