WRITING Can you debut with seasonal texts? (Part 1)

Can aspiring authors hope to debut with a seasonal story? While there is a whole host of mixed advice out there, it certainly appears possible. In part 1, Words & Pictures Production Editor Tracy Curran talks to two authors about whether their debut novels were or weren't classed as being 'seasonal' and the highs and lows of their experience. 

I love a seasonal story but writing them as an aspiring author seems tantamount to skating on thin ice. Selling a debut is hard enough but, judging by industry advice, selling a seasonal debut is even more unlikely. After enthusiastically penning a witchy picture book, a story about a pumpkin and an Easter chapter book  all my favourite things  I was disappointed to be told by agents, "this is fun, but a seasonal debut isn't going to sell" and "seasonal books are written by established authors or in-house", although, "it is always good to have one in your portfolio."  – a slight light at the end of the tunnel.

But what then is a seasonal story? Anything that's explicitly centred around a festival, I understand, but surely books about witches, pumpkins and the four seasons can be sold at any time of year? Perhaps it is a subjective decision on the part of an agent or publisher as to whether they class a subject as seasonal and therefore want to take a chance on a new author? What I'm ultimately trying to find out is: are we wasting our time writing about certain subjects if it gives an industry professional an excuse to say no? 

Whatever the general advice, it's certainly not impossible. Alexandra Page's debut middle-grade novel, WishYouWas, is set at Christmas whereas Emma Finlayson-Palmer found debut success with her Autumn Moonbeam series about a dance-loving witch  with witches commonly being linked to Halloween. I even found my own success when my debut picture book, Pumpkin's Fairytale, was published last year by independent publisher, Final Chapter. But did industry professionals class these books as seasonal? I was interested to find out...

Alexandra Page, author of WishYouWas

Hi Alex, your debut middle-grade novel Wishyouwas was published in September 2021 and is about a girl called Penny, who discovers a magical creature called a Sorter in her uncle’s post office. Can you tell us a little bit about where the idea came from?

The theme of letter writing is really personal to me. My mum lived in Zimbabwe while I was growing up, and airmail was our only affordable method of communication. The story is set around the underground Mail Rail in London, which was still operating when I visited with my dad as a seven-year-old. I remember being allowed to sit inside one of the tiny mail carriages. Today the Mail Rail is a museum and open for rides through the abandoned tunnels.

The story sparked when, 15 years ago, I was walking through London on the way back to my office after lunch and saw a plaque on the wall of a building that read: “Penny Post founded here”. It gave me an idea for a story about a girl getting lost in the post… and the world of Wishyouwas and the Sorters grew from there.

WishYouWas cover, illustrated by Penny Neville-Lee 
(Publisher: Bloomsbury)

The novel is centred around Christmas in London, 1952. Did you deliberately set out to write a Christmas story and did you experience any doubts about doing so?

I wanted to set Wishyouwas in a time when the Mail Rail was still working, and before modern technology, which would have made the Sorters’ existence difficult or even irrelevant. There’s also something about letter writing that, while still much loved today, is more in keeping with the past. After doing some research, the Great Smog of 1952 felt like the perfect time for the story to happen, when London was shrouded in smoke and small creatures and a young girl could scurry about unseen. The smog happened in December, which also coincides with being the Royal Mail’s busiest time of year, so basing the plot around the Christmas post was too good an opportunity to miss. I did admittedly shift the date of the Great Smog by a couple of weeks to later in December, to fit. Sorry, historians!

What was your agent’s reaction to the novel being seasonal? Did it change the way it was submitted to publishers?

Christabel shared the same vision as I did, that Wishyouwas wasn’t truly a seasonal novel. That said, we did submit it to publishers over Christmas but only because I took so long with my edits!

Did you receive any feedback from publishers, positive or negative, about Wishyouwas being a Christmas novel? Did it affect the way they planned the launch?

Maybe as a result of the submission timing, two out of the three publishers who offered referred to Wishyouwas as a ‘seasonal title’ and their offers were a little more limited due to this. It really bothered me at the time as I didn’t want the story to be branded as a Christmas book and hampered by having a shorter sales window, nor was Christmas really the main thrust of the story. One of the main reasons I signed with Bloomsbury is because they shared the same vision of it being multi-seasonal. We’ve definitely leveraged Christmas in the marketing, but the cover was carefully designed by Penny Neville-Lee so that it could sit on a shelf all year round.

