Monday, 4 November 2019

Telling Tales after the SCBWI Winchester conference

Telling Tales after the SCBWI Winchester conference by Addy Farmer 

By the time you read this the SCBWI conference in Winchester, will have finished. Delegates will be making their way home brimful of inspiration, topped up with tantalising ways to take their work to market and made up with new and renewed friendships. What a thing it will have been.

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conference past - that's me on the right holding an invisible glass
And I won't have been there. Which makes me sad but not broken because I'm on holiday in sunny Orkney (hem-hem). 

I have been to many conferences. I missed the first ever but managed the second one with the huggable David Almond as the keynote. I went to all of them after that because they are good for you in all manner of ways from meeting to greeting to giving and receiving and that most precious of wonders - people who get you.

Okay, terrible blurry photo of people who get me or at least, put up with me
I think I went fairly quickly from attending to volunteering. I sold badges (great way to start) and then took over the -1-2-1s from the irreplaceable Sue Hyams. Later, I was 1-2-1 assistant to my great pal, Liz Miller and now I pull together the Cyrstal Kite video. My point is ... your involvement pays back in more skillage, more knowledge and more good vibes and who knows what else ... 

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N.B. Contract not guaranteed, contract not guaranteed
I loved seeing my friends. Sometimes Winchester is the only time to meet up again. Everytime I go to Winchester, I remember Margaret Carey and Sue Hyams. I remember the dinners. So many dinners. The legendary cakes ...

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eaten but not forgotten
The Strictly parties in Teri's room. Perhaps draw a discreet veil over those.

Giving Malorie Blackman a lift from the station - yes, it happened here. Being part of the Mass Book Launch, hearing amazing news from your mates which makes you tear up with happiness, it all happens.  So, I hope those who went had an awesome time and for those who couldn't make it, go next year. I am. And for those post conference blues ...
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Carry on your inspiration from the conference with this very interesting programme on Radio 4 - a rather wonderful radio analysis of countryside folk stories. Documentary maker Simon Hollis explores the darker underside of the pastoral idyll and the traditions of Folk Horror being revived by a new generation of writers.
Fear in the Furrows

And finally, here's to Matt Killeen and his Crystal Kite winning story, ORPHAN, MONSTER, SPY. Check out his story and the shortlisted folk in the video here

Friday, 4 October 2019

Shopping for Comparisons - An Author and Agent Discuss Comp Titles

By Nick Cross and Heather Cashman

Nick says:
Hello! In what may be a dangerous experiment to test the limits of our professional relationship, I am joined for this blog post by my agent, Heather Cashman from Storm Literary Agency.

Heather says:
Thank you for including me in your post, Nick! I’m 98.2% sure we can survive this ;-)

When it comes to comp titles (as with many things in publishing), no-one seems to quite agree about what the name stands for. Some say comp means “comparison,” others say “comparative” or “competitive.” But whatever the name means, they can broadly be defined as follows:
Comp titles are existing books - published in the last five years - which you are comparing your own work against. Such comps are used throughout the publishing process, for pitching to agents, publishers, booksellers, and eventually to the book-buying public.

Just a quick note that this post is going to talk about fiction titles – the process for non-fiction is slightly different and may involve more detailed analysis of comp titles in your book proposal. There is also a difference in terminology between the UK and US. In the UK we talk about submitting to an agent, in the US it's called querying an agent. UK people write a covering letter to accompany a submission, whereas US folk write a query letter. For the sake of clarity (and because Heather is American), we’re going to use the US terminology in this post.

Heather and I have been working on comp titles for my illustrated YA novel Riot Boyyy, which is about to go on submission (look out for it, publishers!) This has been a complex process, and I must admit to not totally understanding comp titles in the past, or why they're important to publishing folk. I figure that if I didn't know, then there must be quite a few of you in the same boat!

Heather, can you tell us why comp titles are so useful for agents and publishers?

Sure! So, comparative titles are really useful for a lot of reasons. They began originally as part of an editor’s proposal package to their acquisitions board, which comprises other editors, the sales team, and the marketing team (usually). Editors use comparative titles to the manuscript they are trying to acquire, so that sales and marketing can do an appropriate analysis on how well they think the manuscript up for acquisitions is going to sell.

This type of pitch has trickled down from editors to agents and now to authors as they try to get their book noticed.

Comp titles can be useful in other ways as well. When used properly, they can give the agent a sense of the novel. For instance, perhaps something might have the paranormal aspects of The Raven Cycle by Maggie Stiefvater and the complex morality of The Sin Eater’s Daughter by Melinda Salisbury.

When I pitched Riot Boyyy for The Hook at the SCBWI British Isles conference last year, I summed it up as: “The Perks of Being a Wallflower meets Tom Gates at a feminist punk rock concert.” I thought that was pretty clever, but then I did some more research and ended up throwing away the analogy before I sent my submissions to US agents.

What were my reasons for this? Well, The Perks of Being a Wallflower is amazing, but also 20 years old, which doesn't make it a useful comp in the current market. The Tom Gates books are massive in the UK, but don't have the same kind of name recognition in the States.

Crowd photo by Magnus D

Heather, as you mentioned earlier, publishers use comp titles to set expectations for their internal teams and for external booksellers. They’re saying: this existing title sold in a certain way, so we expect this new title to do the same. As an agent pitching to a publisher, are you choosing comp titles for the same reasons?

Not necessarily. While it’s true that I want something to sell well, I’m also looking for a lot more than that. For me, comp titles are as much about setting, character, relationships, themes, influences, and also showing how the book is high concept.

Authors are a step earlier in the process, and they may be using comp titles as part of a query letter to an agent like you. What should they be thinking about when they choose a comp?

