As an agent there are always trends to be aware of and speculation about the next big thing. It’s part of our job to have a constantly updated overview of what’s bouncing and what’s going splat.

Most agents will know about up-coming ‘holes’ in publishers’ lists and the particular tastes of editors. How’s ‘gross out’ humour doing? Is science-fiction the next big thing – and what’s happening with the graphic novel? This publisher is looking for a girls’ series for 9+ and I know this editor is keen on edgy teen.

Agents collect this kind of information. We’re informed by the state of the market, publishers’ hunger for certain types of books, the individual tastes of certain editors and whatever our whiskers pick up on the wind.

Right now is a watershed moment for Young Adult (or teen) fiction in the UK –  the Stephenie Meyer effect. YA is massive in the States. When you go into a big Barnes and Noble in America it’s amazing how much space is dedicated to teen fiction – and how buzzing and active the sections are.

Based on the theory that in the UK we roll a bit slower than the US in terms of our big trends, we’ve been predicting a major growth in the UK YA market for quite some time. It looks like it’s now underway as more books in this age range are being sought, acquired and published by UK children’s book publishers. Even some adult publishers are starting YA imprints to capitalize on this development in the market. This trend will further gain ground in the longer term.

So we’ll be seeing a push towards YA on many lists and then a period of time to let things shake down, see what’s sticking and take stock towards a strategy for the future. The emphasis of a publisher’s list can swing and it’s an agent’s job to know in which direction the swing is headed. Publishers face a challenge to keep their lists balanced. Often you might hear an editor say that their list has become too pink (pre-teen girly) or too boysy or too heavy on a certain core group. “We’ve got enough young series but have nothing funny for older girls.”

All this means that in the book business we walk the line between what’s trendy and what’s not. It’s great when a stand-out manuscript comes to me at the right time to take advantage of a prevailing trend. But those windows are small, rapidly shrink and one can run the risk of launching into an overcooked marketplace. What’s red hot today could well be stone cold this time next year.

To start answering the question “What am I looking for?” I’d love a stand-out fantasy adventure for 8-12’s. That’s still the heartland of children’s books and tends to be my bedtime reading. And I’d also love some super-scary horror with very sharp teeth. I’m   really keen for some paranormal or gothic teen but it would need to have a strong, original premise to stand out and be able to punch its way through to the marketplace.

I’d love an adventure series for 8+. As a child I was obsessed with the Willard Price books – high-jeopardy survival stories. A cool, modern and fun take on that would be a great find. I’m also on the lookout for something laugh-out-loud funny for girls and the same for boys. Everyone is looking for funny, and the author who can pull it off is a rare jewel. I’m also keen to find a great series concept for younger chapter-book readers and a fresh new voice for 8+ girls about friends, families and feelings. I’m looking for these types of books and a hundred others. I know it when I see it!

While agents use the market to situate ourselves, it’s something else that drives us in our search for new writing talent. Right now, all over the country there are people spending their early mornings, lunch breaks, holidays and any moment of spare time creating stories. They’re on their own, tapping away at a keyboard and creating parallel worlds.

A small handful of these stories will become the new trendsetters, the new blockbusters, the new stand-out bestsellers of the next decade. Some chapters on a hard drive in a spare room, increasing by 500-word increments every day, will change the publishing landscape from 2012 and beyond. That is a certainty. And that’s what makes the business of books so thrilling. The chances are that these future supernovas won’t be bang on trend – the next big thing seldom is. It sets future trends. It doesn’t follow them. The next big thing is generally a big surprise.

The next book I love from out of my submissions pile might be on trend, before the curve or blindsiding me from out of nowhere. That’s why the slush-pile is my favourite place. It’s a treasure hunt. And it’s not a certain type of book that we’re all hunting for but a familiar feeling. The business of stories is an old one and goes back to dark nights, caves and campfires. It’s about hairs going up on the back of your neck and that feeling of being held in the web of a magical storyteller. That’s what I’m looking for and it has little to do with what’s trendy or what’s unfashionable right now.

Every agent can recall those heart-stopping moments when something wonderful comes in. As a child I used to metal detect. I can acutely remember that feeling when I dug up treasure. A hammered coin, an old belt buckle or tankard handle. I can remember the feeling so well because I still get it every so often with that first glimpse of gold in the slush-pile. It brings out the eight year old in me, and for a moment, my world stops turning.

Agents are hooked on this feeling. The buzz from spotting something wonderful, the buzz of seeing it develop further with guidance, and the buzz of selling it to the right publisher for the right price and watching a career take off, here and across the world.

So that first buzz? It’s found in a submission with a voice and tone that totally plugs into the age group, that speaks right to its core reader – the excitable five year old in me, the adventure-hungry nine year old, the spiky teenager. A voice that’s fresh, distinctive and that you could identify from a hundred paces. Think of the humour of Louise Rennison, the cool of Antony Horowtiz, the otherworldliness of Eva Ibbotson. Voice is the first hook.

Do I feel like I’m actually there and not here, reading words off a page? Is the author welcoming me into their world by showing me the action or the way a character feels. This allows the reader to occupy some of their own space in the story. I don’t want to be blocked from that because there’s too much tell. That’s no fun.

I’m looking for a confidently plotted story. If I’m asking myself “What’s going to happen next?” then I know I’m in the hands of an author who understands structure and plot – the tight cause-and-effect relationship that holds the tension from scene to scene. Am I gripping the pages with white knuckles? If the stakes are raised chapter on chapter then I probably am. What does the hero or heroine want most in the world? What’s blocking them and how are they going to overcome it – whether it’s whole armies bearing down on them, a wicked stepsister or a tiny flea on the back of a diseased rat.

If it’s a story set in London in the nineteenth century I want to feel the fog and breathe in foul air. Think of all the iconic settings in books, real or imagined. Hogwarts, Gotham City, Narnia. JG Ballard’s twisted London suburbs and the moors and the world beyond the wall in The Secret Garden. Each one of these settings is so evocative and an unforgettable character in its own right. Transylvania in Dracula!

I’m also looking for vividly realized characters. Do I know the protagonist well enough to imagine how they’d react in a certain situation? Could I guess what they’d spend their pocket money on? If I care about all this then I’ve made a new friend and my hopes are tied up in that character’s destiny. I want to feel part of their emotional journey as well as their physical journey.

If there’s a baddy what’s his USP? Would I rather get stuck in a lift with Cruella Deville, the Queen of Hearts or Lord Voldemort? In Celebrity Death Match would The Childcatcher be able to take out The Twits? The reason I can even imagine a fight between these childhood favourites is because they’re so vivid and well realized that they’ve never left me.

Finally I’m looking for a stand-out concept. I’ve just finished reading The Hunger Games, a brilliant YA novel by Suzanne Collins [Scholastic, 2008]. It’s set in the ruins of what was once North America. Every year twenty-four children from all around the continent are selected by the tyrannical Capitol to take part in the games – a fight to the death on live TV. When the heroine’s little sister is selected, Kat volunteers in her place. What a dramatic premise – and how high the stakes are right from the outset.

When these storytelling elements combine you get magic – whether it’s in a 5,000 word chapter book for five year olds, a sophisticated teen novel or anything in-between. That’s what I’m looking for!


Julia Churchill is the UK children’s book agent at The Greenhouse. Before this she worked at the Darley Anderson Agency where she built up the children’s book list.

Julia is on the look-out for children’s fiction for age five through to teenage.

 

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