Last week I went to the SCBWI Masterclass featuring Rachel Hickman, children’s publishing director at Chicken House. She talked about What it means to be published – the good, the bad and the beautiful. Chicken House publishes 25 books a year and a small proportion of these are debut authors. It is there 20th anniversary this year. There are nine people in total working at Chicken House.
Rachel Hickman has worked with Judith Kerr, Roald Dahl and Michael Morpurgo. She grew up in Hong Kong and as a child was obsessed with pony stories. she spoke to us as both a publisher and an author. Her novel One Silver Summer is published by Scholastic in the US and Old Barn Books in the UK. She explained for her writing is a personal and immersive thing and sharing it can be tough.
Rachel revealed that the truth is about being a publisher is that they do not know what they are looking for. They want reinvented familiar ingredients done with distinctiveness. As a publisher she works for a worldwide market which spreads the risk. Chicken House is a bit maverick and tend to ignore the trends, weighing there acquisitions by instinct. The Chicken House list is culturally rich and selling all over the world. They think in terms of are they going to be able to sell this to oversea publishers.
She is aware that the gate keepers put there stamp on a book at each stage and at Chicken House they prefer to see the book before this happens. they want to find timeless stories that will not date in five years where lots of stuff happens with consequences, where grown-ups are absent or are unreliable or villains. The children win through and the reader is left with a sense of hope.
Children like detail, tasting what you eat – all can taste the Turkish delight in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. She believes all stories should have an element of humour.
“Humour is delayed fear.” (Roald Dahl)
The book trade is like a tide with new beautiful shelves washing in and a lot of books get washed out. The reality is many books are gone in a few years as there is no room on th shelves for back list. At the moment there is a slump in YA. Rachel advises all writers to write form the heart. If you are serious about being published you have to realise what you put in is disproportionate to what you get out at the end. Writing is a great way to dream but not necessarily a dream career.
There is no guarantee of being published. Publishers make simple decisions based on their list. If you are successful you have to have another book available. Chicken House are only interested in authors they can invest in rather than single books. Publication is not a reason to write you need to enjoy the process. If you write for a child or for yourself it will show through.
Authors in Common
Rachel particularly looks for voice – a distinct spirit or style that inhabits the story you write and breathes life into it. this is why she likes to see manuscripts raw, without the voice muffled. she also needs to see obvious evidence of practical writing skills such as being able to plot and edit. an ability to use words that will speak to the children and let them identify with the story is essential.
You need to have confidence in your story and believe in your characters. knowing who they are and how they behave is important. They are looking for authors with more than one story to tell. Chicken House expect there authors to write at least three books for them. they also like authors who can perform. It is not enough to sit at home. You have to be able to pat your head and rub your tummy in front of over 100 children. All these things effect their decision.
A lot of things come into Chicken House through agents, scouts and oversea submissions. They try not to be drawn into auction bidding and they are careful about showing they care too soon. There are two editorial directors an editor and a reader. Barry loves looking at manuscripts that have just come in and if something catches his eye he will pass it to Rachel and Eleanor, the rights director. they generally work form home and meetings are an ad-hoc process. they have scouts and oversea submissions.
It is a holistic process. They never publish something sooner than a year. Asha and the Spirit Bird (published 2017) came through the Chicken House /Times competition that asks for completed manuscripts form unagented authors. The shortlist is always one winner but 50% of the shortlist is usually published. Asha and the Spirit Bird was shortlisted for the Waterstones prize.
Rachel’s Tips on Getting Published
- Take time, there is no rush. Make your manuscript as good as you can. Solicit other views and take on board the things that resonate with your story. Remember they are just opinions. You need to use your judgement.
- Know what you’re writing, write form the heart and personal experience, know your setting and your protagonist.
- You do not need an agent. Chicken House run open coops where you can submit manuscripts. it is a one day event that is totally random. Sometimes they have a theme. The agents are a filter and will help you get noticed. remember they take 20% of your earnings. You need to decide if they are giving you sound business advice. A good agent will get you the best deal but not necessarily the most lucrative.
- Think who is going to edit you. Are they the best fit?
- The smaller the publisher the smaller the list, the bigger publishers have bigger lists but less time. Love the process of publication and editing.
- Think what the book might look like, seeing the book on the press and a warehouse full of your book.
- Travel with hope.
- Manage your expectations and sell yourself. Self-marketing is essential remember Waterstones only advertise one author a month. So you need to get at there and publicise yourself through schools and indie bookshops.
- know publishing is a level playing field. so many things can come form nowhere. Wimpy Kid started life as an adult humour title in the US. Your book may be small in the UK but it could be massive in another country, like Germany.
- You’ve got to have fun.
- You’ve got to be disciplined.
- You need to think about your title and your pitch to show you know your book well enough.
- Even if it is a series your book has to stand alone. Often a series can be because you are being too ambitious in the world building.
- Often beginnings and writing your way in to the story and will need to be edited at the end.