This issue of Books for Keeps devotes a number of articles to picture books, from Joanna Carey’s ‘Ten of the Best Kate Greenaway Medal winners’ to Jan Fearnley’s ‘Windows in Illustration’ on her latest picture book to an obituary of one of the greatest picture book makers of the twentieth century, Maurice Sendak. But while the focus of these pieces is, rightly, on the artistic attributes (text, illustration and the interaction between the two) that contribute to the quality of the finished product, the processes of production, the costs of these processes and the revenue likely to be generated also demand our attention if we are truly to appreciate the constraints and the opportunities they impose on picture book makers.
In her article ‘Process, Creation and Audience: the 32 page picture book’, the Deputy Publisher Picture Books at Random House, Sue Buswell, gives a lively account of the technical processes involved in printing and why an extent of 32 pages is the most economical and therefore the most usual length for a picture book. Meanwhile Clive Barnes discusses his visit to the annual Bologna Book Fair, the largest international rights fair specialising in children’s books. As Clive describes, publishers will often take dummies of proposed picture books to rights fairs such as Bologna of Frankfurt. If they can sell foreign language rights, editions in other languages can then be printed at the same time as the English language edition (changing the black ink plate to allow for the translated text) bringing the unit cost of the printing down considerably.
Translation issues when it is UK publishers who are buying rights pose other cost issues as Clive discovered in conversation with publishers such as Phoenix Yard and this helps to explain why relatively few foreign picture books find a UK publisher. As Clive says,’to be at Bologna is to be astonished both by what is published for children internationally, how little of this we see in Britain, and yet how large a presence British children’s books have worldwide.’ For many of the books in translation that we do have (eg Asterix), we have translator Anthea Bell to thank. Gillian Lathey discusses the challenges posed by translation with her in this issue.
Finally, Alison Green of Alison Green Books, a list devoted to the publishing of picture books, is asked how she came to create her list and to explain the challenges and constraints of the market place. She talks about ‘a polarization in the home market, with the reduction in the number of independent and chain booksellers, and the rise of the supermarkets’. In a fascinating interview, Alison reveals the very individual approach required for each picture book depending on the writer and illustrator’s way of working, whether they are one and the same person or even two people who never meet! She also reminds us that picture books with rhyming texts or which depend upon wordplay, such as Nick Sharratt’s Octopus, Socktopus must usually rely entirely on sales in the home market.
‘Every book,’ as Brian Alderson once wrote in Books for Keeps, ‘has a private history of its own, both of its conception and its execution.’ The more we know of the particular private history of picture books, which must include an understanding of the processes involved in their creation, the greater our critical appreciation can be.