Harry Potter and the New Renaissance

No, it’s not an exclusive on the latest book from Ms Rowling. Sadly it looks like Harry Potter has finally outgrown his own series

And anyway no-one in their right mind would write a story about a boarding school. That went out with Anthony Buckeridge, Enid Blyton, Angela Brazil and Elinor Brent-Dyer, right?

Jolly Hockey Sticks, and all that. Just so last century!

Or so the gatekeepers would have us believe. And fourteen years after Ms Rowling proved that a boarding school setting for a book can scrape up the odd sale or two after all, the gatekeepers are still firmly dictating what will and will not sell.

Usually by the simple expedient of making sure it’s not available to buy.

But the digital revolution in publishing means the gatekeepers no longer have the monopoly on what readers will be allowed to read. And that means writers are at last free to write what they want to write, to target their own audiences, to find their own markets, and to prove their own worth.

A month or so back we were contacted by one of the biggest New York agents, keen to represent Sugar & Spice. Not that she’d read it, you understand, but the numbers excited her. Which pretty much summed up the reason why we had to send out the rejection letter. Call us old-fashioned, but we kinda think an agent could at least have read the book they are pretending to be excited about.

But even if they had, what really hit home was her statement (not a suggestion) that we could not write in any other genre “for at least three years.” We had written a crime thriller, therefore we were crime thriller writers. In fact, when we showed Ms New York Hot Shot Agent our WIP list, with everything from YA to dark fantasy to historic lit fic’ to chick-lit she pretty much told us to sit on the naughty step and not even think of writing another word of anything without her permission.

Thanks, but no thanks.

Had it been written at the time I would have referred said agent to Anne R Allen’s great post on the way the publishing industry has changed since 2009. As Anne shows, in the time it takes for a typical book to get from agency acceptance to the bookstore the publishing world has been turned on its head.

Quite simply it is a New Renaissance, where writers can write what they think readers will read and then let the readers decide.

Over the next few weeks here at MWi we’ll be exploring just some of the many ways writers are not just writing differently, but also marketing, helping one another, and engaging with their readers in ways the gatekeepers are still struggling to come to terms with.

The old tick-box genres the gatekeepers so loved have been among the first to fall. But in the new paradigm nothing is off limits. And many of you are pushing back the boundaries day by day, taking full advantage of the new freedoms digital publishing brings to prove the old gatekeeper rules have no place in the new world.

Leading the way is J.K. Rowling herself, who has turned the tables on the very gatekeepers who made her the biggest writing name on the planet. Ironically she does so just as her Harry Potter novel series comes to an end.

That’s the Harry Potter series about a bunch of boarding school kids and magic potions and wizard’s hats. You know, the sort of thing the gatekeepers said was unsellable.

Here’s teen author and MWi regular Charley R., lamenting the end of an era.

It All Ends Here… Or Does It?

Last night marked the end of my childhood. Sitting in a squishy chair, with a pair of funny black glasses balanced on the end of my nose, an over-priced Pick ‘n’ Mix in my lap and with my stomach doing backflips in my belly, I watched as the story that has captivated thousands like me finally came to an end.

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part Two.

The story has spanned seven books, eight films, fourteen years, and more money than I could hope to count in a lifetime. It’s made household names of Radcliffe, Watson and Grint, and allowed me to convince every small child I babysit that, because I go to boarding school, I can – and will – turn them into frogs if they don’t go to bed on time.

But it meant more than that to me. I grew up with these books, and one of my earliest memories is of sitting outside on a chilly evening in Germany, listening to my dad read to me about the odious Dursley family, and whispering the street name to myself. Number Four, Privet Drive, Little Whinging, Surrey.

To me, Harry, Ron and Hermione’s world was more than just an entertaining story. Hogwarts, like Narnia, Middle Earth and countless other fantastic worlds, became my second home through a childhood that was not always as pleasant as one would like. Whenever I was sad, I would retreat inside the story, and comfort myself that, at least, I wasn’t expected to keep my dignity when faced with Moaning Myrtle in a bubble bath.

