Age Scaling and Publishing Journey
This update, sent to the mailing list around July 2022, comes in three parts:
Age Scaling: better known as crossover in the industry, this refers to targeting multiple age groups in a single book or series. I prefer the term age scaling because it conveys how the book “scales” with the reader. This section covers (in a spoiler-free way) how I plan to use age scaling in The Exander Project.
Publishing Journey: an overview of what the publishing landscape looks like from my vantage point, and the process required to get a book from finished draft to contracted for publication.
Status and Updates: I’ve been querying, and my mailing list subscribers got a snapshot of my query stats to date. These are not included in the online version, at least for now. (But if you’re curious, subscribe to the mailing list and I’ll be happy to send you a copy. Just let me know.) Anyway: I’ve made progress, but still have a lot further to go.
Let’s dig in!
Age Scaling: Multiple Audiences in One Series
As I’ve been doing in the last couple of updates, I want to use this space first of all to talk about what you can expect from The Exander Project. What kind of series is this? What is it about? What sorts of experiences am I aspiring to give my readers? This is a spoiler free discussion: so no lore. (Though let me know if you want to hear about the lore. I’m happy to talk about that too, with the caveat that it’ll require minor spoilers to do so.) As a result, I’m focusing (for now) on the structural aspects of the series: the mechanics of the writing craft elements that go into putting this series together. Today’s topic is what I like to call age scaling, or targeting a range of readers (e.g., both children and adults) either in a book or in a series.
My standard disclaimer up front: as with everything I write about prior to publication, this is aspirational. This is what I’m trying to achieve. It is still very much up in the air how successful I will be at actually pulling it off. So please read it in this spirit, and understand that, well, this is where the sausage gets made.
When Tolkien wrote The Hobbit, he likely didn’t intend to launch a crossover series. He had a universe—that had been accreting for some time already—and he wanted to create a children’s book set in it. As we all know, he went on to write1 what eventually became The Silmarillion (published posthumously) and, of course, The Lord of the Rings. The latter two are notably written for adults, resulting in the series as a whole spanning both children and adults2.
Crossover is the industry term for a book intended to appeal to both children and adults. The biggest crossover categories today are in young adult (YA, ages 12-18) and middle grade (MG, ages 8-12 or 9-13). There is always a certain amount of crossover potential (just think about the number of adults that read Harry Potter), but some books are specifically written with this in mind. In other cases, the books grow over the course of a series. This is why I personally prefer the term age scaling. Target age range is one of several things that can scale over the course of a series.
Doing age scaling well isn’t just a matter of choosing more serious themes, though that may be a component. At least for me, age scaling is about promising the reader that the universe is big enough to handle the variety of stories that targeting multiple audiences requires. Books that do age scaling well achieve a depth of worldbuilding that I don’t see in single-audience works, even for example in sci-fi and fantasy for adults.
Children—even more than adults—inhabit the worlds they read about. Books for children aren’t just a nice story, a compelling plot, or an important message. They become part of the “mental furniture” we live with. Even as an adult, I remember books I read as a child, sometimes far more strongly than I do books I’ve read more recently.
For me, two of the biggest influences in my childhood, and the worlds I inhabited more than any others, were Star Wars and Star Trek. I didn’t just learn the ships and characters, I created my own species and planets, and stories to go along with them. One of my oldest stories is a mashup called Engon Vulcans, featuring (somewhat hilariously) the Death Star facing off against the USS Stargazer3.
To be clear, good worldbuilding doesn’t necessarily require age scaling per se. But I think age scaling brings additional opportunities—to deepen worldbuilding, to break tropes, and to defy expectations—that wouldn’t necessarily come with a series intended exclusively for children (or for adults). When you see a slice of the world, you know there is more to it, since the series is intended to scale. And that helps draw both younger and older audiences along as they read the books.
Or at least that’s what I’m hoping to achieve. The plan (and again, please read this as aspirational) is to scale the books as they go along. The initial books (what I’ve been calling the Frontmatter Series, though that name may need to change) are targeted to middle grade (MG) readers, probably ages 9–12 or so. But all of these books are intended for adults too—in fact, they have to be because the latter books will target adults. That’s my promise: we will (eventually) get to an adult series. The details are still a bit up in the air in terms of exactly how the ages will scale with each book, but the end point is known.
