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Selling and learning in the USA

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Last week I came back from a trip to the US. I was joined half-way through by Deb, who’ll herself be writing about the Dust or Magic Conference we went to last weekend.

Arriving on the afternoon of Hallowe’en (but with a dinner appointment and jetlag that precluded going to the parade, in case you were wondering), I was in the US to see publishers. The key visit was to Candlewick Press in Somerville near Boston. They are about to launch their second season of illustrated books under the Nosy Crow imprint, and have already reprinted two of the first ten launch titles.

We were finalising the Fall 2012 programme.

I like talking about our books to Candlewick. Their comments about projects in their early stages are insightful and interesting, and provide a different editorial and design perspective, as well as a different culture perspective, that can help us refine books. Sometimes they even put their finger on some small detail that has been niggling us but that, in the rush of getting books to Frankfurt or some other deadline, we’ve managed to suppress. I find this process of refining through feedback is one of the great joys of rights selling… though, of course, we are talking about refinement here, not wholesale ripping apart and starting again.

I found them feeling confident about illustrated books and their ability to bring them to market. They were particularly excited by I Want My Hat Back by newcomer Jon Klassen, which has had excellent reviews from The New York Times among others. I brought back a copy for Axel Scheffler it has a dark and grown-up sophistication (though it looks very simple) that I thought would appeal to him.

I spent the rest of the time in New York, with a packed schedule of fiction appointments (Candlewick’s Nosy Crow imprint is just for illustrated books). On my busiest day, I saw 13 publishers… though actually what I mean is that I saw the heads of 13 imprints at four different big publishers. While there was interest in our titles to follow up with pretty much all of the publishers that I saw, I found many of them focused on Young Adult fiction, with an emphasis on dystopian fantasies in particular (the halo effect of The Hunger Games and the forthcoming film is much in evidence) and fantasies in general. Many of the children’s publishers I spoke to acknowledged that they were acquiring and shaping books for an adult audience. This is a dance that Nosy Crow, with our emphasis on books for children under 12, has decided to sit out.

It’s also interesting to be be reminded of what titles, series and authors are selling in the US. Many, many books work on both sides of the Atlantic. Recent years have seen a reversal of the “Harry Potter tide” of books flowing from the UK to the US as US-originated books and series – Twilight and Wimpy Kid in particular – have dominated the UK market as well as the US market. But it’s always interesting to be reminded of the differences between the two markets, which this list of children’s bestsellers indicates. Some of these titles are familiar to the UK market, but many won’t be familiar to many people here at all. I remember buying rights to Goodnight Moon for – let’s be honest here – a ridiculously small advance because it wasn’t known here and had been out of print for years. The same is true of UK titles travelling to the US: Jacqueline Wilson books have never really sold in the US, for example and The Gruffalo isn’t a fixture of as many hundreds of thousands of children’s bookcases there either.

The Jacqueline Wilson phenomenon illustrates something that I’ve found throughout my time selling rights: with a few exceptions, often for older readers (Louise Rennison’s books, for example), “real-life” fictional stories that are set in the UK with a UK vernacular do not often sell well in the US. By contrast, stories rooted in real life from Judy Blume’s books to Wimpy Kid do often travel well from the US to the UK, though real-life books for younger readers often struggle to cross the Atlantic in either direction: it’s a source of real amazement to US publishers that Junie B Jones and Ramona are little known in the UK. It used to be the case that UK originated fantasy sold well in the US, but arguably there’s less need for it now that the US is home-growing and exporting series by Rick Riordan and Suzanne Collins among others.

Other recurring topics of conversation when I was in those New York offices were the impact of the loss of Borders and the growth of e-reading. There were many references to the prominence of the Nook in Barnes and Noble stores, and an expectation that the launch of the Amazon Fire would impact on children’s e-reader reading, not only directly as children get Amazon Fires as Holiday gifts, but also indirectly, as older devices are handed down the family.

Now I just have to get down to the follow-up…

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