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Saturday, December 20, 2008

The last post

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Here it is - my last post of 2008. And no doubt, like me, you’re running around doing all those last-minute jobs that have to be done before the holidays can properly begin.  Picking the final gifts, grappling with many square feet of wrapping paper, rolling out the dough for the Christmas cookies or the pastry for the mincepies (depending where on the globe you call home). But perhaps also like me you feel that the main event of Christmas is being with your family and best friends - the people who really make this time of year special for you, and for whom, like me, you gladly travel long distances.

The photo should give you a clue about where I am. Yes, it is London’s Houses of Parliament and Big Ben, and it’s great to be here at this special time of year - though I also miss our Virginia home too (especially our street’s annual sleigh ride - well actually, more of a hay-wagon ride, minus the hay but plus a few wine bottles!). My family can all be together this year and that already makes it a very special Christmas for me.  The trip will include lots of fun things - a couple of shows up in Drury Lane and Covent Garden, and of course a trip to Oxford Street to see the fabulous Christmas lights. 

If you’re thinking of sending me a submission you might want to wait until the first week of January when I’ll be planted at my desk once again, all refreshed and raring to see what the new year will bring.  The ubiquitous Blackberry (aka the Crackberry) has been put to sleep in the depths of a suitcase, only to be pulled out for disasters of a rare and dreadful nature.  Silent night, holy night, and all is peaceful at the Greenhouse.

So I wish you all the happiest of holidays and New Year celebrations and many good things in 2009.  Who knows what the new year will bring - almost certainly many challenges for us all, given the global economic climate.  But also, I hope and believe, many great and exciting events and achievements on a personal and professional level.  I wish you all happy and satisfying writing, a sense that you are making progress in your literary craft and, above all, enjoying what you do.

Thank you, so many of you, for sharing the adventure of 2008 with me.  I’ve loved getting to know many of you in small and large ways.  Have yourselves a merry little Christmas - and I’ll leave you with the great words from John’s Gospel that I was so privileged to read at our church’s service of Lessons and Carols last week.

IN THE BEGINNING WAS THE WORD.

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Thursday, December 11, 2008

The illustrated life

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The first thing I should say is . . .  Look!  Sarah’s blog has finally moved into the twentieth-first century; my web-meister, Rowan, has tinkered with the mechanics in the engine-room to allow photos to be inserted.  It’s taken a while and cost thousands of lives, but I’m very excited to be able to reveal our very first image from the Greenhouse.

You see, I felt we all needed some fun in our lives. Because basically the news is Not Terribly Good.  It feels like every time I log on another troubling announcement emanates from the transatlantic book industry. Pay freezes, acquisition prohibitions, staff laid off, retail sales sliding in the final months of 2008, rumours of sales (companies, not book rights), articles telling me that it’s going to be tough to sell debut or literary fiction. And now the most brilliant get-out has emerged - the recession rejection: We’re sorry, but the recession means we don’t feel we can offer to acquire this great manuscript. Well, it’s a lot easier and less painful than admitting that you don’t find the concept or voice or characterization quite outstanding enough.

So am I downcast and miserable as I sit here with the rain sliding down my windowpane?  No I’m not.  Or perhaps (thinking towards the January 20 inauguration, where I shall be flocking together with about 4 million others) I should say: YES WE CAN!

Yes, I believe we can sell books in 2009. And yes, I fully intend to do so.  The children’s area of this industry has always been a little more resilient in bad times than adult books, which should give us hope. And I still believe absolutely that a great manuscript/a great book will be in demand and find its home. But what we do have to recognize is a trickle-down kind of caution. Publishers are under a lot of pressure to make the best commercial decisions, and I can imagine that all houses will be putting their editors through an acquisition process that will make the Inquisition look gentle.  Dollars, pounds - and potentially an awful lot of them - are at stake every time an editor buys a book; not just the acquisition money that buys the rights, but all the other money that goes into production, overheads, publicity and marketing, warehousing. The cost of having an editor sitting at a desk in a room in New York or London is jaw-dropping (I saw the figures for my own seat, my own desk, a few years ago and had a new reverence for my little plot of publishing ground); the cost of an hour of a publisher’s time is very significant when you cost it all in.  And as for agents?  Well, their business doesn’t make any money at all unless they seal a deal (you ask Jerry McGuire). We are, it must be said, quite brave people.

