Kid's stuff gets serious

<p>Caroline Horn</p><p> T he past three to four years have seen an unprecedented rise in interest in the children's books market. Spectacular advances and life-changing deals are propelling children's authors into the spotlight. Michelle Paver, author of Wolf Brother, and Stuart Hill, author of The Cry of the Icemark, have both recently featured on BBC news channels--and The Cry of the Icemark has not yet been published.</p><p>It is a remarkable turnround for a sector that, 10 years ago, was viewed as among the toughest areas to publish into; few children's fiction titles were published in hardback and initial print runs were low--the first print run of Philip Pullman's Northern Lights was 2,000 and Bloomsbury printed only 500 hardback copies of Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone. It was also virtually impossible to sell UK fiction into the US. Today's lead titles, however, regularly achieve weekly sales of 10,000 in hardback, and five and six-figure advances are commonplace.</p><p>Children's publishers are putting real investment into their acquisitions and marketing budgets, says agent Caradoc King of A P Watt. "Big publishers that might have been neglectful of their children's lists realise they can make a great deal of money from them." Moreover, children's publishers now have to demonstrate to authors, agents and shareholders that they can create and sell bestsellers, says agent Philippa Milnes-Smith of Lucas Alexander Whitley.</p><p>Lead status</p><p>The market has become increasingly competitive with companies including Walker Books, Simon&amp;Schuster and Oxford University Press more visible in the fiction market. Egmont is the latest to say it will be putting bigger budgets into fiction acquisitions. "It's a rich time in the children's world," says Richard Scrivener, publishing director of Scholastic UK. But he warns: "A lot of people are feasting at the table, but how much longer can the feast continue?"</p><p>Traditionally, the bulk of children's acquisitions have attracted advances of around &#163;5,000 to &#163;7,000. Titles with a commercial edge, however, can quickly rise to the next level of &#163;20,000, King says. "By taking authors on, you are indicating that you hope to grow their sales and fulfil their potential. You are saying that this author is worth lead title status."</p><p>A &#163;20,000 deal for UK rights would imply sales of 20,000 copies in hardback and 40,000 in paperback for that title says Macmillan Children's Books m.d. Emma Hopkin. In 2002, Macmillan paid &#163;20,000 for world rights to Georgia Byng's Molly Moon's Incredible Book of Hypnotism (agented by Caradoc King), and says hardback sales in the UK are 17,000, with 80,000 paperback sales . (Life sales through Nielsen BookScan's TCM market are 11,000 and 58,000, respectively.)</p><p>Recent headline deals, though, have been significantly higher and have included Michelle Paver's Chronicles of Ancient Darkness agented by Peter Cox; Charmain Hussey and Christopher Crump's The Valley of Secrets, agented by Peter Straus; and P B Kerr's Children of the Lamp, agented by Caradoc King. Paver is believed to have received an advance of &#163;40,000 a title from Orion for six titles in the Chronicles of Ancient Darkness series (the media put her UK publishing deal at &#163;2.4m), and Hussey's advance from Hodder Children's Books is estimated at &#163;100,000. Kerr's advance from Scholastic for UK and US rights to Children of the Lamp was $1.8m (&#163;1m).</p><p>Children's publishers talk in private of literary agents now viewing the children's market as a cash cow. "Agents who work in the adult market are demanding adult-style advances from children's publishers and, in some cases, they demand more," Ingrid Selberg, director of children's publishing at Simon&amp;Schuster, says. "I asked one agent whether she would have paid the &#163;20,000 we bid initially for The Wind Tamer by Pearl Morrison (agented by Peter Straus at Rogers, Coleridge&amp;White) and she would have offered &#163;10,000 for a comparable adult d&eacute;but." In fact, S&S bowed out of the two-book deal at &#163;80,000; it was acquired eventually by Bloomsbury.</p><p>Milnes-Smith argues that publishers will pay only what they feel a book is worth and says that high advances are not speculative. "Advances are being driven by what publishers genuinely think they can sell. They may pay a premium for an element of competitive advantage--a publisher setting up a fantasy list may be willing to pay more than another publisher would for a strong fantasy title. But that price is still based on an evaluation of potential sales."</p><p>Indeed, Selberg says it would have been worth paying &#163;80,000 for The Wind Tamer because S&S felt strongly about the book and the package. For a title to command such a price, it has to score highly against a number of criteria, says Scrivener. "You have to think it's a brilliant book, first and foremost, but you also have to look beyond that to the package--its position in the market, the competition and where it might fit into your list."</p><p>There are factors that will drive up the perceived value of a book, particularly film deals. Film interest in titles such as Zizou Corder's Lion Boy, Jonathan Stroud's Amulet of Samarkand and Kerr's Children of the Lamp raised publisher interest and affected the advance paid. Foreign interest is another factor in adding value to a deal, says King. "The market is very hungry, and with a good children's book you can notch up 30 or 40 foreign rights deals in markets such as eastern Europe, Thailand and Taiwan."