02 July 2008

Tales from the Darkside

From today's Guardian newspaper, a story called "Painting by Numbers" by Emma John:

Last year, Tom Becker won the Waterstone's prize for children's fiction with his first novel, Darkside; last week he won another award, the Calderdale children's book prize. The talk among agents and publishers has been about his suspenseful prose, his great potential. But few people have been talking about a more salient fact: that the book's concept and story was generated not by Becker, but by focus groups.

The company behind Darkside is Hothouse, a London-based business that aims to give children what they say they want from stories, rather than what adults think they want. Becker's book was the company's first attempt at book-by-focus-group, and it is part of a successful supernatural horror series aimed at boys aged up to 12, published by Scholastic. In April, Puffin books launched a new series, Fright Night, also conceived and delivered by Hothouse.

Hothouse uses a market research company to put story ideas to children, who are observed from behind a one-way mirror. Using dummy covers, short excerpts and blurbs to prompt conversation, researchers ask the children their opinions on which characters, plots and ideas they enjoy most. Each child is also visited at home by a researcher, who finds out what kind of books they already own and read. Drawing on this research, Hothouse commissions a team of writers accordingly.
Some observations on this report:
  • It's interesting that the two projects to come out of Hothouse so far are both in the horror genre. The two awards that Darkside has won aren't the most prestigious in British children's publishing, but they also indicate that adult readers see Darkside as more than hackwork.
  • British newspapers no longer even try to set off titles of books or other works with italics (as in books and magazines) or quotation marks (as in American newspapers). Just a capital letter or two, and moving on.
  • How did Becker get this gig? On projects of this type, the packager usually chooses writers by balancing two factors: cheapest possible price versus proven reliability at delivering solid text on deadline. As a first-time author, Becker probably had the right price tag, but he had no track record--under his own name. He may well have worked as a ghost writer or editor, but I haven't found any mention of that on the web.
Two more Darkside books have been published in the UK, but Becker also wants to write in other genres. The focus group-generated formula might soon feel too confining.

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