Q&A with Barry Cunningham, MD of Chicken House Ltd, Publisher, Agent and Discoverer of Harry Potter

barrycunninghamQ. In your talk at the September meeting of the Hampshire Writers’ Society, you told us that a writer’s voice is important to an Agent/Publisher. To save a writer many painful rejections from targeting the wrong agents – how would they know if their voice is that of a children’s writer? Is there a checklist of things that the writing must or mustn’t have?

A. I THINK THIS IS ALL TO DO WITH BEING ABLE TO ‘ACCESS’ YOUR SUBJECT. IF YOU SET OUT TO WRITE FOR CHILDREN THEN TRY AND FIND THE VOICE APPROPRIATE TO THE AGE GROUP YOU ARE AIMING AT – IF IT COMES EASILY – GREAT – IF IT DOESN’T THEN YOU’LL KNOW THAT CHILDREN’S BOOKS ARE NOT FOR YOU!chickenhouselogoQ. Similarly, as an Agent how would you know if what has been submitted is a teen or a YA? Do you think that there are any taboos? Or ‘must haves’?

A. NO – BUT MAINLY SEXUAL CONTENT AND SWEARING IS FOR YA – IT SHOULD ALWAYS BE HANDLED CAREFULLY

Q. The lines between children’s, teen and YA are very blurred – can you outline them for us?

A. THE SAFEST AREA FOR MOST GENERAL APPEAL IS ‘CLEAN TEEN’ WITHOUT EXPLICIT MATERIAL – THE OLDER EDGES OF YA MERGE WITH ADULT AND SHOULD BE HANDLED POSITIVELY AND WITH CARE

Q. How should a children’s author writing a trilogy or series go about submitting?

A. SAMPLE MATERIAL AND A SYNOPSIS OF HOW ALL BOOKS IN SERIES/TRILOGY ARE GOING TO WORK WITH A CLEAR OVERALL PLOT LINE

Q. And what about their commitment – should they finish book one and sell it before starting book two?inkheartA. NO – ACTUALLY BEST TO HAVE BOOK 2 IN PROGRESS – BE CONFIDENT!

Q. Advice is to ‘write what you love’. Simon Trewin of WME said ‘don’t even think of publishing until your book is finished.’ The Writers and Artists Yearbook advises us that when you come to submitting, first decide on a genre. Shouldn’t we decide on a genre first, saving ourselves a lot of heart ache and work? And that brings me back to question one!

A. NO – GENRE IS NOT SPECIFIC – YOU SHOULD WAIT UNTIL THE BOOK IS WELL UNDERWAY – THE GENRE BOUNDARIES SLIP ALL THE TIME AND ARE LARGELY WHAT THE MARKET/PUBLISHER WANTS THEM TO BEblack-powder-aw-2-195x3001

Barry Cunningham, Managing Director of Chicken House Publishers and discoverer of Harry Potter.

barrycunningham‘Children’s publishing is going through a second Golden Age.’ BARRY CUNNINGHAM announced.

The children’s writers of the past, Roald Dahl and Spike Milligan to name two of Barry’s conquests, knew how to get inside a child’s head, but also when to accept that the adult knew best.

These days children as readers are much more respected. 36% of all book sales are children’s books. Over half of Young Adult books are bought by adults. 78% of these for their own reading satisfaction. What does that tell you about adult’s books? Publishers and writers both need to listen and respond to the requirements of their target market.

‘Publishing a book is very different from saying whether it is well written.’ he says. Barry stated that his job as a publisher is to find readers for his writers’ books. And if he isn’t able to find those readers, he won’t take on that book.

Ally Sherrick, one of Chicken House’s debut authors, entered the SCBWI 10 word pitch competition and answered correctly. Further reading of Ally’s draft gave Barry the idea of Ally’s ‘voice’. This is what captures the publisher/agent’s attention.black-powder-aw-2-195x3001

‘Access the child in you,’ he advises, ‘Go back and feel how you felt then.’ Play tricks with narrative.

Villains, whether that be the villainous situation or as an actual person is the most important character. Heroes come and go. ‘Harry is not as important as Voldemort.’

Dialogue is also important. Use it rather than description to show key moments.

For Barry, planning is precious. He has one writer who has killed off the same character twice! ‘Even so, she’s very successful’, he said. Perhaps chose to plan by listing your characters. You will have lots of information that may not go into the book, but it is important stuff to write down as reference that the writer needs to know.

Read your work aloud – this shows you where the weaknesses are.

When you submit your work, take a look at the writers already represented by your chosen agent. And compliment them! Do as you’re told.

Barry is exasperated that there are still some writers who don’t send 3 chapters, a synopsis and covering letter. Make the synopsis short – one side of A4 will do. Agents read hundreds of synopses. Tell the agent something about yourself ‘Perhaps not that you’re a motorcycling vicar.’ he says, but ‘what you have planned for your character’.

Everyone wants to know about book 2. Barry didn’t suggest that there might not be one.

Use the Publisher/Agents website. Here you’ll find details of competitions and open days.chickenhouselogo

The children’s market is fiercely competitive. But it is still an industry that does dreams. Chicken House relishes finding new voices and ‘if it is good enough, children will follow you through the back of the wardrobe’.