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.


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.

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 …

What’s in a name? Tackling titles and staying calm.

Writing a children’s book – you think that’s hard part? Now try coming up with the right title.  If you find yourself tearing out your hair, howling at your computer screen or flinging your keyboard across the room, you’re not alone. Title tantrums may plague even the most composed of authors. You’ve toiled for hours, months, or years, agonising over sentences, entering into the psyche of your characters, and creating an entire world. And now you’re supposed to reduce all of that to a few puny words.  Even God found naming tiresome and delegated responsibility to Adam; creativity has its limits. So it’s easy to see how a title can terrorise an author. The pressure to describe your book, to capture its tone and spirit in an engaging, appealing and completely original way may be too much.

Well, the good news is that you don’t need to secure the ultimate title, at least not initially. Few titles tick every box so instead just aim for a couple or at the very least just make sure it’s easy to pronounce. While a great title will pique interest early on, so will a great idea and a great book.   A title can be revisited, revamped and rearranged and in all likelihood it will change altogether and even change back as I discovered with one of my children’s authors this week. In fact if you’re too wedded to your title it can be an issue – I’ve heard of a publisher lowering their offer because an author refused to consider using a different title.  In some territories a title might not translate well – words or sentiments might not resonate in the same way and the publisher will work with an author to find the best alternative. The title of your manuscript may not end up being the title of your book so be prepared to adapt: and crucially in the words of the superbly titled THE HITCHHIKER’S GUIDE TO THE GALAXY, “Don’t panic”.

When choosing a title you might want to think about which of the following categories your choice will fall within:

1. One word – If you go down this route make sure it’s something that really packs a punch and captures the spirit of the book.


2. Descriptive – it pretty much does what it says on the tin.


3. Eponymous –  Naming books after characters can work well if you have an arresting name for your character but remember it won’t mean anything to a reader on its own so consider adding something to their name to describe the story further


4. Longer, intriguing and slightly quirky – these are rather popular at the moment but do make sure it is relevant to the book’s content.


And here’s what not to do:

  • The title should convey something, but not everything, about the book. Make sure it’s relevant to the story but don’t try to fit the whole story into the title, stick to just one aspect of it.
  • Avoid tongue-twisters or anything too obscure
  • Avoid anything that has been used too much or old fashioned words ‘daring’, ‘magnificent’ ‘Chronicles’, ‘Adventures’, and the word ‘eternal’ can be off-putting
  • Don’t be too clever – puns can be tricky to translate

If you can’t come up with something dazzling don’t despair – your idea of mediocrity could be deeply stirring for someone else.  Just to show how subjective a ‘great title’ can be I asked my colleagues at Curtis Brown to share  favourite titles.  You’ll see from the list below that there’s no obvious pattern here – the appeal lies in the music of the words with every reader humming a slightly different tune.

Sheila Crowley:  The Memory Keeper’s Daughter by Kim Edwards

Anna Davis: A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius by Dave Eggers

Jonathan Lloyd:  Not A Penny More, Not A Penny Less by Jeffrey Archer

Vivienne Schuster: Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte

Gordon Wise: No Turn Unstoned: The Worst Ever Theatrical Reviews by Diana Rigg

“I love me, no I love me” – Why authors shouldn’t self-review

Everyone’s talking today about crime writer RJ Ellory who has admitted to posting flattering reviews of his own books on Amazon under pseudonyms and criticising rival authors (h/t to @sheilacrowley ). Frankly, I’m flabbergasted (albeit a little delighted to be able to use the word ‘flabbergasted’ in relation to publishing’).  While this isn’t the first time an author has manipulated Amazon’s review system, the part I find so bizarre about the RJ Ellory fake review scandal is that he is far from an unknown, struggling author desperate for praise and recognition, fearful his publisher will drop him at any moment. He was Orion’s book in the goody bag at their party a couple of years ago for goodness sake – you can’t get a clearer expression of publisher pride than that. He has won awards, has been selected for the Richard & Judy’s book club and his books have sold more than a million copies – he’s hardly struggling to make it, driven to desperate means to gain attention as all else has failed.  At least that would be a little easier to understand.  Even harder to understand are his posts themselves – consider this one about A Quiet Belief in Angels:

“Whatever else it might do, it will touch your soul.”

I find this quite disturbing.  What else might it do? It sounds like there could be some dangerous side effects involved  –  don’t worry if the book explodes on page 324, if you experience dizzy spells or become strangely susceptible to Amazon reviews because it will also touch your soul so it will all be worth it.  Could there be a bolder claim? At least if you’re going to post fake reviews about how wonderful your work is then at least make them a) appealing and b) believable.  A lot has been written over the last month or so about book criticism, how Twitter is too nice and no one can post negative reviews anymore. But we shouldn’t forget that the onus should not only be on the critics to be reasonable and not insulting, and authors either to be thick-skinned or not to set up google alerts about their books, but also on readers to make smart decisions about which reviews to pay attention to. There are some friends whose recommendations we’ll greedily pounce upon and others we’ll politely shelve.  Shouldn’t we operate in the same way online too and treat reviews and recommendations with more than a pinch of salt?

