Friday 28 February 2014

Through the Slushpile Spectacles - Are Children's Writers a Breed Apart?

by Addy Farmer

Peering through my spectacles this week, I spotted this interesting article in The Guardian.  It examined the reaction to writer, Lynne Sheperd's piece in The Huffington Post in which she urged J.K.Rowling to stop writing and give other people a crack at earning some money. She says:
I didn't much mind Rowling when she was Pottering about. I've never read a word (or seen a minute) so I can't comment on whether the books were good, bad or indifferent. 

She has reaped the whirlwind. J.K's fans have taken to reviewing her books and admitting to never having read them.
Rowling's fans have been taking to Amazon, where they have been leaving a deluge of one-star reviews for Shepherd's previously well-regarded novels. Now on, its US version The Solitary House has 59 one-star reviews, the majority written this week, ranging from "I've never read any of your books, and now I never will!", to "There is no way I could support an author (or anyone else for that matter) who has such a terrible outlook.
I agree. I think she does have a terrible outlook. The wonderful Paolo Bacigalupi called it "zero-sum author thinking"

I will gloss over the perhaps unintentional conflation of imperatives which managed to insult children's writers:
By all means keep writing for kids, or for your personal pleasure – I would never deny anyone that. Lynne Shepherd
'Cos that's probably just me being over-sensitive although she did say this about some Harry Potter readers ...
I did think it a shame that adults were reading them (rather than just reading them to their children, which is another thing altogether), mainly because there's so many other books out there that are surely more stimulating for grown-up minds. But, then again, any reading is better than no reading, right?
Hmm. Forget that. Remember this:
If you think other people's success diminishes you, don't be a writer. Paolo Bacigalupi
I have been a children's writer for too many years to bother counting and in all that time I have nearly always encountered the support and generosity of fellow children's writers both published and pre-published. Are children's writers different, I wonder? Maybe so. Maybe because children's writing is such a brilliantly demanding craft for the best readers ever and NOBODY is ever an overnight success, that we need all the support we can get. Or maybe we are just good at enjoying ourselves. 

Whatever the case, I say hooray for JK and her stories and hooray for her success! And hooray for all those who can enjoy anybody's success because surely any good thing that happens has to be a reason for celebration and not jealous condemnation.  

SCBWI conference - celebration of books published in 2013

So much success! Enjoy! 

Friday 14 February 2014

Through the Slushpile Spectacles

It's Friday. I have looked back on this week through my newish purple spectacles and find that I need something cute to take the edge off the reality of rain and rain and more rain.

This is the owl baby who says, ''I want my Mummy!' This is the owl who is Afraid of the Dark. This is the owl who will grow up and live in a tree-top house with a bell outside and a sign with 'wol' written on it. This is the owl who will take to sea in a boat ...

I give you the owl of all those stories. Think of him as a sustaining owl to help you through the storms. I think I'm in love.

Happy Friday.

Sunday 9 February 2014

Let them eat book tours: a new class system in publishing?

Last week I read agent Donald Maass's post in which he cheekily described a new class system that has emerged from the ongoing publishing revolution. I thought, Woah! That's going to upset a lot of people.

(Donald Maass is President of the Donald Maass Literary Agency. He was blogging on Writer Unboxed)

Here's how he described the class system:

Freight Class - 'Self-published authors and electronic micropresses ... While the means of production are easy and low-cost, the methods of marketing are costly either in terms of cash or time. Success is rare. The pleasure of being in control is offset by the frustration of “discoverability”. Online retailers are whimsical and ludicrously over-stocked, both barrier and open door. Lists, blogs, social sites and the like are plentiful but of only spotty help ... The real problem is that fiction at this level has trouble appealing widely to readers. It can sell when priced at $2.99, sometimes a bit more, often less.'

Coach Class - 'Decently-written literary fiction and nicely-crafted commercial fiction that achieves print publication but sells best at trade-paperback level ($14.99 or so), or discounted in e-book form. Coach Class novelists support each other yet find it difficult to gain a foothold with the public. So-called “marketing” by their publishers is disappointing and, truthfully, can only do so much. Traditional tours (when they happen) accomplish little, front of store incentives are costly, and online marketing sometimes seems to consist of the hope that Amazon will do a price promotion. Coach Class authors, however, are professionally edited and get goodies like nice covers, ARC’s, and plenty of blurbs. Plus, their books are in bookstores, a big boost in visibility.'

