Friday, 26 August 2011


In case you missed the memo, the publishing industry is dead. Again. But fear not, from disarray comes opportunity. This week, I'm giving you an exclusive sneak preview of my fantastic new Build-A-Publisher initiative.

After gutting the rusting hulk of traditional publishing, I've stolen all the best bits for you. Soon, at a nominal charge, you'll be able to reassemble them to construct your very own bit of publishing history - imagine Build-A-Bear Workshop, but instead of recording a schmaltzy message, you get to stuff a whole audio book inside. Whether you're a writers' co-op looking for guidance or a publishing worker looking for a job at the local Co-Op, you'll be able to find everything you need at Build-A-Publisher.

My web boffins are having some trouble right now finding a Jiffy bag large enough to hold the Hachette publicity department, so you'll just have to imagine the "add to basket" buttons and whizzy web fripperies. But you creative types should have no problem with that...


Editorial is your frontline in the battle to shove a bit of quality culture down the necks of the Asda massive. Spend wisely.
  • Self-Editing - £0.00
    You can edit, can't you? After all, there's a comma on page 57 that you must have moved about a hundred times. Nobody will eva no that yu didnt get a proffesional 2 doit.

  • Junior Editor - £18,000
    Very eager to please and bursting with helpful ideas. "Have you considered setting your sci-fi trilogy in Leighton Buzzard?" "How about making her dad into a socialist werewolf?"

  • Editorial Director - £45,000
    Frightfully well educated and able to talk for an hour about the Romance languages and their impact on English grammatical construction. Has such a gimlet eye for editing that she can spot mistakes before you even make them.

Marketing and Sales

Have an important role in getting right up Editorial's nose. Also responsible for, like, selling books and that.
  • Year 6, Barnstaple C of E Primary School. - £28 (or equivalent value in Twixes and mobile phone credit)
    By selling cakes, Year 6 raised almost seventy pounds towards their new adventure playground. Now they're ready to take it to the next level, selling your books into every outlet in the greater Barnstaple area. They're young and enthusiastic, and Kieran's dad has promised them as much free colour photocopying as he can get away with.

  • The Boiler Room Boys - £30,000
    Fresh from a Spanish boiler room operation ripping off gullible OAPs, these guys are ruthless in their commitment to shifting product. Books, shares, nuclear warheads - they don't care what it is, as long as they get their monthly bonus.

  • TOTAL/BS - £150,000
    Tetherington Oxley Taft Armstrong Langley Banana Smith is the first fully-vertically-integrated marketing and sales agency in the WC1 postcode area. You can safely outsource all of your most vital work to them, knowing that they will always be 110% focused on selling their key product. Themselves.

Digital Services

With Amazon bundling a free Kindle with every Justin Bieber album, the age of the e-book has finally arrived. So you'll need a digital team who know their apps from their elbow.
  • Greasy Steve - £17,000
    Greasy Steve lives in a postcard-sized flat in Islington, surrounded by boxes of computer equipment and four very well fed cats. With no room to move, he spends 23.7 hours a day in front of his laptop, crafting digital masterpieces at ultra-low cost.

  • The Applebys - £38,000
    Ryan and Martine are a husband and wife team, so obsessed by all things Apple that they have actually changed their surname to match. Most of the time, you'll find them either in the Apple Store or queuing outside for some revolutionary bit of shiny kit. Ryan is so desperate to get his hands on an iPhone 5 that he's considering travelling to China to take a job in a high-tech sweatshop.

  • Janice Gutenberg - £70,000
    Janice is a direct descendent of Johannes Gutenberg, and shares his flair for leaps of technical genius. Not content with simple e-books, she has already invented a holographic projection system where an author can appear in your bedroom and read the book to you as you fall asleep. She is now working on an enhanced version, which enables him to complement you on your nightwear and make you a cup of Horlicks.

Foreign Rights Department

The home market is all very well, but what happens when you've already sold a copy to everyone you know? Breaking into foreign territories can bring in the moolah that every publishing executive craves.
  • My Mate Dave - £137.50
    Dave is a master of languages. He knows how to get a woman into bed in seven of the most popular European tourist resorts. With his silver tongue, negligible morals and talent for extreme flattery, how can you go wrong?

  • Estrella Zimanova - £26,000
    Estrella is of Russian/Spanish/Cornish ancestry, and has spent five years observing the foreign rights department of a major literary agency while emptying their bins. By saving many boxes of expired contracts from the shredder, she now has a priceless insight into the workings of every publisher in the Northern hemisphere.

  • The Flying Aristocrats - £99,000
    Why hire just one person when you can have a whole gang? The Flying Aristocrats are a cosmopolitan team of acrobats whose members speak fifteen languages between them. They also have an added advantage at book fairs, where their gravity-defying antics allow them to dodge the crowds, diving from one foreign sale to the next.