So where does all this leave us?  It leaves us under pressure to make very, very good decisions - which, of course, one only knows fully with the wonderful gift of hindsight. Publishers will be under pressure to acquire the work that will be easy and rewarding to market.  Agents will be under even more pressure to represent the manuscripts that have the best chance of selling. The work that will be squeezed hardest will be the new literary voice, the gentle or not-quite-standout storyline, the experimental, the work that lacks an evident commercial angle, the voice that’s nice but maybe, possibly, not quite interesting enough or that needs to develop a little more. Breathe in, because our belts just tightened a notch.

But having looked down from the tightrope and seen the market, I now intend to look up - to the wonderful world of this industry which I love so much.  It has weathered a lot of storms in the past, and I say again, the best writing, the best ideas, will sell - and deals will be done.  I look at Publishers Marketplace daily and see them - rows and rows of books sold, new writers getting launched, gripping plot lines seeing the light of day, even as bad news trickles in.  Because the fact is, no publisher will survive or retain/grow market share without product - and the product is books.  No one will want to miss out on acquiring strong work for the future, not least because who knows what the market will be doing in 2010 or 2011 when many of these new books will appear on the shelves.  If you don’t speculate now, you can’t accumulate later.  Every sentient agent or publisher is scared of missing a big one!

So what does this mean for you writers out there?  Be informed, read what’s going on in the industry - but then clear your head to write the book that only you can write.  It’s what I’ve said throughout this blog - carve out the absolutely strongest plot you can find, know where its commercial hook and focus lie, and learn the craft of writing with all the means at your disposal. We need a standout story, an original and effective voice, characters that leap off the page and into our hearts.  Achieve all that and you too will be saying, YES WE CAN!

But as this damp and grey day drips relentlessly on, I suggest you forget your plotting and revisions and anxieties.  Because here to amuse you is a piccy of the hotseat of the Greenhouse USA. You will notice that it is an unusual agency:  its senior staff member has completely disappeared, leaving behind only a pair of green shoes. Has she evaporated? Or fled the country? Then, of course, there’s her assistant - the ever-faithful and ever-snoring Hound (NB: My thanks to blog-reader Emily Cooper who wrote expressing her virtual affection for this critter).  How can one feel even remotely dismal when looking at that malodorous mound of fur?

So, all together now.  We’re going to shout in unison and very loudly: YES WE CAN!

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Monday, December 01, 2008

Welcome to the future - and a lovely new agent

Yes, it’s Monday - and I can finally reveal my exciting news.  The Greenhouse is growing! 

A press release went out today to both US and UK trade press, announcing that I’ve appointed Julia Churchill as a new Greenhouse agent, responsible for helping to grow our British stable of authors. Oh, and I’m leaving for the airport in half an hour to collect Julia, who’s spent Thanksgiving in Boston and is flying on to Washington to spend a day or two with me here in the hothouse. Much plotting, planning and bonding will ensue, as we talk about the future - and of course as she takes the final test:  Does the Greenhouse Hound approve of her? Will she give him his requisite number of milkbones?

Julia is British and will be based in London. She’ll be out and about a good deal attending writers’ conferences and events, and generally sniffing out both new and established writers who would like to come and join us in the Greenhouse.  I know you’ll want to know all about her, so I can tell you that she’s very nice (and funny), she is younger than me (not difficult), she loves working with authors, and she’s highly thought of within the British children’s books industry.  Before joining Greenhouse she spent several years agenting for the Darley Anderson Agency in London where she developed quite a track record for finding new talent.  Like me, she’ll be looking for that spark of potential and working with writers in an editorial way prior to submission.  Julia has that small streak of craziness that I love (and with which I identify!); I knew she was the one for the job when it became clear she was prepared to leap on a plane from London and fly out to see me at twenty-four hours’ notice. Now that’s the kind of agent I like!

While I’ll continue to represent my existing American and British authors to both markets - and no doubt take on more British authors myself in the future - Julia’s appointment will enable me to focus even more on the US market, knowing that all bases are being covered in the UK.  I’m out and about such a lot in the States myself now, and have so many opportunities coming my way, that this will make me even more sure that I’m not missing anything.

Given the Greenhouse only launched in late January 2008, I am really proud that we have a platform to grow in this way - and given the tough economic times in both countries.  But with seven debut authors already with deals (and the beginnings of foreign sales too), it would have been silly not to have looked to grow at this stage. Do I have plans for world domination?  Well, let’s just say that it’s my ambition for Greenhouse to be the agency of choice for children’s/teen authors on both sides of the Atlantic.

Lots of things to think about, lots of things to do.  But first I’ll welcome Julia to the heart of the Greenhouse this afternoon and offer her a nice cup of tea. After all, she is a Brit!

Cheers, everyone - and here’s to the future.

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