Friday, 26 June 2009

The future of children's books?

So, you want to be a writer? You have an idea, work on it in glorious isolation, delve into your imagination, write, rewrite, edit and revise and then start the hideous search for an agent and publisher.
Not necessarily. My writing group had a visit yesterday from a company offering a different way into the publishing world, a route that’s been very successful for a few writers.
Hothouse Publishing creates books - generally series of books - which they then sell to publishers. They come up with an idea, treat it like a business product - brainstorming, market research, creating sample chapters - and then sell the idea to publishers.
They’ve been going for two and a half years and have already successfully sold a few series. The first book they produced – Darkside by Tom Becker – was published by Scholastic and won the Waterstone’s Children’s Book of the Year prize.
The writer gets a detailed outline chapter by chapter, and is paid a flat fee. His or her work appears under a pseudonym. In some cases there might be a chance of a share of royalties. But if the series you write becomes the next Twilight or Harry Potter then you’re not going to retire on the profits – fair enough really as you didn’t come up with the concept, characters or plot.
It’s a different approach to books that can be compared to television, or even to the medieval artisans who produced art - anonymous, working in teams. The Romantic idea of the lonely genius artist came much later.
So what to make of this? It’s good to see a way in which aspiring writers can make money, learn their craft and get the attention of agents and publishers. Almost all of Hothouse’s successfully published authors have gone on to find agents and get published in their own right. Tom Becker now has his own contract with Scholastic.
Second, there’s nothing intrinsically wrong in having a different model for creating fiction. Why shouldn’t it be a group vision instead of an individual one?
Against that, is the concern that this creates formulaic copycat sub-standard children’s fiction. Hothouse’s very nice representatives defend themselves against this charge, saying they do believe in the quality and literary content of their work. The judges of the Waterstone's Childrens Book of the Year clearly approved.
Other series producers are not quite so fussy I suspect. My son gobbled up the Beast Quest series - he owns 14 of them which means I’ve spent an eye-watering £70 for him to read the same story again and again. My daughter developed her reading skills and critical faculties on the Rainbow fairies series - it was a great moment when she realised that they were boring and totally predictable. (I must admit though to a secret fascination with the names they chose and the way they match them with subject. Rihanna the Seahorse Fairy must have been a difficult day at the fairy factory).
Personally I quail a bit at the idea that I’m up against teams of idea generators and market researchers in trying to grab a little bit of a market. But then that’s life and writing is both an art and a business.
My writing group was divided by the visit. There were some who felt that the idea of writing for Hothouse was a distraction that could harm their own work. It could be frustrating not to be able to contribute your own ideas. Others felt there would be fantastic freedom in writing for the mass market to someone else's plan. And I wondered if I could write quickly enough to make it financially worthwhile, and whether I'd feel resentful if 'my' book became a best-seller - except it wouldn't really be 'my' book, so probably not.
The lesson seems to be that publishers love series. If you can beat Hothouse at their own game then you’re on to a winner. If you create something that they go on to copy then you’re doing really well. And it’s nice to know that if your imagination dries up then there are people out there who might employ you to fill in the gaps in their vision. Would love to know what others think.


  1. Fascinating post and concept! In a way one might see it as the best of both worlds. Writing for a group like Hothouse as the "day job" and writing one's own stuff as the "art" - and one gets paid for doing both. For many, it could prove to be an invaluable arena in which to learn - and, as you say, to then go on and do one's own thing.
    I suppose what all this says, is that like digitisation of books, so here's another way of looking at how we can get published (and if we can make a living from it!).

  2. Apparently they are very nice to work for too. But I do worry that I'd lose my focus.