Are Bestsellers Taking Over? + Puffin Ireland News

The Bookseller magazine has an interesting article in a recent edition (18th November), looking at children’s frontlist (new) fiction. It says that the received wisdom is that bestselling books and brand authors dominate the children’s market. It quotes agent Caroline Sheldon who says that publishers are now looking for ‘bestsellers’, in any category. They want a book that bowls them over. Curtis Brown (London literary agency) adds that publishers are being very cautious. ‘Authors have to reinvent themselves to have much more high-concept ideas that are instantly appealing, or literary, with prize-winning potential.’

Francesca Dow, MD of Penguin Children’s Books plans to cut output of Penguin Children's titles over the next three years in response to high street bookshops who are reducing their range. This is her strategy (Bookseller, 30th September): ‘To make our big brands bigger, to reinvent our classic brands . . . and to create the brands of tomorrow.’ (For brands, read authors or characters.)

Meanwhile over at Puffin Ireland, they have just let their children’s editor go. David Maybury says in today’s blog – (the full piece is worth reading if you are interested in Irish publishing): After launching the Puffin Ireland editorial post two years ago and the first books earlier this year with much fanfare, Penguin Ireland have decided that they don’t require an editor in-house. Michael McLoughlin (Penguin Ireland MD) insists that Puffin Ireland has not closed, that manuscripts submissions are still very welcome and that he and and Shannon Park (Puffin UK) will be working with the authors and titles already assigned. David goes on to say: Removing the Puffin Ireland editorial position may make good sense if you crunch numbers – but the investment in children’s fiction and the growing relationship and goodwill with reader markets, organisations, booksellers, media, libraries and beyond has hit a hitch. I heartily agree. I’m glad that Irish authors can still send in their manuscripts directly, but saddened that they have let such an experienced and knowledgeable Irish editor go. No doubt Puffin Ireland, like Puffin UK  is looking for books with ‘brand potential’.

Interesting The Bookseller article points out that the received wisdom is incorrent, that only 19% of all children’s sales come from the top 10 authors (2010 figures). Even so, many publishers are looking for ‘instant bestsellers’ and are not publishing the range of books they used to. But young readers are veracious, and boy do they read fast! My daughter has recently taken to re-reading her favourite writers' books, as there are not enough new books being published to satisfy her book habit. I have to buy my son American books on to supply his need. I just can’t find enough of the right kind of titles to keep them in books, and I know I’m not the only parent finding this problem. And I live in a house full of books, I have access to review copies and all kinds of book information, and I have publishing and bookselling friends. I can’t imagine what it’s like for average parents.

I am well aware that publishers (and writers!) need to make a living, but don't they also have a responsibility to make sure that young readers, the readers of tomorrow are well served? Too idealistic? Maybe.

Must publishers seem to be following the market, what about trying to set the market? What about grouping together several new authors who write family/friendship tales and promoting them together? Yes, it’s probably a lot of work for not much return, but what if one of these authors goes on, in time to be the ‘next’ Cathy Cassidy or Jacqueline Wilson? Ditto with action/adventure books for boys. And animal tales. And funny books for younger readers. My daughter reads a Wimpy Kid in two days - what's she supposed to read then?

I’m concerned about the new writers coming through and the message they are being given – write a bestseller or an award winner with a good hook, or else don’t bother writing at all. No writer is born fully formed – everyone learns by writing and by making mistakes. Many of the bestselling Irish and international children’s writers have years of experience writing in other mediums or genres. Derek Landy wrote screen plays, some successful, others not successful before writing his Skulduggery series; Eoin Colfer write many books for O’Brien Press before coming up with Artemis Fowl; Judi Curtin cut her teeth on adult popular fiction; Jacqueline Wilson wrote dozens of teen books before inventing Tracy Beaker; Charlie Higson wrote for television and adults before his Young Bond and teen zombie books.

‘New’ Irish children’s authors and Irish Book Award senior category nominees, Anna Carey and Denise Deegan have many years of writing behind them – Anna is an experienced journalist, Denise wrote several adult novels before turning to teen fiction. And this experience shows in their work. (Anna won the award, beating off Darren Shan, Denise and Derek Landy, no mean feat.)

New writers need both experience and encouragement, they need to be allowed to make mistakes and to develop. Maybe the first few books they write are not ‘big’ books, maybe they are funny and charming family and friendship dramas (like Eoin Colfer’s first books), animal tales, or time slip stories. If no-one will publish books like this, which don’t have a huge ‘hook’ and ‘bestseller’ potential, that particular author may get discouraged and stop writing altogether. Which would be a shame. No Artemis Fowl is a horrible thought!

I’ve published nine adult novels and four young teen novels (as well as many other non fiction books) and I feel like I’m only really getting started. And I’m very grateful to the editors and publishers who took an early punt on me and my work, and who are still supporting me and my writing journey.

Luckily there are still children’s publishers out there like my publishers, O’Brien Press and Walker Books (and there are others) who are willing to look at unformed authors, willing to publish books that are sweet and wonderful and not all bells and whistles and bestseller lists (although they publish those too of course – Judi Curtin – O’Brien, and Anthony Horowitz – Walker - for eg), books for thoughtful young readers who want more than just the top ten titles on their bookshelves, and for that I am grateful. Long may they prosper!

Yours in writing,

Sarah XXX