Covid-19 has "accelerated" the trend of overseas publishers being pickier when buying children’s books from the UK, according to scout Natasha Farrant.
Farrant—whose clients include Hachette Livre in France, Germany’s Carlsen Verlag and Italy’s Piemme, as well as production company Lime Pictures—said overseas publishers had already started to buy fewer books before the pandemic started, mainly because of budget concerns. It’s cheaper to publish local authors, partly because there are no translation costs, and local authors are more available to take part in events such as school visits.
“My clients are only buying books they feel really sure about,” she says. “They want to fall in love with a book and taking a chance on a book is even more rare.”
When previously books would often be pitched overseas at around the same time as they went out in the UK, now they are being delayed before being sent out. “I’m seeing publishers and agents holding back until they have a really polished manuscript,” says Farrant, who is herself also a published children's author: her middle-grade novel Voyage of the Sparrowhawk (Faber) won this year’s Costa Children’s Book Award. “If foreign publishers are taking fewer chances, you want your book to have the best popular chance of success.”
Overseas companies not only look at the manuscript itself, but wait to see sales figures from the UK, as well as reviews and any prize recognition. Having a film deal in place, as happened with A F Steadman’s Skandar and the Unicorn Thief—the hot book of the Frankfurt 2020 season, repped by RCW’s Sam Copeland—will also make overseas publishing deals happen more quickly, although that is rare. Farrant adds: “But even if there is film or TV attached, there is again more caution. They want to know who it has been sold to, where it will be distributed... let’s see if it will get made.”
The pandemic has also meant that publishers have pushed back books from 2020, and as a consequence “nobody is in a rush to fill their lists anymore. Their lists are full. They are looking at books for 2022 and 2023, so they are not in a rush.”
When it comes to trends, there is no clear pattern. “What I will say is that the same old-fashioned values apply. If a book is going to sell, it doesn’t have to just be good, but also fresh and original and different. Could this book only have been written by one person? Does it have the spark of talent and individuality? That is what continues to sell, and that’s heartening. It’s not about jumping on a bandwagon.
“Also, I’ve spoken to people in rights who say they continue to meet their target but with older titles. So as a scout, I’m keeping an eye on backlists and those sales figures.”
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