Friday, 9 July 2010

Nice Guys Finish First?

A publishing person - who I happened to meet last week - said that she had never met a person she didn't like in the world of children's publishing, which I thought was an extraordinary statement. In retrospect, given that she was talking to me, I guess it was a compliment too - but you know I have trouble with those! Anyway, it set me to thinking about how nice (in a good way) children's publishing is, and how much (consciously or unconsciously) that influenced my decision to write for children.

I quickly discovered that I liked to be around children's writers rather than adult ones - the lack of pretension and commitment to story that everyone had was so refreshing and I had already realised by this point that I was not destined to be a literary novelist! I believe that right now is a wonderfully exciting time to be a part of SCBWI British Isles - we have so much energy, momentum and great ideas in the organisation that we can only become more influential.

Once I started dipping a toe into the actual industry of children's publishing, I was again pleasantly surprised. Don't get me wrong, I got all those rejections too, but there was never malice in them. I have to admit that winning a high-profile competition was just a teensy bit helpful in bringing the industry onto my side, but it only got me entry to the race - I still had to run it.

I'll admit that I was quite scared of agents for a while - they always seemed rather distant and unapproachable to an insignificant, unpublished squit of a writer like me. But I think that agents, by the very nature of their job, have to keep some emotional distance from writers who they don't yet represent - it's much harder to give objective criticism of someone's work when you know them! But no-one likes to give bad news, and I wonder sometimes if that is why the form rejection gets so much use - those bland, generalised comments are a way of letting the poor writer down (relatively) gently, while allowing the agent or editor to get on with their job and sleep at night. Let's face it, unless you're an unpublished fantasy writer in a supermarket picking up a Stephanie Meyer, no-one really wants to hate a book!

At the same event last week, I got talking to an editor who, it turned out, worked for a publisher that had recently rejected my book. Now this could have been super-awkward, but she was so complimentary about my writing and honest about why they passed on it, that it instantly defused the tension. I feel very privileged to be spending time in the company of actual real people who actually publish real actual books, and I continue to be impressed by how much genuine love they have for the quality of what they produce. Ok, sure, we all need to sell books and make money, but let us never forget that it is the readers we have to please. And readers are not always nice - they demand difficult things like proper characters and exciting, surprising, original stories.

It's a pleasure to be involved in an enterprise that seems to thrive on cooperation rather than backstabbing. I find myself coming back to the question I posed many blogs ago. Is this what a matriarchal society would look like? If so, I say bring it on!



  1. Children's publishing is not entirely female-dominated - most publishing directors and MDs are male. But I do agree that it's a very nice slice of the publishing industry, full of people who care passionately about the books they work on. And SCBWI-UK rocks!

  2. I find children's writers, and many other writers, to be mutually supportive. I especially liked meeting you SCBWI British Isles folks, I think you have an especially active chapter.

  3. Sorry for the anonymity - the reasons are obvious - but you should really be careful about believing the ubiquitous cant about how nice everything is. It’s a common group dynamic among young women to be as nice and helpful and submissive as possible in the hope that this will please authority and result in rewards, but it’s hardly a feminist victory, or a sign of health for the publishing industry. Editors get less and less respect, bosses get more and more arrogant, publishing programmes get more and more homogenous and conservative and everyone loses in the long run.

    Some matriarchy. All too often the polite young women are in terror of a usually male boss who is none too competent and rests on their achievements, but who will drive them out if they rock the boat. Yes, the young women do cooperate with each other – in allowing the prestige of their role to sink ever lower and managers to exploit them and in due course stab them in the back. Obviously some publishers are better than others, but if you can have an honest conversation with an editor – unlikely, until you become a thorough industry insider, as everyone is understandably concerned with protecting their job – you will soon turn up enough horror stories.

  4. Well that told me! Farewell naivety, hello cynicism...