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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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 Amazon.com 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. Sugarscape.com 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 TheUKWillBeWatching.co.uk

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.

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.