EP39: Million-Selling Children Books | Karen Ball

A children’s fiction special. We talk with Karen Ball who has published some of the bestselling children’s series of the last twenty years, including the Beast Quest which has sold over 11m copies. Recently featured as a 2017 Rising Star in the Bookseller, Karen is the former Little, Brown for Young Readers publisher. She is now a consultant at Speckled Pen  (working with OUP, Hachette Children’s and Parragon) as well as an expert in intellectual property.

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In this episode you will discover…

  • How children’s series are commissioned
  • The importance of plot in children’s books
  • How to start planning your career as a writer
  • The importance of respecting your readers

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Episode Highlights:

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EPISODE TRANSCRIPT (HIGHLIGHTS)

A children’s fiction special as we talk to Karen Ball, publishing consultant at Speckled Pen and an expert in intellectual property. Karen has published some of the bestselling children’s series of the last twenty years, including Beast Quest, which has sold over 11 million copies worldwide.

It’s a challenge to get some children to read. How does a series like Beast Quest engage with them?

Part of the early thinking around the series was to see if there was a way of engaging with what at the time were called ‘Reluctant boy readers’, I’m not sure that term is quite current any more. The series uses a high interest level, but a simpler reading level, so that for readers who aren’t regularly engaged with reading it doesn’t feel like a really intimidating process. There’s lots of illustration, a very fast-moving plot, and a formula that really works.

That repeating formula allows children to feel confident in their reading, and that’s a really great and necessary part of growing up and allows children to move on to more challenging books, when they’re ready to.

 

Is that repetition party of the strategy for a series?

Definitely. From the concept stage you’re thinking about the series frame. A story arc that goes over a number of books and some of those details like a repeatable formula that children will enjoy. Which genre are you engaging with? With Beast Quest, part of the reason that they’ve been able to produce so may books so brilliantly is because of the fantasy genre, which means you can constantly keep reinventing your worlds. And that definitely helped me as an editor working on the series, in that I genuinely never, ever got bored of brainstorming books, because every six books you could start again with a whole new fantasy world and invent a brand new beast. So, yes, it’s definitely part of the very early thinking.

You have multiple writers working on something like Beast Quest?

We were publishing up to fifteen titles a year, the practicalities are that no single author can write that number of books without hitting massive burnout and learning to hate what they’re working on, so we try to avoid that.

There are a team of writers who write into the series, once the style is established, and it works really well.

 

Sometimes, when readers find out about that, they’re really fascinated by the process. You sometimes feel as though you’re juggling quite a few balls, but if you’ve got a good team around you I think that can help maintain the freshness of the concept, because you have different brains and voices coming to it all the time.

Do you have a series bible? Do the writers have to work within constraints?

Making a comparison with a TV show is a really good one. It is a similar process because of the team of writers. If you think about the team of writers who worked on Friends, for example, there were a whole raft of people. And yes, you develop a series bible, which is really important when you’re dealing with this number of books that the colour of the main character’s eyes doesn’t change in book fifty six. You keep track of what your beasts are etc.

If you were approached as an author you would be invited to write some sample chapters to make sure that your writing style fitted, and also, really importantly, to make sure that you’re enjoying the process. Some writers love (creative collaboration), and some writers don’t want to engage with that. If we feel that we’re all working well together, then you can come on the team.

Are children’s books hard to sell in eBook?

Yeah, very much so. Children’s eBooks only make up about 4% of the overall children’s book market. It’s pretty clear that this isn’t a way that children are reading, or parents are reading with children. The physical book is still so enticing. I think that’s really important at an age where being able to turn pages and having a book that you can put on your shelf and feel proud of yourself, that’s part of it with some of these big series. They love seeing their book shelf filled with these books, and you can’t do that with an eBook. I think with children’s books there are the issues of what we call the gatekeepers; the people actually buying the books.

Parents, grandparents, librarian, retailers tend to be very passionate about children’s books, so it’s not always the child buying the book. If those gatekeepers aren’t aware of you as an author that makes it all the more difficult, particularly in the eBook and indie market.

 

Librarians, especially in the US, can make or break a book, can’t they?

