Off The Page

He gave Harry Potter a chance

In the first part in a monthly series on the books industry, publishers share what they look for in manuscripts and the challenges of promoting new writers

When picking through submitted manuscripts for a potential bestseller, what do publishers look out for?

First of all, a riveting read, says Mr Barry Cunningham.

In 1996, he went with his gut feeling and took a chance on a completely unknown author: He bought J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter And The Philosopher's Stone for Bloomsbury, after a dozen other publishing houses had rejected the now legendary book about a boy wizard.

"It's really strange for me to think that I was then the only person in the world who knew about Hogwarts and now it's everywhere," the former Bloomsbury editor says on the phone from Somerset.

He is now the publisher and managing director of his own imprint for children's literature, Chicken House, owned by Scholastic.

Acknowledged by Rowling as key to her success, Mr Cunningham is among the most famous names in the publishing industry.

After 38 years working for companies such as Penguin Books and Random House, managing authors such as Roald Dahl and Spike Milligan, he knows just what makes a good story.

"All the best books for children reflect how children feel in a hostile adult world. They all also understand something very important - humour works. Sometimes, you just have to laugh at danger."

When Rowling's manuscript landed on his desk two years into his task of setting up a children's list for Bloomsbury, he read the story with his daughter and decided that since they both found it fascinating, he would sign Rowling for two books and a few thousand pounds.

But just a few books into the series, in early 2000, he decided to leave Bloomsbury and set up his own imprint.

"I just felt if I stayed on, the only thing I would ever do would be talk about Harry Potter. I wanted to publish the books I wanted to publish."

At Chicken House, his stable includes successes such as American author James Dashner of The Maze Runner books and movies (the most recent, The Scorch Trials, showed here in September) as well as German author Cornelia Funke of Inkheart fame (2003 book, 2008 film).

The challenge for publishers such as him is that now there are fewer ways to get the word out about new authors and fewer places to promote and showcase books.

On one hand, teenagers talk about books on social media, but on the other, the old and most important social network of all is under threat, namely the libraries and bookstores that are invested in nurturing reading habits and happy to invite authors for talks.

"There are a lot fewer channels, really," he says of Britain.

"There are fewer shops, there are fewer people working in education and libraries are also under threat."

Also facing a similar problem is Ms Kirsty Melville, president and publisher of Andrews McMeel Publishing.

The company was founded 45 years ago and its core business was compiling into books the work of cartoonists who created daily strips for newspapers, among them Bill Watterson of Calvin And Hobbes and Garry Trudeau of political cartoon Doonesbury.

As retail space declined, independent bookstores and big bookstore chains such as Borders disappearing, the remaining bookstores became less and less able to push large numbers of single titles.

In addition, newspapers in the United States are now either under threat or offering less space for comics in print.

As it became harder for Andrews McMeel Publishing to promote awareness of its creators, it showcased its comics online through the GoComics website and also diversified its business over the past 10 years.

The publishing firm now also publishes cookbooks, puzzles, games and children's books such as the highly successful Big Nate series.

The company produces about 300 titles a year across various genres and, last week, it also signed up a Singaporean series for children: Sherlock Sam by husband-and-wife duo Adan Jimenez and Felicia Low- Jimenez, published here since 2012 by Epigram Books.

"We look for authors with a distinctive voice and audience," says Ms Melville in an e-mail interview.

The founding publisher of Simon & Schuster Australia, she has worked for Ten Speed Press and University Games in the US and joined Andrews McMeel Publishing in 2005.

The company also publishes the work of authors or content creators whose work has a large following on social media.

Among these are Sydney-born poet Lang Leav and Australian cartoonist Gavin Aung Than of Zen Pencils.

"When a creator has an established audience, it mitigates the risk somewhat - we are not introducing a brand new author to a brand new audience," Ms Melville writes.

Many of the books are bought by online fans while the print version also introduces the creator to new audiences.

For Ms Selina Lee, director of Scholastic Asia, the regional arm of the global Scholastic publishing house, the problem is that the content she produces and supports - Asian writing for children and young adults - does not yet have a significant following.

"The appetite for Asian stories is not very big. We find that very frustrating," says Ms Lee, who has been with Scholastic Asia for 14 years, starting in marketing.

She considers the publishing industry in South-east Asia nascent, with room to grow and develop new voices.

So Scholastic Asia with the National Book Development Council of Singapore runs the biennial Scholastic Asian Book Award which encourages new writing from Asia for children and teens, as well as the Scholastic Picture Book Award for picturebooks for younger readers.

The winners of both awards receive $10,000 each. The winner and runners-up for each award may have their work published by Scholastic Asia.

The next Scholastic Asian Book Award will be given out next year, while the Scholastic Picture Book Award will be given out in 2017.

Says Ms Lee, 42: "I find we're becoming more and more a reading society, with more and more parents and kids participating."

Yet like publishers in the West, Scholastic Asia is finding fewer physical spaces to sell their books.

Singapore lost Borders, Page One and the Harris bookstores in the last five years. "In Singapore, we're looking more and more to online bookstores."

As a result, Asian writers need to be realistic about their prospects when they start out.

One of the winners of the 2012 Scholastic Asian Book Award was Not In The Stars by Singaporean Pauline Loh.

The book launched in June last year has sold 1,000 copies - which Ms Lee calls a big seller.

"Authors fear that they have to sell a certain number of books. That's the publisher's job to worry about.

"We know not all products will be New York Times bestsellers but they will still have steady sales."

Tips for writers

Don't pander to the market - write your own story

It is almost impossible to predict trends and difficult to ride on them, say publishers, so do not write about vampires or magic schools unless those are the stories you truly want to tell.

Says Ms Selina Lee, director of Scholastic Asia: "When Twilight came up, nobody could have predicted its success."

So do not choose "popular" topics because you hope to rack up sales, she adds. "That's the publisher's job. Look for that story that touches you and that resonates."

Ms Kirsty Melville of Andrews McMeel Publishing agrees. "All associates are on the lookout for fresh, compelling, and entertaining content," she says.

Your work will be better with editing

Mr Barry Cunningham, publisher and managing director of Chicken House UK (owned by Scholastic), says: "Every writer I've worked with who is successful says the push to that success is the editorial process, people working with them on the book, saying, 'This bit works, that bit doesn't.'"

Ms Lee says: "If you're not yet a very good writer, you need that critique, you need feedback and someone mentoring you."

Self-publishing won't bring your book to bookstores

Self-published authors are at a disadvantage when it comes to getting books into bookstores.

"In America last year, there were half a million self-published books. Just consider the difficulty of getting your book through," says Mr Cunningham. "That's our job."

A company with big titles already on its list is more likely to get bookstores to take a chance on a new author on its list, says Ms Lee.

"We can tell them: 'If you want my Hunger Games, my Harry Potter, we also need you to promote these new titles.'

"The buyer at the bookstore is given a budget and he has to buy something that he can sell. "Why would they take a chance? That comes only with a certain relationship."

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on November 29, 2015, with the headline He gave Harry Potter a chance. Subscribe