Your intrepid Notes from the Slushpile reporter managed to get herself invited to speak at the Asian Festival of Children’s Content – which was a combination of children’s literary festival, book fair, and a SCBWI Conference. This is the first of hopefully several exhausted ... er ... exhaustive reports. With many thanks to the amazing organizers of an amazing Festival – and to the editors for so generously sharing their stories and allowing us to badger them with questions.You’ve got to congratulate the organizers of the AFCC. There on one panel, an editor from the house of Twilight and an editor from the house of Harry Potter. Please salivate quietly, everyone.
The title of the panel was Turning a Manuscript into a Bestseller. What, in fact, is a bestseller?
In the United States, a book is a bestseller if it sells 50,000 within the first six months. In the UK, it’s a bit more demure – five thousand is a bestseller.
I joked that we authors ought to be given a guarantee of best-sellerdom by panel’s end (AFCC organizers, a good idea, yes?).
|Alvina Ling, Little Brown|
I’ve never aspired to publish bestsellers –but I have aspired to publish award winners that then BECOME bestsellers. Something literary doesn’t preclude it from being mass market!
Alvina confessed that she was a sucker for “books that make me cry” and a sucker for books that “feel like they are important”.
The other editor was Sarah Odedina, who I first began stalking (with difficulty because she was invisible on the internet) after I was wowed by Witch Child by Celia Rees which Sarah edited for Bloomsbury.
|Sarah Odedina, Hot Key Books|
‘I saw it (Harry Potter) go from a very small acquisition to the acquisition of the last book which was big ,’ Sarah said.
It was at about the fourth book that embargoes started to turn up in Harry Potter’s marketing plan. The viral word of mouth (before the world viral included Twitter campaigns) was a triumph of “author-led” publishing over “marketing-led” publishing.
Author-led? But what does author-led mean?
An author-led book is a unique idea that comes from one individual’s imagination – in Sarah’s words: “a book that only that author could have written; a book that someone’s got the burning desire to write.”
As opposed to say, a series put together in “a mathematical way” – like the (often times highly successful ) stuff coming out of packagers (examples: Beast Quest and Flower Fairies.
Adding this video of Sarah O giving an interview on Singaporean TV about what makes a bestseller - full of nuggets (I don't know how I missed this!):
Sarah used the words “author-led” and “author-driven” a lot throughout the conversation – which gave some of the slushpile strugglers in the audience a warm glow in the tummy.
Hot Key Books, an imprint of Bonnier, the Swedish [not French as earlier mistakenly reported] publishing house (DING DING! They take unagented submissions ... for now).
Sarah looked positively wistful when she said:
Twenty years ago you could rely on books to become bestsellers without aggressive marketing.
But now, increased market pressures mean an “accelerated rate of success or failure” for acquisitions. That accelerated rate of failure means that publishers can no longer be expected to grow an author’s career whether or not the author was making money.
Here’s a painful question: how many years can an author reasonably expect a publishing house to stick by them?
Some houses will give an author up to four years. Some, just two. All together now – WAAAH!
Publishing houses often lose their nerve ... if authors haven’t got to a certain point, it can be hard to stick by them.
At one point, while discussing acquisition meetings, Sarah said: “We don’t have leads or super-leads.”
Eh? Leads and Super-leads?
We asked the editors to explain, and the following is me paraphrasing their careful responses ... in my own words ... through gritted teeth:
At acquisition, publishers have to make a decision which titles they are prepared to throw some marketing money behind, and which ones they ... well let’s just say, you know you’re not a lead or super lead when you ask your publisher for bookmarks and they say no.
In the US, a bestseller is properly a bestseller when it appears on the New York Times Bestseller List (see them here). Though, says Alvina, the list is determined “by a secret formula that only the New York Times knows”.
Publishers do have a vague idea which bookstores report to the New York Times ... but without a network of spies, there’s little the publishers can do to figure out how to influence the New York Times lists (this is me speaking, not Alvina, in case you NYT people think Little Brown might be in the business of recruiting former Cold War spies).
The two editors put together a list of factors that might influence the best-sellerdom of a book:
1. In the United States – a book tour that brings the author to the attention of stores that might be key to appearing on the NYT Bestseller List.
2. Media – appearances on influential programmes – such as the Today Show, Letterman, Oprah (okay, enough teeth gnashing over there)
3. Placement in Bookstores – if Barns and Noble don’t take your book, expect a swift plummet to obscurity.
4. Word of Mouth – Bloggers have become sooooo important – the “playground” is literally worldwide. In the UK (Gnash! Gnash!) children’s books are reviewed only sparsely so I suppose that means we might as well start schmoozing book bloggers now. And what about the many aspiring authors who are book bloggers? Does that mean they have to schmooze themselves?
6. Because of the dearth of children’s book reviews in the UK, authors must put themselves out there by doing events and school visits. If an author doesn’t do the time on the road, “it’s a real handicap to sales”.
But ultimately, how do you write a bestseller?
The editors look at us with question marks for eyes. Here’s what they said:
You never know which book will become a bestseller.
“Publishing is a passionate industry,” Alvina said, editors have to really care about a book before they acquire it. But what makes a book click into bestseller mode is a mystery – it might not sell in the numbers an editor thought it would, no matter how much she loved it and rejacketed it and promoted it and rejacketed it again ...
So confession time. Have you ever passed on a manuscript that turned out to be a bestseller?
Alvina: “I turned down Diary of a Wimpy Kid. It just wasn’t my thing – I like literary books.” She was also swayed by the fact that Penguin had passed on it previously on the basis that the author had already posted the first book online.
As for Sarah: “I passed on The Book Thief. I thought it was boring.”
Oh. My. God.
Little Brown only accept agented manuscripts – Alvina: “Just to give you an idea, I run through fifty to 100 (agented) manuscripts a week that we take seriously”. Hot Key Books, as the new House on the block, currently accepts both unsolicited and agented submissions. Sarah: “But in five years time we may review our submissions policy.”
[You can stalk Alvina Ling on her Bloomabilities blog, and Sarah Odedina on the Hot Key Blog]
The Asian Festival of Children’s Content 2012 was held from 25 May to 30 May 2012. It was attended by delegates from all over Asia and included a primary and preschool teacher's congress, a parent's forum, a media summit and a SCBWI conference.
Stories from the Asian Festival of Children's Content