Tuesday, 6 December 2005

Children's Market of Less Value to Publishers

Knowledge is power. Even depressing bits of knowledge.

So, really, this is something empowering from the Society of Authors website. It's a report called Publishing from the Inside reporting on a talk chaired by general secretary Mark Le Fanu with speakers A P Watt agent Sheila Crowley, Paul Richardson, director of Oxford International Centre for Publishing Studies at Oxford Brookes University, and Alison Samuel, publishing director of Chatto & Windus. The whole report makes sobering but very educational reading for writers, published or not. The Q&A in particular ranged over a wide variety of topics from why books begin as hardbacks to how an author can find out about budgeting decisions.

Here is the bit most relevant to children's writers and illustrators:

Is the children's market harder or easier than the adult market?

The little, one-off children's book is probably the hardest thing to get published at the moment. The production costs are the same for both but the children's market is of less value to publishers: 21% of new titles are adult, 14% are children's. Children's publishers tend to go for characters, work that will generate a series – things that have merchandising potential. There is also a preference for making children's books more suitable for the relevant age group and more sexy – turning away from dumbing down.

Read the whole report here.

Monday, 5 December 2005

How Writers Can Learn from DVDs

Yes, seriously.

The best thing about DVDs is not the fact that they're tons lighter than ancient VHS tapes or that its easier to zip from scene to scene with the remote, or that you can watch your favourite films in languages you never heard before. The best thing about DVDs are the deleted scenes and director’s commentaries. That is, if you’re a writer keen to learn the craft.

Many directors and screenwriters are just obsessive writers who like to jaw about their craft and so the obligatory director’s commentary which many a film fan would ignore is actually a gold mine for learners like us.

Do you want to learn about how to stitch some back story into a scene? Check out the director/screenwriter’s commentary on Cider House Rules and hear author John Irving explaining how he struggled to find a place where he could establish the hero, Homer Wells’ stance on abortion.

Are you looking for the strength to cut scenes you love from your manuscript? Check out Finding Nemo and The Incredibles where you can actually see the scenes they chopped out for the sake of getting the story to move faster (the fact that the directors also co-wrote the screenplay seems to add to the dynamic of the director’s commentary).

How do you plot a story? Listen to the director’s commentary of The Day After Tomorrow and learn first hand the struggle to create credible scenes out of a fantastical premise. In You've Got Mail, director Nora Ephron (who in a previous life was a best-selling novelist) actually points out where each act begins and ends.

But as with other instructive material, some DVDs do it better than others. For example, Big Fish about a man with a talent for storytelling, seemed a great bet for a long writerly discourse on constructing a story. But disappointingly director Tim Burton’s commentary focused on the celebrity of his characters – how Ewan McGregor was "great" and how the elephant had a poo at the moment when McGregor leaned up against him – fascinating stuff but will be completely useless when next one does battle with one's manuscript.

Have you listened to a director/author's commentary you can recommend for writers interested in craft?

Friday, 7 October 2005

What Children's Book Week did for me

The National Children's Book Week poster for 2005 was designed by Simon Bartram, author of Man on the Moon and Dougal's Deep Sea Diary
It’s National Children’s Book Week in the UK!

My seven year old’s primary school has invited authors and illustrators to visit, there have been competitions, and a dress-up-as-your-favourite-character day!

Caught up in the enthusiasm of this lovely, booky week, I plucked up the courage to volunteer to read to my daughter’s Year Three class. I say plucked up the courage because instead of picking something from the bookshelves, I decided to read my own unpublished picture book manuscripts!

Now, fellow obsessives, you may – as I often do – sometimes wonder if all those lonely hours tapping at the computer keyboard and peeling open rejection letters are worth it; you may sometimes wonder if it is time to give up the dream. Well, don’t give up until you’ve tested your work on your chosen audience!

Reading my stuff to the kids was more energizing than a library full of books on how to write! The children laughed and clapped and shouted out comments and, when the I finished reading, gave a big cheer!

Children walking to school dressed as Thing One and Thing Two from Dr Seuss's The Cat in the HatThe picture right is of Cat in the Hat enthusiasts from last year's Children's Book Week. Unfortunately I didn't get a snap of this year's costume parade.

The next day, when the school paraded into assembly dressed up as their favourite characters, amongst the Harry Potters, BFGs, oompa-loompas, knights and Sleeping Beauties, I was honoured to find that one of the kids had come dressed as a character from my story!

It was better than winning the Newbery Medal.
National Children's Book Week is organised by Booktrust.

Wednesday, 5 October 2005

Women Writers Who Don't

Though twice as many women as men are writing, they are 50 per cent less likely to send off their manuscripts to publishers or agents, or to apply for writing grants.