First Class - 'The cream class gets a double shot of extended life in bookstores, both in hardcover and later in paper. Their books can sell well at $25 and live long in trade paper. For First Class authors, success looks effortless. Goodies accrue easily. Recognition is instant and wide. Sub-rights sell. Awards happen. Insulated from economy shocks, authors of this class never seem to worry about the industry. In interviews they talk only about their art and process. They mentor. Lines are long at BEA booth signings and readers are fiercely loyal.'
The New Class System by Donald Maass in Writer Unboxed

Like many of the commenters on that post, I agreed with so much of what Donald said but my non-confrontational side stressed over how it was going to upset all the people who would feel slighted by being designated Coach and Freight Class (Clearly, I'm in Coach - it has ever been thus).

Donald describes himself as yes, one of the gatekeepers, but 'no worshipper of the old ways'. And I agreed with his assessment:

Traditional publishing always was cost-heavy and inefficient. It’s a wonder that it worked. But the new electronic “paradigm” is not the glorious revolution that true believers would like it to be.
The New Class System by Donald Maass in Writer Unboxed

He says the publishing world has evolved into a class system 'and like any class system there are winners, losers and opportunities.'

I invite Slushpile readers to stop reading this and read the entire post - which was enlightening as well as provocative. If it makes you mad, don't worry, the angry people got their say in the comments (including one self-published author who was turned down by Don and now claims to have made so much money she's quit her day job).

But don't get mad - if this is a snapshot of a world in revolution, then we ain't seen nothing yet.

The signs of revolution are everywhere - and I feel like I've had a front row seat:

  • My publisher Random House has combined with Penguin to become the BIGGEST publishing house in the world. It made me feel very small indeed.

  • My imprint David Fickling Books has gone independent.

  • I attended an agent event recently and whereas in previous years agents were usually sniffy about authors who self publish, the agents were eager and excited to see what indie authors had to offer. 

At the SCBWI conference in Winchester (UK) last year the collection of people I met made it absolutely clear to me that this is a world in a flux:
  • There was a self published author who had just signed up with a 'traditional' publisher, who despite her success expressed joy at finally being signed up.

  • There was an author-illustrator, multi-awarded over the past two decades, who was self publishing because publishers were no longer interested in her brand. Her decision appears to have been vindicated - she's been nominated for several national awards.

  • There were award-winning editors who left their day jobs and launched new in-demand editorial services.

  • There was the proprietor of one of the first editorial service companies, now finding itself in competition with these services led by name editors. The new competition didn't seem to worry her. She'd just launched her own publishing house

In his final comment, Donald made the following forecast. I reproduce it here in case you don't manage to scroll down that far:

As the strategies, costs and experience of the indie movement evolve, it will start to look more and more like traditional publishing, albeit more digital and online. Indie authors will become more dependent on third party services to do the collection of things that we call publishing. The true cost structure of independence will bring profitability down as more sophisticated competition heats things up.

Meanwhile, print publishers will learn new digital strategies and, slowly, be forced into–hear me now–paying higher digital royalties. Competition will make it necessary, and indeed it’s happening around the edges already. A more profitable picture for authors and better online strategies by “traditional” publishers will make that option newly attractive and its downsides less depressing.

The indie movement and the Big Five, I think, are both headed to the same place. Possibly they will converge, we’ll see. The sense of revolution and warring classes that we feel now isn’t natural and, ask me, exists because neither side of the industry has yet figured out the best way to publish in the 21st Century. When they do, they will look a lot alike.

One thing has never changed, though, and will never change: It’s authors and their terrific storytelling that get readers buying books, and nothing else.
Let me say that again in case you glazed over before the end:

One thing has never changed, though, and will never change: It’s authors and their terrific storytelling that get readers buying books, and nothing else.

My new teen novel, Shine, was published in September. Read this wonderful Guardian review.

