Q&A with Karen Ball

By   Jantien Abma 5 min read

Karen Ball has over 25 years’ experience of the publishing industry. Her career includes periods as Head of Editorial at Working Partners and Publisher at Little, Brown Books For Young Readers. In September 2016 she launched Speckled Pen, a creative consultancy aimed at helping content generators develop publisher-facing projects. Together with three industry friends, she organises the Book Bound writers’ retreat, aimed at children’s authors.

hire a children's book editor1. Tell us a bit about Speckled Pen.

Speckled Pen is a creative consultancy for the publishing industry, building on my significant track record in developing Intellectual Property, combined with my experience in trade publishing. We work with publishers, licence owners, authors, agents – and any content generator who is looking to develop publisher-facing projects.

Commissions have run the gamut from steering talented authors on their manuscripts to helping publishers strategise and create content, as well as developing our own IP. We have a team of freelancers and authors working with us and, so far, it’s been a great exercise in creative collaboration.

2. You’ve worked in children’s and YA publishing for a while. Are there common denominators for successful series launches you’ve been involved with?

Any compelling series launch always has elements in common – strong branding, imaginative marketing that extends beyond the first book, an engaged author, confident publishing and cross-departmental teamwork.

Beyond that, the two markets of children’s and YA are quite distinct. You’re engaging with different audiences and different needs. Speaking broadly, I’d say that a children’s series launch is about the concept and a YA series launch is about the voice and author. But that is a very broad brush stroke assessment and there are always exceptions to the rule.

I’m interested to watch what happens with the YA projects that have recently been bought up by adult publishers (Mirror, Mirror to Trapeze and Askari to Gollancz, for example), and how they launch their books. Will they be pitched as YA or crossover or both?

Increasingly, brand and profile are becoming important. A cute idea alone may not be enough. But I still stand by my old-fashioned belief that imagination, passion and originality drive great books to market. There are some publishers doing that brilliantly – Usborne, Nosy Crow and Oxford University Press stand out to me as publishers who are thinking and publishing imaginatively. I’m also really excited to see what happens with the new children’s imprint at Head of Zeus.

3. You are focused on creating IP and selling rights. How do you work out what the market will be interested in reading in different territories so far in advance of it actually appearing in book form?

It’s impossible to spot and predict trends way in advance and across markets, and it’s a common misconception that IP development is an ideas factory churning out sure-fire bestsellers. I wish!

Talking to publishers and editors helps spot broad fashions and prevents you going down creative cul-de-sacs, but even then you’d need to move pretty nimbly to hit a trend at the right time.

Some early advice from a rights expert to Speckled Pen was to avoid second-guessing the market and only pursue projects we felt passionate about.

One concept I’m currently developing is a passion project for a middle grade humour series. Every time I engage with an editor or author over it, I always say, ‘It’s crazy – it probably won’t sell.’ But whenever I go back to it, I end up grinning – and lots of people laugh when I pitch the concept to them. So I’m running with that early kernel of instinct and seeing where it takes me.

An IP generator also develops enough projects to allow for the failure of some of them. Failure is a really important part of IP generation, which I appreciate is an uncomfortable truth for a lot of publishing people. We’re groomed to seek success and bestsellers. But any creativity always involves a large dollop of failure and it’s important to build that into your business model for IP. It’s okay if some projects don’t get off the ground. It’s more than okay, it’s necessary – because idea generation is about taking risks.

Sorry, that’s a really long answer! Basically, there is no way of working out the market other than employing your own instincts and experience to develop the best projects you can with passion.

4. Is there one YA book or series you wished you’d commissioned that you missed out on?

I didn’t miss out because I didn’t offer (not a reflection on the book, merely a reflection on my ability to read quickly!), but I have been incredibly impressed by the publishing of Katherine Webber’s Wing Jones by Walker Books. The package is absolutely gorgeous, I’d say a really exemplary example of UK YA, with stunning book design, an engaged author, active community around her… and brilliant storytelling. Of course, it all begins and ends with story.

5. Tell us about a forthcoming publication you are excited about.

I wish I could, but it’s still top secret! A happy and unexpected benefit of my new role is that sometimes – sometimes – I get to see manuscripts before anyone else other than the agent and author. An agent shared something with me recently. After reading 25 pages, I sent the agent an email saying how much I loved the voice. I may also have suggested a publisher to send it to. A week later, the project had sold. I can confidently tell you that it’s going to be British middle grade publishing at its absolute best.

But if you want a book that I read and loved when I was still commissioning it would be Sarah Carroll’s The Girl In Between, coming out in May 2017 from Simon and Schuster. I read that manuscript on a flight to Berlin and ended up sobbing in my airplane seat. Maybe now is the time to publicly apologise to the startled man who was sitting beside me. The writing is stunning, the story undoubtedly provocative and there’s a twist that’s off the scale.

6. What advice would you give someone wanting to write a YA novel?

My friend, Cecilia Vinesse, whose debut YA novel Seven Days of You was published by Little, Brown in March 2017, advises:

‘Read obsessively: read YA and anything else you can get your hands on; read your favourite genres and your less-favourite ones. Dissect the books you love and figure out what makes them work. Also, try to constantly remind yourself of what you would have loved as a teen and write toward that.’