Tuesday 26 January 2016

This is NOT a Happy Agent - James Catchpole

We'd like to welcome our guest blogger for this week, James Catchpole of The Catchpole Agency.

The Catchpole Agency which represents authors and illustrators of children’s books from picture books up to YA. James is the agent. Lucy prefers to keep her role mysterious.

New Agency Website

This is a story about a side of publishing authors probably prefer not to think about. It may have a moral, but if it does we don't know what it is. It may be a cautionary tale of sorts, we don’t know - we haven’t got to the end yet.

Sometimes an author has a really great idea, one that seems to spring almost fully formed, that makes you wonder "how hasn't this been done before?" Sometimes, that’s because it has. So as an agent, I check. This particular idea - we'll call it 'This is NOT a Happy Agent' for now, because using the real title would scupper any chance of a happy ending - had not been done before. It was 2012 and this was an original idea for a picture book text, with an original title - a title that ran through the thread of the story, a title that summed up the text and was repeated like a fabulous, memorable refrain. One you could imagine children chanting along with their parents.

Agents may be characterised as soulless money people, but don’t believe it - it is exciting when you see a text like this. And especially so when, as in this case, it was by an unpublished author (let’s call him, er… Dave) who I’d only just pulled from the submissions pile.

I thought this story could (nothing is sure in this business) break this young author. I read it to my wife. She was impressed. She is not easily impressed.

This is a Happy Agent

So I did what an agent does - I took this shiny new text around to all my best contacts. I took it to Bologna and read it out to all the major publishers. Sure enough, it was pretty damn popular. Some editors passed on it regretfully, others held on to it gleefully and passed it around the office - to their team, to Sales, to I don’t know who else. That’s the way this business works.

Reading this back in the context we’re now in, it seems strange to me that the industry does work this way. A new author, an original idea, and what do I do with it? I go and shout this original idea around the assorted editors of New York and London. But until this month, this way of working hasn’t ever seemed strange to me. This is just the way it is. The industry works on trust. It has to.

'This is NOT a Happy Agent' (ahem) was indeed bought - back in 2012 - by a big US publisher (hooray!). I was excited, the author was excited.

And then, for various reasons unrelated to the quality of the text, things kinda stalled. The editor who’d bought it moved elsewhere, the illustrators the new editor wanted weren’t available... Now, in 2016, they’re still looking for an illustrator. Frustrating, but not hugely surprising - it’s the way it goes sometimes - picture books can be a long game.

Skip forward to two weeks ago, when something odd happened. “Isn’t ‘This is NOT a Happy Agent’ one of Dave’s books?” my wife shouted through to me. Yes, so? “Then why is there a photo of a book on Twitter called 'This is NOT a Happy Agent', by someone else entirely?’ Oh.

A pile of books...

I had absolutely no idea. I knew this couldn’t be our author’s book. But sure enough there it was - a photo of an advance copy of a book with exactly the same title, but with another author’s name, sitting on Twitter. I know the editor who’d posted the picture well (she’s lovely btw). She works for a big London publisher - er..Goliath Kids UK? that'll do - which is actually the sister company of Dave’s publisher in the US.

So here it gets murky. Because as I said, I showed 'This is NOT a Happy Agent' to everyone. In fact, I’d read it out to Goliath Kids UK back in 2012, and discussed it with their editors a few times since.

So what had happened? A quick search told me that yes, Goliath were bringing out 'This is Not a Happy Agent' - by their own author (let’s call him John Smith) - in March. 6 weeks’ time as of writing.

I emailed the editor and her boss. They were clear: the title was not their author’s idea, it had come from within their own team. I suppose they didn’t want me to think their author might have plagiarised it somehow, from mine. This hadn’t crossed my mind – they’d never met, I’d checked. And anyway, much more logical to suppose it was Editorial’s idea, given they’d actually heard the title before.

I reminded them. They seemed to take it in their stride. So would they change their title? No.