You might also want to read:
The Invention of the Teenager
Social Media: Eight Things We Can Learn from Old Style Journalism

Saturday 1 February 2014

The Invention of the Teenager

By Candy Gourlay

Apparently, teenagers were invented by Americans in the 1940s.

Trailer for Matt Wolf's documentary Teenagers (2014): "A lot of people try tlevio shape the future. But it's the young ones who live in it."

I learned this nugget while trawling through podcasts the other day. This was from a fantastic Film Programme tracing the rise (and fall) of teenagers in film.

And here I was thinking that teenagers have existed since the beginning of time.

Joan Crawford's teenage character in the silent film Our Dancing Daughters (1928) goes to a wild party, dances in her underwear and knocks back alcohol ... but the film is clearly a warning from a moralising older generation.

The Andy Hardy series with Micky Rooney and Judy Garland (1937) were family films, not specifically targeted at teen viewers 

The explanation is interesting: until the 1940s, teenagers didn't have any money and therefore no power. But post war, they became a consumer demographic, with money to spend.

The Film Programme played a clip of Samuel Z. Arkoff, co-founder of American International Pictures, who spotted the gap in the market.
I saw an opportunity that nobody else seemed to have seen ... that was the people who were going to the movies were young people. We started to make pictures for teeneagers, by teenagers, about teenagers, and starring teenagers. 
Arkoff, says film critic Kim Newman in the podcast, "invented the future of the film industry".  Researching teen tastes, the film makers discovered that teenagers liked monsters and drag-racing. Suddenly Hollywood was churning out teen movies in their hundreds.


Says Newman, the teenager "(was) a figure that spread American popular culture all around the world."

"Hey Johnny, what are you rebelling against?" "Whaddaya got?" - Marlon Brando goes all cool and dangerous in The Wild One (1953). Films like these attempted to describe young people from an adult sensibility.

Though Fifties film featured characters who walked and talked like real teenagers, young people were still portrayed as dangerous and in need of control. In Blackboard Jungle (1955) Glenn Ford plays a teacher who must contend with the anti-social behaviour of hunky teenagers like switchblade-weilding Vic Morrow (People my age will be excited to see the star of the TV series Combat).

I Was a Teenage Werewolf (1957) - the title, in first person, is a far cry from the patronising adult point of view in Our Dancing Daughters. Here are scenes from the film mashed to the soundtrack of Michael Jackson's Thriller  (People my age will be excited to recognise Michael Landon who played the dad in the TV series Little House on the Prairie)

James Dean at his most delicious in the iconic Rebel Without a Cause (1955). He doesn't look too rebellious in that tie.

Did this heightened awareness of teenage culture feed literary sensibilities, giving rise to the rebel-without-a-cause characters of The Catcher in the Rye (1951)? (Seriously, I don't know the answer.)

The book business acknowledging youth culture followed in cinema's wake. By the Sixties, the teenager became a literary demographic when  the Young Adult Library Services Association coined the term 'Young Adult' to represent the 12 to 18 age range - representing "mature contemporary realism directed at adolescents" like S.E. Hinton's The Outsiders.


Apparently there was a golden age of young adult literature in the Seventies, the era of Judy Blume and Robert Cormier.

I was surprised to discover this. The first time I heard the term 'Young Adult' was in the 2000s, when I became serious about writing for children and began reading books like How I Live Now by Meg Rosoff and Junk by Melvin Burgess.

Perhaps I was not aware of the category because I wasn't a young adult at the time. Or maybe I never read a Judy Blume because I was living in a country where nice girls didn't read books that started with the sentence:
Sybil Davison has a genius I.Q. and has been laid by at least six different guys. From Forever by Judy Blume
Today, we are apparently living in another golden age of YA - but the difference between the Judy Blume golden age and the Twilight/Hunger Games golden age can be measured in dollar signs.
The book world began marketing directly to teens for the first time at the turn of the millennium. Expansive young adult sections appeared in bookstores, targeting and welcoming teens to discover their very own genre. J.K. Rowling's well-timed Harry Potter series exploded the category and inspired a whole generation of fantasy series novelists, Cart said. The shift led to success for Stephenie Meyer's Twilight vampire saga and Suzanne Collins' futuristic The Hunger Games. From A Brief History of Young Adult Fiction by Ashley Strickland

American Graffiti (1973) - by the Seventies teen culture had been around long enough for films to be nostalgic about it.

