Friday, 28 September 2012

Gay writes

So the lovely Louie (@louiestowell) tweeted a link to the Guardian article about the acquisition of Stranger, the book that caused a bit of a storm when the authors indicated that a literary agent had asked them to straighten a gay character (link here). Viking Penguin have picked it up without such a change.

In linking to the article Louie asked for "Moar gay YA please".

And here is my response:


I do not necessarily see all the manuscripts. Of course I don't. But I do see some - and I often see the ones that other (bigger) houses might have deemed unsuitable. So, in my unique position as Commissioning Editor for a small publishing house, you might think that I'd be seeing some of those gay manuscripts that everyone (except Viking Penguin) are so scared of publishing.

Well I don't.

I think there are two reasons. The first is short and speculative:

1) I don't think bigger houses are actually scared of publishing YA featuring gay characters at all. For instance: James Dawson's Hollow Pike. A MASSIVE title for Indigo and a hotly sought after manuscript - I don't think I'm spoiler-ing to say there's some gay characters in there. Cat Clarke's new book Undone (Quercus) - the blurb tells you that one of the main characters is gay. That's just two examples (who also happen to be two of the biggest names in UK YA at the moment).

Which leads me to my main point...

2) No one is writing them. By which I also mean, no one is writing them well. Featuring a gay character should not be a 'thing', they should just be. I don't want a writer to stand above their character with rainbow lettering and a giant arrow saying THIS ONE'S GAY! Sexuality is not a character trait any more than having brown hair, or eyes or skin is. A raging crush on your mate's sibling, a constant need to change your hair colour, wearing eyeliner to attract attention to your eyes, pride in your family's heritage - those are things that tell you about the person. Knowing someone is gay only tells me that they fancy someone of the same gender. This isn't news. Teen readers want subtly nuanced, clearly drawn, real characters whether they're L B G T or S. The requirements are the same across the board.

I don't have a diversity quota that needs filling and I'm not going to commission a badly written book because I have an agenda. I am waiting - desperately, desperately waiting - for a manuscript to drop on my desk that will help me demonstrate that publishing really doesn't need any straightening out.

All you have to do, is write it.

Wednesday, 26 September 2012

Thoughts provoked by the Bookseller Children's Conference

I went to the Bookseller Children's Conference yesterday – if you follow me on Twitter you might have noticed my sporadic (lame) attempts at live tweeting. (In my defence, I was mostly trying to write notes with an actual pen on actual paper… 70% of which I can actually decipher today!) It’s the first time I’ve been in a position to go to this particular conference and I found some of it informative, some of it funny, some of it irrelevant. But most of all (and I think this is the point of an industry conference) it got me thinking.

Here are some of the things I’ve been thinking about:
  • TIME

On the matter of MONEY
Crap. You need a lot of it. We don’t have a lot of it… WE’RE DOOMED!!! But hang on – remember you old adage, Non – you don’t need money to have a good idea. You don’t even need to have the good ideas when a whole platter of them have just been laid out for you by some of the best in this, and other, industries. Sure those guys laugh at a budget of £20,000 for app development (*gulps*), but you don’t need a big budget to adapt the concept of a style guide for branding the identity of a book beyond the physical object…  

On the matter of TIME
Crap. You need a lot of it. We don’t have a lot of it… WE’RE DOOMED!!! OK. So this is a real problem for me. I barely have the time to edit the manuscripts I’ve commissioned inside/outside of my working hours, brief the covers, provide the sales material, prompt the publicity & marketing initiatives, answer emails, meet with agents, read submissions, write the POs, check the proofs... I’m going to have to think about this one (but quickly, because I don’t have much time!). Right. Got it. I am going to copy some of those clever things that other people do ergo avoid spending time learning by making my own mistakes. That’s basically point one again isn’t it? (Yes.)

On the matter of GENDER
Well. You can’t fight this one – here are Bowker’s findings on the gender/genre reading habits of children:

And although I’d like to say the quote of the conference came from the witty and entertaining Chris Riddell or the presentation perfect Sharna Jackson from Tate Kids, the one that sticks with me is Nickelodeon’s market research video where a little boy is asked why he prefers one website to another: “Dora’s for girls.”

Although… Dora is for girls. It’s targeted at girls, it presents information in a way that appeals to girls and well, perhaps this gender-bias is a self-fulfilling prophecy... *stares off into middle distance stroking chin thoughtfully*

Maybe there is room to fight the bias after all?

On the matter of ENGAGEMENT
The marked difference between these games and TV types and these bookish types is that the former do an awful lot of market research. As far as I’m aware (and correct me if I’m wrong), publishers don’t do this. And, do you know what? I don’t think we should. Online games, TV etc… these are meant to be pure entertainment forms, their sole purpose is to give children what they want so that they come back again and again and again. These industries have to do this because they rely on advertising for their revenue, and if they can’t gurautnee a large audience, advertisers won’t pay the money.