Debbie Taylor of Mslexia
As quoted in Writer's Services Comments

Sadly this is all too true. I should know. I am one of the 50 percent less likely to apply a stamp to my submission letters.

Debbie’s theory is that this failure to push our work out into the real world is due to a lack of support in our (women’s) intimate relationships.

This excuse I dare not claim – my family (especially my husband) have been supportive to the point of pushy (“Have you published it yet, Mum?”). But it certainly is more difficult for women to allow themselves certain freedoms. More often than not, one decides to forego that hour of working on the manuscript to clean the kitchen, knowing full well that the kitchen will revert to its state of original sin within minutes of the kids getting home from school.

James Frey in How to Write a Damn Good Novel II (How to Write Damn Good Fiction: Advanced Techniques for Dramatic Storytelling in the UK) puts it rather harshly:

To become a damn good novelist you will have to put in your time writing. And that means that you won’t be doing things other people do because you won’t have time for them.
But what if you’ve got kids and responsibilities and the like? Okay, you will have to have a job, a secondary career, but it cannot be the centre of your life.

The writing will have to be the centre of your life.


And if you are a mother, double ouch. Because if you’ve got kids and home and husband and oven and washing machine and underwear and toilets on your mind, chances are creativity is on indefinite leave.

I once attended a talk where Anne Fine (Madame Doubtfire, The Tulip Touch) said behind every successful female writer is a wildly successful, millions-making husband. Well, she didn’t put it quite like that. But you get the idea.

If only that were true for all us aspiring-authors with dishpan hands.

Frey writes: “Once faith (in writing) is broken, the writer is unlikely to go back to writing, ever.”

So how do you keep the faith? You keep the faith by doing it all.

I once set up a website to encourage creativity in mothers – home-bound or office-bound. It was based on my own realisation that there would never be time for my creative life unless I allowed myself to make time for it. Here was the anthem of Mum at Work :
Let’s do it all, we’re already tired anyway.
I haven’t updated the site for a few years now (too busy being creative!), but you can still check it out. I try to refer back to it when I'm fed up and tired and discouraged. It reminds me of that shining thing out there somewhere called Hope and gets me writing again.

Family supportiveness is important to the success of your extra-curricular endeavours. But more important I think is just giving yourself permission to do it.

Tuesday, 20 September 2005

Marketing and Publicity: Building a Buzz

Kirsten Grant and Adele Minchin of Puffin
It’s a golden age for children’s writers – publishers want to publish them, press bigwigs want to write about them, and film deals have even made millionaires out of some of them.

But in every silver lining there is a cloud.

“Nowadays, success is judged by how lead titles perform in the first few weeks,” Kirsten Grant, head of marketing at Puffin, told British SCBWI's Professional Series in July. Puffin is the children’s arm of the Penguin Group (UK).

This may seem another blow to those of us who are still struggling to get agents and publishers to even glance at our manuscripts – the acceptance of a manuscript is not the end to the quest for the wannabe author; it is only the beginning.

As recently as five years ago, children’s books could take their time building up steam. Authors of some of the best-loved children’s books were not expected to be overnight successes – word of mouth was the only marketing tool needed to produce some of the great classics of children’s literature.

“[But] the children’s book market has changed phenomenally,” says Kirsten, who has worked at Puffin for nine years, of which many were spent in marketing. “There is a big change now in what we do – we try to adapt to the market and we try to adapt to what our customers [including booksellers] demand of us. So marketing has become much more like the adult market.”

In The Mainstream

Although the world of children’s book sales still depends on read-aloud sessions in libraries or the recommendations of other mums at the play group, it is increasingly dependent upon other areas of marketing and publicity, as well. Children’s publishing is now part of the push and shove of the mainstream, eking sales out of column inches on the review pages of magazines and newspapers, appearances on TV programmes such as Blue Peter, and no stranger to the occasional publicity stunt – a Puffin marketing rep dressed up as a lion to deliver Lion bars during the bidding war for the book Lion Boy by Zizou Corder.

“It’s a golden era in children’s books at the moment,” says Puffin head of publicity Adele Minchin, who was Kirsten’s co-speaker at the Professional Series talk. “But though we are appreciating children’s books more, it is very difficult to get the media to give you space.”

The broadsheets tend to reserve their pages for adult books, and children’s publicity departments have to scramble to get their titles onto seasonal round-ups, which might apportion 40 to 50 words per title. “You are fighting for the smallest amount of space,” Adele says wryly.

Ironically, it is harder to get coverage from the children’s press. “You are competing with DVDs, computer games, and fashion,” says Adele. “Books are not sexy enough.”

Television is the “best medium”, but by far the most difficult to access. Recently Blue Peter, a la Oprah, started up a book club that features one author per month, but the programme’s beneficence may profit only a few.

