Wednesday 19 April 2006

Biggest single co-edition deal signed! Are things looking up for picture books?

This news item in Publishing News, 14 April 2006:

Two weeks after a Bologna Children’s Book Fair at which it looked as if picture books had at last turned a corner, Simon & Schuster UK has confirmed its biggest single co-edition deal ever. Lectorum, part of Scholastic US, has taken 280,000 copies of a bilingual edition of If I Had a Dragon, by newcomers Tom and Amanda Ellery. The deal, negotiated by S&S Children’s Rights Director Alex Maramenides, is one of the largest quantities ever bought by Scholastic as a co-edition. The book will be published in the UK in January 2007.

Can this signal better things for poor benighted picture book writers? Should we all start dusting off all those tear-stained PB manuscripts stuffed into desk drawers and start stending PB texts out again? What do you think?

You can read my report Picture Book Market Warms Up ...

Manga Comic Books on the Rise

Here's an interesting tidbit from Publishing News a propos the rise and rise of graphic novels:

OTTAKAR'S HAS DOUBLED its manga sales in the past month with the Manga Collector’s Club and manga-themed evenings in some of its stores. Loughborough store Manager Melanie Ball told PN: “Manga is doing fantastically well. It’s just been climbing and climbing, and the events also do brilliantly.” The chain’s Fiction Manager Janine Cook added: “It’s looking very good. We’re at least 100% up on the month before. It might be even more, but that’s the minimum impact.”
At the chain’s manga evenings attendees are offered giveaways, discounts, and the chance to watch Japanese anime films. The Manga Collector’s Club allows customers to get a special card stamped every time they buy a title from either Gollancz Manga or Tokyopop, and be given a free manga title once they have three stamps

Sunday 16 April 2006

Illustrator Bridget Strevens-Marzo: Suffering in Translation

“We don’t work out of a vacuum,” writer-illustrator Bridget Strevens-Marzo says. “We are working in culture of the moment in time.” She was speaking to an audience of writers and illustrators in London last September 2005 on the subject of character design.

But which culture?

This is the question that taxes publishers, editors, writers and illustrators of picture books in the increasingly competitive global market of children’s publishing. How does one publish across the world without suffering in translation?

Toto in Paris, Bridget’s first published book, perfectly captures the wonder of discovering another culture.

“I came up with Toto in Paris about a small boy sharing an adventure with a French friend and a runaway dog,” she says in an interview. “When I'd travelled to other countries as a child, I’d remembered the strangeness of small things – peculiar breakfasts, odd coins, different sweets – and I wanted to include these things in the story.”

The diversity of cultural experience is a recurring theme in Bridget’s talks. She herself had an English father and a Spanish mother, and in her childhood had lived in the United States, England, Spain and France, where she now lives and works.

Bridget called her talk ‘Mice, Mothers and Others in Children’s Books – a Long Hard Look at Character in Translation’. Jointly sponsored by the Association of Illustrators and SCBWI British Isles, the talk looked at fashions and conventions and the way faces and figures are depicted in different times and places.

Why do some things travel and others don’t?

“One of my hobbies is to get people 'armchair-travelling' via picture books," she said, before treating the audience to a feast of images from children’s books, criss-crossing the globe – Babar in New York by Laurent de Brunhoff, Eloise in Paris by Kay Thompson, The Jolly Postman by Janet and Allan Ahlberg.

“Within the illustrating world there is an obsessive search for style and yet style is often the bugbear of illustration,” Bridget said. For the children's book illustrator, she said, it is rare that style on its own guarantees a book’s success. Characterization is more important. Focusing on mothers, she demonstrated how different cultures saw women and mothers in particular, in different ways.

How often do you see a woman getting dressed or breast feeding in a children's book? She showed one exception from New York-based illustrator Marc Simont. In The Philharmonic Gets Dressed, he shows women in a variety of comic contortions as they struggle to get into their black evening dresses to perform in a concert. Equally exceptional, though from a more surreal perspective, is an image taken from Maurice Sendak's I Saw Esau (“I one my mother, I two my mother, I three my mother … I ate my mother”). His breastfeeding mother is gradually gobbled up by her fat baby.

Are mothers conditioned by their specific cultural expectations?

