Noel, Noella: Zoella & The Ghost of Christmas Present

It seems that the Grinch has come early this Christmas and this year it has a book in its sights. Not just any old book but the record-shattering GIRL ONLINE by Zoe Sugg (aka Zoella) which, as we all know, sold 78,000 copies in its first week and just shy of 56,000 in its second week. The fact her fans have continued to buy the book even when it was revealed that – shock horror – it was written by a ghostwriter, suggests that they weren’t as disappointed or misled as people claimed they might be. I have been completely baffled by the anger this ghosting ‘scandal’ has provoked. Zoella may be a slightly new breed of celebrity but her book is no different (just bigger) than the celebrity memoirs and fiction which have always dominated the Christmas bestseller lists and which have (on the whole) always been ghostwritten. GIRL ONLINE was written by a ghostwriter – there’s nothing newsworthy about that. In fact it’s more likely to be a talking point when celebrities do write their own books. The assumption is that the majority don’t so why shouldn’t this apply to Zoella?

The-Grinch-how-the-grinch-stole-christmas-31423260-1920-1080Scratch the surface of any industry and you’ll find similar ‘dissembling’ exists. Magazines are full of airbrushed images, actors use body doubles in movies, and films and TV shows are written by teams of writers, many of whom never get a credit. Musicians often don’t write their own songs (and sometimes they don’t even sing them – Beyonce, Britney Spears and even Madonna have all been accused of lip-synching); celebrity chefs don’t write their own recipes and does anyone seriously believe Alan Sugar writes his own script in The Apprentice or that ‘reality’ TV shows depict real life? The writer, Robert Harris was reported to have declared when quizzed about the controversy: “you wouldn’t get away with that if it was a piece of designer clothing” but of course all the major brands have teams of designers working for them. They do get away with it and no one bats an eyelid.

The ghosting scandal has been blown out of all proportion. It’s hardly as if ghosting is new to children’s publishing.  Some of the most successful young fiction series have been ghostwritten and that’s not even counting the Katie Price and Frank Lampard offerings. I would hazard a guess than there are more ‘Adam Blades’ who have contributed to BEAST QUEST than Zoella has mascaras and they haven’t been named, shamed and scrutinized.  This public outrage hasn’t just been directed at Zoella and her publisher but also at Siobhan Curham, the ghostwriter involved.  She has been thrust unwillingly into the limelight and has even been compelled to write a blog asking that people leave both her and Zoella alone. I imagine that plea is also directed at supposed champions of her cause who have suggested that she wasn’t paid enough or given a credit. Just because there’s a rumour about the level of fee another author turned down, this doesn’t mean that was the amount she agreed to and besides, the terms under which she accepted the offer to ghostwrite are her own business and no one else’s. She must have felt comfortable enough with the nature of the deal to move forward and I’m sure that she is perfectly capable of making her own decisions about the work she chooses to take on. If it only took eight weeks as rumour also has it then it might well have been an ideal stopgap between other writing, or a welcome escape from plotting from scratch. While Siobhan acknowledges that there were ‘management issues’ along the way, as agents know only too well, there are few writers who find the process of being published issue free, and that’s exactly where a good agent should step in and help resolve any problems. It is certainly the case that it can be difficult to make a living from writing books alone which is why many savvy authors also engage in other activities to supplement their income – whether its school visits, writing for reading schemes or ghostwriting.

Some of the most scathing criticism of GIRL ONLINE has come from authors and specifically YA authors. When a book sells more than 78,000 copies of course it’s galling for some people. Even more so for authors who have worked tirelessly writing their books, often around the edges of their day jobs and fought for attention from agents and editors, publicists and reviewers only to find their lifetime sales are a fraction of Zoella’s. But these authors aren’t competing with Zoella for readers. A book like hers reaches those who don’t ordinarily buy books, it doesn’t take sales away from existing books. If GIRL ONLINE hadn’t sold 78,000 copies it’s not like those customers would have spent their £12.99 on a different book – most wouldn’t have spent it on books at all. The fact they have is actually a really good for the publishing world and books like this, frustrating though it might be for some authors, do help the publishing industry to thrive. Like THE DA VINCI CODE, HARRY POTTER and FIFTY SHADES OF GREY, GIRL ONLINE has got everyone talking about a book and that must surely have a knock on effect on other books too. Of course we’ll watch all the copy cats pop up now – as always – but the point is that a book like this doesn’t harm the book industry, it helps it.  A bumper Christmas for books will mean retailers will be eager for more books and publishers will be too – so how is that a bad thing? Commercial successes give publishers the money to spend on books which may not be bestsellers but that they view to be important. There are many editors who are passionate about supporting and nurturing authors they believe in and who keep buying their books even when it makes bad business sense to keep publishing an author – when they have large unearned advances for previous books, when their books are not profitable. There are many individuals working in publishing who recognize that there’s more to this business than the money involved and I think there are many authors who don’t realize that publishing is a business and that it’s actually often a humane one.



Trick or Treat, trick or treat, a movie is groovy but books are neat.

One of my favourite books when I was younger was the Point Horror title, TRICK OR TREAT. I can still remember the picture on the cover and the sinister tagline;

trick or treat

Trick or treat, trick or treat, candy is dandy but murder is sweet.

