Please see the following as a New Year gift, intended to set the record as straight as it can be for aspiring writers of fiction for younger audiences. This is perhaps what they don't tell you when you go fresh-faced and dewy-eyed to writing courses. It is also relevant for writers of literary fiction across the board, methinks - a salutary recent lesson forced by the publishing world on one of our best writers for the younger reader, Nicky Singer.
Nicky is no stranger to controversy. Her novel The Innocent's Story caused a stir - you can read about the events surrounding its publication on her website, above. I know Nicky. She does not pull her punches. She does not talk down to anyone, especially children. She knows, as do I, that children are thinking beings who need literature for the same reasons we all do.
She was invited to address The International Board on Books for Young People (IBBY) Conference, in London, on 14th November 2015. This is the text of her speech. It is long. Impassioned. Worth reading right through.
Children’s Books 2015: Market Commodities or Meaningful Stories? A Writer’s Tale
Today I’m going to do something rather un-British. I’m going to talk about money. Not the sort most writers earn – that would clearly be a pretty short speech – but the swing from editorial to marketing power that I’ve witnessed in the 25 years I’ve been writing and publishing. I’m going to ask: what happens to children’s books when the definition of success is how many units you can sell, rather than how many souls you can nourish? What happens to language? What happens to the sort of stories that can be told? And what, if anything, can writers do about it?
It’s not going to be an academic paper. It doesn’t have footnotes or PowerPoint. It’s going to Old School, personal, anecdotal. It might occasionally descend into a rant.
So, let’s begin where I began. In 1992 – the publication date of my first novel (a book for adults) called To Still the Child.
(...) In those Neanderthal pre- e-mail days you wrote to your publisher and, believe it or not, they wrote back. This file contains the total correspondence that passed between us. For the record there are 9 letters from the Publishing Director of the company Robin Baird-Smith, 5 letters from my editor, 2 letters from the jacket designer and 1 from press and marketing. I’ll repeat that, 1 from press and marketing. It was Robin, the Managing Director, who chose the book, valued it, wrote me encouraging letters, put the thing into print and then (and only then) delegated it to the marketing team (though team’s a bit of an exaggeration, I think there were two people) to try and get it noticed.
It’s all rather different nowadays. Editorial teams have got smaller and marketing teams have got larger. Much, much larger. The power has shifted in the same ratio. Nowadays, small teams of editorial staff go to acquisition meetings to ‘pitch’ book ideas to - marketing people. And the marketing people make judgements about whether the title will – or won’t – shift units. And, if it will, how many units it will shift. For publishing, you see, is no longer some collegiate Gentlepersons Club full of bookish folk seeking higher things. Of course not. It’s a business like any other. There’s money to be made. Big Money if you hit it right. The reach is potentially global. The economics become supermarket. Or, as one MD of a major publishing house put it to me, recently: ‘Publishers are not charities you know, Nicky.’
Right. Got that. So let’s see how this Brave New Marketing World impacts on the humble writer. This year I have been working on two different books. One is my new novel Island – turned down by virtually every major publisher in London – the other my re-telling of Wind in the Willows – forthcoming in Jan ’16 from just one such major. Let’s begin with Island.
Island started life as a play, a special commission for the National Theatre. It played to sell-out audiences in the Cottesloe, did a 30 school London tour and enjoyed a raft of 4* reviews. This is what the Independent said about it:
The National Theatre’s terrific new play for over-eights is set on what we call Herschel Island in Northern Canada (the Inuit have another, much older name for it). The one-hour play explores the impact of global warming – think Frozen Planet brought to life for children with characters the audience identify with and care about. Island explores the conflict between scientific and metaphysical truth, colonialism, the exploitation of other people’s environment, the role of religion and the power of storytelling. So it isn’t short of issues for children to think about afterwards, but at the same time it avoids any sense of worthiness and stands up well as a piece of compelling, moving drama.
I never planned to re-write it as a novel but I failed to factor in the speed of the melting ice-caps. Five people rang me up in the same week: our young people need that story more than ever, they said. Don't you understand? They have to have the chance to engage with what’s going on in the arctic. Write it as a novel. Now!
So I did. And I fell in love with my characters (a grumpy Western boy, a local island girl, an ice bear) all over again. I liked the extra space in the book. I believed I made a pretty good fist of the re-write. In fact, I rather thought the last 100 pages were some of the best I’d ever written.