Free from the bonds of advertising (I say 'free' because I am putting a positive spin on the difference in revenue directed towards the industry I love so much), children’s publishing has a different agenda. It’s not solely about giving the children what they want. It’s about getting them to expand their minds. It’s a feeling of being ‘in this together’ across the whole industry: we just want one book – any book – to cause a child to want to pick up another, and another, and another. Obviously if you’re getting the commissioning right you want them to pick up ones you’ve published, but really, we just want them to become voracious readers of all the books. And to nurture the reading habit requires giving a reader a challenge that they might not know that they’re willing to rise to meet, so that they start reading different books from the ones that they’ve already mastered. So they move around the smorgasbord of books on offer and become more engaged as they evolve as readers. They aren't just candyfloss for the brain.

Eric Huang (@dinoboy89) from Penguin finished the conference on a fantastic statement about curating stories and encouraging children to go out into the world and find their own. Or something like that. (It's in the 30% of notes I can't read, sorry.) And if there’s one thing that I took away, above all else, it is that stories matter.

Wednesday, 22 August 2012

Slow Non

I am struggling a bit at the moment.

I say "at the moment" but the moment feel very long - especially if you are someone I'm struggling to find time for. It's a lot of factors - too boring, too long and too time-consuming to list - but if I weren't working largely on my own, then some of the pressure would be alleviated.

Of course I don't work completely alone. I have the support and enthusiasm of a great team of reps and marketeers at Bounce Sales and Marketing who recently launched this amazing website. (Check it out, there's a world of information there that makes my mind boggle when I think of how much work went into creating it.) And I work with some great freelancers - one publicist working one day a week, one editor working one day a week and another who has taken a whole book on board to develop with the kind of consistency of care that every book on our list deserves.

But teams of freelancers do not a workforce make. I am the workforce, and I work four days a week producing 22 books a year - not to mention the reprints and the special orders that don't get the same fanfare as a new title. 

Sometimes - frequently - I feel that I am not doing enough. I should be faster, stronger, more amazinger. "Look at the great books we publish!" I say. "These books deserve everything I can give them. Give them more, Non. MORE I SAY."

But I am finite and I get frustrated at how slow I am all the time. Can't I just be much faster? At reading? At editing? I'm getting faster at emails to the point that my brevity borders on rude - unfortunately I don't think anyone will forgive me one-word answers in the subject line alone.

And then, just now I read this blog over at Brooklyn Arden and it made me feel a lot less rubbish. Because it turns out that there's a reason why I'm slow. And that's because I'm actually doing it properly.

I love this blogpost, because it made me feel better about myself. So, check it out, and you'll see a life an editor's life in publishing:

Six Reasons Why Everything in Publishing Takes So Long

And for anyone wondering how I found the time to write this blogpost, it took me 8 minutes between replying to my last email of the day and before the Catnipper emerged from bathtime ready for me to read her three stories and kiss her good night.

Monday, 13 August 2012

The art of losing

Some <insert favoured noun for idiot here> wrote a thing in the Guardian about why non-gold-medal-winning Olympic competitors should not be applauded. It's an opinion piece on why athletes should not be heralded as successful without succeeding and that we should not cast the achievements of non-winning competitors as being anything other than failure.

I don't have a problem with someone earning a living by pitching up to an athletics track and coming in last each time, if they do it with all the commitment and professionalism of the person who crosses the finish line first. Without losers, you don't have winners. Fact. If there weren't any silver or bronze medallists in the Olympics, then there wouldn't have been any competition in the first place. And without competition, there'd be no reason for the winner to be that good. Without worthy opponents, what's the point in upping your game?

This doesn't just speak for sportspeople but for all awards, all businesses, all industries, all governments. Competition breeds a better quality of competitor all round. So we should celebrate the losers for trying every inch as hard as the winners. Today may not be their day, but tomorrow might be if they keep up that commitment and professionalism that got them there in the first place.

On behalf of not-yet-winners everywhere: go team.

Wednesday, 1 August 2012

Why I commissioned… RAW BLUE

Twitter-style summary: Carly lives her life on the surface, not getting involved or noticed. Only when she surfs does everything else drop away – even her past.

This is me dipping my toes into commissioning a book with strong crossover appeal – it’s a YA novel, but the protagonist is 19 years old and this is a very personal narrative about how she lives her life in Australian coastal town Manly. There’s swearing and there’s sex, both of which can sometimes bring a gatekeeper out in hives, but are nonetheless important for teenagers to read about in a responsibly published setting. (Yes, I know that sounds pious, whatevs.)

I first heard about this by reading a post on The Crooked Bookshelf, where Carla raved about an Australian book that I’d never heard of. I’ve always felt a strong connection with YA from that corner of the world, finding the voice to sit perfectly between US polish and UK grit (to talk in sweeping terms) and I started doing a little investigating…

The result of which is Catnip acquiring the rights to publish this emotionally engaging, beautiful piece of contemporary writing by Kirsty Eagar.

