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Tuesday 6th March 2012 saw the latest in the Society of Children's Book Writers & Illustrator's London Professional Series being held at the Theodore Bullfrog Pub near Embankment.

The speakers were Julia Churchill from The Greenhouse Literary Agency and in a change to the advertised programme, Ali Dougal, a commissioning editor from Egmont UK stood in for Leah Thaxton, publishing director at Egmont UK who was unfortunately unwell and unable to attend.

The purpose of the evening was to go through the process of finding an agent and being published.

Julia kicked things off by running through the process of finding an agent and describing what an agent does.


Julia began with a brief introduction about herself. She started her career with the Darley Anderson Agency in 2002. At that time, Darley Anderson specialised in commercial fiction and non-fiction, with its authors including Lee Child and Martina Cole. In 2004, a submission came into the agency from Cathy Cassidy with the working title Indigo Blue and although at that time Darley Anderson wasn't representing children's titles, Julia was so taken with the book that the agency decided to offer Cathy Cassidy representation. Julia then went out to research children's publishers and proceeded to send it out. From then on, she worked to build up the children's book list at the agency but in 2009 joined Sarah Davies at The Greenhouse Literary Agency. Sarah was a former editor at Macmillan who had gone on to set up her own agency, which was proving to be phenomenally successful. She wanted someone who could focus on the UK side of the business and enable Sarah to concentrate on the US side.

Julia went on to say that an agent's role is:

1. to spot talent;

2. to help develop that talent; and

3. to sell that talent.

Her approach is to try and be the first person to get back to a querying author whose work she is interested in. For example, if an author sends in a good query and opening 5 pages, then Julia will want to go back quickly to ask for a full.

Julia may either sign up an author on the strength of the full or she may offer to work on a manuscript editorially to see if the author can bring it up to a saleable level. She said that the editorial process doesn't always work out. Some manuscripts need to go through 2+ turns before the author is ready to sell, other manuscripts may never hit the right level.

Julia stressed that very few manuscripts come in that are immediately ready to go out on submission to publishers. Most of them need at least some editorial support.

Most agents now work as editorial agents. This is typically because publisher's editors have more and more books to choose from but at the same time they have to be cautious and are looking to cut their lists. Therefore fewer books are being bought, which means that agents have to make sure that the books they are sending out are really good. At the same time, the emphasis within publishing houses means that if an editor wants to make an acquisition then the book they're championing has to be recognised as saleable by the marketing and sales people and marketing sales will not necessarily be looking for the potential of a manuscript - they want it ready to go.

When Julia takes on an author's manuscript, she will look for publishers that are a good match for it. This may be just the one editor or there may be many publishers. These days it's more likely that it will go to several publishers as you don't know what will be loved where.

Agents negotiate:

- contracts;

- discount rates;

- percentage splits on subsidiary rights;

- bigger advances paid sooner;

- free copies; and

- rights reversion.

Agents convert publisher friendly contracts into author friendly contracts.

Agents may hold back foreign rights so that there will be more advances for the author and therefore more revenue streams. Some authors are bigger in Brazil or Germany or the Netherlands than they are in the UK or US.

Agents work to get a career going for a writer and smooth out legitimate concerns that an author may have with their publisher, e.g. lack of marketing, editorial differences etc. An agent will know what a legitimate dispute is and can guide new authors through the process.

Increasingly an agent's stable of authors will work with each other to build a community and maximise marketing opportunities.

Agents are a long term business companion.

As an agent, Julia needs to be aware of prevailing trends and the individual tastes of individual editors together with what particular publishers may actively want for the purposes of their list. She looks for what's fashionable but also wants enduring, classic stories.

Julia said that trends are a red herring because of the way publishing timelines work. It can take anything between 2 and 7 years from an author writing the book to the book being published.

Julia said that at the moment she's particularly looking for younger (i.e. non-YA fiction).

When Julia receives a manuscript she looks for 6 things:

- concept;

- character;

- story;

- setting;

- theme; and

- voice.

Concept: This is the hook, which needs to be focused and clear. If a pitch doesn't work then it's generally because there's too much going on. The concept doesn't need to be a high-concept, but it does need a unique selling point because that's what publishers are looking for.