But now, if the media hype is to be believed, it is all over. The last book is out, the last movie finished, and the actors and actresses who brought Rowling’s marvelous creations to life are all moving on to bigger things in the outside world.

Harry Potter is over.

Or is it?

Can a story, really, end? Is one telling enough to exhaust it? Is it just a fad, like suspenders and mullet haircuts, that, having lived out its glory days, will fade away until nobody remembers it? Will I one day walk into a bookstore and have someone say to me “Harry who?”

I don’t think so. Stories aren’t that easy to get rid of. Stories aren’t one-use goods, seen once and gone with a miserable puff of black smoke, vanishing faster than a house elf. Stories can come back time and time again and, whether it’s the first, or the hundred-thousandth time you’ve heard it, the ones you love will always kindle that little spark inside your soul. They’ll always be there, like an old friend or treasured toy from childhood, waiting to welcome you back into the world you have come to love so much, and take you on the travels with the characters who first enchanted you all that time ago, ready to vanish into adventures beyond your wildest dreams.

The last film be over, but, like every true classic – and yes, I think this is a true classic of children’s literature – it will never, really, be gone. I, at least, will certainly make a point of reading the story of the green-eyed bespectacled teenage wizard to whatever children, god-children or any other form of young friend or relative I may come to know in future, and I know I’m not alone. That’s what stories are for; for sharing and passing on the magic, for bringing people together in the shared love of a tale, whatever it may be.

The franchise has ended.
The story never will.

Thanks, Charley. Check out her latest post on her own blog, which is a rather stunning poem. Yes, this gal is multi-talented!

And yes, you did read right. “Because I go to boarding school,” not “when I went…” Charley is just sixteen, and one of  two exciting teen writers I’ve recently recruited to the MWi hall of infamy.

Charley says, “That’s what stories are for; for sharing and passing on the magic, for bringing people together in the shared love of a tale, whatever it may be.”

Which is why I love collaborative writing. Because what Charley says applies to writers just as much as readers.

Regulars will know I’ve been co-writing with the one and only Saffina Desforges for a whole year now, with tolerable results. You’ll also know I predicted a time soon when books would join TV as multi-authored, bringing together a number of writers to work on a series, book by book. A sixty-thousand word novel between four writers suddenly becomes just 15,000 words each. With four minds contributing ideas, and four sets of eyes editing one another’s work.

That time has come. Saffi and I have teamed up with the above mentioned Charley and fellow teen writer Miriam, on the first of a new series of YA fiction set in – don’t tell Ms New York Agent! – a boarding school.

NOT St. Mallory's!

St. Mallory’s Forever! is the first of the series, currently underway. No release date in mind just yet – Saffi and I have other projects also under way not least Rose Red Book 2: Rapunzel and the first of our chicklit mystery series China Town, and the girls themselves have a small matter of exams to fit in – but it’s progressing well.

The new paradigm is a new renaissance precisely because we as writers can do something like this, which the gatekeepers would never in a million years approve.

So far the feedback has been really positive. Everyone seems to love the idea of a new boarding school series, and the involvement of two teen writers, one living that very life, will bring authenticity and insight we could never manage on our own. And as you can see from Charley’s post above, both these gals know how to write!

So how about you? Are you taking full advantage of the new opportunities available?

Are you discovering other writers who are experimenting, or experimenting yourself?  

Tell us about is in the comments section. Or even better, come and do a guest post and give us the full version.

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  1. *blushes bright red* Being called “talented” still makes me go tingly inside *grins*

    Agh, that agent of yours sounds slightly revolting! I shall turn her into a frog at the first chance I get! You tell her!

    This is so exciting!

    • You should be used to it by now, Ms Charley!

      I should add for everyone else that I’ve just received back the latest draft chapters on St. Mallory’s Forever! from Charley, and at risk of embarrassing her further have to say they are to-die-for.

      I really hope we can get this finished soon so we can start work on the rest of the series.

      • Hehe, I never do, and I think I like it that way xD
        Gyeeee! I will die of blush overload!

