Monday, 21 October 2019

Winning the Branford Boase Award - Katherine Roberts

Bored of Brexit, I was wondering what to write about this month to cheer everyone up, when I noticed Sandra Horn's lovely post (yesterday) about Henrietta Branford and her books.

Unlike Sandra, I never had the privilege of meeting Henrietta in the flesh, since she died the year my first book launched me into the magical world of children's fiction. But I have much to thank her for, since that first book - Song Quest, originally written as genre fantasy for adults - had just been picked off the slush pile by Barry Cunningham, who was then children's editor at Element Books following his high-profile acquisition of Harry Potter for Bloomsbury, and following publication it went on to win the inaugural Branford Boase Award.

Branford Boase Award
Apparently, Barry wasn't particularly looking for fiction at the time, so in some respects my ignorance in sending him my manuscript worked in my favour. After some sympathetic editing by Barry and editor Helen Wire to make the story work better for younger readers, Song Quest came out in hardcover with a modest print run of 1,000 copies to reflect its modest advance.

Element hardcover (1999)

When I was invited to London for the glittering award ceremony, I had no idea what a big deal this was. I must have seemed a bit starstruck when children's author superstar Jacqueline Wilson presented me with my book-shaped award with the Branford Boase silver butterfly set into the 'cover'. Since this is a first novel award, it also recognises the editor in memory of Henrietta's editor Wendy Boase who died the same year, so Barry received one too. Here we are, grinning for the camera. (The massive bunch of flowers did not last as long as the little book-shaped box, which still sits in pride of place on my bookshelf to remind me that dreams sometimes do come true - if not always in the way you imagine them.)

Barry Cunningham and Katherine Roberts
Branford Boase Award ceremony, London, 2000.

That was 20 years ago, and if you Google the Award you'll doubtless find several more "what it's like to win" posts by other first-time children's authors... but what happens after you win an award?

Obviously there was some nice publicity at the time, and the hardcover - which enjoyed an impressive display of 100 copies around the foyer of Waterstones Piccadilly - sold out. Element quickly produced a paperback edition, but sadly went into receivership before they could reap the benefits of selling it. Authors are at the bottom of the pile where receivers are concerned, so my share of a Japanese advance never materialised, and nor did any of the paperback royalties - an early lesson for me in the ups and downs of the publishing business!

Chicken House paperback
(2001)
Meanwhile, on the strength of Song Quest, I found my perfect agent - Maggie Noach, who ran a small independent agency with some high-profile clients such as Antony Horowitz (of Alex Rider fame). Maggie soon secured me several more publishing deals, including a contract with Barry's new company, The Chicken House, for two more titles set in the same fantasy world: Crystal Mask and Dark Quetzal. While Song Quest was being extracted from the receivers at Element so that Chicken House could publish the entire trilogy, she also secured me a seven-book contract with HarperCollins for a series of historical adventures called the Seven Fabulous Wonders. Quite suddenly, I was a full time author with a fierce schedule of deadlines to meet, at the same time being whisked around the circuit of school visits to help promote the books. All a far cry from working with racehorses, which is what I was doing before Song Quest got published.

Then, in 2006, my agent Maggie sadly and unexpectedly followed Henrietta Branford and her editor Wendy Boase into whatever afterlife awaits those who work with children's books... There's an old joke about a writer arriving at the pearly gates and asking to see what Author-Heaven and Author-Hell are like before deciding which one to choose. St Peter shows the writer a vision of Author Hell, where rows of authors are chained to their desks with flaming whips falling on their backs. Horrified, the writer asks to see the other place, where rows of authors are chained to their desks with flaming whips falling on their backs. "But I thought this is supposed to be Heaven?" the writer says, alarmed. "Ah," says St Peter, "but in Heaven your books get published." (I'm not sure what Editor-Heaven and Agent-Heaven would look like, but I'm sure editors and agents out there can tell us.)

