Could you tell us about your professional background?
I left college in 1986 having studied Graphic Design and Advertising, and originally intended to get work as a copywriter in an ad agency. However, due to a terrible case of post-grad poverty, I took up design work to pay the rent. Things got out of hand and in 1988 I was offered a job with Walker Books – partly because I was the only designer who’d applied that knew how to operate their swanky new Mac. Back then, Walker was a young and lively place – my second interview consisted mainly of a glass of champagne and a chat with a new hopeful illustrator called Martin Handford, who quickly became a millionaire with his Where’s Wally? series.
Although I stayed at Walker for the next eight years, I managed to do a whole range of jobs whilst there – I was even their design IT manager at one point, working for both the UK office and for Candlewick Press, their then fledgling US company – and I learned a lot about book design. They have some of the best people in the business there and it really changed my thinking as I watched these people create some truly beautiful books. For years after, if I had a design problem, I would think to myself, “How would Amelia Edwards solve this?” or, “What would Liz Wood do here?” Trying to think like them got me out of a lot of problems and I still believe they’re the best designers I’ve met so far.
After a short spell working freelance, I joined Scholastic Children’s Books. Scholastic proved to be a very different beast to work for – instead of the intimate, family-like feel that Walker had, I was now in the depths of a large corporate beast, with a huge collection of offices all over the world. Again, I seem to have landed there at just the right time – we were in the middle of the Goosebumps, Point Horror, Babysitters Club era, which was quickly followed by Pokemon and then by the Philip Pullman books. But the publishing was very sales and marketing led, particularly after David Fickling left, and the creative teams were increasingly pressured to produce mass-market books which wasn’t always a great time for our writers and illustrators. Because we did so well, I was always able to pay the illustrators good money though, which is something I love doing, and managed to get a couple of really great people to work with me. For a great deal of my time at Scholastic, I was art director for fiction, which has rapidly become a very challenging area of design – sadly at the expense of illustrators. I find they get less and less work on older fiction as each year passes and the cover designers become illustrators in their own right. This is mainly because the demand for competitive designs means there is less and less time available to develop an idea with an illustrator – by the time an idea is mocked-up, the cover looks practically finished. I have on occasion had my digital work re-interpreted by an illustrator, despite it being practically ready to proof, mainly to get the feel of a hand-rendered piece on the final cover.
Last year I took the post of art director at Orchard – a fabulous place to work, with the same great love of books as Walker and also the strong commercial sense I found at Scholastic. A perfect balance! The team at Orchard are great too – with a youthful and energetic outlook that finds its way into each book. Again, I seem to have changed jobs at the perfect time, as Orchard are currently doing extremely well with a huge number of books, especially their Rainbow Magic series.
How many illustrators do you typically work with per year?
This isn’t too easy to calculate, as I can be either working “live” on a book with an illustrator, or developing something with them or even just talking with them, trying to find a way to fit them on our list – it all counts a working with them. Most illustrators work either in isolation or in quite small groups and need to talk with their designers and editors on a regular basis – true creative work in children’s publishing is more about communication than about marks on paper. I think a good publishing designer will probably spend more time on the phone, working something through with an illustrator than trying to impose their ideas on the book. I think it’s fair to say that there isn’t really a set number of illustrators that I work with each year, much more an ever-expanding and continuous interaction with all of the new illustrators I meet and those I’ve worked with over the years. .
Do you work with many illustrators from outside the UK?
Over the years I’ve worked with several European and American illustrators. I don’t find it problematic in general, although there are occasional translation problems (even with the Americans!) and this can be frustrating if there are pressing deadlines. European illustrators can also be extremely introspective about their work, and this can produce illustration that doesn’t always work in the UK. I find it very interesting that UK publishers sell huge amounts of books, illustrated by UK artists, to the rest of the world and that this is not reciprocated equally with non-UK publishers and illustrators.
What (if anything) would make you not want to work with a particular illustrator?
I find the main thing that puts me off an illustrator is when they believe their work is perfect in every way. In particular, if an illustrator feels that the designer and editor are just there to as an obstacle between them, and their public and treats them accordingly, then this tends not to be a happy relationship. There are only a few people who fall in to this category though. The other main problem which all designers dread, is an illustrator who either delivers terribly late or even not at all – especially if they ignore your calls and e-mails, so that you have no idea what the problem is or when to expect the work. In both cases though, word gets around the business and artists like this can often end up on the bottom of everyone’s list.