Kirsty has Voice. In her intimate first person narrative the reader is balanced on a knife edge: you’re really getting to know a person yet all the while sensing that they’re pushing you away. This book is not ‘about’ anything; I don’t view it as an issues book (the issue that Carly is dealing with is hard to read about but it’s presented as part of her history, not the focus of her story); I don’t see it as a ‘coming of age’ novel (living on her own and working a late shift at a kitchen to support herself I’d suggest Carly is already of an age); it’s not even about surfing itself, although when Kirsty Eagar writes about it, I can feel my bare feet on the board and taste the salt on my lips. It’s a snapshot into a life that isn’t yours and it’s painful to read at times, a note of melancholy tempered with the possibility of hope that in time all things will fade, that whilst your past shapes you, it doesn’t own you…

This book feels real – emotions are complex, forging friendships can be hard and when connections are made they may not work out perfectly. I didn’t know where the book would take me, but Kirsty Eagar’s writing led me onwards, sucked me in and left me moved. I feel very strongly that there should be more books like this in the UK market for teens to read, books that neither protect the reader nor push an unrelentingly harrowing agenda.

I am desperately proud to be in a position to publish this one.

Thursday, 19 July 2012

Nice jacket?

I read a really interesting blog post from Lynsey over at Narratively Speaking on the decision publishers make to change jackets halfway through series and what effect this decision has on the most important people in the chain - the fans who have already supported an author (and therefore publisher) in buying the first book(s) in the series. Without these readers, there'd be no scope for further books in that series at all and publishers bank on fans buying the next in a series from the same author, so why are we forcing them to buy books that don't match - or worse, encouraging them to buy books they already own in a different design?

It gots me thinking. I sympathise with the desire to have a neat collection of books in the same design on a shelf - and as a publisher, when I brief a jacket for a book I know will be a series, I brief with a series look in mind, so that readers will be pleased with the view of lots of perfectly co-ordinated spines on their shelf, like so:

Sometimes you need to rethink your covers. And here's why.

1) The market moves on. We published DRAGON RACER by Margaret Bateson-Hill in 2008 and in 2011, we published LEGACY OF FIRE - second in the series. A jacket that was competitive in 2008 isn't so strong in today's market - we wanted something that cashed in on the excitement a reader would feel when flying through the skies with our heroine on the back of a dragon and I think it works. We're poised to brief a rejacket of book one to bring it in line with the new series look.

2) Booksellers. Booksellers have a massive influence over jacket design. I mean MASSIVE. There are stories of books whose covers have been redesigned solely on the feedback gained at one key accounts meeting – and that could have been one (very important) person's opinion. Booksellers have the best overview of what covers are coming out and they know which ones look too samey, or too dull before a publisher might. Plus they know what consumers go for by looking at what shifts on the shop floor. So if a Head Honcho at a Big Bookselling Place indicates that your series would be doing much better if you brought it more in line with a different bestselling series, then you will listen.

3) A second bite at the cherry. Giving your books a new look? Then you have created a chance to re-sub 'backlist' books to booksellers as if they were new. The speed at which a book becomes backlist is scary and sometimes, you really really want to be able to give a book another chance and since booksellers don't really have time to look at exactly the same book twice, a new cover is one way to do this.

4) The law of diminishing returns. Book 1 sells better than book 2. Book 2 sells better than book 3. Book 3 sells better... you get the idea. There's a drop-off rate of fans and it's hard to hook in new ones if you stick to the same formula all the time. If you want to boost some seriously sagging sales, then a series overhaul is a good way of reaching a new audience and gaining a new swathe of fans.

5) Sometimes you made a mistake. I have no idea what the sales of Divergent were like in the UK, but I do know that I didn't hear enough people talking about it outside of the blogosphere and the grapevine tells me that the wonderful gender-neutral cover didn't appeal to UK readers. The mistake HarperCollins made was to trust the UK audience, who I think were damn fools not to pick up the original jacket – the Catnipper's daddy loves this book but made gagging noises at the new jackets. But still, this is a series pitched to rival The Hunger Games and I believe it's teen girls who made that one work, not 31-year-old publishing husbands, so the new jackets target this audience more accurately.

But really, all the above points are the same point: publishers rejacket books to make more money. Not from ripping off the lovely lovely fans who already support us and our authors, but by attracting new ones whose eye we didn't catch the first time round. 

So, bookfans, publishers really do appreciate you taking one for the team and having a higgledy piggledy bookshelf. Believe me, we are on the same team because the only reason publishers want to make as much money as possible from each book we publish is to allow us an excuse to spend it on commissioning new ones.

Monday, 9 July 2012

So all the exciting things happen when I'm not looking. I missed a BBC Breakfast debate between GP Taylor and Patrick Ness, although I have managed to get the gist of it from The Guardian. Dammit, I love a censorship discussion!

Oh well, better late than never...

So, the pros and cons of age-ranging children's books is a wide and muddled conversation, one that inevitably brings out a bit of table thumping and tutting. And there are so many tangents to follow that an impassioned, involved party could write A WHOLE BLOG POST that veered off the topic they aimed to cover. (I deleted it.)

