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.
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.