What they're saying about us:
"Conflict of interest? What conflict of interest? With Build-A-Publisher, I'm my own one-man industry!" Andrew Crafty, Literary Agent

"Build-A-Publisher is the best thing since sliced iPad. I'm tweeting about it right now!" Kate Winslet, Managing Director, Suspicious Magpie


Friday, 19 August 2011

Dead Parents Syndrome

I recently had a problem when trying to recommend a middle-grade book for my eleven-year-old daughter. I noticed that she was very resistant to the action-adventure book I'd picked out for her, which normally would have been right up her street. When I quizzed her, it turned out that she'd read the back and didn't like the fact that the plot hung on the main character's father dying early in the story. So I found something else - no good, I realised, more dead parents. Again and again, I picked up books only to put them straight down. Eventually, I found a Michael Morpurgo book that I hadn't read, but which didn't sound too bad. Half an hour later, I went back upstairs and found my daughter in tears. What was the problem? Oh yes, someone's dad had just been killed.

The more I looked, the more I realised that there are a lot of dead parents in children's fiction. Some might even call it an epidemic. I blogged a year ago about the reasons why dispatching a parent is dramatically useful, but for this post I wanted to concentrate on the emotional effect on the reader. Parental bereavement is clearly an issue that my daughter worries about. More than that, it's something that I worry about, and I wonder how much I might be trying to work through my own fears of premature death via my book selections. I've been aware of the looming presence of death in my own fiction for a while - could I even be choosing what I read on that basis?

But maybe this isn't an issue that only affects me. I know a surprisingly large number of children's writers who lost a parent when they were themselves children. Many more have had to cope with parents dying since. With such emotive material, it's not surprising that writers consciously or unconsciously explore these issues in their fiction. But the fact remains that the statistical chance of a child losing one or both parents before they reach adulthood is something like 1 in 20 - the ratio expressed in contemporary middle-grade and YA seems much higher.

Amongst the recent debates on taboos in YA, I firmly agree with the view that young people need hard-hitting books, that these provide teenagers with a way to explore painful issues in relative safety. But I also feel that they shouldn't have these issues forced upon them - they must go to these books when (or if) they are emotionally ready. But how to avoid dead parents syndrome when it's so often used as a dramatic device that is more or less incidental to the plot? I think about how many classic stories begin with the main character orphaned and wonder if those are out-of-bounds as well. Time and again, book awards will recognise dark and downbeat novels rather than ones that are fun and uplifting - it's little wonder that in trying to fill my house with good quality children's books, I've picked quite a few with challenging themes.

Of course, perhaps my daughter was just feeling vulnerable for other reasons that day. She has, after all, read and re-read the Harry Potter series - no shortage of dead parent issues there! But I do see a problem, in that both she and my younger daughter have a reading ability that is running ahead of their emotional development. It's great to push boundaries in children's fiction and to keep up with the needs of our ever more complex audience. But let's not forget that sometimes, all they really want is some good old-fashioned escapism.


Friday, 12 August 2011

On Writing and Rioting

Are you a part of the problem or a part of the solution? A pertinent question after this week's riotous activities, and one that gives me significant pause. In my day job, working for a company that defines its profit margins by the number of shiny new smartphones it can unleash upon the world, I'm firmly part of the problem. As a children's writer, I should balance this by being part of the solution, shouldn't I? After all, I'm promoting youth literacy, social mobility and all the good things that can empower our beleaguered underclass to drag themselves up in the world. But I can't escape the idea that writers are increasingly irrelevant.

The idea that the only shop in Clapham left untouched by the looters was a Waterstones, initially made me laugh. Then it made me sad and ultimately it made me feel kind of useless. These are not rioters infused by the spirit of 1968, fuelled by Marxist ideologies or the Situationist writings of Guy Debord. Their revolutionary texts are the instruction manual for Call of Duty and the latest Samsung product catalogue. They are revolutionaries without a purpose, tanked with rage and battered daily by the shiny propaganda of the consumer economy.

Books are becoming an ever-marginalised activity, not because of e-readers but because the very nature of consumption is changing. I think the Nintendo DS can take its share of the blame for distracting would-be young readers, but to be honest it's just accelerating a trend that began with the original Playstation. Games offer us instant feedback and challenge, they engage our brains on a primitive level and constantly reward us for our efforts. Of course, you could argue that a good story does the same thing, and can actually take us much deeper into our primal responses as the tale pulls us through to the climax. But in a culture that is built around quick bite-sized rewards, who has the patience to wade through 250 pages to get that buzz?