This is the blogpost I aimed to write and it is not about the desire for age-ranging in an age of  internet booksellers. It is about self-censorship.

Ness is quoted as saying that "Children are great self-censors: they know what they can read and they know what they want to read". This is something I've been saying for a very long time - possibly since I was someone who might have been censored at, if I'd had that kind of upbringing. 

I believe that, unlike adults, children only read what they actually want to. If it's not of interest to them, they stop reading. That, essentially, is self-censorship, and it is grounded solely in the power of boredom. Underestimate it at your peril.

"But," you might say, "we're talking about YA books that may contain SEX, SWEARS and VIOLENCE." Then you pause and whisper that other headline-grabbing concept, "Books that might contain... DARKNESS."

My argument that teens read adult books containing such things holds no water here because we're talking about books that are specifically marketed to a teen audience. Books that court the attention of teenagers may well contain all of the above to a greater or lesser degree, partly because these things, treated well, are of interest to this age group. Surely external censorship measures should be taken to ensure that an over-eager eleven-year-old doesn't happen across a sex scene, or a bout of unadulterated, potty-mouthed violence, or WORSE STILL some... darkness?

Well. No. Because you did not heed my warning and you have failed to take into account the Power of Boredom.

People who call for books to be censored do not believe that a precocious reader can encounter a sex scene that they're too young to understand, and that the reader simply... finds it boring. Or that a child whose nose wrinkles at violence in a computer game could easily accommodate a passage of a pitched battle between two cage-fighters because they'll skim it if they don't like it. Too many inappropriate swear words? Then the narrative/dialogue will start to drag for that reader, and they'll phase out the words they don't want to listen to. And the darkness? Well, darkness is pretty sophisticated, something created by the space between the words. If you're not interested in it, then the writing will seem a bit... dull. And if any of it is too much, they'll simply put the book down and not bother to pick it up - after all, all us publishers are forever fretting over all the other distractions fighting for a potential reader's attention.

The child you're worried about reading this stuff is not the teen who falls squarely within the intended age bracket, but the pre-teen who reads up. And why on earth would you want to deter such a voracious reader (or their parents) by slapping a warning on the books that he or she might get the most from in terms of language and concepts? These kids are smart. Trust them. They won't tolerate being bored.

The people who have the most searing and exciting voices in today's YA are the ones who don't hold back, who aren't thinking 'this is for kids'. They are the ones who trust the audience.

Slap an explicit warning on YA and you'll lose that trust.

Sunday, 1 July 2012

Happy Canada Day!

July 1st is Canada Day, a holiday traditionally – ritually – celebrated in my house by inviting friends to visit dressed in vaguely Canadian outfits and eat vaguely Canadian food, whilst drinking beer that's as close to Canadian as we can get from our local Tesco. There's no particular reason for this – our household is about as Canadian as Yorkshire pudding, but any excuse to don my "ironic" Celine Dion tour T-shirt...

So, as I celebrate with Celine, here's a list of five things you can blame/praise Canada for:

RYAN GOSLINGHottest man on the planet? Maybe... y'know, if you have EYES. Also, Canadian.
(picture courtesy of Typographer Ryan Gosling - check it out, font nerds!)

THE CANADA GOOSENo, not an antecedent of Mr Gosling, but those black-hooded, big-winged birds that decorate the sky with pretty flying-V formations. 

DUE SOUTHAccording to the Catnipper's daddy everyone likes the TV series Due South, so, by definition, you must. Even if you haven't seen it.

CANADA DRYThis was the only soft drink available in my grandparents' house circa 1987. As far as I'm concerned it is best appreciated when lapped from a saucer to the opening chords of The Archers whilst pretending to be a cat. Go on, try it...

Last but not least...

SCAREDY SQUIRRELCatnip's very own, very special Canadian import is definitely the best thing to come out of Canada since, well... all the above.

I hope I haven't missed out your favourite Canadian thing? If so, feel free to share the love in the comments below!

Friday, 15 June 2012

Smooth with the rough

I've had a fairly pants week workwise. You don't want to know, trust me.

So I'm going to think about the very best possible thing that happened instead and note it here for posterity:

I opened some fanmail for Patricia Leitch, she who writes the Jinny at Finmory series. Pat gets fanmail with horses drawn in the margins, horses that look a lot like the ones I used to draw when I was 9, with short necks, big heads and saddles that are nothing more than semi-circles on a straight-backed bean of a body. I look at the fanmail before passing it on and I read things that make me tear up with joy and catch my throat with happy-sadness. Pat's fans tell her how much they love her books and ask her which is her favourite, they tell her which bit they like best and her how much they love her writing. One girl wrote so lovingly of Pat's writing, finishing the letter by saying that she wishes she could write like Pat, but knows that she will never be as good. (From the subtle, nuanced longing conveyed with her letter, I suspect this girl has a lot more potential as a writer than she thinks.)