Character: Characters need to leap from the page. Know their backstory and get to know them well. They need to be tied into the plot. They need to change and learn so that the reader cares about them. They need to be fresh and there needs to be something clever about them.

Story: What do your characters stand to win and lose? The dilemma should include real anguish, courage, high stakes and action. Make the stakes escalate. Julia believes that outlining can be a very useful tool even if you don't stick to them because they give you clarity about the story and force you to think it through. In addition, if you give an outline to an editor or agent then they can pick up on potential problems or issues from the outset, which makes editing easier. The stakes can be interior, e.g. about feelings, emotional survival, personal growth, and personal relationships.

Setting: How strongly does your setting enhance the plot and story? Can you only imagine your story taking place in that setting?

Theme: The story should leave readers with a residual feeling. There has to be something deeply felt that stays with the reader afterwards.

Voice: Every agent looks for voice but no one can really explain it. Julia thinks that it should plug into the target age group and be completely individual. She wants something different and special and she knows good voice when she sees it.

Julia says that you should know your market and be aware of who you are writing for. Don't use the term "crossover" in your query. Think about your core reader. Read your key market and read widely.

Find out what children are buying and enjoying but don't try to copy it.

Julia says that you should distance yourself from your first draft. Get some perspective on it and some objective criticism. She offered up the following things to think about:

- does your story take off early enough? Start with a mini-drama to hook your reader and get it going in the first chapter. List what you find out in the opening chapter.

- are there too many characters who are too similar?

- do the scenes need to be there?

- read your dialogue out loud. Give it to someone else to read.

- do you enter your scenes at the right moment and leave at the right point?

- don't start a book with an alarm clock.

- don't write books that are lessons. The morals and condescension stand out.

- show don't tell.

- have you squeezed all the emotion and action you can out of a scene?

- always back everything up.


Ali also began with a brief introduction about herself. She works as a commissioning editor for fiction from ages 5+ to Young Adult and crossover fiction. She started at Puffin as an editorial assistant and was there for 5 years before moving to Egmont where she's been for the last 3 years.

Egmont UK is one of the top 5 publishers each year. They're the largest publisher in the UK, covering magazines, licensed character and tie-in fiction and 'normal' fiction. Egmont is an ethical publisher. Their fiction list is split between the front list and the back list.

The front list is new fiction and involves big advances, big origination costs and marketing. Egmont has a very strong back list, which gives the company its bread and butter revenue. Their big fiction brands include Mr Gum by Andy Stanton, Michael Grant, Michael Morpurgo (with Ali noting that War Horse didn't sell well until the National Theatre production and subsequent Steven Spielburg movie) and Enid Blyton.

Egmont used to focus on fiction for younger children, but they recently launched a new YA imprint called Electric Monkey, which is doing really well. Egmont do both low brow and high brow fiction. Their lists are growing but every book has an impact on and affects the tone and perception of those lists.

Egmont has a team of 4 editors and one publishing director.

All publishers are looking for the next big thing. Ali wants writing that really stands out, including whether it's eccentric or really 'out there'.

Hook is probably the most important thing as it helps an editor to sell the book to their sales team and acquisition committee. You do need a good 30 second elevator pitch.

Editors never know where the next big manuscript is going to come from, but most manuscripts come from agents.

Publishing is partly to do with individual taste. Ali likes Young Adult and fiction that's edgy and different - she pointed to AU REVOIR, CRAZY EUROPEAN CHICK as being an example of what she likes.

Publishers are looking for quality Middle Grade fiction at the moment to plug the gaps in their list and the market. Lists need to be balanced so that there's fiction for everyone.

Most manuscripts need work from the editorial team. The hook can help get the publisher to want to invest in doing that work.

Ali likes to try and meet or talk to an author before buying their manuscript. You need to know if the editor shares your vision and wants to genuinely work with you. You don't need total agreement but the connection is particularly important with things like humour because if the editor doesn't get it then they can't really work with you. You need to trust and have confidence in your editor so that your talent can be nurtured. You need an agent who can be honest with you and deliver difficult messages to help you to develop your career.

