by Olivia Snaije Originally published in Perspective Publishing April 19, 2018
In a tightening market for fiction and especially for debut authors looking for that big break, editors can be choosier—and many are more dependent than ever on literary agents to find their next debuts.
Two trends gave a session on debut acquisitions at last week’s London Book Fair special interest. First, the fair’s Author HQ program is smartly including trade authors’ interests, such as placing a first novel. Second, as Michael Cader at Publishers Lunch has pointed out, not only did significant nonfiction deals at LBF this year, but debuts were way down. By Cader’s count, there were 34 debut fiction sales in 2016; 37 in 2017; and only 27 debut fiction deals this year. —Porter Anderson
‘I’ve Pre-Empted Two Books This Year’
A room filled with aspiring writers awaited three editors and a debut author last week at London Book Fair’s session “Why We Commissioned These Debuts.” Speakers included:
• Penguin Random House UK editor Jade Chandler, who handles crime and thrillers for Harvill Secker and Vintage
• Nick Wells, the founding publisher at independent house Flame Tree Publishing, which is to launch an imprint for horror, crime, and science fiction/fantasy in September
• HarperCollins UK editorial director Martha Ashby
• HarperCollins author Sarah J. Harris was on hand to provide the debut writer’s viewpoint
Harris is also published in the States by Simon & Schuster, and she’s written three YA novels under a pseudonym. And she described the comparatively dreamy experience she had in entering the market with The Color of Bee Larkham’s Murder.
Having spent nine months writing the book, she said she researched agents and picked out the ones she thought would suit her best. Among them was Jemima Forrester who was starting a new list at David Higham’s agency.
Harris wrote a cover letter, targeted her agents’ list, met Forrester first and signed with her. Once the book was edited, Harris said, Forrester submitted it and the manuscript drew overnight interest from publishers.
Within less than a week, HarperCollins made a bid, which Harris said she knows is unusually fast action.
From an editor’s viewpoint, Harvill Secker’s Chandler said that in a pre-empt, a publisher may “offer quite a lot to the agent because you want the book” to be taken off the table. “But sometimes the agent will have it go to auction. I’ve pre-empted two books this year,” Chandler said, “and it usually involves reading the book overnight. It’s very dramatic and exciting and involves sleepless nights.”
Chandler said that like most editors, she finds authors through literary agents who filter submissions. “It’s quite an old fashioned process,” she said, “but in reality, I’m just one woman and I can only read so much.” Not surprisingly, she said that good relationships with agents become important if an editor is to find the best material.
‘You Know Within a Few Pages If the Writer Can Write’ - Martha Ashby
Martha Ashby is the editor who pre-empted Harris’ book—shutting down all competing offers by striking a deal with the agent. Ashby said she meets with agents and tells them what she’s looking for. She doesn’t read submission letters, she said.
“I want to read the book as someone who doesn’t know what it’s going to be like,” Ashby said. “I want to come at it as a reader would. I think about who the audience is. Is it different from other books in the market? What would the elevator pitch be? If I’m really excited about the book I’ll flag my publisher.
“You know within a few pages if the writer can write. If the voice is great but I don’t know where the story’s going, I’ll still keep reading, bearing in mind that the manuscript has been roughly edited.
“Sometimes an author will need to cut the first few chapters. Once we’re excited about a book we’ll circulate it to sales and marketing and publishers.
“If I can, I tell the publicity and marketing and sales teams about where the book sits in the market because they need to know who the readers are. Are they reading Elle or the Daily Express? Are they on Facebook or on Twitter? Everyone is thinking about how we’d publish the book from their own perspective and from their area.”
While all this is happening, said Ashby, five or 15 other editors are doing the same thing. A book can then go to auction, or be pre-empted, and the process can take between one day to one month, or longer.
“Sometimes agents will want to see a publication pitch,” she said. “How we’ll present the book. The most important thing for an author is to feel like they’ve found the best home for their book.”
For her part as the writer in question, Harris confirmed that the experience at HarperCollins made her feel “like the whole team was onboard with my book from Day One. I had contact with them all.”
‘Headaches and Sleepless Nights’ - Nick Wells
Running a much smaller, independent house, Nick Wells said he goes about things differently at Flame Tree. Editors there feel, he said, that it’s important to engage directly with writers and readers. For this reason, he said he doesn’t rely on literary agents and is open to submissions for periods of time—“which causes headaches and sleepless nights,” he conceded.
“We have short windows for submissions,” he said. And yet, “We [recently] had submissions from 12,000 people and an editorial board of six with some outside readers.” All of which confirmed for him that “there’s no question that the agent route is very helpful.”