Post-publication, what are your reflections about having a seasonal debut?

I’ve been really lucky in that Wishyouwas has been marketed as a seasonal title, and so benefits from the boost in bookshop trade around Christmas, but is packaged in such a way that it doesn’t shriek Christmas and so hopefully sells outside of the Christmas season. I think seasonal titles are a great asset in any author’s portfolio, partly because they’re so good for year-on-year sales, and partly because it’s hard to come up with an original seasonal story! So if you can, it’s sure to be well loved and appreciated for years to come.


Emma Finlayson-Palmer's debut chapter book, Autumn MoonbeamDance Magic! was published by UClan in July 2022, quickly followed by Autumn Moonbeam, Spooky Sleepover! last month. 

Emma Finlayson-Palmer, author of the Autumn Moonbeam series
illustrated by Heidi Cannon

Hi Emma, Your series is about a witch who loves to dance. Can you tell us where the idea came from?

Autumn Moonbeam was inspired by my daughter, who started at a dance club when she was three, then by the age of five she joined the competitive cheer team. She was painfully shy and could barely make eye contact when performing by herself, but once she was part of a team it gave her the confidence to dance and compete in front of hundreds or sometimes thousands of people.


It was this concept of overcoming your fears, teamwork and following your dreams that became the key element for my Autumn’s story. Combining that with my love of dance (although I’m very clumsy, much like Autumn) and anything musical, magical or witch-related, Autumn Moonbeam came cartwheeling into the world.

Autumn Moonbeam, Dance Magic!, by Emma Finlayson-Palmer, illustrated by Heidi Cannon
(Publisher: UClan)


I have previously been told that witch stories are seasonal and should be avoided as a debut submission. Did you consider the possibility of it being labelled as a Halloween/seasonal story?

I did wonder, but Halloween is also my favourite time of year and I love the changes in nature that Autumn brings. 

Dance Magic! and Spooky Sleepover! were originally scheduled to come out together in September so that it coincided with the start of Strictly Come Dancing being back on. Then it was decided it would be better to release them three months apart, with Dance Magic! as a summer read, and Spooky Sleepover to arrive before Halloween. So, neither were actually labelled as a seasonal story as such. 

Spooky Sleepover! definitely has Halloween vibes though, with its title, colour palette and cover design by Heidi CannonIt is hoped that Spooky Sleepover! will enjoy extra interest due to Halloween, but also as a continuation of the series focusing on dancing witches and always following your dreams.


Do you think readers associate Autumn Moonbeam with Halloween? Have you noticed any differences between the response to your first book coming out in July and your second coming out in October?

There’s definitely been more focus on getting booked in to do Spooky events, or Halloween craft workshops now Spooky Sleepover! is here. The colour scheme for book two is also very autumnal and has Halloween aesthetics. It’s definitely nice to have a good excuse to get the Halloween decorations out to go with Autumn Moonbeam displays.


Post-publication, would you recommend aspiring authors to embrace or avoid stories that could be classed as seasonal?

I think seasonal stories are always going to be a slightly harder sell. They have limited appeal in some respects, but if they have elements that aren't purely seasonal, they can be enjoyed all year round. Perhaps some Christmas themes might be harder to read at other times of year, but witches, monsters and magic have all year round appeal.


At the end of part 1 then, it appears that a story with a seasonal hook can be very successful if it also has the capacity to be sold and promoted all year round – for example, focussing on the dance element in Autumn Moonbeam and the postal service in WishYouWas. A seasonal hook can also be hugely beneficial (not to mention great fun!) when doing promotional work, school visits and other events, giving annual sales an extra boost year upon year. In Part 2, in the Christmas issue of Words & Pictures, I talk to Bonnie Bridgman about her debut young fiction novels, Clara Claus Saves Christmas and Clara Claus Saves Easter, to find out about her experience of writing two exclusively seasonal stories.

*Header image: Autumn Moonbeam, Spooky Sleepover!, Emma Finlayson-Palmer, Heidi Cannon,UClan, 2022. 

Other images courtesy of authors.


Tracy Curran is Production Editor for Words & Pictures and author of Pumpkin's Fairytale, illustrated by Wayne Oram and published by Final Chapter. She writes picture books, chapter books and lower middle-grade and runs a children's book review blog, The Breadcrumb Forest


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