You need only be a casual observer of the children’s market to know that series are big business: Orchard’s Beast Quest, Orion’s Horrid Henry, Puffin’s Diary of a Wimpy Kid. Children love the opportunity to stick with characters, making them a safe and rewarding choice for parents.
Reg Wright and Richard Maskell, directors of Hothouse Fiction, know more than most about the power of the collectible. They first worked together at Marshall Cavendish Partworks, a starting ground for many publishing folk, working on magazines with collectible parts that aimed to keep consumers coming back issue after issue.
The pair then set up Hothouse in 2008, with the goal of developing series fiction that children would be hungry for. The ideas are worked up following extensive market research, written by a suitable author chosen from their database of (currently) 362 contributors—listed with the kind of specialities you could only find in the children’s fiction world: dragons, fairies, pirates—and sold to publishers around the world.
The first project the pair developed (just before formally setting up Hothouse), Darkside by Tom Becker (Heinemann Educational Publishers), won the Waterstone’s Prize for Children’s Fiction. A good start for the duo, Maskell says: “We were fortunate that it became pretty successful.”
Five years on, the company has placed series with most major publishers, recently selling world rights in new series Fairy Animals of Misty Wood to Egmont UK, with the publisher launching the series with five titles later this year.
Hothouse operates both as part of the industry and slightly outside of it, and Wright says working across the industry feeds back into their business. “We get to talk to a lot of people in the business and see so many different views about what’s happening, and the issues and opportunities that are cropping up. I guess that is one of the advantages for us—to talk to all of the major UK publishers and see what the issues are, the biggest being the retail landscape, as they are the gateway to consumers. We can also get an idea of best practice—each publisher has particular skills and insight—and we can see which publisher can really get behind a series, and whether or not they have the resources to do so.”
Hothouse initially worked from a policy of selling as many rights as possible to the publisher, but now is more circumspect, preferring to work on selling extra territories themselves, or developing possible film or television spin-offs in-house, if a publisher doesn’t yet have that capability. They work with Nick Wilson, formerly the children’s controller at Channel 5, in order to spot which books have small-screen potential. Maskell says: “That is a world unto itself, it’s a big learning curve for us.”
The economic downturn has, in some ways, played into Hothouse’s hands, in the sense that market research-backed projects seem to make more sense in cash-conscious times. The pair acknowledge that some publishers generate their own content in order to fully own the property and have creative control, with Puffin currently working in this way. However, they are not worried that publishers will increasingly take an isolationist stance, focusing instead on taking a property across different platforms.
Wright says: “Of greatest interest to us are the areas that are quirky, areas that offer platforms on websites and that may lead to a TV series. I think that we’ll be spending a lot more effort and energy in helping [publishers] promote with both web and TV support to appeal directly to consumers and that kind of activity would be encouraging to retailers too.”
The pair stress the value of focusing on the reader, rather than the “gatekeepers” along the way, perhaps foreshadowing the path publishers themselves are now taking in building up a direct relationship with their readers. Maskell says: “As the retail situation has become so uncertain, the publishers are understandably more cautious about making an investment in a series without knowing there is a good reason a retailer will support it. We always think about consumers rather than retailers.”