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.

The ebb and flow of Publishing

I recently spent such a special afternoon with Scholastic and two Ibbotson brothers celebrating the launch of THE ABOMINABLES by the much-loved children’s author, Eva Ibbotson.  It consisted of a delicious boathouse lunch followed by punting down the River Cherwell (not quite the Amazon River but similarly idyllic).

As the water sparkled in the sunshine and we trailed fingers (and scarves in some cases) as we floated along, we agreed that there could not have been a more fitting tribute to the author of the prize winning JOURNEY TO THE RIVER SEA, a remarkable woman who touched so many lives not just with her writing but with the spirit of adventure, sense of fun and warmth she shared with friends and even acquaintances, and of course with her readers. I am constantly coming across editors, assistants, publicists and journalists who encountered Eva, even briefly, and who all adored her – it was impossible not to.

I was fortunate to spend a few years representing Eva as her literary agent.  At first she had her reservations about my age (youth),  and hair colour (potentially-ditzy blonde), but I made excuses for both and we quickly became close.  Eva was a real tonic and whatever the issue her phone conversations would always lift my mood and her emails frequently had me in stitches. Despite her experience and success, Eva was incredibly humble about her achievements and, as Marion Lloyd, who edited her for many years, will attest, she would often hand in a new, flawless manuscript saying ‘I don’t think it’s very good’. Without fail, it would be utterly marvellous.  But Eva understood that the publishing industry can be a capricious beast and she captured in a letter a duality familiar to many published authors:

“This morning there was a further lowering of spirits as the paperback of X is to be remaindered and they asked if I wanted copies. But by the same post came the enclosed thing about the film option for Y. It’s like that all the time – up and down – you’re a great author having a ritzy lunch, you’re an obscure provincial failure. So the only thing is to keep on writing and forget about the response”.

Navigating ups and downs gracefully is an art form and one that not all authors master.  For new children’s writers advice that they should keep writing and forget about the response, that it is, (excuse the pun), worth a punt, is certainly encouraging. But for Eva the response was, and still is, one of resounding enthusiasm and utter enchantment. The reaction readers and reviewers have had to both ONE DOG AND HIS BOY and THE ABOMINABLES, both published posthumously, is not one to forget, and Eva will undoubtedly live on through the classic children’s books she has given us that  will continue to brighten the lives of readers in the years to come, just as Eva herself lit up the lives of those who knew and cherished her.


Before JK Rowling, there was Eva Ibbotson by Lorna Bradbury

The Daily Telegraph obituary of Eva Ibbotson

Round up of reviews for THE ABOMINABLES

Mal Peet’s review of THE ABOMINABLES

Literary Agents – The Devil in Disguise?

Well it’s not much of a disguise. Literary agents are often cast as the scoundrels of the publishing scene with a reputation for being nasty, heartless and unapproachable – and that’s just on a good day.  Perhaps this has its advantages – after all the bad guy tends to be the most exciting and appealing character – particularly when there’s a transformative journey involved.

And today we’ve been born again or at least re-imagined thanks to Michael Bourne, or as I will now fondly refer to him, ‘my Milton’. Through Lucy Coats and The @Awfully Big Blog Daily I came across a sympathetic portrayal of the villain of almost every book – the agent. Like Lucifer in PARADISE LOST and Elphaba in WICKED we have been given a voice and, guess what, we’re not talking in tongues. Not only that but Bourne describes to a tee the experience, nay angst, of an agent on the hunt for new blood.

It may be hard to believe but we do care about books and we’re passionate about finding new talent, nurturing authors and helping to build lasting careers. In the last nine years there are few seats I’ve occupied, (unless I have company), for longer than a couple of minutes without whipping out  a manuscript – a train journey, bus journey, flight, waiting room, cafe, bar, picnic, sofa, bench, bed – you get the idea – nowhere is sacred, everywhere haunted by the ghosts of potential clients. Then there’s the crippling guilt; the price of reading a book for fun (gasp!), without an eye on possible representation, a guilt which may drive weaker souls to watch Teen Wolf on TV rather than indulge in the unholy act of reading a published author when so many authors await discovery. But that’s the nature of the beast and it’s a beast we love.

I’m certainly not asking for pity but if you’re an aspiring author looking for an agent then Bourne’s article is a must read as it gives a great insight into an agent’s world. It’s thoughtful and realistic and he is inspiringly determined.  I’m less convinced by the importance of knowing the right people, maybe that’s more relevant in the US and less so for children’s books in the UK. Of course connections and recommendations do help but a really impressive covering letter will stand out and perseverance will often pay off.  So keep typing and keep sending your manuscripts in, or your soul could be at stake – after it’s the devil who makes work for idle hands.