Celebrity Children’s Authors Whinge

Apologies for the lack of post last week, but I’m gonna make it up to you with a long, in-depth and semi-researched post today, FULL of complaints and whining! I spoil you.

So if you are involved in (or a semi-desperate observer of) the Children’s Publishing market, you were probably aware of the controversy caused last week by the celebrity-heavy line up of children’s titles for next year’s World Book Day. 4 out of the 10 books that will be £1 on World Book Day 2018 to promote reading, were written by celebrities.

You are also probably aware that, ludicrous as this seems, it isn’t surprising. Controversy over celebrity children’s writers has been a growing topic over the last couple of years, when everyone from Jamie Lee Curtis to George friggin Galloway to Eyebrows Delevingne has been cranking out children’s/YA books.

If this is all getting a bit TL;DR (get me bein’ all down with the internet), then this gif pretty much summarises my feelings on the issue:

 

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Unlike most ACTUAL children’s authors, feeling personally victimised by the industry isn’t that new to me (pardon the self pity), so when I hear about a celebrity getting a publishing deal that would probably have paid for at least half a dozen debut authors, it just gives me a particularly violent burst of the impotent rage and sadness I’m usually feeling when I think about children’s publishing.

But I didn’t particularly want to talk about why this is A Bad Thing, because I really do feel like that’s pretty self-evident. (If you don’t think so, David Almond, Patrick Ness and Joanne Harris, among others, have gone into it.) What I wanted to talk about was the brain-frazzling logic I’ve seen defending the celebrity children’s authors. For instance, World Book Day director Kirsten Grant has said, “Yes, there are celebrity writers on the list (who have written their own books), but if they are the catalyst to encouraging a non-reader to pick up a book and start a nationwide conversation about reading, then everyone will be better off.”

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Now, Kirsten, are you telling me that you honestly believe that the average 5-8 year old knows (or gives a flying fuck) who Clare Balding is? Don’t get me wrong, I love Clare Balding – I think she’s very good at her actual job, but I’m not sure her prominence in the televised sports presenting and journalism field is going to have brought her to the attention of many kids, however much they might love animals.

What Kirsten Grant MEANS is that these children’s PARENTS have heard of Clare Balding, and so are more likely to choose a book written by her whilst stood in the kid’s section at Waterstones, staring at the multi-coloured, floor-to-ceiling mirage before them and clutching tenners in their sweaty, panic-stricken hands – because it’s easier. It’s easier than doing some research into children’s books and their non-celebrity authors. It’s easier than asking a bookseller who they would recommend. It’s easier than picking something at random and your child-hating it because they told you that until they’ve read Dick King Smith’s entire back catalogue they couldn’t possibly touch Jacqueline Wilson.

And that’s okay. I get that. I’m not a parent, but that shit looks well stressful, and I can easily imagine ignoring these options in a field where you feel a bit in over your head.

But I don’t think it’s right for publishing companies to ENCOURAGE that. It feels lazy, to me, to spend loads of money slapping a celebrity’s face on an often-ghostwritten book and screaming about it, regardless of its quality, to push parents towards buying something easy. Surely more children will end up reading if they’re given something because it’s good. (Slight disclaimer here that I do know there are celebrity authors – David Walliams, for one – who write genuinely good kid’s books. But it’s an exception-not-a-rule situation.)

So yeah, that’s my two-bit. Please don’t try to tell me that publishing celebrity authors will encourage children to read, because you know and I know that is nonsense.

(And FYI, I’ll write you a children’s book for like 1/1000th of the price of Cara Delevingne.)

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What Does ‘Successful’ Mean?

Guys, brace yourselves. This is going to be an actual, real blog post.

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It occurred to me recently (months ago, actually, but hey) that I’ve talked a lot about wanting to be ‘successful’ and how hard I’ve been trying to achieve any ‘success’ and how desperate I am to even touch a blob of ‘success’, without ever actually defining the term. Do I mean I want to get a publishing contract? Hold my own, completed and printed, novel in my hands? Earn my living through writing? Become a squillionaire? Have newspapers hand me their monthly title of ‘the next JK Rowling’?

Well, yeah. I mean, that’d be sweet.

But sadly, I’ve been writing/trying to get a book published/cyber-stalking successful writers for ten years, and have long since tempered my thirteen-year-old intentions (of appearing on talk shows to promote the celebrity-starring film adaptation of my bestselling children’s novel) with a hearty dose of reality. Don’t get me wrong, the Dream Big Scenario is still – and will always be – to be a rich and renowned writer of books that people love.

