Wednesday, 6 February 2013

We children's authors are a supportive bunch, cheering each other on through gritted teeth

By Candy Gourlay

Hilary Mantel (Photo: Harper Collins)
Go, Hilary!

After winning the Booker Prize a second time (with the second book of her trilogy), Hilary Mantel also grabbed the Costa Prize. £30,000 prize money. Blimey.

Sally Gardner of course won the Children's Costa for Maggot Moon.

Go, Sally !

Mantel's historic win brought back fond memories of the children's book industry's own double winner earlier this year - A Monster Calls.

Patrick Ness won the Carnegie Medal for writing it and illustrator Jim Kay won the Greenaway for his evocative illustrations (you may view his sketches on my other blog).

(It was Patrick's second Carnegie, after winning for the third book of his thrice nominated Chaos Walking Trilogy)

Patrick Ness (Photo: Candy Gourlay)
Go, Patrick! Go, Jim!

We children's authors are a generous bunch, cheering each other on (even through our clenched teeth).

Secret resentment? Whatever do you mean?

Seriously though it ain't easy watching the fabulous successes of others. As Celia Rees said at the SCBWI conference last year, a writing career is like Edmund's craving for turkish delight. Having had a taste of the glory of being published, you just can't help wanting MORE.

Celia's words come to me whenever I visit schools and hear children (who've never heard of my book) wax lyrical over Harry Potter, I just have to forgive JK for being the superstar that she is. You rock their world, JK and that's cool.

There is a bit of resentment too for those among us who bypass the curation of traditional publishers (read: self publish) and then do astonishingly well. Such as Amanda Hocking.

Amanda Hocking (Photo: Amazon)
I have a lot of sympathy for the author of young adult fiction and paranormal romance who self published after suffering rejections for all 17 of her novels.

Boy, did the publishers change their tune when they discovered that her books were ker-chinging off Amazon tills faster than it had ever taken them to fire off a form rejection.

(I've read Switched -  Amanda's troll book - loved the scene when the young troll people watch Lord of the Rings for laughs)

Amanda's (and others) success has made it harder for the sneerers to sneer at self-publishing.

Some multi-published authors, fed up with neglect and the industry's bottom-line obsessiveness, have rejected traditional publishing entirely and opted to go it alone. Read Diana Kimpton's piece on why she decided to self publish despite being the author of 40 books.

(With respect though, some authors are not great at judging whether their manuscripts are good enough to be seen by the outside world - read Amazon isn't Ebay )

And yet after a bidding war, Amanda herself seemed enormously happy that she's finally signed with a traditional publisher. Speaking on Open Book, she sounded positively relieved.

"I find editing much more relaxing and easier with a publisher. I stressed out about it when I did it myself and editing was a never-ending process ... there's so much work involved in self publishing that isn't about writing a book. I'd get stuck trying to make sure that the margins were right on the pages. Every now and then there would be a glitch that would take up hours and hours of me tediously trying to figure it out. I like it better now where they just send me stuff and I approve it - or don't."
(yup, I've been listening to podcasts again - this one was Open Book: Literary Trends of 2012)

With some self published authors raking it in, publishers might be a little bit confused.

Look at indy author Hugh Howey whose book Wool was taking US$150,000 a month on Amazon. When publishers finally sat up and took notice, Howey refused to sell digital rights ... and was clearly the winner after agreeing a seven figure deal with Simon and Schuster for print rights only.

Such success has led to "a slight loss of confidence",  says Philip Jones, managing editor of the Bookseller.
"Publishers are curators they need to pick the winners and the best books and when Amazon is banging you over the head telling you that you got your decisions wrong, that books you spurned are selling in their hundreds of thousands, then that's going to knock your self worth."

The Open Book podcast came to the conclusion that even if it brings a lot of crap into the market, self publishing's pace, diversity and entreprenuerial verve is good for the publishing industry, if a bit of a wake up call.