Which just goes to show that all you need is a catchy, (albeit slightly nonsensical), rhyme, a spooky house and some orange foil and you can haunt a reader for more than 20 years. Since then Halloween has always held a special place in my heart. The year I was 16 at a friend’s Halloween party I changed from my original outfit into a clown’s costume complete with mask part way through the night scaring the life out of the other guests. I then threw a party in my late teens which involved a Scream outfit worn by several different people, the final one wielding a real knife in order to terrify people. It’s amazing I had any friends left after that but they were clearly frightened to drop me, just in case…

So, you can imagine my delight years later to come across a writer who shared my love of Point Horror, Stephen King and all things creepy.  I started working with Carla Spradbery in 2010 after she attended a Marie Claire ‘How to Get published’ event and while we didn’t manage to place her first manuscript with a publisher I knew that her writing and ideas were so strong that it was only a matter of time before we would be seeing a book from her on the shelves. Carla has always been hardworking and good at taking on board feedback – hugely important qualities for an aspiring writer to have. Four years later and THE 100 SOCIETY, her debut dark thriller for teenagers has just been published by Hodder.  Reviews have been fantastic and Carla is putting the finishing touches on her next book, which will be  published next year and she is still spreading fear, not just with her novels but with her top 10 horror moments too.

As publishers look for the right moment to launch new books it seems that Halloween as a season is becoming more and more important. The Bookseller reported a few days ago that even by mid October sales of Halloween themed children’s books had increased by 65% so we’re not the only ones getting into the spirit!

This year, with a new baby, my Halloween plans are less elaborate than usual – carving a pumpkin and dressing my daughter up as a skeleton is about as exciting as it gets. I’m sure she would consent if only she knew – after all it is in the genes. It will be a while before we’ll be trick or treating but that gives me plenty of time to start planning her parties and hunting for new books to feature on her Halloween reading list.


Little does my daughter know – she actually dressed up for Halloween last year too.



I realise I am becoming increasingly impatient. This isn’t a sign of ageing, (I hope), but thanks to working in children’s publishing and while it’s easy to understand how the slow process and occasionally sleepy editors may be trying to one’s tolerance levels, actually that’s not to blame in this instance.  Instead it’s to do with my shrinking attention span and growing appetite for a story to start instantly with no beating around the bush, free from gentle description or lengthy scene setting. In short, I have a zero tolerance policy for rambling openings.

As I have mentioned before, we receive hundreds of submissions every month and after the covering letter the next test is the opening. Unless it’s engaging and punchy it’s unlikely I’ll continue reading for very long. So what makes a good opening?  I think there are three key components and I’ll describe them in a moment but first here’s an exemplary beginning from Joe Craig. When I read the first chapter of KILLER, the first Jimmy Coates title, I knew I wanted to work with Joe.

Jimmy knew what was coming, but he was too late to dodge out of the way. Georgie pounced on him and they both landed with a thump on the bed. She moved quickly, and easily locked her arm round Jimmy’s neck.  Then she dug her knuckles into the top of his head, kneeling over him. Not again, Jimmy thought. All these years he had never been able to escape his sister’s hold.

What works so well about this is that the reader is propelled straight into the action – we’re there with Jimmy as he fails to dodge and we want to know what exactly he is dodging and then what the outcome of the fight will be. We get a sense of what Jimmy is like and of his relationship with his sister and all of this in just a few lines – plus if you read on it gets even better, but I’m not giving any more away!

So key concept number one is an active character. We need to meet the protagonist and for children’s books this should be a child or child substitute.  We ought to see their personality emerge and this is unlikely to be evoked through a physical description.  For instance if a character has brown hair we don’t learn much about what they’re like or their state of mind, if they’re kicking the kerb we do.  So the character needs to appear quickly and they should be doing something.

Concept number two – the action starts off the page.  It’s the leaping onto a moving vehicle idea – the journey has started before the first page and the reader is late to the party but desperate to play catch up.  Take Eva Ibbotson’s opening to THE OGRE OF OGLEFORT, where the Hag of the Dribble has just started her day and the reader jumps into join her.  The Hag isn’t actually the main character of the story, but Eva’s allowed to break the rules. Besides, as you’ll see, it works wonderfully well:

Most people are happy when their feet are dry. They do not care to hear squelchy noises in their shoes of feel water seeping between their toes – but the Hag of the Dribble was different. Having wet feet made her feel better: it reminded her of the Dribble where she was born and had lived for the first seventy-eight years of her life, and now she dipped her socks into the washbasin and made sure they were thoroughly soaked before she put them on her feet and went downstairs to make porridge for herself and her lodgers.

            The Hag did not care for porridge – being fond of porridge is quite difficult – but she was glad to be busy; it helped her to cope with the terrible homesickness which attacked her each morning when she woke and saw the sooty brick wall of the house opposite instead of the wide sky and scuddling clouds of the place where she had lived so long.

Here the reader is able to form a vivid picture of the Hag without any hint of a physical description.  We’re there on the Hag’s shoulder dipping her socks in the washbasin with her. This is something Tony Bradman talks about in our CBC Writing for Children Course and he uses the following example from beginning of Philip Pullman’s NORTHEN LIGHTS:

Pantalaimaon fluttered ahead and through the slightly open door of the Retiring Room at the other end of the dais.  After a moment he appeared again.

“There’s no one there,” he whispered. “But we must be quick”.

Crouching behind the high table Lyra, darted along and through the door into the Retiring Room, where she stood up and looked around. The only light in here came from the fire-place, where a bright blaze of logs settled slightly as she looked, sending a fountain of sparks up into the chimney.  She had lived most of her life in the College, but had never seen the Retiring Room before: only Scholars and their guests were allowed in here, and never females. 

Again we’re introduced to the main characters and they’re doing something interesting, something forbidden. Which leads us on to the third component; there needs to be a question in there; something the reader wants to know the answer to.