“In British books, there seem to be an unusual number of tired, put-upon mothers” Bridget said as we came to an exhausted mother in Bye Bye Baby illustrated by Janet Ahlberg and another in tears in Burningham's Avocado Baby. In contrast, the chirpy and brightly-dressed French mother in Le Pantalon de Gaston by Marie Delafon seems to be having quite a party from her bed with her family. Certainly not tired and in fact downright menacing, is the mother in a modern French picture book classic, Le Chien Bleu by Nadja. She sits in tight-fitting black velvet and high heels on the edge of a bath telling her pleading daughter that she won't allow her to have a dog. Highly acclaimed in France since it came out in 1989, this psycho-charged story with surreal overtones has been published in Spain and Germany but remains unpublished in English.

Different cultures have different attitudes. Mon Amis Crocodile by Fred Bernard is about a shy boy who imagines how his life would improve if he could have a crocodile as a friend to take to school. In one illustration is a woman, incidental to the story, walks past toting a bag made of crocodile skin. “I don’t think a British or American publisher would go for that somehow,” says Bridget.

Bridget attributes the French laissez faire in picture book imagery to its strong children’s publishing market – attributable to the big budgets of its libraries which makes it less dependent on sales in other markets. “Increasingly British publishers have needed to sell elsewhere to survive,” she said. “French publishers don’t see foreign rights to books as a priority.”

Indeed most picture book writers and illustrators working in the UK know the rules of co-edition publishing – no rhyming text for fear that it cannot be translated, no culturally-specific images like red London buses, or black London taxi cabs. A book must be saleable within any cultural context. That's one reason why animal stories in natural habitats are so popular internationally and why Margaret Wild's book Kiss, kiss! which Bridget illustrated for Little Hare, has sold well internationally. “Any child anywhere can identify with the character of little hippo exploring the natural world around him,” says Bridget, “and a hippo mum can be your mum, once you've identified with the main character!”

The brutal fact remains that co-editions (more about co-editions) are where the money is in most children’s markets, and publishers cannot afford to publish books that suffer in translation.

“America, historically an important ally here, has cut back significantly on its UK imports,” explains the Arts Council England, in a consultation paper on children’s literature, “In consequence… for writers and illustrators alike, there is increasing pressure on the possibility of difference and diversity, experimentation and risk.”

Bridget counts herself lucky to be working for American, Australian and French publishers as well as for France’s dynamic children’s press. She works regularly for monthly magazines including Bayard's Pomme d’api.

“In the UK, the few magazines there are seem to be dominated by TV and merchandising,” Bridget said. “But the variety of visual representation, the quality and range of illustrators in French kid's magazines, is remarkable – they use a lot of illustrators from Britain and Spain too. What’s great about magazine work is that you can develop a repertoire with quicker feedback than for book publishers. You can experiment with approaches and have more freedom to develop within different constraints.”

Kiss, kiss! by Margaret Wild, illustrated by Bridget Strevens-Marzo has been published in nine countries and is being re-issued by Little Hare in the UK as a boxed set for Mother's Day 2006. Knock, knock by David Bedford and Bridget Strevens-Marzo was published by Little Hare in 2005. Bridget's latest French book is a colouring book with a difference, Les Petites Mains Dessinent, published by Bayard in March 2006.

What do you think? Is there more to be gained than lost by publishing picture books that do not suffer in translation?

Friday 7 April 2006

The Picture Book Markets Warms Up - as a Buzz Grows Around Another Kind of Picture Book

The picture book market has been tough – as can be attested to by anyone who’s spent the last few years licking stamps and sending off picture book manuscripts only to have them returned to their letterboxes with a thump.

But at the Bologna Children’s Book Fair last month, there was a glimmer of something good about the picture book market.

“Picture Books are doing a little bit better, easing up a little,” Barry Goldblatt told aspiring authors at SCBWI’s Before-Bologna agents panel. (Read Barry's blog).

