David Morton celebrates the anniversary of a publishing house
Orchard Books is ten years old this year. This small, focused list, known especially for its novelties, picture books, and collections, and increasingly, for its fiction, has grown from a launch of just nine titles to a comprehensive and well-loved publishing package of over 300 hardbacks and 200 paperbacks. Orchard has bloomed by nurturing its distinctive approach to children’s books – keeping small but beautiful – through one of the most difficult periods in publishing history.
Orchard Books is the trade publishing arm of The Watts Group, part of the US company, Grolier, which, in turn, belongs to the multi-national Hachette Group. Back in 1986, the Watts group already had a successful fiction list in house, Julia MacRae Books, geared largely towards the library market, and containing a stable of authors all remarkably adept at winning awards. The Orchard list was to be different, yet complementary. With Judith Elliott at the helm, a publisher known for her huge successes at Heinemann – including, for example, The Jolly Postman and the first ‘Banana Books’ – the focus was to be more on books which were geared towards the commercial markets. ‘My thrust was to do books that sold to bookshops and the co-edition market and to round out what the Watts group were doing at that point,’ Elliott comments. ‘I wanted it to be innovative, and to have an atmosphere that was very open to new people. I hoped it would be a series of discoveries.’
In her six years at Orchard, Judith Elliott most definitely achieved her aims. The list steadily developed a reputation for excellence and originality, through discovering new authors and illustrators such as Jane Ray, Sonia Holleyman, James Mayhew, and through its increasing range of outstanding novelty books, like Jan Pienkowski’s inventive pop-ups. Attracting well-known talents such as Rose Impey, Bernard Ashley, Geraldine McCaughrean and Margaret Mayo further established the Orchard list within the trade and helped to entice new talent through the door.
Now, with Elliott four years into her new list at Orion Children’s Books, and Orchard under the firm guidance of Editorial Director, Francesca Dow, and Managing Director, Marlene Johnson, it appears that all of Elliott’s original maxims are still adhered to. There’s a real thrust for originality, for publishing books which, perhaps, other publishers wouldn’t, while making sure that they are still books which will sell. ‘The key to Orchard is a mix of the commercial, the child-friendly and the original and individual,’ says Dow. ‘It’s trying to be as original and fun as possible – also trying to keep an eye on the market.’ Dow talks earnestly of her constant search for books which ‘surprise… in a pleasurable way’, not only for their intended audience, but also for the staff of eight editors in-house. After all if the editor working on a book isn’t excited by it, how can the child be for whom it is intended?
They talk of ‘ownership’ at Orchard – that sense that each book is part of an organic whole, that when you own it, you really do care about it, and it really does matter that it is right. ‘If you can’t buy into what you’re producing,’ Johnson comments, ‘if you don’t have a feeling of ownership, then you’re just working on a book.’ Though Orchard is owned by The Watts Group, an independence is claimed which not only allows them the creative freedom to develop projects which they really care about, but one which fosters their own individuality and an almost familial sense of belonging. ‘If we take something on here, we all own it from top to bottom,’ she adds. There’s also an attention to detail, a care and a consideration of whether the next book will be innovative enough yet still fit within the fairly tight parameters of a small list: ‘we look at each book to see how it fits into the whole philosophy,’ Dow reveals, ‘so that each person has their own individual integrity, but the project they are working on has got to be part of our whole.’
Keeping itself small has enabled Orchard to maintain control of, and to strategically engineer, their own success. They’ve never tried to play the big boys at their own game, and they dismiss the prospect of growing significantly larger. ‘It’s terribly important to keep small so that everyone knows all the books and knows the authors and illustrators very well,’ says Dow, ‘and it’s vital to know what your strength is. A lot of publishers have, in the past, thought they could do everything, and they’ve failed. We’ve only ever done what we’ve felt comfortable with.’ The fact that Orchard have kept themselves small, both in terms of staff size and of the list, has also allowed them the resources and wherewithal to pay each book the due attention it deserves, to really go over the fine detail to ensure that the finished product has the essential ingredients of an Orchard book.
