Publishing is not a charity

[Originally published on An Awfully Big Blog Adventure, November 2015; original post has interesting comments.]

On November 14th, at the IBBY UK conference which took place at Roehampton University (see reports there), Nicky Singer gave a fantastic, passionate, moving talk about her struggle to get a ‘quiet book’, as she called it, published in the UK – a struggle which eventually led her to crowdfund her work, which worked beyond all expectations, ending up with Island, a novel with a cover designed by Chris Riddell.

Lest you should think that this was a fairy-taleish sort of talk, Nicky sternly reminded the audience at the end: “Crowdfunding is not a long-term solution. It worked this time but I won’t be able to do it each time I want to publish a not-easily-marketable book. And it ate up nine months of my life. Nine months when I had to teach myself how to raise money, promote the book, reach out to people. I don’t want to spend nine months of my life doing that; I’m a writer – if I don’t write, I die.”

She could barely finish her sentence as she was choking back tears – and then she actually started crying. Her emotion was extremely contagious, and I don’t think I was the only one in the audience who welled up. It was extremely poignant, and indeed it should be extremely poignant, to hear about an enthusiastic, sensitive, committed writer having so much difficulty getting a good book out. The kind of book that many children will cherish and reread: the kind of book that was written with passion and talent. But the kind that isn’t franchisable, and would not have sold in the tens of thousands.

The kind of book we’re constantly told by the publishing industry is funded by the big bestsellers. You’ve heard this as much as I have. “We need the big bestsellers because they fund the quiet books”. Thanks be to the big bestsellers! Glory be to thee, benevolent worldwide franchise! It’s thanks to them that they exist, those authors whose books do not sell in the hundreds of thousands. They are constantly reminded that they’re indebted to those big franchises.

But where are all these quiet/ politically committed/ socially aware/ aesthetically daring books that we are told get funded so generously by the big bestsellers? sure, there ARE some, but I’m not the only one who doesn’t think there’s enough of them. Julia Eccleshare, in an equally passionate talk at the International Research Society for Children’s Literature conference in August, denounced the sameyness, indeed the copycattiness of much of children’s literature production in the UK, and deplored the domination of a tiny number of authors, genres and types of books. And every single author I’ve talked to about this has had a similar experience: a manuscript or proposal rejected because it was too quiet, or too niche, or too different. Why is it so difficult for Nicky, in a world of publishing bountifully funded by bestsellers, to publish her book with a traditional publisher?

David Maybury, in his talk that same day, gave us a few clues: no book will be a bestseller if you don’t invest at least £30,000 in its promotion. These days, he added (I think it was him, but I may be wrong), you can more or less buy your way into bestseller lists. And we authors all know, though we don’t mention it very often in public, that publishers split books into two groups: those that will become bestsellers, and those that won’t. Those that will are the ones for which there is fertile ground: they might be a bit like another recent bestseller, or very intense/ adventurous, or likely to be turned into a film, etc. They’re ‘hot’ books. And they put their money and promotional push where the ‘hot’ book is. Some books, but very few, are surprise bestsellers.

Well, in this context, it’s not exactly shocking that bestsellers should ‘fund’ the quiet books. It’s only fair, seeing as they’d had a head start the whole time.  No?

But perhaps that’s not the right way to look at it. Perhaps those ‘hot’ books are just more funded and more pushed because that’s what a majority of people want, so that’s what brings in money. And UK/US publishers are very relaxed with the idea that publishing is mostly about the money. That’s another oft-repeated mantra of publishing: ‘Publishing isn’t a charity’. We hear this over and over again. So quiet books which don’t make money shouldn’t actually expect to be funded, even by bestsellers. This is a business. Why would we make books that we know will not sell?

Because we will have made them. I think we really, really need to adopt a different attitude to failure and success. A quiet book, a politically committed book, a book about a slice of society or a theme that doesn’t appeal to everyone, succeeds by the very fact of its existence. We need to be much more open to the possibility that a book might sell less than a thousand copies and still be a success, because that book exists.

This isn’t just wishy-washy let-everyone-have-their-chance hippie dreaming. It’s not like this initial openness to ‘failure’ would mean never making back that first investment. Because a thousand quiet books that sell a thousand copies each will be ten thousand quiet books spreading their quiet ideas and quiet tone, which gets readers, and, perhaps more importantly, the publishing industry itself, used to the idea that such books are not pointless luxuries or a waste of money, but an important slice of the market.