To say this is frustrating is an understatement. Whether consciously or unconsciously, it’s more than likely that my author’s title was plagiarised by Goliath Kids UK. What’s worse 'This is Not a Happy Agent' seems in no way organic to their story. Their story is totally different to ours. Applied to theirs, it’s just a catchy title, whereas it runs through ours like words through a stick of rock.

But if Goliath go ahead and publish, Dave’s title will most likely have to change - can you really have two picture books with identical titles coming out within a year or two of each other? And in losing the title his story will lose a prime part of its cachet.

Dave has had other ideas since then, and after a couple of years of trying, late last year I suddenly sold four of his texts in as many months to two top London publishers. I’m sure it’s going to happen for him. But now I'm starting to wonder...the four texts I've just sold were seen by other publishers besides the ones who bought them. What's to stop their titles or their ideas being stolen before they come to be illustrated and published? How should I advise my author? What should we advise our many other authors, all of who rely on this same trust?

Perhaps this trust doesn't really exist. These are all good people we’re dealing with here, and we all know how easy it is to come up with someone else's idea while believing it's your own...But that's why you check. Perhaps there just aren’t any systems in place within publishers to stop things like this happening? And once they have - as in this case - it’s just handed over to Legal (watch this space…).

But can it really just be a question of whoever publishes first? That all feels rather Elizabethan. Or does it happen, and we just don’t hear about it? Am I breaking some unspoken rule of the industry in discussing this? (Maybe!) Do I need to guard my clients’ ideas more heavily in the future?

In that case, maybe all that will prevent a publisher from plagiarising is the threat of reputational damage? In which case, perhaps the best thing I can advise a new author to do is the most counter-intuitive. Should they actually go public? Should they blog and tweet about the titles they’ve sold, put it all out there on public record online? (Not unprecedented, these days...) Should they not rely on privacy and trust, but lay down a challenge: here are my ideas, here I am laying claim to them.

That could present a whole lot of new problems for the industry. But I suppose at least it would take a brave publisher to claim so publically an idea that wasn’t theirs in the first place.

Feedback appreciated! Comments can always be anonymous...

James and Lucy Catchpole

P.S If a picture book actually called 'This is NOT a Happy Agent' appears in the bookshops, you heard it here first - we will be cross.

Click here for aother guest blog post by James Catchpole.

Monday 18 January 2016

Picture book wins the Newbery! by Malachy Doyle

Let's hear it for Matt de la Pena, Christian Robinson and Last Stop on Market Street. It's the first picture book in donkey's years to win the Newbery Medal, which is awarded to the author for the 'most distinguished contribution to American literature for children'.

Congratulations to Christian Robinson, the illustrator, for also getting a Caldecott Honor Award for the same book.

But picture books always win the Caldecott, because they're for 'the artist of the most distinguished American picture book for children'...

Whereas picture books, as opposed to illustrated books for older children or longer works of fiction, winning the Newbery are as rare as hen's teeth. None this century till now, as far as I can see, and precious few before that.

So isn't it wonderful to see a book for 3-5 year olds beating all the big hitters of children's and young adult fiction just for once! Doesn't it give us in the picture book community, particularly us writers, one great lift!

I wonder will it ever happen in Britain?  Because the parallel prizes here (and similarly the most prestigious) are the Carnegie and the Kate Greenaway Awards.

The Greenaway goes to the 'outstanding book for children in terms of illustration'.  So, generally, picture books. And, until now, awarded only to the illustrator - though that's about to change due to the sterling work of Sarah McIntyre, who also successfully campaigned for the illustrators of nominated Carnegie books to be included in the Carnegie listing. 

Nevertheless - the Carnegie Award goes to the 'outstanding book for children.'  So couldn't that, just once in a blue moon, be a picture book for young children? But how many times has it been, in the eighty year history of the award? Never, unless I'm very much mistaken.

Are picture books not as good as longer books for older children, I wonder? Are they just not as well written? Can they only be outstanding 'in terms of illustration'? Not in terms of the writing, or in terms of both writing and illustration together?