Bookselling World

Even the world of bookselling has been transformed beyond recognition. Supermarkets, those magnificent price-cutting behemoths, are leading book sales, putting pressure on the bottom lines of other booksellers. Big bookshops are swallowing up smaller bookshops – as we go to press, the HMV Group, owners of Waterstone’s, appears poised to make a bid for Ottakar’s bookshops, who claims that its sales are foundering because of supermarket discounting.

“Big players become important because they order in big quantities,” says Kirsten, “but buying tends to be centralised [in big companies] so there is not much freedom for individual bookshops to buy without the knowledge of head office.”

This has been particularly difficult for independent booksellers, who in the past might have been behind word-of-mouth sales. “Independent booksellers have specialist knowledge and fantastic links with schools and communities,” she says. “But they just cannot compete with the big boys in terms of price.”

“The booksellers are crucial,” says Adele. “The independents are still important. If independents get behind a book they can, by sheer word of mouth, make it succeed. But if a book doesn’t get into the Three-for-Two summer read offers [at big booksellers], it has a very small chance of succeeding. If WH Smith or Ottakar’s is not behind a book, then it becomes really hard to sell it.”

Getting A Book Noticed

Some people call it hype. And it’s essential to getting a book noticed in its first crucial weeks on the shelves of bookstores when sales spell its success or failure. What comes as a surprise is that marketing departments rev up the buzz machine as much as two years before a book makes it to print.

Once a manuscript gets a publisher’s go ahead, the marketing and publicity departments get to work, though it is still ages until the public even hears about the book. “We have to create a buzz around the book, starting with our own sales team,” says Kirsten. “We have to get our sales team excited because once they are on board they can go out and do their job of selling it to the booksellers.”

In the case of Eoin Colfer’s Artemis Fowl, bound proofs of the manuscript were distributed to all employees at Penguin and there were author signings with Penguin staff. “There are over 1,000 people working at Penguin and because of the internal PR, everybody got excited about the book and word started to get around,” says Kirsten.

And it helped when Colfer won a million pound deal for film rights to the novel which hit the headlines as “Fairies with attitude make a million” and “A magic million for the man who cheated Harry Potter”.

The next line of attack came from booksellers and media people who got special bound copies of the book. “They thought they were seeing something really exclusive because they were reading it really early on,” Kirsten notes. “In fact, they were adding to the buzz of the book. The aim was blanket coverage, just to get Artemis Fowl noticed everywhere.”

Invitations to the launch were sent in the form of a floppy disk, evoking the hi-tech wizardry of the main character, a boy criminal. There were posters in bookshops, shopping centres, tube stations, and on the sides of buses.

The greatest asset to Artemis Fowl, apart from the writing, was Eoin Colfer himself, a likeable Irish school teacher who won the hearts of agents and publishers with his now famous pitch to sell his manuscript: “Die Hard with Fairies”. His succinct description of his manuscript told the publishers that he was an author who could sell his books.

And he did. “Eoin was an absolutely amazing performer!” says Adele. “When he went on tour, he was like a stand-up comedian; he can entertain 200 children and have them rolling in the aisles. He was one of the major contributions to the sales.”

“You might say, you are a writer, why should you sing for your supper?” Kirsten says. “Well, nowadays, it’s part of the business. It’s what the public wants.”

Author As Personality

When Puffin signs on a new author, Adele likes to find out as much as she can about the person. “The first thing I do is I meet the author and just grill them on how a book came to be. I can find gems, media hooks, that the author may not have thought was interesting. I like to know everything that an author is planning to do [with his or her work].” The “author as personality” has become crucial to sales of a book.

Some books, however, are so well-written that the author’s personality becomes less important to the book’s success than the writing itself.

Meg Rosoff’s How I Live Now is a case in point. “Meg had an interesting life, but there wasn’t anything particularly extraordinary to build a media story around,” says Adele. “But the book was such a magnificent piece of literature that it did a lot of the work for itself because everyone whose hands we got it into absolutely loved it and went on to recommend it to a friend or colleague. We did, however, put a lot of work into getting the book into the right hands in the first place.”

Mark Haddon, who won the 2003 Whitbread Book of the Year for The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time, got hold of How I Live Now and gave the quote that appears on the book cover: “A magical and utterly faultless voice.” The book caught the attention of adult reviewers and began to appear on the adult review pages of the media, eventually winning the Guardian Children’s Fiction Prize.

“Not many children’s books get reviewed on the adult pages, and this made a huge difference to the profile of the book,” notes Adele.

Interestingly, How I Live Now was not allocated the marketing budget other titles might enjoy.
Which just goes to show, says Kirsten: “At the end of the day, no matter how much hype you make, a book has got to stand up on its own.”