</p><p>High-priced acquisitions reflect a broader set of considerations than the potential for UK retail sales. Foreign deals on Paver's Chronicles of Darkness, for example, now stand at more than &#163;2m. Macmillan acquired two Frank Cottrell Boyce titles for &#163;75,000 apiece (agented by Rogers, Coleridge&amp;White) but points to UK sales of the first title, Millions, reaching 15,000 in hardback, with foreign rights deals now at 25. A recent film release will further increase sales--and longevity of children's titles can make them attractive. While publishers are seeking frontlist bestsellers, the majority of profits come from backlist. Wayne Winstone, children's director at Ottakar's, says that backlist sales account for 60% to 70% of the chain's children's sales.</p><p>While the potential for frontlist children's sales has grown, not every book can be a success, Milnes-Smith says. "No one expects a 100% success rate. And if the stakes are higher, then the risks are higher." No matter how carefully a publisher looks at the figures involved, there are occasions such as the Bologna Children's Book Fair, and auctions, where a publisher's passion for a title can become a liability. "The psychology of an auction is quite different from other buys," Scrivener says. "You are in a highly competitive situation and if you want the title, you want to win it." Publishers admit privately that they will often go higher than planned to keep titles out of the hands of competitors. There is also fear of missing deals, King says: "This is the great Harry Potter story, that Bloomsbury got it for &#163;3,500 and people had turned it down. Now people are careful about not turning things down."</p><p>Even outside of auctions, publishers are now under pressure to acquire titles in less time--editors are often given a matter of weeks to consider manuscripts says Annie Eaton, children's fiction publisher at Random House Children's Books. "Today we get many more manuscripts that are also being given to other publishers. Often we will have only two or three weeks to look at them."</p><p>Marketing upfront</p><p>Recent investments will make this Christmas among the most expensive yet for children's publishers. Scrivener says: "Undoubtedly the costs of promotion have gone up and that's because you need to do more for each book." Publishers work closely with booksellers in the hope of transforming solid frontlist titles into bestsellers. Marketing can help up to a point, Selberg says. "We did construct a bestseller from the Spiderwick Chronicles. These are great books, but without the marketing spend and tour, I'm not sure that sales would have been sustained as well as they have." The same might be said of Egmont's Lemony Snicket series.</p><p>Agents often want marketing plans drawn up as part of an author's contract. Cally Poplak, Egmont Press publishing director, wants less spent on advances and more spent on marketing, But agents argue that only if publishers invest upfront will they also spend on marketing later. Agent Rosemary Canter says: "I still sell new authors for &#163;4,000 to &#163;10,000, and while publishers say that they will nurture these writers, they also say that they don't have money for marketing. If a publisher spends &#163;100,000 on a book, they have to get back that investment."</p><p>While marketing is important in a book's success, George Grey, children's manager at Waterstone's, says that a title's cover also needs to be strong, especially in the eight-to-12-years age range. "Bloomsbury's Witch Child sold as well as it did because of the cover," he says. But he adds that the best tool in creating a bestseller, and also the hardest to generate, is word of mouth. "Marketing for Harry Potter only kicked in on book three, but the first two titles had done really well through word-of-mouth sales," Grey says. "It's a similar story for Philip Pullman--marketing kicked in on book two, The Amber Spyglass."</p><p>Getting local booksellers on board can help drive word-of-mouth sales. Grey points to the sales achieved by G P Taylor's Shadowmancer (Faber) and Anna Dale's Whispering to Witches (Bloomsbury), thanks to local bookseller support. Combined with media interest, this can lead to the kind of success Ottakar's enjoyed with Wolf Brother, which sold a total of 3,169 copies at an average &#163;7.35 through the TCM during its first week.</p><p>While the bestseller climate has helped to generate interest in the children's market, there are mixed views about how sustainable such interest is. Milnes-Smith believes that advances are unlikely to change. "I think that the right title for the right publisher is worth paying for, and I don't think that will change or prices will come down." She points to adult publishing where the gap between bestsellers and those below them is increasing.</p><p>Scrivener, though, believes that the frenzy of interest around individual titles will level out. "I don't think prices can continue to rise, I think it will plateau because the economies of it will become inescapable." This will result in publishers reducing the number of big titles they publish each year. "Instead of six or eight big books, publishers will probably have three or four titles--there are only so many books that people are going to buy and only so much space." But while the market is somewhat quieter now than it has been, Selberg adds, "As soon as the next big book comes along, I'm sure we will all be piling in again."</p><p>chorn@dircon.co.uk</p>