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“If the book is good enough, it will always find an agent and a publisher.”

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My mother reading a bedtime story to my little brothers

I spoke yesterday with a friend who had just attended a lunch with a literary agent. He was looking forward to this lunch – expecting an enlightening insight into the world of books and writing that he so loves. He emerged from the lunch utterly disillusioned. ‘Arrogant’, ‘pretentious’, ‘condescending’, were just a few of the adjectives involved. But it was that one sentence that stuck in his mind.

“If the book is good enough, it will always find an agent and a publisher.”

I read something similar recently, online ; a comment by a published author of little renown (and even less talent, judging by the ‘look inside’ portion of one of his books on Amazon), who was lucky enough to have been trying to break into writing back in the early 1990s, in the days before Amazon, Kindle, and the collapse of traditional publishing. His sneering, supercilious attitude didn’t stop there. People are apparently wasting their time and money self publishing, and are all deluded fools, like those tone deaf, talentless hopefuls on shows like the X factor, “My Gran says I sound just like Elvis.”
I bit my typing finger to stop myself responding. There was no point.

Fortunately for my friend, there were other writers at the lunch, one of whom reassured him afterwards, “Don’t worry. It’s always like this. You get used to it, and learn to just ignore it.”

Why do I say fortunately? Surely it’s better for someone to know that they’re deluded, and for them to stop wasting time writing drivel. Not to mention that about half of self published writers earn less than $500 a year and a quarter of books fail even to cover the cost of production. Add to that the fact that apparently 81% of Americans feel that they ‘have a book in them’ (though only 15% regularly read books), and you have a recipe for certain disappointment, don’t you?

Well…

Consider this.  In the US, publishers have stated that they are already publishing too much. The biggest put all their resources into approximately 20 top sellers each year. The rest have to sink or swim on their own. Publishers are running scared. Taking on a new name is a risk, so safer to stay with the tried and tested. (This is why so many of the books today, apparently written by authors such as James Patterson are actually ghosted.)

Meanwhile, in the UK, very few (any?) mainstream publishers now accept submissions from anyone but agents.

So, back to the agent. The leading UK literary agents take on a couple of new authors each year. They receive thousands of manuscripts. This works out as a ‘success rate’ of less than 0.1%…

With no money to be made from selling books any longer, both publishers and agents have had to look to alternatives. Ah ha! The mugs who actually write them!
“Come! Pay me gold for my editing services!” cry the agents. “Then you will have a more pristine package to present for rejection.”

“Come! Pay me gold for my creative writing course!” cry the publishers. “Then we will send you a personalised rejection letter.”

Creative writing course… It is certainly true that many people have no idea how to write. But I know unpublished writers who have won international writing and journalism prizes, people with 1st class degrees in English from top universities, people who do know how to write. For a few pounds they can buy a book on the nuts and bolts of novel writing. To refuse to even look at their submissions until they have handed over money (which they may not have) and attended an ‘in house’ course, takes arrogance and short-sightedness to a whole new level.

What’s more, if you can’t write, a ‘one size fits all’, writing by numbers, correspondence course is not suddenly going to turn you into the next Shakespeare (how on earth did he write those plays before Creative Writing 101?)

Bad luck for today’s aspiring new authors…but is that all?

No.

Because, however bad it is in the adult book world, not only is it worse with children’s books, but the implications of what is happening are far more profound and grave.

Last weekend, there was an article in the Sunday Times entitled ‘Celebrity writers of children’s books edge out talent.’ The article spelt out how ‘thousands’ of gifted children’s writers were struggling to get into print because publishers and bookshops wanted books by celebrities such as Frank Lampard, Katie Price and Holly Willoughby, even though these were ‘the literary equivalent of lift music’. Everything is geared towards big ad campaigns and TV shows.
The author GP Taylor (Shadowmancer, Mariah Mundi) has his first big feature film coming out in October, but has turned his back on children’s writing, “I don’t stand a cat in hell’s chance of getting published any more. I have three big films coming out and no children’s publishing deal.”

