Picking a Category

A note: This post was written in February and programmed here to fill a hole in my programming. Normal blog posts will resume in the next few weeks, but I just wanted to put some fresh material online!

Recently, I worked with a client who had written, by all accounts, a middle-grade novel. It has fantasy elements, an eleven- or twelve-year-old protagonist, rich themes that have to do with the coming of age time period, etc. etc. etc. But my client hadn’t really thought of the work as MG. Instead, he’d envisioned it as a crossover, perhaps close to THE BOOK THIEF in terms of potential market reach. Basically, he wanted to tell a story and then let the market decide where it fit.

We ended up having a lot of very interesting talks about this idea. Long story short, however, that’s not really how it works. When you’re writing something, you want to have some idea of where it will fit, per my recent “Writing With Market in Mind” post. If you gently leave it up to the publishing gods to decide, you may not get very far. First of all, agents and editors like writers who pitch their projects confidently and know at least a little something about the marketplace.

For all intents and purposes, the project in question seems very MG, even if that was never the client’s conscious intention. And if it walks like a MG, and it quacks like a MG, if my client doesn’t pitch it as a MG, he’s going to get some raised eyebrows. Furthermore, if he doesn’t pitch it as a MG, it may just get slotted into that category by agents and editors alike anyway. If he were to query adult fiction agents with the project, as I’ve described it, I guarantee most would say, “This isn’t my wheelhouse, this sounds like MG. You should be querying children’s book agents.”

You can always say, as my client did, “Well, I sure would like to tap the crossover audience and sell this to children and adults, please and thank you.” Wouldn’t that be nice for everyone? Most people would love a crossover hit like THE BOOK THIEF or THE CURIOUS INCIDENT OF THE DOG IN THE NIGHT-TIME. Selling the same book to two different markets? Yes, please.

The problem with a crossover is that you can’t aim for one, however. I have said this before and I will say it again (and again and again). The only person to decide that is a publisher, and most won’t take the risk of trying to publish across categories. This strategy is reserved for only a tiny fraction of all books that go to print. And sometimes, a crossover only becomes a crossover when it’s published in one category first, then the other, and it happens to gain traction in both.

What I’m saying is, it’s a lot easier to set some lobster traps than it is to drag the whole of the sea. At least with the former strategy (picking a concrete category), you will probably catch some lobsters. With a wider net, you may catch everything, but there’s a big chance you’ll catch nothing, or a whole lot of garbage.

Many beginning writers think that putting, “This book will appeal to everyone from age 1 to 101!” is a huge selling point. Who wouldn’t want to sell to everyone from 1 to 101? That’s, like, billions of people. Why wouldn’t a publisher want to sell billions of books? Unfortunately, this line of thinking is delusional. Any marketer will tell you that your catchment area is too big. What a one-year-old likes is very different than what a 101-year-old likes and that’s actually a good thing.

So I advised my client to either a) become okay with the idea of pitching his story as a MG, or b) edit the story and weave in several elements that would give it more appeal to the adult fiction marketplace. This isn’t too far-fetched because there are a lot of books set during the “coming of age” period that go on to publish in the adult realm. That 9-12 or 13-18 age range isn’t just for children’s novels. The revision route is obviously the taller mountain to climb, but, if it fits the client’s vision for the book better, then it’s what has to happen.

The jury is still out on what this client will choose to do, but I wanted to bring the situation to everyone’s attention, because it contains some valuable truths about “picking a lane” and thinking about the category of your own work.

High Stakes Are Tricky

it seemed that, for a while in the early 2010s, every book I was getting in the slush as an agent had something to do with the end of the world. Dystopian fiction was all the rage, The Hunger Games were exploding off the shelves, and the Mayans had supposedly hinted that the end times would happen in 2012. (Maybe they did and we are all a dream that one of my pugs, who sleeps pretty much continuously, is having?)

Point being, I saw the same iteration of manuscript over and over:

Kid is arbitrarily chosen to save the world, because the world is definitely ending, usually by a mechanism that is large, ominous, and largely outside of anyone’s control. The phenomenon is either natural (disaster, asteroid, climate collapse, virus, etc.) or manmade (shadowy government forces, global war, etc.).

