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Want to be a bestselling children's author? First, buy your parrot...

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Phil Rickman Phil Rickman | 12:30 UK time, Thursday, 5 July 2012

If you were thinking of doing a children's book on the basis that you could be the new JK Rowling, there's something you need to know.

In the 15 years since Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone came out, several authors have been hailed as the new JKR.

Go on, name one...

Hmm, thought not. Basically there is no new JK Rowling.

Something else you need to know: for the first Harry Potter novel, Rowling apparently got a £3,000 advance from Bloomsbury who, even then, were fairly significant independent publishers.

This is the figure you need to remember because, in those 15 years, publishers' advances have not exactly increased. For an unknown first-timer in the kidlit department, 3K is still close to the going rate.

Which is why most children's writers have another job. Even after several books, kidlit is rarely a career. I remember the much-loved Dick King Smith, author of The Sheep Pig, which was filmed as Babe, telling me that he used to have to write over 10 books a year to make a living.

I hadn't met Dick when, after a contract fell through, my agent said, "Why don't you write a children's book? You won't get paid much, but it'll only take you about six weeks."

He was half right. I didn't get paid much, but it took six months.

That's another thing: children's books, especially those aimed at Young Adults, are rarely quicker to write than adult books. And you get involved in lots of arguments about layers of political correctness you'd never have imagined existed. And problems like having to use kilometres all the time, regardless of what it says on the road signs, because that's what kids are taught in school.

And don't think it's over when you've finished the book. Adult writers are used to doing talks and signings. Children's writers are urged to go into showbiz.

My Young Adult publisher invited me to lunch to meet a well-known publisher's publicist who also wrote a successful series about a vampire pirate. He explained how he toured schools armed with a cutlass... and a big box of his books to flog to the kids. This wasn't about threatening them as much as putting on a performance. Day after day.

Invited to consider developing a similar routine involving my character - a teenage boy who was learning to dowse with a pendulum - I pointed out to the publishers that a few deeply-religious parents might well consider that dowsing could be exposing their kids to Dark Forces.

The truth is, I wimped out - thinking about facing, day after day, new gangs of cynical teenagers committed to taking me down.

Anyway, after two books, I got out of kidlit, under the impression that it was only lesser-known writers or those operating under a pseudonym who got pushed into the minefield of children's entertainment.

Then, for this week's Phil the Shelf, I went to talk to the best-selling Val McDermid.

This is Val, of The Wire In The Blood fame, author of adult novels involving savage killings, torture, etc.

In a major, if temporary, departure, Val's now written the words for a picture book entitled My Granny Is A Pirate which, according to the back cover, is aimed at an audience aged two-plus.

Yes, mine boggled, too. Especially when I saw the author preparing to give the hard sell to a marquee-full of potential new readers.

Out of her bag came a large, fluffy parrot...

Listen to Phil the Shelf on BBC Radio Wales from 5.30pm this Sunday.


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