What that means concretely is that I need to design the worldbuilding to have enough room to grow. This is both intimidating and frankly one of the most exhilarating parts of the process. Because the books start “zoomed in”—that is, more attuned to the intimate than the epic—what you see is mainly second- and third-order consequences of how the basic mechanics of the world work. This is unabashedly soft sci-fi: concerned more with how technology impacts the ways characters live, rather than what the technologies themselves are or how they work. But that’s not to say those details don’t matter. Consistency is a goal, even if didactic exposition is not. And as the series “zooms out” more of the (hopefully) emergent consequences of those technologies should come into view.
That’s all I’ll say for now, but as I mentioned above, I’m always open to requests if you want to know more about this or another topic.
The Publishing Journey: A View From On the Trail
The road to publication is littered with rejections. What might be less obvious is that this is true at all levels: certainly for aspiring authors like myself, but also (perhaps surprisingly) for published authors as well. I recently spoke to an award-winning, multi-published author whose most recent book has yet to see traction with publishers. For better or worse, this is the world we live in.
If there’s anything I’ve learned so far, it’s that you just have to keep going. Journey before destination indeed.
While “just keep going” sounds simple (if not necessarily easy), one of the hard parts is figuring out where you’re supposed to be going to. Imagine hiking a mountain trail: you can see only until the next bend in the path (your immediate next step). And you can see the mountain in the distance (your eventual goal, if you ever make it there). But what you can’t see are all the switchbacks in between, or the forks, or dead ends, or places where the road just goes away entirely and you’re left wandering through the forest without a clear idea if you’re even heading the right direction.
In this section, I’m hoping to provide a map of the local terrain: as a traveler on the trail, this is what I see, and what (I believe) lies ahead.
Ahead of me in the distance is my goal. Let’s call it Mount Traditional Publishing. (Like a real mountain, it’s not so much a singular peak, but a network of interconnected peaks, ravines and valleys, with their set of associated forests, meadows and so on. But we’ll get to that later.)
To the side of my goal is Mount Self-Publishing. I’m aware that it’s there, but it’s not my immediate goal, and at any rate the most direct path goes through cliffs that I don’t know how to scale yet4.
So, Mount Traditional Publishing. Getting there, of course, is far from a straightforward journey. Beyond the fact that in order to even get to the valley before the mountain, you have to have scaled the Write a Book Trail (the book must be done before you can even think about approaching publishers), there is one glaring fact about traditional publishing: it’s a gated community.
Yup, that’s right. You can’t walk to the mountain, because there’s a fence in the way. And to get past the gate you need an invitation.
This is probably the single most infamous aspect of traditional publishing. Editors (the people who, among other things, decide who gets an invitation) effectively curate the books that get brought in: for quality, obviously, but also for compatibility with the publisher’s (and editor’s) mission, needs and tastes, and product/market fit. Even a well-written book could get rejected for any number of reasons.
But if editors are the gatekeepers, they are not actually accessible ones. In most cases you cannot just submit your manuscript to editors. There are exceptions, of course, but they’re rare5. Most authors instead need to go through literary agents.
Agents work largely outside the gate—they are not part of the publishing house. What agents bring to the table are connections: they can go (at least to a limited degree) inside the fence and bring your book to potentially interested editors. Agents can’t directly invite you inside—only editors can do so, and even that is a process6. But by positioning your work in front of editors (who again, you wouldn’t have access to on your own), they greatly increase the odds of getting an invitation.
Though agents work outside the fence, this exaggerates how accessible they are to unpublished authors. The Black Swan Meadow7 is swarming with tens of thousands of aspiring hopefuls, all looking for representation. I’m not joking. Some of the most successful agents literally get tens of thousands of queries a year.
To appreciate the scale of things, let me give you some numbers. There are currently four major publishing companies that publish the majority of books in the USA. In a given genre, there might be twenty to thirty editors at the large publishing houses who actively acquire that genre (maybe more in the popular genres). Then there might be 100 or so agents who represent the genre (again plus or minus, depending on which genre). And at any given time, probably in the low-to-mid tens of thousands of aspiring authors are looking for representation, based on the queries received by popular agents.
Given such astronomically low odds, how do you stand a chance of connecting with an agent?
There are a couple of common ways. One is conferences: usually put on by the various writing societies in each genre, or their local chapters, conferences are open to the public. Conferences include a bunch of resources for authors, such as lectures (called workshops) and networking opportunities. Many conferences include the opportunity to pitch agents, giving you a 5-, 10- or sometimes 15-minute time slot to meet with an agent in person (or virtually), and talk to them about your project. While an agent might take 10–20 pitches (or more) at a conference, that’s certainly better odds than what you get cold querying. And some agents are effectively only available via conferences, in which case you don’t have much of a choice.