I’ve written before about the unique challenges of the “chosen one” style of story, where a child is, seemingly, arbitrarily plucked from obscurity to avert global disaster. This is a very tough type of book to pull off, and yet that doesn’t stop pretty much everyone from trying. Basically, it opens up a lot of questions that never seem answered quite to my satisfaction. Why this totally ordinary kid? Why such profound magical powers out of nowhere? If this kid is so special, why haven’t they been groomed for the task from birth? Who decided that this one child, on a planet of 8 billion people, was the only hope?

Structurally, these stories also seem to follow a lot of the same steps, which now seem cliché. A milestone happens and they discover a secret about themselves that reveals a destiny. Then they are thrust into a completely new group of people. Cue meet and greets. Then they have to learn a whole new set of skills. Cue training montages (which contribute to a rather static “muddy middle,” since you can only write a few scenes of learning how to do XYZ before they start to run into one another). There’s a rival and a big challenge, then the character must do the thing they were destined to do. It looks unlikely for a second, and the Earth is splintering apart and shaking, and then, suddenly, they persevere at the last moment and the whole world is saved!

The big issue with these stories, other than their relative sameness, is that the stakes are maybe…too high.

Now, I can imagine you, dear reader, are about to throw your laptop at me. I keep talking about stakes and stakes and stakes and tension and friction and increasing stakes, and then I show up one fine Monday morning to tell you that, well, stakes can be too high. What do I want? Why am I so finicky? Is nothing ever good enough for Little Miss Goldilocks over here?

Hear me out. The issue with most manuscripts is, indeed, that stakes tend to be too low. The action is small, there’s not enough personal investment from the character, and the consequences of each action and plot point are barely registering on the charts. However, the opposite extreme is also problematic. If someone ran down my street right now in their boxer shorts, screaming that the world was ending, I would…shrug? Go to a news website? Call my husband? Throw caution to the wind and eat a whole thing of ice cream? I don’t know. That’s such an improbable event (no matter how many times our imaginations have gone there) that it’s too big to believe.

So selling such high stakes becomes very difficult. You have a lot of convincing to do, starting with the character, then the reader. Is the world really going to end? Readers, by this point, are savvy customers. We know how these types of stories go. And we know that the world ain’t ended yet. And if it was going to, it would probably be turned over to the professionals rather than landing squarely in the lap of a 12-year-old kid.

So should you even bother with an apocalypse story? You can. There’s always something deeply fascinating to humans about the idea of the world exploding or being decimated by virus. I would imagine there are some hastily written zika virus manuscripts popping into agent inboxes right about now. If you still want to do this sort of thing, I would suggest that the kid and the apocalyptic event need to be inextricably tied.

For example, this specific kid needs to match this specific apocalypse in a way that makes them the only possible answer. Let’s say that their mother was a leading climate scientist who was recently kidnapped. Life sucks for the character as they try to put the pieces back together. Then it’s revealed that the reason for the kidnapping was that Mom had just stumbled upon a shadowy government conspiracy to overheat the Middle East in a desperate bid to end the conflict there. But it worked too well, and now the entire planet is in grave danger. Mom is presumed dead, but Kid has his doubts. Worse yet, Mom told Kid some very classified information right before she was taken, almost as if she knew what was going to happen. Now Kid might be the only one to reverse the runaway climate. But, even with the world (theoretically) at stake, Kid has their own skin in the game: to see if Mom is actually alive, and to bring those responsible for the kidnapping to justice.

Apocalypse story. Shadowy government conspiracy. Runaway climate change (giving the story a timely hook). But what do we notice about this premise? It’s not just some random kid. In fact, the kid has deeply personal reasons for springing into action. And averting the apocalypse is almost a byproduct of more intimate, meaningful goals.

That’s what I would suggest doing if your stakes are too high: make them smaller (not in scope, but in terms of intimacy of objective and motivation). Make them more personal. Make it believable that a kid would rise up against huge forces to get what they want, because what they want is very close to their hearts. The stakes stakes can remain huge (there’s still an apocalypse scenario) but their impact on your specific character is what has the power to set you apart in this very crowded category.

