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.

 

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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;

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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.

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

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.

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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.

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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.

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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!

 

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.

Soup, Statistics & Young Adult Novels

Jennifer E. Smith is the author of young adult novels, The Comeback Season and You Are Here. Her third novel, The Statistical Probability of Love at First Sight published in the UK in January 2012 and has been translated into twenty seven languages.

Her middle grade novel, The Storm Makers, published in the US in 2012 and her new young adult novel, This Is What Happy Looks Like will be published in 2013.  Jen is a senior editor at Random House US imprint Ballantine Books and her first book was bought when she was an assistant at literary agency, ICM.

I asked her a few probing questions and she has kindly responded (and is still speaking to me).

ST: So, Jen, you have worked at a literary agency, and now you are both an editor and author – which is the best position to be in and why?

JS: I think they’re all great in their own ways, and I’ve really enjoyed seeing the industry from a few different perspectives.  It’s given me a nice 360-degree view of the whole process, which has been incredibly valuable.  I loved learning how things are done at an agency, and I’m incredibly passionate about being an editor, especially because I’m lucky enough to work with so many wonderful authors.  But I suppose being an author is probably my favorite, just because it’s always been such a dream of mine.  I think they’re all great positions to be in, though.  The very best books are a result of teamwork – probably more so than people outside of publishing even realize – and I’m very proud of the books I’ve helped to create in all three roles.

ST: How many times have you been asked the question, ‘Do you believe in love at first sight?’?

JS: Too many to count!  I guess that’s what I get for calling my book what I did.  I’m also frequently asked what the actual statistical probability of love at first sight is – so often, in fact, that I feel like I should probably just make something up at this point.  (How does 24% sound? ST: Too low!)

ST: Is it true that as an impoverished student you lived on soup during while studying at St Andrews? If so, what kind of soup was it?

JS: It is indeed true, and the answer is vegetable soup.  Which sounds really sad, but it was actually quite good, and besides…there were crackers too!  I also wore mittens in my dorm room throughout the winter (and the summer, actually, because we’re talking about Scotland here).  It was all very Dickensian…

ST: How useful do you think your Masters in Creative Writing was?

JS: There’s always a lot of debate about these programs, but I think the degree of usefulness really depends on the person.  For me, I was looking for time and space to write…and very little else.  I’d already had a job for three years at that point, and so I liked how unencumbered I was that year; there were literally three hours a week where I needed to be somewhere, and the rest of the time, I was left to wander around and write (and eat soup).  There wasn’t a huge amount of instruction or supervision, which I really liked about the program, though it did mean you had to be fairly self-motivated.  I know some US programs are more structured, and I’m sure there’s a right place for everyone – but St. Andrews was definitely perfect for me.  I was looking for time to write, and I was looking to do it in a beautiful place.  So I don’t think I could have found anywhere better.

ST: You’ve just appeared at the Edinburgh Book Festival – what was the best and worst moment?  

JS: Yes, and I loved it!  What a cool experience.  It was such a great festival, and there are so many highlights, but my best and worst moments are probably the same.  I gave a talk in front of 175 school kids, which is a really big audience for me.  I get pretty nervous before these types of events, and with school groups, you’re never quite sure how things will go, but it ended up being a whole lot of fun.  They asked great questions about the book and the writing process, and afterwards, it was fun to get to meet a lot of them as they came up to get their books signed.  So that ended up being a real highlight too.  (That, and seeing people like Gordon Brown, Ian McEwan, and Chris Cleave in the author’s yurt — I was definitely a bit starstruck!).

If anyone knows the actual statistic for the probability of love at first sight please let us know!

You can read a round up of reviews for The Statistical Probability of Love at First Sight here.