Bologna Wrap-Up

So, Bologna is over. VinItaly, the world’s biggest wine trade show, which I happened to be in Verona for completely by accident but which, of course, I also attended, is over. I don’t have to walk around another ginormous expo center until I see my nemesis–the Javits–for BEA in June. Although, if we’re being totally honest, it would behoove me to walk around and around and around the Javits for weeks to shed the evidence of a three-week-long European food and wine binge from my hips. Hello, jeggings!

But this isn’t a post about me expanding my booty food an wine horizons. For that you can check out Chowlit. This is a post about me expanding my children’s foreign market horizons. I have to say, right off the top, that none of this insight would be possible without ABLA’s incomparable foreign co-agent Taryn Fagerness. My colleague Jenn Laughran and I watched her pitch at meeting after meeting with something approaching awe. Girlfriend was meeting foreign publishers, scouts, and movie people from dawn to dusk, then somehow marshaling the energy for Bologna’s extracurricular parties and dinners (and…gelato excursions…oh, the gelato excursions).

Some of you eagle-eyes may have noticed that I’ve updated my Wish List (look in the sidebar to your right –>). This has to do with Bologna, sure, but, frankly, an overhaul was overdue. Some things have stayed (like heartbreaking MG voice, edgy YA, issue book), but others are new or edited.

Here’s the news that was heard up and down the halls in Bologna: the market has shifted away from paranormal and (most) dystopian, and we’re in a bit of a trend valley at the moment. I’ve been saying this for a few months at conferences, and it’s nice to have that opinion resoundingly confirmed. Contemporary realistic is on the rise, though I still have my doubts about it. I’ve been hearing editors request contemporary realistic for a year or two now, though not everyone can convince a more trend-minded house to actually buy it. Sure, we’re all sick of paranormal and dystopian, but not all publishers have been able to put their offers where their mouths are with contemporary. When I get more evidence of this, I’ll fully buy the contemporary “trend” we’re all talking about.

Another mini-trend: thriller. So you’ll see it added to my list, though with a caveat. Thrillers need to…thrill. A lot of the manuscripts that cross my desk with the “thriller” pitch are predictable, with low stakes, not enough action, and characters that aren’t sympathetic or worth my care. This is a problem. I’m sure we’ll see more excellent examples of YA thriller as they’re published, but to see something dark and psychological and irresistible, check out I HUNT KILLERS by Barry Lyga, pubbing next month from Little, Brown. I hope thrillers take off–I love suspense and surprise in my slush.

Light sci-fi has been a buzzword for about the last year, but I’m not seeing a lot of sci-fi publishing and doing well, so I don’t know if houses are jumping all over it like they said they were going to. There’s always demand for fantasy and action/adventure, especially in middle grade. Speaking of which, I saw domestic and foreign editors and scouts alike begging for more meaty middle grade. Movie people, too. Good MG is very difficult to write, I think, because it’s such an in-between time in a person’s life and therefore true character and voice for this age group is very difficult to nail. It’s also a lot less “sexy” than YA, especially market-wise, so maybe a lot of aspiring writers think that MG is “slumming it.” I wish they wouldn’t. Sure, the MG world is missing a lot of YA’s glamor, but the opportunity to publish in it is very much there.

Finally, while there are a lot of original and licensed properties being published overseas that originated there, the US and the UK really lead the charge for creating new content. A lot of the books that come out in smaller territories had their starts in the English-speaking publishing world. Exceptions with a lot of native material are probably Italy, France, and Germany, though they do buy a significant number of US/UK properties. In the English-speaking world, we are the big publishing deal, folks. So let’s make it count and put out some awesome books that will thrill not only local readers, but the world at large!

Overall, an invigorating fair with lots of interesting people and ideas swirling around. And gelato. Did I mention the gelato? Thanks to my colleague Jenn, as well as Jo Volpe and Kathleen Ortiz from Nancy Coffey, who were my constant companions. Now I’m going to eat a bunch of kale and pretend that most of those meals didn’t happen…

Animal Characters

I got some questions from Darshana and NAP about animal stories. NAP asked why they seemed to be unpopular in today’s market given the many perennial animal favorites, and Darshana wrote the following:

I am under the impression that when you have a topic that could be traumatic to a child using animals lessens the effect. Example: Corduroy or Sylvester and the Magic Pebble. Also there are wonderful stories such as CLICK CLACK MOO, BEAR SNORES ON, LITTLE BLUE TRUCK that simply can’t be told any other way. Or is that if you use animals in your story, it has to be a story that couldn’t be possibly told with any other setting/character?

When I talk about animal stories, by the way, I mean mostly picture books, chapter books, and some MG. It’s highly unusual to see anthropomorphic animal characters in YA. And it’s true that there seems to be less excitement in general about animal stories than there was a few years ago. Sure, in ye olde days, animal protagonists were de rigeur. Now, I can acknowledge that they’ve somewhat fallen out of style, though publisher’s catalogs are still crammed with all sorts of critters, especially on the PB side.

There’s nothing wrong, per se, with writing stories starring animal characters. Ask Erin Hunter, the creator of the WARRIORS middle grade series. I’m pretty sure you can find her on the road to the bank…she’ll be the one laughing. And, as I said, there are tons of creatures on shelves today. But why is there this aura that animal stories aren’t quite as popular as they used to be?

Darshana brings up an intersting point. Are animals better suited for difficult stories that need one step of remove from reality? This could be a reason for choosing animal protagonists, though lots of the animal stories I’ve read are simply stories with critters who act very much like human children. In fact, as an interesting counterpoint, I know that one publisher, Lee & Low, will not publish stories with anything but real children, because their mission is diversity and they want the opposite of that remove, they want the human experience only so that their readers can instantly relate. In this vein, I think that we, as people, are so used to relating to protagonists in stories, whether animal or inanimate object or kid, that I don’t know how real this psychological distance is. I’m guessing it’s negligible, though it is good food for thought.

