Commercial exploitation of children’s books

Whether we like it or not, stories in the form of books and broadcast programmes are commercial products. This crossover between art and commerce is perhaps most evident in children’s stories and their subsequent product ‘spin-offs’. As writers we need to be aware of what those spin-offs may be and whether or not we are comfortable being used to flog them to children. The Crafty Writer asked Dr Dan Acuff, a marketing consultant for companies such as Nickelodeon, Disney, Hallmark, Warner Bros., Scholastic and Lucas-Speilberg, what a writer needs to consider.

Over-commercialization

While most children’s authors are out to entertain, educate and inspire, there exists the danger of over-commercialization. Once a children’s book or youth reader succeeds at a certain level it becomes a “property” and begins to “spin-off” into other product and program categories. For example, the author may find her characters on clothing, translated into toys and games and appearing on food and beverage packaging.

The dilemma becomes how to determine when a property is over-commercialized. There are three classifications that any product or program falls into: GOOD FOR KIDS, NEUTRAL, and BAD.

‘Good’ products

Products and programs that are GOOD for kids include sports toys, school supplies, developmental toys, and most books. Products that are NEUTRAL are a little trickier in that used wrongly or to excess these products could be harmful. Neutral products and programs include clothing, TV programming and food & beverages among many others. These products and programs need to be monitored and managed by parents and caregivers.

‘Bad’ products

Then there are those that are just plain BAD for young people. These include many videogames – especially those with violence and with inappropriate sexuality. The Bratz dolls have been criticized in this regard. This BAD category also includes inappropriate internet content and the obvious such as tobacco, drugs and guns.

‘Neutral’ products

Where most children’s authors might get into contracts that end up being bad for kids is in the neutral category. An author must determine if allowing their characters to appear on food and beverage packaging, for example, will result in harm at some level. If the food or beverage content has excessive sugar or other ingredients that may be harmful it would be best to stay away. As cute and loving as Barney, Dora, the Muppets or the Webkinz pets are, they can end up hawking harmful products.

Keeping your characters clean

The key is to keep these three categories in mind. Continue to ask yourself: Will my book’s content – especially its characters – ever promote anything that may turn out to harm children in any way? If so, decide against it and keep your nose and your character’s noses clean.

Crafty tip: make sure you read the small print about commercial spin-offs in your contract; not just who earns what, but what products may be endorsed. Ask your lawyer or agent to ensure that the contract is worded in such a way that you retain control over what products you may be associated with in future.

Dr Dan Acuff is the co-author, along with Dr Robert Reiher of Kidnapped: How Irresponsible Marketers Are Stealing the Minds of Your Children. He offers an evaluation service for children’s and YA authors and inventors of toys and games. His website, Stories Toys Games also has free advice for authors with tips on how to consider the psychology of young readers in your writing.

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7 comments on “Commercial exploitation of children’s books

  1. Rosalie Warren on said:

    Some useful advice here – many thanks.

  2. Fiona Veitch Smith on said:

    You’re welcome Rosalie. Haven’t ‘seen’ you for a while. I haven’t been over at the Talkback site for a while, I suppose.

  3. Rosalie Warren on said:

    Was just thinking the same of you – hope all’s well.

  4. Fiona Veitch Smith on said:

    All’s well, but just very busy. I’ve just got two new jobs teaching writing for the media at Newcastle Uni and scriptwriting at Northumbria Uni. It’s taking up a lot of my time at the moment as I have to prepare every lecture from scratch. Hopefully next year (if they keep me on!) it won’t be as time consuming and I can get back to my own writing and maintaining Crafty. How’s the new book selling?

  5. Rosalie Warren on said:

    That sounds like hard work, but well done anyway! As you say, it should be easier next year.

    ‘Low Tide, Lunan Bay’ is doing OK – it’s in quite a few libraries, anyway, though not qu—i—te on the bestseller list…

    I’m looking for a publisher for my children’s books and currently have my fingers tightly crossed…

  6. Fiona Veitch Smith on said:

    I’ll cross my toes as well :)

  7. Rosalie Warren on said:

    Thanks :)

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