Tuesday, 24 May 2011

Double Vision...by Phil Earle.

 One of the best YA books I've read in a long time is Being Billy, Phil Earle's story of an angry boy trapped in the care system, seemingly rejected by everyone. It's heart-rending, without ever being sentimental, and Phil pulls off the trick of  getting the reader to care desperately about Billy, while showing us how damaged and difficult he is.
One thing that interested me about Being Billy is that it's contremporary realism at its grittiest. As a writer of contemporary realism, I'm all too aware of how unfashionable it is at the moment (one day I will share with you the horror story of trying to get When I Was Joe published. Not yet. The scars are still raw). But of course, publishing is a business, and sales directors are right to make hard-headed business decisions about which books they think will turn a profit.
So how interesting, I thought, that Being Billy was written by the Sales Director of one of the UK's big publishers. Phil Earle works for Simon and Schuster, he knows the world of publishing inside out, and he's there in acquisitions meetings making decisions about what's in and what's out, all the time. What's he doing writing contemporary realism? Over to Phil....

Someone asked me the other week why I haven’t written a Paranormal Romance.
Why, when the vast majority of teen readers are desperate for tales of forbidden love between a girl and a vampire/werewolf/fallen angel/corpse* (*delete as appropriate), choose to write Being Billy -  a novel about an angry, abusive kid stuck in the care system.

Bloomin’ good question that, one that I should’ve had an answer for. After all, I’m only too aware of what is floating the YA boat at the moment, as I’m lucky enough to work in kids publishing.
Once I’d stopped kicking myself, I realised that the answer is actually a simple one, a response you hear authors give at many school events – write about what you know, write what you’re passionate about.

I love the YA genre, it’s what I read out of choice as well as write for, so I knew there was no chance of me sitting for six months on the bus, using my free hour of the day, telling a story that I had absolutely no interest in. It just wouldn’t happen. I’d end up playing ‘Angry Birds’ or heaven forbid, reading the ‘Evening Standard’ instead. How depressing would that be?

It does create an interesting dynamic for me though, as my job as sales director at Simon and Schuster demands me to think commercially so much of the time. There’s not always time for a lot of sentiment - I have to think to some extent, is there a market for this book? And if not, should we be publishing at all?

It was a stark realisation when I tried to imagine my own book coming to one of our acquisition meetings. Would I have been intrigued by the plot, or just have passed it off as something too worthy or niche? Would I have told the author to turn the kid into a vampire to tick the boxes that the current trend demands?
I know I wouldn’t, even if I thought it momentarily…after all, look at the number of YA novels that have gone on to be bestsellers or cult classics, despite being a ‘difficult’ sell.

Mark Haddon’s ‘Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time’ for example takes autism into the mainstream in a way that few people could, and what about Louis Sachar’s ‘Holes’?
Imagine the conversation in that acquisition meeting…..

‘What’s it about?’ asks the cynical Sales Director.

*Pause from editor*
‘Well, er, it’s about a kid who steals some sneakers and ends up digging holes in the desert as his punishment…’

‘Could he not get bitten by a radioactive snake or something…?’ sighs the Sales Director. ‘Or discover the jail is made up of vampires hungry for his blood?’

*Editor quickly scribbles resignation letter*

But that’s the great thing about the kids' book industry that I know, as there are enough passionate editors, sales folk or marketers who are prepared to see beyond the initial synopsis, to the thing that is really important in the telling of stories, and that is the voice it’s written in.

You can have a concept that no-one has ever dreamed of before, or a fast cash-in to a trend that is setting new records, but if the story is badly told, or without heart, the reader will see straight through it. And they won’t come back for more, no matter how nicely you ask them.

And that’s why I write the books I do, even if they aren’t in vogue. It’s because I feel compelled to.
It would be lovely if they sold well.
Well enough to allow me to spend more time writing and talking about them.
But truthful, passionate writing comes first – it has to, and I promise to remember that in our next acquisition meeting too.


