By Bonnie Bader
A book packager functions like a mini publisher. They come up with ideas, hire authors and illustrators. Some book packagers deliver the books to the publisher printer-ready, but others work with the publisher on the final editing and design.
Book packaging has been around in the children’s space for a long time. Sometimes, a packager is hired to produce a labor-intensive book. Other times, packagers come up with their own ideas and sell them to publishers. Did you know that series such as Sweet Valley High, Gossip Girl, Goosebumps and Nancy Drew and The Hardy Boys were produced by book packagers?
During my career as an editor, I worked with several book packagers and always found it a rewarding experience. Today, the field of book packagers has narrowed quite a bit, but two of the best are still around: Alloy Entertainment and Working Partners. I interviewed Sara Shandler, from Alloy, and Stephanie Lane Elliot, Elizabeth Gallowy, Chris Snowdon and Lynn Weingarten, from Working Partners, to give you an inside-look at the magic these packagers perform. But first, a little background on these companies:
Alloy Entertainment (formerly Daniel Weiss Associates and 17th Street Productions) is a book packaging and television production unit of Warner Brothers Television. Alloy produces about thirty new books a year, which are published around the world in over forty languages. Over eighty of Alloy Entertainment’s books have reached the New York Times Best Seller list, including Everything, Everything and The Sun is Also a Star by Nicola Yoon, and the franchises: The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants, Gossip Girl, The Vampire Diaries, Pretty Little Liars, The Clique and The A-List.
Working Partners is part of Coolabi Group, a leading independent international media group and rights owner specializing in the creation development and brand management of children’s and family intellectual properties. Since 1994, Working Partners has created some of the most recognized children’s book series including: Animal Ark, Beast Quest, Heartland, Rainbow Magic, and Warriors. In all, Working Partners has developed over 170 series, selling over 200 million copies worldwide and in over 40 languages. (As an aside, over the past 12 years, Working Partners has administers the program, Undiscovered Voices, which has launched the careers of over 40 SCBWI members in the UK and Europe.)
How do you come up with book ideas? Can you walk us through the brainstorming process?
Alloy: We’re a close-knit group and do a lot of impromptu group brainstorming in addition to having regular pitch meetings. Often the best ideas come from someone mentioning something they are thinking about but haven’t yet cracked, and someone else adding an element, or saying “Oh that would be fun with that other idea someone mentioned the other day.” Sometimes it would be nice if it were more of a science, but the truth is most of the ideas come about in sideways-ways. We also often brainstorm with authors with whom we have worked or have a friendship already. Sometimes that means drawing from a kernel of their own experience and building a concept around it. Other times we have a starting place we are excited about, but the author’s own experience is what really turns the lights on.
Working Partners: We usually start with a short “spark” that is no more than once sentence–a very general idea of what the concept might be. Over the course of several brainstorms, we’ll work the concept up to a full pitch document that includes a detailed outline of the first few chapters, and a shorter, condensed outline for the rest of the book. We try to be very comprehensive in our brainstorming, thinking about character, tone, and comparative titles as well as plot. We want the potential writer, as well as the publishers who will consider the proposal, to fully understand what we think the book will be and how it will compare to what’s out there already.
Are the book ideas just “elevator pitches” or are they more involved?
Working Partners: By the time a writer is brought on board, the ideas are very involved. We try to make the process as easy for writers as possible–they add their voice and their creativity, but we’ve done the creative “heavy lifting” of working out plot, character, structure, and tone.
Alloy: Some pitches are “elevator pitches” or starting places that an author then breathes life into. Other times we work exclusively with an author to develop something, so the “elevator pitch” more likely happens as part of a conversation as we try to crack the right story for them.
How do you go about finding authors?
