Sun 6 Jun 2010
[Today's post comes via the dizzyingly sharp Jennifer Ung, who once upon a time interned for one of us here at Upstart Crow (albeit at a different company). Jennifer has just returned from a season in England, and we thought her observations on the two markets well worth sharing. Especially fascinating are explanations of how, though united by common language, American and British teens are so different that teen novels in each market don't "translate" to the other.]
By MTV-reality-show standards, that probably means that I’m the go-to person for coffee, bagels, and general mind-numbing office work. I entered the interning realm thinking I’d end up doing tedious, unpaid work I didn’t care about but did only for the sake of furthering my barely fledgling career. Much to my complete and utter surprise, every single place I’ve interned at so far has treated me like a princess. And who am I to complain? I love being a princess. Especially one who gains valuable experience in possibly the best industry in the world (!).
Hyperbolic metaphors aside, interning at two literary agencies in New York City has given me valuable insight into this super cool, ultra close-knit community known as children’s books. I particularly fell in love with all things YA. I became the kind of person you’d find staying up all night reading the latest Hunger Games novel (ahem, ican’twaitforaugust!), or stalking the stories in the Publishers Weekly Children’s Bookshelf to discover new debut titles worth reading. I absolutely adored the fact that I could flip to the acknowledgments section of a YA novel and find the author thanking other fellow YA authors. It gives me a warm, fuzzy feeling inside knowing that I am pursuing a career in an industry full of people who actually love what they are doing—and even better, love the people they are doing it with.
I chose to study abroad in London this past semester with the intention of learning about children’s book publishing as it happens on the other side of the Atlantic. I interned at a well-established literary agency that works with many children’s authors and illustrators. Now, in comparing literary agencies in the US with literary agencies in the UK, I understand that I may have to make sweeping generalizations that may not completely and accurately characterize either side. And you should also know that my experience is slightly skewed by the nature of what I did at each internship—more YA in the US and more middle grade/illustrated books in the UK. But I shall press on anyway!
The business side of things at a literary agency is fairly consistent between the US and the UK. An aspiring author sends in a submission, and within four to six weeks, we respond with either a “Yay, may I see more of your manuscript?!” or an “Ah, sorry, this just isn’t the right project for us.” And if the unsolicited submission happens to receive a “yay” response, it probably takes another few weeks to determine whether or not we will offer representation.
What most people don’t realize is the sheer number of unsolicited queries that enter the mailboxes of all literary agencies. At the agency in London, we would receive maybe 20-30 a day via email. By post? Probably another 20-30. It adds up—especially when you take into account the heavy physical envelopes chock-full of sample chapters exceeding the page-limit we set on our website. It’s safe to say, however, that we take good care of all of the submissions we receive, and we do read every single one that comes in.
My job consisted mostly of going through those unsolicited queries and determining which ones to pass on. This was the common thread in all of the internships I have held. Once you get past the “mum”’s instead of “mom”’s and the decorative “u” in words like “colour,” working with unsolicited queries in the US is very similar to that of the UK. The number of people who make it through the slush pile remains unfortunately small, but aspiring authors should not lose hope—I can’t even count the number of times that I have come across a submission I loved and thought had wonderful potential but just did not quite fit the agency I was working with. It’s all a matter of who you contact, and a lot a lot a lot of patience.
What struck me the most about my experience in the children’s book industry in the UK was the strength of the YA market—or rather, the lack thereof. That’s not to say that YA is completely absent in the UK. It’s just that in the US children’s book market, YA kind of smacks you in the face with big name titles and six-figure deals involving vampires, fallen angels, dystopias, and the like.
Not that there aren’t several big-deal titles in the UK—sure there are—but none that create quite the hoopla that I’ve seen in the US. I approached my brilliant-beyond-brilliant boss about my observation, and she completely agreed. She explained to me that a lot of the issues that contemporary YA deals with in the US are not as relevant to teenagers in the UK.
For example, most teenagers in the UK don’t drive. They may get their licenses around the age of 17, but because of the high price of gas/cars and the high quality of public transportation, they often don’t feel the need to. Whereas US teens often have greater distances to travel and cars/gas are relatively cheap. While this may seem a small detail in the wide scope of a teenager’s life, it’s these details that make US YA very much US. I mean, how interesting would Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist be if Nick and his friends weren’t able to drive around New York City in the middle of the night? And what would have happened between Q and Margo Roth Speigelman if Q wasn’t able to steal his mom’s van that fateful night in Paper Towns? That is just one of many subtle and not-so-subtle differences between American teenage culture and British teenage culture.
For example, as my boss pointed out, marriage figures more prominently and earlier in US culture than it does in the UK. Attending university is more of a given for US teens but not so much for UK teens. There are not as many social provisions available to US teens (i.e. unemployment benefits, health insurance, etc.), so work and career and full-fledged adulthood comes much sooner than it does for most UK teens. Therefore, US teens tend to gain more independence at an earlier age. And it’s this culture of teenagers-who-kind-of-believe-they’re-grown-up that create such heartwarming and compelling coming-of-age stories.
But that’s not to say that UK teenage culture isn’t worth writing about. Teenagers in the UK undoubtedly have stories to tell, and equally tumultuous adolescent years. My boss also pointed out that UK teens are allowed to drink at an earlier age. So, while US teens are more independent in some senses of the word, UK teens also have to deal with their issues of growing up too fast. They just grow up too fast differently than US teens do.
My experience in London has widened my knowledge of children’s books, but more importantly, it’s taught me how some things about publishing are fundamentally the same no matter what country you’re in. The passion for books is still there, the excitement about reading something with infinite potential is still there, the drive to inspire a new generation of readers is most definitely there. And although I sometimes find myself questioning whether or not I’ll ever make it in the big world of publishing, there’s honestly no where else I’d rather be.