Tuesday, 22 September 2015

How to write a bestseller – Unintentionally! By Mary Hoffman

Amazing Grace by Mary Hoffman,
illus by Caroline Binch
(25th Anniversary Edition, Frances Lincoln)
We're delighted that this month our guest blogger is award-winning author, Mary Hoffman. Mary's getting ready to celebrate something she never imagined would happen...

I am having a silver anniversary this month – no, not with my husband, but a whole slew of other people. My publishers, Frances Lincoln, are bringing out the 25th anniversary edition of my picture book Amazing Grace.

That little book has been one of the most successful titles I have ever written. It led to three more picture books (Grace and Family, Princess Grace and Grace at Christmas), three story books (Starring Grace, Encore, Grace! and Bravo, Grace!), two plays at the Minneapolis Children’s Theatre, an opera in San Francisco and currently is optioned for a TV series.

The thing is: it was just another text when I wrote it. A 32-page picture book which, as I knew well by then, means 12 “spreads” (double page openings) in which to tell a story, beginning on page 6/7 and ending on page 29 or 30. In fact I wrote the first drafts of two other picture book texts the same day, back in April 1989. One was published, one was bottom-drawered and one was Amazing Grace.

I had a precious day away from the demands of three small children, the household and the constant interruptions that are the life of anyone who works from home. I had just been for a swim and, wrapped in a towel, I wrote, “Grace was a girl who loved stories …” 

Grace, illus by Caroline Binch

Not quite as momentous as “In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit…” but almost! The story flowed quite easily and I had always known that Grace would be Black. It was partly because I wanted to show her overcoming all sorts of obstacles and I thought, quite wrongly as it turned out, that sexism would not be as rife in in the 1990s as it was when I was growing up. So I added race as another level of challenge for Grace doing what she wanted to do.

When I had written the first draft – by hand on a lined pad, I took it home and typed it up and sent it to my agent, Pat White. I asked her to send it to my editor at Methuen, Janetta Otter-Barry, who had published several of my picture books and chapter books. But Methuen had just been taken over by Octopus and Janetta had left to be Children’s Publisher at Frances Lincoln.

Introduction to anniversary edition, with early Grace manuscript
She was looking for books to publish on their first children’s list and was pleased to receive my little text. So that was literary agent and editor on board; the next decision was about the illustrator.

Caroline Binch had painted the cover of my anthology Ip, Dip, Sky Blue (HarperCollins) and I knew she could portray ethnic minority characters. But would she undertake a picture book? Thank goodness, she said yes, she would like to try. After at meeting at Frances Lincoln’s offices in Kentish Town, Caroline set about finding a family to pose for the detailed photos she uses to base her paintings on.

I had put a baby brother in my first draft but the people Caroline found were a perfect three-generation, all female family, with no father on the scene. In retrospect, that was a gift. I wrote baby Benjamin out of the story (writers are great killers as well as creators).

Illus by Caroline Binch

Many other people on the team at Frances Lincoln contributed to the book’s success: Frances herself, who became a very good friend and whose sudden unexpected death in 2001 was a great blow, Judith Escreet, the Art Director, who has designed all my books for that publisher to date, Nicky Potter, who did the publicity then and is still doing it now for the anniversary edition, twenty-five years later. 

Amazing Grace became a huge hit in the US and was soon in the New York Times’ Bestseller list, something that was a great satisfaction to Frances with her first children’s list and to the rest of us.

But if you ask me how I did it, I can’t really tell you. I think that might be true of all bestsellers: that you don’t know when you are writing one. Only time will tell. The only advice I can give is to treat it like the Lottery and take the “if you’re not in, you can’t win,” approach. The odds against writing a picture book as successful as The Very Hungry Caterpillar or Guess How Much I Love You or The Gruffalo are enormous.

The one sure thing is that you won’t write a successful picture book unless you write something! The other ingredient I would add is a passion for what you are writing about and a belief in the characters and their story.
And who knows – you too might have a group silver anniversary in twenty-five years time. I hope so.

Illus by Caroline Binch

Mary Hoffman is the author of over a hundred books for children and teenagers. As well as Amazing Grace (which, with its sequels has sold a million and a half copies), she has written many picture books, including The Colour of Home and The Great Big Book of… series, with Ros Asquith. (All Frances Lincoln). She lives in a converted barn in Oxfordshire, with an Aga and three Burmese cats. Also her husband, with whom she has three grown-up daughters, three grandchildren and one grandcat.


Abie Longstaff said...

Congratulations Mary! :)

Anne Booth said...


Juliet Clare Bell said...

Congratulations, Mary. And it's always really interesting to hear how a story starts out... Thanks!

Jane Clarke said...

Happy anniversary, Mary!

A. Colleen Jones said...

Congratulations, Mary and Caroline! What a wonderful story with amazing illustrations. I must get it for my niece who is doing ballet classes at the moment.

Candy Gourlay said...

A wonderful book!

malachy doyle said...

25 years in print and over a million and a half Graces sold! But the real celebration is that you wrote such a superb book. Good on you, Mary.

Alice Hemming said...


Paeony Lewis said...

Congratulations, Mary! If you could pick one, I wonder which of your other books you'd like to have the same success?

Jonathan Emmett said...

Many happy returns (and reprints), Mary!

Natascha Biebow said...

Thanks for sharing the amazing journey of this book. Amazing, too, that so many of the original team are still working with you. That is a rarity to be treasured these days. Many congratulations!

Mary Hoffman said...

Thank you all so much for your kind comments. You can see how much depends on luck in thsi business. You do have to have a text you believe in but after that so much can go wrong - or in this case right! Paeony, I wish more people knew my picture books Three Wise Women and My Grandma has Black Hair. I seem to have been banging on about diversity and equlaity for some time now!