Now Graham Marks of Publishing News reports (cautiously, I might add) it might be better than a glimmer. If you caught this early you can read the whole report. But since Publishing News wipes its web pages regularly, anyone who catches this too late will be interested in the key passage from Graham’s report:

By Wednesday there was a definite feeling of consensus amongst publishers. It will, of course, take a few more weeks before everything has been sifted to see what gold remains in the pan, but it does look as if at least some of the bright, shiny bits are going to be picture books, and that the market may have turned a corner at long last.
Bloomsbury’s Sarah Odedina (who edited Witch Child by Celia Rees and that wonderful book A Gathering Light by Jennifer Donnelly) is quoted as saying that “the most exciting thing is how strong colour is – co-editions are back for us”.
Co-editions are what make picture books worth publishing for many publishers. For those who haven’t heard of co-editions before, co-editions are re-publishings of books in other countries.

Without co-editions, smaller markets like the United Kingdom would not be able to make a profit on expensive-to-print picture books. "Picture books are expensive to originate and, unless the publisher can find international co-edition partners, impossible to publish successfully," explains the Writers Services report from Bologna. Unlike Publishing News, the Writers Services report is less optimistic about the prospects of picture books:

The focus at the world’s biggest children’s book fair has shifted from co-editions to fiction and film deals, with film scouts much in evidence. Barry Cunningham of Chicken House said: ‘The market is still very good for fiction and still extremely sticky for picture books. Although the right picture book still does OK in the US and Australia, it’s curtains on the co-edition front.’ Perhaps this is because of international publishers focusing more on home-grown material which they hope to sell to the co-edition market, rather than buying in as they have done in the past.
But the Publishing News coverage lists picture book successes that suggest things might be getting better.

Odedina was happy about pan-European co-edition sales of The Mysterious Parcel by Francesca Chessa and Milo Mouse and the Scary Monster by Louis Baum and Sue Hellard.

Oxford University Press’s Liz Cross was thrilled by coedition sales of I Love My Cloth by Amber Stewardt and Laya Marlow. And Walker’s Jane Winterbotham reported “huge co-edition interest” for Library Lion by Michelle Knudsen and Kevin Hawkes.

Hodder had The Story of Everything and Scholastic had Tiddler by Julia ‘Gruffalo’ Donaldson and Axel Scheffler.

It could, noted Graham Marks in his Publishing News report, be the “tipping point” – “the unexpected does happen, because, two weeks ago, no one had any expectations at all for picture books.”

Speaking of picture books, the other picture book that has been attracting a lot of attention is the graphic novel.

Graphic Novels have come a long way from when the only successful graphic novels had to have heroes wearing their underpants over brightly coloured tights. These days, the graphic novel is closer to the YA novel, except its storyboard style is closer to film than to the printed word – makes a lot of sense when you think that the modern teenager is brought up on cinematic storytelling (some people might see this as more bad news about young people, but hey, it just goes to show nothing can beat a good story).

Goldblatt has already sold six of them this year and Scholastic is about to relaunch the popular Babysitter Club as graphic novel books. “Graphic novels are the hottest buzzword at the moment. A lot of stuff is going to come out in the next year. A lot of it is going to be great and a lot of it is going to be crap,” he said. “Graphic novels have the excitement of a picture book but they are full novels. It is a wholly new and different thing.”

Graphic novels are such new territory in the United States (Europe’s had a small but loyal market for ages, and of course there’s Japan’s manga comic books) that “there are no fixed rules yet”, says Goldblatt. “We agents are not sure how far to push and publishers are not sure how much to offer!”

Like picture books graphic novels trigger a sense of unease in publishers because of the time and effort that go into producing one. But for kids raised on TV and rock and roll, it makes perfect sense.

Here's a relevant news item on manga graphic novels sales in the UK from Publishing News (posted 14 April 2006:)

OTTAKAR'S HAS DOUBLED its manga sales in the past month with the Manga Collector’s Club and manga-themed evenings in some of its stores. Loughborough store Manager Melanie Ball told PN: “Manga is doing fantastically well. It’s just been climbing and climbing, and the events also do brilliantly.” The chain’s Fiction Manager Janine Cook added: “It’s looking very good. We’re at least 100% up on the month before. It might be even more, but that’s the minimum impact.”

At the chain’s manga evenings attendees are offered giveaways, discounts, and the chance to watch Japanese anime films. The Manga Collector’s Club allows customers to get a special card stamped every time they buy a title from either Gollancz Manga or Tokyopop, and be given a free manga title once they have three stamps

Wednesday 5 April 2006

YA Voice: Slang and Teen Vernacular

Scott Westerfeld likes the idea of language so much that, as a child, he learned Braille, the tactile code used by blind people, as well as Esperanto, the artificial language based as far as possible on words common to all the European languages.