The other route is querying. A query is basically a one-page letter that tries to make the agent interested in reading more. In just a couple short paragraphs, you have to convey what the book is about and why the agent should be interested in seeing the rest of it. Queries are often accompanied by a writing sample, typically the first 5–50 pages of the book (depending on the agent).
Given the literal thousands to tens of thousands of queries agents get, how do you stand out? By polishing your query and opening pages really, really hard. You want those pages to absolutely shine. Even then, you won’t know if you’ve done a good job until you actually send your queries. So in most cases it’s a good idea to do queries in rounds—say, 5–15 at a time—before sending out any more. This gives you an opportunity to see if the queries work or not.
Realistically, your first set of queries will probably not make it. And so then the question is how to improve, especially because (if you did your homework) you already polished those pages as much as you humanly could.
This is where conferences come in again. Another thing that conferences offer is the ability to get your query and opening pages critiqued, often by the very same agents who are going to be evaluating your queries for representation8. Among all of the available resources, I’ve found professional agent critiques to be the single most helpful, because they provide personalized and actionable feedback from those who actually evaluate queries as their job.
After that, it’s back around the loop again. Conferences, queries, critiques, rinse, repeat.
If an agent is interested, they might ask for a full (that is, the entire manuscript). This is a highly positive sign, since clearly they want to read more. Just because they ask for a full doesn’t necessarily mean they’ll finish it… or that you’ll get any feedback. But it is a strong vote of confidence that at least the query and opening pages of your manuscript are solid. However, just because of the odds involved, the response to a full is still more than likely to be a “no”. You shouldn’t get your hopes up too much, and at any rate, keep polishing and querying no matter what else you do. Go back through the loop again!
Unfortunately, there isn’t really any way to know how many times you’ll need to iterate this process. And so, at least for this part of the journey, it’s not so much a hike through the woods as treading the same ground over and over again, hoping that this time you’ve found the key to unlocking some agent’s interest.
And that is where I seem to find myself. I’ve had some successes, but none so dramatic that I’ve made it through the gate (yet).
Status and Updates
So, what’s happened with the book in the last year? The short answer is: a lot. My overall goal has been to get a traditional publishing contract with a large publisher. However, as I mentioned in the last section, that’s not a one-step process. To get a publisher, you need an agent. To get an agent, you need to query. So querying has been the dominating activity of my year.
The version of this update that went to my mailing list subscribers included the full set of my query stats to date. For obvious reasons, I’m not entirely comfortable sharing these publicly (yet). I might do so at some point in the future; transparency is something that is sorely lacking in this industry, especially around rejections. But suffice it to say for now: I’ve gotten full requests, which indicates that the basics are solid. But regardless of how much success I’ve had, navigating from here to a contract is still a very unpredictable process.
Through this process, I’ve come to a realization. There is deep, and I think unappreciated, symmetry between traditional and self-publishing. Either way you go, you (the author) are ultimately responsible for the publication of the book. In self-publishing, this is obvious because there simply is no one else. You are the publisher; at every stage of the process you do it yourself or you hire someone else to do so. This gets obscured in traditional publishing by the sheer number of actors involved, but the same principle applies. At the end of the day, the buck stops with you. This means, particularly in the early stages, that you are responsible for surrounding yourself with people who will push you forward.
While counterintuitive, I find this empowering. The traditional publishing process so often feels like it encourages a posture of asking for permission. Some agents talk about the query process as being like a job application. While I appreciate the professional perspective this encourages, it also reinforces the inherent asymmetries in the process. Taking responsibility as an author flips this on its head. I am building a team to get published. In the case of bringing on an agent to represent my work, this is an equal business partnership, and I interview them as much as they interview me. Of course we need to come to an agreement to find a mutually satisfactory working arrangement. But it is no longer a situation which is unequal and disempowering.
That’s it for this update! Like I said, if you’re curious about my query stats, feel free to subscribe to my mailing list below. I’m happy to send out old copies of updates (including this one). Just reply to the welcome email and I’ll send it along. And as usual, if there is anything you want to hear about, let me know.