Random House, meanwhile, defend their publication of books by Katie Price on the grounds that “If they introduce some children to the enjoyment of reading, then this can only be a positive thing.”

Really?….So it isn’t what you read so much as the fact that you are reading that is important. Imagine if a junk food manufacturer justified squeezing out all the producers of healthy, natural food on the grounds, “If it introduces children to the enjoyment of eating, then this can only be a positive thing.”

This may sound alarmist. After all, hasn’t the internet brought the world of books into every home? Children don’t have to read condescending, dumbed down pulp, written by people who assume that all children are stupid, interested only in celebrities and vapid pop culture. They could choose to download the same books we read as children. Except… many of these are now out of print. They certainly don’t appear on the shelves of bookshops – too old-fashioned, and not enough room anyway, amongst all those Top Gear annuals, and ‘Barbie’s Sparkly Vampire Pop Star Lover’ series.

Publishers think they know their market. So sure are they about this that they make such declarations as “There is a gap in the market for character driven fiction in the 7-9 year old boys’ segment.” But perhaps they don’t know it as well as they think they do. Children, after all, are reading less and less.

A National Literacy Trust study conducted last year showed only 3 out of 10 children and teenagers reading daily, down from 4 out of 10 in 2005. 17% said that they would be embarrassed if a friend saw them with a book, and even magazine and comic reading has dropped significantly. Perhaps some of those wonderful new books being written by unpublished authors might hold the keys needed to unlock the treasure chest of reading for a whole generation of children.

Would Harry Potter be published today? It’s not ‘original’. In fact it’s a series that follows a classic model… just the sort of thing that today’s achingly trendy media-bots would disdain. What’s more, even 16 years ago, when the publishing industry was far more open to new authors, JK Rowling struggled to find anyone to take it on and received numerous rejections (how well the publishers knew their market!)

Which brings me back to the issue of self-publishing.

I self-published my first book. I had dreamt a whole series of five books one night, and had written the first one with an almost constant smile on my face. I loved it. It was a book I knew that the child me would have loved too; one of those books where closing the cover on the final word is only the beginning of the adventure. It wasn’t about money, or recognition; it was about writing the story that was pouring out of my pen, about passing on the magic.

Eagerly, I sent off submissions to agents and publishers. I imagined children transported into the world of my book; a world of nature magic, Tree Spirits, wonder and intrigue… And then the rejection letters arrived. I felt utterly crushed and demoralised. Was my beautiful book so ugly? I read it through again and again, edited, re-edited, re-wrote huge chunks… and re-submitted. “Not for us”, “Not taking on new clients”, etc. At this point, I nearly did what that agent at the lunch, and the supercilious, mediocre author would have had me do. Forget it.

But I couldn’t. That story felt to me like a gift that I had been given. To just forget it, would have been to throw it back in the face of the ‘Story Spirits’. Besides which, no matter how crushed I felt, deep down I believed in it. So I self-published, and in so doing, finally got my book ‘out there’ to the people it was written for – not the agents or publishers, or adults…or me, but children.

Very soon, I got my first feedback… from a young girl whose grandparents had given her the book, and who loved it ‘sooooooooooo’ much that she had convinced her teacher to read it to her class in school. More followed. Emails demanding to know when the next instalment would be out; a message from a mother whose daughter had chosen ‘The Spirit of the Greenwood’ as her favourite ever book (supplanting ‘Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire’ -hurray! ); a teenage brother and sister who had nearly come to blows over who got to read a sequel first, when they received it for Christmas…
But best of all, I received one email, which on its own, was reason enough to self-publish a book – A  girl in rural New Zealand, having read the whole series, had decided to enter an international young writer contest, and to become a writer.

Remember that statistic, ‘81% of Americans ‘have a book in them’? In the article in which it’s quoted, the implication is that most people are deluded in thinking that they should write a book. “Stick to the day job” is the sub-text. What surprises me, is that ONLY 81% think that they have a book in them. Everyone has stories waiting to be told and the world of the imagination is boundless.