This is based on a talk by Kirsten Grant and Adele Minchin for the SCBWI Professional Series on 30 June 2005, London.

Saturday, 27 August 2005

More on reading poverty

Nicky Schmidt, a South African writer, commented on my lament about reading access in poor countries:

I was interested to read your blog "Make READING poverty history!" I'm a South African children's writer (yet to be published) and I can only attest to what you say.

Prices in South Africa put books way beyond the reach of the average child - so reading is just not a priority - a sad indictment of society indeed. The irony is that even books that are published locally are staggeringly expensive - the market is small, the print runs low and the prices therefore ludicrously high - and add to that that local publishers won't even consider publishing books that are not rooted in the South African genre - thereby effectively closing off the world to South African children - unless they can afford imported books... which few can.

For imported books, there is still import duty, landing charges and VAT to be added on to the publishers price. Many of us have regularly challenged goverment on at least making books VAT free but to no avail. We live in a world that is driven entirely by profit and greed (from governments and corporates to everyone else) and that no one stops to consider the end result and the big picture.

Depriving children of the adventure and discovery of reading makes for ultimately, IMHO, a very poor world indeed.

So here are some questions for all you publishers out there: what's going on? Is it the local publishers in poor countries? Do they see no profit in printing cheaper copies of the great stuff that come out in the rest of the world? Or are the publishing companies in the West making it unaffordable? Are there any facilities in place to get books out to places like South Africa and the Philippines where children just cannot afford the joy of reading?

Wednesday, 13 July 2005

Make READING Poverty History!

Poverty is an insidious beast that rears its ugly head in the most unexpected situations.

While travelling in South Africa, I visited some bookstores, eager to check out South African picture books. I was pleased to see that the book stores were up to date with the latest children’s books from England – from the latest Artemus Fowl to Mini Grey’s Biscuit Bear. I was shocked to find however that in a country where 50 per cent of children live in poverty, the books were two to three pounds (US $ 3 to 4.50) pricier than the equivalent in Britain!

In my native Philippines, the average YA novel retails for about the same amount it would in the West. So a £4.99 children’s paperback in London would sell for the same amount in Manila, where average family earnings are between £2 to £3 a day.

It comes as no surprise that books are not a priority to a typical family in the Philippines. And what a tragedy that is.

As a child growing up in Manila, I trawled my school library for things to read and saved my pocket money to buy books at the local bookstore. Books were not unaffordable then.

It is amusing to me now that publishers resist manuscripts that have strong cultural references for fear that the book won’t sell to markets in other countries. I thrived on the other worlds I discovered in books. To me, the alien cultures of those novels set in England, America and other exotic, faraway places were more fascinating fantasy than Tolkien.

Discovering other worlds through reading enriched my world and gave me the imagination to think that there were better things out there for me. But today, there is a whole world of children out there who may never share that thrill.

What to do? Publishers should re-examine the way they retail books to poor countries. What is it in the publishing chain that pegs book prices in developing countries at the same level or (scandalously) even more in the developed world? The West is pulping remainders while children in poor countries are hungry for something to read.
The dwindling of readers in impoverished countries not only fuels the endless poverty cycle but is bad for a business that is built on the love of reading.

It was heartening to spot this report on Publishing News that HarperCollins had launched an initiative to provide books for schools in Ghana. They’ve even recruited last year’s children’s laureate Michael Morpurgo to visit the schools.

The aim is to get textbooks and reference books (including dictionaries, children’s picture books and atlases) into schools in deprived and rural areas of Ghana, with three schools given specific support via links with British schools. The publisher will send an emissary to Ghana later this month to set up the infrastructure and establish contacts.

(Thorsons MD) Belinda Budge told PN: “The project in Ghana is very close to our hearts. Although we’re still only in the early planning stages, we’ve been delighted by the enthusiastic response we’ve already had from authors. We’re hoping there will be an opportunity for them, and for some members of HC staff, to visit the schools we’re linking up with. Ghana spends more money paying interest on debt than it does on education, and we hope our literacy project, which will be organised at a local level, will make a difference.”

(HarperCollins CEO) Victoria Barnsley concluded: “Poverty stops 100 million children around the world going to school Education is something we take for granted, but these kids miss out all together. If we are serious about fighting poverty, and enabling people in the poorest nations to help themselves, the education is absolutely key and books have a vital role.”

Friday, 1 July 2005

How to look at your work with commercial eyes

Denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance.