No one’s asking publishing to be non-profit, but it’s not true that it’s simply enslaved to the market and condemned to producing ‘what sells’. It can create its own readerly niches. It can foreground its values. It can pave the way for difference. Children’s publishing needs to stop hiding behind the claim that it’s ‘not a charity’. It needs to accept the fact that it has social and a literary responsibility beyond money-making.

At the peak of the refugee ‘crisis’, for want of a better word, Fred Lavabre at Sarbacane, my French children’s publisher, issued a rallying cry to the whole of children’s publishing in France. Being children’s publishers, ‘We have a social responsibility’, he said, ‘to talk about this to children’. This launched a never-before-seen collaboration of 57 publishers (!), who published in just two months a picturebook promoting empathy, respect and welcome for refugees, Eux, c’est nous (They are us), written by Daniel Pennac and illustrated by Serge Bloch (two major figures in children’s literature), with a lexicon by Jessie Magana and Carole Saturno. All proceeds to a refugee charity.

They were going to print 70,000 copies, they had to print 100, 000, by popular demand (especially from bookshops).

It’s been top of the children’s bestseller list since it came out.

EDIT: thank you to Pippa Goodhart for drawing my attention to Nosy Crow’s similar initiative, with Refuge, written by Anne Booth and illustrated by Sam Usher. I should add that my point was not necessarily that everything’s better in France, but that it is possible to act in a way that reflects one’s awareness of the social responsibility of being a children’s publisher. I’m not surprised Nosy Crow did this, by the way. Amazing.

France’s Zoella

(First published on An Awfully Big Blog Adventure)

France has its very own Zoe Sugg: she’s called Marie Lopez but goes by the name of Enjoy Phoenix, and she’s a beauty, make-up and life vlogger. Like Zoe Sugg, she’s written a book, which was published a few days ago and is called #EnjoyMarie (the title sounds only slightly less weird in French). I wasn’t the only ‘old person’ to discover her works on that occasion, but she’s been fabulously popular online for a while.

Le livre d'Enjoy Phoenix, numéro un des ventes la première semaine.

Hardly had #EnjoyMarie been published that the press started mocking the book, with the trendy magazine Les Inrocks devoting an article to ‘The 27 sentences that will make you think Enjoy Phoenix is the new Flaubert’. Each sentence is escorted by a sarcastic comment:

3.We are a generation of words created by an ever-sharper technology and, without noticing, we’re living under the attractive power of the webs of the Internet.” EnjoyPhoenix > Edward Snowden.

17.I shudder as I imagine drinking my first glass of alcohol… I hope there will be some.Spoiler alert: there was.

Etc. It’s funny in some ways, but it’s also a bit facile to mock a 19-year-old who started a blog five years ago as a means of dealing with school bullying, and who picked the phoenix as her animal of choice to express her desire to be born again and different. But then French adults are always cruel to teenagers, as I well remember.

Lopez’s book is in many ways a bizarre phenomenon in a country which is far from having a literary landscape as cluttered by author ‘brands’ and celebrity books as the Anglo-Saxon market, even in children’s and teenage literature. As the title of the Inrocks article indicates through the direct and snarky comparison with Flaubert, there is something distinctly disasteful, for the French mindset, about a book so obviously commercial.

It’s worth saying here that Les Inrocks is in many ways culturally snobbish, but as regards edgy pop culture – they’re not at all protective of highbrow culture; you would never find an article on Flaubert in there, so the reference sounds a little bit out of place. But even they, faced with walls of fuschia pink #EnjoyMarie books in each Fnac (the French franchise of cultural supermarkets), felt defensive enough to remind their readers of our literary canon, which in France would be packaged between white or cream covers. (Judging a book by its colour is very much a thing in my country.)

L’Express, meanwhile, has decided to compare the sales of #EnjoyMarie to those of the other best-selling non-fiction books of the moment, which are: a sociological study of the Charlie Hebdo demonstrators by an academic; a political study of Germany by a politician; an apology of blasphemy post-Charlie-Hebdo-massacre by a feminist intellectual; and a book on health and nutrition by some doctor. ‘Enjoy Phoenix sells more books than all those people!!!!!’ L’Express marvels.