Will Jimmy gain the upper hand?

What is threatening the Hag’s everyday life?

Why are Lyra and Pantalaimon sneaking into the Retiring Room and what will they discover in there?

So it’s simple! Character + Action + Question =  The perfect opening!

If you’re an unpublished author and you are writing for children Undiscovered Voices is the competition for you and in fact it’s all about beginnings. For many it’s the start of their engagement with the children’s publishing world as the winners all have an extract of their work published in an anthology which is sent out to children’s agents and publishers. More details can be found on the Undiscovered Voices website.

Of course it’s the opening extract which is featured in the anthology and there’s still time to add the finishing touches to your work and apply the magic formula, (see the earlier equation!), as they are accepting applications from 1st July – 15th August. I’m looking forward to seeing some thrilling first chapters in the anthology when it is published and hopefully it will be the start of something exciting for many new writers.

Writers, not bakers. What a literary agent really wants.


It’s about time I wrote something about submissions and since I have read more than eighty this week, and thousands over the last ten years, it’s a subject about which I know a little and can talk a lot, (for evidence of this see my earlier post on searching for new writers).

In September last year Curtis Brown launched a brand spanking new online submissions site finally replacing the postal submissions system which was old fashioned, inefficient and, at times, pretty creepy.  We used to meet in the boardroom once a week and wade through piles and piles of submissions – negotiating our way through all sorts of strange folders, perfumed paper, “gifts” (bribes), in the form of mugs, teddy bears, sweets, photographs, dollar bills (a personal favourite), and even a visit from the police (don’t ask…).  Before my time Vivienne Schuster was even sent a dead rat by a disgruntled, (and undoubtedly disturbed), aspiring author. So now we have moved to online submissions, we’re paper and rodent free but I’ve noticed that new writers are still making some of the same mistakes.  Here are some examples:

1. Covering letters not addressed to a specific agent.

Our new site makes it easy to identify the right agent to approach. It even gives you the option to select from a drop down menu so there’s no excuse for sending letters without addressing them to an actual person or marking them for the attention of Mr. Curtis Brown. While part of me likes the sound of “Lady Thwaites”, I’m not convinced that this belongs in a covering letter.

2. Silliness. There’s a time and place for this and I suggest that it is within text itself.

Forget gimmicks – letters stand out if they are professional, well-researched and well-presented. Ideally the letter should briefly explain why you are approaching that agent, include a short description of the book and the intended age range, (marks deducted for saying ‘adults and children alike’, don’t be lazy!). Mention any relevant writing experience, (but this isn’t crucial), and a line or two of biographical information.  Simple! If you can liken your book to relevant similar titles then do, but avoid comparing it to  Twilight/ Harry Potter/ The Hunger Games – it suggests you have only read one book for young people in the last decade. Of course aim high but comparisons like this feel meaningless.

3. Pages and pages of material before the sample text starts.

Keep your synopsis brief, delete long lists of chapters and think very carefully before including a prologue. Make it easy for the reader to find the beginning of the text quickly – after all that is the most important part of the submission.

4. The endless synopsis.

Again, keep your synopsis brief. Often agents won’t read a synopsis unless they like the sample material and want a sense of where it’s going. It’s just a tool providing more information and should be a short summary, not a detailed chapter breakdown. My preference is for just one or two paragraphs. Did I mention I like a short synopsis?

5. Lack of research.

TEXT please! I ask for text only, not illustrations, not embroidery manuals, or dancing spiders, (actually I kind of like that idea). Nowhere do I say anything about embroidery manuals on my client list, on my profile page with its ‘what I’m looking for’ section, which you’d think would be the obvious place to start, on twitter, blogs or any interviews. There’s a reason for that… It sounds obvious but I’m still astounded by the number of people who don’t put the research in. To give yourself the best chance of hitting the right agent with the right project you have to start by figuring out who the right person might be. If you’re not sick of me banging on about this you can read my answers to questions on submitting on Lou Treleaven’s site.

6. Nutters & lunatics

If you’re a little unconventional that’s fine, many authors are, but it’s probably best to tone it down in the covering letter.  Quirky is ok but full blown fruitcakes can be tricky to work with – best to disguise that initially.  Talking of cake – hand delivered baked goods may be a lovely gesture for friends, neighbours and people you know but together with a submission, before a professional relationship has even started, it feels a bit like presenting an engagement ring on a first date.   Besides it won’t affect on our decision about a manuscript and nor should it – we’re looking for writers, not bakers.

7. Unrealistic expectations.

We read and respond to all submissions and do so within a reasonable time frame.  Not all agencies accept ‘unsolicited material’ and some don’t respond unless they are interested. We welcome new submissions and reply to everything we receive but we draw the line at feedback – we just couldn’t possibly offer this to the thousands of people who submit their work to us every year.  There are companies who provide detailed reports and critiques and charge a tidy sum for it but they are not literary agencies.  While we are enthusiastic about new submissions we do make it clear that reading and responding is as far as we will take it for many of them. Irate phone messages or pleas for feedback just reinforce our view that we’ve made the right decision to decline. While it’s understandable to feel disappointed, and do disagree by all means, but aggressive and demanding reactions demonstrate a fundamental misunderstanding about what agents actually do. We would be neglecting our responsibility to our existing clients, plus it would be deeply misleading, if we spent time giving personal responses to writers we don’t intend to work with. For some sensible words on why agents can’t give feedback and why new writers don’t really want it, see Rachelle Gardner’s blog.

