Though publishing deals are standard fare in the pages of The Bookseller, it is rare for them to make her whirlwind publishing journey a splash in the mainstream press. But this was the case last month, when 28-year-old début author A F Steadman’s fantasy adventure series Skandar and the Unicorn Thief was signed in a “record-breaking” seven-figure deal.
Ali Dougal, publishing director at Simon & Schuster Children’s UK, and Kendra Levin, editorial director for Young Readers (part of S&S Children’s in the US), acquired world rights in all languages for three books from Sam Copeland at Rogers, Coleridge & White. Meanwhile, Sony Pictures pre-emptively acquired the feature film rights, in another seven-figure deal. The middle-grade series tells the story of underdog Skandar Smith, who lives in a world where unicorns are real—and deadly. It promises “unlikely heroes, elemental magic, fierce sky battles, ancient secrets, nail-biting races and bloodthirsty unicorns”.
Steadman, who worked in corporate and family law before deciding to focus on writing, had the initial idea for the story in 2013, but only committed it to the page when she began a creative writing MA at the University of Cambridge. She graduated, with a distinction, last year. The concept of the bloodthirsty unicorns came about as a direct response to the “cuddly” image that unicorns have gained in recent years. She explains: “I started thinking, ‘Why did they become cuddly? How could they be different?’, and built from there.” She wrote the first draft in three months “in a kind of frenzy”.
Despite it being Steadman’s first published book, she penned another beforehand—a courtroom drama for adults—which went out on submission but was not picked up by publishers. She admits that she considered giving up writing at that point, and adds: “Everyone sees the amazing success, but I also experienced hearing silence for something I’d poured my hopes and dreams into. It’s worth trying other things and sticking at it because you never know what’s going to happen.”
She discovered her agent Copeland after reading his début children’s book, Charlie Changes into a Chicken (Puffin). Steadman felt the agent would “really get my sense of humour”, and approached him by email with the subject line “Bloodthirsty unicorns”. He recognised that Steadman’s manuscript was special “very, very quickly”. He says: “The central idea was so brilliant. I was excited. And once I started reading and realised how well she could write, and the depth of the world she created, I knew this would be huge.”
However, Steadman’s experience with her adult title left her with “very low” expectations. She says: “I really didn’t know if anyone would like it, so I was very shocked. I’d been on submission for months with nothing happening, so I was ready to try to forget about it. Then a few days later the offers starting coming in.” Copeland says the response to the manuscript was “almost unprecedented”. He adds: “I lost count of the number of attempted pre-empts we had. The passion from the publishers was white-hot. This has since been matched by the response from foreign publishers.”
After holding several Zoom calls with interested publishers, Steadman was won over by the team at S&S Children’s, whose excitement about the book was “fizzing out of the screen. They had so many ideas, and their vision for the books and the series really aligned with what I imagined,” she says. “They were really ambitious for it in a way that was almost scary to me, but they also made me feel like they would look after me.” The first title in the series will be published in hardback in spring 2022. Steadman is looking forward to editing the book and settling down to write its follow-up. Though the initial deal is only for three books, Steadman has planned out five volumes in the series.
Pre-empts have been accepted in Germany, Italy and the Netherlands, with auctions ongoing in several other major territories. As a former student of Spanish herself, Steadman is “so excited” about the book being translated for foreign markets. She says: “It’s just so amazing that this book can be enjoyed by people all over the world. When the foreign rights deals started coming in, it made me unbelievably happy because it’s a new perspective on the book that you’ve written.”
For Copeland, the auction “helped publishing feel normal again”. He says: “Despite the pandemic, it felt like exciting business was happening. Knowing that publishers are ready to spend big money is incredibly important for the industry.” He believes it is also a sign that “the children’s market is very, very buoyant at the moment”, citing his colleague Claire Wilson’s recent “huge” children’s publishing deals as further evidence.
When looking ahead to life after publication, Steadman’s main hope is simply that “children want to read the book and enjoy reading it”. She expands: “I always loved the idea that children might be talking about it in the playground. If they’re excited, that’s all I really would want out of it, to be honest.”
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