  2. Another terrific post, Mark!

  3. I used to think it would be wonderful to go to boarding school, when I was, I suppose, about thirteen, and at the height of my enjoyment of boarding school books. My favourite then, and I still consider her a brilliant, witty, and thrilling writers with characters you don’t forget, was Nancy Breary. Yes, no one has heard of her now – another instance of the brevity of fame. If your planned series is a fraction as good as her, I’ll look forward to reading it! (Jennings was another favourite, at an earlier age – even Billy Bunter! And of course Angela Brazil.)
    What an interesting post.

    • Nancy Breary is so hard to find these days! Roll on the time when all these lost gems are in e-books.

      Billy Bunter,and indeed Bessie, were firm favorites, although the Greyfriars stories always seemed aimed at a more mature audience than say Jennings. I had the pleasure of interviewing Anthony Buckeridge some years back, and a delight it was, handling his original first editions.

      Writing my own Chalet School / Malory Towers / St Clare’s has been a dream since I was younger than Charley, and I’m really excited to be doing this.

      Needless to say our title St. Mallory’s Forever! is an acknowledgement of the great writers who went before, and by coincidence we may have struck lucky with timing. Ally Carter’s brilliant new girls’-school spy series is leading the way making non-fantasy YA cool once again.

      Gerry, I think you’ll just love what the girls and we are doing with St. Mallory’s, and we’d love for you to be one of our beta readers.

  4. Firstly Mark, how wonderful to have you back in circulation. I’ve missed your wicked words!
    Secondly… Charlie… you write articles the way I dream of writing. Sixteen? Oh dear little Spring Chicken!

    I actually felt a form of grief ensue as I left the cinema knowing that there were no more surprises left for me (unless you count Pottermore) at Hogwarts, and i am a LOT older than you. The sadness was so tangible that I finally turned to The Twilight Saga to see if it would be possible for Ms. Meyer to take her place beside Ms. Rowling.

    I’m over the MOON that boarding schools stories are going to rise from the ashes of mainstream publishing. There is something of Dumbledore’s most stunning phoenix about it all. Good luck to the four of you. Can I pre-order?

    • Thank you so much for the praise!
      Wow, that must have been some serious sadness – I read the Twilight Saga once and thought “Neh, I think not.”
      Unfortunately, nothing will ever really replace Harry Potter. But there’s still lots of other gems out there too, just waiting for us to hunt out 🙂

    • Charley a Spring Chicken?! 🙂

      The poor girl will never forgive you, coz you just know that’s what I’m gonna call her now.

      Have to admit I’m more excited about St. Mallory’s than anything else I’ve EVER been involved with.

      And knowing that we can go straight to our readers when it’s ready, and not seek the gatekeepers’ approval and then wait two years in the event they liked it, just makes it all the more enjoyable.

      Twilight is just a different world from Harry Potter. Fantastic niche writing by Stephenie Meyer, but never having that huge appeal that JK managed.

      Pre-order? There’s a thought, Prue. But would love to have you on board as a beta reader or ARC recipient.

      • Beta reader? ARC recipient? Yes please.

        And for the record and strike me dead if you must… I did enjoy The Twilight Saga. I won’t read it again like I will Harry Potter, but nevertheless I saw the charm that has appealed to millions.

  5. Thanks for the shout-out! And best wishes on your new endeavor. Four authors! It sounds like a wild, fun ride.

    Charley is indeed talented. ❤

    I'd love to guest sometime in Sept about the wild, risky, "unpublishable" novel I wrote in 2002 that was published first in the UK and is about to come out in the US–with a publisher who mostly publishes literary fiction and poetry, but fell in love with my over-the-top chick-lit/thriller, Food of Love

    • *blushes violently* Thank you Anne! That means a lot coming from you 😀

      Please exccuse me while I go and explode from Happy Overload 😉

    • The stage is yours, Anne!

      Four authors is proving great fun so far. And I have to say it’s the teen writers who are doing all the heavy work (not to mention correcting our grammar mistakes!).

    • Cathy
    • August 19th, 2011

    I read your description of the new boarding school series and started to get excited, reading faster to come to the order here button. Only to be sad to read that I have to wait.

