Publishing non-fiction books for young adults and children demands creativity, invention and a dash of bloody-mindedness. Our relatively small population means that non-fiction books must make their way in an ever-tightening market. Big-budget ‘wow factor’ titles like the design-heavy Pick Me Up (Dorling Kindersley) and the best-selling The Dangerous Book for Boys (Conn and Hal Iggulden) are largely beyond the scope of the domestic market. Both have been international hits. Without the audience base to launch such books, Australian writers and publishers must work to a tight brief, navigating between the relatively small market and the diminishing school library budget. To succeed, these books need to work outside the school context as well as within.
It is not just that school libraries lack money. Increasingly, state primary school libraries are starved of knowledgeable staff with time to do the job properly. The library also helps to create an audience for books, but websites including Wikipedia can provide the necessary fact with rigour and imagination. Why support books if they date quickly or, worse, can’t compete with the computer for the reader’s attention? And yet good non-fiction does far more than just impart facts: the best books challenge our ideas of the world in ways that fiction cannot. They can and should reach beyond the school market, and not be bound by it.