Language is the reason why Scott writes young adult (YA) novels. “When you are a teenager you are still in the act of acquiring language ,” he says. “One of the reasons I really like YA is that teenagers are more interested in voice than adults.”

Teenagers, he says, write more poetry per capita. They play more word games. They memorise more song lyrics. They like to spell things creatively. And a high percentage are in fact learning a language in school.

Slang is necessary to capture the teenage voice – in the teen domain, slang is often a factor that determines acceptance or exclusion, “you talk like me, you are like me”.

Slang as euphemism can turn embarrassment into amusement – why mention sex when you can describe two people “banging boots”? And admitting to playing “tonsil hockey” doesn’t sound as gross as saying you “tongue kissed” someone. Slang can define the previously undefined – a chubby girl wearing a midriff exposes her “muffin roll”.

“Teens are saying: I care about language, I am having fun with language; (slang) is pure emphasis on the joy and expansiveness of language. And that’s a perfectly good reason for slang.”

But YA writers beware. Today’s slang can be tomorrow’s embarrassment.

“Slang is like a fish,” Scott says. “Good when its fresh or when its old, a fossil. But in between is a nasty period, something you don’t want at all. I would never use anything from this year’s slang dictionary, your writing will be passé before it goes into print. Don’t listen to your teenager and reproduce what they say – and don’t try to talk like them either, that’s the worst mistake in the world.”

But slang is necessary to YA literature. “One of the most important things you need to know is that YA is voice and a voice is good when you get the feeling of being inside a world and being inside someone’s head. When you are a kid, there is less caution about verbal hygiene than in adult literature.”

What the YA author must do is generate his or her own slang – “Slang from 20 minutes in the future from the next town over; slang that’s a little bit off but hangs together.”

How to Generate Slang

Use the classics – “cool” and “lame”, believe it or not, have become classics, they’ve been around for so long. “You cannot go wrong if you use the classics,” says Scott.

Steal it from really far away. For a book set 300 years in the future, Scott used slang from 1920s Evelyn Waugh to create “future slang”. “Bogus” began life in the 1700s to refer to counterfeit coins before Waugh used it to mean “no good”, a meaning that persists to this century which Scott used to good effect through the mouths of his teenagers of the future.

Make it up yourself. In his Uglies trilogy (Uglies, Pretties, Specials), Scott describes a future world where everyone has to have an operation when they turn sixteen to become supermodel beautiful. Everybody is beautiful therefore everybody is equal. Except of course for the Uglies, a bunch of radical teens who want to keep their own faces. In the series, a “new surge” is someone who’s just had the operation. If you “surge”, you’re getting something fixed.

How to Make It Stick

Allan Metcalf wrote Predicting New Words: The Secrets of Their Success, chronicling the origins of a fascinating list of words and phrases. In the process he developed the FUDGE factor – a way to measure the potential success of a word. Scott subverts the FUDGE paradigm into a means for authors to create convincing slang for YA readers.

F stands for Frequency of use. “You have to use something more than once. Use it in context and then define it three paragraphs later.”

U is for unobtrusiveness. “It might look familiar, but it doesn’t stand out. It’s so unobtrusive that when you see it the Microsoft spell checker in the brain takes less time to reload.”

D is for diversity of use and situations. And G is for Generate other forms and meanings. “Don’t just use something one way, use it as a verb or noun. Meanings will start to support each other in the text. That’s the way language works.” Eg. “Did you surge last week?” “He was a new surge.” “Surgeless” “Resurgent”.

E is for the endurance of the concept. Can you make it stick? At the end of the day, says Scott, “Slang is like reading Shakespeare – you eventually figure out what they are saying.”

Slang Mechanisms

Just substituting words for words will not convince your reader. “More interesting is to produce slang out of familiar language.”

Retronyms are “words you didn’t have to say, but you have to say now.” You didn’t have to say acoustic guitar in the 1920s because all guitars were acoustic. You didn’t have to say broadcast TV, optical telescopes, pocket watch, biological parent, heterosexual parent, first wife, World War I – “all these imply huge change”.

