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University Challenge: Age Banding

We get the occasional request from a university student to answer questions for a dissertation. This time it was about age banding, so I thought it would be good to share it on the blog, so you guys could weigh in, if you wanted to.

Hello! My name is Mark and I am currently studying for a Masters in Publishing at Edinburgh Napier University. As part of my studies I have to complete a research project investigating an area of publishing, and I chose to look at age banding in fiction books aimed at children and teenagers. Age banding is the process whereby publishers print suggested age guidance onto the back cover of their books, with the aim of helping people choose the books most suitable for their age group. When it was introduced, there was a lot of discussion regarding both the benefits and drawback associated with the scheme, and there are strong feelings on both sides of the argument.

Through my research I discovered that Hot Key Books have done a lot of good work in providing content guidelines on the books they publish. With this in mind, I made contact with them and they were kind enough to agree to help! I sent through some questions to Sara O’Connor and below are the answers she provided. I hope you find them as informative as I did!

1. What was the reasoning behind the introduction of content guidance on the titles published by Hot Key Books?

We never wanted to put age guidance on our books because every reader is different, but from the beginning understood that people want help choosing a book efficiently. (Some coverage of our announcement last year in the Bookseller.)

Hot Key Ring

Our brilliant publisher Emily Thomas came up with the Hot Key Ring – inspired by the salt/sugar contents wheel on supermarket foodstuffs. It just makes more sense to judge a book by what is in it than by an arbitrary number.

2. With regard to the content guidelines provided on the titles published by Hot Key Books, who decides the categories included and the extent to which each is featured in the book?

Usually, the editor will suggest the list and then everyone from other editors to the SPAM team to the MD will tweak, debate, agree and then change our minds. It’s so difficult to encapsulate any book into a few words – or an age range for that matter – so it is definitely subjective. And we’re always happy to hear from opinionated fans about the choices – we’ve had a right telling off about one choice!

3. Given that a lot of books aimed at the Young Adult market are purchased by older readers (20s, 30s), how does this affect your marketing strategy when it comes to their release?

Unfortunately, our Head of Marketing is on holiday this week, but you can get some insight to our experience on her blog when we launched our best-selling The Vincent Boys books.

4. To what extent are authors consulted over cover design/content guidelines for a particular book?

At Hot Key, to every extent. Our brilliant art department works very closely with authors on the jacket. We show concepts, roughs and final art to the writer.

5. Some booksellers argue that age/content guidance printed directly onto books undermines their unique selling point (i.e. their specialist knowledge). To what extent would you agree?

A good bookseller makes age guidance irrelevant. And I wish those good booksellers could clone themselves and spread like a literacy-advocating virus around the country (world!)

We can also give you a 16-year-old’s opinion on the matter.

6. There have been several occasions recently where the text of older books has been amended as to be more appropriate for a modern audience (for example, the removal of potentially offensive racist language). Do you feel this impinges on the intellectual property of the author?

Are you referring to Enid Blyton? It happens that I joined Hodder Children’s and took over Enid Blyton brand management just as the updating program was wrapping up.

I think your question is a bit tangled. The project was done in complete collaboration with the IP holder (then Chorion). The legality of it can’t be questioned. No one can change a book without having the correct rights.

But moving away from the legal terminology of IP, do I think Enid Blyton would be cross? No, I don’t. She wanted her stories to appeal to modern children and she was very progressive in many of her social opinions (not a racist as many claim). I think she would have wanted to be in charge of the edits herself but, as no one can live forever, I don’t think she would have been appalled at the idea of the updates.

7. To what extent, as a publisher, do you feel an obligation towards protecting your readers from potentially harmful topics in the books they read?

You’re asking a loaded question. “Potentially harmful” is incredibly subjective. Words are powerful, yes, but books are one of the safest places to explore challenging topics. And I personally wouldn’t shy away from publishing something challenging. I think publishers have an obligation to publish books that will encourage conversation and provoke thought and change thinking.

So, dear readers, do YOU have anything to add to my answers to Mark’s questions?