If an author is pitching me in a query letter, pitching on twitter, or talking to anyone about their book, comps are a great resource that can get the conversation going quickly and spark immediate interest. In that way, it’s less important if an author uses an older comp or uses movies or television for comparisons. However, if you use more current comp titles, it means to the agent that you’re aware of the current market trends, and that bodes well for the author/agent relationship. Agents appreciate when authors are knowledgeable about the business of publishing.

One caution though, if you’re writing in YA and you use something from twenty years ago, the YA reader of today might not have a clue what you’re talking about.

I located my very first email to you, and it turns out I didn’t quote any comp titles in my query letter. So omitting them is clearly no barrier to success! But could I have strengthened my pitch by including some?

Your book is unique and doesn’t have many comps, which is one of the reasons I loved it so much! That said, I’ve seen amazing comps and then jumped right down to the pages because they peaked my interest so well. So if you can use comparable titles, it can definitely strengthen your pitch.

Harry Potter covers by Scholastic and Bloomsbury

I can imagine that you get a lot of grandiose query letters from authors comparing themselves to Harry Potter or some other megabucks franchise. But what if authors comp themselves to a more niche title that you hadn’t previously heard of? Would you find that intriguing or off-putting?

I do find a lot big-name-$$ titles being comped, and honestly, there’s nothing that sets up an agent's expectations quite like that. It's a big promise you're making as an author. And because (so far) none of them have delivered on that promise of being just like those titles, it’s an even quicker pass.

If I’m not familiar with a comp title, I’ll just read the query. Then if I like the query concept, I’ll read the pages. If the pages stand up, I’ll look up the comp title and see that, oooh, it was published by Aladdin (or some other traditional publisher) and it sold really well and has 2,000 reviews with a 4.0 rating. Wow! I’m interested and would most likely request a full manuscript.

So for me, the main thing for comp titles would be to have a high number of reviews with a good rating from a traditional publishing house, even if it’s a smaller one.

You mentioned that authors querying you don’t always need to comp to books, and could use a TV show or movie if it seems like a better comparison. Can you expand on how that might work in practice?

If you have good comp titles with current books, use those in preference. However, I think TV or movies are fine for query letter comp titles. Not every agent feels the same way, but this is why they occasionally work for me. If it’s a timely show, the markets weave into one another. I also think movie/TV comps are good for giving a sense of the world, the relationships, perhaps a complex character arc, or a variety of other similarities that bring out some major aspect of your manuscript in a few words instead of a paragraph. For instance, if your main character has a negative arc, I might more quickly understand that if you compare him to Walter White (Breaking Bad).

Call that one the Heisenberg principle ;-) So, how long might you typically spend choosing comp titles when submitting a book to a publisher?

Hours. If it’s a highly-unique illustrated book about a certain feminist boy from Tacoma, many, many hours and three major rewrites of the submission letter.

Oops. Sorry about that!

No worries! ;-)

It usually only takes me a few hours, maybe four, to get amazing comparable titles for the books going out on submission. But comparable titles are so important, I’ll do whatever it takes until I get it right. They’re essential to a good letter to editors.

Finally, where do you go to find comp titles? Are you camped out in the children’s section of your local bookstore?

I love the bookstore! But in reality, I go to places where it’s easiest to find books. Publishers Marketplace is my first go-to. I look up books sold within the last few years. Once I have a list from there, I dig deeper by using Google or search Barnes & Noble or Amazon. What I love is that they often give you a whole list at the bottom of books similar to the one you’ve chosen. It’s like a “For fans of...” section. It might be a bit of a cheat, but it still takes a long time.

Heather, thank you so much. We’ve managed to get to the end of this blog post without either of us firing the other one, which has to count as a success!

Absolutely! I’m so happy you asked me to be on your blog. I hope this helped!

Heather Cashman is currently on the look-out for MG and YA submissions, so please send her all your good stuff! You can find her detailed wish list and submission guidelines at her Manuscript Wish List page. You can also find her on Twitter.

Nick Cross is a children's writer/illustrator and Undiscovered Voices winner. He received a SCBWI Magazine Merit Award, for his short story The Last Typewriter.
Nick is also the Blog Network Editor for SCBWI Words & Pictures magazine. His Blog Break column appears fortnightly on W&P.

Heather Cashman is an associate agent with Storm Literary Agency and is based in Kansas, USA.

Heather loves commercial fiction that has a literary flair and inclusive books that bring us together as citizens of the world.

Friday, 6 September 2019

Launching Kitty

On Saturday I was in my favourite book shop, Waterstones Milton Keynes, launching a new series from OUP by myself and Jenny Lovelie. It's a highly illustrated series in two colour for young readers from maybe 5+.

Kitty is a girl with cat-like superpowers and she has to learn to use them wisely. She has heightened senses and great agility, so she runs across the rooftop at night with her cat crew. The first book, Kitty and the Midnight Rescue, sees her rescue a stripy ginger kitten called Pumpkin. In the second book, Kitty and the Tiger Treasure, she solves a mystery when a precious artefact is stolen from the city museum.

As a long-time cat lover, this series has been a joy to write. It was also wonderful to launch it in Waterstones MK as they have been supportive towards me for a really long time and for that I am immensely grateful.

I really hope young readers will love this series. I ran a crafty activity making cat masks (just like Kitty's!) on the day and enjoyed seeing everyone getting very creative.

It was also amazing to have the support of friends. I was so so happy to have a few Slushies and other writer pals there looking suitably cat-like!

My four week old baby mostly slept through proceedings in spite of losing one of her kitten socks. I have a suspicion that a few people may have come to see her as much as me!

The third book, Kitty and the Sky Garden Adventure, will be out next year.

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