So mistakes, directions and complaints aside, the good news is that agents do actually want to find new authors. In fact I am working with at least half a dozen authors I’ve connected with via our online submissions site since we launched five months ago.  We are constantly monitoring the site and looking for new authors writing books for children and teenagers. I would love to find something in the vein of Game of Thrones, a contemporary romance for teens, an emotional middle grade story, irresistible characters and ideas that are instantly intriguing.  For a superb elevator pitch read Jamie Mason’s 140-Character Story Pitch in her interview on Chuck Wendig’s blog.

Happy pitching! I look forward to receiving your perfect, polished, submission. No pressure though…

The Hunger Games – How to create a global phenomenon by Lisa Edwards

It’s 2013 and everyone’s thinking about how to make it a success. Well you can’t get more successful than publishing sensation, THE HUNGER GAMES trilogy which has sold more than 50 million copies worldwide, and which, together with FIFTY SHADES OF GREY, accounted for half of the top 20 bestselling books in the US in 2012.

Publishing and Commercial Director at Scholastic UK, Lisa Edwards has kindly agreed to guest blog and offer an exclusive insider’s view on how to win a publishing fight to the death.

hunger games 049Lisa Edwards rocking the red carpet at the premiere for THE HUNGER GAMES film. Looking glam and talking sense – let’s hear from Lisa…

The Hunger Games is a bestselling trilogy of books by Suzanne Collins and a major movie franchise from Lionsgate. The series outsold Harry Potter on in four years and there are over 2 million copies of the first book in print in the UK alone.

Can a publisher create this type of phenomenon? My answer is no – but they can maximise the opportunity when it happily comes their way. Here are my (District) 12 Golden Rules (see what I did there?)…

1. Be in the right place at the right time.

Aim for commercially active areas and fire into the next big trend. It’s not a huge surprise that a warrior heroine fighting alone for survival has replaced a swooning girl in the thrall of a vampire boyfriend. Also, reality TV: a trilogy based on a global TV entertainment phenomenon is clever zeitgeist publishing.

 2. Be ready to pounce.

Know when you’re winning and act quickly. The first two books were published in the UK in quick succession in 2009. A hit was brewing and readers had to wait for the sequel…

3. Stage an event the world will wait for.

Fans waited almost a year for Mockingjay to release. We staged a worldwide embargo until midnight 24 August EST and it sparked a frenzy among fans. The book shot straight into bestseller lists.

4. Make sure the odds are in your favour and look as good as you can.

We released a boxed set of the original editions in September 2011 and published new single editions, reflecting the new adult crossover fan base. These quickly became the prevailing editions as the mockingjay symbol we used became associated with early images from the movie.

5. Be ahead of the game.

We started planning our movie publishing and marketing with Lionsgate exactly a year ahead of the premiere. We were in constant communication, and focused on our unique skill sets: Scholastic – the book fans; Lionsgate – the teen movie fans.

6. Know your allies.

We worked on a series of book/movie cross-promotions with Lionsgate and selected cinema partners, featuring in-DVD leafleting; free books with movie tickets; magazine giveaways and competitions, and posters/standees in cinema foyers.

7. Tease your audience.

We printed 600,000 samplers of book one which were added to Lionsgate DVDs and given away at UK cinemas during Twilight: Breaking Dawn Part One. Samsung’s Galaxy promotion saw 500 Phones 4 U stories giving away 10,000 copies of book one – one with every Galaxy purchase.

8. Showcase your own unique skills.

We produced a brochure showcasing all our publishing which was mailed out to all our accounts and contacts. Scholastic Book Clubs hosted features and competitions for all UK secondary schools and over 1 million samplers were sent. hosted a homepage takeover and our Facebook page gained 1.5 million ‘likes’.

9. Reward your audience.

The movie released in March 2012 and took $152m on its opening weekend (worldwide). We released our movie tie-in publishing but it was, and is, really all about the sales of the trilogy.

10. Give your audience a finale.

The DVD/Blu-Ray released in September 2012, giving us another chance at hitting the top of the book charts. Lionsgate hosted a ‘shared viewing’ of the DVD, asking fans to simultaneously watch at 8pm on 3 September, and share their comments on

11. Do it all again for book 2!

Catching Fire releases this November. We’ve already started planning.

12. Remember – you can’t survive alone.

Internal teamwork between all departments is a must. Form a working movie group and make the relationship with the movie company central to your operations. Stay in constant communication and support each other throughout. It will pay off.

And finally… May the odds be ever in your favour.

Stephanie’s Christmas 2012 Children’s & Young Adult Book Round Up

So I thought it might be timely to talk briefly about some of the books I’ve enjoyed this year and some of the titles I’m planning to read over Christmas.

THE DINOSAUR THAT POOPED CHRISTMAS by Tom Fletcher and Dougie Poynter has been the number one bestselling picture book in the UK for the last three weeks and it is THE ultimate stocking filler. We’ve had a lot of fun working on this book and several serious meetings have dissolved into laughter and silliness – of course they have as it’s impossible to be too serious when the subject matter is pooping dinosaurs. Random House have done a fantastic job producing and promoting the book and they must win a prize for staging the earliest Christmas party ever. Tinsel and mince pies in October was a little surreal.


A picture book series I’ve admired from afar (as I don’t represent the author/ illustrator), is HUGLESS DOUGLAS by David Melling. It’s another idea that sells itself with that title, and combines a gorgeous character with a simple but compelling idea. I also adore Fiona Roberton’s CUCKOO, a picture book I’m handling translation rights for about a baby cuckoo who feels different and goes off searching for someone who will understand him.  It’s simple and beautifully told with delicately drawn, touching illustrations. Hodder’s picture book list is an impressive one having had a sneak preview of what lies ahead I know they have some treats in store for 2013.

