So –one of the hottest days of the year when every sensible person was sitting in a traffic jam on the way to the beach – I was holed up in central London with no ice cream in sight at a ‘How to get your children’s book published’ masterclass – was it worth it?
The word ‘masterclass’ certainly makes it sound like any old no-hoper beginner such as myself would be smoked out and turned away at the door. But luckily it was open to all.
All turned out to be a remarkable number of folk studying at the country’s creative writing MAs, and graduates of the recently established Faber Academy – people you might have thought would have already have sat through enough Masterclasses to enable them to be the smug ones opting to sit in the traffic on Saturday.
But I guess, like I did, we thought the whole point of the afternoon was going to be lots of insider tips as to how to do well in the Chicken House competition. I was ready to hang onto every wise word delivered by Barry ‘the hat’ Cunningham about how to follow in the footsteps of JK Rowling and be ‘discovered’.
As every aspiring author knows, the time approaches when you know you are going to have to stop playing with your baby at home (did I say baby of course I mean manuscript) and send it out into the wide world where you hope it will receive the same fond nurturing love it received at home.
Of course what we all know this really means is that it will be chucked on the slushpile. And if you ever hear an agent, editor (or almost anyone in publishing) the slushpile is not so much loved as treated like rain on a bank holiday.
I would do anything anything to avoid the slushpile. The masterclass was run by the only publisher (I know about) who doesn’t have a slushpile – it runs an annual competition. Very groundbreaking and encouraging.
So it was all a bit of a shock when the first, gentle question, tossed to warm up the panel (‘what are you looking for?’) was caught first by Agent Neil ‘Pottermore’ Blair, who made some general remarks about ‘good vs evil’ and ‘valour in children’ and then dropped in that as the UK market was so crowded one of the biggest things he considers is whether it will translate well for foreign markets, eg the Japanese market.
There was the collective sound of around 70 jaws dropping and definitely the splintering sound of a few hopes – probably those who at least thought they could be smug about being up to scratch with their marketing even if their manuscript could do with an 18th edit. Now they were kicking themselves they hadn’t had the foresight to have researched what the youths in Shanghai are currently engrossed with as well. Come on!
Then Neil continued his knock-out blow with a swift upper cut, adding that he also seriously considers whether there are appropriate app (AppApp?) and e-book add-ons he can see in the manuscript before him.
No-one actively ran out screaming at this point (it was a very hot day, people were lethargic), but several brains (mine definitely) clanked into gear wondering if we hadn’t wandered into some parallel universe.
Are our stories no longer what will bring that magical publishing contract? Do children no longer get so gripped by a story they hide under the bedclothes with torches desperate to finish? Are those days actually behind us and we don’t know about it?
Are e-books now dominating the market choices over print? Are children now rushing into bookshops and demanding not ‘a great read’ but ‘I want something with a seriously good e-book feature’? Is that what we need to be pitching to agents????
Food for thought aplenty. Not to say Panic.
I think I missed a good bit of the talk at this point as I was running through the text of my story and wondering where I could suggest my own AppApp. A link to relationship counselling perhaps? Would a recipe for budget casserole and cabbage soup bring in the readers? A download of BJ’s thrash metal band doing their gig?
The panel managed to move on and had a bit of a barny about whether slightly suspect series literature (Rainbow Fairies got an actual namecheck) were actively ‘bad’ for reading, or whether most active readers go through a phase of this type of addiction, but often rise above it and can find a safe haven in ‘literary fiction’ later in life.
As a shameful addict of rather a lot of poor series fiction that hasn’t entirely been cured, I definitely hung my head at this point and hoped nobody would mention Enid Blyton (they did).
I shall move on (but come back to my favourite ‘worst tips of the day’ award below), just to make sure I don’t bore you before getting to some bits that were actually useful (rather than terrifying).
We divided into smaller groups after a break (cup-of-tea-and-a-biscuit). And some of the delightful folk from Chicken House dropped in on our groups. The lovely, lovely Tina Waller joined us and gave us a bit of background to the whole competition thing (at last!).
Apparently, no, they don’t accept unsolicited manuscripts. Ever. But for their annual competition a whole, completed manuscript, must be entered. And they have teams of professional readers standing by and every single one is read. Actually read all the way through. Not just a quick flick and decision that Ch 1 isn’t gripping enough and goes on the reject pile. No thanks.
