At first glance, the notion of adult authors writing for kids may seem like nothing new. After all, James Bond's creator, Ian Fleming, published Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, and New Yorker essayist E.B. White wrote Charlotte's Web over a half century ago. And just last month adult author Cynthia Kadohata was awarded the 2005 Newbery Medal for her first book for children, Kira-Kira.
But what has changed in the past several years, making the Kadohata novel possible in a sense, is the marketplace itself. Susan Aikens, a children's buyer at Borders Books & Music, refers to it as "the Harry and Sue phenomenon," for two of the industry's most popular series--J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter and Lemony Snicket's Series of Unfortunate Events. She regards the number of authors who usually write for adults penning books for children as "a positive trend," adding, "The more good books that are published the better."
Both series that Aikens singles out are proof of retailers' increased ability to move large quantities of hardcover children's fiction--once relegated to the school and library markets. Sales for Carl Hiaasen's first novel for kids, Hoot (2002), bears out that truth, and its corollary: that an author's children's bestseller can outperform his adult ones. Going into the holiday season last year, Hoot had sold more than 430,000 copies in hardcover, while Hiaasen's most recent title for adults, Skinny Dip, had sold 394,000, according to his agent, Esther Newburg.
"The commercial marketplace is open," notes Joe Monti, YA buyer at Barnes & Noble, referring to the advances paid to adult writers, so that they can now afford to write for kids. As an example, he cites one of last fall's children's breakout books by Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist Dave Barry and bestselling novelist Ridley Pearson. "You couldn't have had Peter and the Starcatchers six years ago," Monti says.
To find out just how wide it has opened, PW spoke with publishers, booksellers and the authors themselves. We should note that by "adult authors" we don't mean celebrity writers, but instead authors who achieved their acclaim because of their writing skill.
Why They Write for Kids
An elastic children's marketplace, which can find a home for adult authors and pay them grown-up-sized advances backed with similarly scaled marketing plans, may not be the only reason that some adult writers want to try their hand at the children's genre, but it certainly doesn't hurt. Little, Brown, for example, announced a very adult 400,000-copy first printing and $750,000 marketing campaign for James Patterson's first YA novel, Maximum Ride: The Angel Experiment (Apr.), which features a group of teen characters who were inspired by his four-million-copy bestseller When the Wind Blows. Nor is this the prolific author's first foray into writing for kids; Little, Brown published his first picture book, santaKid, illustrated by Michael Garland, last November. For Patterson, who has a six-year-old son, part of the attraction of writing for kids is to promote literacy, and he is currently in the midst of designing a prize for people and institutions that get kids reading.
Like many adult authors writing for kids, Carl Hiaasen has family in the target age range for his books: a stepson and several nieces and nephews. And while he's pleased to have written a book they can enjoy--sans the sex and language of his adult mysteries--he wasn't initially interested in writing for them, or for children in general. "I lucked out in a weird way," he says. "There was an editor from Harper who called my agent and asked if I ever thought about writing a book for kids. My first reaction was that she was out of her mind. Why would she want to expose the youth of America to me?"
Hiaasen's agent encouraged him to talk with Knopf head Sonny Mehta to see if he would like to see Hiaasen write a children's book for them. "Then it became a loyalty thing," says Hiaasen, after he signed a two-book contract with Knopf. Still uneasy about the idea, though, he included an escape clause in case the first book didn't work out. Hoot went on to receive a Newbery Honor (combined hardcover and paperback sales are close to one million copies), and Hiaasen has since completed his second novel, Flush, due out in September, with a third under contract.
Alexander McCall Smith, who was born in Zimbabwe and lives in Scotland, began writing for children before starting either of his two bestselling series for adults, the No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency and the Sunday Philosophy Club. However, up until now only one of his children's novels has appeared in the U.S.: The Girl Who Changed the Weather, which was published as a textbook supplement in 1991.
"I became a children's writer by accident in 1978," Smith told PW. "I was about 28 or 29 when I entered into a competition. On a whim I wrote a manuscript for children, and I won." That novel, The White Hippo, was published in England in 1980 and was followed by 40 other books for young readers. Smith, who has the rare ability to successfully juggle writing several novels at once--is halfway through a book that is being serialized daily in the Scotsman and has just finished the second volume in the Sunday Philosophy Club--plans to write one or two new children's books now that they are being issued in the States.
In the case of T. Coraghessan Boyle, whose readings regularly draw teen fans, the idea for putting together a collection of his stories for the YA market originated with his German publisher, Hanser Verlag. "To my delight," says Boyle, "my American publisher has decided to do the same thing." Although Boyle had final approval, he let editor Sharyn November cull the stories that will appear in The Human Fly in September.
Boyle is so pleased with both the concept and its execution that he would like to see more of his work repackaged for kids. "I hope that my publishers will want to do a follow-up collection. I'd like to see some of the wilder, more whimsical stories in it," he says.
Teens were already reading memoirist and novelist Joyce Maynard's books well before she wrote just for them. For her next work, The Cloud Chamber, which is being published as a YA novel, Maynard switched houses, moving from St. Martin's to Simon & Schuster so that she could work with a children's editor, Anne Schwartz (now at Random House).
"I love my adult readers, but I guess it's no coincidence that I began writing for kids when the youngest of my three kids was gone from home," says Maynard of her decision to switch genres. "If I had ever supposed that it was going to be a simpler matter writing for children, I was wrong. I worked harder than I ever have."
For publishers, there can be very tangible benefits to signing writers with adult-writing chops, not least of which is enlarging the market for children's books as a whole and bringing in new voices. "The lines are really blurring between adult and teen books and the range of topics and subject matter for teens," says Suzanne Murphy, v-p of marketing at Simon & Schuster Children's Publishing. "We're selling these books to adult book buyers, but they are being published out of the children's division."