My long-term publisher disagreed. ‘It’s too quiet,’ they said, ‘for the current market’. I’m not sure this particular publishing term has made the OED yet but, roughly translated, I think it means: ‘this book will not make the required shed-load of money’. Leaving aside the fact that, if publishers really knew what makes a shed-load of money, eight of them wouldn’t have turned down Harry Potter, I thought, in Island’s case, they were probably right. But guess what, I didn’t write Island to make a shed-load of money, I wrote it because it seemed a story which still needed to be told.
Still, if a work never sees the light of day, you might just as well have not bothered. So it behoved me, I thought, to find out a little more about ‘quiet’. I asked a few people who should know, the managing directors of three London publishing houses. They said (to a woman)
1. Quiet means that the story cannot be summed up succinctly, cannot be rendered in a single sentence. For the marketing people.
I had a think about that.
And what it might do to complexity.
Hamlet: bloke dithers about whether to avenge his father’s death.
Alice in Wonderland: curious child falls down rabbit hole.
Or, as a top-flight London agent put it to me: ‘the literary end of children’s fiction is contracting at the moment. There’s a lively mainstream - but it’s not very challenging.’ Yup. You can begin to see why.
Quiet also means, apparently, that although the book might be nicely written, it doesn’t have the necessary pulsating action required by the modern child. In fact one of the particular criticisms levelled at Island was that it wasn’t an adventure story and it ‘should be’. Should be? Who says what my books ‘should be’? My books, in my view, should be whatever they need to be to best tell the story I’m trying to tell. Although, ironically enough, Island is an adventure story, it’s just not of the (current fad) Boy’s Own Adventure sort. It’s an adventure of the mind, of thoughts and dreams.
Cue Ursula Le Guin’s blistering address to the US National Book Awards last year as she accepted the Foundation’s Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Et9Nf-rsALk) There is, she said, a difference between ‘the production of a market commodity and the practice of an art’. She went on to wonder at us – the writers and creators - ‘who let profiteers sell us like deodorant and tell us what to publish and what to write’. This address has been viewed over 300,000 times – so it must be hitting some buttons other than those on writers’ shirts. Le Guin finishes by demanding, not shed-loads of money – but freedom.
What might this freedom look like for someone like me? To be able to publish powerful, meaningful stories in powerful, meaningful language. For young people. Yes – young people. For being too ‘quiet’ was not Island’s only sin. It was also, apparently ‘too literary’ for these supposedly lesser mortals. I’ve felt this chill before. Not least when I was asked to expunge the word ‘bonnet’ from a previous novel, on account of the fact that no self-respecting 12 year old would know such a word. The publisher was unmoved by my assertion that, at the same age, I was required to be able to spell and define words like ‘sinecure’. Does this matter? I think so. Put simply, we think in language. It there isn’t a word for something, or that word is not in our vocabulary, it impairs our ability to know - and also to communicate. And no, Beatrix Potter would not get away with soporific today. She might even have trouble with lettuce.
So - what do you do when you book is too quiet and too literary for your long-term publisher? Try a new publisher, of course. Only that’s not quite so simple these days either. Because of Branding. Yes – how is New Publisher to position you in the market if you are so closely associated with Old Publisher? Branding costs, you see. Shed-Loads of Money. And that’s another problem with Nicky. She can’t be branded. She writes too many different sorts of thing. She started off writing for adults. Then she switched to children. She writes novels for 8-12 year olds. She write YA fiction. She writes plays. She writes musicals. She even writes opera, for heaven’s sake. How are you going to pile that on a shelf next to 21 identikit David Walliams’? Or, as my agent once famously put it, the problem with you Nicky, is that you always write what you want to. Which, for the record, I thought was the job of the creative artist.
Anyway, it wasn’t too long before said agent was running out of possible publishers for Island and I was running out of cornflakes.
There seemed to be three options 1) lie down and die (only I’m not very good at that) 2) lie down and die (I seriously considered it) 3) put up or shut up. I decided on 3) and began exploring crowdfunding platforms. Crowdfunding is not to be confused with vanity publishing – although many people do confuse them.
Crowdfunding is actually more akin to eighteenth century subscription publishing. Vis you would find out how many friends and family wanted to buy your new collection of poetry, ask for money upfront and print the relevant number of copies. Only now – with the internet, the concept has the potential (emphasise potential) for global reach. Enter Kickstarter. One of several on-line platforms where you can hawk your creative wares.