And provides a diagram to prove this astonishing fact:


My French writer and illustrator friends are watching all of this with some amusement and not much anxiety. But some are mildly incredulous too, in part because of the unashamed money-making dimension of the enterprise. As I’ve written about before, the French market is much less commercially-oriented and there’s much less money to be made; books cannot be discounted, and they are generally quite expensive (my latest YA novel retails at 15,99€).  

In a publishing world where advances for teenage novels are generally between 500 and 2000 euros, and there are never any announcements along the lines of ‘NEW AUTHOR GETS FIVE BOOK DEAL FOR AN UNDISCLOSED SIX FIGURE SUM’, #EnjoyMarie feels like an odd import from Britain or the US – it’s no coincidence that the name sounds English. Interviewers and journalists spend a lot of time telling their readers about Marie Lopez’s supposed salary.

Another interesting thing is that, as far as I can tell – I might be wrong! – Marie Lopez probably wrote her own book mostly on her own; unlike, as everyone here remembers, Zoe Sugg. Keren David wrote a great blog post on the matter a while back. Keren was annoyed “that no one from Zoella’s management team or publishers –  let alone Zoella herself –  wanted to give the ghostwriter a co-writing credit, or admit up front that Zoella needed a hand to get her ideas down in print.” Like Keren, I think it would be far healthier if the world was actually told that writing is a proper job, which not everyone famous is always necessarily qualified to do.

It’s time to confess that I haven’t actually read Zoella’s book (sorry), but it sounds to me like it was well-received by her fans. By contrast, Lopez’s book is getting mixed reviews, including from its target audience. I think this is the first time a French publishing company has given a book deal to a teenage celebrity in this way, and I wonder if they underestimated the need to hire professional help to bulk up the content of the book.

Is this the beginning in the French publishing world of a more Anglo-Saxon way of doing things? Well, you can tell from the way in which people are reacting that it isn’t something they’re close to getting used to. But after all, ex-First Girlfriend Valérie Trierweiler’s memoir on François Hollande sold hundreds of thousands of copies earlier this year. Maybe France is slowly edging towards this brave new world after all.

Publishing Children’s Books in the UK vs. in France

I spend half of my life complaining about how difficult it is to write children’s books for the French market, and the other half complaining about how difficult it is to write children’s books for the UK market. The happy corollary to this is that I spend half of my life praising the French market, and the other half praising the UK market.

Several people have asked me to write about the differences between UK and French children’s publishing, and what it means for writers (they might have asked me this so I get it out of my system, bored as they are of hearing me going on and on about it). It’s true that the two systems are extremely different, and for someone who attempts to write children’s books for each market, and to have a writing career in both countries, it’s a bit of a schizophrenic exercise.

engfrench_0003Here are a few reasons why.

‘Literariness’ versus ‘wide appeal’

Writing in English for the UK market means, to me, a certain compromise between ‘literariness’ and ‘commercialness’. This isn’t to say that French publishers don’t care about sales – of course they do – but I have never been asked by a French publisher to make a book or book proposal more commercial. However, in the UK market, wide appeal is absolutely crucial.

This is in part because writing for the UK market means writing, potentially, for all the anglophone markets – and, hopefully, for many others. We are asked to consider not just if British kids will like the books, but also if American, Australian, South African, and also German, Spanish, Turkish, Korean and Thai kids will like them too. Foreign right sales are hugely important and it is expected that a book should be sold abroad.

In France, for most publishers, foreign right sales are a lovely bonus for a children’s writer, but they’re something to celebrate, not something you really expect.

A comparative study of French and English reactions to foreign right sales.

A comparative study of French and English reactions to foreign right sales.

Money matters

As a result, what you can expect to earn is radically different. People don’t always believe me, but the difference between a French advance and a UK advance, for a children’s writer like me, is quite literally 1 to 10. Being a full-time children’s writer in France means writing sometimes dozens of books a year and doing scores of events. Being a full-time children’s writer in the UK, in terms of income, is much, much more comfortable (though by no means ideal, I hasten to say).

Other things differ drastically. In the UK, after your first book, you generally get an advance before you’ve written the whole book. None of that in France, where you damn well write the damn whole book before pitching it to your publishers, and they might very well be like ummm… no. Sorry about the year of your life you spent writing it.