Simon & Schuster editor Ginee Seo, who was recently given an eponymous imprint at Atheneum, agrees. "What an adult trade writer brings to the table is a built-in audience," she says, singling out Joyce Maynard's new novel as a book that is "moving and completely accessible for children" and which will appeal to Maynard's following in the adult trade world. On the other hand, she warns, "It doesn't do anybody any good, if we don't think the writer is a good children's author."
At HarperCollins, which has successfully published brand-name adult authors such as Neil Gaiman and Clive Barker for kids, the adult and children's editorial and marketing departments are accustomed to working closely together. For example, Michael Gruber's fantasy The Witch's Boy (Apr.) is not only listed in both the adult and children's catalogues but Harper created postcards for Gruber to hand out about the fantasy when he was touring for his most recent suspense, Valley of Bones (Morrow, Jan.). To seed the market, galleys for The Witch's Boy were included in a Book Sense white box mailing to all stores (not just children's booksellers).
Although Alexander McCall Smith's children's books are aimed at a much younger audience than Gruber's, Bloomsbury is still concerned about reaching out to parents and grandparents among whom Smith already has a strong readership. "I've been working closely with Pantheon, which publishes his adult books," says senior publicity manager Deb Shapiro, "to coordinate his tour and get him into kids' bookstores. It's nice because we're not in any competition with them."
Of course, few adult writers, bestselling or otherwise, have a following among children. That's why Knopf is doing a full-court press, which includes a contest to attend this year's NCAA championship, for John Feinstein's Last Shot: A Final Four Mystery, which was published earlier this month. "You don't want to miss those adult readers. At the same time, that name isn't going to resonate with a child," says Daisy Kline, v-p of marketing for Random House Children's Books. A contest announcement is printed on the novel's last page and detailed information on how to enter is available online at Random House's Web site. In addition, advertising for the contest recently ran in Sports Illustrated for Kids, USA Today and the New York Times.
Although the Feinstein ads are only for his new book, during the summer Knopf advertised Hiaasen's Hoot and Skinny Dip jointly in a full-page Times ad. "It was a cooperative effort, because we're committed to Carl," Kline says. To create even more pre-pub excitement among both sets of readers for Flush, the company is doing a contest on "Who loves Carl Hiaasen more?"-- kids, adults, teachers or everyone. Postcard entry forms were inserted in ARCs, and the winner gets a trip to Hiaasen's home state of Florida and lunch with the author.
Booksellers Weigh In
Publishers may want booksellers to cross-promote their books, but it's not always easy to find space on the shelves. "Generally we don't," says Jill Brooks, children's coordinator at Anderson's Bookshop in Naperville, Ill. 'The only two that come to mind are Philip Pullman and Harry Potter." However, for James Patterson's tour last fall, she did display both santaKid and his latest Alex Cross novel, London Bridges, which were published simultaneously, in the front of the store. "We ended up selling the exact same number of both books."
Monti at Barnes & Noble also makes cross-promotion decisions on a book-by-book basis. Since Patterson's Maximum Ride is tangentially related to Summer House and When the Wind Blows, Monti is planning a front-of-store promotion this spring.
For Shirley Mullin, owner of Kids Ink in Indianapolis, Ind., "Adult author celebrity is not a selling point. When Hoot came out, we just sold it as a good book." Nor do children's buyers like Alison Morris at Wellesley Booksmith in Wellesley, Mass., order based on sales of the authors' adult titles. "The numbers I buy are going to be more influenced by the quality of the book," Morris says. "I haven't read these authors' books for adults. I'm much more swayed by authors who write for kids."
At Borders, an adult author's fame plays a much bigger role. "It does affect how we approach a book: how we buy and market it," says Aikens. "You don't need to reinvent the wheel when a bestselling author is pubbing a book in a new genre." For example, she's taking a substantial position on Freddy and the French Fries (Little, Brown, June) by David Baldacci, and Borders will cross-promote it in the adult section. Baldacci has 40 million copies of his adult books in print worldwide.
Popularity with adults doesn't automatically translate into popularity with kids. "Writing for children requires talent, and children aren't easily fooled," notes Valerie Lewis, owner of Hicklebee's Children's Books in San Jose, Calif., whose biggest concern about this influx of books by adult writers is long-term sales. "You can certainly use an author's name to sell a book on the frontlist, but you can't use it to sell their backlist."
Can It Last?
For publishers, too, quality is key. "We're not mining the adult list to ask who else we could publish," says Nancy Siscoe, associate publishing director of Knopf and Crown Books for Young Readers. "To the extent that fabulous writers want to write for children, that's good. I'm never going to say no to a fabulous writer. But there are hundreds and hundreds of books by people who only write for children. I wish some of them got more attention."
Similarly, Andrea Spooner, executive editor of Little, Brown Books for Young Readers, is pleased with the attention and elevated respect that the children's arena is receiving. "I think it's a good thing," she says. "It adds to children's books getting more visibility and respect in the marketplace and the media. The only potential downside is that if the booksellers get to the point where they're stocking adult authors first, it may leave less room for children's-only authors struggling to make their mark. But I don't think we're at that point yet."
Will this trend continue? "Absolutely," answers Elise Howard, v-p and executive editorial director at HarperCollins Children's Books. "The territory has really opened up; advance levels have opened up. There are so many more opportunities. We are looking at a pretty robust future. I'm looking at our list through '09 and '10. I'm bullish."
It's hard not to be with a new Harry Potter on the horizon, along with children's books by Clive Cussler, Mike Lupica and other popular writers with big books set for 2006. The children's book business is starting to look very adult.