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Posted by Kate, June 13, 2011

Is there a place on UK publishers’ lists for new British illustration talent?

Young British illustrator Frann Preston-Gannon has said that new British illustration talent is being forced to go abroad in search of work as the UK picture book market becomes increasingly conservative.

Comments on The Bookseller article reporting Frann Preston-Gannon’s remarks point out that library cutbacks and the shrinking of the independent bookshop sector are a factor in this increased conservatism in the UK market, and I do think that both libraries and independent bookshops have, historically, been particularly strong and important supporters of more experimental illustration styles in the UK.

However, from the point of view of an independent children’s book pulbisher, I’d say a couple of things:

The first is that the UK has always looked outside the UK to launch new artists. Selling co-editions (i.e. co-ordinating a single printing of full-colour books in several different languages for different countries so that some of the costs of the printing are spread across many copies, and each country benefits from a sort of “bulk discount” with the printer) has been at the heart of the picture book’s financial viability for over two decades. If opportunities for artists exist outside the UK, even if the UK market itself might not be a big market for a particular artist, UK publishers are often keen to find them, and to support new talent with international sales. So a book originating in the UK may sell better abroad. At Nosy Crow, and at other UK publishers, the UK print-run can be just a tenth of the total print-run – the rest is made up of co-editions.

Second, there are many illustrators who, initially, frightened the UK retail horses at the early stages of their career, but who are now well and truly part of the illustration establishment. Axel Scheffler is a good example. When I first published Axel, I was told his work was looked “too continental European”; that the eyes were too goggly and the noses too big. The first UK print run of The Gruffalo was very small – perhaps 1,500 or 2,000 copies, I seem to remember, and, whatever it was, UK sales were smaller! We persisted (as did Axel, of course) and great, distinctive, witty illustration won through.

Third, at Nosy Crow, we’re always looking for new illustrators. We’ve a small picture book list, but over the next 18 months it will include, among other new illustrators:

Nadia Shireen who graduated in 2010, and whose art complements a dark and funny text (involving characters being eaten) called The Baby That Roared by Simon Puttock publishing in January 2012 (her first book, Good Little Wolf, published by Random House, is out now);

Nicola O’Byrne who graduates this summer and whose book, Open Very Carefully is a witty celebration of the printed book that publishes in autumn 2012.

Of course there are some publishers who play very safe, and there are others who are a bit more edgy. Not being part of their decision-making process, I can’t speak for them. But I can speak for Nosy Crow. We’re somewhere in the middle, I’d say. We need to feel that an artists work will appeal to a child (rather than appeal just to an adult), and that’s really our starting point. we have to feel that there’s a market for an illustrator’s work somewhere in the world, especially if we think that the UK market won’t rush to embrace a particular style. We don’t always agree: as in so many areas of publishing, we’re making subjective judgements based on a complicated mix of taste, experience and knowledge.

The book market – UK and international – doesn’t owe us (or any particular artist for that matter), a living: we have to publish books that are commercially viable, but, at Nosy Crow, we’re always looking for new talent, and we’re willing to take risks on it.

And we congratulate Frann Preston-Gannon and wish her the best of luck, wherever she publishes.