If there was an award for canniest publishing move of last year, Rachel Denwood and her team might be up for it. With an idea borne from the sales department, HarperCollins Children's Books repackaged Wuthering Heights with a Twilight-esque jacket, stamping "Edward and Bella's favourite book" on the cover along with the tag-line "Love Never Dies".
"It was really sort of opportunistic," Denwood admits. "We did it very quickly, it was a kind of no-brainer to capitalise on Stephenie Meyer's link with the classics. We got great support from the trade, and it generated a lot of heated discussion online, which was interesting." Wuthering Heights worked so well, to the tune of 20,000 sales, HC extended the range, rolling out Pride and Prejudice, Jane Eyre, with Tess of the D'Urbevilles due in April. HC chose these particular titles because "with Meyer, of course vampires are always popular, but it is the romance that is at the centre of the books."
HC does not publish Meyer, of course, but Denwood, who has been publishing director for fiction at HC Children's since June 2008, and I are talking about her because of the effect she has had on the young adult (YA) sector. "Three years ago, YA wasn't really a sexy area of the market. [Meyer's success] has shone a light on the category and, of course, has opened up a new genre. What it has also done is opened up more generic crossover retail space, bringing YA out of those teen bays."
HC does have some books already filling up those YA bays, with two of the UK's biggest selling authors, Louise Rennison and Darren Shan, while the publisher is rebranding Jenny Valentine for the summer. Denwood is also excited about what could be one of the monster hits of the year, the first YA novel by "Sex and the City's" Candace Bushnell. The Carrie Diaries is the first of two planned "SATC" prequels, following main character Carrie Bradshaw in her teenage years. "In terms of The Carrie Diaries, we see it as a core teen novel, say 16-plus," Denwood says. "But it's one of those books that will have a lot of crossover appeal, and I think you'll see older 'Sex and the City' fans reading it."
Bringing books out to a generation that arguably is more comfortable with a computer screen than the printed page means that HC Children's is on the sharp end of digitisation. It has responded with some interesting initiatives like the Amanda Project, a series for girls that first began as a social networking site and Enchanted Inkpot, a reading and writing forum for teens modelled on HC's adult site Authonomy.
Meanwhile, superstar writers such as Shan and Rennison have huge internet followings; Rennison, for example, has 80,000 registered members of her online Ace Gang. Denwood is promising a "massive" web campaign for the launch of TV presenter and DJ Lauren Laverne's "rock chick-lit" trilogy, the first novel of which comes out in May.
"Of course we are very content driven, but the online digital element is key for us," Denwood explains. "The important thing is we are bringing our authors into a space where they can interact with their readers. Our authors, especially in the teen market, are open to this because they realise that's where their audience is. And it helps us because we are able to communicate with these kids to find out what they are thinking about, what they want to read."
Denwood has come full circle, having been born in Hammersmith, a stone's throw away from HC's London headquarters. She has been in children's publishing almost since she began her working life, starting at Macmillan's Children's as an editorial secretary— "a role that I don't think exists anymore" — shortly after she left the University of Sussex. She spent six years at Macmillan progressing up to acting editorial director. "It was a great place to start," she says. "There is a lot of investment at Macmillan in the editorial team, in editorial talent and bringing it along inhouse."
She was not particularly looking for a role in children's publishing, but it was during the Harry Potter boom and children's was becoming "sexy again". The job at Macmillan turned up and she now says it was "serendipitous." She adds: "I love the variety, the depth, the breadth. And there is that challenging prospect of not being a consumer of the books you are producing."
Since she started her career she has seen changes in children and teen's reading behaviour. She says: "I think there is a degree of sophistication now, and there is much more fluidity about age ranges. We publish [Derek Land's] Skullduggery Pleasant, which inhouse we would think of as nine to 11 but we know that is being read well up into the teens. The packaging has become more sophisticated, as well. I don't think there is a teen book out there with a teenager on the jacket. To work it has got to be much more adult, more design led." While the vampire romance genre is still chugging along nicely, publishers are, of course, looking for YA's next big thing. Denwood thinks it may very well be the "snog-buster". In July HC is releasing Fortune, which Denwood describes as "a big, juicy read for the Heat generation. We are always trying to stay ahead of the trends, and we looked at the success of the vampire books and the key, again, was the romance. It is about offering those fans something incredibly escapist and glamorous." So, watch this space.