Shouldn't it be possible that the 'outstanding book' of the year in Britain, at least once in a very blue moon, is one for young children, as it is on this occasion in America?  Shouldn't it be possible, in fact, that a picture book for young children could win both the Greenaway and the Carnegie (as A Monster Calls famously did, in 2012, for Patrick Ness and Jim Kay?) Now wouldn't that be something to celebrate?

Anyway, let's hear it for Matt de la Pena and Christian Robinson! Let's hear it for picture books!

Monday 11 January 2016

My Top Ten Writing Tips - Lynne Garner

I look back to when I was an aspiring author, smile and ask myself "how did I ever manage to get published?" Apart from being able to string a few words together I knew nothing about the business of becoming published. Yet somehow I managed to become a published picture book writer. However if I knew then what I know now my journey would have been a shorter one. So to reduce the length of your journey here are my top ten tips for writing a story a commissioning editor will hopefully love.

All about a little mouse missing his best friend


Listen to how children speak, what they talk about, the worries they have etc. All of this can be used to fuel your work and ensure you're writing stories children will enjoy and relate to. 


If you get the chance to study poetry, even a short workshop, then go for it. A picture book writer can learn a lot from studying poetry and use that knowledge to add that little extra to their stories.


When writing be aware of your audience and use appropriate words. Don't use 'grown up' or long words when short will do. 


Learn from published authors by reading, reading and reading some more. As you read question how the author has constructed the story, how they make you want to turn the pages, how they use words etc. 


Break down your story into spreads and think of them as scenes in a play. Ask yourself is there something new happening on every page? Have you given the illustrator something to work with? Does the new scene move the story forward? If the answer to any of these is no then you need to have a rethink.


Get your characters talking as soon as possible. Let them tell the story in their own words. It is there story after all.

Focuses on smell in a humorous way  

Try using repetition in your story. Repetition provides a hook, something for your readers to listen out for, to anticipate. Repetition allows them to join in with the story and become part of your characters journey.


Try to include the five senses in your descriptions. What does something smell like, feel like, sound like, look like and taste like? This will allow your reader to connect with the action on the page.


Everyone loves to laugh, so if appropriate include a little humour. This can be in your use of words, the illustrations or perhaps even both.


Have a go at using the magic number three in your story. Think Goldilocks and The Three Bears, The Three Billy Goats Gruff and The Three Little Pigs.  

I hope these tips help and good luck with your writing. If you're a published author and you have your own tips please do add them to the comments below.   


Now for a blatant plug - don't say I didn't warn you:

My latest short story collection - Coyote Tales Retold is now available on Amazon in ebook format. Also available Meet The Tricksters a collection of 18 short stories featuring Anansi the Trickster Spider, Brer Rabbit and Coyote - available as a paper back and an ebook.

I run the following online courses for Women On Writing:
How to write A children's book and get published
5 picture books in 5 weeks
How to write a hobby-based how to book

Monday 4 January 2016

People are watching. Look busy.

by Michelle Robinson

I met up with two writer friends before Christmas for our No Office Christmas Party. Of course we talked shop, and all three of us admitted to not being entirely comfortable with the 'online author platform' thing.

Which of our books should we promote? When should we do it? How often? And how can we do it without looking like wazzocks? But - and I'm a little ashamed to admit it - our main gripe was with having to see what everyone else in the industry is up to. We each confessed to having abandoned the internet entirely at times in order to avoid a confidence battering. Don't know what I mean? Allow me to set the scene...

You're having a Bad Writing Day. 

Nothing's flowing so instead of wasting an entire day you decide to attend to your online admin - best show your publishers that you're doing something to buffer all their hard work. Maybe you'll tweet a link to pre-order your next title or share some event photos on Facebook, just a little something to stoke the fire. While you're at it you'll see how everyone else is doing. This is research. This is proactive. This is a good use of time...

...This is not what you needed to see right now.

