Tuesday, 1 March 2011

The Next Big Thing

Following my last post, I thought I should have a stab at guessing what might be 'hotter than hot' in Kid-lit in the next few years. Not because I advocate writing anything other than the story you have to tell (trend-chasing is for losers, right?), but because precedent suggests it's bound to change the publishing landscape, whatever it is.

The web is surely the best place to hunt for nascent signs of tomorrow's 'Harry Twilight', and the opinions of readers are easy to find and always interesting. However, what people read now only tells us about the acquisitions climate of two or more years ago, which is more relevant to my last post than this one. The opinions of writers themselves are far more likely to take us toward the future, and those of agents even more so, but surely the nearest we can get to the publishing sensation of tomorrow is to look closely at what is exciting commissioning editors right now. Or at least at the things they have noticed are missing.

About two years ago the head of a British publishing house told me he believed 'young detectives' (think Nancy Drew/Hardy Boys/Secret Seven) were overdue for a comeback. Since then several editors have suggested to me that they feel the same way, and there certainly does seem to be a gap in the market. There have been close equivalents in the Young Bond series (and now Young Sherlock Holmes) and individual books (such as Siobhan Dowd's delightful London Eye Mystery) have been very successful. Character-driven mystery-tackling in its broadest sense is perennially popular (Artemis Fowl, Joshua Garcia, Alex Rider, etc), but where is the Red Hand Gang of the 21st Century? Either the 'group of crime-busting child/teen detectives in a short-text series' format has morphed into something else or it's been neglected. Few contemporary teenagers are going to want to read or watch Nancy Drew now, but is that because they don't want crime fiction of their own or is that because Nancy Drew is very dated and 70s cheesy (at least on the telly)?

The clichés and archetypes of the genre are well known: a dashing but flawed leader (with a dog), a nerd with specs who is the brainy one, and a fiery girl (probably with red hair) to stir things up and provide a dash of very tame sexual tension. Then the set-up needs a 'Something Else' that gives the kids an edge (a gift for disguises perhaps, or a rich uncle with 'access') while the writer must have a talent for slow-drip backstory and long term character development. Stir all this together and serve it up in a dozen or more plot-driven shorter novels, and watch the fan base grow and the film rights get optioned.

Or not. At the very least it's something to think about (minus the clichés, of course). But identifying a gap in the market is a long way from spotting The Next Big Thing, and as far as I can tell that publisher and those editors have yet to be proved right.

But what if the next hot intellectual property is already here? I've just finished reading I Am Number Four by James Frey and Jobie Hughes (under the name Pittacus Lore). The book -- soon to be a series and already a movie -- reads like a self-concious attempt to reboot a tried and trusted formula in order to generate a fresh publishing sensation. First wizards, then vampires, and now... aliens? Traditional Sci-Fi themes of the space western/Star Wars type are also conspicuously lacking in today's Kid-lit market place (I've long wondered why we don't have a modern teen take on Flash Gordon or Blake's Seven, and perhaps Nathan Bransford has too), but it could be that Pittacus Lore has found the right way to exploit them. Book one was published six months ago, and with five more planned someone somewhere is investing heavily in Aliens. Did I mention there's already a film?

So, er.. that'll be my conclusion then: the Next Big Thing in Children's publishing might well be super-powered alien heartthrobs who gang up to solve crime. Or it might be something else.

You heard it here first:)


  1. Damn! Done it wrong. Went for historical detective mystery thing and should have gone for aliens instead! Maybe not too late to insert an alien or two into Restoration London?

  2. Sue, you might just get away with it. Perhaps Pepys was really from Alpha Centuri.

  3. Mmm detective fiction would be an improvement on the "AIDS and Death and Divorce" type book a child once told me she was "sick of". Perhaps some of these didactic "social issues" types books will not be quite so popular in the future?

  4. An interesting read, Thomas. I don't know either but your suggestions sound convincing to me! I'm afraid I tend to write what I feel I want to, but perhaps I should be more aware of trends like this ...

  5. Cat, I think the key is how well the issue is encased within the story. A gripping thriller that also highlighted the issue of knife crime would be one thing, but tackling the problem by beating a child over the head with literature would be quite another.

    Nothing supresses literacy and love of books quite like a cold bucket of worthiness. I once met an aspiring children's writer who said she was disgusted by the way young people behaved and wanted her stories to give them proper moral direction. She'll never get published with that attitude.

    Simon, thanks. Writing what you want is the only way to do it with sincerity, but it is vital to keep abreast of trends, especially in children's publishing. Mind you, this post of mine is basically just waffle with interesting links:)

  6. I once wrote a novel about a teenage author who became the next big thing in children's publishing. But that book didn't turn out to be the next big thing either...

  7. I'd love it if it turns out to be SF!

  8. Nice try, Nick:)

    So would I, Kate.


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