Books may have lots of sex in them, but they are rarely sexy as an object. Even the Kindle is really only attractive to the kind of people who read a lot of books and wish they didn't have to lug them around. True, people with iPads read books, but they also spend a lot of their time surfing the web and playing slightly dull games. Books, movies, albums - these are all just more content to shove down the magic funnel towards the shiny device. This news piece about "tentpole" movies didn't surprise me in the least (you can see the evidence at your local multiplex right now), but it was unusual to see a movie executive openly espousing the view that story was dead.

So where does that leave us? Short of another wave of popular book culture like Harry Potter (unlikely), the readership of books seems likely to contract further. Should we be happy to live in a world of middle-class writers preaching solely to middle-class (increasingly female) readers? In some ways, that's no worse than the niche occupied by folk singers, documentary filmmakers or conceptual artists. But books used to be so much more, they used to really matter.

Children do not come out of the womb unwilling to read, no matter how deprived their family background. But with an increasing number of parents of all classes disinterested in reading for pleasure, and libraries teetering on the edge of extinction, how can we reach those kids? Or should it be us that adapts, turning our ideas into apps and games and two-minute YouTube clips rather than 85,000 word novels?

Children's stories bring excitement, laughter and wisdom. But most fundamentally, they bring hope. There are a whole lot of hopeless young people out there in the world right now who could really do with some of that.


Friday, 5 August 2011

The Saga Habit

Except for the tendency to write articles about the Modern Girl and allow his side-whiskers to grow, there is nothing an author to-day has to guard himself against more carefully than the Saga habit. The least slackening of vigilance and the thing has gripped him. He writes a story. Another story dealing with the same characters occurs to him, and he writes that. He feels that just one more won't hurt him, and he writes a third. And before he knows where he is, he is down with a Saga, and no cure in sight.
P. G. Wodehouse

That quote comes from the preface to Blandings Castle, published in 1935. Side-whiskers and proto-feminists aside, the condition Wodehouse describes is still true, 75 years later. Look at Philip Reeve, joyfully immersed in his wonderful Mortal Engines series to the tune of seven books and counting. Or Lemony Snicket's thirteen-book odyssey. I hardly need mention J. K. Rowling, do I?

Many attribute the popularity of the saga to market pressures - the need to create a franchise and build reader momentum over a multi-book series. But there's another side to this coin - writers love them. If being an author is like having your own personal sandpit, then how much better would it be to have a really, really big one full of colourful characters and cool steampunk gadgetry? What if you could excavate as well as widen, digging into the fascinating backstory of your world and its most beloved inhabitants? Lets face it, for George Lucas, the real world basically ceased to exist about twenty years ago.

The downside of the continuing saga is over-elaboration, the urge to explain things that were best left to the audience's imagination. This is a weakness that Star Wars has especially suffered from - Darth Vader and Boba Fett were great baddies who lose more of their glorious ambiguity with every cartoon spinoff. When a writer is in the midst of story, it's easy to forget how much a reader brings of themselves to the worlds we create - over-elaboration can destroy that. Lemony Snicket, on the other hand, went the other way and failed to explain enough about his world. Each book in A Series of Unfortunate Events unveiled more and more delicious mysteries, and it seemed that the author was poised to explain all of them in a glorious final volume. But book 13 - The End - was simply that, more of a stopping point than an answer. Never have I been more frustrated about the exact contents of a simple sugar bowl!

When I was researching the children's market back in 2007 (my previous YA novel having been written in complete ignorance of what was actually selling), the multi-book series seemed like a sure-fire way to get published. So I conceived an elaborate five book saga detailing an ongoing zombie war and set to work. With the first book done, I discovered that even though everyone seemed to want these series, it was bad form to actually mention them in your letter to an agent. No problem, I thought, and came up with the following nifty phrase:
The 51,000 word book tells a satisfying and complete story, while offering considerable scope for expansion into a series.

Pretty good, right? And it worked up until the moment that I sat down in front of my would-be agent and she shot the whole idea down in flames. Her reasoning was very simple and very sound:
  1. It's much harder to sell a series by a debut author than it is to sell a standalone novel.

  2. You shouldn't save ideas for later - put all of your best concepts into the first book and make it as good as it can possibly be.

My friends Teri Terry and Paula Harrison have both recently sold multi-book series as debut novelists, so these are clearly not hard-and-fast rules. Nevertheless, I have taken my agent's advice to heart and it's driven everything I've done on the manuscript I've just completed - to the great benefit of the story. By trying to take the central concept as far as it can possibly go, I've engineered an ending that - if it remains the way it is - could only be diminished by a sequel. So why then, did I find myself yesterday writing the synopsis for a prequel?

Fetch the smelling salts, Jeeves. I seem to be coming down with a Saga after all.