As far as submissions go, Wells said that if writers are hungry and know their market, they’d find a way to send him their manuscript.
Searching Out Better Work - Jade Chandler
A relatively new element of the business is the digital visibility authors may have, even if they’re not thinking of it.
Some editors go to blog sites and various social media to look for authors, and many like to see how influential those writers are in the social realm. “If someone isn’t on social media at all,” Chandler said, however, ‘that wouldn’t discourage me.”
The editors agreed that they’re open to the idea of working with self-published authors and that remaining flexible in the industry is important.
And while all the session’s panelists hadn’t directly addressed the title of the session with rationales for precise acquisitions, they did say they’re also trying to get more submissions from a range of writers for diversity. Chandler mentioned Random House’s Write Now program, and Wells said that a more diverse staff is needed if a house is to connect with diverse writers. At HarperCollins, an inclusive hiring scheme has been in place for some time.
Olivia Snaije is a journalist and editor based in Paris who writes about the Middle East, multiculturalism, translation, literature, and graphic novels. She is a contributor to newspapers and magazines including The Guardian, Harper’s Bazaar Art, The Global Post, The New York Times and CNN.
In an interview Hachette CEO Arnaud Nourry describes ebooks as ‘exactly the same as print, but electronic.’ The bigger question is whether that’s what consumers want.
By Porter Anderson, Editor-in-Chief This article was first published in Publishing Perspective on February 20, 2018.
‘Two Different Geographies’? or Expectations?
Shortly after the International Publishers Association’s biennial world congress left New Delhi, India’s journal Scroll.in ran a controversial interview with France’s Arnaud Nourry to mark the 10th anniversary of Hachette India.
The highly regarded CEO of Lagardère Publishing and Hachette Livre’s empire, Nourry has raised eyebrows in the book publishing industry for seeming to disparage digital publishing’s centerpiece, the ebook, as a “stupid product.”
Needless to say, this has quickly gotten back to Paris, where Nicholas Gary at ActuaLitté on Monday (February 19) asked whether the comment indicated that Nourry was “launching a missile” at the ebook.
In the interview with Scroll.in, Nourry speaks of the “two geographies” where ebooks have differing success. To get at this point, Scroll.in interviewer Harsimran Gill asks whether Nourry sees the ebook market plateauing.
Nourry answers, “There are two different geographies to look at for this. In the US and UK, the ebook market is about 20 percent of the total book market, everywhere else it is 5 percent to 7 percent because in these places the prices never went down to such a level that the ebook market would get significant traction. I think the plateau, or rather slight decline, that we’re seeing in the US and UK is not going to reverse. It’s the limit of the ebook format.”
Nourry goes on in the interview to say, “The ebook is a stupid product. It is exactly the same as print, except it’s electronic. There is no creativity, no enhancement, no real digital experience.”
His comments also raise the issue that publishers and consumers might have different expectations for the the ebook format.
“We, as publishers, have not done a great job going digital. We’ve tried. We’ve tried enhanced or enriched ebooks—didn’t work. We’ve tried apps, Web sites with our content—we have one or two successes among a hundred failures. I’m talking about the entire industry. We’ve not done very well.”
Could ‘Exactly the Same as Print’ Be Exactly the Point?
“The ebook is a stupid product. It is exactly the same as print, except it’s electronic. There is no creativity, no enhancement, no real digital experience,” Arnaud Nourry
While publishing pundits have been quick to jump on these comments as short-sighted, Nourry does go on to say, “It’s not that we’re against ebooks. People … pay a price that is about 40 percent lower than the print price. And it works. The ebook market has gone down a little bit, not much, from say 25 percent to 20 percent in some countries. There is still a readership for ebooks but at a price that keeps the ecosystem alive.”
It’s clear that, at the right price, the ebook format serves a certain percentage of readers well. In fact, some readers may like the ebook because, as Nourry puts it, “It is exactly the same as print, except it’s electronic.”
As Nourry says, many efforts at “enhanced ebooks” have been cast aside as expensive experiments that most consumers haven’t warmed up to. And even today’s attempts to bring augmented reality effects into children’s books seem to remain primarily in the novelty bracket.
What the market may have been telling the industry all along was that, for some readers, “electronic” is enough. The values of the ebook for many do lie in the conveniences that are made possible by the electronic element:
• Many ebooks can be stored and read on single or multiple devices.
• An ebook can be acquired in 60 seconds—no waiting for delivery, no travel to a store, no out-of-stock delays.