How to Write Early Readers, Easy Chapter Books, and Chapter Books

This question about how to write early readers, easy chapter books, and chapters book on the blog comes from Mary:

I have a PB manuscript that I’m thinking of turning into a chapter book. I’ve noticed that I haven’t seen many agents listing easy chapter books as their interest. Do agents represent CBs or is it best to approach editors directly? Also, is it difficult to sell a CB as a single title, or are editors mostly interested in series?

I’m going to expand this question to include another little-discussed market, the early reader. The reason I don’t usually talk about early readers or chapter books on the blog is because I don’t really represent them, and neither do a lot of my colleagues. As Mary has noticed, there aren’t a lot of agents hanging out their shingles and asking to see early reader or chapter book submissions.

Before I talk about why that is, I’ll define both markets so we’re on the same page.

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CLEMENTINE is an example of writing great easy chapter books for young readers.

How to Write and Publish Early Readers

Early readers are the earliest “chapter” stories that a kid can get. They’re very short in terms of manuscript length (1,500 words max) but are broken up into either chapters or vignettes that will give the reader the feeling of reading a book with real chapters in it. Your target audience for these is kids ages 4 to 8. Early readers feature a smaller trim size, some the size of or slightly bigger than a paperback novel, and can go from about 32 to 60 pages. The font size is smaller and they feature spot illustrations in either color or black and white instead of full color throughout, like a picture book.

Some examples of early readers: Ling and Ting: Not Exactly the Same by Grace Lin (Little, Brown), the HarperCollins I Can Read! books, and the Random House Step Into Reading books. You can usually find them on spinner racks in the children’s section of your local independent bookstore. If you’re at all curious, go and get your hands on some. As you’ll see, early readers have strict guidelines for vocabulary and sentence structure and are graded so that kids can develop their reading skills and move up a ladder to more independent reading. Even if you think you have a great early reader idea, it has to be a very precise fit for a publisher’s established vocab/sentence/word count guidelines. (For more general information on children’s book manuscript length, go here.)

How to Write and Publish Chapter Books

What are chapter books? Dig in! Chapter books are for more independent readers who are making the bridge between picture books and early readers and middle grade. Some bookstores designate these as for kids 9-12 but I would say readers are mostly 6-8. Manuscripts can range from about 5,000 words to about 15,000 words, max. Since your audience is still developing its reading skills, you have more of a wide berth in terms of vocabulary and sentence structure, story and character.

Younger chapter books will be simpler (some will call them “easy chapter books”), but you can get pretty sophisticated for older chapter books. Trim size resembles paperback books and finished books tend to go from 100 to 160 pages, with black and white spot illustrations throughout. Some of my favorite chapter books are Clementine by Sarah Pennypacker and illustrated by Marla Frazee, the Ivy and Bean series, written by Anne Barrows and illustrated by Sophie Blackall from Chronicle Books, and the fun Geronimo Stilton books from Scholastic (in full color!). If you’re at all curious about chapter books, do pick some up and take a look. They’re a very quick read!

The Market for Writing and Publishing Early Readers and Chapter Books

Now, the reason I don’t talk about them a lot is because early readers and chapter books are a really tough market right now. Most writers are still wondering what are chapter  books instead of writing them. Writers have some luck doing I Can Reads or Step Into Reading as work-for-hire for the big publishers, but writers and agents haven’t had a lot of recent success with pitching independent creations and getting an early reader or chapter book series going.

One reason for this? The word I just used: series. If you look at an early reader or even a chapter book, you’ll see that their spines are tiny. When you’re fighting for space on early reader or chapter book shelves with Dora the Explorer licensed early reader #798 and 30 of its closest friends, your tiny spine isn’t going to stand out. It’s been proven that series sell better than stand-alones, so that’s where publishers are turning for these markets.

Obstacles to Writing Early Readers, Easy Chapter Books, and Chapter Books

So why don’t publishers give new writers a series? Well, a debut writer is untested and they won’t have a lot of sales power to their name yet. And, truth be told, early readers and chapter books are not lucrative for publishers. These books have very low price points: about $3.99 to $6.99, unless, of course, they’re published in hardcover. Most are published on cheap paper, about the same quality as a mass market paperback (what you’d find in the grocery store checkout aisle). They’re not big profit-turners. And why would a house spend a lot of money and marketing launching a new series from a debut writer when they won’t really stand to gain from it? Cynical, yes, but this sector of the market is very cynical right now.

