Beverley Birch is friend and mentor to many slushpilers and published authors alike. Beverley is a senior commissioning editor for Hachette Children's Books and three times nominated Brandford Boase editor. She is a writer of more than 40 books including novels, picture books, biographies and retellings of classic works. Her novel, 'Rift' came out in 2006 and you know you are in the hands of a true storyteller when you read the very first page.
I’m often asked what I think of the ‘state of publishing’. It all depends on whose prism I’m peering through. More than ever publishing seems divided into the pessimistic and the optimistic - gloom and a mourning of lost times on the one hand, promise and widening opportunity – e-technology and the ease of linking with readers through social media – on the other.
The view from my desk is coloured by the fact that the editorial and commissioning landscape is by its nature long-term – the book I acquire now will reach its readers in a year or more. The first-time writer I begin to support now will reach their writing maturity after several books – and not necessarily in one judged commercially successful, though it may be wonderful for a reader.
Other sectors of publishing – sales including international rights sales, marketing, publicity, are dealing with the finished object and its immediate reception in bookshops, libraries and partner publishers, by reviewers and readers. It’s a capricious landscape seamed with successes and failures of the moment.
|publishing - a tricky path to navigate|
|talking of lost tales...|
So, firstly, the bleak bit:
And that’s about how incredibly difficult it is, and getting worse, to get a book – however good, however much everyone believes in it – through to its readers. A whole host of hurdles are in the way – conditioned not by the content or quality of the book, but by the economic models and sales targets of publishing and bookselling of today. It has of course always been like that, but the goalposts for any one individual book have moved. Manuscripts at acquisition are judged by whether they are likely to ‘pay for themselves ‘- achieve individual sales targets that justify publishing them, and then by whether they have – in those terms – succeeded or not. There is little room for the book predicted to have modest sales, but which simply deserves to be published because it is so good – and fighting for that kind of book can be dispiriting.
There’s nothing new in the fact that a story requiring sustained commitment from a young reader, yet rewarding and enriching if the reader sticks with it – will not sell as many as one that offers instant gratification and can be swiftly enjoyed by the less committed youngster.
Does that mean that the first book should not be published? Sadly, the answer is that these days it usually won’t be – because it won’t (defined by target sales) ‘work’ for the publisher. Yet authors (and editors) who have contact with youngsters in reading groups at school and library know that readers of book A exist: they’re borrowers not necessarily buyers – an impossible conundrum for publishers facing a library and school sector turning away from investment in books. Yet the readers are there and, if given access to forums or to authors, will discuss books enthusiastically and intelligently, reflecting their hunger for them.
Long gone are the days when the sure-fire commercial big-hitters supported the commissioning of books we just loved and felt should be made available to young readers, but which would always net a smaller readership.
The questions now are: will the book/author be promoted by the major high street booksellers, by supermarkets, is the ‘the hook’ good enough? Windows of opportunity flung open initially in the high street get slammed shut in the blink of an eye if a book doesn’t achieve early recognition – no time for its readership to grow. Survival of books (publication, then maintenance in print) is skewed by raw sales results.
|sales results don't tell the whole story|
Though ebooks is changing that, allowing books to remain available well beyond a print life – that is part of the optimistic view. Add affordable Print-on-demand, into the mix – and it’s the best of both worlds.
And what about the chance for authors to reach out to their readership unhindered by their relative importance or unimportance in their publishers marketing and publicity priorities – the freedoms social networks offer to authors large and small in profile. It’s an inevitable fact that publishers can only focus on publication – and then they move on to the books in the next publication round. In very real ways, the author can support now through the entire life of a book – and keep it alive, keep readers interested in it. That’s most definitely good ….
|Juliet Clare Bell with a happy audience for 'Don't Panic, Annika!'|
And children are reading, are reflecting their interest in story and story-making (ShoutAbout! online creative writing magazine very recently launched by CWISL – Children’s Writers and Illustrators in South London, has had a steady building of young visitors to the site and submission of new work by them.) And that’s one initiative among many providing evidence that kids are interested in story, in creativity, in story-making – a powerful route to literacy, and reading.
And there are some brilliant books being published, from fine established writers and debut authors alike. When you take the long view – and to borrow from Julia Eccleshare when she introduced the Branford Boase Award in 2011 – if that shortlist was anything to go by, writing and publishing for children is actually in very good shape. And that reflects that everywhere there are writers writing and editors supporting books they love, regardless of how hard it is. We don’t give up, do we?