These are said to be the five stages of death – which is how a lot of writers feel about commercialising their work. But if you want to get published, you probably ought to fast forward to the last one. Here are tips to help get you going, based on a talk by Kelly Cauldwell, senior editor at Random House UK:

  • Jumping on a bandwagon? Give your boy-magician-in-boarding-school plot a twist that keeps you-know-who glued to your manuscript. Kids may still have an appetite for fantasy, but spare a thought for the frazzled Random House reader on his 300th magical adventure of the season.

  • Editors have to stand up in a meeting of publishing bigwigs and talk up your book. Kelly says: “Think of how your book will sound when it is presented to somebody else.” It’s useful to think up a catchy answer to the question, “What’s it about?” Here’s what they said about Artemus Fowl: “Die Hard with Fairies.” Beat that.

  • Go to the section of the bookshop where your book will most likely be displayed, if published. Which books sit neatly on the shelf in a tidy jumper and which ones have big hair and padded shoulders, bungee jumping into passing shopping bags? Consider your book’s marketing potential and, when you get your next rejection, consider the thought that the editor might have loved it but could not think of a way to sell it.

  • Kelly says: “Think of who will buy your book.” Dads? Mums? Kids? Grannies? Librarians? These are your market – so impress them!

  • Kelly says: “We are looking for something we can make a splash about but because it is so expensive to produce we rarely sign up individual titles for this age range (six to eight).” Series, anyone?

Trends in the children's book market 2005

Keeping in mind that any new titles Random House buys this year will be published in 2007 (!), here is a rundown of basic trends in children’s publishing, according to Kelly Cauldwell (See feature on Kelly):

  • “Fantasy is still going very strong. The market may be saturated but the kids don’t seem to be saturated! Your problem will be getting your manuscript past the gatekeepers (editors) – just the thought of reading another trilogy about a dragon has people at Random House fighting NOT to have to read it (they will, because they have to).”

    "Its enduring popularity has made fantasy harder to publish. If this is your genre, you have to show that your book is better than anything else!"

  • "Historical fiction seems to be doing quite well."

  • The time slip plot – "one has just sold for a lot of money."

  • "Girly chick lit has the same pull as fantasy. But again, it’s got to get past the people who will say, ‘Oh no, not another one!’ It will also take a lot of marketing imagination to make it stand out."

  • "We are trying to corner that market for boys! What do boys like? Sports, fantasy, funny stories. Every boy asks for more funny stories."

  • "Really girly, sparkling series for young girls is one of the bandwagons."

Publishing is about selling too

Kelly Cauldwell of Random House
Writers must face up to the reality of the publishing marketplace. Random House senior editor Kelly Cauldwell speaks at the May instalment of the SCBWI –BI professional series.

We unpublished writers all dream of being taken under the wing of one of those legendary editors we read about. The kind who nurtures you from book to book until finally, you produce a novel destined for immortality.

Well, publishing doesn’t work like that anymore.

“We don’t have the scope to build a writer up over a number of books,” explains Kelly Cauldwell, senior editor for children’s fiction at Random House. “Our job is to see the book right the way through, not just to edit it – unfortunately.”

Kelly tacks on the “unfortunately”, to acknowledge that this might be a painful realisation for her audience of writers – to whom a finished novel may be the end rather than the beginning of the publishing process.

With economies of scale, cutthroat competition and a global market, what today’s editors are looking for is not necessarily brilliant talent but a brilliant product – although one could come from the other.

It’s a reality that many would-be authors will find difficult to accept. But ignore it at your peril.


“My working day is not a lovely, book-filled day as many people want to think,” says Kelly, who has been working at Random House since she started as an assistant to the managing director. “I spend very little time reading in the office. I spend all my time running around and chasing marketing and designers. Meetings are limitless.”

Anyone still entertaining romantic ideas of discovery and nurturing by an editor should find Kelly’s description of her work instructive.

“We spend time looking at the backlist and working out how we can revitalise it – how we can republish old titles again for new audiences who have grown old enough to appreciate it. We look at the practicalities of how we want to publish a book.”

She pulls out a bright, pink paperback sprinkled all over with glitter, unmistakeably a product of the “chick-lit” genre. “How do you make this one the one that everybody notices?” The answer: “We sent flowers to reviewers in pink tissue paper!”

“We have to publish more cleverly in some areas,” says Kelly. “There has been a change of culture. For example, we used to do Corgi Pups (a 64-page early reader) that did very well because of the book clubs. We used to be secure in the knowledge that we would have a 3,000-book order coming in from the book clubs. But times have changed. Book clubs don’t seem to sell them (early readers) anymore. Their focus is on selling Jacqueline Wilson or Harry Potter which are easier sales. In the past, we just did not bother to look at that area and now we are trying harder.”

“Trying harder” involves understanding what makes people put their hands in their pockets, whether it be the collectible playing cards such as the ones that come with Random House’s new Astrosaurs series; or the glitter on the covers of chick-lit titles for girls.


