OUP ‘bans’ pigs in books. Except not for the reasons you think.

Before I start this little rant, I need to make sure everybody knows a few things about how children’s publishing works. Here we go:

Illustrated publishing (including children’s publishing) runs on co-editions. A co-edition is where two or more editions of a book are printed in the same print run. The colour illustrations are printed separately from the black text: you might print 5000 copies with English text, then swap the black text plate and print French text onto the same colour illustrations, then swap out the black text again and print German, etc.

The more editions you can get onto the same print run, the cheaper it is for everybody. If you have sold multiple foreign rights for a title, you will aim to get your Swedish publisher and your French publisher and your Italian publisher to translate their texts to a particular deadline and supply you with black text pdfs in their various languages, so that they can join in with the next big English-language print run. They’ll bring the print costs for your English-language edition down, and also get their books at a price that works for them.

However, when you are printing co-editions in this way, you cannot make any changes to the colour illustrations themselves – you can only swap out the black text that is printed onto them. If you want to change the illustrations, you have to start a new print run (which means you have to pay start-up costs all over again, and you don’t get the lower prices associated with a large print run). Therefore, publishers aim to create illustrations that work for everybody, so that everybody can go on the same print run and the books are cheaper to produce. There are a few things you need to bear in mind if you want to do this. For example:

– If you’re publishing a recipe book with pictures, you need to make sure the ingredients you’re using are widely available in as many countries as possible. You might be surprised by the kinds of ingredients you think are common and other countries think are weird – I remember a cookery editor at some point telling me that garden cress was unheard of in a particular European country (I think it was Italy). If you would like to publish the book in places other than the UK, it makes sense not to use UK-specific ingredients.

– If you are publishing a book that involves children getting dressed (like this one), and you would like it to be available in North America as well as in Europe, the children need to start off wearing vests as well as underwear – the US market doesn’t like to see nipples in children’s books, at least according to the US distributors I have worked with.

– If you are publishing a book featuring anthropomorphic animals (like this one), none of the anthropomorphic animals should be pigs. If you decide you need a pig in the book then of course that’s fine, but it means that you won’t be able to sell the book in Turkey, Indonesia, Jordan, Syria, Egypt, Dubai and a whole host of other places where you might be able to make money. I know this because I spent five years selling children’s books to foreign publishers in these markets, and they told me what they would buy and what they would not buy.

Go on, guess which one of those three examples people are getting upset about.

This whole ‘OUP bans pigs in books’ thing is a complete non-story in the publishing industry, and although I have already had my say in the National Post, I couldn’t help expanding on my thoughts a bit more here. Let’s be perfectly clear: this is not an example of self-censorship or ‘political correctness gone mad’, and nobody is saying that Jews and Muslims in the UK (or US, or Canada) are going to be horrified or unable to cope with seeing a pig or a sausage in their children’s books. It’s just that when OUP’s rights executives go to international book fairs to meet with foreign publishers, they will need to bring a catalogue full of books that publishers all over the world actually want to buy. And that means that if they can easily avoid cress, nipples and pigs, they should probably do so. It isn’t ‘political correctness gone mad’, it’s the free market at work – which I always thought was the exact opposite of ‘PC gone mad’, actually. I guess some people can’t handle it when the market is influenced by people who are not like them.

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7 Responses to OUP ‘bans’ pigs in books. Except not for the reasons you think.

  1. Elke Blinick says:

    If you take the sensitivities of the whole world into account , you will severely limit what you can publish. Children’s books always work within a culture. What appeals to kids in Canada may not appeal to kids in Dubai. I believe a Muslim cleric just declared snowmen as non-Islamic. In a Canadian setting snowmen are perfectly normal. So all we will be left is the literary equivalent of mush. No flavor, no texture and easily digested.

    • Lydia says:

      I broadly agree with your point, and I make no claim (in this particular blog post) about any consequences that might arise as a result of companies taking global market forces into account when developing their product. I merely suggest that it’s not unreasonable for a company to want to sell their product across a broad market, and I think it’s notable that people have chosen to get worked up about the adjustments made to appeal to Muslim markets, rather than any of the adjustments made to appeal to the US market or elsewhere.

  2. tarjema says:

    Thanks for this much more open view of the issue!

    Pigs came up for me in another context; I started reading the (very well done) Arabic translation of the Hunger Games last year and was pretty surprised to find that the pig kept in Peeta’s back yard was translated as ‘filthy animal’ instead of naming it a pig. I wrote a blog post on the issue: http://tarjema.com/2014/04/20/literary-translation-culture-and-maybe-ethics/

    The translator contacted me over Twitter to thank me for the article and to tell me that he had made that choice for “many reasons” (none of which he specified).

    • Lydia says:

      Thanks for commenting! That’s really interesting about the Arabic Hunger Games – I’d have thought that if the translator wanted to avoid saying ‘pig’ he could have ‘translated’ the pig itself into a different animal rather than just refraining from naming it. But maybe he felt that would be going too far?

      • tarjema says:

        I’ll assume he did. The author with whom I am working mentioned the same issue during a press interview; he also suggested making the animal something more acceptable (a rabbit, in his example).

  3. We encounter this same issue in a library vendor setting, working with international customers who want US titles, but who do not want references or images of pigs in them. I know some librarians who would be thrilled to have fewer pig minor characters simply because having to suss them out of every picture book can be quite a challenge. Besides… pigs are so old fashioned. It’s time for the opossum to have its day!

    • Lydia says:

      Oh yes, that’s a good point – I hadn’t even though about the various English-language export markets, but I can see that you’d have the same problem there as well. I’m definitely in favour of a wider variety of animals in children’s books! My fabulous client Danna Staaf (www.cephalopodiatrist.com) feels that squid should be the next big thing…

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