After you sign your book deal, you usually meet your editor again to discussion the vision for the book. At Egmont, the author usually meets the publicity and marketing team so that there will be a tailored publicity and marketing strategy, e.g. a high concept campaign, lots of author blurbs and reviews, posters etc. At Egmont the editor is involved in each stage of the publishing process and usually is the author's first point of contact.

The editorial process should be collaborative. There are different styles of editing so it may be a detailed letter or a telephone conversation to discuss general points or it may be a combination of different techniques.

When editing a book Ali looks for character consistency to see if they go through a journey. The voice needs to be as compelling as it can be. Pace is crucial. Also the book needs to be appropriate to the target reader.

There will be a cover discussion and Egmont will try to fit the illustrator to the author. The author will always be involved in the process of developing the cover.

A bound proof will then be put together to help generate buzz, which will be aimed at reviewers and retailers. Proofs tend to only be produced for new books and will include review quotes.

Ali shared some stats from 2010/2011:

- 36% of the UK population didn't buy a book.

- book sales dropped by 8% due mainly to a drop in the popularity of paranormal romance.

- Egmont's sales grew by 15%.

Egmont sees the market as growing for everything except paranormal romance.

Fiction is mainly about event publishing now and especially is interested in books that are made into films.

There's less of a chance to build a series now as publishers need to know when to publish. For example Christmas promotion is very expensive and so favours established books and tie ins.

Ali believes that it's more important to earn royalties than to get a big advance.

The cost for book promotional slots are going up and marketing costs are also going up.

Editors have to be 100% behind a book to help champion it.

Ali believes that the ideal author should be prepared to market and sell with the publisher's support. Book festivals are important and so is author brand and author communication. Authors must be happy to work with their editors on the manuscript, know who the target readers are and be in contact with them.

Authors should play to their strengths and write what comes naturally to them. Know why readers like your book and know what your weaknesses are in your writing so that you can hone your craft.

Read within your market so that you see what's out there and what's being talked about.

Finally, Ali said that you know when you've hit the big time when:

- children start writing to you;

- retailers don't need to be convinced to stock your book;

- the cover price of your book goes up;

- you're being offered a hard back release;

- there's lots of international interest;

- rival publishers are taking you out to lunch;

- you're asked to sit on awards panels and attend book and arts festivals (which are a great way of reaching target audiences); and

- your editor will stop feeling the need to edit you.

There then followed questions from the audience.

The next event in the London Professional Series is on April 24th 2012 at the Theodore Bullfrog pub, when Tabitha Suzuma, Miriam Halahmy and Bali Rai will be talking about how they tackle difficult issues in their writing.


( 11 comments — Leave a comment )
Mar. 8th, 2012 01:09 am (UTC)
Thanks for the report, Caroline! I'll be attending the Book Camp at the Oxford Literary Festival at the end of them month, so it was nice to get a taste of what was discussed.
Mar. 8th, 2012 03:17 pm (UTC)
You're welcome - glad that it's of interest.

(Also, I'm a bit jealous that you're going to the OLF - I'd love to have gone to that but have something else on this year. :grumps:)
Nicky Schmidt
Mar. 8th, 2012 11:07 am (UTC)
brilliant post, Caroline, really useful and insightful information! thanks so much for sharing.
Mar. 8th, 2012 03:17 pm (UTC)
You're very welcome!
Mar. 8th, 2012 01:44 pm (UTC)
This was an excellent post--really comprehensive, with lots to think about. Thank you for sharing!
Mar. 8th, 2012 03:18 pm (UTC)
No problem - thank you for stopping by.
Mar. 8th, 2012 03:44 pm (UTC)
This is a great post! And a pretty awesome summary of what an agent does, tbh. :)
Mar. 8th, 2012 09:51 pm (UTC)
Thanks, although I can't really take the credit. I just wrote down what Julia said.
Mar. 8th, 2012 10:13 pm (UTC)
Mar. 8th, 2012 10:15 pm (UTC)

Well, okay. I am pretty fricking awesome ...
Mar. 8th, 2012 10:16 pm (UTC)
It is true!
( 11 comments — Leave a comment )


Caroline Hooton

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