So if your story is set in the future, and a character complains, “Dad was late picking me up in the ground car” implies that cars can fly. It creates a feeling of anticipation in the reader. What should one expect?

“A retronym can indicate a lot about the character. You learn a whole bunch of things about how that character moves … ‘I don’t know, she wants to hang out with me in meetspace’ indicates that we are not in cyberspace. The character is someone who hangs out a lot online.”

You can divine rules in slang just by trawling through synonyms in a dictionary. Notice for example how certain suffixes – eg. head – are associated with stupidity. Bakehead, ballooonhead, chucklehead. There is also a preponderence of food – bananahead, chowderhead, melonhead, cabbage head. This frees you to create your own: nappyhead, turniphead. The suffix –oid indicates something geeky, scientific – mathoid, cretinoid, humanoid. Then there’s –land as in Disneyland or Wonderland – ditherland, slumberland, wankerland. Fake high culture can be evoked by du jour – boy du jour, pain du jour, failure du jour.

Ungrammar and backformations can fill an idiom dictionary:

“It wasn’t much fun?” “No, it was much fun.”
“How much fun is this?” “Lots of much.”
Teenagers are often uncomfortable with things which is why they like generating euphemisms – an “unboyfriend” could be someone you hang out with but don’t have sex with; or maybe someone you have sex with but don’t hang out with.

“Build yourself a grid of the prefixes and the suffixes and you will end up with something you like,” Scott says. “You are gaining your reader’s trust – something that doesn’t happen when you are using your reader’s slang because you look like you are trying too hard. Make it up as you go along – if you make it up it will never go out of date”

Scott Westerfeld was speaking on ‘Slanguage: Teen Voices and Teen Vernaculars’ at the SCBWI Before Bologna Conference in Bologna, Italy on 25 March 2006

Tuesday 4 April 2006

Illustrator Bee Willey

This article has just been published in British SCBWI's Words & Pictures Newsletter, available as a free download to SCBWI BI members.

When Bee Willey told friends in the children’s publishing industry that she was illustrating Bob Robber and Dancing Jane, she was amazed to discover that the picture book text had been doing the rounds of editorial submission desks for years.

“It transpired that Bob had been going round and round for eight years,” Bee says. “It had a whole life before I was asked to illustrate it. All the people who had seen the text had wanted to publish it and it hadn’t been the right time or the right place!”

Bob Robber put Bee on the shortlist of the CILIP Kate Greenaway Medal 2003, along with such illustrating luminaries as Anthony Browne (The Shape Game), Mini Grey (The Pea and the Princess) and Shirley Hughes (Ella’s Big Chance), who won that year’s medal. In 2004, Bee was also shortlisted for illustrating The Wooden Dragon, written by Joan Aitken.

Bob Robber and Dancing Jane was Bee’s first attempt at using computers after a long and accomplished career in illustration (mixed media) that included 20 children’s books and clients as varied as Conran Design, The Wine Society, the Royal Mail and Halifax Building Society.

“Part of the reason I went into computer was because fixative was having an effect on my eyes – paralysing the pupil,” she explains. Although she uses a digital pen and tablet, Bee still paints the main figures in every work by hand. She scans the painting, and then uses the digital pen and Adobe Photoshop to work on the background.

Photoshop’s use of layers for compositing – in which layers of images can be stacked, rearranged, added to or subtracted from to create a complex work – revolutionises the illustrator’s work process, though as in any technology, there are those who resist it.

“I do millions of layers – sometimes up to forty, before I can get an image right. But you have to be careful how you use Photoshop because you can end up making your picture too air brushy,” Bee says. “It’s great when you are pushed for time. And there are no smudges – I used to get smudges on my work no matter how hard I tried to keep them clean. Best of all you can work on the smallest detail.”
But Bee cautions would-be illustrators to remember that the computer is not the only tool. “You can make computers do things for you but it still needs you to push it beyond what it can do.”

Bob Robber and Dancing Jane was about a compulsive thief who steals the shadow of the ethereal beauty he has fallen in love with. The challenge was to juxtapose the darkness of Bob Robber, who steals under cover of darkness, with the luminosity of Dancing Jane, in whom eventually finds redemption.

Bee fleshed out the book’s spreads in storyboards – pencil sketches of how each page would look: “You show the various routes you might take – or not and along the way, your character appears out of the scribble. At one point, I realised I was going down the German gothic route and had to change!”