On the young fiction side it has been a pleasure to see Guy Bass’ STITCH HEAD go from strength to strength and Stripes have done a fantastic job with translation rights selling him in to nine territories. I’ve also been pleased to see Australian author, Anna Branford’s VIOLET MACKEREL series launch this year – a quirky, thoughtful and smart series aimed at young girls.  Walker paired her with illustrator Sam Wilson and the result is a dazzling and delightful package. Not my clients but ones to watch are Jamie Thompson, whose DARK LORD: THE TEENAGE YEARS won this year’s Roald Dahl Funny Prize and Joanna Nadin’s hilarious PENNY DREADFUL series. I think being called Joanna makes you more qualified to write funny young fiction as we have our own bonkers series launching next Spring from Joanna Simmons. Scholastic will publish the first title, PIP STREET: A WHISKERY MYSTERY in March and we can’t wait to see this on the shelves.


This year saw the posthumous, and as a result rather bitter sweet, publication of Eva Ibbotson’s THE ABOMINABLES which has received wonderful reviews and was short-listed for the Guardian Children’s Fiction Prize.  For readers aged 8+ this is just a dream to read and Marion Lloyd and her team have worked wonders with this warm, witty and heartbreaking adventure about yetis and their search for somewhere they belong.

I was fortunate to teach with Tony Bradman on our Creative Writing for Children weekend and six week course and one of the most fascinating sessions was on editing which involved comparing two different openings for his new book, VIKING BOY, before and after he revised and edited it. The impact was remarkable and Tony is a true craftsman. You can feel this in VIKING BOY as he takes the reader on a journey with all sorts of twists and turns throughout which he is always in complete control. The story has real depth, some fantastic characters and although it may seem geared more towards boys I can see both genders enjoying it.

Usborne published the first in Chris Ould’s YA crime series, STREET DUTY: KNOCK DOWN in October and Chris’ experience writing for TV on The Bill and Casualty definitely gives a real authenticity to the setting. He asks the questions Lee Child insists you need to pose to create a truly compelling read. Someone has been knocked over but why did she run into the road and how come she’s not wearing any shoes? Another fantastic fast paced thriller with a twist is C.K Kelly Martin’s YESTERDAY which is part sci-fi, part romance and all absorbing.

NEVER FALL DOWN by Patricia McCormick is a startling, moving and ultimately uplifting story based on the true story of Arn Chorn-Pond one of the first Cambodian child soldiers to speak out against the Khmer Rouge.  This YA novel was selected as a National Book Award Finalist in the US and published by Random House UK this year. Another excellent YA novel I came across and which stood out for me this year was BETWEEN SHADES OF GRAY by Ruta Sepetys.  This also sheds a light on a lesser known period of history and while it’s not an easy read it’s certainly a rewarding one.

Over the break I’m looking forward to getting into DELIRIUM by Lauren Oliver and DAUGHTER OF SMOKE AND BONE by Laini Taylor – both sent through by Hodder and wrapped appealingly for Christmas. I’m desperate to dive into Philip Pullman’s GRIMM TALES and I’m also keen to start Maggie Stiefvater’s THE RAVEN BOYS but first I need to finish a couple of adult titles I have on the go. I also feel I should read Hot Key’s THE VINCENT BOYS by Abbi Glines since there’s been a lot of discussion about this and ‘new adult’ titles generally.


Next year there’s a lot to look forward to with F.E. Higgins’ new series THE PHENOMENALS, Catherine Johnson’s SAWBONES, M.M Vaughan’s debut, THE ABILITY, Janey Louise Jones’ PRINCESS POPPY COOK BOOK, Gareth Edwards’ new picture book, THE DISGUSTING SANDWICH, Lucy Courtenay’s SPACE PENGUINS, Sam Hepburn’s YA thriller, CHASING THE DARK and Lauren Miller’s PARALLEL among many others.

I’ll also be looking for new authors for the Curtis Brown list and new books to add to next year’s round up so let me know if there’s anything I should be reading!


Life isn’t like a box of chocolates but searching for new writers can be.

In the last few weeks Quality Street chocolates have been alarmingly abundant in the Curtis Brown offices, their shiny wrappers gleaming suggestively, promising that Christmas and its deluge of cheap and colourful chocolate is just around the corner.

I confess I haven’t resisted but I’ve learnt an important lesson and surprisingly it’s about new submissions.
I use the chocolate guide – you may be pleased to hear that I’m not so familiar with the flavours that I can select without assistance and I’m certainly not daring enough to do so.  Once I’ve chosen a chocolate, there’s that moment just before unwrapping it when the world is full of promise. There’s something potentially delicious and it’s just within my reach.  Then there’s the moment just after consumption where I feel let down – it wasn’t worth the calories, it fell short of expectations, I was misled.

