Martha Rago

Executive Art Director HarperCollins Children's Books

Could you tell us about how you entered the world of publishing and detail your subsequent rise to Executive Art Director with HarperCollins Children’s Books?

Like many designers I know, my entry into publishing was serendipitous. I had been a clothing designer for several years and longed for something creative that was more meaningful and enduring. Evening courses opened my eyes to the beauty of typography, and redirected my illustration and design skills to bookmaking. It was my great good fortune that my first “informational interview” led to a real job in publishing.

My first position was at G.P. Putnam’s Sons as assistant to the Art Director. I am forever grateful to Nanette Stevenson for hiring me. She was a wonderful teacher and mentor. I learned so much from her and from the creative talents I was so lucky to work with. The varied list included classics from Wanda Gag and Margot Tomes, new works from both established greats such as Eric Carle, Tomie DePaola, Ed Young, Marc Simont as well as newer illustrators such as Patricia Pallocco and Elise Primavera. I was eager to learn and grow as quickly as I could ­ I felt sure this was my life’s career. Since I had gotten a late start I pursued freelance work to get to know other publishers and to experience a variety of projects. When I left Putnam, I took on more challenges and added to my skills and experience with each new position.

Over the next five years I progressed from Senior designer at E.P. Dutton to FSG as Art Director, then on to Henry Holt as Creative Director. I came into my own at Holt, working in close collaboration with the editors to develop and nurture a stable of solid illustrators with whom I grew and matured. Well known artists such as Ted Rand, Peter Sis and Eric Carle, and newer artists such as Peter McCarty, Denise Fleming, Laurie Keller, Bryan Collier, Randy Cecil and Julie Paschkis won awards and critical acclaim during this time.

After ten very happy and fulfilling years at Henry Holt, I was offered the opportunity to join HarperCollins as Executive Art Director. It was hard to leave Holt, yet I was drawn to the possibility of further professional growth and challenge, the variety and the stimulation of working with a wide range of perspectives and interests, from editors and artists and also from a larger group of designers – people as passionate about books as I. HarperCollins is a vital house filled with talented people, and many exciting projects and plans for the future. I admit it is a bit daunting to imagine I can impact a list as large and as successful as Harper’s. But there are still so many artists to work with, so many to discover and to try to create opportunity for, not too mention so much to learn about the ever-changing business side. And of course there are the continually challenging computer skills to keep honed…After 20 years of making books I sometimes feel I am just getting started.

Having worked at G.P Putnams, Farrar Straus and Giroux, Henry Holt and Company and now HarperCollins – how would you say these companies vary in their methods of working / approach to commissioning illustrators?

In my experience, every publisher relies on the art director for guidance in choosing artists and in developing picture books with them. I don’t see a big difference among houses in the way picture books develop largely because, I suppose, I bring the same approach no matter where I’m working. There is some variation in how formal the acquisition procedure is, but the development of projects is more about the differences in individual perspectives and attitudes rather than in company procedure. The Art Director who trained me had strong relationships with editors and that trust and communication extended to the artists. That was my working model, I suppose, and I have always tried to adjust my involvement to the needs of each editor and artist. The goal is to have a fluid and comfortable working relationship all around to encourage the artist’s best work.

Generally an editor will informally show me a manuscript, and we’ll talk about the editor’s vision for the book, and the various ways we each see it could be developed. We also discuss possible artists. This gives us a game plan for presenting the project to acquisitions and ultimately a clear set of expectations for the artist.

Sometimes the acquisition process may be very formal, involving a presentation a to sales, marketing, editorial, art, finance (which is the way it is at HarperCollins), or may be a smaller, less formal discussion involving only the publisher, art director and maybe the marketing director (as it was at Holt). Some kind of financial analysis (preliminary manufacturing estimate or profit and loss analysis) is always done to determine that the format, production costs, anticipated advance and projected sales all make good business sense.

Once the project is acquired and underway, the editor and art director (or designer) work as a team to establish an approach, goals, and a schedule with the artist. We may provide critical commentary and guidance, technical and general support, or simply encouragement. Who takes on which role depends on individual skills, inclination, prior relationship etc., but we are all equally invested in the process and outcome. This sort of collaborative effort provides the artist with what they need to work well and comfortably.

Within the last couple of years, which children’s book has been the most successful for HarperCollins and why?

Harper has an abundance of riches when it comes to recent bestsellers. Currently, the most successful books by far are the eleven titles in the Series of Unfortunate Events (Book the 12th coming soon!) by Lemony Snickett. The author’s wry humor, Brett Hellquist’s exceptional illustrations, the innovative format and design, won these books a unique place in middle grade fiction. Much care and consideration went into the initial choice of artist and design with the intention to set apart the author’s unique voice from other middle grade fiction writers at the time. This special attention paid off, and set the right tone for the whole series. As a testament to its success, the look of the package has prompted many imitators, and spurred growth in the genre for this age level.