Obviously Pat's not the only Catnip author who recevies fan mail, but to me, hers means so much because I see myself in those letters, someone in love with a world created by another person's imagination, someone who sees a kindred spirit in the characters - or the writer. And then I think of where my love of her writing has taken me and I feel immensely honoured to be a part of bringing her books back into the lives of a new generation of readers.

So, on balance, I can take the odd really crappy week, just to be a part of something so important.

Wednesday, 23 May 2012

Books I could Eat for Breakfast... LOSER

This book is LOSER by American author Jerry Spinelli. It’s lovely in every single way.

The cover is plain blue with a matt finish and the figure depicted in the centre in white (it has a spot UV varnish on the line). Both the title and the author’s name are in a recessive shade of blue. The design is all about the crazy little dude in the middle. And that’s exactly what the book is about: a crazy little dude called Donald Zinkoff.
The thing is, I’m not sure I should really be shouting too much about the design of this HarperCollins edition when all credit should really go to Orchard who published STARGIRL with a similarly bold design and, in fact, did it first (did they? I'm not sure what the US cover was... feel free to correct me on this, if you're in the know). The simplicity of both covers reflects the simplicity of the stories contained within. Both are about outsiders, people (children) who couldn’t conform if they tried and who stand out... like, erm, white figures on a plain background.

Loser is my personal favourite because of Donald, someone ignorant of his own innocence in a way Stargirl isn’t. Donald really is a loser, the kind of child even the weak would pick on. But there’s something comforting in true innocence; you can’t be hurt by others’ cynicism; your love for life is straightforward and unashamed; even taunts can pass you by if you really are innocent through and through because you won’t see the intended slight.

I find something very liberating in thinking about innocence. I’m jaded adult these days, but this book had me yelling “I can spell tintinnabulation!” (and then failing miserably) for days. If you read it, I reckon you’ll be doing the same.

Tuesday, 15 May 2012

Why I commissioned… THE VANDAL

Twitter-style summary:
Paul will commit today’s event to the Memory, drink the Drink and when he wakes the Memory will tell him what he needs to know. Or will it?

Part of the foundation of Catnip’s list is the strand of prize-winning reissues we publish: Granny was a Buffer (Carnegie); Song Quest (Branford Boase); MapHead (Guardian). So it makes sense to keep my eyes open for past prize winners that have dropped off the grid. The Vandal is one such gem – this 1980 Guardian prizewinner should never have been out of print. The writer, Ann Schlee has had an adult novel (Rhine Journey) shortlisted for the Booker and her insightful, intelligent writing is something that suits the sophistication of today’s YA market.

The Hunger Games might have softened us all up for combative dystopias, but The Vandal presents an altogether more insidious, disturbing society in which the population entrust the day’s events to their own personal Memory before they go to sleep at night after drinking the Drink. The next morning the Memory delivers them the information required for them to go about their day. So simple. So chilling.

The story follows one boy, Paul, after he commits an act of vandalism – setting fire to a local sports centre – and his interaction with the Father, his own family and the consequential punishment that follows this indiscretion. I’m loathe to go into more detail about the plot as part of the enjoyment comes from the ignorance with which you approach it. There’s a sense of claustrophobia in the setting, a subtle mistrust as you find yourself knowing more than Paul, yet knowing the past doesn’t mean you can predict the future…

Reading The Vandal felt a lot like the first time I read Lord of the Flies or 1984, the feeling that there are myriad ideas at play in what seems to be a simple set-up. Like those well-remembered classics, this sparked a desire to really think about the themes that come into play, of identity, free will, crime and punishment…

A perfect book for the burgeoning teen mind that hungers for the exploration of the boundaries that this (non-dystopian…?) society places on them.

Friday, 20 April 2012

Why I commissioned… UNISON 3.0

Twitter-style summary: Two teens run for their life across futuristic NYC into Unison – the social network that knows you better than you know yourself…

Sometimes a book just works right off the bat. Our list is made up of the triumvirate of original fiction, re-issues and buy-ins. When I look for a buy-in, I look for something perfect, something I connect with immediately with zero effort from my editorial itchings to talk to author about “what I get” from the narrative. A buy-in should have instant appeal for the home market and need nothing other than a critical proof read, a new imprint page and a fancy pants cover.

And would you look at the fancy pants cover? That bad boy has matt lamination, spot UV and de-bossing in real life. It is truly a thing of beauty. You should probably hunt it out in the wild and capture it with some of those English pounds to stroke and read and love in your own home. The imprint page is pretty good too… (I jest, it is like all other imprint pages: informative.)

The only thing I wanted to change about this book was the title, in the US it’s published as Unison Spark, but we preferred Unison 3.0 – what do you think? Anyhoo, it’s taking me a while to get to why I loved it: I wish this has been in print when I was 12. The narrative is exciting, pacey and the plot is clever and current, using wry turns of phrase to reference the way the digital era is shaping our lives. (Although 12-year-old me would have said, “Social networking, WTF? Hang on, what does 'WTF' mean?”)