However a little later on I might return to the tin. Ok last time wasn’t satisfying but I should really persist – perhaps a different shape or colour could be just what I’m looking for. Then the cycle of hope and disappointment begins again but I’ll persevere – maybe the next one will be satisfying…

I’ve been reading a lot of new submissions this week and the experience has been similar. I approach each new one with optimism. I’m an agent, I want to discover new talent and I have hundreds of new writers sending their work in every month so plenty of potential books to explore.  I can tell quickly if it’s not going to be for me and this is usually clear from the covering letter.  Some sound exciting with a clear, well crafted letter, an intriguing synopsis and an original idea – they stand out even before I’ve started reading any text.  Admittedly there can be a large gap between the idea and the writing itself but the submissions which grab my attention and fill me with a Quality Street-like hope are those with an alluring wrapper – a strong covering letter.  Presentation isn’t everything but unlike the writing itself, it’s something very easy to get right.
Here are a few pointers on how to write your covering letter to Agents:

  • Address your submission to an individual, not a company and explain why you are approaching them and why you think your work might be of interest.
  • Don’t suggest the age range is 0-100 – this just shows you have no sense of the children’s market.
  • Do some research before you submit. Read other children’s books, not just those you remember from your own childhood but recently published titles too. Get a sense of where your material fits in.
  • Don’t describe your book as the next Harry Potter – there’s aiming high and there’s aiming too high…
  • Do talk about your influences and how your book may be in the vein of X or Y.
  • Avoid gimmicks and bribes, they’re not effective. A carefully thought out, professional letter is more likely to make your submission stand out than sweets or toys.
  • Include any relevant writing experience in your letter but avoid mentioning the school newsletter you worked on twenty years ago, it looks desperate.
  • Your spouse or children may enjoy the book – they’re obliged to and there’s no need to mention this, it won’t persuade an agent that they will feel the same way.
  • “Do not be insane. Or at least, don’t let it show” – For this and other insightful tips check out Isabel Thomas’ blog on how not to get published
  • When enclosing a synopsis keep this short. I prefer just a paragraph or two.
  • Include paragraph breaks – I love our new submissions website but it displays text exactly as it is submitted and without paragraph breaks it can be an exhausting reading experience.
  • Dystopian is a dirty word. Despite the enormous success of The Hunger Games, other dystopian titles haven’t really taken off and publishers have bought enough in this area to keep them going until at least 2020. Trends come and go but sadly this one is on the wane.

I think for now I’ve had my fill of Quality streets – I’m after something that looks appealing and suits my taste too in terms of chocolate and new writing and preferably both! Any suggestions?

50 SHADES OF SCHNITZEL – My Frankfurt (Food) Diary by Ilona Chavasse

The Frankfurt Book Fair may be over, but many still bear the scars with their bulging inboxes and drooping eyelids. Ilona Chavasse, a Frankfurt Book Fair survivor shares her heroic account here.

Soon to be digested in The New York Times, The Bookseller, Vogue, and Frankfurt Village Voice.

 Day 2 – Wednesday

Oversleep breakfast, and several Hall 8 crappuccinos later, I am reliably informed that in the French pavilion good espresso is being given out on demand. Not for the first time I wish we were allowed to bring interns to Frankfurt. They could learn so, so much, and fetch coffee, too.

Here comes our Hungarian sub-agent (handsome, saturnine, serious – delightfully Magyar, in other words) bearing gifts. This could be exciting. It turns out my moaning last year about how no one brings goodies and treats that one actually wants to eat (would the abomination that is Norwegian salted black liquorice please stand up and proceed briskly to the exit) was memorable enough to prompt him to bring me two nifty little bags of Hungarian paprika. Score! These are not immediately edible, alas, and I’ve failed to note down which one is sweet and which is hot – the Hungarian labels are all Greek to me.

Onwards to the kiosk and the inevitable classic double Frankfurt sausage in a hard roll. It’s only 2pm, how could they have run out of kartoffelsalat already?

Ah, Jewel of India restaurant. So conveniently near the fair, so evergreen. The fun-loving, generous book scout who is in effect in loco parentis to her entourage of alarmingly young blondes asks the waiters to bring us lots of everything and keep the wine and beer coming. The bill is predictably eye-watering, and we stumble out on a cloud of love and good wishes from the management.

Day 3 – Thursday – fleisch and more fleisch, topped with meat

Fuelled by a largish mound of crispy bacon I sprint across the footbridge to the back of Hall 8 like a crazed and ungainly leopard late for a parent-teacher meeting. My contact is late, and I think mistakes my silence for disapproval – I’m in fact just trying to catch my breath.  The coffee is still so bad it feels punitive.

Many appointments later, my boss Vanessa has also given in to the Frankfurt frankfurters (did I mention you get a pair, with a hard roll?) and brings one pair over for me after getting a pair for herself. There’s a cunning little hole in the roll, filled with mustard! My mouth is busy pitching our extraordinary range of fiction and non-fiction, but I hope the gratitude in my eyes does not go unnoticed.

Dinner at a traditional regional eatery called Zum Grauen Bock… The beautiful, pencil-slim agent seated next to me and I (pleasant-enough looking, I guess, decidedly not slim) both want to try a bit of everything so agree to share our starters. In the event, we could easily share them with a small refugee camp, as the pickled herring turns out to be AN ENTIRE HERRING, soused in vinegar and lounging languidly in a lake of sour cream, caressed by fronds of pickled onion rings and wearing a decidedly come-hither look. My companion’s starter of liver dumplings could nicely feed a garrison emerging from a castle under prolonged siege, long after they’ve eaten all the rats and horses. The main courses begin to arrive like a pageant from a medieval bestiary: roe deer stew, suckling pig, knuckle of wild boar, roast swan, unicorn pie, schnitzel in cheese sauce, and the rest of the usual suspects, too.

Scanning the happy international faces around us, the bare wooden tables and the democratic condiment trolley, it suddenly occurs to me that context is all – for all we know we’re in the German version of Aberdeen Steak House. Extraordinary, how exhaustion and rich food combine to produce all the symptoms of intoxication, especially when leavened with beer.