In the picture book category, my particular area, especially strong sellers this year include year 10 LITTLE RUBBER DUCKS by Eric Carle, RUNNY BABBIT by Shel Silverstein, RUSSELL THE SHEEP by Rob Scotton, DIARY OF A SPIDER, the second collaboration by Doreen Cronin and illustrated by Harry Bliss. I’ll focus on just one, but each is the result of a thoughtful process and careful planning that make the book well-crafted and able to find a place in the market.

A worm’s eye view of the world (DIARY OF A WORM), the unexpected friendship between spider and fly (DIARY OF A SPIDER), are unique perspectives that resulted in NEW YORK TIMES bestsellers. Both text and art have humor and wit and work seamlessly together. Bliss’s unexpected visual details add fun to an engaging story. Of course, its much easier to find reasons why a book does well after you already have great sales to prove your point. But both these examples had particular care and planning from the beginning. The first title was the result of a strong vision on the part of editor, author, artist and designer. The second had the same care in its development and clarity of vision with the added bonus of being a worthy follow-up to a big hit. It’s tricky to follow a success without being repetitive and formulaic. Using some of the devices of the previous book helps the reader to make a connection from one to the other yet each title has integrity and merit to stand on its own. The attention to even the smallest detail was crucial to making them well-crafted books that catch the eye of a prospective reader.

From the work you see on a daily basis, how would you say illustration styles are evolving?

There are so many illustration styles and each artist is individual in his or her approach – thankfully – that it is hard to make a generalization about art styles. I do see much more work that is rendered digitally but even in within that category there is tremendous variation–from photographic, to naive, from painterly and representational to abstract and conceptual. If there is a single change that can be cited it is that more artists are using computers to create artwork, and to show their pieces as e-mail attachments or links to website portfolios.

How many titles do HarperCollins publish per year? Of these what percentage are picture books?

HarperCollins Children’s books publishes about 600 titles a year. This includes several imprints and is comprised of novels, illustrated chapter books, fiction and non-fiction, paperbacks, board books, merchandise and movie tie-in properties. The picture book portion of the mix is between 25 and 30%.

Are graphic novels part of the HarperCollins offering?

Although we don’t have an imprint devoted exclusively to them, HarperCollins will be publishing some graphic novels in upcoming seasons. We published two picture books in ‘graphic novel style’ in the last two years from the extraordinary team of Neil Gaimon and Dave McKean. We will continue to do books in this category from a variety of artists.

What project have you found most enjoyable to work on and why?

I find the most enjoyable aspect is the working relationship that develops with each project. Often the artist, editor and I meet to discuss an approach or to review a new stage of the dummy. In that hour or so of exchanging ideas, sharing anecdotal stories, and often laughter, the work grows and changes. The collaborative process itself, and the evolution of the work, is always surprising and always a joy.

But perhaps I’m evading the question! I love working with a wide range of artists and I don’t like name favorites. However, I’ve had the pleasure of bringing in some new talent to the list and now that those projects are actually finished. I admit I have especially enjoyed seeing these new artists produce finished, printed books. David Roberts’ illustrations for MRS CRUMP’S CAT by Linda Smith is his first picture book in the US. Our meetings took place through transatlantic phone calls and letters, which were just as effective and productive as meetings in the office. David was a pleasure to work with: full of ideas, responsive to input yet retained his own perspective and sensibility. I felt he was right for the story because of his ability to capture quirky and unique characters (both human and animal) and David gave us even more than I could imagine.

What three key pieces of advice would you offer to unpublished illustrators reading this interview?

Apart from trusting your instincts and continuing to make art they way you feel you should, the best advice I can give an artist is to do your homework before approaching publishers for work. That way you are best equipped to take your work to the right place for the best chance of success.

Research the marketplace to see where your work fits in and where you would want to be as a published illustrator. Local bookstores, independents and chains, Costco, Walmart, Sam’s Club–anywhere books are sold are sources of information for you. Try to get a handle on what’s different about their title mix ­what they seem to emphasize, what they display. Pay attention to subject, format and price, and which publishers are strongly represented. Once you understand the differences between among these markets you can tailor your portfolio to reflect your best work for each. Then you can target the appropriate publisher to solicit work. This doesn’t mean you must sell out and do what has been already done, but be informed about how you see yourself in the established world. If you see yourself as a maverick, then sell yourself that way!

Research publishers using their websites or The Literary Market Place as a reference resource for each publisher’s title mix and submission guidelines. Try to understand the differences among publishers, and determine which are most appropriate for your goals. Talk to librarians, they are a wonderful and rich repository of information on publishing. You can get reccomendations, news of the best books, new and old, in the genres you are most interested in. They may also have insights that will help you distinguish one publisher from another. It is important to know your competition as well as find your inspiration, and sometimes these two go hand-in-hand. .