One of the biggest bookselling conundrums, says Kelly, is the way booksellers display books. “The problem with the six-to-eight-year-old market is: they don’t get much space,” she explains.

Books for six to eight year olds get a particularly bum deal because their slim spines don’t stand out on a shelf at Waterstones or Borders. And parents buying for their kids think they are not getting as much value for money as they would from a nice thick book.

“We have responded a little bit to this market,” says Kelly. “We are making the books fatter!”

Random House has also re-launched Corgi Pups as Young Corgi. “We are trying to broaden their appeal and we are focusing more on known authors, the aim is to develop a library built on one author’s books. Young fiction has always been a problematic area. That’s why we are changing the way we are doing things.”

The drawback to so much marketing – thicker books, bigger branding, glittery covers, free collectible cards – is the expense. “We are looking for something to make a splash about,” says Kelly, “but because it is quite expensive to produce, we rarely sign up individual titles for this age range.”


From the new, more stringent demands of publishing has emerged a phenomenon that will have old-fashioned editors scratching their heads: writing to order.

Getting books written to order suits publishing houses under pressure to perform in such a demanding market. “Writing to order is a new concept. We have deadlines, targets, dates to hit. It is quite a difficult process and there is no room for writer’s block. It’s quite a talent required of an author.”

Working Partners Ltd offers a service that, quoting their website, includes, “Coming up with ideas for new projects, creating detailed storylines, or working on manuscripts … The starting point for a new series might be an idea from someone in the nine-strong creative team or a request from a UK or US publisher looking for fresh and original concepts to publish within a particular genre and/or age range.

“If the idea survives a series of challenging early brain-stormings, we will contact literary agents in order to find writers to put flesh on the bones of a fully worked up concept and storylines.”

WP claims it has already helped launch 40 titles and series ideas, with more on the way. Unpublished authors take note: its website seeks to recruit new writers as well as literary agents.

One of WP’s projects is Lady Grace, the girls detective series from Random House.

“These are writers who are not just writing what they like,” says Kelly. “It’s fantastic. They are a series concept provider – they come up with ideas, basic story lines and characters. They go away and find an author, matching the style to the story. Lots of their authors are established authors.”


Getting books written to order may make life easier for editors but nothing beats the prestige and sales of a good author. Robert Swindells, Chris Riddel, Jacqueline Wilson all belong to Kelly’s stable.

Big names get to deliver what they like, says Kelly. “Among our known authors, Jacky Wilson is very professional. But she won’t tell you what she’s doing. She’ll say something like, ‘It’s about a girl and her dad’ and that’s it. It’s always a fantastic surprise when you see it! Chris Riddel, on the other hand, likes to talk about his projects. He will phone three times a week to discuss ideas.”

“Author care” takes a big slice of her time, but it’s no longer about agonising over craft or nurturing yet-to-blossom genius. “Working with an author a lot of the time involves asking their opinion about everything: what format the book should take … what cover look they prefer. Random House prides itself as a publisher that listens to its authors. We don’t just bulldoze through and say we want to do it this way.”

The process is rewarding “because you feel that you have been there every step of the way”. “You read the books as a fan. When we are working with an author on a book, it is all about suggestion. It’s all about diplomacy. You have to work out how to say things. It’s very tricky asking someone to change something they don’t want to change. Sometimes you touch something that is the most precious thing in someone’s book – we’ve had authors take out every single change we made in their books!”

Random House recently bought a literary novel for teenagers based on a true story about abandoned babies. “Now and then we find an absolute gem that we don’t want to change at all. It was hard editing it, having gone through it, we didn’t actually want to change anything. I have never read a more polished first novel.”


At the end of her talk, Kelly sighed. “I probably came across as quite commercial. But when you get involved in the publishing process from manuscript to finish, it completely changes the way you think about a book.”

Once that last chapter is written, done and dusted, the process changes. “It will be all about getting the book into a child’s hand, getting the book noticed by trade, sellers, libraries. Children’s publishing is becoming more like grown-up publishing in the way we spend more money on marketing.”


“It’s all a bit of a chicken and egg situation. How much marketing will you put behind a book? When you get a good manuscript, you are even more keen to put more money behind it. And that is difficult. Because when you submit your manuscript, it must sound like the most original voice to people who have already read 500 manuscripts this year. ”

Friday, 13 May 2005

Bologna's Bad Tidings for Picture Books in the Midst of a Children's Book Boom

In this ever more global market British writers do spectacularly well, as children’s books from the UK are reckoned by many international observers to be the most innovative and the best, according to a report on the Bologna Children's Book Fair by WritersServices.com. One scout from New York acknowledged that "Most of the big books at the fair were from the UK". Unfortunately picture books struggled to sell and publishers admit that they are cutting back ...
Picture books are proving hard to sell and most publishers have cut back their lists sharply to accommodate only the very best titles. HarperCollins UK’s right director said: ‘We still care deeply about them, but have cut back by almost 50%. That said, I have sold everything we’re doing… because it’s stronger.’
Read the whole report Children's Books Go Global at Bologna.

