Sunday, January 28, 2007

What's With These Packaged Books?

From our guest blogger, SaraOC who works at a book packager:

"Packaged books" seem to stir up controversy whenever they are mentioned, especially fiction books. But as an editor and storyliner of packaged books, I can't help but try to show the sensible, steady and smart sides of the business. I came from a traditional editorial job into my current one, and absolutely brought prejudices about what kind of novels a book packager could make. Over the past two years, however, I have been constantly amazed at the talent and integrity of the people that I work with and the quality and variety (and fabulousness) of the books we publish.

As for how a book actually gets packaged, I can only say how my company does it. Book packaging is done differently by lots of different companies in the US and the UK, and I can't comment on how they do it. I should probably also say that all of this is my opinion and not necessarily that of my company.

How a Book Gets "Packaged" (more or less):

"The germ"
Sometimes the germ comes from the depths of one person's brain, and other times it comes out of a group brainstorm. We also have publishers approach us with germs of their own to develop. Germs can be anything from "something about dolphins" to a series title or even a fully fledged opening premise. Everyone at the company comes up with these ideas, and anyone can take it through the development process.

Sometimes I develop my own germs, and sometimes I develop other people's. We have an amazing creative director who has series ideas as easily as he breathes, and I love working up his germs. Usually, the germ gets written up into a one-page document for the next stage.

New project brainstorming
This is my favorite part of my job. We have a cozy conference room with a floor-to-ceiling library of all our books to keep us company as we discuss directions for the project to go, in general terms or plotting out the first storyline. There's a company policy that no meeting can last longer than an hour (hooray!), but occasionally we do get swept up in an idea and go on longer. What comes out of these meetings might look nothing like the original concept – which can be good but it can be frustrating. But it is such fun when someone blurts out something like, "What if he only has one arm?" and poof! A new character is born. (After further brainstorming, we realized that particular villainous character was only pretending to have one arm.)

All of our projects are built by the team, and we don't accept any outside submissions at all. The company keeps copyright on all the books and concepts because the ideas come from us.

Building a proposal
After one or several brainstorms for the new project, if the idea feels good and "looks like it's a go-er," the idea is developed into a proper proposal with the title of the series, the age range, a character list, a complete synopsis of the first book and short ideas for the continuation of the series. Our storylines are anywhere from 25% - 50% or more of the intended length of the book. The proposal will go through many drafts and edits until everyone involved on the series is happy that it's ready. This can take anywhere from a month or two to (ok I'll admit it) a year (and counting)!

Finding a writer
Once the proposal is ready, we start looking for a writer. We don't actually write the book in house, though occasionally an editor will audition for a series alongside other writers. We have a database to search through of writers who have contacted us. We look for writers who have interests that match the series we've developed and we also contact agents. Once we've got a list of writers to approach, we ask for a two or three chapter sample, to be based on the detailed storyline and brief we provide. For a new project we usually ask 5 – 8 writers for a sample. We don't pay a fee to writers for their samples, but we do give detailed editorial feedback which one sampler dubbed "a mini-writing workshop". We pay an advance and royalty to the writers once they are chosen. We work with unpublished writers looking to break into the industry as well as successful, established authors.

Finding a writer is my second favorite part of my job. It's truly amazing how each set of chapters are completely different and yet all based on the same storyline. Everyone has a unique approach and it's so exciting to read the samples and find the perfect voice for our new series. Once we've chosen the writer, we'll normally ask for one revision on the chapters and then edit it in house to complete the proposal.

Pitching the project
Once ready, the sample chapters along with the proposal document are pitched to various publishers by our fantastic managing director in the US and UK, in the hopes that we'll sell it. Not all of our series sell, but I'm proud to say that most do. Once we get a contract with a publisher, we contract the writer. Depending on how quickly publishers want to launch the series, we might sign up one writer for the whole series, or two or more in order to deliver on time. It's our job to make sure the voice of the series remains consistent.

Writing the manuscript
Usually, we ask the writer to take our synopsis and break it into a chapter breakdown. Then it's the typical first draft, feedback and second draft. Often, we only need two drafts, but sometimes with brand new series, we'll need a third draft (or more!). Then, we do an in house edit and send it off to the publisher for their comments/changes. Our aim is to deliver a ready-to-publish manuscript to the publisher. We don't have anything to do with the covers or the illustrations, though sometimes we're asked for a brief for the illustrators (hair color, clothing, etc.) It's so interesting to see how different art departments at different publishers handle the design. A confession: I do miss working with illustrators and artwork as I could in my old job, but it does make sense for us to be focused entirely on the text.

To be continued…
Our contracts with publishers are usually for more than one book, so that means that work on the different books in a series will overlap. We'll be writing up the synopsis for book 2 while book 1 is being written. Or we'll be reviewing proofs for book 3 while we're reading through the second draft of book 5. Of course, every editor is working on a number of projects (I'm currently working on 6 sold projects and 3 in development) so there's always something going on.

At the end of the process, we have high quality, exciting books that we hope make their way into the hands of young readers. So far, it seems, they do.

Our guest blogger, SaraOC says, "I left my dream job in kids' publishing in New York City to follow my heart to London. Luckily, I landed the boy and another dream job. I'm currently reading Jeremy Fink and the Meaning of Life by the fabulous Wendy Mass and, in my spare time, I'm learning to carve a totem pole from a block of mahogany."


Anonymous said...

Approximately how many book packager companies are there?

Can someone tell that a book has been produced by a book packager? Perhaps it is clear from the copyright.

Do you work primarily on chapter books and series? What is the age range of your readers?

How many persons are in your company? On a team?

How many books does your company average in a year?

Curious and wanting to learn more,

Anonymous said...

Oh, sorry...and

What about marketing? Do you get involved or leave that entirely to the publisher?


Anonymous said...

Wow! Lots of questions!

I'm afraid I don't know how many book packaging companies there are. There are very few who package fiction, as my company does. It's much more common for packagers to work with non-fiction or educational books.

The copyright in our books does say our company name, but I'm not sure if every packager works that way. That might not be a definitive way to tell if a book has been packaged.

We work on young reader books all the way up to young adult, and I can think of one of our series that has a passionate adult readership.

When we are building a new project, there is no set number of people working on it. It often depends on how many people the editor can bribe with chocolate to come to the meeting. Once a project is sold, usually two or three editors work on the series, with a "primary editor" responsible for the content.

We don't get involved in the marketing, or the book covers, or the interior illustrations if there are any. All of that is left to the publishers, though they are nice enough to ask us what we think.


Libby Koponen said...

Thanks for a fascinating post: I've always wondered what book packagers do. That brainstorming DOES sound fun!

I hope to be in England this spring (an old friend is opening the London branch of his law firm and renting a house on Hampstead Heath, perfect excuse!!! )And besides England is my favorite country in the world) -- if I am, maybe we can have tea?


alvinaling said...

I found this post so fascinating, because even though I work at a publisher who often works with packagers, I've never worked with one myself and had very little understanding of what they do or how they work.

I'm glad you found another dream job! Good to know there are more than one out there.

Anonymous said...

Libby, we should definitely meet for tea! (Though I will have hot chocolate, as even my mother-in-law can't get me to drink tea. :) )


Libby Koponen said...

Excellent -- thanks. I will get your email from Alvina.

I really did enjoy reading this post; thank you for that, too.

WriterForHire said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Anonymous said...

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