‘Faithfulness’ to publishers

Writing dozens of books a year requires having different publishers, and France is much more tolerant of this practice than Britain. Here in the UK, having more than one publisher isn’t ideal; in France, few children’s writers (at my level) have the luxury of being ‘faithful’ to one house. Of course, we’ve got a reputation for that kind of thing in matters of love too, so maybe that’s not surprising…

French author flirting with several publishers

French author flirting with several publishers


Agents are a huge difference between the UK and France. In France, literary agents basically don’t exist; sporadically, you’ll hear that ‘they’re coming now!’ but actually… they aren’t. Writers have to struggle against editors all the time to negotiate contracts, get advances, get paid. It’s a bit of a nightmare, and something I’d much rather avoid.

In the UK, the possibility of having an agent is an absolute blessing – though I fully understand that many authors prefer to fend for themselves, I relish the presence of an intermediary between me and the publishing houses.

Political content of children’s books

Another, tricky difference: ‘radical’ children’s literature and controversial nature of the books’ content. UK people don’t always believe me, but genuinely – French children’s literature is much more radical. Much more racy, much more politically incorrect, much more politically committed, much more uncomfortable.

My French books, for most of them, are unpublishable in the UK, especially my YA books, because they would have to be readjusted for adults. Similarly, younger books can have darker and scarier content. Ambiguity, especially in endings, is accepted much more easily in France.

This is not due to the fact that editors are squeamish in the UK, but rather that they are worried that the book might be boycotted, banned, blacklisted by prescriptors. There’s a constant desire to appeal to the greatest number – and to avoid at all costs upsetting the adult mediators – and this means controlling the ideological content of the books much more.

Branding and promotion

In the UK, author ‘branding’ is hugely important – and it also means that it’s less easy to move between age ranges or genres. In France, I can publish a funny picturebook one month and a YA novel about revenge porn the next. But each book will reach such different audiences, and so randomly, that I’m unlikely to be recognised in either of the two markets.

Obviously, France is a much smaller pond, too: it’s relatively easy to become well-known, at least by name, and especially now that blogs and Facebook (much more than Twitter) are so popular among writers and illustrators. Being a debut UK author means streaming through a torrent of tweets from anglophone writers around the world, and it’s quite a daunting experience.


On the other hand, being a debut author in the UK or US is celebrated – you get a press release, a launch, some attention, and a lot of help from publishers to find events. In France? it’s nothing special. You have a book out. Youpi.

In short…

Neither situation is, of course, entirely ideal, but neither situation is entirely bad either. I love the fact that, in France (and with my main publisher Sarbacane) I can write about pretty much whatever I want. In the UK, I love the fact that my books are more widely read, and that there is so much work done by the publisher to promote them and sell them abroad. I also enjoy the additional money – sure; but it comes at a cost, too: that of compromising on ‘literariness’ or on ‘what I want to write’.

This is why I’m keeping up (or trying to keep up) writing on both sides of the Channel, and so far it’s brought me many more pleasures than disappointments.


Writing book proposals

In the past few months, I’ve done little else than writing book proposals, i.e. being in the hellish no-man’s-land of half-written books and super-polished synopses.

What are book proposals for?

For books following the First One. Even if your publisher has an ‘option’ on your next book (or series), that next book will likely need to be outlined to them before they give you the money and the deadline.

So, in short, the first book (most often) got bought in glorious, fully-armed completeness, like Athena springing out of Zeus’s skull. However, the second must woo the Editor and the Acquisitions team half-finished, half-naked – stripped down to its synopsis and a few chapters.

Birth of the First Book.

Birth of the First Book.

Book proposals are evidently a ‘good’ thing: if you’re at this stage, it means you’ve got a publisher who likes you and wants to see more of your work. But god, are they a pain to write. Book-writing eroticism degree zero, my friend; degree zero.

The first book was similar to your stumbling in your everyday clothes with graceful naturalness into a roomful of people, and one of them falls in love with your little quirks and endearing youness. A book proposal, meanwhile, is like a long-planned date with a man whose head you’d quite like to see on your pillow (with the rest of the body still attached). You’ve spent the past few weeks checking that you’ve got absolutely everything right to achieve the desired outcome. You’re wearing your hair the way he likes it and have revised all the topics he talks about on Twitter, while making sure you retain some of the aforementioned graceful naturalness.

