Chicken House is a small, independent-minded publishing team of nine based in the West Country. Founded by Publisher Barry Cunningham with his deputy Rachel Hickman and joined by Rights Director Elinor Bagenal and Editorial Director Rachel Leyshon it’s celebrating its fifteenth anniversary this year. Barry Cunningham tells the Chicken House story for Books for Keeps.
Michael Rosen gave me a hug and told me not to do it. He said starting a publishing company was different to finding good books – and the business was big, bossy and, well, too brassy for us.
He was right. We had to do things differently.
We’d learnt our craft in different parts of the great ships of publishing and seen enough in bookshops, libraries, classrooms and overseas rights to know that a list that was purely literary wouldn’t survive. We had to put readers first: entertained by authors who could inspire and enthrall, and work hard to build readerships not only in the UK but around the world too. If we were to survive, we had to find new talent and show our worth to publishing partners who could offer our authors mass distribution and international success.
Our first home in 2000 was with Egmont UK and we soon hit our international stride with an approach from Scholastic Inc. in the US to be our partner there. From the beginning, we were working on our list as an individual part of a bigger picture, enabling us to launch brand new writers like Kevin Brooks worldwide.
We knew too that there was foreign-language talent ready for a wider stage, so by acquiring and translating Cornelia Funke’s novels for the World English market we delivered the first of our five New York Times bestsellers. Our success also prompted Carlsen Verlag in Germany to join us with Chicken House Deutschland, which has just enjoyed its best ever year with James Dashner’s Maze Runner topping the German bestseller list, as Numbers by Rachel Ward had done previously.
Chicken House was also an early follower of the self-publishing source, signing Gordon/Williams’ Tunnels series from its underground origins and creating a super-successful series, selling in over forty countries.
In 2005, the Chickens became part of Scholastic Inc., the largest children’s publisher in the world with an extraordinary reach into schools, but with the brilliantly kept proviso that the coop would maintain its independent identity.
The Colour of our Feathers
What makes our books special? We know why we want to publish them. We have a clear vision; we seek out new work, strong central ideas, and we accept that risk – and failure – is part of the journey to success. Our previous careers in marketing made us super-aware that any prerequisite for success is knowing who a book is for; how we intend to reach its readers; what it looks like and how it sounds when we pitch it around the world.
Brilliant core design and identity is integral: individual covers that intrigue the reader, together with direct clues as to what’s inside with our ‘This book in three words’, ‘Try it’ page suggestions and notes from the publisher. All this is worked on at the same time as the editorial process, our small in-house team crossing disciplines and fully involving authors in the process. Above all, we are clear. We only publish books we believe in and can find readers for. Simple!
Embrace it! Chicken House Entertainment, our own media production company is thriving, providing successful film and TV representation to our authors. Recent signings have included Veronica Cossantelli’s The Extincts to Moonbot, the exciting new Hollywood animation studio, and Janet Foxley’s Muncle Trogg to Bristol-based Aardman. And our latest initiative includes the Big Idea Competition with Ingenious Media and the Blair Partnership.
What have we learnt?
That talent begins at home. The Times/Chicken House Children’s Fiction Competition for unpublished novels is now in its ninth year. We run frequent Open Coops, one-day amnesties for unpublished writers. We have an association with Golden Egg, a writing academy. And finally we celebrate publishing development deals with film companies such as Altitude.
We originate books from film and TV scripts such as Melvin Burgess’ Billy Elliot or more recently Dan Smith’s Big Game. We match ideas inspired by classics with bestselling authors, such as A Little in Love by Susan Fletcher, inspired by Les Misérables. We connect with and buy rights from clever publishers and agents from around the globe.
Above all, we’re never afraid to work with creative talent wherever we can find it, giving it the closest publishing support. Chicken House is proud of our achievements; signing James Dashner before the Hunger Games was born; launching Kevin Brooks and Lucy Christopher’s groundbreaking YA novels, as well as Cathryn Constable’s The Wolf Princess, a diamond in the snow. Next year, we look forward to the brilliant debut, Beetle Boy by M.G. Leonard and The Fever Code, the next in James Dashner’s world-conquering Maze Runner series.
The Last Egg
I learnt everything from Kaye Webb and Peter Mayer. The Puffin editor’s advice was ‘Whatever happens, tell them what’s for tea – children love food.’ And from the Penguin Chief Executive: ‘OK, that was a bad financial year – let’s publish our way out.’
Barry Cunningham OBE
For further publicity information contact Sales & Publicity Assistant Jasmine Bartlett (firstname.lastname@example.org). Follow us on Twitter @chickenhsebooks