Alloy: We find authors through agents, friends, and other authors in the Alloy family. Here’s a fun example: More than fifteen years ago, a close friend of mine said “I think you should meet my friend Anna Godbersen, she’s a writer.” We ended up working on the New York Times bestselling LUXE series (and now several more books) together. Anna introduced us to a friend-of-a-friend, Alexandra Bullen Coutts, who authored WISH, TUMBLE AND FALL, YOUNG WIDOWS CLUB, who then introduced us to a writer she’d met in a yoga-training seminar, Wendy Wunder. Wendy wrote two of my all-time favorite Alloy books, THE PROBABILITY OF MIRACLES and THE MUSEUM OF INTANGIBLE THINGS (and the forthcoming MYSTERIOUS WAYS) and also introduced us to a friend from her MFA program, Nicola Yoon. Nicki now famously wrote EVERYTHING, EVERYTHING and THE SUN IS ALSO A STAR. And of course she was also kind enough to say, “Hey, you guys should really meet my husband!” David Yoon then wrote the bestsellers FRANKLY IN LOVE and SUPER FAKE LOVE SONG.
Working Partners: We use several different methods. We reach out to agents and ask them whether they have any clients who might fit the bill. For very specific projects, editors might put out a call on social media to explain what we’re looking for and how to contact us. Finally, we have a database of writers who have worked with us before or have expressed interest in writing for us, and we look through that. If any writers enjoy working collaboratively and might be interested in being added to our roster, they can email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Is there a “try out” for potential authors? If so, can you elaborate?
Working Partners: Yes. Our audition process is two-step. First, we ask writers to write a one-chapter sample, usually no more than fifteen pages. We don’t pay for this sample, but we do provide feedback to every writer who auditions. From these samples, we choose one or more writers to complete a longer sample, roughly three chapters, that we’ll use to submit the book to publishers. We do pay writers to complete this sample, usually a few hundred dollars. If we ask more than one writer to complete this sample, we’ll decide upon receiving the samples which writer we feel is better suited for the project. Each writer will be paid the fee, and the chosen writer’s sample will be used to submit the book to publishers.
Alloy: While every project is a bit different – many come out of a brainstorming process directly with an author with whom we have a relationship – some projects have a “sampling” process. For those projects we typically share the few paragraph-to-few page pitch and ask prospective authors to write what they envision as the first chapter for the concept. The concept is just this little seed before someone brings their voice and experience, and sometimes you can feel it taking on a life of its own from those very first pages. Other times we feel like there’s something there, but not the right match for this particular book and we’ll try something else. It’s an imprecise process, but it’s a little like having a date or two before getting married. We’ve been lucky enough to work with many of our authors over many years, and I think that’s in part due to making sure it’s really a good fit, in terms of project, process, and relationship.
Can you explain the process you go through when pitching editors?
Alloy: We typically develop a partial manuscript with an author (60-100 pages) along with an outline document for the rest of the story. With very rare exception, we represent the projects we sell to publishers, and typically submit them widely – to somewhere between 10-20 editors, depending on the project. (We have great relationships with editors at all the houses, and love working with new people, too.) We’ve been lucky enough to have some incredible auctions and preempts in the past. I personally love this part of the process! My favorite call to make is when I get to call an author and ask if they’re sitting down.
Working Partners: We have a number of contacts with editors, and we meet with them often throughout the year, pitching any projects that might be ready to submit soon. By the time a proposal is ready, we usually know which editors are interested in seeing it, and we submit it electronically. If a writer or agent has a relationship with an editor whom they think should see the proposal, we’ll consider including them, as well.
What is the payment structure for authors? Do you pay a flat fee, or do you offer an advance against royalties?
Working Partners: We offer an advance against royalties and pay writers 10% of all book income to Working Partners. This includes international sales–our sister company, Rights People, represents our books internationally. We split our payments into a signature payment and an acceptance payment. When several books are contracted at once, we will include a confirmation payment, to be paid when a publisher confirms that they plan to publish the subsequent books.
Alloy: With very, very rare exception we share in all profits (advance, royalties, translation, option fees) with authors according to a percentage-split that is negotiated when we begin developing the project together. Those deals are different depending on project, experience, voice, and negotiation, but in general first deals are weighted in Alloy’s favor, with future books weighted in the author’s favor. My personal favorite of all the deals is a 50/50, but I don’t always get my way! I consider this work to be a creative and business partnership, and believe transparency builds and maintains trust, which is so important to everyone doing their best work. While I don’t know the ins and outs of any other packagers’ business, I’ve heard Alloy’s deals are quite different.