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

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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.

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7 Responses to “Is there a place on UK publishers’ lists for new British illustration talent?”

  • I think you make a very valid point about “edgy” illustration when you say that you want picture books to appeal to children rather than adults. Although I enjoy many “edgy” illustrators and they are certainly celebrated and welcome in France, I have often found my own children have had little interest in them, and this, I guess, kind of defeats the purpose! I think there are many British illustrators with a very unusual style who still manage to strike the right balance ( for exampleI love Ruth Green’s Noisy Friends and Louise Rowe’s Hansel and Gretel ). The only issue remains that unless they get picked by the main booksellers, they don’t get a chance to shine. This would be the job of independent booksellers, if they were still around :0(

  • I think you raise some very good points here. I really was specifically talking about my own experience in my first year out of university and not so much about the UK industry as a whole. I did also mention in my conversation with the Bookseller that there are so many great opportunities for students these days with publisher competitions pulling the new and interesting talent straight from University. This didn’t seem to make it into the article though.

    My initial contact with the Bookseller was to mention that I had been the first UK illustrator to win the Sendak Fellowship, as I thought this might be interesting in the Children’s Book news. I really think there is some incredible stuff getting published and am constantly delighted and inspired by what I see being released.

  • In reply to Library Mice, well, I think child-appeal is the most important thing of all.

    Ruth Green’s Noisy Neighbours is absolutely something I’d respond to aesthetically personally, on the basis of the cover (I don’t know the book). But it has a very self-consciously retro style and looks very sophisticated so I’d say it’s not going to achieve a mass-market audience (and the fact that it’s published by Tate is indicative of its market positioning). What I think is great is that, because of the co-edition market (and – yay – committed indies), “edgier” books and styles can get a toe-hold in the UK market and may build from there.

    I also think that there are unparalleled (and low- or no-cost) opportunities for authors and illustrators to spread the word about their work online and build enthusiastic audiences who appreciate what they’re trying to do.

    Finally, I know that there aren’t many review slots for children’s books, but I am struck by how many of them, when they go to picture books, go to picture books that are a bit off-piste and have stronger adult appeal than child appeal: look at (lovely, not-obviously-child-friendly Little Red Hood, reviewed by Amanda Craig in The Times: http://www.phoenixyardbooks.com/news.php?id=17

  • In reply to Frann:

    Thank you for responding.

    I agree that it’s a pity that there wasn’t coverage of the prizes that seek out new talent: I judged the Macmillan Prize for Children’s Book Illustration for 10 years while I was MD there, and it was a good source of artists for Macmillan, but also, as a prize, also helps to up the ante for other publishers who don’t want to miss out.

  • I have to say my daughter liked Noisy Neighbours, mainly because of the colours and the fact that it is about animals, but both struggle with illustrators such as Kitty Crowther and Benjamin Lacombe, because there is a much “darker” aura to their illustrations. You could say that about Marjolaine Leray’s Little Red Hood too I guess. At home we have picture books that are very definitely my picture books as opposed to my children’s!

    Do you think that maybe these get more coverage in the press specifically because they won’t be the ones you will find in Red House or on Waterstone’s 3-for-2? Or maybe, without trying to be controversial, there is an element of snobiness involved, trying to distance oneself from mainstream stuff? I know in France many reviewers tend to turn their nose at mainstream (and often very popular) publishing; it is all about what is “worthy”, but I always thought that was rather “French” in attitude ;0)
    On the other hand, I saw lots of Marion Billet’s books while I was there and illustrators such as Edouard Manceau do get good coverage.

    I do so agree that it is a shame the Macmillan prize gets such little coverage.

    Such a fascinating discussion, thank you for initiating it Kate.

  • We publish Marion Billet, of course. She does our Noodle books. I think she’s someone who is not too risky for the UK market, but we have sold her internationally as well. She’s also a good example of someone with a range of styles, some of which I think are a bit more challenging for the UK market (http://www.amazon.fr/nature-Mes-petits-imagiers-sonores/dp/2070619982) than others (http://nosycrow.com/books/noodle-books-series/noodle-loves-to-cuddle).

  • I feel very lucky that my work will be published. In my class (of 18) only two of us have found work in the industry so far; a few of the rest are doing teaching qualifications; two of us are going on to do an MFA; and a couple moved to Australia to try their luck there. Most of them are working part time jobs in the service industry and living with their parents.

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