A Risky Business

Warning: This blog post contains disturbing content.

Of course there will always be copycats – success spawns imitation and we see this in children’s publishing all the time, with jackets, marketing campaigns and even publishing party venues.  On the one hand it can seen as a response to the market, on the other hand as a chronic case of bandwagon-itis.  Sometimes it’s harmless but today I felt pretty queasy on discovering that there are children’s publishers toying with the idea of introducing ‘erotic YA (young adult) fiction’.

There have been plenty of jokes about a children’s version of Fifty shades of Grey and anecdotes about a lift in sales of books for young readers with the word grey in their title.  I joked about it myself in a previous post, but they were JOKES – funny because the idea was hideously wrong.  I’m not suggesting that YA books shouldn’t address sex or sexuality, and of course there are scores of teenagers reading Fifty Shades anyway, but to publish erotic fiction specifically for teenagers, to encourage them to read novels where the emphasis is on the physical aspect of relationships is not just a cynical and irresponsible move, but also entirely unimaginative.  It is a complete oversimplification to assume that success of a book in one genre heralds the rise of that particular genre. Following The Hunger Games there was the inevitable deluge of YA dystopian novels and publishers acquired legions of them drastically overestimating consumer appetite. As a result there are many authors whose careers are now looking pretty post apocalyptic with only a few survivors.

Thankfully there are children’s publishers who are more interested in setting, rather than following, trends. I had a cheering lunch recently with the managing director of a major children’s publishing company who expressed support for risk taking and experimentation.  This is encouraging at a time when many publishers are exercising extreme caution, and it shows an awareness of the unpredictability of the market coupled with a willingness to try and fail rather than not try at all.

In reality, a large number of acquisitions are risky – predicting sales and drawing up costings based on sales of similar seeming books is just fancy guesswork.  How books perform can be a surprise to those involved – books which sell for tiny advances can take off while enormous advances may fail to earn out.  Take the example of two books I’ve read in the last few weeks: one sold for a six figure advance and has sold just 650 copies (according to the Nielsen Bookscan);  the second was a modest deal with a passionate editor and while on paper it didn’t look likely to make a splash, it has sold 30,000 copies in the UK alone.  In an uncertain environment, publishers should be certain that they trust the  judgement of the editors they appoint. And those editors should be empowered to make decisions to acquire books they really believe in. They should be given the opportunity and tools to make them work, and the confidence to adapt and change tack if they don’t. Or at least that’s how a utopian children’s publishing world would look to me.

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