‘In our view, it can only work on a comparatively small basis,’ agrees Marlene Johnson. Financially speaking, it must be easier to keep a tight rein if you are small, even if that’s part of a larger, more established company. It would be easy to assume that The Watts Group have kept Orchard afloat during the lean times, but Johnson is quick to point out that there has been no ‘interference’, and that their size does not mean they are ‘simply another division of a large group… we are a self-funding publishing company. Nothing that we have done has been funded by anyone other than ourselves.’
Keeping it all contained has given the staff at Orchard the chance to develop really strong relationships with their authors, something about which they are genuinely proud. ‘The authors and illustrators are an essential part of our everyday lives – they are the reason why we can do such exciting new books,’ says Dow, and the authors themselves seem very happy to be there. Jane Ray, author of, amongst others, the 1992 Smarties Award-winning The Story of Creation, and the book featured on our front cover this month – The Twelve Dancing Princesses – has glowing praise: ‘It’s a privilege to work with Orchard. To work with them is to work with a happy and supportive family, full of ideas, enthusiasm and warmth; the whole thing is a joy.’
And now Orchard are ten, and the congratulations have been pouring in from all over the trade: Elizabeth Hammill of Waterstone’s agrees that ‘Orchard can be relied upon for books which… delight the eye and engage the ear’; while one-time publishing bedfellow, Julia MacRae, says ‘it’s a great list,’ and adds, ‘I’ve watched its growth with pleasure – and not a little envy!’ Judith Elliott is also glowing in her praise. ‘I admire enormously their integrity,’ she says, ‘and I am truly thrilled to see them thriving.’ This success is, she feels, due to the fact that Orchard is ‘an entity that you feel, and one which has stuck to its ethos.’ Linda Banner, Promotion and Marketing Manager, agrees, and says ‘I don’t think the philosophy has actually changed in ten years. It really is publishing from the heart.’
When she looks forward to the next ten years, Francesca Dow is quick to assure me that she will still opt for originality: ‘my worst fear is being thought of as pedestrian, as another predictable list,’ she insists. ‘We have to be surprised ourselves and react to the illustrators and ideas around.’ They’ve begun this with a new list of audio titles, book and tape story packs of their hugely successful Orchard collections, all of which are, impressively, still in print in both hard- and paperback ten years on. They’re also expanding their fiction lists – for many years, Orchard was known for its gift, picture and novelty books, but that’s all changed in the last two years. ‘Fiction has been one of the fastest growing areas of our list,’ says Johnson, and with new books from Geraldine McCaughrean, Ann Jungman, Jonathan Allen and Hiawyn Oram, that’s hardly surprising. They’re also working on older fiction, bringing Pat Moon, Elizabeth Hawkins, Michael Coleman and Anthony Masters on board. Building a list is, for Orchard, a slow and careful process, and Johnson is philosophical about the next few years: ‘we’ll be developing what we have achieved over the last five years. We want to see the authors we’ve been establishing really take off. What I would like, is for more people to know Orchard, and the only way to do that is to continue to publish quality, child-friendly books.’
Other publishers could learn many lessons from Orchard Books – remember what you’re good at and don’t try to do everything; keep a firm eye on who you’re publishing books for; and above all, don’t publish anything you don’t believe in. We’ve all seen larger publishing houses producing rubbish just to get on a particular bandwagon. Too many books are still being published and the success of Orchard provides evidence that less can truly mean better. ‘What large companies do, is they get caught up in something and start pumping it out,’ explains Johnson. ‘It’s only when they get to number 53 that they realise it wasn’t worth it. That’s not what we do.’
You just have to look at their list to see that this is true: original, individual titles which all have that Orchardness about them. You can tell when a book is an Orchard book, which is more than you can say for many other publishers. There’s a distinct ‘something’ about an Orchard book: perhaps it’s the quality of production; perhaps it’s the quality of the text or the illustrations. Or perhaps what stands out is that you can see the care and attention that has been put into each book. ‘We love our books,’ says Banner. ‘Don’t you worry,’ I say in reply, ‘We can tell.’
David Morton is a freelance writer and journalist specialising in children’s books.
Details of the two Jane Ray titles mentioned:
The Story of Creation, 1 85213 281 7, £9.99; 1 85213 948 X, £4.99 pbk
The Twelve Dancing Princesses, 1 85213 997 8, £9.99 (see this issue’s front cover)