If the gift of that special story comes to you, write it! If just one other person reads it and enjoys it, or is touched by it, it’s worth it. I recently read a short story written nearly a century ago by my grandfather. Quite possibly, it has lain unread all this time. Yet now, long after his death, his words, his thoughts crystallised on paper, have come alive for his grand-daughter.

And if people don’t write for fear of failure? Or if they listen to the nay sayers, and believe that because an agent or publisher says “not for us”, then it’s not good enough… how many thousands of wonderful, precious and unique stories will never get written?

How dare these condescending snobs try to steal the stories from the world!

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A very disturbing article beamed its way across the internet to me today; A survey of UK 15-16 year olds, showing that with an average reading age of 10-11, many can’t understand their GCSE exam papers…
Yet, at the same time, there are parents boasting about how their 10-11 year old children are so grown up and advanced that they no longer read children’s books.

I find both of these facts desperately sad.

In the first case, these children are being robbed of the most essential tool they need to navigate the human world. Leaving a person semi-literate at best, is akin to deliberately disabling them. On one level, it deprives them of innumerable opportunities, jobs they can never do, paths they can never follow.
But it goes far deeper than that. It disenfranchises people. Recently the news has reported the story of Malala Yousufzai, the 15 year old girl shot for fighting to get an education and access to knowledge; a girl the same age as the teenagers in this survey. In its own way, the UK education system is creating a Western version of the powerless, vulnerable underclass.

I have frequently seen and heard disparaging comments about reading, and books, whether it’s the ‘losers read’ sort of mockery from someone who thinks that life is just about going out and getting drunk with mates, or the ‘you think you’re better than me’ type comment from the person with a chip on his shoulder, or the ‘I don’t need to read, because I already know everything worth knowing’ attitude.

People fear the unknown. That’s where the monsters are. And ignorance breeds fear. What is it that you might have learnt through reading that they don’t know about?
What indeed. You’re not just dependent on the television to tell you what is happening in the world around you. You don’t only hear the views and thoughts of your immediate friends and family. Through reading, you see through the eyes of others; people from very different backgrounds, from other countries, other times; people who hold different values to you. And your eyes are opened to the universe of potential, what could be, what dreams you could aspire to for yourself and for the world.


Which leads me to the issue of ‘childrens books’, and the ‘too grown up’ children.
I love children’s books. I loved them as a child. I love them as an adult.

The Earthsea trilogy, The Dark is Rising series, The Princess and the Goblin, The Phoenix and the Carpet, The Moondial, The Children of Green Knowe, The Secret Garden, The Magic Faraway Tree, Stig of the Dump, The Borrowers, Tom’s Midnight Garden, The Narnia series, Wind in the Willows, Watership Down, The Weirdstone of Brisingamen, The Children of the New Forest, Heidi, The Jungle Book, Moonfleet, The Hobbit……… just to name a few….

They are books filled with beauty, wonder, magic…wisdom… and the keys to the boundless realm of the imagination. It seems to me sad beyond words for a child to ‘grow out’ of these things…ever.
Why would a 10 year old want to be reading about ‘adult’ issues? Money, power, sex, politics…


Pushing a child to discard children’s books, as immature or silly, isn’t as far removed as it might seem, from depriving them of books entirely, through illiteracy. Yes, they still have all those career paths open to them. Yes, they still have access to knowledge. But, to steal the magic from their lives at such an early age, is a cruel thing.


Children’s books lead into adult books anyway. I read adult books when I was 10. But the complexities, sophistry and projection of adult concerns and neuroses, the limited nature of the adult perception of reality, was countered by the infinite wonders in the realms of the children’s books.
In their pages, the most fantastic dreams come true, everything is possible, and the world is so much more than a mundane, grey place of daily grind, disappointed hopes and narrow horizons.

Good children’s books touch truths far greater than most adult books.And with very few exceptions, when I look back on the books I remember best, those which have brought me the most delight, which have most influenced my life, and which have sung loudest to my soul, it has been children’s books.

 

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