    With a 17 yo daughter myself, the Mum in me says study hard. The reader in me pouts and says type faster.

    • LOL! Hopefully it won’t be too long. All too exciting for words!

      And the interest in this is just amazing. Proving yet again that the gatekeepers simply haven’t a clue what readers really want.

    • Miriam
    • August 19th, 2011

    Woohoo! I knew as soon as I read the first couple of lines that this was about us and I started laughing, prompting the French family I’m staying with to look at me very oddly (we’re in some random pub using the wi-fi).

    I love the fact that most fo the bestselling writers are the ones who were told it wouldn’t sell – because it was different. And that’s why people like it, because it’s different. So why don’t they publish all the things that are different?

      • Miriam
      • August 19th, 2011

      PS – is it all right if I work on a couple more pages? I’ll try and email them, but don’t know when I’ll be able to … don’t run away and write loads without me.

    • JK Rowling is the classic example, Ms Miriam. Her manuscript was turned away time and again because, said the gatekeepers, no-one wanted to read a story about child wizards in a boarding school. Not to mention it was far too long.

      Harry Potter broke just about every writing rule going. Nearly a dozen agents and publishers had turned it away as unsellable. And it was eventually only published in a tiny print run.

      The most famous example by far of the gatekeepers getting it wrong. But by no means the only one.

      • Keep in mind, though, that most of the time the gatekeepers are right. At least they were before the internet and ebooks changed the game completely, they were the perfect free-market model for finding and selling quality books.

  6. Great post.

    Agents have been the arbiters of what people can and can’t read for far too long. They’ve also been the bane of authors’ lives. Who hasn’t had an agent show interest in your writing, use superlatives to describe it, and then fail to secure a publishing contract for your work. (Thankfully, with e-publishing, a print contract is no longer the Holy Grail for authors.)

    One author friend had her agent tell her she had to re-write her book to make it more marketable. After having obligingly done that, the agent failed to secure a publishing contact for her and eventually dumped the author blaming the failure on her.

    Agents give the impression they can smell a best seller at 100 yards. As this post notes, that’s simply not true. Not only does e-publishing enable authors to connect directlywith readers, but it may also be the demise of agents. Hooray!

    • Thanks for joining us, Jake.

      But let’s be fair to those good agents out there who genuinely try their best and do a good job. Apparently they do exist!

      Our experience so far has been disappointing, to say the least, but we do hear of writers who believe they have great agents who are doing a great job.

      As David Gaughran has said elsewhere, the big agents may have the better contacts and influence, but are only interested in you when you’re on the up. The smaller boutique agents may provide a better, more personal service.

      At the end of the day the agents are intermediaries. They don’t make the final decision on you getting published, but until now they have been able to stop you getting to the publisher.

      I celebrate the demise of the agents’ monopoly. Some appear to have done a god job in the past but are struggling in the new a paradigm. Some were lousy through and through. Others seem to be honest and moving with the times.

      The main point is, we as writers now have options.

      • Demise of the monopoly is a good way to put it; monopoly tends to depress innovation and quality. The agents and publishers that survive and adapt in the new environment will be better at their core job: finding, polishing, and marketing good authors.

  7. @ George: “Keep in mind, though, that most of the time the gatekeepers are right. At least they were before the internet and ebooks changed the game completely, they were the perfect free-market model for finding and selling quality books.”

    Must disagree entirely there, George. They gatekeepers have a ninety per cent failure rate at choosing and selling books, quality or otherwise. That is, ninety per cent of the books published fail to sell a thousand copies. They are remaindered or pulped. That’s the official APP figures.

    What other industry would ever tolerate such an abysmal business model?

    The whole book business is shored up by the less than 10% of multi-million sellers that bring in the big money. David Gaughran has a great post on this:

    http://davidgaughran.wordpress.com/2011/04/08/changes-in-the-publishing-industry/

    Bottom line is there was no free market because the publishers had the monopoly on distribution and the agents had the monopoly on what the publisher got to choose from.

