One of the best YA books I've read in a long time is Being Billy, Phil Earle's story of an angry boy trapped in the care system, seemingly rejected by everyone. It's heart-rending, without ever being sentimental, and Phil pulls off the trick of getting the reader to care desperately about Billy, while showing us how damaged and difficult he is.
One thing that interested me about Being Billy is that it's contremporary realism at its grittiest. As a writer of contemporary realism, I'm all too aware of how unfashionable it is at the moment (one day I will share with you the horror story of trying to get When I Was Joe published. Not yet. The scars are still raw). But of course, publishing is a business, and sales directors are right to make hard-headed business decisions about which books they think will turn a profit.
So how interesting, I thought, that Being Billy was written by the Sales Director of one of the UK's big publishers. Phil Earle works for Simon and Schuster, he knows the world of publishing inside out, and he's there in acquisitions meetings making decisions about what's in and what's out, all the time. What's he doing writing contemporary realism? Over to Phil....
Someone asked me the other week why I haven’t written a Paranormal Romance.
Why, when the vast majority of teen readers are desperate for tales of forbidden love between a girl and a vampire/werewolf/fallen angel/corpse* (*delete as appropriate), choose to write Being Billy - a novel about an angry, abusive kid stuck in the care system.
Bloomin’ good question that, one that I should’ve had an answer for. After all, I’m only too aware of what is floating the YA boat at the moment, as I’m lucky enough to work in kids publishing.
Once I’d stopped kicking myself, I realised that the answer is actually a simple one, a response you hear authors give at many school events – write about what you know, write what you’re passionate about.
I love the YA genre, it’s what I read out of choice as well as write for, so I knew there was no chance of me sitting for six months on the bus, using my free hour of the day, telling a story that I had absolutely no interest in. It just wouldn’t happen. I’d end up playing ‘Angry Birds’ or heaven forbid, reading the ‘Evening Standard’ instead. How depressing would that be?
It does create an interesting dynamic for me though, as my job as sales director at Simon and Schuster demands me to think commercially so much of the time. There’s not always time for a lot of sentiment - I have to think to some extent, is there a market for this book? And if not, should we be publishing at all?
It was a stark realisation when I tried to imagine my own book coming to one of our acquisition meetings. Would I have been intrigued by the plot, or just have passed it off as something too worthy or niche? Would I have told the author to turn the kid into a vampire to tick the boxes that the current trend demands?
I know I wouldn’t, even if I thought it momentarily…after all, look at the number of YA novels that have gone on to be bestsellers or cult classics, despite being a ‘difficult’ sell.
Mark Haddon’s ‘Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time’ for example takes autism into the mainstream in a way that few people could, and what about Louis Sachar’s ‘Holes’?
Imagine the conversation in that acquisition meeting…..
‘What’s it about?’ asks the cynical Sales Director.
*Pause from editor*
‘Well, er, it’s about a kid who steals some sneakers and ends up digging holes in the desert as his punishment…’
‘Could he not get bitten by a radioactive snake or something…?’ sighs the Sales Director. ‘Or discover the jail is made up of vampires hungry for his blood?’
*Editor quickly scribbles resignation letter*
But that’s the great thing about the kids' book industry that I know, as there are enough passionate editors, sales folk or marketers who are prepared to see beyond the initial synopsis, to the thing that is really important in the telling of stories, and that is the voice it’s written in.
You can have a concept that no-one has ever dreamed of before, or a fast cash-in to a trend that is setting new records, but if the story is badly told, or without heart, the reader will see straight through it. And they won’t come back for more, no matter how nicely you ask them.
And that’s why I write the books I do, even if they aren’t in vogue. It’s because I feel compelled to.
It would be lovely if they sold well.
Well enough to allow me to spend more time writing and talking about them.
But truthful, passionate writing comes first – it has to, and I promise to remember that in our next acquisition meeting too.