The sexist undertones of the above paragraph are not fortuitous; there is, in book-proposal-writing, something ineffably demeaning and unnatural, something that kills the uncertainty. Like dressing up in a certain way to cajole someone into liking you, it may give you an impression of control, but definitely not one of power.

What should a book or series proposal contain?

Personally, I write a few chapters; how many? As few as will give the Editor a good sense of the tone, characterisation, and appeal of the book. I write a character list, with short descriptions. A general plot summary. A rough evaluation of the genre(s) that the story belongs to, and the age range. And then a very detailed synopsis.

The synopsis isn’t the worst part for me. I always write synopses for books I’m working on – not always chapter-by-chapter, but I don’t mind doing that. I’m a plotter, obsessively structured. But I can guess how horrible those must be for the many writers who are ‘seat-of-the-pantsers’ – i.e., who don’t know where the story is going before they write it. It must be like asking an explorer to chart a territory they haven’t been to yet.

The writing sample is not hugely fun to write. First, there’s this dull feeling that you can’t get too attached to the story because you might never get to write the rest. This is a strange phenomenon, because when you start something which you’re entirely free to finish, you often lose interest in the story and fail to finish it. But it’s all due to your laziness and/or disenchantment with the idea. Whereas the prospect of someone else effectively preventing you from writing the rest makes you extraordinarily keen to finish the book now.

Why am I saying ‘effectively preventing you’? Well, of course, if your Editor rejects your proposal, it can still be offered to other publishers, though that could cause diplomatic drama which your agent might not want to get into. But if they all reject the proposal, then evidently you’ll never write the book, no matter how much you ‘believe in it’. You won’t waste time in finishing a book no one will want.

Secondly, the sample is dull to write because you know exactly what it has to do: give a feel of the whole story, explain who’s who, set the tone, convince the reader that this will be the best story ever, etc.

Once again, that’s something you’d do anyway in the first few chapters – and yet, when you know you have to do it, you suddenly resent the very concept of an exposition scene, and all you want is to begin with a story-within-a-story, a postmodernist mise en abyme, crazy prologues: in short, everything you really shouldn’t do.

Does it sound like I have a problem with authority? Yeah maybe.

Don’t get me wrong, writing book proposals is a very useful skill to master. It teaches you to think more commercially than you would; it turns you into a judge of your own project in its entirety, not just of the emotionally-charged finished story. It also makes the writing process much more secure: once you’ve got the contract, all is well. A deadline and advance are excellent remedies against writer’s block. And you do feel like you are doing something professional, efficient, controlled.

But I have now been working for months on proposals. I have a book proposal that I worked on all August, and I still haven’t shown it to my Editor because my agent (very rightly) wants me to modify it significantly so it’s more likely to be taken on. Then there’s another one I’m working on for yet another project.

The time it takes for rewriting, redrafting, re-synopsising and discussions is enormous, and all that’s before you even have a contract. It also feels artificial: contrary to the first book, when the Editor and agent didn’t know what would happen, and were reading it literally like normal readers, the book proposal gives away the whole plot. This is good, because it allows the Editor to spot potential plot holes before you can dig them, but also bad, because they’ll never have a ‘virgin’ read of the book.

It’s difficult to get excited, I think, about a book you’ve seen in proposal form. Explaining plots (especially the convoluted ones I like) is boring; everything sounds much more complicated in this condensed form than it will be when it’s developed over two hundred pages. And a story is, of course, not reducible to its structure and plot elements.

I don’t have a romantic view of writing, by the way: I’m very much in favour of demystifying book-writing and publishing. This is a job, and book-proposal-writing is part of the job. I don’t have any patience for people who say it’s all about inspiration, emotion and spontaneity; I think we should take time to think about what we’re doing, to structure and nurture our ideas, and to debate them with editors and agents. A book is the work of a collective. Even in self-publishing, there should be no writers who think they can do it all themselves and know better.

But book-proposal-writing, even with the most literary-minded, enthusiastic authors, editors and agents, gives you a weary feeling of über-professionalism; of the perfect polish, watertight smoothness of prophylactics. A prophylactic against crazy deformed, cross-generic, monstrous fiction-babies; as if no mutations could occur once the blueprint has been deemed impeccable.