I did some homework (not least with a friend of mine who raised £10,000 to make a film about the plight of illegitimate children in Morocco which the BBC had turned down) and launched a Kickstarter campaign.
For months my job description changed. I wasn’t a writer any more (we’ll come back to that). I was a film-maker, an administrator, a mail-chimper, a twitterer. I had to get to grips with my website, with technology. I had to self-promote. Puff myself up. Again and again and again. I’m probably more naturally bullish than the average Brit. And certainly more bullish than the average writer. But even so. It was humiliating. As was asking for money.
And I still didn’t have any cornflakes.
It was at this moment that my agent rang again: she knew it was terrible money but did I want to do a re-telling of Wind in the Willows? I should have said ‘no’. Of course, I should have said no. If you take a sublime classic like Wind in the Willows and re-tell it at 4000 words, there’s going to be blood on the carpet. But I was poor and, to be frank, I had no idea how much of the blood was going to be mine.
I left the Kickstarter to simmer and turned my attention to Mr Grahame. The contract said nothing about how I was to approach the project – only that there was a word count and a deadline. I thought I could be faithful to the original, do a radical edit, but keep the colour and rhythm of Grahame’s language.
I was back in the land of bonnet. The motorcar that knocks the four friends off the road couldn’t be a ‘dark centre of energy’, there was to be no ‘poetry of motion’. Toad was not allowed to ‘expand’ on anything. And as for the snow in the Wild Wood, it couldn’t be a ‘gleaming carpet of faery’. It had to be ‘a gleaming carpet of - white’. My heart began to break.
And that was before the diktat came about weapons. I wasn’t to have any. The animals weren’t to have any. The book was to be a weapon-free zone. No brace of pistols for Ratty. No guns for the ferrets. No great cudgel for Badger.
Because, Nicky, weapons are violent. And some countries – notably the United States of America, (which incidentally is big market, Nicky) – they don’t like violence.
Well - not in books anyway….
I contemplated my task. Grahame has Toad, Ratty, Mole, and Badger explode out of the secret passage-way into Toad Hall, ‘bulging with weapons’ and ‘whacking every head they see’. What was I supposed to do? Send the friends in to dispatch 400 stoats and weasels with a landlord and tenant eviction notice?
I brooded in my lair. I would have liked to have had a conversation with my supposed editor. But guess what – for ‘market’ reasons (ie it’s cheaper), much of this sort of work is no longer conducted in-house. The person I was dealing with (or rather through) was a freelancer. She was decent, she was sympathetic but she didn’t sit anywhere near the seat of power. It was all too easy to fend me off with the call centre tactic: sorry, it’s just the way it is. It’s the rules.
I felt a letter coming on. The ban on weapons gave me practical problems in telling the story. It also touched something much deeper in me. I’m going to quote from the actual letter I sent. Because, until this year, I could never have imagined having to write such a letter to a fellow children’s book professional.
Dear X, I began:
Taking the weapons out of Wind in the Willows gives me major narrative problems. I know because I’ve tried! Please see the exchange below:
Standing guard at the gate of Toad Hall was a long, yellow ferret.
With a gun.
‘Who goes there?’ said the ferret sharply.
‘Stuff and nonsense!’ said Toad, angrily.
Without a word, the ferret brought the gun up to his shoulder. Toad (sensibly) dropped down flat in the road.
The bullet whistled over Toad’s head.
Toad scrambled back to the river - a slightly wiser beast.
Possible replacement text:
Standing guard at the gate of Toad Hall was a long, yellow ferret.
‘Who goes there?’ said the ferret sharply.
‘Stuff and nonsense!’ said Toad, angrily.
Without a word the ferret stepped forward. His stick was very much larger than Toad’s.
…bolted right back to the river-bank.
You don’t have to be Shakespeare,’ I continued, ‘to spot the difference. The first is succinct and funny and truthful (both about Toad’s character and the power relations between the Toad and the ferrets) and the second is flabby and untruthful. Would Toad back off because the ferret’s stick is larger? What about Toad being physically larger than the ferret (which he is)? What in any case does this say ‘morally’ about people with larger sticks?
I then went on to tackle the deeper thing.