Some misspent hours later (FrankfurterHof, nightclub, FrankfurterHof) it is far too far into Friday, and yours truly is finally off to bed, once again narrowly missing out on the chocolate pudding stashed in my mini-fridge.

Day 4 – Friday – from bad to wurst, sorry, sorry

Three hours of sleep later and I’m on my own at breakfast, having flatly refused to join the Commander-in-Chief at his table. Honoured, dear sir, but must regretfully decline, as not in a fit state for human company. I’m having enough trouble holding on to my own table, so cutlery is equally out of the question. As is solid food, really. No flash photography please, unless you want to see a lady be sick into her handbag.

The useful thing about a raging migraine is that it makes the thought of food, any food at all, seem as appealing as a second ice pick through the eye, to add to the first. Bless you, o Spanish editor, who cancelled our meeting, my last for the day, which means I can lurch back to the hotel, lie back and not think of England, the rights list, the escalating crisis in Greece, or whether handsome daredevil  Felix Baumgartner managed to make his historic skydive from the edge of space to earth. (FYI he did it on the 14th of October. Breaking the sound-barrier didn’t kill or maim him, as was thrillingly a real possibility).

Bless you, too, o my Russian sub-agent, who came to mop my brow like a ministering angel. I promised you a fun, crowdy and rowdy evening of tapas, wine and song, but I’m afraid all you got was me in a darkened room. And you weren’t even the first.

Midnight at the Thai Dream around the corner. The nice Thai waitress brings us grapes, then hot towels, then crackers, then more grapes, then the address of a late-opening massage parlour, and then we finally get the message and vacate the premises.

Not too late for chocolate pudding, but I’m not feeling it tonight, just not feeling it.

Day 5 – Saturday – has everyone gone home but me?

Too tired for breakfast.  Anyway, Frankfurt breakfast – like sleep and sobriety – is for babies.

Late lunch-time and I’m off to the kiosk for the inevitable pair of frankfurters. Gosh, these are yummy. And very comforting somehow, like the frenemy you’ve had since first grade. Or like early-onset Stockholm Syndrome. Sausage is still plentiful, but they’re out of kartoffelsalat.

Dinner brings a slab of excellent steak I struggle womanfully to finish and real, honest-to-goodness cauliflower, at which the French publisher sitting across from me sneers with a Gallic, manly disdain. There’s also a coy little carrot swirl, and it looks so lonely I send it down to join the cauliflower.

The FrankfurterHof late on a Saturday night feels like the last night on the Titanic – those who didn’t quite make it into the lifeboats wander half-dazed around the cavernous main drag, drinking champagne and looking for people they know and can hole up in a grotto with. Champagne and wasabi peas for everyone!

 Day 6 – Sunday – the last hurrah, the final frontier

Regrettably, I forget to leave a tip for housekeeping when checking out, but I do leave a jar of pickles I never managed to open, and a chocolate pudding, in the fridge. Perhaps it will make a nice change from all that predictable money?

2 pm, and Angela alerts me to a hot food van just outside selling “dirty fries” – ie crisped in lard on six sides and tossed with salt and paprika  – and I promise myself that I’ll only eat a couple. Something happens between inhaling the first fry and reaching for the second one, because I suddenly come to, three minutes later, with no fries and no memory of eating them, only a sense of deep well-being emanating from my waistline region, and also shame.

I ring home from the airport and put in a request for two heads of broccoli. Steamed. Large.  Every atom of my being is yearning for green leafy vegetables, but there’s a delay and a Haagen Dazs stand by the gate. Come on, Haagen Dazs. At the airport. So would you.

Words cannot describe my airline mini-meal (do note the kartoffelsalat, and the fact that the pickle is bigger than the sausage – take that, Christian Grey!) but I did take a photo, and here it is.


Back to the office and the way in is the usual gauntlet of pastry, candy, and assorted Haribos. I limit myself to a single wafer-thin mint.

Ilona Chavasse is Rights Manager at Atlantic Books, and has been going to Frankfurt long enough to know what’s coming, so there’s really no excuse.

What’s the fuss about Frankfurt?

There are a few code words for “leave me alone, I’m busy” in the world of children’s publishing, and indeed publishing in general. “Frankfurt” is one, and “Bologna” is another. But what’s the fuss all about, and how can you tell who’s truly frantic and who’s faking it?

For anyone not working in publishing, book fairs sound like civilized affairs, upmarket car boot sales with bunting, stalls full of books and possibly some homemade cake. Sadly that’s not quite the case.

Instead picture an enormous, soulless exhibition centre, often without any natural light.  Agents are allocated tables in the Rights Centre. Publishers usually have a bundle of plywood with which they must build their own stand. It sounds a bit Blue Peter but by the time the fair opens they have usually produced impressive sturdy-looking structures from which to display their wares. A few carefully-selected titles are highlighted with covers facing outwards; enormous posters of lead titles adorn the sides; harassed people scurry around within, conducting meetings, or hovering nearby. Indeed, “harrassed” tends to be a theme at book fairs. Appointment are scheduled in half-hour time slots, but everyone seems to be permanently running late. Moving from station to station can involve covering large distances while negotiating crowds, and, of course, bumping into familiar faces can also cause delays.  Now picture a publishing scrum.

So what exactly is going on? Whether it’s the rights team at a publisher’s stand or agents selling translation rights, we’re all pitching books to editors from international publishers. Meetings are usually in pairs or small groups, and one person will be talking about the books they are selling while the other person will be listening (or politely pretending to listen).  On the English language side UK and US agents and editors meet and mingle and discuss new projects.

