Friday, 25 March 2011

Book Packagers - Don't Beat Them at Their Own Game

Inspired by Thomas Taylor's mini-guide on rhyming picture books, I've decided that it's high time I offered a bit of practical advice on this blog as well. A subject that's been brewing in my head for a while is a comparison between packaged and author-led fiction for the children's market. For those who don't know, here's a quick summary of the differences:
  • Packaged Fiction - This is a book (or more often a series) that is produced by a book packaging company like Working Partners in the UK or Alloy Entertainment in the US. Although professional children's writers will still produce the content, all of the concepts behind the book(s) - from story idea to marketing hook - are owned and managed by the packager. Packagers rarely publish their own books, preferring instead to use fiction publishers to cover the final step to market.

  • Author-led Fiction - This is the more "traditional" route to publication, where an author will conceive the idea for a book and execute it, retaining creative control of the plot, characters and prose. A publisher will still provide editing assistance and generally run the marketing side of things, but as the name suggests, the author drives the process.

The analogy I would use to illustrate this is the difference between watching a film by a separate screenwriter and director, as opposed to one by a single writer-director. The experience you get from a writer-director (or hyphenate, as they call them in the movie business) is generally much more personal and individual, but it can also be self-indulgent and pretentious. For every There Will Be Blood you get a whole steaming pile of M. Night Shyamalan movies.

Book packagers get a lot of negative press, as evidenced recently by the furore about L.J. Smith being kicked off her own Vampire Diaries series and James Frey's new YA factory farming operation Full Fathom Five. But these are businesses and they exist to make money, not necessarily friends. I'm sure a similar argument would be put forward by the likes of Martin Amis about the role of art! So I'm not here to lay into book packagers - I think they fulfil a clear business need in the industry. I also have lots of friends who work for packagers or write for them - it's not something I've chosen to do so far, but I'm not ruling it out, either. For the freelance author, writing for a packager is a dependable source of income in a difficult market.

Imagine, for a minute, that you are a publisher who has been offered two competing children's sci-fi series. One is presented by a packager, the other by a talented but relatively unknown author. Do you choose the packager - who is resourced and experienced to deliver the series on time and to budget - or the author, who may deliver more than you expected, but may also miss their deadlines and push back on every editorial request you make? On a business level, it's easy to see why there are so many packaged series out there.

It's also easy to be sniffy and declare that packaged fiction is "not as good" as author-led. Writers will often point to the proliferation of packaged series in the 7-9 market and complain that readers are being fed a bland diet of identikit fairies and white bread mythology. But children absolutely love these books - I can't tell you how excited my seven-year-old daughter was recently when she bought herself one of the Dinosaur Cove series. Book packagers do not sit in their editorial meetings and cynically plan the decline of our children's reading habits - for better or worse, they give the market what it wants.

So what to do if you're still devoted to your own fictional concepts and you want to get them published? How can you compete in a market where packagers hold so much influence? Well, maybe you aren't as powerless as all that. Author-led fiction is still seen as the prestige end of children's publishing and it is rare (though not unknown) for packaged books to feature on awards shortlists. Many fiction editors spend their days working on packaged series but dreaming of the perfect author-led project landing on their desk.

Instead of trying to compete with the packagers, revel in your uniqueness and play to your strengths. Here are a few things that you can do to get ahead:
  1. Have Vision - Own your world and your story in a way that nobody else can. Fill your brain with it, until there seems to be no room for ordinary household chores, sleep or eating. Daydream your way to fiction nirvana.

  2. Innovate - Originality is hard. Believe me, I know this. But you can do it. Ignore the current trends, turn off your Bookseller Twitter feed and believe in your ability to generate ideas until you get to the one that really puts you ahead of the crowd. Book packagers thrive on their ability to chase a trend, to quickly put together a project for the publisher who is saying, "Why haven't I got a vampire/wizard/pirate series?" You probably can't move that fast on your own.

  3. Take Risks - As a sole author, you have a lot more latitude to take risks with a project, to write without a plot outline, to follow your muse wherever it goes. Why not innovate in form as well as content? What's the worst that can happen?