As for the other examples that Darshana mentions, she’s right, they can’t be told any other way, but I think the reason there is just because…they are stories that happen to include animals (or Little Blue Trucks and their animal friends). Her last point is true of all stories, I think, or at least it should be: You make the choices you do in your fiction because you simply cannot make any other choices. Your particular choices are so right that they seem like the only ones. This should apply to characters, of course, but also to setting, plot, word choice, etc. THE VELVETEEN RABBIT is a story about a discarded toy looking for a home. It literally cannot star anyone else but a toy character.

I think anthropomorphic animals are very much a case-by-case question, as well as one of very personal taste. Personally (and here I speak for me and me alone), I do not like chapter books or MG with animals. And most unpublished picture books with animals fall short for me. From what I see in the slush, I get the distinct feeling that some people are writing animal stories simply because they remember reading a lot of animal stories when they grew up. This is a red flag because it shows that they may not be as familiar with today’s market and that they may not be making the strongest and most inevitable choices.

Overall, across the tens of thousands of submissions I’ve read, animal stories tend to cluster near the bottom of the barrel. This is by no means true across the board, it’s a huge generalization, and it has nothing to do with the canon of successful animal stories out there, but this is a clear effect I’ve noticed. (Again, just speaking for myself here.) So I’m wary of them most of the time. And it could very well end up being my loss.

However, I’ve personally broken that mold on my list with BUGLETTE THE MESSY SLEEPER (Tricycle Press) by Bethanie Murguia (and its sequel, coming from Knopf in 2013, SNIPPET THE EARLY RISER), WHEN BLUE MET EGG (coming from Dial/Penguin in 2012) by Lindsay Ward, and POCO LOCO (coming from Marshall Cavendish in 2013) by John Krause. It’s important to note that none of these books deal with issues so difficult that we needed to project them onto animals. It’s more important to note that all of them are tales that could only happen with these particular characters, because their creators made very active story choices. I think that’s the bottom line, right there.

Ebooks, E-readers and the Kidlit Market: A Short Version

Erinn recently wrote in to ask:

With the iPad selling 1 million in a month, how will the e-readers change children and YA literature? I’ve notice there hasn’t been a whole lot of YA ebooks, not as many as “adult” books. Has the e-readers revolution effected the children literature market?

Great question, but complicated. As you can guess, this is a hot topic at the agency and one us publishing people, inside publishing houses and out, discuss all the time.

The first part of the puzzle is the e-reader user base in kidlit. It isn’t as big as the e-reader user base among, say, business travelers who download the latest business or financial nonfiction while they’re on the go. Even though teens are really into gadgets, most are also on budget and can’t afford to be early adopters (they’re also notorious for breaking stuff or covering it in duct tape and Sharpie marks). According to a survey done by and Publishers Weekly late last year, only about 5% of teens get their books electronically.

Overall, it’s important to remember that ebooks account for only about 5-10% of the market share in all of publishing, but they WILL account for much more in the near future…so that’s why everybody is freaking out about them now, and rightfully so.

Lots of people predict that ebooks will kill publishing, but that’s a very dramatic and outsider view of the issue. Insiders have many more specific concerns. What’s one particular head-scratcher from behind the scenes? Well, rights issues in this sector are a huge area of discussion right now. I don’t get into rights issues a lot here because many of them are really nitty-gritty and you don’t need to worry about them until you start actively selling your projects with an agent. However, this is an interesting glimpse into the ebook debate.

Let’s say you wanted to make a YA book more attractive to teens by embedding exclusive content or a link to a YouTube video from the author. Or you wanted to enhance a picture book by giving it animation or voice or video components. One problem: which right is that?

A book, from an agent or publisher’s perspective, isn’t one whole thing as much as a bundle of different subrights that can be sold. Does tweaking the original content in a digital format fall under the “ebook rights” category? (“Ebook rights” have traditionally included the right to publish an unabridged version of the product in ebook format…basically a digital version of what you’d find on shelves, with nothing extra.) Is it “multimedia rights”? “Enhanced” or “abridged ebook rights”? (I don’t know if this has gotten any widespread traction since there’s different precedent at different houses. You can have “abridged audio rights,” for example, to publish an abridged version of a book in audio format, with additional materials or music included in the recording, but not a lot of “abridged ebook” so far.) Per Kristin Nelson, the film industry defines “ebook rights” as not including any extra content.

Or how about this…what if a book was published way before ebooks, way before Internet, way before Kindle? It was published in such distant prehistory that there’s no ebook language in the contract. Does the publisher have the right to publish an ebook version because they published the print version in a time before ebooks, or does the author hold their ebook right (and the ability to sell it)?

A lot of people have different answers to these questions. That’s the problem. Some publishers are trying to argue one way or the other, some agents are on a different side of the fence, but there’s no industry standard yet. Some publishers still haven’t even agreed to the widely-accepted ebook royalty standard, though most are in accord.

So the cool thing about ebooks for the kidlit market especially — that you can add content and give the book all sorts of whiz-bang digital appeal — is in murky rights territory right now. And not a lot of teens are adopting e-readers yet. Picture books are be a natural fit for the e-reader market (Color! Sound! Motion!) but, for many, the device itself is a barrier to entry. What parent would give their toddler a brand new iPad to gnaw on? (They certainly can’t have mine…)

This answer will change very quickly, though. It’s very much an ongoing and in-depth discussion and this is merely a quick glance into an issue that’s here to stay.