‘For the record,’ I wrote, I don’t subscribe at all to the theory that ‘violence in children’s books encourages real children to be violent’ In fact part of my problem with dispensing with weapons for ‘politically correct reasons’ is that it attacks the heart of what I believe stories are actually for and why human beings tell them. Vis to test morality in a safe space, ie you can shoot or even murder people between the pages of a book and no-one actually gets hurt. This is why fairy tales are full of swords and poisonings and tramping people to death’
I ranted on for another couple of pages before concluding thus:
Ps Meanwhile please also purchase large tractor and drive it over me before taking ‘humbugged’ out of the piece again.
For the record, they took it out three more times and I put it back three more times. This was one of the few ‘tricky’ words I finally won on.
But we weren’t done yet. There was also the knotty problem of religion. We weren’t to have any of that either. Toad was allowed to shriek and protest as he was dragged away to prison, but he was not allowed to pray. Even if – or rather particularly because – those prayers were self-serving and ironic. And that, you see, is about as close as you can get to blasphemy without bumping into a fatwa. Which brings us to the No-Pork Rule. In the original, Badger has hams hanging from his rafters. So I hung some there. They came back as ‘meats’. Why? Because if there are hams in the book we can’t sell it to Muslim countries or even to UK schools with a large number of Muslim or Jewish children. We can’t? No, Nicky, we can’t.
As it happens, this edition of Wind in the Willow is being sold, predominantly, to schools. It’s an educational text. So what exactly are we saying here? That our profits are more important than teaching a child that different cultures have different ways of doing things and that we need to be respectful of that?
I began to think it was me down the rabbit hole, that I’d arrived in some parallel universe. But was it only me facing these sorts of issues? I started to ask around. Had other writers fallen foul of the new Dark Arts of Global Children’s Publishing? Oh – actually they had. Then why wasn’t anyone talking about it? Because of the gagging orders, of course. Hm. Guess what? There was one in my contract. I quote it verbatim.
Clause 21. CONFIDENTIALITY
The Author shall not disclose, reveal or make public except to his/her professional advisers any information whatsoever concerning the Work (that’s Wind in the Willows, by the way) or this Agreement, all of which shall be strictly confidential, nor shall the Author make any public statement in connection with the Work or commit any act which might prejudice or damage the reputation of the Publishers or the successful exploitation (my italics) of the Work unless otherwise mutually agreed in good faith.
So how come I’ve just told you what I’ve just told you? Because I haven’t signed this contract, of course, and I don’t intend to. My husband, who is a lawyer, says I may never work again. But then I’m not working much at the moment, at least not for money. And if you pay writers peanuts, or don’t pay them at all, you make pretty powerful monkeys out of them. Besides – what is this clause about? It’s global corporation speak. It’s the sort of clause you force on someone when there’s a million pounds worth of sensitive commercial information at stake. It is not, in my view, an appropriate clause to put in a contract between consenting artistic collaborators. Not to mention the fact that it would also preclude me (so my lawyer husband confirms) from talking about Wind in the Willows in a school, for instance - with children.
Meanwhile – back to Island. The campaign was gathering pace –mainly due to people way smarter at social media than me (thank you, Candy Gourlay, thank you, S F Said). Many people donated to the campaign. People from the world of children’s books - editors, agents, translators, writers. Some I knew. Many I didn’t. Imagine how I felt the day when the legendary writer Geraldine McCaughrean came on board. Swiftly followed by Beverley Naidoo. I felt a message coming. And then there were the librarians, the teachers, the environmentalists (workers, activists, writers, advisors to government); not to mention musicians, composers, theatre-makers, film-makers. And total strangers, people from all over the world (Canada, Belgium, France, The Philippines) they took a punt. Said this book, on this theme, is something we want to read.
The campaign also caught the eye of Trevor Wilson. Trevor runs an outfit called Author’s Abroad, which pretty much does what it says on the tin. Puts authors into schools (often actually abroad) to fire children’s imagination about books. He also arranges for those books to be sold in schools. And here’s another piece of the changing publishing landscape jigsaw. It’s much cheaper to print now than it ever was. Trevor realised, if he did some publishing himself, he could get a cut of the school visit and of the books. So he started a small imprint – Caboodle Books - to do just that. In the first instance he used the back catalogue of writers like Alan Gibbons. And he published notable non-shed-load-of-money fiction such as short stories. Trevor saw the potential for Island at once and offered to put in money to extend the print run. He also started the virtuous circle of school visit planning – getting the books into the hands of the really important people. Children. At the end of this month I will be in Switzerland for a week. In January – in the Sudan.