  4. Write Standalone Fiction - Book packagers are interested in long-running revenue streams, especially where they can merchandise characters and use them in other forms of media. Why not write a really superb but self-contained book? This is a great way to push your creativity to the edge and avoid that urge to hold back on story in the hope of sequels.

  5. Take Your Time - As an amateur or semi-professional author, you're probably not relying on writing as an income stream. So slow down and get things right.

  6. Be a Little Bit Crazy - Some of the most distinctive authors are a tad, well, unhinged. Not in a screaming-and-smashing-up-their-publisher's-office way, but in terms of their personality and how they present themselves to the world. Having a unique outlook and voice is so, so important in author-led fiction, and being slightly bonkers is a good way to achieve that. I think it would be unfair of me to give any examples. *cough* Philip Ardagh *cough*.

  7. Don't beat them, join them - If all this sounds too far outside your comfort zone, that's fine. Why not write for a packager yourself? You can easily apply to be added to their author list and pitch to write one of their books. Working in this way is a marvellous opportunity to hone your craft, see yourself in print and get a good upfront payment. It's like a modern writer's apprenticeship.


Some UK Book Packagers:
Working Partners
Hothouse Fiction

Friday, 18 March 2011

Many Hands Make Great Work

Following the sad death of children’s agent Rosemary Canter last week, there were many heartfelt tributes. That in itself didn’t surprise me, as she was a larger-than-life figure who tried to do the very best for her clients. What interested me was the many writers who had never been represented by Rosemary, but who had received encouragement and guidance from her nonetheless. And that got me to thinking about all of the people who have touched my own work over the years, and the many who will contribute in the future.

The journey of a writer is a long one (Lord, is it ever long) and I hope I’ll get an acknowledgements page someday soon to thank people by name. But I think we get so focused on the now, on the manuscript in our hands, that it’s easy to forget those who helped us five, ten or twenty years ago. There’s almost always an English teacher in the mix, for instance. Or the friend we told stories with as a child, but who later grew out of the habit (even though we didn’t). I swear for a couple of years when I was younger, my brother was the funniest boy alive – but he looks all embarrassed when I mention the zany characters he used to invent and impersonate.

Some people can affect a work without even reading it. Like the lady who ran the coffee bar at work, who would often ask me how the writing was going when I was staring out at the car park, chewing my biro. Or the customers who came in at the same times every day, giving me an opportunity to study their behaviour and character. With writing being such a solitary affliction, there’s a certain attraction to working somewhere communal, even if the background chatter and background music can be a distraction on the days when the words aren’t flowing. I’m writing this on a train, and it’s nice to muse on how my work might be affected by the man who just got on, dripping with sweat, or the woman whose sole conversation every day is to grumble about the punctuality of the service. Although I don’t think they’re going to be promoted to main character status anytime soon…

And then there are the writers, agents, editors and friends who influence a book directly, by commenting on the words on the page. If you keep faith with a book for long enough, then tens or even hundreds of people might see it in that time. I’m flabbergasted by the achievement of Janet Foxley, who won the Times Chicken House Competition with her book Muncle Trogg after ten years and ten drafts. I’ve been writing my current novel for six months and was beginning to think that was a long time! But throughout the process, a book must remain yours to have a chance of being published. Other people’s ideas on a book are just that – ideas. A writer must always filter these through their own sensibility, the same way we interpret all of the events of our lives.

Have I helped other writers too, even in a small way? I hope so – it’s nice to be able to give something back, to develop or spark an idea in someone else. Sometimes, they will run with that idea and do a much better job of writing it than I ever could. More than that, I hope in the future to entertain and inspire as many children as will allow me onto their bookshelf. That seems a pretty good legacy to aim for.


Friday, 11 March 2011

A Brand New Voice

If you’ve been writing fiction for more than ten minutes, (you have, right?) you’ll be familiar with the concept of voice - the idea that, to get noticed, every writer needs a distinctive way of writing and telling a story. As an alumnus of Undiscovered Voices, I probably have a certain amount of form in this area. A more recent (but no less pervasive) idea is the concept that an individual author can be seen as a brand in the marketplace, and be marketed as such. At face value, it’s tempting to want to separate the two, to see it as case of art vs. commerce. But actually, voice and brand are closely linked.