  1. Mental note to self: Find my passion.

  2. What a superb post, Keren - and thanks to Phil. I love gritty YA realism - it just has so much more heart and guts. Even though I tend to write in paranormal/fantasy/sci fi genres, I also keep a strong element of realism - I think, if one has to put the heart in a story, one has to write what one knows about and that always brings us back to reality one way or another. Escapism is one thing, but truth is that much more powerful. Going off to add Being Billy to my online shopping basket right away!

  3. Great guest post. I thought your book was superb, Phil (I reviewed it on WriteAway) and it's fascinating to see your dilemma about commerical vs personal passion because you're on both sides of the fence, so to speak! I hope BB does really well. Jo Kenrick

  4. As a fellow 'contemporary realism' author (I really like the sound of that!), I am so grateful for this post. It's funny how so many writers are feeling rather put out by the whole paranormal craze (judging by the snide comments directed at Ms. Meyer and despair at the plethora 100-book series about angel/devil/vampire/wolf spawn falling in love with vulnerable teenage girls) and yet readers and review bloggers just can't get enough of it. Did the hype create the readers or did the readers create the hype..?

  5. Thanks, Keren - and Phil, too. Can't remember the last time someone mentioned 'voice' to me, rather than concept or genre or any of those other secondary things.

    Oh - and I loved Being Billy too.

  6. What a great post - and it sounds a great book, I must order it. I write gritty teen novels for reluctant readers (do you have a reluctant readers list at S&S, Phil?) and engage far better with realism than fantasy [apologies to the editor of my vampire series. oops.]

  7. Great post and as I've written a gritty 'contemporary realism' novel for YA I kept wondering if it was too gritty. But it was a story that needed telling and the response I've had from beta readers has been fantastic, so maybe I should be brave and send it out into the world. But only after I've bought 'Being Billy.'

  8. I think it's often true that the people who really know the market are the ones who are most confident to step away from it, and it's the insecure, inexperienced authors who run after trends and try to second-guess acquisitions decisions. I count myself as having been firmly in the latter group and hope I'm now moving into the former!

    Really great to hear your perspective, Phil and I hope your book finds lots of readers. Judging from the responses here, I have a feeling you'll be ok :-)


  9. What a brilliant post. Writing what matters to you, the stories that fight their way out - it's the only way to be satisfied. I suspect a lot of editors feel the same way - we hear often that they just want good stories - and there are a lot of great stories out there that don't fit easily into 'high concept'- Lia's Guide for one. Looking forward to reading Being Billy :O)

  10. Kathy, Lia's Guide is a paranormal romance!!!! Lia's in love with someone who is either a vampire or an angel. Or possibly a ghost. And that's the way it's staying until the booksellers have put in their orders, thank you very much.

  11. Awesome post, Keren and Phil!

    Keren, I didn't know Lia's Guide was a paranormal romance!

  12. Thank you, Keren, and big thank you to Phil for this post. As a writer of gritty contemporary teen books, I completely understand about the Voice and about writing what you know. There are lots of teenagers and young adults out there who are crying out for books that deal with contemporary realism, so let's give them more of what they want now that the bookshleves are groaning under the weight of vampires and angels.

  13. LOL Keren! Of course - I am such an idiot ;O )

  14. Wow. It's true that us editors sometimes have our differences with Sales colleagues for the reasons Phil describes. But go Phil!

    (And, just possibly, go me, as I am an editor writing an against-the-grain MS in the evenings and suffering from those same vivid visions of the acquisitions meeting...)

    So this post has really cheered up a rather difficult day, for two reasons. Thanks!

  15. Great stuff! Well said, Phil. Being Billy looks set to be a classic of the genre. The more good books like this that get written and published, the more opportunity there will be for others to follow. Besides if you don't care about what you're writing, what's the point? Thanks for posting, Keren.

  16. Thanks Keren and Phil for this post. I enjoyed the imagined meeting about HOLES. It serves to illustrate that often the best books defy being pigeonholed. Imagine all the fantastic books we would have missed out on without the writers and publishers who can think outside the box.

  17. Fab post. I'm really glad that you stuck with Being Billy as it was fantastic.