Tessa Strickland

Publisher Barefoot Books

Could you tell us about your professional background?

Once upon a time, when I had returned from teaching English in Japan as a young postgraduate, I responded to an advertisement in the Guardian for a copywriter at Penguin Books. I got the job, and worked at Penguin for the next seven years, latterly as Managing Editor of the Viking list. I then joined Random House as Editorial Director of the Rider list. Turnover for the list trebled in the three years that I was there.

What led to the creation of Barefoot books and your partnership with Nancy Traversy?

While I was at Random House, I gave birth to my daughter and third child. As a mother of small children, and as editorial director of a list which published a number of titles on personal development, I had become fascinated by the role of art and story in our lives. Rider enjoyed, and continues to enjoy, huge success with Clarissa Pinkola Estes’ seminal book, ‘Women Who Run with the Wolves’, which uses story to brilliant effect in exploring soul issues for adults. I was intrigued by this and by the work of others drawing on myth and story in the field of psychoanalysis, and as a parent, I felt it must be important to give children nourishing ‘soul food’ in the form of art and story. I also place a high value on the importance of cultural diversity and it was these two influences that shaped the vision behind the Barefoot publishing programme.

I am often asked how I came up with the company name and logo – the name came to me out of the blue, and seemed to be the best way to express what I wanted to do for children. The logo is taken from an ink impression of my daughter’s feet, taken when she was a baby by a Japanese friend. When the impression was reduced it made a beautiful logo!

I met Nancy by chance; I was besieging everyone I knew with questions about how to start a publishing company and how to run a business and one of my brothers, a long-time friend of Nancy’s husband, said I should meet her. Nancy, whose background is in business and design, had just resigned from her position as Managing Director of a small design group in Covent Garden following the birth of her first daughter. When we met, it soon became apparent that we had very similar ideas and ambitions, so we agreed to set up the company together.

How long has Barefoot books been established and what should we expect to see in the future?

Our first books came out in September 1993. For the first five years, we enjoyed great success selling co-editions in the US market, and it became apparent that it would make a lot of sense to publish in the US market ourselves. The appearance of the internet was critical to this decision as we saw in it an opportunity to get much closer to our customers than is possible with the traditional publishing model – we realised that we now had an opportunity to build Barefoot as a brand.

When we first went into the US market, we tried to publish according to the traditional model – depending on the retailers to get us to our audience, and doing big deals with the chains for our best titles. However, this is like playing Russian roulette – the publisher has to pay for a prime bookstore position, and the publisher takes the hit if the books don’t sell. We soon realised we needed a different way of reaching our audience, which we define as parents and educators who care about the quality of the books their children are reading. So we took the view that it made sense for us to build our brand with a multi-channel model: not ignoring the traditional routes to market but complementing them with a mail order business and with a direct selling business, ‘The Barefoot Stallholder Programme’. At the moment, we’re having a good run: our sales grew by 40% last year and this year we were up 30% after the first quarter. The growth is across the board but most of it is coming from the direct mail and direct selling channels.

In terms of product development, we’ve always wanted to do something to exploit the wonderful art in our books. So we’ve been seeking out a few like-minded partners and striking co-publishing deals with them. For example, we now have a number of beautifully produced, high-quality educational puzzles and games which are manufactured by Mudpuppy Press in New York, co-branded, distributed by them into the gift market and by Barefoot into the book trade, the direct mail and the direct selling markets. Looking ahead, we aim to develop this relationship and a few others – not too many, and only with products that tie in with our overall philosophy.

How many illustrators do you typically work with a year?

We develop about twenty new books a year. We set out to build long-term relationships with our artists and some do one of two titles a year for us. At any given time, I am working up to three years ahead, and new work from artists and their agents crosses my desk every day. Barefoot is unusual in being a picture book publisher with quite a particular visual as well as editorial focus so I see a lot of work that it beautiful, but not right for us. At the moment, I am working with about forty artists, from all over the world.

Tell us a little about your latest releases and what captured your attention in terms of manuscript and illustrative style.