• An ebook can glow in the dark, change its fonts size, capture quotes, and even share passages.
• An ebook can provide an instantly available dictionary and other resources.
• And an ebook, yes, is normally less expensive, as Nourry is pointing out, than its print counterpart.
This shouldn’t prevent publishers from developing digital approaches, as Nourry advocates for in the interview, “to see how we can nurture one another and how we can go beyond the ebook on digital.” Any format that can move through that marketplace successfully may be worth pursuing.
Big Picture, Little Picture
“Amazon has had a fantastic role to play in the publishing industry. Apart from our little battle, it is a very efficient retailer, able to ship books almost everywhere in the world very quickly. It is a real opportunity for publishers.”Arnaud Nourry
Nourry in his interview tells Gill that on the international scale, 30 percent of Hachette’s business is in French-language content “across France, Belgium, Switzerland, Canada, and other French-speaking countries.” He cites 25 percent of the company’s business in the States and in English-language Canada, with 20 percent “in the UK, India, Australia, New Zealand, and Ireland,” followed by 10 percent in Spanish “and another 10 percent in the rest of the world.”
He speaks highly of Arabic markets and the Russian readership as an interesting target for Hachette. He assesses China right now as “a difficult country.”
And he talks of how the bruising 2014 negotiations with Amazon were worth it because Hachette won the right to set its own prices for ebooks. In fact, he talks of it now as “our little battle”—although it seized the attention of the publishing industry for almost a year and triggered some acrimonious divides.
Today, Nourry sends warm regards to Seattle: “Amazon has had a fantastic role to play in the publishing industry. Apart from our little battle, it is a very efficient retailer, able to ship books almost everywhere in the world very quickly. It is a real opportunity for publishers.
“Google and Facebook are third-party providers for us in terms of advertising and community management, so they don’t have a central role. Of course, Google 10 years ago had the crazy idea of digitizing all books without permission. We collectively fought that and won. Google is good for discovering titles. We don’t use it a lot for advertising or keywords—it’s a tiny partner. Facebook is mostly an advertising channel, as we use other platforms of the same nature. It does not deeply transform our business.”
The nagging sense from this interview, however, is that Nourry and others in the business may be looking for digital to do more than the consumer wants.
The Bookseller’s Philip Jones in his leader piece on Friday (February 16) writes of how travel books have yet to make a good transition to digital formats: “Mobile-screen size, roaming charges, battery life, and the lack of wi-fi in some destinations has given paper a longer flight time than once we imagined,” he writes.
And certainly, some elements of the industry will always live more comfortably on paper than screens.
But the worrisome part of Nourry’s conversation with Gill may not be in his colorful disdain for the basic ebook as “a stupid product” but in how some in the industry seem unsatisfied with a consumer desire that an ebook be, as he puts it, “exactly the same as print, except it’s electronic.”
What if that’s all the market ever wanted from an ebook?
by Porter Anderson - Publishing Perspective February 6, 2018
How is the political climate in the United States is affecting the sales of socially relevant books? One Canadian publisher says the ‘Trump bump’ is real.
‘The Trump Era Has Made It Important’
Concepts of diversity, inclusivity, and multiculturalism are the stock-in-trade of Canadian children’s book publisher Margie Wolfe and her team at Second Story Press in Toronto.
“We’ve done this for a very long time,” Wolfe says in an interview from her offices with Publishing Perspectives. “And we don’t do anything else. It’s taken time, particularly on the kids’ books side for people to accept—parents, educators, librarians—for people to accept that you can deal with difficult content for young people and do it in a way that’s both compelling and often entertaining.”
Near the end of January this year, Wolfe took part in the Children’s Books Salon—produced by Publishing Perspectives and the Frankfurter Buchmesse New York—where international publishers met to discuss new titles and trends in the children’s book market.
There, during a comprehensive presentation by children’s books editors from HarperCollins, Wolfe asked if US publishers have seen changes to the children’s and YA book market as a result of the divisive American political climate.
‘The Response of the Consumer’
“The ‘Trump bump’ is because there’s a recognition among educators and librarians and parents that you need to have content that deals with the world around us in a way that’s interesting for the children and doesn’t frighten them.”Margie Wolfe
While there were some at the Children’s Books Salon in New York City who said that they couldn’t see a direct correlation between the charged politics of the moment and book sales, “There were at least four people,” Wolfe says, “who came up to me later” during some of the event’s networking sessions among editors, “and told me that they are seeing response.
