Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Behind the Books: Who Wrote that Book?

Last July, I had the pleasure of speaking at the League of Vermont Writers’ conference in West Dover, VT. In my personal and professional lives, I always strive to see ideas and situations from other people’s points of view and doing just that allowed me to have a surprising insight at this conference.

In one session, an adult fiction writer lamented about how much easier it was for nonfiction writers to create a “platform.” According to her, it’s a given in the adult writing world that it’s much, much easier to gain name recognition if you write nonfiction.


I looked around the room and saw many people nodding their heads in agreement.

Double huh?

The discussion then went in a direction that was completely foreign, completely startling to me. How, I wondered, could things be so different in adult publishing and kids publishing?

I don’t have enough fingers and toes to count the times I’ve had the exact opposite conversation with my children’s nonfiction writer colleagues. From our point of view, fiction writers like Jeff Kinney, Stephanie Meyer, Mo Willems, Kevin Henkes, Jane Yolen, Suzanne Collins, Rick Riordan are household names because when kids read a novel or fictional picture book they like, they want more of the same. They go out and read every other book that author has ever written. That’s one reason series are becoming more and more a part of the kidlit landscape.

But the leaders in the kids’ nonfiction field aren’t household names. Teachers and librarians may know names like Steve Jenkins and April Pulley Sayre and Brian Floca and Marc Aronson and Sy Montgomery, but parents and kids don’t. The reason is simple.

If a child reads and loves my book A Place for Butterflies, chances are he/she won’t read every other book I’ve written. That child will go read voraciously about butterflies. They are turned on by the topic, not the writer. It makes perfect sense.

What doesn’t make sense to me is why it’s different for adult books. I’ve been contemplating this discrepancy for six months now, but I still haven’t come up with an answer that satisfies me. I’m hoping that if I do, we can figure out a way to boost nonfiction sales overall. Any ideas?

1 comment:

  1. J.L. Bell had troble posting, so he emailed me his comment. I think he has a valid point, so I'm posting here for him:

    I'm not sure the original observation is correct. It may be a matter of the grass always being greener. If a nonfiction author had said
    nonfiction was easier, then it might be more convincing, but I suspect a lot of nonfiction authors envy the way genre novelists can write series that people read straight through, and how even novelists who don't return to the same characters can develop followings for their names rather than their topics.

    When we work in one field, we're usually most aware of the most prominent people working in another field. Thus, adult writers know the
    names of popular, award-winning children's writers, and wonder why they can't find the devoted following of J. K. Rowling. Children's fiction writers are most likely to know the names of prominent authors of nonfiction for adults, like Malcolm Gladwell and Bill Bryson, but not the many, many others. And so on.