Thursday 19 May 2011

Fiction for 7-9s: The Poor Relation? Sue Purkiss

On Tuesday this week, I went to a Society of Authors summer meeting. It was the first time I'd ever been to 84 Drayton Gardens, the socety's headquarters. The meetings often sound interesting, but it's a long schlep from the wilds of Cheddar Gorge - which, incidentally, will be coming to a screen near you next summer for all of 70 seconds in a blockbuster film called Jack the Giant Killer, starring Ewen McGregor, Bill Nighy, Ian McShane and Nicholas Hoult. They were filming here last week - oh, how excited we've all been! Anyway, that's completely irrelevant - back to Drayton Gardens.

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.

Kathy Webb

  • 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 Sheppard

  • 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...)

Annie Eaton

  • 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!)

Sue Purkiss


Sue Purkiss said...

I'm sorry about all the white spaces. Usually, Blogger takes away the spaces. Today, it gave me far more than I wanted - have tried to edit them but failed!

Jo Cotterill said...

Thanks SO much for writing this up, Sue. I had booked a place but wasn't well enough to go and was really disappointed to miss it! I DO have a wonderful character buzzing around my head but alas, no time to write it at the moment...good to know they think the wind will change again at some point. Jo

catdownunder said...

Thankyou! I found that really interesting because an agent told me the market was "exceptionally tough and competitive".
I wonder whether series are more about lazy marketing and lazy reading than what children will actually read if given the opportunity?

John Dougherty said...

Don't think of them as white spaces, Sue; think of them as close-ups of white samite....

Thanks for blogging this, and glad you (and others) found the event so informative (as did I!).

The shirt, by the way, is from Joe Browns. Just in case anyone was wondering.

hilary said...

Thank you for this Sue, I wanted to go to that meeting, but it's a long to Drayton Gardens from Derbyshire too!

Unknown said...

A really interesting blog post. I agree that the children do love series titles in this age group. I would like to see more standalone titles so that I could use them for a book group with my Year 3s. At this age they are willing to give new and different things a try. The Clumsies is doing well in my library and that is a similar size to Mr Gum.

Perhaps if an author wrote lots of standalone titles for the same pub, booksellers would be able to place them on the shelf together, they could be branded but all about different characters, settings etc.

It's an interesting dilemma.

Ms. Yingling said...

This was very interesting. I've wondered why there are so many series, when I have a lot of students (ages 11-14) who are so tired of them and just want one well-written book without having to spend the next two years finding the next book in the series!

karen said...

Thanks for this round up. I so wanted to be there, but had another appointment on the same evening.

Odette said...

So good of you to give us all feedback on the Society of Authors' meeting. Blow! I'm working on a stand-alone, but I've just started. You have given me food for thought before I proceed too far. Odette

Emma Barnes said...

Thanks so much Sue - as a writer for this age-group I found that really interesting. To put a positive spin on series - I think children this age are often voracious readers, and when they find a character/world they love, it can be a real disappointment to find they can't read more about them.

Meanwhile for those looking for the books that buck the trends - Sue herself has a stand-alone for this age-group, and it is Carnegie nominated too! "Emily's Surprising Voyage" - a cracking read about a girl travelling to Australia in the nineteenth century.

Sue Purkiss said...

Why, thank you kindly, Emma!

Leila said...

Very interesting! I shall pass the link along.

Dianne Hofmeyr said...

Great to chat at the event, Sue, and thanks for summing up. My son was supposed to be there (took notes but not as adequately as you did)so will direct him here.

And Odette, all 3 publishers, particularly Annie Eaton, said they'd very much like to see a really great 'standalone' coming through and in fact hoped for another Carnegie soon in this category! So carry on. Yours might just be the one that jumps out from the crowd.

adele said...

Thanks for this, Sue.Very fascinating and good luck to your book. I have nearly finished a standalone for 9-12s....or maybe 8-10s, who knows? A standalone, in any case. Oh dear.

Penny Dolan said...

Agree with all that's been said. Thanks for getting an account of the CWIG meeting out so speedily to all of us who couldn't go for all sorts of reasons.

A good use of ABBA, I feel!

Now where's a great character when you need one?

Sue Purkiss said...

I'm glad some of you found this useful. And those of you who are despairing about standalones - the message really was don't be - we're on the cusp of a change! (Well, maybe...)

Leslie Wilson said...

Thanks for writing this up, Sue, it was very interesting and informative, but I'm glad to read your final positive message.. I was thinking of writing for this age-group, if I can ever find the time!!

Savita Kalhan said...

Just caught up with this blog today, Sue, and thank you for putting it all in a nutshell. I've written a short series for this age group where the location is the same, but the characters in each book are different. So they're stand-alone but not quite. Haven't sent it to anyone yet, but I might give it a shot...

Kathryn Evans said...

Do so love reading about opportunities for a change!

Rosalie Warren said...

Just catching up... a very interesting post, Sue - thanks. Much food for thought.

Ellen Renner said...

Thanks for this, Sue. It's very generous of you to report on the meeting. I wanted to go but had another commitment. I totally agree that writing for younger age groups are too often overlooked critically. I do hope there is a change coming.