Thursday, 3 July 2008

Can Writers Compete With Focus Groups?

I attended a British SCBWI meeting yesterday, planning our conference in November. We met in Waterstones, Picadilly - you know the massive one, several stories high, with a Costa in the basement and a restaurant at the top? I'd never been there before, it was HUGE.

Of course it had all the de rigeur big comfy sofas and reading corners that are usual for bookseller chains these days.

So when Costa threw us out at closing time, where did we choose to hold our meeting?

In the children's book department.

It's surprisingly comfortable holding an hour long meeting on tiny kindergarten sized chairs. It didn't even occur to us to go for the reading tables in the adult section. Talk about obsessed with children's books.

When I think about it though, this is why I joined SCBWI.

I was determined to think, live and breath children's books in my quest for publication. SCBWI lets me do that, giving me access to learning the craft, meeting the people that matter, and befriending like-minded souls which in turn feeds into taking me to the next level and the next and the next (I hope, I hope).

As I often say to my writing friends, SCBWI has saved me a lot of time.

A bit like hot-housing really.

Which brings me to the story of Hothouse - a "book-by-focus group" business that seeks to save publishers the bother of reading slush piles:
Hothouse uses a market research company to put story ideas to children, who are observed from behind a one-way mirror. Using dummy covers, short excerpts and blurbs to prompt conversation, researchers ask the children their opinions on which characters, plots and ideas they enjoy most. Each child is also visited at home by a researcher, who finds out what kind of books they already own and read. Drawing on this research, Hothouse commissions a team of writers accordingly. Read more in Painting by Numbers, The Guardian
They haven't done badly either. Their first offering, Darkside by Tom Becker, won the Waterstone's Prize for children's fiction and the Calderdale Children's Book Prize.

So fellow, garret dwellers, I ask you: is this our new competition?

The concept behind Hothouse is similar to that of Working Partners, sponsors of our recent Undiscovered Voices anthology. It's a system that works well in other media, notably film development.

It is hard to say whether this is ultimately a bad thing or a good thing for children's publishing.

On the one hand, publishers struggling with an ever tougher market get more bang for their buck and must feel more secure producing pre-tested books. Writers who are struggling to get published can get experience and kudos by writing-for-hire, for companies like Hothouse and Working Partners. And publishers groaning under the weight of unread slushpiles can relax a bit. I met a publisher the other day who said she has only ever published one book out of six years of reading her slush pile - it's not the part of the job she likes.

So: a good thing for publishers.

But certainly not a good thing for writers on the slush pile. And where's the art in a focus group?

What can we on the slush pile do in the face of such formidable competition?

Instead of gnashing our teeth about this new reality, I guess we just have to be tougher, better and more well-informed about the business.

Join SCBWI, learn the craft, meet the people. Write the thing and write it well. When you've written it, make it better by joining critique groups etc etc.

And you can take a cue from Hothouse's own business plan. They create books out of focus books? Fine. Go get your own focus group.

I am reading my book Ugly City to a group of Year Fives every Wednesday for half an hour. It's a rewarding experience. They gasp when exciting things happen, they jump when something startles them, their jaws drop with every revelation - AND you very quickly learn to skip the bits where you might lose them. And last week when half the class missed my reading because of some other activitiy, I had to come in and do extra time because they wanted to know what happened next.

What can kids teach us about our books?
Reg Wright, CEO of Hothouse, points out that one of the great advantages of listening to young readers is that they have a surprisingly good feel for where a story should go. "We've had children come up with great ideas for plots," he says. "They may not be sophisticated, but they'll make it their own. Our job, in the end, isn't to implement what they say, but to interpret what they want."

Having written this, I looked back at the quote again about our job being to interpret what children want. We-ell. Sometimes what is fabulous about a book is when it is something you had no idea you wanted ... something fresh and new and completely out of the blue. Just saying.


  1. Ha ha... can I nick that photo for my blog? (I'd be sure to link you!)

    Too funny.

  2. A restaurant? Now it makes much more sense that someone I know said they had lunch in Waterstones. I thought maybe they meant next door, or something.

  3. i was told there was a champagne bar - and apparently a huge selection of world beers. but by the end of the meeting (which added up to more than 3 hours)i was too exhausted to check it out!

  4. Ooh, can't wait to get over and join in all the fun! But I'm less sure about the paint by numbers though. The marketer in me thinks it's a masterplan, the creative in me wants to throw a computer at someone!
    Interesting stuff.

  5. Sometimes I read childrens books and think, ' This is a book adults would LIKE children to like but no self-respecting child would touch it!'

    I suppose the focus group idea gets around that. My only worry would be that things might become a bit derivative? And which kids are focusing? a cross section or a select bunch of kids?

  6. One things's for sure - children will offer honest comments. I've asked my children's school, where I do a creative writing club, if I can test my book out on them. If they throw rubbers at me then at least I know I've got some more work to do!!!!

    I want to live in that Waterstones!!! Now all I need is for them to add a hotel to their list of facilities.......

    Kat :-)

  7. As someone who's done her fair share of work in a Nursery I can testify to how comfy a toddler size chair is (and infinitely more comfortable than the floor where circulation gets cut off to feet and bottoms). looks like a fun meeting.

    I think the input of kids is invaluable but I also think that they can often re-hash plots that they've been fed before. I think more than anything kids like the unexpected. There's a lot to be said for 'be original and write well'.


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