Anyway, my glittering career as an author took a bit of a dive that year with the loss of my agent. But books never really die... they just change their covers. Happily, Barry had by then sold all three books in the trilogy, now known as the Echorium Sequence, to Scholastic in the US, and they produced the whole trilogy for the American market with these super fantasy covers:

 

The trilogy sold quite well in America and Canada, but eventually all books run their course and publishers need to focus on newer titles, and a few years later the rights reverted back to me. The UK rights were immediately snapped up by small publisher called Catnip, who produced this golden paperback edition with a cover designed by the same artist who designed the cups for a famous brand of coffee.

Catnip paperback
(2012)

Song Quest enjoyed a modest second lease of life in the UK, but a couple of years later the rights reverted again. Being agentless and largely publisherless by then, I had plenty of time to investigate the brave new world of ebooks and print on demand, which overnight made self-publishing (or indie publishing, since not everyone who takes this route goes it alone) a reality for authors, rather than an expensive hobby for those with enough cash and vanity. So I reissued the trilogy myself, first as an ebook, and later as a POD paperback, since younger readers still seem keen on paper books despite the rise in screen use. Song Quest now looks like this, with a cover I designed for the digital edition using my own mermaid artwork combined with stock images from my favourite design site Canva.

SONG QUEST
print-on-demand paperback (2018)
It feels as if this book has travelled a long way with me, from when I first wrote the story as a possible adult fantasy featuring blue-haired Singers who could control people's emotions with their Songs of Power, its winning the Branford Boase Award as a first novel for young readers, through its incarnation as a mass market paperback sitting on the young adult shelves of bookshops on the other side of the world, to its digital existence today as a book for young readers and adults who enjoy genre fantasy - digital shelves are more flexible than physical shelves so it can easily sit on both.

Why was Song Quest such a lucky book - to be picked off a slush pile by a famous editor, win an award, secure me a lovely agent, be internationally published, and still be available 20 years later bringing me welcome (if much reduced) royalties in its digital form? I'm afraid I still don't know! You'll probably need to find someone who has read the book and ask them.

Meanwhile, I'll leave you with the Echorium Anthem, which incorporates the five Songs of Power the young Singers of my fantasy world learn in their school of bluestone on the remote Isle of Echoes, and should give you a flavour of these books in case you missed them the first time around.



Find out more about Song Quest and its sequels http://katherineroberts.co.uk/echorium-sequence

6 comments:

Unknown said...

Very interesting to learn about the publishing quest your book(s) went on... and the long life a storybook can lead! As an Indie by choice, my knowledge of the 'trade route has so far been limited. Sounds a lovely trilogy.

Katherine Roberts said...

Thank you - it has been interesting to have both experiences, and it's always lovely when an older title finds new readers who probably weren't even born when the book was originally published!

Enid Richemont said...

Wendy Boase was my editor at Walker Books - tough, passionate and totally lovely. It was shocking to all of us when she died far too young (I was at her funeral, along with so many of her Walker 'family'.) I began my publishing career at Walker, with "THE TIME TREE", and met so many amazing people there, some of them household names.

Publishing's a bit like being in a game of Snakes and Ladders. You work your butt off to get to the top of the Ladder, but the view when you get there is mind-boggling. However, waiting close by is the Snake, with its mouth wide open, and the inside of its black belly is not a good place to be.

I've never seriously committed to the Indie route, but have re-published many of my out-of-print titles as ebooks, just to keep them alive. And "THE TIME TREE" was recently adapted for a short movie which has already featured in four prestigious festivals, three of them in the States. I have to admit I dislike the adaptation, but it's something.

Katherine Roberts said...

That's great news, Enid! So far, none of my books have been adapted for any sort of movie or TV, though Disney did read 'Song Quest' when it first come out... so one day, maybe!

Umberto Tosi said...

Congratulations on the continuing successes of "Song Quest," and thanks for reminding us that a fine book can have as many or more lives than a cat.

Katherine Roberts said...

Ha, yes, nine lives! I think Song Quest is currently on life number five...