“It’s not so much in what you’re commissioning,” she says, “that you see the reactions. It’s about the response of the consumer now. If before Trump you were doing some of this kind of books for children and you weren’t getting a response, the Trump era has made it important that there is a big consumer response, and we’ve seen that.
“Some of the rights we’re selling is because of this” political climate in which immigration has become such a fiercely contested flash point. “For example, refugees are not bad people, and the parents who want someone to explain that will look to a book like Where Will I Live? about children looking for a home. They’re seen as human beings, not as aliens or awful people.”
This is, Wolfe says, a very clear “positive impact on a publisher like ourselves. The ‘Trump bump’ is because there’s a recognition among educators and librarians and parents that you need to have content that deals with the world around us in a way that’s interesting for the children and doesn’t frighten them, a way that enlightens without being scary.
“And,” Margie Wolfe laughs softly, “more publishers—colleagues of mine, who would never have described their books as dealing with human rights in the past?—are describing them that way now.”
‘Caring and Compassionate Human Beings’
Not unlike Sweden’s Olika Förlag with its 11-year track record of working exclusively in books for children that address what’s “different” in society and the concept of “the other,” Second Story began its operation as a house dedicated to publishing feminist-inspired books.
Second Story, however, was based originally in more adult material and has been in operation far longer than Olika: this is a 30 year old house, established in 1988.
“I came from Women’s Press,” Wolfe says, “and so I was dealing primarily with adult women’s feminist publishing that dealt with a lot of the issues we’re seeing again today.
“But when we started Second Story, along with the adult program, we started developing more books for young people with the belief that if you can figure out how to tell it so it doesn’t feel like a lesson, then there are important things you can tell children from a young age. Then you’re not trying to change people’s minds as adults because they’re growing up with content that will hopefully create caring and compassionate and active human beings.
“One of the big breakthroughs for us was Holocaust books for young readers. we started doing them about 20 years ago. At first, the reaction was, ‘You can’t tell these kinds of difficult stories to children, you have to wait until they’re older.’
“But the first one won a children’s choice award. (There are several children’s choice awards in Canada, many run by libraries.) And the second one won a children’s choice award, from the library association here.
“And then, we did a book called Hana’s Suitcase.” That book, written by Karen Levine, was published in 2002 by Second Story and now proudly is displayed with a blurb by Bishop Desmond Tutu, who writes: “How extraordinary that this humble suitcase has enabled children all over the world to learn through Hana’s story the terrible history of what happened and that it continues to urge them to heed the warnings of history.”
Basically, Wolfe and Second Story had captured a mic-drop moment with Hana’s Suitcase and put to rest a lot of assertions that young readers weren’t ready for serious topics when told well and sensitively.
Hana’s Suitcase, Wolfe says, “has in the end become Canada’s most-awarded children’s book ever. Random House handles it in the United States, but we have it in more than 40 languages.” In Canada’s award program called the Silver Birch—in which librarians nominate books and children vote on them—Hana’s Suitcase holds a unique position as “the favorite of the favorites,” taking the “Ultimate Silver Birch Award” from the Ontario Library Association.
The book is Levine’s account of Japanese research into the case of Hana Brady, whose empty suitcase, dated May 16, 1931, was found marked Waisenkind, orphan, and sent to Tokyo in 2000 for a Holocaust education center’s exhibition. Levine traced the story, as told in a CBC documentary, of the Czechoslovakian Hana Brady, the impact on her family of the Nazi invasion, and the memories of Hana’s brother who, as it turned out, had moved to Canada.
“The book was a breakthrough,” Wolfe says, “for many people trying to do difficult stories for younger people. And that allowed us even more breadth. So now, we’ve done everything from euthanasia to same-sex marriage, we’ve done books on refugees, a picture book on Malawa, work with a child-abuse center. And if you read the stories, none of them are scary.
“They’re not scary stories. They’re great stories with important content. So the kid doesn’t know he’s learned anything,” she says with a laugh. “He just knows he’s read a great story that he remembers or she remembers. That’s what’s made it fabulous for us.
“In the past year, we’ve become the first publisher to get an award from the Civil Liberties Association” of Canada. And people who are foreign publishers looking for a certain kind of book have learned to come to us because they know this is the kind of work we do.”
And Amsterdam’s Anne Frank House, Wolfe says, has selected Second Story over the major houses to have the North American rights to its own upcoming book, All About Anne, coming later this year with illustrations by Huck Scarry and a special set of responses to questions asked by children in many countries about Anne Frank’s story.
Image is of Margie Wolfe. Image: Second Story Press