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Not that it really matters to my point, but to appease any Tolkien nerds out there: strictly speaking, Tolkien started writing the source material that eventually went into The Silmarillion before The Hobbit. He continued on and off afterwards, putting it aside for some years to write The Lord of the Rings. In the end, The Silmarillion was put into the form we know it by Tolkien’s son Christopher, and published posthumously. This makes it even less likely that he intended the crossover aspect of the series when he initially started writing.↩︎
As usual, whenever I mention other authors or their works, especially famous ones, I am not trying to draw a comparison. There are many things that Tolkien did that went into making his works of fiction the transformative successes they became. In no way, shape or form can I copy that (nor do I intend to try). This is about one particular feature that Tolkien’s works happen to exhibit: that they span both children and adult audiences.↩︎
Yup, that USS Stargazer. I’m honestly not sure how I even knew the Stargazer existed, since as far as I know I hadn’t even watched the show proper until later in life. My best guess is that I had a Stargazer toy ship. One way or another, you can clearly see the four-nacelled design in my drawings, so I must have known about it somehow.↩︎
Since I won’t be discussing self-publishing further in this update, let me say a little more here. To be sure, self-publishing is highly accessible, in the sense that you can upload a book and be done in literally under an hour. That’s the easy part. What’s not easy is (a) creating a final product of comparable quality to a traditionally published counterpart, and (b) achieving any significant degree of readership and/or sales.
Many people find this counterintuitive, but keep in mind the role of the publisher in the traditional process: to invest in the book. When you publish traditionally, you are acquiring outside investment to make your manuscript the best (read: best-selling) book it can be. And this applies at all levels: curation, editing, formatting, printing, sales and distribution. Even if the last part of that pipeline, distribution, is somewhat solved by today’s self-publishing platforms (and I think this is still a very open question in the children’s market), there are still all the other steps. As an author, you cannot produce a book alone, and you will inevitably need to either get someone else to invest in those things (traditional publishing) or pay for them out of pocket (self-publishing).
Even with a high-quality product, sales and marketing are going to be challenging. Certainly “sales”, in the traditional sense of getting a book into physical bookstores, is next to impossible. This is where the traditional publisher’s influence has the most direct impact. But even in digital distribution, where instant availability and impulse buys make this an at least potentially fertile ground for self-published authors, achieving any substantial degree of readership is quite challenging. Without a platform, you’re basically gambling with your book. And the vast majority of self-published authors don’t hit the jackpot.
Finally, self-publishing tends to be a one-way door. Once you’re published, the book is out there. Generally speaking, a traditional publisher is not going to be interested in acquiring a book that has already been published, unless it has sold quite successfully. And this also applies to your future books: because you now have a publishing track record, this will influence any future decisions to acquire your books. While successful self-published authors may be able to make the transition back to traditional if they want to, this door effectively closes for most self-published authors when they hit “go”. This is what I mean when I say there is a cliff: there is nothing stopping you from diving off, but you don’t know whether you’ll have a soft landing at the bottom or not. Therefore, this isn’t a decision to take lightly, but one you’ll want to be quite sure about before you take the leap.↩︎
Brandon Sanderson is a prominent example.↩︎
The process varies by publishing house, but in most cases, even editors cannot offer you a contract on their own. Instead, they present the book to an internal committee, called acquisitions, that determines whether or not to make an offer on a book. However, this is largely not an a process an author has any control over (except in so far as doing the work to write a good book), so while there are certainly details here, they’re usually not worth worrying about.↩︎
Though partially tongue-in-cheek, it does feel like the entire process of acquisitions is a hunt for black swans. Everyone wants to find (or become) the next Brandon Sanderson or Suzanne Collins. Authors dream about it, agents bank their reputations on it, and editors build their careers on it. Book sales follow a power law distribution—that is, the most famous authors sell vastly more copies of their books than everyone else put together (in some cases, quite visibly). Publishers literally make the majority of their earnings from the current set of best-sellers, and so are highly incentivized to find the next ones.
But like the colloquial black swan, I think we can take away the wrong conclusion from this situation. Yes, these large successes exist. To the extent they exist, we should expect the industry to cater to them. But to my untrained eye, the process just seems inefficient. There are so many stories of future best-selling authors being passed over by agents and editors that it’s practically a trope—often because “X is not in style right now” (for whatever value of X the author is proposing) or “I don’t like your X” (the thing that ends up being precisely the reason the book went on to become successful). Rather than trying to pick winners, I suspect a marketplace would work better: let everyone self-publish first, and then buy up the ones who achieve success when the risk has already been mitigated. In fact, it is my understanding that the publishing industry works in exactly this way in some parts of the world (though not the USA).↩︎
To be clear, you shouldn’t seek out a critique from an agent while they are actively evaluating your query (or afterward). That would probably be very awkward. And anyway, if they give you feedback, you’ll want a chance to apply it to your query before you send it out. This is another reason why rounds are helpful: if you have, say, 5 outstanding queries, you can obtain critiques from a different set of agents while you wait for responses from the first group.↩︎