While early readers and chapter books are a down market right now, they’re not an absolutely closed door. However, writers hoping to tap this market need to be very familiar with language, vocabulary, sentence structure, reading levels, and all the other strict guidelines in effect for these books.

How to Start Writing Children’s Books

For my money, I think it would be easier to make a debut as a picture book writer in this market. And that’s saying a lot, since picture books aren’t exactly selling like hotcakes, either. I don’t look at submissions for early readers or chapter books unless, of course, someone has the next Clementine character. As it happens, one of my clients is developing a potential idea for this market (the only way I would really touch it right now), and so I’ve been doing a lot of research lately. These tricky little books are certainly on my mind, but I don’t recommend that they be on yours.

It’s not all about picture books and children’s novels. I provide editorial services for early reader and chapter book writers, too.

Writing in Different Genres or for Multiple Audiences

I got a great question about writing in different genres the other week from Gisele:

I had a random thought this morning–do agents typically prefer to represent writers who write in multiple genres (like YA, MG, picture books, etc.) or authors that focus on one or two? Are there advantages or disadvantages to writing in different genres or sticking to one? Or, does the issue depend on the agent?

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If you write for multiple genres, you may have more career juggling to do.

Writing in Different Genres as a Career Path

As an agent, considering a client’s career trajectory is part of the job. We make sure the author has the kind of career they want, we help them choose their next projects, we position them in carefully chosen ways to editors and houses.

I know that a lot of writers want to write in multiple genres or for more than one audience within the juvenile market. Luckily, kidlit lends itself well to this. In adult publishing, it’s harder to go from a hard-boiled mystery, say, to nonfiction investing “how to.” In children’s, it’s a bit easier to transition from middle-grade to picture book to YA, if your voice is flexible enough and you’re familiar with the particulars of each audience.

There are about as many different answers to Gisele’s question, however, as there are agents. Some people believe that a writer should stay with one market audience and establish themselves with a few books before switching. This type of agent will argue that John Green, for example, who has published four contemporary/realistic YA novels, can now switch to another market. There’s a lot of good rationale here.

A writer should consider writing at least two books in a row for one audience before switching markets and writing in multiple genres. The benefit of this is that you’ll establish a readership and build a reputation. Once you’ve got a foundation in one market, you’ll start getting a sales record, too, and it will be easier to attract a publisher for that picture book you’ve always wanted to write. (If you’re having trouble identifying your genre or category, start here.)

How to Pull Off Writing Multiple Genres

Others don’t see the harm in diversifying. Some suggest market-hopping openly, others might suggest a pseudonym. The conventional wisdom is that you don’t spread yourself thin over too many houses and that you don’t compete with yourself. That means, you shouldn’t sell two fantasy MG novels to two publishers and have them both come out the same season, for example, or any other countless permutation of this scenario. As long as your publishers are happy with your schedule and the variety of projects you’re doing, you’ll be okay.

Personally, I’m happy to work with someone who wants to diversify. At the point where we’re planning career strategy, it really will go on a case by case basis. It’s very difficult to generalize about this. The one constant with everyone who writes across markets, though, is the talent and aptitude to do so. If a writer has a truly excellent picture book and an amazing YA that they want to bring to market, what could possibly be stopping them? Surely not me.

It will be a bit more challenging to sell to multiple publishers for multiple markets right from the beginning, sure. Even if you have sold one or two books already, those books aren’t out yet and you haven’t established a sales record for prospective future publishers to consider. And each time you pick a new market, you’re basically starting from scratch in terms of the money they’ll offer, especially when you’re at the beginning of your career. But such are the growing pains at the start of every journey.

If you want to start diversifying right from square one in multiple genres or establish yourself and then branch out, I will personally welcome the adventure of charting the exact career path you want. For every published writer, though, their career path and the markets they break into will be on a case by case basis between them and their agent.

Have diverse writing interests? My editing services cover many different genres and categories, from children’s book to memoir to fantasy.