Age guidance for kid's books stirs up a storm in the UK

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Should publishers make suggestions about age ranges (basic ones, like  "5+" or "13+/Teen") on the backs of children's books?

A battle broke out earlier this year in the U.K. when the Publishers Association's Children's Book Group there announced that from fall 2008 on, all new children's books would carry age guidance.

But the practice is anything but acceptable to many writers, including some big names like Harry Potter author J.K. Rowling and His Dark Materials trilogy writer Philip Pullman.

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The idea is "ill-conceived, damaging to the interests of young readers, and highly unlikely, despite the claims made by those publishers promoting the scheme, to make the slightest difference to sales," said 80 of these writers (including Pullman) in a statement issued earlier this year.

Age guidance, many of these writers feel, is overly proscriptive and discourages kids from reading outside the recommended limits.

Pullman has said, "We are not in a position to dictate anything and I wouldn’t want to tell publishers how to run their business, but if one of my books is published with an age range, I’m dissociating myself from it, it is nothing to do with me."

Those who favor age guidance argue that it simply makes good business sense.

Research done in the UK on consumers showed that 86% of adults liked the idea of age guidance on the back of children’s books and 40% per cent of them said that they were likely to buy more books with more guidance on ages.

(For children, however, age guidance seemed to have little impact one way or the other on the appeal of a book.)

But the battle wages on.

At a book conference in the UK last week, Jane Walker, head of children's publishing at Parragon, asked, "We are told how much salt is in our sandwich, how much recycled plastic is in our bin-liner, so why can't we be helped with book-buying?"

In the US, there is no industry standard on age guidance. Some publishers include it while others do not. Online bookseller amazon.com does offer age guidance on the children's books it sells.

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