A longlist of 20 is put together. Out of over 2,000 submissions 20 may not seem many. But when the general view from the industry is that they get around 50 a week and take on perhaps one new author a year, you can do the math and work out that the odds with Chicken House are definitely in your favour. So there – there must be a few decent gems in that slushpile.
Tina also said that once the reading is done and the longlist starts to come through there is a lot of excitement in the office and people who can’t wait to read the books. This is amazing. So if you substitute ‘competition’ for ‘slushpile’, suddenly the editorial team get really excited about the sifting process. This is extraordinarily good news I feel.
Does anyone think that every publishing house should do it this way??????
Apparently, also, many of the 20 get taken away and put through the mill by the agent to see if they can sweat them into some sort of saleable format. More good news!
Tina also confessed a secret youthful addiction to the Babysitter’s Club series – and she doesn’t appear to have come to serious harm (unless you consider her job in publishing).
OK. Top useful tips.
Barry ‘the hat’ said in a covering letter you should try to make it personal, not just ‘would you like to read my manuscript’. And perhaps mention in the letter who it is they publish that you like. Both things I would have considered playing down in any letter I would write (on the basis of trying to avoid sounding gushy). But the key thing I picked up on here is that it seems they will accept a covering letter with details about yourself in with the manuscript submission for the competition. This was a good tip, I thought.
Agent Neil ‘Pottermore’ Blair gave a tip that he is looking for a ‘cracking big idea’ and one that is set in an ‘international hinterland’ –he likes well-realised imagined worlds that have international appeal. But he managed almost in the same breath to say that English vernacular is quite ‘cool’ at the moment and they have been tending to ‘put it back in’ for the US market. (I think I understood what he meant. . . )
I took away a tip from Mary Byrne (publicist supremo) that authors often enjoy doing events and meeting their fans more than think they are going to. I have definitely stored this one away in my ‘frankly terrified at even the prospect’ file to remind myself if the need should ever arise.
Barry ‘the hat’ said he likes books filled with emotion that other children will recognise – the ‘I never knew anyone else felt like that’ response.
He also said that publishers like the ability to do lots of different editions of a book. By which he meant, for example, a special edition with photographs, or a book with alternative endings- perhaps with additional input suggested by fans. (Sounds cool.)
Lovely Chicken House Tina said they don’t much like books to be suggested as a series. She said there is often a feeling that an author hasn’t put their all into the first one. Often the suggestion for a series comes from ideas the author has had while writing the first, or the suggestion can be made by the agent or editor.
I did come home with a notebook full of tips and suggestions.
(eg– rewrite with AppApp potential and photograph potential and alternative ending potential, set in an well-realised fantasy world international hinterland using cool English vernacular, lots of valour and emotion.) I think I may be getting there. I don’t think I’m going to do very well in this competition.
My worst tips (here they are).
From Michelle Paver – that she doesn’t worry about having a website, or blogging, or even has the internet at home because she has an agent who does that for her. I definitely felt she was on shaky ground with a group of unpublished authors because I am pretty sure all of them will be expected to do this for themselves when they get published. I feel expectations have definitely changed.
Barry ‘without the hat this time’ – he would most like to see a children’s book with no children in it. Would he really? A tricky one to pull off and not to be attempted by the beginner I would have thought. I am not going to follow this bit of advice I have decided. (besides, I have enough changes to make – see above)
Even in a whole afternoon I didn’t get a chance to put most of my questions (there are always plenty of people with questions at these events). But I would have liked to have known a little more about how those 20 longlist are selected.
Do they go mainly for good story, good characters, good voice? And if even one of these elements is strong, is it enough – especially as they said the authors usually have to do a lot of editing even after it has been accepted? So how important is polish? I got the impression that polish is not what they are looking for. No-one mentioned polish (and I am quite big on polish myself – I feel this may be bad).
And how many come through professional channels these days? By this I mean having been through a professional edit. Or though a creative writing MA or Faber Academy etc? How standard a route is this becoming in the publishing industry? Is anyone letting on?
Questions, questions. I think I shall just have to wait for next year’s masterclass and try again. (A bit like the competition then.)