When I read this book I felt I was at the cinema. I could really envisage the dinginess of Mistletoe’s Little Saigon beneath the Canopy that divides New York. When Ambrose Truax stands in his apartment several hundred feet over Mistletoe’s head I’m there in his room, watching him select clothes from a digitally enhanced wardrobe. The plot picked me up and carried me off, only occasionally pausing to set me down and dust off my clothes before grabbing my hand and pulling me back to stand, watch, listen and feel another scene.

Andy Marino has written a really fun, knowing and exciting book and I’m really pleased to have him as part of the Catnip team. You can follow him on twitter @Andy_Marino or check out his website, but better yet, I recommend you read his book. It's cheaper than a cinema ticket, there are no adverts and it lasts longer than 120 mins. It's a no-brainer.

Wednesday, 18 April 2012


Another Book Fair, another blogpost. I really need to get on with actually posting a little more often...

London Book Fair is very different from Bologna: it's for more than just children's publishing; appointments aren't just about acquisitions; it's a shorter commute from my house and the coffee is much worse. It's an intense few days (especially if you don't map your route through the fair between appointments and allow for vital toilet/tea-drinking/toasted panini-eating time).

Here are some of the things that happened at the fair:

  • I got to hang around the beautiful new-look Bounce stand and catch some between-meeting chat with other publishers represented by the mightiest children's sales force in the land. And some of said sales force too.
  • There was the joy of handing out Catnip's gorgeous new catalogue and, AND, some very lucky people received a shiny (literally), limited edition proof of Colin Mulhern's forthcoming thriller, Arabesque.
  • I had the utter delight of seeing an author approach the Bounce stand, introduce himself and say that he's written a book and would like to talk to someone about it. This is not unusual. Lots of authors do this at the fair. BUT THIS BOY WAS FOURTEEN YEARS OLD. How cool is that? Fourteen and with the gumption to cold-call industry professionals at a massive trade fair - I know forty-year-old writers who'd quail at the prospect. Lucky for me I was able to have a chat with him about starting out in writing, give him advice on the resources available and tell him about a seminar that was running later in the day that he might be interested in checking out. This is the thing I love more than anything in the world: giving away what I know about publishing to people who want to listen.
  • I went to the Best Seminar Ever, (or Express Yourself if you look at the programme) run by Bali Rai and Booktrust where a panel of teens talked about reading. It was just... refreshing and perfect. Sometimes the way publishing professionals talk about teen readers troubles me. It can seem a bit 'us' and 'them' and weirdly, 'we' seem to have an agenda when it comes to 'their' reading habits. I hope any of those prescriptive tendencies were assuaged by this panel of intelligent, interested and articulate people who were quite clearly capable of dictating their own reading choices in exactly the same way as the audience of 'grown-ups' were. More of these seminars, please. Publishers may not have the resources to test their books on the prospective audience, but it doesn't mean we don't want to listen. (Oh and the 14-y-o author did take my advice and go along for a listen and talked to Bali at the end. Whoop.)
  • I managed the inevitable almost-missed appointment. 'I thought we said my stand - but you thought it was at yours... ARGH. Schedule fail.' But managed to make it work. Phew.
  • Tuesday I managed to survive by only consuming a banana, a tracker bar and a KFC - which I don't recommend.
  • Self-control was summoned when I saw Patrick Ness waiting outside the exhibition centre. He was wearing earphones (the international sign for 'I am happy in my alone time') and instead of running up to him and thanking him for enhancing my life with his words (and possibly sobbing about them), I walked past like a sensible grown up. Then I rushed over to the Bounce stand and told them I'd just seen Patrick Ness.
  • And I got to chat to a ton of people outside of official meetings by wandering around, and making it to the tweetup. All of them awesome, obviously, because y'know, they like books and stuff.

*If you know what this means without looking it up on the internet, you are more down with the kids than any of the audience at the Express Yourself seminar.

Friday, 23 March 2012


The last couple of years I've spent the four days of the Bologna Book Fair angrily refreshing my twitter feed and wishing I was there tweeting about coffee and gelato and the Book of the Fair.

This year I went to Bologna. Unfortunately my phone and I had different ideas about the whole tweeting thing and I lost - ergo no tweets. Stupid phone.

But the point of going wasn't to just wander around and tweet about the fair, it was to experience it. It was a lovely thing to do, mainlining espresso and looking at all the lovely books other publishers are putting out there, perusing illustrators' wares, judging books by their covers and meeting up with people I don't see nearly often enough.

And then there was the shopping. I don't mean shoes and bags (no time for that), I mean shopping for NEW BOOKS! As I don't sell the rights to books (we have the wonderful Caroline Hill-Trevor on the case) I can focus on meeting up with agents and talking to them about what I'm looking for and what they have on their list.

The way 31-year-old Non feels about books is remarkably similar to the way 14-year-old Non felt about boys:

14-y-o Non: Fancied lots of boys. Some of them were taken. Some of them were out of her league.
31-y-o Non: Fancies lots of books. Some of them are taken. Some of them are out of my league.

