Friday, May 05, 2006

Book packaging in the UK

Way, way back, at the start of the Kaavya business, I made a comment to the effect that I didn’t think there was a UK equivalent of the US 17th Street book-packaging company.

The company structure is complicated, but 17th Street seems to be a subsidiary of Alloy Entertainment, a company which has other embodiments and alliances as well: e.g. 360 Youth. Alloy is certainly involved in the development of TV Shows (e.g. Roswell High) and films (e.g. The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants).

What 17th Street does, basically, is manufacture books -- textually speaking -- according to a template which is decided in association with a publisher. Lizzie Skurnick gave a good description of the process in an interview with the Harvard Independent.

A writer may come into the packager's office with an idea for a series of books. The packager polishes it all up and sells, let’s say, the first six of the series to a publisher. If these do well, the publisher may order twelve more, but will require changes. The characters must move to Hollywood. Or they must become time travellers. Or whatever. Additional writers are then recruited to manufacture these further books, and they are published at one a month. Such a series can go on more or less for ever.

According to a claim on the 360 Youth web site, Alloy Entertainment is smart enough at the packaging business to have had three books at one time in the New York Times children's bestsellers list: You're the One that I Want by Cecily von Ziegesar, Blonde Ambition by Zoey Dean, and The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants by Ann Brashares. (Anne Brashares? Who does she share with?) Anyway, back to the point: in 2005, 17 of Alloy's books reached the NYT bestseller lists.

This process sounds, even from the outside, to be somewhat industrial and impersonal. And we have at least two accounts of how things can go wrong, at least from the viewpoint of some participants. John Barlow wrote it up in Slate, and the New York Observer has an article by Sheelah Kolhatkar (link from Galleycat).

In my original comment, I said that I didn't know of any UK equivalent to this kind of operation; and I suggested that, for one thing, the UK market is not really big enough to support mass-market series of this kind.

Well, it’s a bit late in the day, but I thought I had better have a look and see what UK book packagers actually have to say for themselves. And I used as the basis of my research the 2006 edition of The Writer’s Handbook.

What I discovered is that the book-packaging business is alive and well in the UK, but I seem to have been right when I suggested that fiction is not really a major interest. The Writer’s Handbook lists nearly forty firms. These vary in size from one-man/woman businesses to firms with a claimed turnover of £10 million a year.

Nearly all of these firms deal in non-fiction, often illustrated, and often aimed at children. Judging by the evidence here, there can be relatively few children’s books published in the UK which are not produced by packagers. And, when you think about it, I suppose that figures. Such books require a wide range of expertise and skills, involving writers, illustrators, photographers, designers, and so forth. It makes perfect sense for publishers to buy such a product ready made, rather than have to faff about putting it all together themselves.

Nearly all the UK book packaging firms say firmly that they do not deal in fiction. And I could find only one which specialises in fiction: this is Working Partners Ltd., dealing in ‘quality mass-market children’s fiction for leading children’s publishers’. The firm has a list of clients including all the big names, and the range goes from ‘first chapter books to young adult.'

The really interesting thing, however, is that Working Partners are intending to expand into a new area. ‘In 2006 Working Partners Two was formed to develop book ideas and to establish a network of writers to emulate the children’s success in the arena of adult fiction.’

If you’re interested, the Working Partners site has a page for writers, and you can download a form to fill in so that they can decide if they’re interested in you.

Hmm. Intriguing. A case of Watch this space, perhaps.


Anonymous said...

Your insight into the publishing world remains fascinating. I've enjoyed reading about this segment of packaging and packagers within the industry. I'm wondering (and you may have commented on this earlier, so please excuse if I'm rehashing), but is this not the same sort of commercialism of writing as practiced by many other publishing groups (e.g., the Stratemeyer Syndicate, which produced, and continues producing, many serial books for young people in the United States) throughout the 20th century?

It seems the main difference is that nowadays, such syndicates are producing product for all age groups, not simply for young folk. This seems to tie in with the notion that at least some portions of society are experiencing greater amounts of leisure time, and will seek to fill it with the reading of published materials, as opposed to pursuing other interests or other media.

If one analyzes the different segments of the book market to glean an overall understanding of the trade, i.e., children’s picture books, (even those geared "to the trade") we see that often they, too, adhere to rigid metrics regarding page count, line length, word choice, and so forth.

The picture emerges that this, indeed, may be simply the way things are. Business and all that. Of course, exceptions exist, but generally...

Also, your link to the young Manhattan editor who keeps a LiveJournal blog was an especially inspired choice to include.

Martin said...

But how on Earth do book packagers make any money? You tell us there's no money in fiction, and yet, here's a new (to me) middleman who of course wants a share of the proceeds as well.

Anonymous said...

There may not be independent book packagers in the UK doing this kind of fiction, but most children's publishers have very successful series that are put together in exactly the same way: Animal Ark comes to mind, but there are plenty of others.

Martin said...

It occurred to me that "Book Packaging in the UK" may have been an early working title of a Sex Pistols song.

Anonymous said...

An organisation like Working Partners is like a house of commercially minded authors who examine the market and think about what might sell well and would appeal to a mass audience. As with all publishing, there's money if you are lucky/ talented enough to create something that is a bestseller but otherwise, true there's little money in it. Given their knowledge of the market combined with the ability to create a decent 'package' and the the number of titles that they bring to the market, I think they do make money.
While this type of fiction isn't necessarily literary quality fiction, it isn't too bad and encourages reading as a whole, which isn't a bad thing.

Oh, and there's also Hothouse Fiction who create fiction titles, mostly for children. One of their authors penned Darkside, winner of the Waterstone's Prize

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