We have a book on the autumn list called ‘The Boy Who Grew Flowers’. It’s probably my favourite on this year’s programme and it is exciting to see it come together, as it took over four years to find the right illustrator for it. The main figure in the story is a boy called Rink. Rink’s family is rather unusual – his uncle Dud tames rattlesnakes, his Grandma was raised by wolves, and Rink himself has a unique talent: he sprouts roses all over his body every full moon. Rink’s mum discreetly snips these off him before he goes to school, where he’s rather a loner. Then a vivacious new girl comes to the school; she’s Angelina, and she’s well liked, but Rink is too shy to talk to her. When a school dance is announced, Angelina tells her friends she can’t go, because she has one leg shorter than the other. Rink is touched by this, and he rushes home to make her a pair of snakeskin shoes, one of them with a platform so that she can balance. Now Angelina has what she needs to be Rink’s dancing partner. Afterwards, he shares with her that he sprouts roses every full moon, and she laughs and shares with him that every day, she grows a flower of a different colour behind her left ear. Clearly, these two are made for each other – when they grow up, they become gardeners, and each of their six children has green thumbs!

This story was written by a first-time author, Jen Woczowitz, and it was inspired by her relationship with her autistic brothers. It celebrates difference in a way that casts a spell on you as you read it. After a long search and many false starts, the illustrations – which are beautiful – have been prepared by a French-Canadian illustrator, Steve Adams. This is a very unusual picture book and quite a risky one to bring out; I think though, that reviewers and buyers will love it, and so will anyone who picks it up and reads it.
You have a close relationship with the Manchester Art Gallery (UK) – for those who are unaware, could you elaborate on this partnership?

I was approached by Manchester Art Gallery back in 2001; their development manager was on our mailing list and she loved the art in our books and asked if we would work with the gallery to put together an exhibition for children. I was quickly drawn into this project; I was engaged by the idea of presenting illustrations from our books in an interactive way. I worked very closely and creatively with one of the gallery’s curators and the exhibition, ‘Imagine’, was a runaway success and is still on tour. The exhibition marked the start of a relationship which has also included a series of public and educational programmes and the publication of a children’s guide to the gallery. We were delighted to have the relationship acknowledged earlier this year when we won both the Arts & Business SME Award and the Hollis Award for Sponsorship of the Arts. Thank you, everyone at Manchester!

The Barefoot books website puts a lot of emphasis on illustration and those artists you work with. As a smaller publishing house, are you able to nurture these talents with greater enthusiasm than larger publishers with massive lists?

I don’t think any editor can forge a meaningful working relationship with a writer or artist unless he or she is enthusiastic about that author or artist’s work. I don’t know whether being at a smaller house makes a difference but it does offer stability and continuity. One of the most pleasurable aspects of my job is to find talented young writes and artists, work with them and see their work get better year after year.

Chicken House was recently acquired by Scholastic, How does this acquisition affect rival independent publishing houses such as Barefoot?

I don’t regard Chicken House as a rival to Barefoot – the strength of their programme lies in their children’s fiction, which is not an area in which we publish. We have a clear strategy at Barefoot and a great team; we just need to keep our focus and keep working. The rest of the market will surely take care of itself! .

Barefoot books are established in the US and UK. How do these markets differ and what measures do you take to ensure cross-Atlantic success?

There are surprising similarities between the markets – most of our bestsellers are bestsellers in both territories. I suppose the most obvious difference is that the US market is a lot richer, especially the institutional sector, and much bigger. So being in both the US and the UK means that we can develop what we like, knowing that we’ll be able to sell enough in the first print run to underwrite the origination costs.

We don’t have different programmes in the UK and the US; we devote a lot of management time to building a team which may be separated by over three thousand miles but which works together very closely. Essentially, I see us as publishing to a certain sensibility, and that sensibility is the same in the US as is in England, France, Finland, Japan, Australia. So we are quite particular about maintaining this sensibility in everything we create.

Fantasy and Manga are current ‘buzzwords’ and ‘themes’ – how do you keep track of current trends and do they influence your lists to any degree?

I think they must but it is probably subliminal! New and original ways of writing and illustrating children’s books are emerging all the time and it is fun working with writers, artists and designers to come up with new ideas while keeping the needs of the child firmly at the centre of the agenda.

What percentage of your titles are from first-time authors?

Well, we have ten new hardcover titles on the autumn programme and two are from first-time authors, so that’s 20% and I’d say that’s fairly typical.

What industry events do you attend and why?

In Europe, we attend the London Book Fair, the Bologna Book Fair and the Frankfurt Book Fair. London is important both for relationships with UK buyers and for foreign rights; Bologna and Frankfurt are critical for foreign rights and Bologna is also a fantastic fair at which to discover new talent. In the US, we attend BEA, for the same reasons as we attend the London Book Fair. We also go to both the midsummer and midwinter ALA (American Librarians’ Association) conferences, to keep in touch with librarians and other buyers in the institutional market, and also to sit in on the very informative lectures and award presentations that are a feature of those conferences.


This interview has been syndicated courtesy of Childrensillustrators.com