How are Orchard Books royalties and advances structured?
Again, a difficult one to answer. In almost every case, the advance and royalty (if there is to be one) are negotiated on a book by book basis. Usually, on picture books the royalty is split 50-50 but the illustrator will get a significantly larger advance against royalties to cover the amount of time anticipated to finish the book. Naturally this means that the illustrator waits a lot longer for the royalty payments to start appearing. Fiction is much more complex in its payment structure and it’s not always the case that the illustrator can expect a royalty.
We run an illustrator of the month feature – Who is your personal illustrator of the month from those you have worked with or admire?
I would have to defer on this question – I think that if we’ve asked an illustrator to appear on our list, it’s because we love their work. If I had to highlight someone though, it would probably be Kate McEwen, whom I’m really enjoying working with at the moment – she’s just delivered some magnificent roughs for a forthcoming book and we’re all very excited about them. Although I can now think of at least a dozen others whom I could also mention for the same reason.
Do you like to see sketch books and work in progress?
Of course – there are often some great ideas buried in sketch books and I have known whole books grow from tiny scribbles in the corner of a page.
Of the titles you have been personally responsible for, which one are you most proud of and why?
Blimey! Where do I start? Again, it would be difficult and probably very unwise for me to single out any one book. Genuinely there are many, many books that I’ve designed that I’m proud of, for a multitude of reasons. It feels like I’m most proud of the books I’m working on and that we’re about to publish, rather than the ones that are already out there. It always seems there are so many possibilities for a book that’s yet to come and one always believes it could be the next big thing. I think that’s what gives you the right energy for a project – the belief that it will be better than everything you’ve done before.
What can we expect from Orchard Books in 2006?
The new titles for Orchard are looking very strong, especially in the second half of 2006. The important thing we need to focus on are the core Orchard values – editorial and design excellence coupled with some of the best authors and illustrators around. We’ve just had a fabulously successful Frankfurt – Sarah Gibb and Viv French will probably take the young fiction market by storm with Tiara Club, and in picture books, Jane Simmons has a major return to form with Together and we have a big surprise hit with Sam Lloyd’s Mr Pusskins, featuring a radical new look to her artwork!
What three key pieces of advice would you offer to unpublished illustrators reading this interview?
The main thing I always tell new illustrators is to be honest about your work. Although most great illustrators are very modest about their skills, they still know in their heart if a piece is good or not. If you look at your work and think it either looks mediocre, or incomplete or in any way isn’t your best efforts, then so will anyone else who sees it. There’s nothing worse than an illustrator who’s lazy about their work – especially if you know they have lots of talent. I think I would like new illustrators to be more trusting of publishers in general. I find a lot of graduates come to us expecting to be ripped off in some way and this doesn’t really get things off to a good start. Quite often an agent is useful in helping to establish a trusting relationship with a publisher – although again, these tend not to be trusted by graduates either.
Do you look for illustrators able to provide digital images?
Not really – it can be useful in some cases but useless in others. Anyone who works in traditional media should just deliver their artwork, artists who scan their own work for example, might just as well not bother – no publisher would ever trust a scan which wasn’t done through their production department. On the other hand, e-mailed roughs are a blessing as it skips out a whole morning spent scanning them. There are some illustrators who work digitally, and deliver their work on disk. This is often very useful, as long as they know what they’re doing and how the work will pint.
Within the last couple of years, which children’s book has been the most successful for Orchard Books and why?
Again, a difficult one to answer as it’s hard to benchmark the success of a book. If it’s outright sales then I would have to choose the Rainbow Magic books although these are mass-market fiction and carefully structured to do well in their field. Lauren Child’s Clarice Bean novels are hugely successful too, and I think that this is because they have the same universal appeal as say the Simpsons – something for all ages. Giles Andreae and Guy Parker Rees have a great deal of success – particularly with titles such as Giraffes Can’t Dance, which not only appeals to the individual in all of us, but looks truly fabulous too. On the other hand, there are the personal successes, where Orchard has managed to develop an artist and publish them in a way that lifts their profile or simply produces a book that we all love, whether it sells well or not.
This interview has been syndicated courtesy of Childrensillustrators.com