But I’m not as stupid as I often sound.

As the years have gone by, my ambition for my own potential writing career has gradually deflated, surged up and (in the darkest hours of rejection) been replaced with the Primary Life Ambition of ‘owning a dishwasher’.  ‘Success’ is not a definition I have set in stone – even for me it’s a totally subjective concept, and I’m sure that anyone you asked would define it differently. But it’s been on my mind a lot recently, as I have once again found myself sacrificing my fought-for and valued writing time wringing job applications from my tired and frustrated brain, for positions I don’t actually want. (Please excuse the millenial* whining.)

On the plus side, it’s usually times like this when I settle on Becky’s Definitive Definition of Personal Success. And it is this: to be enabled, through publication of a novel, to build my working life around writing for children.

In translation, I want to hold my own, professionally published book in my hands. I want to earn some portion – and it doesn’t matter how tiny – of my living through writing. I want publication of a novel to give me a key to doors that are only open to published writers – to apply for residencies, take part in author visits at schools, attend book festivals and participate in the community of children’s/YA writers who are living, as far as I’m concerned, the Life of Riley.

Now don’t get me wrong, in an ideal world I’d be able to live a comfortable life by spending my working days doing the thing I love and am good at. But I think my subconscious feels that if I set my sights a little lower – to being able to call myself a published writer, and desperately pimping myself out accordingly – then maybe the universe will compromise, and give me something. You never know.

So that’s ‘success’, to me. And I’ve been thinking about it for so long, I can’t even tell if it sounds tragic or arrogant anymore…

*Please also excuse the use of the word ‘millenial’.

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Let Me In!

It’s actually going to be a real post this week! With length and misery and everything!

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Seriously though, this blog post is not for the fainthearted – it is, however, intended to be an understanding cuddle to everyone who has felt what I’m feeling at the minute re: rejections. And to try and reassure myself, as much as anyone, that this feeling isn’t reserved for me, and that it won’t last.

So here’s how I feel. Nearly ten years ago, in my tender early teens, I knocked politely on the door of a Very Intimidating House, and had this conversation with the very tall and scary person, called Publishing Industry, who answered:

Me: Will you publish my book please?

Publishing Industry: *flicking through my 500+ page, dragons-and-swords fantasy trilogy* No. Go away and write a better book.

Which, to be honest, was fair. So I did. Two years later, we had the same conversation about my much-harder-to-genre-ise YA story, only now there were some extras:

Publishing Industry: Still not a good enough book. Also, you need to get better at writing cover letters and synopses, pay attention to every minute detail on our various and sundry websites to make sure you don’t piss us off at the starting post, find out where you stand in the children’s market, learn how to pitch better and get more writing experience.

FINE

So I went away (skipping and frolicking) and read hundreds of books, learned the children’s market about as well as anyone who isn’t being paid to do so can, studied countless guides to writing cover letters and synopses to write a good pitch, made sure I was submitting precisely within the guidelines of each individual agency / competition, and in the meantime got an MA in Creative Writing as well as writing thousands and thousands more words.

Now, I’m standing in front of that same door (only now it’s cold and pissing rain) and they still won’t let me in. And now, no-one will even tell me why. Is it because my writing isn’t good enough? Maybe; I’m no JK Rowling, but I’ve also read (published) worse. Is it because my story isn’t marketable? Again, maybe; but it’s essentially children’s fantasy – how un-marketable has that ever been?  Is it because I’m just unlucky, and keep writing to the wrong people at the wrong time? Maybe; but that doesn’t make it sting any less.

What’s frustrating me the most at the minute is that I keep finding myself trawling the internet for more tips, more guidance, more things I haven’t tried that might finally get me through that door. But all I ever find is stuff I’ve already done.

So that’s me this week, I’m afraid. Standing outside of a perennially closed door; cold, soaked and very, very grumpy.

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Next week we’re back to short and sweet, but I promise to also say some things that won’t leave you wanting to go to bed forever. Maybe.

 

A HESITANT look at the balance of respect within the agent/potential author relationship

I am quite nervous about this post. I apologise in advance if everything you’re about to read is so lampshaded and contradicted that it makes no sense. But…

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…here goes.

I don’t think the level of respect submitting authors are expected to show agents is reflected or balanced in the way agents can treat submitting authors. And I think that is unfair.

