#TCMC: Commissioner Conversations with Publishers

Part of the Children’s Media Conference 2015. The session comes with a title tweak: publishers and agent. David Maybury, commissioning editor at Scholastic had to drop out because he had to, you know, publish a book. How rude! But luckily, Claire Wilson, agent at Rogers, Coleridge & White stepped in to give a new perspective. She joins Richard Haines, Acquisition and New Business Manager and Penguin Children’s, and Karen Ball, editor at Little, Brown, Young  Reader & Atom.

The majority of the session circles a fictional scenario in which someone has pitched an idea from a first timer with a mere idea, an excellent idea in fact, but it hasn’t been written and they’re not necessarily the one to write it. (Not necessarily the most beneficial to a full overview of the publishing process, but a few deviations in approach from the panel helped opened that up!)

“There’s a danger of telling publishers how to be publishers.”
How open are Penguin to hearing ideas pitched for a book? “We’re open for ideas,” says Richard, “but think it’s more traditional to have a manuscript at least partially done. It needs to prove itself in that medium.” They’ve seen loads of ideas at CMC and picked them up to work with, so it can be done, but it is more common for a fully written book to be pitched.

It’s important, in a nutshell, for the idea to be intriguing, adds Karen. 95% of it is whether she can work with these people flexibly on brainstorming. Sometimes she’ll suggest things to people and constantly hear ‘No, but…’ and those are people she’d have trouble with.

Is it naive to come in without creative work to show? “It depends on the idea,” says Richard. “If the idea if a book series, at the very least you need the plotline and characters and to prove the world and characters are engaging.” You should also know your target demographics, but he says again that it’s still most common for them to acquire from manuscripts.

“If it’s a strong concept and the wrong writer, a diplomatic conversation is needed,” says Karen. The notion of ‘packaging’ comes up throughout the talk, and the jarring moment of having an element that doesn’t quite fit. Everyone brings their own expertise to the table, and if they’re suggesting a change, there will be reasons. “There’s a danger of telling publishers how to be publishers.”

“We’re looking for the same type of things.”
“It’s not very new,” says Claire, in regards to packaging. “Being a fantastic digital person with amazing ideas doesn’t mean you have expertise on what it’s worth.” To actually pair people up would mean being a packager, which is very different to being an agent. “That’s not my role.” She wants to rep one person wholeheartedly; she’d be far more comfortable. To do both would be a conflict of interest, but she can recommend people.

Looking at whether different media view stories differently, Richard says, “We’re looking for the same type of things.” There is a different between TV and book content delivery, however; a massive budget is needed to animate wild imaginations, where in books it costs no more than setting the text on paper.

The transition from book to TV seems natural, but it doesn’t seem to work as naturally the other way. “Sometimes it’s just down to practical things like a TV schedule,” says Karen; they can work up to the last minute, where publishers work 12-22 months in advance on books. “TV can be passive, where books are immersive, and that can become a barrier.”

“Not everything should translate,” adds Richard. “Not every book can be a film or TV show.” The same works vice versa across several mediums.

“We spot potential.”
Audience questions open up and there are some first time authors in attendance looking for information on how publishing works, so the first question regards the manuscript: great idea, not finished, what happens?

“A big part of being the agent is being the first filter,” says Claire. “No one can turn in a perfect first draft. We spot potential.” They polish it up, but don’t try to make it perfect because that would narrow the options.

How forensic does editing go? Do you overhaul entire books? “It’s not the agent’s role to change the author’s style or voice. We look at sweeping structural stuff.” That’s not to say she wouldn’t spend a long time discussing minor details if authors wanted.

“I’m an editor so it is my job,” says Karen. “I absolutely dare to do that.” Some barely need touching and others need help, but it’s really important to be editorially involved, a pair of eyes that is commercially aware.

On how to submit, the standard is synopsis and three chapters, but have the rest of your book up your sleeve, because if someone likes it they’ll ask for it as soon as possible. It is largely luck and timing. Claire tries to get back to everyone in six weeks, but sometimes will reply immediately if she’s grabbed.

In selling it to a publisher, she has to make this idea the one to look at over the other ten they’ve already received that day. “I convey why I’m so excited,” she says. “I don’t send a synopsis. I tell the story, get them excited and they discover the story like a first time reader.” Know what you’re creating and where it fits, convey passion.

So, the editor is interested, where do they go with it? At an acquisition meeting, the sales director, publicity, marketing and rights people attend. “It’s a very, very, very delicate process,” explains Karen. “I want people to say yes, and in a way they’re looking for all reasons to say no.”

It’s not 100% necessary to get an agent, but it is recommended. Their job is to look after your career and seek the best for you, they also know the industry better than you and can help. It’s also a filter for the publisher: being sent your work by an agent is a sign of some quality assurance.

It’s a small snapshot of publishing in the middle of a broad and diverse conference, but an interesting one nonetheless! For authors, it’s definitely a little insight into how the cogs of publishing actually work behind the scenes.

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