Opinion: What Publishers Want

James Catchpole, Children’s Literary Agent

What makes a new book potentially a children’s classic or – to be less ambitious – the kind of book which publishers are interested in promoting?

These are the questions I’ve been set, and they seem good ones. They’re nicely complementary. The first is the big one, that we’re all asking in children’s publishing: what do kids really want in a book? The second seems more especially geared to an agent: what do publishers want? And I should probably have a ready answer to it because my job, as an agent, is to sell stories to publishers, not to children or their parents.

But actually I find myself better equipped to answer the first question than the second. Putting my worst foot first, I’ll start with the question about publishers.

One side of an agent’s job is to keep an ear to the ground (or to the phone, more prosaically) so as to stay abreast of the zeitgeist and ahead of the trend, to know what kinds of stories editors are looking for, the better to provide them and be rewarded with a healthy percentage of a sizable deal: a big advance, and lots of publicity. After all, a big fuss in the industry press and a considerable investment from the publisher in the advance all but guarantee continued efforts on their part to promote and sell the book. (The problem only comes further down the line, if that advance isn’t recouped.)

And perhaps the best way to get a big offer for a new book is to make sure it’s just what the publishers are looking for. There are strong tides in publishing just as there are in all areas of culture, and you can try to catch a wave and ride it, or at least paddle in its wake. Even the smaller waves have surfers: an editor told me she’d overheard one rights seller open their pitch to a foreign publisher at the Bologna Book Fair with ‘and this is our Werewolves-On-The-Titanic book.’ It’s the ‘our’ that makes that stick in the memory, the implication that everyone else already had theirs.

Thinking about it, I realise I don’t actually worry too much about what publishers want. I may have a certain editor’s particular preferences and talents in the back of my mind when it comes time to take a new story to market, but that’s secondary. The story itself – the story that needs to be told – comes first.

I find I’ve always been more attracted to another side of being an agent: the side that involves eyes and screens more than ears and phones. For me, the true joy of this job comes when a story arrives in my inbox (sometimes of 60,000 words, sometimes of 60 words, sometimes with pictures too) which manages to tap into something powerful and universal, into an idea no doubt conceived by countless authors countless times before, and yet which manages to take that old idea and tell it afresh. That’s the joy of storytelling. And as for children’s storytelling, the principal’s the same, but the stakes are so much higher: a children’s story has the chance not just to captivate and enthral, but to help form a child’s as-yet-unformed view of their world and their life within it, a world only lately encountered, a life only lately begun. What an opportunity!

So that’s the bottom line, in fact. A powerful, universal idea, told afresh. That’s what makes a really good story, and that’s what I look for, as an agent. If the idea is powerful enough, and the telling is fresh enough, then I’ll be able to find an editor for it. And if the editor can show me she wants the story and she has a vision for it, and if I think she’ll be able to communicate that vision to her colleagues, then the author and I will talk about selling the rights, and the wheels of publication will begin to grind.

As for whether the publisher will then publish it well, and promote it, and succeed in putting it in front of the readers so that it has the opportunity to sell and become a children’s classic…that’s subject to a whole host of factors largely beyond my control. So far, though, I’ve found that the most important factor in whether a publisher continues to invest in a book, or quietly shelves it, isn’t the razmatazz around the initial deal, with figures for the size of advance alluded to in The Bookseller, but the simple expedient of enthusiasm: the editor’s love for the book, and whether or not that love proves to be infectious. And that’s ultimately down to the quality of the story.

All of which means that, when it comes to the question of what publishers want, and what children want, my approach is wilfully simple, even simplistic: publishers want what children want, which is good storytelling.

So that’s the theory, anyway. What about the practice? I should give some examples of what I think of as good storytelling. It’s impossible to communicate the all-important voice in which an author tells a story, when summarising it in a few words, but here at least are the ideas behind some of the stories I’m proud to have helped come to fruition.

Little Celeste by Dawn McNiff, Hot Key Books

Little Celeste

Shelley, who’s been brought up to be a good girl and not make a fuss, suddenly finds herself forgotten by her mother, who’s off chasing her horrible boyfriend. Shelley’s Mum’s not bad, she’s just lost the plot a bit. But Shelley’s not ok, and doesn’t have the words or the voice to say so. So when she finds a baby on her bed – a magical baby no one else can see – she finds a welcome distraction her from her loneliness. And what’s more, this baby can teach her something just by doing instinctively what she can’t, which is to cry for its mother.

Hoot Owl, Master of Disguise by Sean Taylor, Walker Books

Hoot owl

The gap between Hoot Owl’s perception of himself as a fearsome, ruthless predator and the reader’s view of him as (basically) a toddler lost in a dressing-up box is thankfully never quite closed, as no matter how incompetent he is with his schemes and his disguises and his metaphors (‘the night has a thousand eyes, and two of them are mine’), there’s finally one quarry, one helpless prey, who ‘doesn’t stand a chance.’ (Albeit it’s a slice of cold pizza).

The Unbelievable Top-Secret Diary of Pig by Emer Stamp, Scholastic

Secret pig

Pig loves Farmer, because Farmer gives Pig slops and special backscratches and calls him special names like Roast Pig and Sausage. Unfortunately, Pig doesn’t speak Farmer, so fails to grasp the full meaning of all this. But Duck, Pig’s best friend, is happily fluent in both Pig and Farmer, and after much steeling himself, sets Pig to rights. Pig is not happy. In fact, Pig’s heart is broken in little pieces, and yours will break too. But it will also soar, when Pig takes his revenge!

Shouty Arthur by Angie Morgan, Egmont

Shouty

Some small boys are so full of energy that they can’t seem to help themselves from running, jumping, climbing and shouting, even in the rare instances when they really, really want to keep still and quiet, like for instance, when they’re trying to spot wildlife: ‘“Come out, you old rabbits!” shouted Arthur. But there were no rabbits to be seen.’

Blood Donors by Steve Tasane, Walker Books

Blood donors

Peoples keep dyin’ in The Finger, the scuzzie old tower block where they put us antisociable families. Authorities say it dirty smack goin’ round, but them bodies ain’t all users…an’ they look like they die screamin…

Marshall O’Connor lives in The Finger with his mum and lil bro. Dad’s in prison, school kicked him out, and the bedbugs are driving him crazy. But it ain’t the drugs that peoples should be worryin’ about, ‘cos them bloodsuckin’ bugs have grown some, and they ready for a bigger feed.

Told in an inventive, funny, fizzingly energetic, inner-city teenaged voice, this story invents a new literary genre: the Splatterfest with a Social Conscience.

There’s a Lion in my Cornflakes! by Michelle Robinson, Bloomsbury

Lion

What if the special offers on the side of cereal packets could be taken literally? Save up enough tokens and you’ll get a lion. Not a toy lion, that is – a lion. Well, great. But what if you saved up all your tokens, posted them off, and waited and waited, but no lion came, and meanwhile all the other kids already had theirs? You’d get mad, is what.

Phoenix by SF Said, Random House and David Fickling Books

Phoenix

Lucky dreams the stars are singing to him and reaches out to touch them…and wakes to find his sheet has burned to ash. This is perhaps the most unusual and ambitious story I’ve sold, simply because of the epic scale of its core idea: a boy who becomes a star. Not a celebrity, you understand, but a giant burning ball of gas in space.

Little Answer by Tim Hopgood, Random House

Little

Kids like to ask questions. There’s a great deal they need to know, after all. And if truth be told, they’re often more interested in asking the questions than hearing the answers. So what if there was an answer that needed to find a question? Surely everything must be the answer to something

 

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