Wednesday, 15 June 2011

Children's illustrators concerned over UK market





In the recent issue of the UK  Bookseller, Caroline Horn  quotes UK illustrator:
Frann Preston-Gannon, who was recently awarded a Maurice Sendak Fellowship in the US, said: "I have had a number of openings for my work in the US, while in the UK, I have been told to change my style to make it more commercial. As a new illustrator [in  the UK], the kinds of projects you get are reissues of fairy tales rather than brand new books."

It's a topic that's close to my heart since I stopped working for UK publishers in the early 1990s when a UK publisher a wanted a novelty project I'd written but wanted to use a more "conservative, less European-style" illustrator.  I took the project to a French publisher and didn't look back.   I've only recently returned with a book published by Bloomsbury US/UK.   


Anyhow The Bookseller asked me for my feedback as SCBWI international illustrator advisor.  Anyone who knows me would realize that the quote they used,  was not all I had to say about the subject. So for what it's worth, here's my expanded 'take',  coloured by my own experience. 

As I see it, if there is a problem that unpublished, talented illustrators have in the UK, it's not due to the lack of support.  Aside from a great variety of workshops and conferences that British Isles SCBWI organizes and the professional back-up of  Association of Illustrators, there are initiatives like  Booktrust's  Best New Illustrators award.   A handful of new UK illustrators hit the shelves  each year and the lucky few are the object of  media attention, prizes and focused marketing.   But emerging talent  from previous years and 'mid-list' published illustrators have increasingly had to fend for themselves and go wherever the work is.

The problem is more about a shrinking UK home market.  Since the first reductions of library budgets in the early 90s, UK publishers have had to be more careful about the new talent they take on.  They've done really well on foreign rights sales,  second-guessing what other countries want.  But the dependency on foreign sales, alongside the restricted commercial demands of UK chain stores, means it's economically well-nigh impossible for a publisher to strike out with a new look with nothing but the courage of your convictions  - unless a) you have a niche market like Tate does with its own museum shops, or b) you go into e-publishing and don't expect any fast return.    So many UK publishers have been forced to be more cautious than the US or French counterparts, and the kind of ground-breaking, expensive  black and white tome like Brian Selnick's The Invention of Hugo Cabret  could simply not have been launched in the UK.

I want to believe that this may be changing. British publishers are looking harder for ways to by-pass conservative retailers,  and  for innovative  ways to promote and sell books in online as well as off, and there are  e-books and apps. 

Book festivals such as at Hay on Wye seem to be increasingly successful at drawing in book-buying crowds and children.  Could festival sales help to expand the market for illustrators?  Across the Channel, that's what I think happens at the huge French children's book fair which is both a professional fair and a buying jamboree.   Held in Montreuil, near Paris, it attracts more UK illustrator visitors each year.    Not only is it a diverse window - with many pictures -  for stunning new and older talent,   but a major if not the primary source for some French publishers of their annual book sales -  to school teachers, librarians (armed with larger budgets, it's true,  than their UK counterparts), as well as families...and collectors.  This in turn means that French publishers can also take risks with new illustrators and foster less 'commercial' but more critically interesting work.  And illustrators can arrange to meet editors and art directors at their stands.  Sue Porter is just one example of a UK illustrator who did that and found her first French publisher there last year, having become disenchanted with UK commercial constraints.

Another good  springboard for new ( not always young!)  children's illustrators that used to exist in the UK, but has gone down the television tube, are the richly-illustrated monthly children's magazines which still are going strong in France, the US and elsewhere.   Such magazines kept me thinking laterally and paying my bills for years.  The French magazines publisher by Bayard, Fleurus and Milan, use a wide range of styles, even edgy and conceptual ones at times, and  they are open to foreign talent. As David McKee told me, when he suggested I contact them back in the 90s, working on a monthly project expands your repertoire and allows you to experiment.  As turnover is rapid, feedback from experienced art directors is much faster than in the book world.  I've seen the work of Helen Stephens,  Bob Graham, and Helen Oxenbury among other non-French illustrators in their pages.

Caroline Horn wondered in the Bookseller if the UK needed a  Maurice Sendak-like fellowship.  Of course a star like Sendak  can give confidence to a new illustrator,  and help put their name on the map as Quentin Blake did for his Royal College students. But the risk of a star system of mentorship, like some contests,  is that it perpetuates a certain 'line' of illustration.  From my own experience at the huge SCBWI Los Angeles conference last year, I'd argue that pooling several mentors together, with different viewpoints might work  better.  But what the six illustrators selected out of the portfolio display needed most of all - what we all need -  is the confidence boost that comes from working with an agent, art director or editor.

So what to do if you're a budding book illustrator in the UK?   My answer is, expand your horizons!  I think Bologna should be on every children's book illustrators agenda, at least once in their life.  Its size is daunting but aside from making your mark on the famous Illustrator Wall, it gives you a global sense of the whole publishing business. The Bologna Illustrators competition  which tends to foster less commercial illustration, might be worth sending in to.  The organizers have told me they don't receive enough work from UK and US artists...  And aside from the Illustrator and Author's cafes (where I saw Selznick talk last year)  the kilometers of publishers stands display every kind of book  for every age from across the world.  There are inspiring illustration exhibitions in the centre of town too.  In 2012,  SCBWI will have its biennial stand in the fair and shows the work of selected members there and online in the Illustrator Display portfolio.   It also provides a number of showcase slots for published SCBWI members and pre-booked individual reviews for illustrators with art directors - another reason to join SCBWI wherever you are!

It's worth remembering the cliché that pictures travel. We should embrace the global market more, and learn from it.   After all, we are one small planet.   And children's author-illustrators are rare birds even if we do all flock together at times.





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