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.