Everyone and their uncle's cousin’s next door neighbour’s dog walker is busy signing a new book deal, erecting a writing den in the grounds of their manor house, throwing a launch party attended by the literati, selling film rights to Hollywood or collecting the Nobel Prize for Pre-School Literature. Your Bad Writing Day has turned into a Complete Confidence Clobberer (let's call it and anyone who adds to it a CCC) - and it's all thanks to your 'essential' flippin' platform.

*Sulky face* 

How come everyone else is in sequins when you're sitting at home wearing odd socks? Are you the only published author who still gets rejected? When will your editor send you flowers just to tell you that you're marvellous? How come no minor celebrities are tweeting selfies with your book? And why, when you're so good at creating a healthy mix of self promotional tweets and silly cat pictures, do you not have three hundred thousand followers? Hang on a minute.

This is the internet. 
Everything is edited. 

As book creators we should know this better than anybody, and yet sometimes we all fall for a bit of smoke and mirrors. 

You want to know how those CCCs whose book you’ve never even heard of have umpteen followers? They bought them. Ever wonder how every other author has a 'bestseller' under their belt? They don't. They call their book ‘bestselling’ because it's the one that sells the best - ten copies out of the box in the garage as opposed to five from the boot of the car.

On the internet, we can make any impression we want. 

We can appear carefree and successful when we’re close to admitting defeat and applying for a job at ASDA. By cropping a photo we can let people assume hoards of people came to our event when in fact only two did, and they were immediate family. We can make it look like we're busy promoting our titles left, right and centre when we're actually busy dreaming up the next one - a far more important job, in truth. But we shouldn't turn our backs on the internet just because we're having a bad day. The internet is our friend. 

And our internet friends are our friends.

Yes, we're notoriously sensitive souls and it's true that working in isolation can knock our confidence. But in spite of my occasional gripes I find maintaining an online presence overwhelmingly positive. It connects me with the wider children's book community and creates an Almost Office. I genuinely enjoy seeing my friends and colleagues succeed. It's exciting. I know how hard it is to do well at this game, I want to high five other authors way more often than I want to give them Chinese burns.

Seeing others succeed appeals to my competitive side. If someone else is doing well, I want to be doing better. Still, I'm happy to admit that I'm not so keen on the CCCs: those who self promote like its going out of fashion, who have only one drum to bang and don't know when to stop banging it. So here's my trick: I don't follow them. They won't mind. For every follower they lose they'll buy another two thousand.

Nobody has a Big Bookish Success Day every day of the week. 

In the picture book world we’re extremely lucky if we have a truly great news day once a quarter or even once a year. Anybody that looks to be doing much better is either a CCC, is extremely skilled at stringing out their successes or else they’re Julia Donaldson (who, by the way, has almost no online presence and doesn't seem to be doing too badly for it, either). 

What do you think? Do you find CCCs intimidating - or are you one of them?! Do you have enough faith in your own work to never let it bother you? Do you manage to work in blinkers and shrug it all off? Has Julia Donaldson got the right idea, or does she just have far more support from marketing departments than the rest of us? And what tricks do you use to bolster online self promotion? For what it's worth, here are a few of my tricks for looking busy online:-

  • If all your good news comes at once, store some up to release on days when nothing is happening.
  • Stagger reports of events and school visits to cover a greater period of time.
  • If you want to go internet-free for a time while still maintaining an online presence, write draft posts in advance and set auto-publication dates for the future (particularly helpful with known events such as publication dates, World Book Day, National Libraries Day, etc.).
  • Amplify your message by jumping on relevant trending hashtags (if it's #WorldPenguinDay and you have a book about penguins, shout about it using the hashtag).
And finally, 
  • Congratulate your online friends on their successes because one day soon it'll be you who has genuinely great news to share

Michelle Robinson has a new book out on January 7th 2016 and she is more than happy to shout about it all over the internet. 'Odd Socks' is illustrated by Rebecca Ashdown and published by Andersen Press.

For more about Michelle: http://michellerobinson.co.uk/