The key, says Jones, is for publishers to realize they are in a service industry. "That they have to treat authors better ... and offer a range of services - not just publication into a vacuum as has sometimes happened in the past."

(I can see all those authors who want their publishers to supply free posters and bookmarks and travel budget nodding eagerly)

Jones' fellow guest, James Runcie, head of Literature and the Spoken Word at the Southbank Centre, was hugely optimistic.
"We sometimes despair about the dumbing down of our culture but actually the book is remarkably resilient ... there were a lot of fantastic books published in 2012 ... to think that it's all celebrity memoirs and 50 Shades of Gray is a mistake because there's a lot of really good work out there."


  1. Fascinating post. It has made me think a lot and I still know that I am not confident enough to self publish. I need that publisher to validate my writing. I think that says more about me than anything else though.

    1. Tis true ... but so much also depends on writing the right book at the right time. How many rejections have you had saying it's not right for their list? I was chatting to an editor friend the other day about a book we both loved which editor friend sadly passed on. The reason? It really wasn't right for their list because it was too similar to a book they'd only just signed.

    2. I've had the 'not right for our list' line quite a few times in the past - then after the fact once met one of the editors who told me just what you said (it resembled the work of another author so they couldn't do it). So perhaps not just a line all the time!

  2. Fab post - I recall very clearly Greg Mosse telling all of us Creative Writing MA graduates to remember that the industry needs US - not the other way round. As for the gritted teeth bit - oh yeah! It makes me reluctant to say too much about any good news, though.

    1. The good news with this expanding digital world is now more than ever there's a huge need for storytellers.

  3. I have argued often for publishers to work better with their authors, in partnership, not with the publisher occasionally patting the author on the head and saying "Run along now." I've done some self-publishing and it brings me a nice/modest regular income but it has stopped me writing because the publishing/distributing/selling side is so time-consuming. And that has taught me more about the task that publishers have. So, I don't want to self-publish again - though I will if I have an idea that would only work that way - I want to work with a wonderful publisher. And I'm delighted and impressed with what Walker Books have up their sleeve for a new edition of Blame My Brain - which is very much not a new book. It's worth saying that a lot of what they are doing for it I could not do, not even if I had more time. So, when publishers get it right they are where I want to be. Oh, and I definitely cheer the success of others - though it's an awful lot easier when the person is nice!

    Apols for the ramble. Great post!

    1. Thanks for the thoughtful ramble. The publishing world is a fascinating mix of the commercial and the sublime ... by definition I guess it's hard to combine doing things for money with doing things for love (something we authors know only too well). When publishers get the balance right it's just magic.

  4. Great post, Candy - interesting and thought-provoking. I know that Nosy Crow have done an infinitely better job than I could ever have done at packaging, marketing, publicising and selling my book. But I'm sure that the more people are talking about books, buying books and reading books, no matter who wrote them or who published them, the better it is for all of us, because it all creates a buzz around books and reading . So yes, I always cheer the success of others.

    (By the way, my children are now the proud owners of Tall Story bookmarks, which we were very excited to find by the till at the Children's Bookshop, Muswell Hill, on Saturday. And very lovely they are too.)

    1. Bookmarks ... which reminds me to have some more made!

    2. Independent publishers like Nosy Crow are quickly building author cred because they appear to have more personal engagement with their authors and look positively fleet of foot next to more corporate publishers!

  5. It's interesting, the idea that publishers are the ones with a self-confidence problem - it turns the usual model on its head! I'm a publisher and a writer - how neurotic does that make me now?!?

    1. Yes! I was surprised too! But it didn't surprise me that much... the changes our industry is going through are seismic. Hugely heartened though by the verdict that a lot of great books are getting published anyway.

    2. I found that interesting too. There's probably been quite a few meetings that have begun with 'Right, guys, Amanda Hocking. Discuss.'

      And Nick - you're doomed.

  6. Lets cheer their success as without the best sellers there won't be any bookshops to sell in
    And then what?
    Cheery thought for the day


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