‘It’s not about good books any more…

… it’s about the hook.’

This quotation comes from a very recent Hodder Children’s Books Acquisition Meeting courtesy of Beverley Birch.

Beverley presented an illuminating talk, followed by a Question and Answer session, to the Hampshire Writers’ Society at Winchester University on Tuesday 10th January 2011. It was a sobering presentation.

The essential point for us as aspirant writers in the current market to grasp is that our chances of being taken on by commercial publishers have very little to do with the readership. It is not about children.

It is about the buyers from Tesco, Asda et al and to a lesser extent, W.H. Smith and Waterstones. If we do not have a ‘high concept’ pitch ( think ‘Snakes on a Plane’) that will appeal to these buyers, then we may well be better off self-publishing.

It is not enough to have a coherent plot, engaging characterisation  and a well-conveyed setting. There must be pace and suspense, of course.The voice of the piece also must be distinctive and vigorous – and it must be commercial.

It is this last that shrivels my heart.

What do you do if your imagination runs to less easily marketed ideas?

What do you do if you’ve never been attracted by the mainstream?

Any thoughts?


17 thoughts on “‘It’s not about good books any more…

  1. I saw your post on the SCBWI yahoo group and wandered over to your blog. Thanks for sharing what you heard from the writers’ society. Although it may be true that a ‘hook’ is important in the ‘selling’ of books, I still think people will only ‘recommend’ books to their family and friends that are really good. So, word-of-mouth is still based on good literature and not selling tactics.

    Thanks for sharing!


    • Jane, welcome to my blog. There’s more variety in other earlier posts you might like – I am very pleased that you commented. I agree word-of-mouth is the best marketing – but it doesn’t help if your book doesn’t get out there in the first place, sadly.

  2. It has been coming, let’s face it. So the answer: set up an epublishing co-operative and self-publish. Or sign up with an epublishing venture which spurns “commercial”. Have you seen Michael Thorn’s latest venture – worthwhile checking out on the Achuka website. It’s time to make our own destinies.

    • I like your style, Nicky!
      I will admit that I had rather hankered after the affirmation of a traditional print publisher. Holding a ‘proper book’ with my name on it would mean someone had respect for my work.
      Ah well.
      Thanks for commenting.

  3. I think I am pleased I was too ill to go last night. This is sobering if unsurprising following David Cameron’s comments about funding only ‘commercially successful’ films. It seems to me this is in the same vein. But I am not going to give up I believe that there is still a place for a good story. Thanks Philippa for posting this

    • You are right, of course, that good stories will win through. I’m just not sure how I fit in with this brave new world.
      Thanks for the response & I hope you’re feeling better today.

  4. You can self-publish the non-mainstream stuff you enjoy writing now without giving up on the dream of conventional publishing in future if you come up with an idea that is ‘commercial’. We all need a dream, but at the same time there’s no fun in writing what you don’t enjoy.

    • Thank you for commenting – that seems a reasonable strategy. I just wanted someone professional to think my stuff was good enough to put out there.

  5. Hodder are a large, commercial firm though. I can’t imagine everyone in publishing feels this way. For one thing, there are many original, imaginative beautifully written children’s and YA books being published. Saw the Achuka thing too-looks intriguing!

    • Good to hear from you!
      Definitely there is the point that others may see it differently – though I think we have to be realistic about the lead time. I will check out the Achuka thing too.

  6. When I last looked in Tesco, there weren’t many children’s/YA on the shelves at all – there was a Jacqueline Wilson, Wimpy Kid – so very few are picked up by them.
    At a workshop last year, an editor told us our work had to be ‘market ready’ before submission. I wish I’d asked more about what that means.

    • The sad thing is, Lesley, that the few they promote sell well – it’s a vicious circle.
      I imagine it like this:
      ‘Will this stack up against Robert Muchamore?’
      ‘Probably not.’
      ‘Come back when it will.’

      I’ll just have to find a different way in. Thanks for commenting.

  7. I loved reading your blog. It looks great! …but Beverley did say some good books are getting through. She gave some advice, “What’s the hook? Make your manuscript noticeable. Give it a distinctive voice, give it an edge – make it special.” Despite the gloomy prospects, several people have emailed me to say they have gone away inspired to write, re-edit (checking their story ‘is going somewhere interesting’ within first 4 or 5 pages), and then to submit. Let’s hope things get better out there!

    • You’re right of course – and the point is to ‘up our game’, but I do think there is a tendency to be risk-averse on the publishing side as well. I’m always glad to read your comments, Karin.

  8. I’m right there with Nicky – I think it’s time for a sort of revolution. It’s coming anyways, with ebooks outselling traditional ones. People really need to write what they love – I can’t imagine that many of the most wonderful children’s books were written with a market, or commercialism in mind. It’s depressing, but I really think there are alternatives. Plus, good literary fiction still does come out of the big publishers. But perhaps a smaller proportion?

    Thanks for blogging about the event…

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