More nostalgia in Grease (1978) - featuring some of the oldest teenagers in the world


The teenager as consumer is an interesting proposition, given their famously short attention spans. That first Judy Blume golden age created a rash of "single problem novels" but teens quickly tired of the formulaic stories. Which led to the rise of genre fiction of the Eighties, such as R. L. Stine's Fear Street and adolescent high drama of Sweet Valley High

In cinema, teen movies of the Eighties were liberal in a way that would be unacceptable in the 2000s with underage sex and abortion, according to journalist Hadley Freeman, who was featured on the podcast because she's writing a book about film in the 1980s.

Porky's (1982) - one of a rash of films in which directors waxed lyrical about losing their viriginity. The losing of virginity still makes pots of money.

The Breakfast Club (1985) - brought together five of the 'Brat Pack' - Emilio Estevez, Ally Sheedy, Molly Ringwald, Judd Nelson and Anthony Michael Hall.

Heathers (1988) - teen films had been around so long, here was a film that tried to subvert the genre (it's Mean Girls with a body count!)

In the Nineties, teenagers became The Audience. If you wanted to make a film, says Kim Newman,  you made it as a teenage movie. So genres - cop films, horror, sci fi - and even classics were remade as teen films.

Heath Ledger and Joseph Gordon Levitt in 10 Things I Hate About You (1999) - a take on Shakespeare's Taming of the Shrew

Cruel Intentions (1999) starring Buffy, was a take on Les Liaisons Dangereuses. Sex, drugs and excess.

Romeo and Juliet (1996) starring Leonardo Dicaprio and Claire Danes (Claire Danes!) gives the bard a hip, modern reboot


But at the turn of this century film economics changed. Hollywood now makes what they call 'tent-pole' films - blockbusters that have to hold up the finances of the parent network. Which means, says Freeman, "Teen films now are really superhero films. Studios aren't making films just for teenagers, they want films for twenty-something guys!"

I suppose book publishers, like movie companies, also have to follow the money. Hey, have you heard of the new book category "New Adult"?  A New Adult book is basically a Young Adult book with sex and cursing thrown in, writes Lauren Sarner.  And don't forget lucrative.

Recently, I met up with a young writers group. They were prolific writers  and readers. Published writers - they published fan fiction via Wattpad.

'I read hundreds of books a month,' one girl told me. She didn't read books like you buy from a bookshop, or even on an ereader. She read free books on Wattpad written by young people like her.

She is one of 18 million readers and writers who use the publishing platform dubbed 'the most active social site you never heard of'. Wattpad's creator is Allen Lau whose profile says 'don't be surprised if I am reading one of your stories'.
"Storytelling has been a social experience from the get go," he says. "Think of a town square where everyone would congregate to share ideas and news, or even stories told around the campfire. Look at Charles Dickens and the way he hooked people by serializing his stories, a trend that’s re-emerging on Wattpad today. Great stories bring people together." Read the article
Wattpad is an amazing advocate for reading, as long as you don't mind giving your writing away for free.


Looking back, it is fascinating to see our evolution as storytellers for teenagers.

We started out with the desire to control them, to tell them what was good for them, we saw them as misguided delinquents who needed a firm hand.

Then we empathised with youth culture and tried to represent their issues as problems.

Later we fell in love with the Teenage Voice, adopted Coming of Age as a highly evocative story arc.

Right now perhaps with our dystopias and fantasies we are re-imagining the world through the prism of youth.

Today, teenagers have surpassed their storytellers.

They are the masters of new media that many of us are struggling to understand. The nature of the internet means they are not only consumers of stories created for them but through social media and platforms like Wattpad they tell their own stories, have their own voice.

Nobody has to invent them anymore. Perhaps it's us -- we who want to write teen fiction --  who need to reinvent ourselves.

In Project X (2012) teenagers trash a house with an over the top party. The future of teen cinema? Only if they can watch it. Project X was rated R.

My new teen novel, Shine, was published in September. Read this wonderful Guardian review.

You might also want to read:
The Writer is You
Multicultural is Not About Difference But Inclusion

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