Be aware of your strengths and prepare a portfolio that highlights your best work and your true interests. Get feedback on your work from professional organizations such as SCBWI, instructors, fellow artists. Tailor your portfolio to the work you wish to pursue ­ If you want to do picture books show characterization and sequential, narrative images. Pay attention to the level of sophistication of your work and if it is suitable to the format you are pursuing. If you want to do jackets or editorial illustration, show single strong pieces that are conceptual or stylized or portraiture.

What key industry events do you attend annually and why?

I regularly attend the Society of Illustrators events, especially the Original Art exhibition that is dedicated to showing Children’s Book Art. Mostly this is a celebratory event and it is a treat to be in the same room with so much great art and great talent. Of course it’s also good for generating ideas, to pick up on what other people are doing, and find new talent as well. I go to one or two industry conferences a year in the U.S. I generally seek out new talent and get ideas, and sometimes participate in a special event with HarperCollins. ComConn is great for exploring the world of graphic artists and comic book publications, for example.

I find ALA is very worthwhile for me and I go whenever I have the opportunity. Librarians, so passionate and knowledgeable about books, lead committed discussions or panels on many subjects, ­ such as teens reactions novel jackets, or on books up for awards ­ and some meetings are open to attendees. These are often informative and provide useful and interesting perspectives on our work.

The Bologna Book Fair is also a great fair to attend, and I try to go every year. It’s inspiring to see books from publishers from around the world. It is an especially wonderful forum for artists. There are artist-oriented events occurring throughout the day, including an art exhibition of international artists, and panels and speakers. Usually an artist is honored in a special show, artists from a particular country are highlighted, and the Bologna Ragazzi awards are given annually to the top three children’s books in the world. I go primarily to look for new talent, for ideas and inspiration, and to develop a broader perspective ­ not to mention for the pure pleasure of being in Italy!

What can we expect from HarperCollins Children’s Books in 2006?

Great picture books are coming from HarperColllins in 2006 including a new collaboration from Jamie Lee Curtis and Laura Cornell (TODAY I FEEL SILLY), more from Felicia Bond (IF YOU GIVE A MOUSE A COOKIE), and many other high-profile titles. But to avoid sounding like a catalog of an entire list I will highlight just three relative newcomers to HarperCollins in the picture book category that I find notable for the art, author’s voice, and quality of design. We’ll have Rob Scotton’s second title, RUSSELL AND THE LOST TREASURE, featuring the same charming character in a new adventure with a satisfying and surprising ending. And FANCY NANCY from Jane O’Conner and Robin Preiss Glasser is a warm, funny book. It will appeal to any fancy-four-year old who prefers feather boas to jeans but the heart of the story is much more than fluff. And of course, MRS. CRUMP’S CAT, already mentioned, which is completely charming in every way.

What would you say is going to be the ‘next big thing’ in children’s illustration?

If only I could predict the next big thing! Right now, though, there are a couple of illustration trends I can’t help but notice.

Graphic novels are a category publishers are very interested in pursuing and many have started imprints devoted exclusively to that format. Many such titles that are appropriate for young adults are starting to be sold in bookstores other than in comic book and specialty stores. This stylistic approach is being adapted into other levels of readers ­ even into picture books. Their appeal cuts across the traditional division between children’s and adult books. (Bookstores can be inconsistent in terms of which department carry graphic novels but are willing to sell them, whether in adult or children’s sections.) More artists, too, are interested in trying their hand at this this style. I think it is safe to say this will become a new category in children’s books and will continue to grow.

Another trend that that requires a strong artistic component to work well is the novelty and pop-up format. The huge success of Candlewick/Templar’s ²–ology² books proves that complicated, innovative formats with high content have commercial appeal. Similarly, the sophisticated and artful pop-up books of Robert Sabuda and Matthew Reinhart do extremely well, even with a high price point. I expect other artists and publishers to develop their own three-dimensional visions to compete with these sophisticated and graphic formats.

Aside from their obvious talent, what personal qualities do you look for when choosing an illustrator to work with?

In determining if an artist is suitable for a particular project I consider several qualities: I first look for a strong personal response from the artist to the text. If they ³get² it on a gut level, I know they will bring to it something unique and inspired. Artists usually let me know right away what images come to mind, what they can relate to, or how they want to deal with crucial parts of the story. This ia a good gauge of their interest and enthusiasm.

Second, I consider how communicative they are, how responsive and flexible they will be to feedback and the ebb and flow of a project. One doesn’t always know exactly how a project will develop and when a lot of involvement from the author or an editor is a certainty, that must be factored in. If the attitude remains open and collaborative throughout there is always less friction. Having said that, I often encourage artists to follow their vision with only an occasional reality check. Afterall, that is why they were chosen in the first place.

Last, I always expect the artist to be dependable, accessible and realistic in the way they plan and manage their time so deadlines can be met. When I know scheduling is a continuing problem for a particular artist, it can eliminate them from serious consideration. We can’t risk losing the investment of time, the planned publication date which is part of the acquiring strategy, and the ire of an author that would result.

This interview has been syndicated courtesy of Childrensillustrators.com