Now unless your response to that was ‘well, duh’ (which is entirely reasonable), bear with me. I noticed right at the beginning of this process that there was a particular ‘tone’ to the submissions information on most agency websites. Most of the instructions given are extremely specific  – save your document with the name in this template, include all of these things within one attachment only, give us all of this information in the top line of your email. The implication – if not outright stated – is that if you don’t abide by these exact rules then your submission will receive a one-way ticket to the recycling, without passing Go.

And I think that’s fair enough. I get it, agents are very busy people; they don’t have time to fanny on with formatting  and digging for relevant information when they only have ten minutes today to dig into the slush pile anyway. Quite apart from which, the agent is in the position of power here; as a potential author you are asking them for their highly prized, hard-won and much-coveted help. They won’t get paid unless you do a good job – it’s entirely fair for them to be extremely particular about how you approach them.

So far, so reasonable.

On top of this, agents expect prospective authors to treat them with an individuality, and a personal touch. Whilst most agencies understand and expect you as an author to be making multiple submissions at once (in the interest of not withering into old age by the time you reach the promised land of Publishedom), they also expect you to have approached their agency for a reason, and for your approach to be personalised and well-researched for their particular agency.

This too, seems legit.

So you follow all the rules, you read the bio for every single author on their client list, you rewrite your cover letter to include everything you’ve researched, reformat your opening chapters to fit their specifications, write a new synopsis of the length they requested, save it all in a document precisely labelled ‘dd.mm.yyy_Name_Book Title_ohpleaseohplease_I’ll send you cake’, and email it to them with a metaphorical packaging of all your hopes and dreams since you were twelve.

At which point, you wait twelve weeks and eventually realise they’re never going to respond.

Now here’s where I’m like:

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I think it’s really important in this age of Twitter and YouTube to always try and speak to people via typing the same way you would talk to them if they were sat in front of you. I get that this is not how the rest of the internet operates, and most people who are arsewipes online will be arsewipes in real life, but I still think it’s an idealistically decent attitude to live by.

So imagine this IRL. Our budding young author has followed the agency’s instructions to the letter and lovingly packaged their submission to meet all requirements. S/he holds it in her/his sweaty hand and waits in a queue of other dream-fuelled masochists for literal weeks. Eventually s/he reaches the agent, who at least in my head sits bathed in a bright glowing light á la Obi Wan Kenobi at the end of Return of the Jedi. S/he places the submission on the table between them, and waits with baited breath as the agent flicks casually through the pages. Minutes pass. Then, all at once, the agent swipes the submission sideways into an overflowing bin, stands up and walks off without a single word.

In the words of that really scary dude from Firefly, does that seem right to you?

Now don’t get me wrong, I know that agents have other peoples’ hopes and dreams up the wazoo, and they literally can’t take the time to send a gentle, supportive reply to each and every one. But if all it took was a blanket bcc at the end of the day to every author whose submission they had decided not to take further – even just addressed to ‘Author’ – I don’t think it’s too much to ask for a reply.

It must be a very strange thing, to have to squash a stranger’s hope with every submission that doesn’t interest you – and I don’t envy agents that. Every rejection I’ve ever received has included a line wishing me ‘the best of luck with another agent’. Generic or not, I still think this is a very kind sentiment. But I imagine it also helps agents cope with the way they have to treat others’ aspirations as part of their job.

I imagine that, because I like to think that agents are aware of how important every submission is to its writer. As a writer myself, I don’t think it’s reasonable to expect reams of feedback, or breathless encouragement, or even a vaguely personalised rejection letter from an agent. But I do think that whoever you are, if you’re dealing with something that is – in all likelihood – indescribably important to anyone, anywhere, and you’re aware of that…

The decent thing to do is to treat it, and them, with respect.

(Though if an agent is reading this then I don’t mean a word of it I’m sorry please excuse my principles I’ll get rid of them sorry sorry please don’t hate me.)

Next Post: The yin to my Good News post‘s yang, I’m afraid. On picking yourself up when you find you’ve been given a good solid kick back to square one. (I swear every other post will not always be about reactions to the many and varied forms of rejection…)

Submissions Last Week

Just three this week, having resumed our regular programming. One I had to preface with a phone call, which I’m gonna say was one of the Top Five Most Nerve-Wracking Moments Of My Life.

Current Rejection Tally: 5