I’ll be glad, obviously, if and when one of those is finally accepted for sure, and hopefully they will be just as good as if I hadn’t obsessively reworked their first few chapters and synopses before writing the rest. But I won’t forget that their conception involved quite a bit of eugenic tweaking.

Getting published: France vs UK

This is a variation on the obligatory ‘How I Got Published’ post. Just like every honeymooner in Thailand must recount the two weeks in tedious detail to seemingly interested friends actually entertaining murderous thoughts, it is absolutely necessary for the Debut Author to explain in blog form, at some point before Book One comes out, how they went from manuscript to agent to publisher. In my case, this post is long overdue, so here it is.

But I thought I’d take this opportunity to offer a little comparison of the publishing systems in France and in the UK, since I’ve been published in France for three years, and that the two systems are interestingly different. I don’t claim that my experience is entirely representative (but whose is?), so take this with a pinch of salt (or with a pair of pincers, as the French would have it).

FRANCE: Alone in the jungle

In France, I started sending stuff to publishers when I was nine years old, because I was already joyously self-confident and deluded. I got dozens of adorable rejection letters. You get really nice rejection letters when you’re a kid; it’s when you turn 14 or so that the standard rejection letters start coming in. Anyway, I continued sending story after story after story for eleven years.

Eleven years during which our pet tortoise George-Alain grew from matchbox-sized to shoe-sized.

Eleven years during which our pet tortoise Georges-Alain grew from matchbox-sized to clog-sized.

Then something funny happened. When I was 20 I was interning for a French publisher over the summer, and I was beginning to know their list by heart. So I thought I’d tailor one or two little stories to their editorial line. I wrote two, sent them to the publisher under a pseudonym, and was therefore there when they opened them, discussed them, and accepted them. It all happened in the office, in front of me.

It’s only when they started going, ‘Oh, it would have been good to have her phone number, she hasn’t written it anywhere’ (I’d made up a pseudonymous hotmail account, though!) that I said, ‘Well, guess what! you can talk to her LIVE!’ and it was all very theatrical and amusing. That’s how my first two books got published, and then the third one was published with the same publisher as well but a year later.

P1040152My first three: Samiha et les fantômes, Les petites filles top-modèles, La plume de Marie

But see, in France the issue is that there aren’t any literary agents, at least not for unpublished writers. It’s not the way it works. Authors have to fend for themselves. They have to send manuscripts to publishers (they all accept unsollicited manuscripts, of course), and they have to negotiate their own contracts. This makes them much more vulnerable than in the UK.

Authors in France are rarely tied to a specific publishing house; many publish lots of different books with lots of different publishers, sometimes at the same time, because they have to make money and that, well, being published in France isn’t exactly the most comfortable position financially. Ok, I’ll be honest, it sucks. You’re paid very little, unless you’re remarkably famous, or remarkably good at negotiating. Volume is thus key if you want to make a living out of writing – or you can do lots of school visits, which are well-paid.

Since I don’t want to make a living out of my writing and don’t write very much in French (1 to 2 books a year, which is nothing compared to my French writerly friends), this isn’t my main preoccupation. Personally, my biggest problem is that in France, even when you’re already well-published, you can rarely guarantee that what you’re working on now will ever get published. You have to go through the whole process every time: writing a full manuscript, editing it thoroughly, sending it to publishers.

Of course, you might want to send it in priority to people who’ve already published you, as you have their personal email addresses and it might get read more quickly – but most of the time they’ll just be like, ‘No’. Rarely do editors say to you, ‘Let me read the first three chapters and I’ll tell you if it’s worth keeping writing’. Even more rarely will they give you a contract and a deadline just on the basis of that. So it’s extremely precarious (and discouraging). You pile up manuscripts that never find a publisher.

couv pouilleuseAnd when, conversely, you’re in the happy/ terrifying situation when more than one publisher wants your book, as happened with my latest YA novel La pouilleuse, well, you have to make a decision on your own. It’s tough, because you have very little actual knowledge of what the different publishers may do to your book.

So you weigh prestige against edginess, enthusiasm against advance money, and finally you make a completely uninformed, rushed decision. Not that I’m unhappy with my chosen publisher, mind you – I’m hopefully about to publish another 2 books with them next year. But in no way can I claim that my choice was either rational or business-like.

