Like most editors, my colleagues and I get people pitching us book ideas wherever we go. When a certain kind of someone discovers that you have the power to grant a book deal, it turns out they’ve written a story about their cat or have an unfinished fantasy manuscript in the bottom drawer. I’ve had people pitching me in bars, at family barbecues, and even while I was sitting in a dentist’s chair. It’s particularly hard to smile politely when someone’s poking around your molars and trying to sell you their idea about talking animals.

So you’d think a group of teen-fiction editors would shudder at the thought of actually asking for pitches. And yet the one thing worse than being pitched at relentlessly is only ever being pitched the same ideas. For months all we’ve seen are werewolves, angels and dead girls narrating from beyond the grave. Our desks are groaning under the weight of grim dystopias and paranormal romances (and their love children, which we like to call ‘disnormals’), and finally we thought: is anyone even writing real-world fiction about the secret lives of teenagers? And wouldn’t it be easier if we said we wanted it?

Yes, actually. So the Ampersand Project was born.

Hardie Grant Egmont has published its share of supernatural and speculative fiction, but there’s plenty of room on our list for the sort of real-world books that we loved as teenagers. Think Forever, I Capture The Castle, Looking for Alibrandi and Tomorrow When the War Began (which doesn’t count as dystopian fiction in today’s market: discuss). Incredible real-world fiction does make it onto the shelves, of course – Graffiti Moon, All I Ever Wanted, Six Impossible Things, Stolen and Pink are some of the stand-outs – but unfortunately they’re the exceptions in a saturated disnormal market. And we’re sick of seeing these great books miss out on the coverage and sales they deserve.

We have our theories about why paranormal and dystopian fiction dominate the bestseller lists even though real-world stories are just as good. Readers have always been drawn to books that can make them feel things, either in the pants or in the mind, and other-worldly stories are particularly clever at that. But it’s hardly impossible to do when your book is set on this earth. In any case, your buying decisions might be made for you when you walk into a bookshop’s YA section and find an ocean of red and black covers, punctuated by sad girls wearing beautiful dresses in forests.

So the point of the Ampersand Project is to bring some balance back to the YA scene. We want to find brilliant writers with real-world stories that are as compelling and exciting and funny and sexy as anything else. We’re going to build the profile of this new collection so that emerging writers can use it as a launch pad for their fiction careers. And we’ll back the writers and their books with the kind of marketing support that debut authors would normally not have access to.

With nary a futuristic war zone or vampire in sight, it’s enough to get an editor excited about pitches again.

Submissions for the launch of the Ampersand Project are open until 27 February 2012 and guidelines are available here. Writers should send the first five chapters and a synopsis of their YA novel to [email protected].

Marisa Pintado is a commissioning editor at Hardie Grant Egmont and the Ampersand Project.

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