A few years ago I went out to accompany an author on a tour in the States and I was blown away to see the libraries out there. It’s just on a totally different scale, and obviously the whole market in the States is on a different scale. They’re massive and massively important.

What about self-publishing children’s books in a physical format?

Publishing your own books can work for authors who have a back catalogue and maybe the rights have reverted and they still want to see the book out there. The model that I am fascinated by is Unbound, the type of publishing that they’re doing. They’re quite clear that the type of author that engages with them needs to have a community around them, and I think that is the challenge for a children’s author.

Unbound is a very different profile of publishing whereby they will support an author to promote a concept for a book that people can then donate an amount of money towards, and if that author manages to raise funds to get the book published within a certain time frame, Unbound will publish the book.

 

They’ve had some great successes. The Good Immigrant is the current example of how Unbound has worked excellently, but it hasn’t really worked yet in the children’s field, and I am just watching that, fascinated, thinking it’s only a matter of time. It just needs to be the right person, the right concept.

How do you work as a commissioning editor on something like Beast Quest?

On that model of publishing, you would basically steer the publishing. You would help decide what the book’s going to be, find the authors and commission them, then work very closely with them. Structurally editing and line editing and getting the manuscript to a point where you feel that you can hand it over to another editor for line editing and copy editing. It’s quite big picture thinking, and very creative.

In a way it’s the same as it is for any author; you’re just walking in the street, you read something, and that sets off a chain of thoughts… I’m developing something at the moment, and it’s a funny concept and really mad, but whenever I mention it to people they just grin and their eyes light up, and whenever anybody asks me where the idea came from I genuinely don’t know. I can’t remember. There was this one kernel of a jumping off point, but how it grew from that to what we now have, which is a full concept document, I find very difficult to explain, so I think even with this way of working there’s a deep mystery to it, as there is for any author or publisher. The interesting thing is you have absolutely no idea what’s going to succeed and what isn’t.

Part of developing concepts of series is just allowing yourself to play with ideas, and I think part of that failure is a really important part of the process.

 

It’s okay if you play with an idea and then at the end of maybe months of work you decide it isn’t working, and we can’t make it work and you have to park this, I really strongly believe that’s a big part of what you do, and that’s okay.

If an author has an idea, what would you expect to see from them initially? An outline? A finished book?

It can really vary, but I’m happy to look at a paragraph idea and if it feels as if it’s got legs I just play with the idea with the editor or author, whoever it is I’m engaging with. I would encourage people to do that rather than slavishly work up a full concept that I then look at and immediately think that it’s not going to work.

I’m really passionate about collaborative creativity, so the more we can work together, I prefer that.

 

Which are more popular: formulaic series, or ones with an arc?

Possibly with the older age groups you could have a story arc that stretches across several books. With the younger readers you want a really good sense of resolution within each book. For me, a lot of it depends on the project and the idea.

Is it important to keep the language simplified for children’s books?

One of the really great challenges that really makes a writer work their muscle is children’s books have to be very plot-driven, because it’s very easy for the child to get bored. You can’t indulge in existential angst the way you can in some adult books. I think it really hones your skills in terms of plotting. I went to a talk a couple of weeks ago with the author Alex Wheatle who had written several adult novels and I commissioned his first YA novel Liccle Bit, and he was talking about the process of transferring over to write for a young adult audience and he described it as almost like script writing. I was pushing him all the time for plot-plot-plot.

You need a bit of everything. Robin Stevens spoke about how there had been some piece recently where a teacher had told a child that she shouldn’t be reading Robin’s books because they were too easy, or something. And Robin came back and made this excellent point that the child should be able to read anything, at any point in their life. It was listening to your podcast with Kate Harrison and she was making the same point about adults, that you can read a rom-com, put that down and then go and read some high literary novel. So, I think you need really rich world-building books, like Philip Pullman, and you (also) need your Beast Quests. I don’t think with any author you can strip out their voice.

Any author writes as they write and it’s your job as an editor to help them be the best that they can be, and I don’t think any part of the conversation is about telling them to write with a different voice.

 

Turning to celebrity authors, what have you learned from the success of children’s authors like David Walliams?

