Monday 13 May 2013

Guest Blogger Nicola Morgan on Teenage Non-fiction – What? Where? Who? HOW?

Nicola Morgan’s book on the teenage brain, Blame My Brain – The Amazing Teenage Brain Revealed, has been popular and praised ever since first publication in 2005. It’s been translated into several languages and reprinted many times. Now there’s a revised edition, updated with new research and with a new cover.  Nicola is an award-winning teenage novelist as well as a non-fiction writer for all ages and here she is to talk about that elusive category that is YA non-fiction.

The challenge of writing non-fiction for teenagers isn’t writing it but selling it. After all, when did you see a section in a bookshop called “YA non-fiction”? So, when the first edition of Blame My Brain was published in 2005, one of two things happened.

Either, booksellers put it amongst the children’s non-fiction. The trouble with this is that children’s non-fiction books are usually HUUUGE – sometimes thick, but almost always TALL and WIDE and BRIGHT and often SPARKLY. So my sensible paperback was invisible – despite the unsubtle first cover.

Or, booksellers put it somewhere else. Parenting, for example. Or Psychology. Or Science. Or Self-help. Or – trust me, this happened – Sport.

I learnt to play “Where’s My Book?” each time I went into a shop. And booksellers’ eyes would light up and they’d say, “Ooh, Blame My Brain, yes - we’ve definitely got it somewhere…

So, at first, it was hard to sell, despite reviews being wonderfully positive, including in the BMJ.

Lesson One: Although a book needs to be different from what’s out there, booksellers need to know where to put it, so our book needs an obvious “place” in a bookshop, and we must pitch it as such. 

BMB was only published because it was so different but its difference nearly killed it. Then, over the years, and particularly in the last two years, sales properly got going (despite a second cover that I didn’t like).

And I know why: that elusive and desirable Word of Mouth. The book was being passed around adults: parents, head teachers, teachers, PHSE departments, psychology departments in schools, local councils, social workers, adoption agencies, Child and Adolescent Mental Health Service (CAMHS) workers and a load of charities working to help teenagers and their families. Even government departments. *scared face*

Lesson Two: Being different helps Word of Mouth, but it’s still mostly luck.

But it was adult word of mouth and the book is meant for teenagers, not adults! It talks about “your” brain, not “their” brain, and omits a load of stuff that teenagers wouldn’t want to hear – such as sympathy for parents. When teenagers read it they give lovely feedback, too, but they tend not to buy it.

Lesson Three: Teenagers don’t buy enough books. DUH!

Should I mind who buys it as long as someone does? After all, it sells well and I get invited all over the country – and further: Malaysia and Brunei in June! – to speak about it. Should it matter that parents buy it and pass it to teenagers?

On one level I don’t mind. On the other hand, the absolute nicest thing is when a teenager buys it and passes it to a parent – and that does happen. I want that to happen more. Maybe now that will happen because, with the new revised edition, Walker Books have given it an adult bibliographic classification. Walker have done that to help shops know where to put it – in adult sections. But I’m sure it’s really a cunning plan to encourage teenagers to read it by telling them it’s not for them.

Lesson Four: Know your reader and know your market. But don’t be surprised if you get it wrong.

No one knows everything but if we want to be and remain published we have to do everything possible to find the market (ie readers) for our books.

Lesson Five: Always have a cunning plan.

So, teenagers, you are not allowed to read Blame My Brain. Forbidden. NO! Hands off, you bad, bad people.

That should do it!

Copyright © Nicola Morgan 2013

There’s a fun Blame My Brain competition running on Nicola’s blog at the moment. Opportunities for schools and individuals of any age to win books, have their questions answered and learn about the fascinating thing that is the teenage brain!


  1. I need a copy of this book - can't believe I haven't yet bought it - still, the teenage part of my brain has just been told I can't have it so guess what?...

  2. My question to Lesson One is: how do you pitch booksellers if your publisher hasn't managed it?

  3. I can ditto lots of this with my non-fiction 8-12 book, 'Bullies, Bigmouths and So-called Friends' which was described in the Inde on Sunday as 'possibly the first children's self-help book', along with many rave reviews in other national newspapers. As children's self help failed to flourish on this side of the pond, there are no designated sections for it in bookshops, but mine fortunately stayed in print long enough to enjoy the level playing field of internet selling. It's been in the top couple of thousand sellers in amazon for several years now, and often in the top couple of hundred, and shows no sign of flagging. Fingers crossed!

    1. That's fantastic, Jenny! Mind you there is definitely a need for your book!

  4. Candy, sorry, I meant when we pitch it to publishers. In fact, good publishers will obviously know this better than we do but it can help if we can show in our pitch that there is a bookshop place for it.

    But, in fact, thinking about pitching to bookshops: although it's very hit and miss and a HUUUGE amount of effort might go into it for a tiny chance of significant success, it can be worth being brave and trying to get an influential bookseller to see the merits of the book. After all, so many books come their way every day from publishers, and publishers will only be pitching their bigger titles, so if my/your title has missed the bookseller radar we still *can* do something later, by letting an influential bookseller see it afresh. It's tough to do and I am not good at that stuff, but it can work.

  5. Hi Nicola, is this something you were commissioned to do or was this your idea that you did a proposal and pitch with Walker? Curious to find out how a topic that hasn't got a categorised space in bookshelves are received?

  6. Chitra, I pitched a proposal to Walker and they commissioned it. As I did with the book on teenage stress that I'm writing now. If the idea is strong enough, they'll do it. It's just that it's so much harder when the space isn't obvious.


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