Friday 19 November 2004

What JK Rowling did (and didn't do) for us

Literary agent Rosemary Canter reports that JK Rowling has not catapulted children’s writing into the big time – yet.

From a talk at the SCBWI conference “Oceans Apart, United by Story” on 4-6 July 2003, in Madrid, Spain

Aspiring writers who think JK Rowling has opened the doors of the children’s book world to the big league should take a cold shower. The blip in children’s book sales is totally Harry Potter’s fault, reports Rosemary Canter. “(The sales figures) don’t necessarily mean that the market is expanding, though there is a hope that Harry Potter will make people buy more books.”

In truth, when you take Harry Potter out of the equation, you might even find that sales are down.

For the writer who has yet to invent the latest blockbuster, it is going to be the usual slog. Canter quotes Jacklyn Wilson, the prolific author of the Tracy Beaker books which have been adapted for television: “It took me 20 years to become an overnight success.”

The fact is, most authors can only expect advances of £1,500 to £3,000. “The only way to survive is quantity – except for licensing possibilities, there is no money to be made,” says Canter, “I deal with endless contracts for tiny amounts of money. I was not the most popular person in my agency.”

That’s the bad news.

The good news is that JK Rowling, though failing to bring plenty to aspiring children’s authors, has at least won some prestige for our industry.

“In 1997, children’s fiction was a publishing backwater – the sums of money to be made were not sexy,” says Canter. “And now our tiny world has been shaken awake!”

With the advent of Rowling, and the success of authors such as Garth Nix, Jonathan Stroud and Ian Hearn, “there are now serious financial expectations for the children’s department”, says Canter. Rowling has led the way to a sea change in the children’s book industry:

  • For the first time, good writers can command reasonable advances – instead of £3,000, a writer might get £5,000
  • There has been an explosion of formidable writing talent
  • Almost no editor in the world would dare to say they don’t like fantasy!

In an interview with SCBWI’s Bridget Strevens Marzo, Canter said: “I’ve been working in the children's book world for 24 years now, and I think this is the most exciting of times. Children’s writers have a higher status now, perhaps higher than they have ever had, and the real possibility of earning a good living. Historical fiction and fantasy are, once again, hugely popular, and there is a glorious vitality about fiction overall . . . it’s a wonderful time to be involved.”

Canter has this advice for aspiring writers for children:

  • Be clear about what your talent is. Don’t confuse the issue by showing a different area of your work
  • Copious amounts of research will stand you well – not for your manuscript, but on publishers who might buy your work. “Study the publishers’ catalogues closely”
  • Target a market.
  • A good title goes a long way
  • A good letter will show your personality, wit, style, lyricism – “I’d like to give one piece of advice to writers looking for an agent: the letter you send is also a piece of writing”.
  • Review and revise your manuscript before sending anything to an editor. “Authors need to make the best first impression possible.”

"I am always, always looking for new talent," Rosemary says. "Finding it is one of the most seductive aspects of a fascinating job."

Rosemary says she is always open to queries by mail rather than by email or phone. "I enjoy the many facets of being an agent. I like to help writers develop saleable material for publishers, but not get further involved in the editorial process. I think it's my job to be a businesswoman:to get the best possible deals and contracts for my clients, to help with legal advice, where necessary, to give strategic advice on careers, and to make suggestions on individual projects ." She was an editor for 17 years until she was offered the opportunity to build up a list of children's writers and illustrators for PFD, one of Europe's leading literary and talent agencies. Submission guidelines are posted on the website.


  1. Ho wfab to read this with 10 + years perspective! Wonderful :)

    1. Thanks, Kathy! In fact the advances did go up didn't they? Though I think they are on a downward trend again. Rosemary rejected me several times very kindly. But she always took time to give me advice.


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