I think it says as much about the publisher as it says about the author. HarperCollins did a really fantastic job of positioning him; teaming him up with Quentin Blake as illustrator, and my impression is that there was some really long-term strategic thinking around how they were engaging with David as an author. This wasn’t an opportunistic use of his name, it was really, really careful publishing and that has carried through.

When do celebrity books work and when do they not work?

That is the million dollar question. As with all book publishing, the one thing none of us can control is the book buyer. It’s always a bit of a calculated risk and sometimes it works, and sometimes it just doesn’t. For whatever reason, books just don’t connect. When I was still commissioning and publishing books, I would be looking at the overall shape of my list, and I would see it a little bit like spread-betting. I would have a really commercial series, I would have my lovely stand-alone novel from an author where I felt really passionately about that book, I might have a little bit of non-fiction. You have a spread of publishing, and I felt that was part of my responsibility as a publisher to make sure that was happening, because in an ideal world you’re seeing black ink rather than red ink on a financial spreadsheet. It’s a glib thing to say, but those big successes would allow me to go into an acquisition meeting with confidence, and say ‘Indulge me on this one, please. I really want to publish this book as I really feel passionately about it.’

The risk with a celebrity author is the level of advance in the author, and the advantage of a model like Beast Quest is because your costs are very known. I think one of the really key things is a really strong marketing campaign around books like that.

Would advice would you give an indie author planning their career?

Get a really good agent. Though I guess if you’re an indie author you might not be using an agent. Particularly in the children’s field you really do need to research your market. One of the early mistakes people make is they might write a book aimed at eight-year-olds that sixty-thousand words long. That’s just not going to work. It’s too much. Research your age-range. Work as hard as you can on your plotting.

People can start writing a children’s book because they have fond memories of their own childhood, or even not fond memories of their own childhood. Maybe they’re still working through the divorce of their parents and they want to get it out by writing a children’s book?

Remember, it’s not about you, it’s about the child reader. A contemporary child reader. It’s not about you when you were growing up in the 1970s.

 

A respect for your audience and engaging with your audience is absolutely key. If you feel able to do school visits and library visits, bookshops events, because a child audience is the most passionate audience. I remember years ago, as an editor, doing a school visit and I walked into that playground and I was mobbed! And I was just an editor. It was huge fun. You should also be prepared for the fact that children will ask you how much you earn, and they expect an answer. Don’t underestimate your audience. You cannot pull the wool over a child’s eyes. If there’s a detail in the book that isn’t working they will call you out on it.

Listen to you editor: if they’re telling you something isn’t working, listen, because if you don’t, you’ll be hearing it from children.

 

How does it work with Speckled Pen?

It’s a publishing consultancy and I work with publishers and licence owners and agents and authors. My personal approach tends to be quite hands-on. You know the whole ‘show-don’t-tell’ mantra that’s hammered into authors? I think that can be as relevant to editors. I don’t want to give somebody a reader’s report and say go away and solve all of these issues. I tend to bring a lot of my own collaborative approach to engaging with authors. We’ve had brainstorms, Post-It Note brainstorms at my house, with all these Post-It Notes on the wall, I get quite stuck-in with authors. If they have a very concrete project that they want some help on.

How dark can you get with children’s books?

It depends on the context of the storytelling. If, for example, it was high fantasy you can have sword fights, blood and guts, it’s fine because it’s not of our world. And with fantasy novels it can help children explore emotions and experiences in a safe way. If it was a domestic drama for an 8-12 age range and there happened to be an adult character who was hitting a child, you have to publish it sensitively: which part of the 8-12 spectrum is it on? It’s all in the storytelling. There are details that I wouldn’t want to see on the page, but you can certainly imply. There are some great books out there that do that. Keep it consistent, not just for the reader, but for the people trying to sell this book and place it in a bookshop. What type of story is this? The publishers needs to make it clear to the buying public what the content is. Children’s publishers are excellent at steering the packaging of books so that hopefully there aren’t any nasty surprises.

At what age can you introduce bad language?

It varies. There’s a wonderful children’s author called Joanna Nadin who I worked with when I was at Little, Brown and we were working on a book called Joe All Alone and I basically sent her a list of rude words that I wanted her to take out of it. And she put some comments on Twitter about, ‘I’ve never received an email that’s just a list of rude words!’