Picture books may be in the doldrums but that doesn't mean the rest of the chidlren's publishing market is suffering. Here's what a report form WritersServices.com says:
Children’s books are booming. For many years the children’s publishing business has seemed like a poor relation of its adult counterpart, with lower advances, less marketing spend and scant attention from the press. Now all that has changed and the children of today are reaping the benefit of a flowering of children’s writing of all kinds, such as we have never seen before.
Read the whole report The Boom in Children's Books.

And here is how children's writers like J K Rowling (Harry Potter), Jacqueline Wilson (The Story of Tracy Beaker), Michelle Paver (Wolf Brother), and Emma Maree Urquhart (Dragon Tamers) have consistently stayed in the headlines with news about big advances and millions of copies sold. The report is called Children's writers hit the headlines - fellow unpublished writers can read it and hope (or weep, whichever the case may be).

Monday, 2 May 2005

What Editors Really Mean When They Say ..

We all read what we like into our rejection letters. Asked whether editors really say what they mean in rejection letters, Rachel Wade, senior editor at Hodder Children's Books, says. “If an editor obviously has engaged with the book and says that she liked it, it means they liked your book but it wasn’t good enough. Some of the time it isn’t a problem with the editor not liking it, it is a problem with the writing.”

Thing is, she adds, “Editors are very nice people, they don’t like to hurt your feelings.”

So what do those rejection letters really, really mean? Here is my guide to reading rejection letters that should have all wannabee children’s authors reaching for their rejection file.

“Unfortunately, I think that it is not suitable for our list”

“I really didn’t like your story, but I’m too nice to tell you so.”

“I really enjoyed your book, but it is not suitable for our list”

“Honest, I did enjoy the book. But it will need so much editing it would be uneconomic for me to take it on.”

“I suggest that you might have more joy with another editor with wider criteria/larger lists/anthologies ”

“Another editor may take you on, but you need to research the market better.”

“There are many sources of information about children’s writing such as the Society for Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators”

“You’ve got a long way to go, baby.”

“I would suggest that you get yourself an agent.”

“. . . because you may have talent but you haven’t got a clue about the market.”

“An agent would give you more detailed advice than a publisher can.”

“And then you could stop wasting my time, asking for advice.”

“Your book was a great read but it lacked the extra ‘edge’.”

“We loved it but we can’t sell it.”

Published in the Spring 2005 edition of Words & Pictures, the journal of the Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators, British Isles Region

No More Mrs Slushpile

Rachel Wade of Hodder
Editor Rachel Wade explains to the SCBWI Professional Series in London how the editor-author relationship is slowly changing as publishers close down their slush piles. Published in the Spring 2005 edition of Words & Pictures, the journal of SCBWI, British Isles Region. The SCBWI professional series is a series of talks by professionals in the children's publishing industry given to small groups of SCBWI members. Please refer to the SCBWI British Isles website for more information

So here is why Rachel Wade (and a gazillion other children’s editors) no longer accept unsolicited manuscripts: Of the 3,000 that landed on Hodder’s slush pile in the past two years, only two made it to print. That means she and other Hodder editors have had to plough through 2,998 manuscripts before finding these nuggets. Which, really, in the bustling world of children’s book publishing, is not a very good use of time.

“Most major publishers are not reading unsolicited manuscripts now,” Rachel told the small group of SCBWI members who came to hear her speak last March at one of SCBWI’s ‘professional series’ events. “We (Hodder) were getting 1,500 manuscripts a year and the sheer amount of time it took to read them purposefully did not pay off.”

Rachel is Senior Editor of Hodder Children’s Books. Her youthful demeanour – she is 27 – is belied by years of experience and a redoubtable knowledge of the publishing industry. Indeed, this year, she was awarded Highly Commended honours by the Branford Boase Award for editing Fish by first time author Lauren Matthews, a journey story about a family of aid-workers fleeing drought and war, all the while toting a fish whose shaky grip on survival echoes their own.

Rachel’s advice is to find an agent. “The truth is that the agency is the first place to go. If you do get taken by an agent you will get read by editors!”

Smaller lists, bigger sales

Not only are editors no longer reading their slush piles, they are taking on less writers overall, says Rachel. “Over the last two or three years, Hodder has decreased its list. I don’t think any publishers ever pubolished anything they didn’t think was good, but we are taking more of the cream. And I think that is the case throughout the industry.”

