Thursday, August 16, 2007

It was ten years ago today...

Ten years ago today I did my first-ever author event at the Edinburgh International Book Festival with another brand new writer. She, like me, was a trembling, whey-faced nervous wreck. 

'Hi, I'm Jo and I'm terrified,' she whispered, as we exchanged a sweaty-palmed handshake. I reassured her that she had met her match in the terrified stakes. Never, in my dreams of becoming an author, had I imagined I would end up onstage before a sea of faces - my idea of a nightmare. I'd only ever got as far as dreaming of a book with my name on it on a bookshop shelf. 

It was just a few weeks before Princess Diana died. The world didn't yet know but it was about to find, in that terrified rookie author that was Jo Rowling, a new Cinderella story to replace the one that was about to end so catastrophically. This was a Cinderella to suit the new millennium - one where Cinders didn't even need a prince; she could write her own happy-ever-after in an Edinburgh cafe with a baby buggy at her side.

Some months earlier, I’d been amazed to see book bins stacked with Phillip Pullman's Northern Lights, with dramatic posters, in bookshops. Back then, children's authors didn't get book bins. Or posters. Or a marketing budget, to be brutally honest. You were supposed to feel grateful to be published alongside the grown-ups. Things were about to change. Together, Potter and Pullman would transform this publishing backwater into a booming business that, nowadays, entices some of the biggest names in adult fiction to write a children's or 'crossover' novel. 

A couple of mavericks were behind the revolution. David Fickling was the pioneering editor who published Pullman’s His Dark Materials (a 1200-page epic inspired by Milton’s Paradise Lost) at a time when most editor’s had decided that children and teenagers only read books that were short, snappy and not too demanding. The original print run for Northern Lights, the first of the trilogy, was just 500 copies and sales were not much higher until it won the Carnegie Medal in 1996. Fickling took that win as the green light to experiment, stealing marketing techniques from Goosebumps, the hugely successful 1990s children’s horror series. Never before had a vast literary epic for children been published with all the pizzazz of pulp fiction. The effect was sheer magic: sales went through the roof.

At the same time, Barry Cunningham at Bloomsbury (then a small, struggling children’s publisher) paid peanuts for a novel that had been turned down by nine other publishers, all of whom thought Harry Potter too old-fashioned to appeal to the ‘Playstation generation’. But they were also into Dungeons and Dragons, the magical narratives of interactive computer fantasy, and still read Enid Blyton’s boarding school stories and mysteries, alongside Goosebumps’ pulp horror and contemporary fiction. Like Fickling, Cunningham saw a gap in the market and dared to be different.

Bloomsbury’s genius was in publishing Harry Potter in the style of a 1950s children’s classic, setting it apart from the ‘garish or gritty’ trend - and then to use Rowling’s personal ‘Cinderella story’ in their marketing campaign. So, while children were passing copies of Harry Potter around the playground, their parents were reading about his creator’s rags to riches tale in their newspaper. Something remarkable happened: a children’s book simultaneously hit the radar with children and adults around the world.

The phenomenal successes of Rowling and Pullman exploded all the rules about what young fiction can be - and how much money it can make. While publishers (naturally) began to search for the next big windfall, writers began to open the doors on their imaginations and create the rich and challenging fiction they now saw that young readers were ready for.

Yet, until a few years ago, it was still a battle to publish something that wasn’t reassuringly like something else. To write my book Exodus, I had to overcome publisher nervousness because there just wasn’t anything else like it on the market. Climate change had yet to hit the front pages, so my futuristic vision of a drowning world was deemed too far-fetched to have much appeal. It was only once Exodus became such a success that I got the go-ahead to write the sequels, Zenith and now Aurora -although I would have written them anyway, just for myself, because the story haunts me too much. (More than anyone else, I need to find out what happens to Mara and Fox!)

Now, a battalion of writers is creating rich and sophisticated novels for an increasingly ‘crossover’ readership of young and not-so-young readers. A lot of people have jumped on the ‘kidlit’ bandwagon, and some of it is stale and over-hyped - but never before have young readers had so many good and exciting books to explore. The very best combine great storytelling and characters with imaginative daring and, like all good fiction, raise powerful questions about the world.

Like Harry, young fiction has finally come of age.

(I was going to end with the story of Jo Rowling and myself being held hostage by a gigantic blue M n M - no, I don't know why - but on second thoughts, maybe not. One of those things you end up doing as a newbie author, just because a press pack tells you to. And then learn not to, EVER again....)

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