Thursday 22 April 2010

Acquisitions, Apps, Reindeer and a Girl Called Emma

I was talking a few days ago to a friend who is an extremely high profile children’s book writer and illustrator. By high profile, I mean that he has over a dozen books in print and his work has been adapted for an award winning international TV series. However my friend is far from sanguine about his future and far from complacent about what the man on the Clapham omnibus would regard as a successful career as a kingpin in children’s publishing.
To achieve this feat he has had to work at rates which fall well below the minimum wage, remortgage his house and endure years of stress worrying about his overdraft. He loves his work, but even the satisfaction of being able to communicate his ideas with a young readership is being undermined by acquisitions committees, who always, always include at least one girl called Emma, recently out of university and intent on building a career in publishing.
What are acquisitions committees, I hear you ask? When it comes to the beautiful idea you the creator had when it was just you, your A4 art pad and a mug of tea, they are what the same man on the Clapham omnibus would describe with fatalistic resignation as the real world. The real world of Waterstones Bookshops, the real world of mid western American librarian’s associations, the real world of P.C. gone mad, they are there to ensure that every perceived special interest group that might have a deleterious effect on the sales of your book are appeased before the publishers start expending money on your beautiful idea.
They are in effect the bane of creativity. Heaven only knows what would have happened if Walt Disney had had to show an acquisitions committee the rushes to “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs”, but I expect the scene where the wicked queen transforms herself into the hideous hag would have definitely aroused the ire of young Emma.
My friend went on to say that now of course all the publishers have come back from Bologna talking about apps. Such is their enthusiasm for the app that they are going back over their lists to see if they have any properties that could be revived specifically for this purpose. 
At this juncture my mind turned in the direction of another fellow creative, who’s also had a formidable back catalogue of kiddie’s books to his credit. Jon Higham was selling stories to publishers when Walker Books was run by Sebastian Walker and he would be able to deal with the decision maker direct, the days of pre-corporate, pre-committee driven publishing. You presented the idea and it was either yes or no not as now, three to six months in limbo while your proposal awaits the magical moment when all concerned can assemble like the Council of Elrond only to decide that your idea is not perhaps what they’re looking for at the moment.
Yes Jon’s had the golden era of dealing direct with publishers of vision and commitment and he’s also had the experience of dealing with the current model of publishing. But he’s adapting to change - in fact he’s adapting faster than the publishers he was once so assiduously courting. Jon a couple or so years ago produced a truly charming and very stylish picture book about a reindeer called Elly. He placed it with his agent who seemed very confident that they could find a home for his book. It did the rounds and eventually it dawned on both agent and Jon that nothing as regards U.K. publishing was going to happen for Elly.
He shelved the idea for the time being but like all true creatives never quite gave up on it and as a result of some energetic networking a scant few weeks ago worked up the idea for an app with Dipali, a programmer in Mumbai.
Elly the reindeer is now available at the speed of a mouse click from your local ITunes Store. It’s only been up three weeks but has already had 700 plus downloads and it’s still early days. There are now two more books in the series and more on the way with plans to launch an IPad version as soon as it gets clearance. The creators get 70%, of the download fee, distribution is via targeted reviewers, therefore no warehouse costs, no haulage costs, no printing costs, no promotional costs, no retailers (beyond Apple) taking a huge cut, no loss of your rights as creator to help publishers with their administrative costs - no need to employ Emma.

For more information check out Jon's Illustration Blog

and his KidsApps blog


  1. My own experience with established publishers has been that they are too distracted by trying to force their old content onto iPhone, etc, to see the new opportunities. The one exception has been Kate Wilson at Nosy Crow, who is initiating a lot of exciting new apps for kids.

  2. I think the potential of this revolution is huge. I too have had years of frustrations with greedy, bullying publishers, who often make daft "Emma" decisions. (Hm, guess we should be careful about turning the name "Emma" into a term of abuse! I know a few Emmas who have nothing to do with publishing!). What's annoying is that over the years the PC mad thought police have actually started to condition my thinking. When I consider new ideas for books I'm already watering them down in anticipation of those tedious committees. This isn't to say I'm planning axe murder tales for 2 year olds, but many ideas I know boys would enjoy are effectively crushed at birth. In the world of the app it's hard to see what value at all a publisher can bring. Even marketing it would be cheaper to employ your own marketing firm than rely on a publisher doing it. I say, "Viva la revolution!".

  3. One of the glories of children's TV and literature during the 1950s and 1960s was the way in which writers and artists such as Oliver Postgate and Peter Firmin were able to create wonderful characters on a kitchen table - single handedly producing the sort of films, books and comics that would today have to go through an army of middlemen to reach screen or print. What's more with nothing but magnets and meccano in a garden shed they managed to create ready made stop-motion animation of a quality that would probably cost a modern studio something in the region of a thousand pounds a second to make.

    A long line of series like Ivor the Engine, Noggin the Nog, Pogle's Wood and Bagpuss ensued, entertaining generations of British children who have never forgotten them, but they all came to a sudden end on the day a BBC commissioning committee informed Postgate that his style of storytelling was no longer 'appropriate' for their target audience. I'd be willing to bet that there was an Emma involved in this decision somewhere along the line!

    In the light of this I can't help but welcome new publishing media such as Apps which promise to cut through those stultifying bureaucratic layers that have grown up between the creator and his art. However, speaking as someone who doesn't even own a mobile phone I do worry that these technological developments might at the same time be tending to exclude a certain section of the population from the creative process altogether. The fact is that most of the American comic artists of the Golden and Silver Ages grew up in New York during the Depression, when a pencil and paper were all they required to learn their craft and lift themselves out of poverty. Today, by contrast, I wonder if their equivalents will ever be able to gain a foothold in any illustrative field if they can't even afford the basic computer and software that middle-class children take for granted...?