The discussion was entitled Fiction for 7-9s: The Poor Relation? It was elegantly chaired by our own John Dougherty in a lovely flowered shirt, and the panel included Kathy Webb from OUP, Annie Eaton from Random House and Charlie Sheppard from Andersen Press.
First, John asked each of the panel members to give an overview of the market for this age group.
- One difficulty is the diversity of this age bracket, which makes matching the reader to the right book quite tricky.
- At this age, there are lots of other activities which take up children's time. On the plus side, they are open minded, they have great imaginations, and they recommend books to each other. Peer pressure is not a problem - it's okay to be seen reading!
- There are a lot of series. Kathy discussed this at some length, explaining that boys like the 'collectability' of series such as Astrosaurs, Beast Quest, Horrid Henry etc. She said that girls also like series, but they are much more author led. However - they like books by the same author to have a similar look and feel. Kathy stressed that they don't cut corners with series; each book gets the same amount of attention as a standalone. She would very much like to publish more standalones, but it's difficult to get kids to read them.
- Charlie said that this, at the moment, is the Cinderella age group, and is overshadowed by books for older children. Looking at the reasons for this, she said that they need more illustration and more design and are therefore more expensive to produce - and yet the price is the same as it has been for the last fifteen years: so it's difficult to make any money from them.
- Other problems: Smiths and Waterstones prefer series - books for this age group are usually thin. One by itself will get lost, whereas a series creates a presence on the shelf. Series like Yellow Bananas, which were standalones, used to have the same effect because they were strongly branded (ie they looked the same), but similarly packaged series are not being produced now.
- Usually, it's the books for older readers that glean reviews and prizes.
- Then there are the gatekeepers. Or not... librarians have had their budgets slashed, teachers tend not to keep up with recently published books (and so recommend classics, or the books they enjoyed as children or read as students): parents naturally buy what they see - namely, series.
- Another factor is that you can't sell translation rights for this age group, for some reason, so there's no money to be made there either.
- On the plus side, Charlie Has A Dream! She feels that change is in the air. That one day soon, out of the mists of Storyland, there will emaerge, clothed in white samite and gleaming in the sunshine - one book! One book to change them all, one book to guide them - a book so stunningly good that all shall raise their standards and declare, 'Lo! Now is the Age of the Standalone!' (Sorry, got a bit carried away there - my histrionics, not Charlie's. It's the proximity of blockbusters and men in black leather doublets that does it...)
- Very few junior fiction standalones sell well - they used to sell far better. Annie spoke tenderly of a particular success from a few years back - Cat Patrol, by Paul May.
- She laments the loss of the Smarties Prize, and would love to see another prize for this age group - prizes create a buzz.
(Annie would have had a lot more to say, but the others had already said it!)
What are they looking for?
- They all agreed that they want a great character - then there's the potential for series if the first one does well.
- They also agreed that humour is great for this age group.
- Kathy said she's seeing more fantasy.
- There was a shortage of 9-12s, but they're coming through now.
- There was some uncertainty about length. Annie said initially between 4 - 10,000 words, but some publishers apparently want longer. There was some discussion about the problem of short books getting lost, but someone pointed out that one way roiund this is what the Mr Gum books do - they have few words to a page, so they end up chunkier.
So there we have it. Many thanks to CWIG (Children's Writers' and Illustrators' Group) for organising the event, and of course to the panel - it was informative, thought-provoking and entertaining.
Now, just off to find me a great character. Yoo hoo - anybody there...?
NB If I'd had the organising ability of a gnat, I would have taken a camera and there'd be a nice photo of the panel at the top of this post. I didn't, so thought I'd find a picture of an arm in white samite. (Or some watery tart, for fans of Monty Python and the Search for the Holy Grail.) And then it all began to go sadly wrong, as I found a picture, but also found some evil bug that attacked my computer. So - sorry, but no pictures!)