Bee worked closely with the editor and book designer. “There was a lot of to-ing and fro-ing,” she laughs. “I like that sort of thing. We had such a lovely time making it. At one stage, we were all sitting on the floor and looking through the drawings. There was a christmassy feeling about it. I think I spilled my coffee three times!”
Bee has kept samples of each stage in the process, a creative roadmap she can take out once in a while to review – from the pile of sketches, embroidered all over with notes from the editor and Bee’s own reminders to herself, to the actual colour proofs of the book.

The designer’s input was invaluable. “She spent ages getting the typeface right. She tried and tried to be sure that the typeface held itself well, she wanted it to flow. She managed to convey a gothicky sort of feeling. It was a fantastic design. So many books flounder in the market because the design is so repulsive.”
Would Bee ever considering writing her own text?

“I did try,” she laughs. “I sent it to a friend, saying, ‘I am counting on you not to be polite’ – and she wasn’t!”

Forthcoming is Celebrity Cat by Meredith Hooper, published by Frances Lincoln. Bee Willey was speaking at a Professional Series Evening for SCBWI BI.

BOLOGNA 2006!!! What was it all about?

Unpublished writers wandering around the Bologna Children's Book Fair will be hard pressed to make sense of it all. Why were all those people sitting around tables? Who were they? What did it mean? How is this supposed to help me get published?

Well, for one, it was humbling to see all of children's publishing in one vast space. This is the universe you aspire to join. Oh how insignificant one feels.

Later, things became clearer as publishing reports about the fair emerged. Publishing News Children's Editor Graham Marks, himself an author (Zoo, Tokyo) reported a megadeal for Finding the Summer Queen by Melissa Marr, about a teenage girl who can see faeries walking amon humans - not so much fantasy as "chick-lit for goth girls" according to Michael Stearns of HarperCollins US. "A 12 to 13+ Tim Burtonesque novel of urban faeries - supernatural romances seem to be the coming thing," Stearns' UK counterpart, Gillie Russell told Publishing News.

The other big news was Whitbread and Carnegie winner David Almond (Skellig, Clay) signing to do two picture books for Walker plus a novel for younger children.

The author Scott Westerfield (Uglies, Pretties, So Yesterday) travelled from Australia to speak at the pre-Bologna conference and then spent the week at the fair. Here was what he wrote in his blog:

It was a great week. I love hanging out with book people, who are smart and dedicated and interested in the world. Surrounded by 8,000 experts, these are the things I learned about children publishing:

- The history, economics, and mechanics of pop-up books is endlessly fascinating.
- Sweden likes hardbacks; Brazil prefers trade paperbacks.
- Translators in France earn 8-10 cents per word (US cents), plus 1% royalties.
- The children’s picture book market tanked about ten years ago.
- Scouts are like reverse agents: matchmakers, but paid by publishers instead of authors.
- Gossip Girl, the successful teen series, is published in 29 territories.
- The Italian kids/YA market is 75% books in translation.
- The Dutch throw the best parties

Scott's wife, author Justine Larbalestier (Magic Lessons) took up the report in her own blog:
But you all want to know about the book fair, right? It’s totally geared to business. Unlike Book Expo America where you’re overwhelmed by how many books there are—and more particularly how many free books there are—at Bologna I was overwhelmed by how many meetings were going on. Every single stall, no matter how small, was set up with lots of desks, at every single one two people sat across from each other earnestly waving books around, consulting their notes, doing everything they could to sell and/or buy rights to books.

It’s very very intense. I now feel like I know more about the business than ever before. I finally understand what it is that scouts do and how they’re paid! It’s amazing how many middle men there are out there. I also learned all about how they make pop-up books—it takes a whole village in China. I learned that the publishing wisdom that short story collections don’t sell holds everywhere, that everyone—even the French—reckon that French YA books are too preachy and boring, that hardbacks are big in Sweden and non-existent in Brazil. I am dizzy with everything I have learnt!

There were hardly any other authors. I met one the whole time I was there. (Hello, Isobel!) There’s not a lot for us to do at the Fair except be taken out by our publishers and agents.

Not being published, I didn't have anybody to take me out, but it was a good education in the ways of the world I wish to join.

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