14-y-o Non: Thought she had a type (bleached blonde hair with the roots growing through and piercings). Actually, she had many (she liked funny boys, clever boys, boys with dark hair, boys who were on the older end of the spectrum, boys who were closer to her own age, boys who had bad clothes but lots of potential)
31-y-o Non: Knows I have a type (something that makes me cry). Actually, I have many (I like funny books, clever books, books with dark themes, books for older readers, books which are closer to my own mental age of 3+, books which have bad titles but lots of potential)

14-y-o Non: Used to pester her mates who actually knew some boys to tell her about them. Were there any that they thought she'd like?
31-y-o Non: I consult professional agents who actually know some books to tell me about them. Are there any they think I'd like?

14-y-o Non: Would create elaborate fantasies about the boys she heard about - painted pictures with others' words and fell in love before she even spoke to the boy in question.
31-y-o Non: Creates elaborate fantasies about the books I hear about - briefing imagined covers with others' words and falling in love before I even read the book in question.

14-y-o Non: Suffered a lot of disappointment. And then fell in love with a wholly suitable boy, who lived up to his promise.
31-y-o Non: I am happy to suffer disappointment, because I am confident that I am about to fall in love with a wholly suitable book, which will live up to its promise.

Actually, I suspect I may fall in love with quite a few...

Wednesday, 14 March 2012


Twitter-style summary: A mummy runs amok in the Fitzwilliam museum smashing precious artefacts. Will Slightly’s superstitions get in the way of solving the case?

Slightly Jones is a thoroughly modern heroine railing against Victorian stereotypes that little girls should be seen and not heard. With her ferrety features and flyaway red hair, Slightly’s hard to miss and if you were to make such a mistake, she’d give you a piece of her mind for such rudeness.

This is the third in the Slightly Jones Mystery series, the first of which, The Case of the London Dragonfish, shortlisted for this year’s Scottish Children’s Book Awards. Each story features Slightly as our heroine solving mysteries with a spooky leaning set in famous museums around the British Isles. The first was set in the Natural History Museum in London, the second in the Hunterian in Glasgow and this one takes place in the hallowed halls of the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge. Whilst Slightly’s already tackled ghosts in a cemetery and a mad professor, this time she’s facing something a little scarier – an Ancient Egyptian curse and a mummy to match.

The mysteries are cleverly plotted with just enough twists and turns for the young audience to keep guessing who the villain is without it becoming too frustratingly oblique and the historical settings are used to good effect. However, I think it’s my fondness for the wide and varied cast of characters that comes to the fore when I think of these stories. Fond as I am of Slightly’s sparky nature, I especially enjoy seeing her played against another character, perhaps the street-smarts of her nemesis/sidekick, Matthew Bone or the firm no-nonsense authority of Granny Tonic. Each book starts with someone coming to visit the boarding house run by Granny Tonic and the book will follow the story of one of the fellow boarders – so far we’ve saved Mr Thurgood the novelist nightwatchman from a crime he didn’t commit and quiet composer Mr Gentler from a family disaster – this time it’s feminine feminist Miss Forth’s turn…

A series that can be read independently of one another, but when read together form a happy, vibrant picture of a sleuth in training. Thoroughly pleasing to publish and a delight to read, with just enough danger to keep you on the edge of your seat and peopled by characters you really wish you could hang out with more.

Thursday, 16 February 2012

Why I commissioned...DIGGING IN THE DARK

Twitter style summary: Josh's geeky cousin Malcolm is obsessed with archaeology and constantly digs stuff up. So why is he avoiding new TV series Iron Age Britain?

Hilda Offen is a fantastic author/illustrator who's long-established career incorporates a Smarties Prize winner (Nice Work Little Wolf), several picture books and first readers as well as a recent shortlisting for The Roald Dahl Funny Prize for The Galloping Ghost.

Digging in the Dark is a book that follows in the same vein as The Galloping Ghost, but this time, instead of plagiarised poetry, it's Josh's cousin's obsession with archaeology that gets him into trouble. "Archaeology?" I hear you say. "That sound pretty safe territory..." But not in Hilda's hands.

When cousin Malcolm comes to stay it takes Josh, his sister Izzy and his mum by surprise. His parents turned up, left him and the ran off - what's all that about? But Josh is a well-brought up boy and tries his hardest to make Malcolm feel welcome. He shouldn't have bothered. Malcolm, is pretty hard to like, not only because he's downright rude, but also because despite professing to love history, he quite obviously has no idea what he's talking about. And another thing - there's a new TV series called Iron Age Britain starting where contestants have to live on a remote Scottish Isle as Celts, something that sounds right up Malcolm's street, but whenever it's about to come on, Malcolm finds a way to switch it off.

Hilda's writing is gently witty and the first draft of this book had me smiling and chuckling right off the mark. Combined with her classic line drawings, this is a great read for a keen 7+, with plenty of familiar schoolground settings and a Josh's-eye-view look into slices of history that this age group have already encountered.