It’s a really difficult one to call and judge because I think as adults you know what does feel inappropriate.

 

You can have the odd fruity word in there, because kids are hearing it in the playground all the time. If there’s any concern over language there can be a sticker on the book that can highlight the fact that there’s strong language in it.

What can authors writing adult fiction learn from children’s writing?

Plotting. Children’s fiction has to be so pared-down it can teach you a lot about the discipline of plotting.

There can be word count parameters that will or will not work for certain age ranges. That can be really useful. I’m a firm believer that the tighter the box, the more your creative muscles can work.

What are those word count limitations?

A Beast Quest is about ten thousand words, and that’s for 7-9 age range. For Middle Grade: twenty- to twenty-five thousand words. It can go up to forty-thousand words for older Middle Grade, and then with YA it can be sixty- or seventy-thousand words.

Word counts is one of the things I still struggle with when developing concepts. To be honest, I think if you put six editors around a table, you’d get six slightly different answers. But you know when it’s majorly off. You can just tell.

It all does come back to; the author will tell the story that the author needs to tell. I don’t think you can prescribe for that, and I don’t think that technology can prescribe for that.

 

Books like The DaVinci Code by Dan Brown were quite interesting in that maybe it used some of the principles that you might use in, for example, a Beast Quest, which has massive cliffhanger chapter endings, shorter sentences, shorter chapter lengths, to just keep that breathless momentum going.

What have you learned about the important of Intellectual Property (IP) in books?

It’s useful in that it allows whoever’s generating that IP to own a range of rights that they can then exploit over books, merchandising, film and TV. It allows you to have a bigger picture for the project from the outset, which can be quite interesting. I like the collaborative creativity. I really thrive on that. I find it quite difficult to work alone now. I question whether or not I could be a traditional author now, because I’m so used to collaborative creativity and I really bounce off other people. I’m a huge fan of that way of working.

What are the qualities you look for in a children’s author?

I run the Bookbound Writers’ Retreat with some friends and at the last retreat there were definitely two or three people who I just thought you’ve got what it takes and we’re going to see interesting things from you. It wasn’t just writing talent.

It was also an awareness of what’s involved in the journey and they were doing the most that they could to educate themselves.

 

They were proactive on social media. They were doing all the things that you need to do in order to help build your career. But, at the same retreat, there was somebody else who was a bit of a timid mouse of a character, and it would have been really easy to overlook her, but she has just had her first book deal for a huge amount of money. You can have all those rules and you can tear up the rule book and throw it out the window. Which is why we remain fascinated by the publishing industry because fundamentally it remains deeply mysterious. It whatever system works for that individual writer. For myself, as with every author, I have manuscripts that have gone into bottom drawers, and the irony is that having worked as an editor in a very structured way, often, with my own writing, I would be that person just sitting down and opening up a Word document and starting to write. I kind of regret that. I do wish I had done more of the planning with my own manuscripts.

What advice would you give to writers about to work with an editor?

I always used to try and ask an author, how do you like to be edited? Often they wouldn’t know how to answer that question, but it felt like an inclusive question to ask. Even if the editor doesn’t initiate that question, you might want to just ask what the process if going to be like.

I would urge you to be as open-minded as possible to suggestions that the editor is making, because she’s not doing it for the sake of it, she’s doing it for good reasons.

 

If there are any edits that make you want to throw your laptop on the floor, please walk away from the laptop before you send an angry email to your editor. It’s really, really, really, not a good idea. And it’s not cool and you’ll feel really embarrassed afterwards. It happens all the time. It’s understandable, but that’s human nature.

Be clear what it is that you’re asking the editor for: are you looking for a structural edit? Line edit? A copy edit? Make sure that everybody understands what the parameters are of the commissioned work.

If you’re an indie author and you’re paying the editor it can influence the relationship. I would urge people to make it clear that you want honest feedback and be really clear what the parameters of engagement are and you understand them.

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Mark D

Mark Desvaux (coach, bestselling recording artist, entrepreneur and author) is living the life of his dreams and works with people looking to live to their true potential and make a difference in the world.

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