22 May, 2007

What publishers want from writers and illustrators of children’s books

The Gauteng region of the SCBWI discussed the topic What publishers want … at its meeting on 8 May at Sandton library. Margaret Houliston, Sandton Librarian, kindly hosted the meeting which was held in the auditorium. Jenny Hatton chaired the meeting which was attended by 34 interested writers, illustrators and other children’s book people.

Children’s book publishers from Gauteng introduced themselves and briefly described the types of books they publish. They outlined some common mistakes made by illustrators and writers when submitting their work and gave some very welcome tips to the participants.

Russell Clark, project editor from Jacana Media, one of South Africa’s fastest-growing independent publishers, focused on the need for books with a South African focus as well as on books for newly-literate readers.

Jacana is proud of the fact that it publishes what it likes. It began as an ecological publisher. Approximately 70% of their books are non-fiction. Jacana often commissions titles and therefore prefers authors and illustrators to submit proposals. They receive many unsolicited manuscripts and very seldom publish any of these.
Russell outlined some problems that they experience. One of these has to do with writing levels. Often writers use language that is too difficult for children or they mix levels. He stressed the challenge of writing for children. He suggested that it may be useful to have a small age bracket as the target group. In addition, he asked that writers and illustrators not adopt a European viewpoint. There is a great demand for non-fiction and Russell said he’d circulate a list of topics on which books are often requested by users of Cape Town libraries. He suggested that in certain circumstances, it could be useful for writers and illustrators to develop books together. Finally, Russell mentioned Jacana’s role with regard to innovative, original, fresh books and used the word “edgy” to describe what they may consider publishing. Some tips he gave included:
* Develop a clear concept for your book.
* Put together a proposal and submit it.
* Keep your target group in mind.
* Limit the age bracket for which you’re writing.
* Don’t ignore non-fiction.
* Keep your language level consistent for the target group.
* Do not patronise your audience.
* Write from an African perspective.
For more information about Jacana visit www.jacana.co.za.

Miemie du Plessis, head of the children’s book department at LAPA Publishers in Pretoria, is responsible for the publication and marketing of approximately 70 children’s books per year. About half of these are co-editions with mostly UK publishers. Her focus is on Afrikaans books and fiction titles. However, Lapa also publishes English books if they are South African and distinctly local in content, and they do also publish non-fiction titles.

Miemie truly believes that books can make a difference in the lives of children and is therefore committed to the establishment of a reading culture amongst the children of South Africa. Miemie began her talk quoting the distressing statistic that 5 % of South Africans are book buyers! On top of that she feels that reading skills are worsening day by day.

Miemie’s main focus is on the market, namely the children who read Lapa’s books. Therefore, she goes to schools and listens to what children have to say about books. She also pays children to review books and adapts these according to the information she gets back from the target group. Books must be entertaining. Therefore, they must be “fun, fun, fun” !

Miemie indicated that her focus is the text. If she gets a good text, then she can commission illustrations. She prefers to get advice about illustrations, font etc from experts. She gets lots of poor manuscripts and stressed the importance of quality. Lapa sometimes commissions writers to develop stories on particular topics. She addressed the problem of authors not knowing the market. Miemie does not have hard and fast rules about length of text etc. If the story is gripping enough, if it is “fun”, then she is interested. She suggested that authors and illustrators should:
* Carry out research into the market.
* Read books for the age group.
* Identify popular genres and gaps in the market.
* Write credible dialogue.
* Develop interesting plots and characters.
* Take a new approach.
* Read your story aloud and listen to how it sounds.
For more information, visit http://www.lapa.co.za

Jonathan Williams, of Pan Macmillan, manages the publishing process for all of Pan Macmillan’s local imprints. This includes books for children and adults, fiction and non-fiction. In the last four months he has been covering for Pan’s children’s publisher Lara Cohen, who is on extended maternity leave.

Jonathan focused on Pan’s three main lists. Giraffe books are illustrated 32 page, high quality books for children between the ages of 4 and 10. They are translated into 13 different languages (South Africa’s 11 official languages as well as Portuguese and Lesotho’s Sesotho) and comprise fiction and non-fiction titles. The list of Giraffe publications is very small. Their other two lists include General books and Takalani Sesame Street books. The last list comprises books that are curriculum based. They must show how they cover the South African curriculum as well as be approved by the American franchise holder. They often commission known authors to write for them.

Jonathan identified with the two previous speakers regarding the quality of manuscripts. He can tell if a book is worth looking at within about 10 minutes. He stressed the need for writers and illustrators to carry out thorough research. They should remember that publishing is a business. Books which do not meet their needs or which cannot be marketed, will not be published. They don’t have the manpower to rework books. He said:
* Research the market.
* Motivate why a book should be published (include a proposal).
* Know what books are on Pan’s lists.
* Be a step ahead of the publishers with regard to the market.
* Try to work out what the trends are with regard to books on the market.
* Keep “issues” in mind.
* Keep a South African or African focus.
* Bear the rural and urban audiences in mind.
* Submit the text and illustrations together.
* Think about the space needed for translations (for example, Tshivenda may take up to 2 ½ times the space taken by English text).
* Keep writing level consistent.
* Bear in mind that reading age and the child’s age may differ.
* Learn to promote books.

What was particularly interesting was that each publisher has a slightly different philosophy and focus. Although they may sometimes be in competition, they may also publish together occasionally. All the publishers had both educational and trade publications. All the publishers were concerned about costs and keeping these down

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