When a reader picks up a book with your name on it, they will already have formed an idea of the content. This comes from several places – the cover, placement in the shop, reviews, online chatter, advertising (if you’re lucky enough to get some) and previous books. Then, they will most likely open the book and read the first page or so. This is where voice is vital – it must reinforce the impression they have gathered from the supporting material, but also surprise the reader in some way. The amount of surprise it needs to generate depends on the author brand you have built up and the kind of books you write. A reader opening up a Maeve Binchy novel would expect a very different experience to someone with a David Mitchell book, for instance.

But now I’ve discovered that it isn’t just flesh-and-blood writers who need their own distinctive voice. Every brand does.

For the last month or so, I’ve been working in the marketing department of a major UK consumer brand and, contrary to my expectations, I’m really enjoying it. Although it isn’t a publisher, I’m starting to gain more sympathy for those sales and marketing people who I may previously have cast as the bad guys. I’m also discovering the delicacy of writing needed for brand communication. People expect to be talked to in a certain way by the brands they’ve come to trust, and that style needs to be maintained across TV adverts, print and online. If I need to write a bit of text for a brand website, I have to consider the audience for that material and the tone that the brand adopts. I also have to consider economy, because nowhere is economy of writing more important than in marketing. Never say in twenty words what you can in five!

A brand voice is not very different to an authorial voice. Except it doesn’t come from one person, but hundreds. Luckily, I have a brand department who will check anything I write and approve it, so I don’t have to worry that I’ll type something inappropriate that will become a cause célèbre on Twitter. Yep, just like writers, companies monitor everything that’s said about their brand on social media and react accordingly.

Brand voice has a huge effect on how we react as consumers. I noticed a card on the doormat from the Royal Mail about an undelivered parcel. Previously, these cards had a very utilitarian bit of text as a title, the kind of gruff statement that implied it was my fault for being out when the postman knocked. But now it has three friendly words at the top: “Something For You.” With those three words, the Royal Mail are changing the way they communicate with me as a brand, emphasising that their job is actually to bring me nice surprises rather than junk mail. I’m already feeling better about that long walk to the sorting office.


Friday, 4 March 2011

Writing THE ONE

There’s a classic scene towards the end of The Matrix where Neo suddenly stops running and starts to fight back against the agents. Trinity asks what he is doing and Morpheus replies (with maximum cod-Shakespearian gravitas) “He’s beginning to believe.” This is very much the state I find myself in at the moment – not pursued by implacable foes, but a quarter of the way into a novel that promises to be very special. I’m starting to believe that this book – much like Neo – is THE ONE.

But how can I know this? And is it a good thing? There are so many disappointments in my past as a writer and so much uncertainty in my future – will this really be the book that makes it all happen?

There was a period last year when, deep in depression, I lost faith in just about everything, most of all myself. So a belief in this book is a welcome step forward, an acknowledgement that I do have value and that my writing has a future. But at the same time, I’m wary of getting too excited, for fear of having my heart broken a second time. Alas, I think I may be falling in love with this novel all the same.

Writing is an odd mix of self-confidence and self-doubt. You need enough self-confidence to pick up a pen every day, to put words on the page when so many others are doing the same thing. But you also need self-doubt to make you go through the manuscript one more time, to realise that you aren’t infallible and that the writing can always be improved. Many a book has bloated because the author had too much self-confidence, or been thrown away because the author had too much self-doubt.

So I have my doubts about this book – of course I do. But damn if it isn’t working. It’s getting the best crit group feedback I’ve ever had and my writing buddies are actively asking to read more. I wouldn’t say it’s easy to write (is anything?) but as the words pile up on the page, I have increasing faith in the story and the characters. I’m taking conscious notice of structure for the first time, crafting every scene to really progress the story. As my skills as a writer begin to mature I’m left with this realisation: short of a catastrophe, the only thing stopping this book from being remarkable is my own talent for self-sabotage. Here then, is my greatest foe, yet also the only one that is entirely under my control.

Can I hold it together long enough to write another 30,000 words? Can I keep my faith as the book goes through innumerable edits and is set free into the world of publishing?

Watch this space.