So I should have been feeling great, right? Everything going swimmingly. But, in the midst of all the pre-publication excitement, I had a Massive Loss of Confidence.
This happens to writers. Some days we are bullish. We have to be in order to get up and go to our desks and work there in silence for seven hours a day with no-one to praise (or blame…) us but ourselves. Sometimes we are not quite so bullish. The days when, for instance, we remember that conventional publishers can - and do - publish great writers and great stories. And soon Island will be out. There’ll be real books. And real readers. And what if I’ve written a turkey, after all?
My head is hurting. I can’t work. I take myself off to Waterstones and I’m just sitting there with my cup of tea and Someone Else’s Book (oh blessed relief), when this vandal comes in and starts drawing on the walls. He says his name is Chris and he’s allowed. The pictures are quite good. In fact they’re very good. Which is not surprising on account of the fact that he turns out to be the illustrator Chris Riddell, newly appointed UK Children’s Laureate.
Anyway, we fall into conversation and Chris asks what I’m currently working on and I tell him about Island and also do some DGB (Doom, Gloom and Bitching) about the current state of children’s publishing and he says suddenly – I’d like to do a few illustrations for your book. And I think, the coffee’s well gone to his head. But the next day, on my Facebook page these appear:
And he’s SERIOUS.
And I send him the book and a little while later he writes me: Just finished reading your beautiful text and am now rather in love with 'Island'. And after everything that has gone on, you will understand why this makes me cry.
So anyway. He draws 20 illustrations. He designs a beautiful polar bear face cover. And now you see - in marketing terms - my ante just raised quite a bit. Suddenly this quiet, challenging, literary, non-Boys Own Adventure book by some totally non-brandable author has the imprimatur of one of the most influential people in Kids literature right now. And everything’s getting a little noisier. Not to mention the fact that Chris has decided to donate any proceeds due to him to Greenpeace. And Greenpeace swings behind the project. And they have clout and reach and plenty of people who care about the Arctic and plenty of people who understand that children need to have a voice, have to be involved in the debate. It is, after all, their future we are currently trashing. So more word gets out. Our initial print run of 3000 is extended, within a week, to 5,000. I get a call from Italy about Italian rights. I get a mail about Japanese rights. A mainstream London publisher invites me in for a ‘no-agenda’ conversation. The wheels are turning, the supermarket is almost in business. So I’m happy, right? I’d do it all again?
No. I wouldn’t.
Of course, I’m grateful. Of course I’m thrilled about what’s happening for the book. But crowdfunding is not a sustainable model for a writer. The money pledged came initially from my family and friends. There is a limit as to how many times they will be prepared to pay £30 for £6.99 paperback. And a limit to how often I would be prepared to ask. But much more than this, the campaign sucked away 9 months of my life. During that time, other than Wind in the Willows, I did no writing. I am a writer. If I don’t write, I die a little.
Besides the model is also not sustainable for other writers. Not for first-time writers, not for writers of other quiet books who don’t happen to have my sort of track-record, not for writers without the serendipitous luck I had on this campaign. So if I was waving a wand for the future of powerful, meaningful stories for young people over what would I wave it?
I’d wave it over a Farmer’s Market model of publishing. I’d hope for an imprint – for argument’s sake I’m going to call it Quiet Books – where, if you were an imaginative, hopeful child (or the parent of such a child) it would be your go-to publisher because you’d know that, in the pages of a Quiet Book you’d always find a powerful, meaningful story. And yes, A Quiet Book might not look as shiny as its supermarket cousin, it might even have a little challenging dirt on it. But hopefully, that dirt would signify the passion of the person who’d created it. And yes, you might have to pay a little more for your Quiet Book but, hopefully, you’d be prepared to do that, in order to bring home something you knew would nourish your family. As for the writers – I hope they (we) would come from all over the world to stand proud on your Quiet BookShelves. I hope we’d bring you stories to touch the deep places in you, stories which would linger, stories which would make you wonder at and question the world we live in. And yes, we the writers, might have to deal with smaller print-runs and even less money. But, you know what, we’d have something we prize more. Ursula Le Guin’s freedom.
Nicky Singer 13/11/2015