Wednesday 30 May 2012

Singapore Fling – What’s a couple of bestsellers between editors?

By Candy Gourlay
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
But Alvina Ling of Little Brown (they who hit the jackpot with Twilight ) told us right from the start that she didn’t in fact edit Twilight. She said:
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
Sarah’s other stellar author at Bloomsbury of course was Saint JK, she who created Harry Potter and raised children’s books to a new level of engagement with a world previously a bit sneery of children’s 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.

Sarah has left Bloomsbury to head up 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.
Alvina says they have a different system over at Little Brown but she wouldn’t elaborate.

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 ...

Sarah Odedina’s other claim to fame was acquiring Holes by Louis Sachar in 1991. “I was enchanted and fell in love with it,” she said. “I really worked hard to get that book.” It was a lucky bet. Holes was a hit and continues to sell well.

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

View list


  1. I find it extremely amusing that both have overseen two of the biggest series in YA, yet they overlooked two other extremely popular books.

    1. I was really shocked to hear Sarah say she thought The Book Thief was boring ... but it only goes to show that reading is a personal thing.

  2. Brilliant brilliant post - can't tell you how much this cheered me up x

    1. My takeaway though is that the tough parameters of the children's book market means authors have to do their growing off-page before going to market.

  3. Interesting post. Off to write a best seller now. Easy!

    1. Heh heh - maybe I should ring Oprah and ask her if I can be on her show.

  4. Interesting post really enjoyed reading this. Thanks

  5. Hi Candy, sounds like a great trip. I saw Sarah Odedina recently at a childrens book circle event and was also very impressed by her and am rather excited about Hot Keys submission policy! Just need the perfect book now....

    1. Hot Key really is an exciting new house in the market. But yes, be sure you get the book right. I know people say you can resubmit but I really think you only get one shot with each manuscript.

  6. 5,000 is a best seller? Really? Really?

    I couldn't read The Book Thief. Have tried and failed several times. Have never got as far as page three. I feel utterly repelled by the concept and execution..err..on the basis of those pages. And have never got further than two words of Wimpy Kid on the basis of the font.

    1. I loved the Book Thief - give it a chance. Such an unusual book. I liked the unexpected writing.

  7. Great post, Candy. Hot Key Books is doing an event in June at the Prof Series. It would be great to listen to them in person.

    Also 5000 in 6 months - might sound small, guess it is a big number if you don't have the same number of libraries, bookshops and of course as you said book reviewers talking about the book.

    I miss Singapore. I haven't gone back since 2007. I did the first SCBWI event in AFCC many years ago. Ah, memories. :)

    1. Thanks, Chitra - what subject did you write about? Oh! And they're taking a page from the British Isles - they were holding book launches through the day!

    2. I meant - what did you TALK about at the festival (I had such a great time hanging out with Filipinos at the AFCC that my brain recalibrated)

  8. Great feedback from Singapore. Yeah five thousand books in the UK sound right to me and that's with support from your publisher. It's a darn tough world out there. PS Always best to start 'The Book Thief' with the second chapter I find. Great that you got invited to this event Candy. One question. Did you get to see a Singapore bookshop and do they buy UK YA? Just curious.

    1. Singapore is really amazingly multinational - there are several bookstores, largely English language books and YA is BIG. whether your book gets there depends on whether your publisher distributes to that market I guess. My book is imported into Asian English language markets by Random House. The bookseller at the Festival was Bookaburra and their stall was well stocked with both British and US titles as well as books from Asian publishers.

  9. Fascinating. Almost as good as having been there! Thank you. (I was underwhelmed by 'The Book Thief' too. I rather like the Wimpy Kids I've read though...and love watching my children devour them, over and over and over again. Hey ho.)

    1. Very interesting that Alvina was turned off by the fact that Jeff Kinney posted it online. After Wimpy Kid's success, publishers might not be so quick to dismiss authors who do that.

    2. I was so surprised to hear that the world of Wimpy Kid was a game that was freely available online to millions of kids -- well before it was ever a book. Talk about the freemium model!

      Thanks for the round up Candy. We're all so proud of the great reviews Sarah is getting from the conference (and her spot on TV!).

      Tiny correction: Bonnier is a Swedish company, not French.

    3. Ooops, sorry Sara - I KNEW that!!! Can I plead that I was writing this at high altitude somewhere over Kazakhstan?

    4. ... and then the pilot of the plane will post a comment saying, we never flew over Kazakhstan!

  10. Absolutely brilliant post, Candy. Have read it through three times to make sure I haven't missed any points.
    Thanks for the info on
    super-leads, especially the book mark hint
    author-driven books that HAVE to be written
    and even more confirmation that it really is so subjective.
    But - what did they mean by embargoes in the HP plan?
    And - where are you going next oh roving reporter?

    1. Oh don't you remember - they had an embargo on the book so people who already had advance copies couldn't review, blog, write, talk about it until a certain date. And then I seem to remember a warehouse by mistake left some copies in a field or something like that!

    2. I think the author led concept is very important to anyone aspiring to break into publishing. Ask yourself: what book could you write that ONLY YOU would write?

  11. Hi Candy, like you amazed that Sarah O found the book thief boring but very heartened by that. Yet another reminder that just because some people don't like your stuff, doesn't mean it's rubbish.
    Thank you for this post, feel much better!

    1. I always tell kids at schools that it's okay not to like one book because reading is so personal you will most likely love something that someone else doesn't like. I probably say that to make myself feel better about it.

  12. The lengths you'll go to for 'Notes', Candy - thankyou! Great, great post and like Maureen, i've reread to be sure of soaking up all the goodness.
    I love Wimpy Kid and have not finished Book Thief.

    1. I would go to the ends of the earth for NOtes, Addy. Anyone holding a children's book conference in the Carribean, just say the word and I'll be there!

  13. Just found a Singaporean TV interview with Sarah Odedina talking in detail about bestsellers. Excellent stuff so I added it to my blog post. Go look.

  14. OMG indeed, Candy!!! Can't believe Twilight was perceived to be an award-winner-- the book that set back the women's movement by about 100 years!!! Congratulations, my friend. I love A Tall Story -- now there's an award-winner! LTM


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