Hilda Offen knows exactly how to put together a book, she's in touch with her young readers, a delight to work with and her writing style is fresh and accessible. Part of her continued success lies in the fact that she has spent many years visiting schools and spending time with her readers, and continues to do so even when she could probably afford a little laurel sitting. You can catch her at Imagine Children's Festival on Saturday 18th February at 12-1pm and between 2-3pm where she will be in the Imagine Craft Pavilion. (I might be there too with certain little Catnipper...)

Every book of Hilda's reads like a classic and Digging in the Dark is no exception. There's a reason why Catnip has been publishing Hilda's work since the company started.

Wednesday, 1 February 2012

Why I commissioned... SONG QUEST

Twitter-style summary: When a young Singer hears the dying merlee she is drawn on a quest to save the half creatures, over the ocean and into the mountains…

I first heard about Song Quest when someone mentioned that The Bookette was running a campaign to bring it back into print. After a little bit of internet digging I found out this title was the winner of the inaugural Branford Boase award, given to authors whose debut novel shows the promise of a great future in writing and the editors for picking them. Having read Katherine’s I am the Great Horse, I knew that Song Quest was going to be brilliantly written – and when I finally got my hands on a copy, it didn’t disappoint.

This is a story set in a richly developed world where the five Songs of Power are used by the special few who train on the remote Isle of Echoes to help maintain harmony throughout the land. Such is the power of the Songs that they can bring laughter in the midst of tension, sadness to allow understanding of suffering and discipline to those who transgress. They can heal – and they can kill. But being a Singer isn’t all about administering the Songs – it’s about listening to others and young Rialle is a novice Singer with an instinct beyond her years, the model student and a Singer with a bright future. In contrast, rebel Kherron can’t wait to escape the confines of the Isle and turn his back on the life of a Singer. There’s a sense of danger emanating from the mentions of the Karchlord and the pirates commissioned to do his brutal bidding, but there’s also a host of fascinating creatures and characters, adding to the depth of the setting.

This was a chance for us to publish a prize-winning novel and add yet another respected writer to the list, but it was also the perfect opportunity for me to acquire a fantasy for the 11+ age group – something I had been after for a while. When I was that age, all I wanted to do was lose myself in an unfamiliar world where the discoveries I made really felt like discoveries – the unveiling of something completely new and different. And despite the fact that this was first published in 2000 – Song Quest really is something of a discovery.

Plus it gave us scope for a pretty special cover… don’t you agree?

Thursday, 5 January 2012


Twitter-style summary: When court painter, Hugo spots young Johann's talent for painting a true likeness, he doesn't realise the true scope of his protege's power.

Why did I commission this book?

It's perfect.

What? You mean I have to write more than that in order to give people a true sense of how my editorial brain works? Oh. Right, erm...

The thing is, sometimes it's that simple.

Let's set the scene: January 2010, I've returned after a long winter break to an ever-growing slushpile and made the heart-wrenching decision to close my inbox to unsolicited submissions (here's why). I pick one from the top because I find myself inexplicably short of lunch time reading and scan the covering letter - it's short, professional and contains no gimmicks. This is the kind of cover letter I like. I completely by-pass the synopsis and go straight to the real writing. (Read between the lines: spend the time on your book, not the synopsis. We editors and agents all know they're hard to write and suck the heart out of your story like a half-starved zombie. Rarely has a submission been dismissed on the weakness of its synopsis. [NB synopsis is not to be confused with plot. Weak plots may well be rejected.
{And never use multiples brackets the way I'm doing right now, either.}])

Anyway, where was I? Right. I was reading: 'Ooh,' says my brain. 'Me likey.' Or something more articulate, because I am an editor and words are my thing. I read the synopsis and think the me likey thoughts again. Sandwich finished, I pick up the phone ask to speak to Richard Knight and ask him to send over the rest of the manuscript. Turns out me likey the rest of the book too. LOTS.

What did I like?

The effortlessness of the narrative. Richard has an incredibly light touch when it comes to conveying historical detail, yet I came away with a very strong sense of time and place. (Please note my grasp of European geography and history is hazy at best, so this is an impressive feat on the writer's behalf.)

The characters. Johann is not my typical fall-for hero, he's both lighter and darker than other characters I've adored. Naive, yet ambitious, insecure but assured: he's what you want him to be - and what you don't. The surrounding cast are carefully drawn, their own hopes and dreams, beliefs and shortcomings are secrets to be shared with the discerning reader but not each other.

The philosophical question at the heart of what could just have been a straight tale of the perils of being talented. This is about how art can change perceptions, just by presenting you with want you what to see, somehow seeing it, believing it, can make what it portrays true. But Richard doesn't just stop with the nature of truth, he's going to push this further so that the metaphysical questions becomes the moral ones...

But this is what I took from the story - the joy of this book is that there's so many ways it can be interpreted, it can spin you off on a thousand different thought tangents, all the while rooted in great storytelling. Had I read this as a child, it would still be on my shelf and in my mind.

Basically, for me, it's perfect on every level.