Editors hear hundreds of pitches each day over a course of several days and select the titles they are interested in reading.  Sometimes publishers may offer to buy translation  rights for their territory at the fair for titles they have already read or feed back on titles they are still considering.   It’s an opportunity to find out what’s happening in different markets and to catch up with the translation publishers who publish existing clients.  We also meet with co-agents who work on the ground in different territories and with scouts who will direct their clients in different territories towards the English language titles they believe will appeal to them.

Why all the preparation beforehand?
Planning for a fair is not dissimilar to preparing for a military operation, (I would imagine).   For anyone working in translation rights in the weeks leading up to the fair they will be collecting all this information and putting their rights guide together and probably tearing out their hair, perhaps on occasion someone else’s.  For children’s books at Curtis Brown we use twice yearly fairs (Frankfurt and Bologna/ London Book Fair), to focus on titles publishing within the next 6 months or so although we will also talk about new deals and titles which will be delivered soon.

Our preparation involves scrounging covers, blurbs, biographical info about the author, and publication details together with reading the manuscripts themselves. However organised we try to be, without fail there will be information that gets delivered at the 11th hour.  We might look a little wild eyed at that point.

Schedules are drawn up well in advance so anyone turning up for an impromptu meeting will be disappointed. The Rights Centre is strictly policed, but now and again agents are accosted by authors looking for representation which is rather unwelcome.  The book fairs are just not an environment for making these approaches; however perverse it might sound, it’s not where we’re interested in meeting authors. Our focus at book fairs needs to be on the authors we’re already representing.
It’s all about stamina and endurance and that’s even before the evening activities begin. Schedules run from 9am to 6pm with meetings back to back.  Some people might factor in one or two breaks but it’s considered pretty lightweight to have gaps in your schedule. If a meeting ends early it’s a moment to rejoice – well, if rejoicing didn’t take up precious seconds – and then it’s a choice between a comfort break, coffee break, or wolfing down a cereal bar before returning to the table for the next meeting.
As ever, the interest is always on what’s new or ‘hot’.  I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve asked a foreign publisher what they are looking for and they have said ‘something big’.  In order to create a frenzy around new titles, some agents will hold back projects and submit a book to UK publishers just before the fair in the hope that it will be acquired just in time to create a buzz and make it the hottest property around.  This can make life tricky for scouts as they monitor all the potential big books, many of which won’t be offered for in time for the fair and which may well get buried under other material in publishers’ reading piles. With so many manuscripts submitted before a fair a book can be competing for attention with far more titles than at any other time of year.

Bologna is the focus for children’s books, so not everyone in children’s publishing goes to Frankfurt — it tends to be those in more senior roles or those selling rights.  October, however, with its no-nonsense, post-holiday, pre-Christmas vibe is a busy time for everyone, just as March is a moment with a post-Christmas, pre-summer feel.  There is a real sense of excitement and promise surrounding the fairs, and a thrill of being part of a lively, vibrant industry permeates throughout publishing. Whether you’re attending or not, if you’re in publishing you’re in Frankfurt in October, it’s not really a book fair but a state of mind.

Nerves are the norm with Discovery Day on the horizon

Tomorrow, around 250 new writers will be turning up at Foyles Bookshop on Charing Cross Road to pitch their idea to agents from Curtis Brown and hear feedback on their first pages. I know for probably 248 people this is a terrifying prospect.

Talking about your ideas and your writing can be deeply personal, and knowing you have a limited amount of time and the ear of an industry professional is bound to be daunting. But it’s worth remembering that the stakes are not as high as you might fear – it will be an audience of just one and it’s unlikely to be the only chance you’ll have for an agent to read your material, so it should be seen as a trial run rather than a one-off opportunity.  No one is expecting stand up comedy acts or X-Factor performances, (in fact, we might find that a bit alarming). Rather, we’re aiming to have just a brief, informal chat which we hope will be useful.  Sharing your work puts you in a vulnerable position but if you’re a writer who wants to be read, then at some point you’ll need to take the plunge and where better to start than on a day devoted to discovering new talent?

For writers, there can’t be more sympathetic crowd than a bunch of agents.  After all, we know how writers feel and hear their concerns on a daily basis. We’re familiar with the crippling anxiety that kicks in after pressing the send button and delivering a manuscript, and the torturous time spent awaiting a response. We’ve seen even the most experienced writers tackle nerves and beat back butterflies before speaking in public so we know that what we’re inviting new writers to do tomorrow won’t be easy. However we genuinely want to help – to give honest and realistic feedback and positive advice to new writers at the beginning of their journey.

Pitching face to face to an agent is unlikely to be the starting point for most new authors, but it is a useful exercise and whenever I talk to groups I always harp on about the importance of the covering letter, which is where a new writer first interacts with an agent.  A live pitch can be transferred into a covering letter and, as I’ve mentioned before, a strong idea, with the right title will really stand out if expressed in the right way.  We won’t be offering anyone representation on the spot – we couldn’t, based solely on the first page – but we hope the day will provide useful tips, encouragement and practical advice.

And there’s more to Discovery Day, too. Aside from the pitching stations there will be small “surgery” groups in the Foyles Café (a draw in itself), where new writers can ask general questions about publishing. And there will be a panel event in the afternoon with author Salley Vickers and debut novelist Tim Glencross. We hope it will be an opportunity to connect new writers with industry professionals and to celebrate books, debuts and independent bookshops.

If you can’t make it on the day then join us on Twitter and follow the day via our new site which we’re super proud of!  Not only do we now accept submissions online but we’ll be providing resources here for writers in our New Writing Room.

Discovery Day will just be the beginning …