As a result an author’s relationship to publishers is always ambiguous, and a bit unhealthy. These are people you’re wrestled with, battled with. You’ve asked them for more money, for more author copies, for more consideration. They’ve rejected your stuff, sometimes harshly. They might reject what you’re writing now. They’re also more prone to things like emotional blackmail, voluntarily or not. You’re very dependent on them. It’s not a comfortable position for people like me, who aren’t particularly good at separating professional and private discussions and who’d rather not get paid at all than have to talk about money – especially when you feel like you’re begging for an extra 50€.

UK: On the passenger’s seat

In the UK, getting published is a completely different story. Of course there are ways to bypass agents and submit directly to publishers, but for me, that was a huge no-no. I knew, from my experience in France, that I didn’t have the guts or the patience or the knowledge to deal directly with publishers. So when I finished my first novel in English in 2010, I immediately looked for an agent.

It was a YA novel called Hominidae, and the day I sent the first 3 chapters and synopsis to Kirsty McLachlan at David Godwin Associates (I’d only sent it to 3 agencies, I think), she asked me for the full manuscript. A few days later I talked to her on the phone; we discussed ways of modifying it, I did the editing, we met up in London and she offered representation. It was extremely painless and fast.

Not like the year that followed. Because Hominidae never got sold. That was heartbreaking. When you get an agent you think you’ve done the hardest bit, and that now it’s going to sell – but when you get letter after letter after letter from publishers saying that ‘although they loved this and that, the full thing didn’t work for this or that reason’, that’s pretty awful. Especially as you keep thinking, gosh, my lovely agent’s going to drop me. She didn’t, thankfully.

Sleuth on SkatesIn the summer of 2011 I had another idea and wrote the first Sesame book, which at the time was called Sesame Seade Is Not A Swan and is now called Sleuth on Skates. Kirsty liked it, and dropped Hominidae (which wasn’t going anywhere) and started shopping Sesame. And then, interestingly, the same thing happened with Sesame that had happened with La pouilleuse: namely 3 publishers wanted it. And it was fascinating to see how differently it went.

Firstly, in France I had about two hours to make a decision, and had to make phone calls to French publishers on my own. I had virtually no useful information to decide and no one to consult. Here, Kirsty set up the process of decision and auction for Sesame to last over several days. I went down to London and we visited all three publishers together. They gave me sesame seed chocolates and sesame snaps. We talked for over an hour every time about potential illustrators, further books in the series, modifications to the manuscript, etc. They were selling themselves too – that’s what struck me the most. They were telling me what they would be bringing to the book concretely, not just saying that they liked it.

sesamesnapsThen they made their offers and the amazing, cool-headed Kirsty dealt with all that, which meant I didn’t even have to utter the words ‘advance money’ or ‘royalties’. Although it was still eminently stressful, it was a hundred times better than being alone in making that decision. I was on the passenger’s seat: I gave my opinion and expressed preferences but Kirsty was the one who was doing all the hard work.

I know that this account might make some UK authors cringe. They’ll say that even though we have agents, we have to be proactive and shrewd and take charge, that I’ve fallen into a trap and am just being lulled into a false sense of security. I agree, of course, to an extent – but believe me, when you’ve been through the jungle of the French system, you appreciate the comfort, albeit illusory.

This comfort extends to relationships with editors, too – I can talk to them and be friendly with them and plan things, knowing that whenever we start talking about money and the details of a contract Kirsty will be there. I don’t have to worry that I’ll be short-changed. The author-editor relationship, as a result, is über-professional, less tainted with ambiguous friendliness-eneminess.

Well well well, as usual I have written a blog post the size of my PhD thesis (which I’m almost done with, by the way!). I hope it’s a little bit instructive even by just reading the sentences in bold. Oh dear, I haven’t even shown what I wanted to show, i.e. pictures of my author copies of Sleuth on Skates which have just arrived in my pigeon hole!


There are flaps with ducks doing manic things, courtesy of Sarah Horne


There’s a map of Christ’s College, in which Sesame lives for parent-related reasons…

P1050379And here’s the pile!

Coming out May 2nd. Fun, busy times. Crazy crazy busy. But I promise you, random reader, that I’ll try to update this blog more regularly. You might not care; but then maybe you do.

Clem x