    But most importantly publishers do not sell books to readers. They sell to book-stores. Publishers have no idea what readers want. They just try to sell book-stores what the publishers think the book-store ought to buy.

    • This is true enough, but consider why it was so; until the internet and ebooks came along, it was the only possible game–not because the publishers monopolized the market (dozens of different large and small printing houses do not a monopoly make)–but because of the shape forced on the market by the needs of mass-production. A bookstore stays in business by stocking books that have a reasonable expectation of selling in numbers that make it worth it for the store to fill the shelves and open the doors each morning–and being able to return books that don’t. Period. Therefor, publishing houses had to be large enough to eat their losses.

      The needs of the market also makes publishers incredibly conservative; they simply won’t take chances on books where they can’t see a reasonable chance of selling enough copies to make a print run worth it for them. This means they pass on a lot of quality stuff, and they still get it wrong much of the time. But they’re not trying to get it right 100%–just often enough to make up for their misses and show a profit margin.

      Consider the alternatives available before now. An indie writer could self-publish, but he had to put his own money down and then act as his own marketer and distributor–a big personal investment in time and money. And bookstore owners weren’t that receptive to indie writers because of the wild variations in quality, the lack of track records and name-recognition, etc (again, they’re businessmen too).

      What other industry would ever tolerate such an abysmal business model?

      The publishing industry tolerated it because until recently it was the only business model that WORKED. Publishers sold to bookstores and bookstores sold to readers because that was really the only way to mass-market books and reach the widest possible number of readers in the first place. Now, thank goodness, that’s no longer true, but only because modern technology has caused a paradigm shift as profound as the invention of radio and TV. We’ll be decades working all the changes out, and this is truly an exciting time.

  8. Don’t know if you’ve seen this news yet. John Locke has made a very creative deal with Simon and Schuster. They’re going to handle his PRINT books only and HE has editorial control. From Publisher’s Lunch Aug 22.

    S&S Will Handle Print Sales & Distribution For John Locke
    Self-published thriller writer John Locke, who sold more than a million copies of his Donovan Creed novels primarily via Amazon (helped in part by the 99 cent ebook price of each series title) has found a large publisher to back him on the print side. Starting in February 2012, Simon & Schuster will handle sales and distribution for the print editions of Locke’s books under the banner of John Locke Books.
    The deal will allow Locke’s novels – the eight books already released, as well as newer titles to come — to be more widely available in brick-and-mortar stores (including independent bookstores.) Previously Locke had contracted with private publisher Telemachus Press for various services, and Locke’s agent Jane Dystel told us that arrangement has effectively ended, as “Telemachus will stop selling those books which S&S is distributing.”
    Both Dystel and S&S spokesperson Adam Rothberg confirmed that Locke will remain responsible for the publication, editing and marketing of his books, with Rothberg adding “as with all our distribution clients we work closely, especially in areas such as sales, operations, supply chain, so they plug in to the company at a lot of different areas.”
    Rothberg added that pricing for the new print editions has not yet been determined. It is also not clear how many print copies Locke sold through his arrangement with Telemachus, though one can safely infer the number comes nowhere close to his ebook numbers.
    Locke’s deal with S&S is, like HMH’s arrangement to publish print editions of AmazonCrossing titles, yet another alternative to the larger houses’ assertion that they will not split ebook and print rights, but will sign on for print-only distribution, leaving enterprising (and successful) authors to publish electronically on their own.
    “Not only does John Locke write terrific novels, he clearly knows his audience and has a deep understanding of how to reach them,” said S&S vp client publisher services Stephen Black in a statement. “We are very excited that we can now help to expand John’s readership to include those millions of readers who still savor the joys of sitting down for a few hours of entertainment with a traditional paperback book. It is a win-win for all concerned.”
    Locke added: “This agreement represents an exciting departure from the norm, and I applaud Simon & Schuster’s incredible vision, and their willingness to provide a vehicle that allows all readers traditional access to my books. I’m proud to be associated with this outstanding company.

      • George Harmon
      • August 22nd, 2011

      That is the kind of deal that every ebook writer dreams of.

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