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.

Nick.

Some UK Book Packagers:
Working Partners
CanDo
Hothouse Fiction

9 comments:

  1. Great post Nick, and I'm glad you're recommending the go crazy route as this is one I'm actively following at the moment as evidenced by most recent blog entry.

    On a slightly more sane note, I do recommend gettig on the packagers' lists. I pitched for a packaged series and it was a fascinating exercise. I really enjoyed doing the research and producing the writing sample and they gave me very useful feedback.

    Jeannette

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  2. Great post Nick. Hothouse won the Waterstones Children's Book prize with one of their books I think.

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  3. Great blog, Nick - packagers get a lot of flak but I think they provide a good, reliable service and some series of excellent quality. (Bias alert - I write for a packager.) And Keren's right - Hothouse won the Waterstones prize with Darkside. It's like anything else - the two methods can coexist.

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  4. Hoo hoo my word verification was 'Factro'!

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  5. An excellent post, Nick, and thanks for the mention.

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  6. Great post Nick - I used to be a bit snooty about packagers - what an idiot! They do a great job, that's why they sell a lot of books - highly professional AND desirable.

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  7. Fantastic post, Nick. Thanks for the balanced view. I agree; let's all get a little crazy (in a good way). Life's too short not to write our heart out and bare our soul. J.J. Abrams did it with packaged TV; so can children's book packagers if their execs are hired for their vision. This is why the Frey venture fascinates me; he's both executive and visionary. Too bad the contract terms at his company seem unfair, at least at the moment of this writing. If the terms were better, and the truth telling more in line with the truth, I'd write for him.

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  8. OMG you've become useful! excellent post - writing for book packagers could also be a stepping stone to writing under one's own 'brand' for want of a better word.

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  9. I know I'm a bit late to the game, Nick, but wanted to stop by and say I love these ideas for encouraging writers to be as original and risk-oriented as possible. Really empowering!

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