The upshot is that “you have to find the publisher that’s looking for the sort of book you’re writing.”

This may sound like bad news to the unpublished author, but Rachel insists that there is a silver lining to this cloud. “We may have a smaller list but we are selling more books,” she says. “So the people who are getting published are setting up a lifetime of sales and getting their books into children’s hands.”

Being more selective has its benefits. “Author care and communication has improved,” Rachel says. “If I am thinking of taking on a new author, I can absolutely keep in touch at every stage of the process. From an editor’s perspective, I would certainly prefer to take on fewer authors and publish them more sucessfully.”

J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter has changed everything. “Harry Potter has done a lot to raise the profile of children’s books,” she says. “There is more review space in the broadsheets; more children’s book awards; and bigger advances.”

The author-editor relationship

If getting read is the newbie writer’s first hurdle, finding an editor who loves your book is the second. “Part of the battle,” says Rachel, “is finding an editor who is partial to your writing. Getting an editor to love your work is the biggest part of the battle because what the editor does is become an advocate of your work with the publishing company.”

This is what “fitting the list” really means, that frustrating phrase so many of us see in the rejection letters that come our way. If your book fits into the list, it means the editor “loves it and has transmitted that enthusiasm to others,” Rachel explains.

First, says Rachel, there is an editorial meeting at which the editor waxes lyrical about his or her find. And then there is the acquisition meeting, at which the editor has to convince the sales force and marketing people that this great book has commercial possibilities. “At this stage, this is not only about loving the book but about whether the others think the book will stand out in a crowd,” says Rachel.

The perils of retail

The final stage is completely out of the editor’s hands. It’s all about selling – whether the retail outlets can persuade the public to buy your book. The bad news is that the big book chains have been centralising the ordering of books, which means that there are one or two people deciding for the chain store which books children will read all over the country, according to Rachel.

The good news is that technology is such that jackets and titles look terrific – which is “absolutely vital” to sales. “There is a lot of innovation in this area with cover finishes using gold and foil such as the Artemus Fowl and Molly Moon books.” But at the end of the day, there is only so much glitter one can add to a book cover to entice young readers.

Authors and editors also enjoy a better relationship. “The relationship between author and editor is crucial in that editors are the ones who can champion the book throughout its development,” says Rachel. “A shared passion for the book and writing is fundamental. And everything else will follow from there.”

What do editors want to read? “The question has no answer,” says Rachel, “because if I knew what I wanted I would have asked someone to write it for me.” Certainly, the ‘high concept’ books are the easiest to sell. There are “special” authors too, like David Almond – who won both the Carnegie medal and Whitbread award for his debut novel Skellig – who don’t fit into the mould.

Is originality what everyone is looking for? Not entirely, says Rachel. “Originality is something we have been looking for but there are an awful lot of books out there that are not original. When you think about Harry Potter and the plot and character’s similarities to other books, you realise that for a 10 year old, originality is meaningless because a child has no experience of originality.”

What do other people have to say? Rachel has this advice for writers who have finished their YA manuscripts: “Give your manuscript to as many 10- to 12-year-old kids as you can find – they will be outspoken which can be painful but good for the book.” Hodder runs a children’s reading group from a secondary school in London, to get immediate feedback about a title at manuscript level. They have been surprised and delighted by the candid and honest criticism from the teenagers.

No unsolicited manuscripts

We can expect no change to the no unsolicited manuscripts policy at Hodder Children’s Books. But at the end of the talk, Rachel willingly handed out her business card out to the writers in attendance.

Rachel may not accept unsolicited manuscripts, but she says she would read submissions from people who attended the Professional Series event. If you enclose a letter and three chapters of the book, she promises to read it (No query letters please – these are an American idea and add an extra layer of administration). So wannabe authors take note: even if Hodder says no unsolicited manuscripts, Rachel reads all manuscripts addressed directly to her and marked “SCBWI Member”.

But do her a favour. When you finish your manuscript, put it away for a time, to give yourself some distance from it. Then, when you next retrieve it, make sure you get a small army of people to critique it – an army not limited to your best friend and closest relatives who would have nothing but praise. And then grow some thick skin – you’re going to need it to survive the coming assault on your book by editors and agents to whom your masterpiece is just one amongst hundreds.

And then, if having endured the slings and arrows of outrageous critiquing, you still want to submit your manuscript to a publisher, Rachel says, “Consider this: it is really important not to forget that you have something that the editors don’t have, that the publisher wants and needs, and that the public would go to great lengths to buy. You are an author.”

So, there is hope yet folks. Until, that is, she actually gets round to reading those chapters.

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