…or is it from the inside looking out?
Illustration has never been in finer fettle. But how does even a gifted young artist break into the world of books? Margaret Carter investigates.
‘Talent is only the beginning.’ Jan Ormerod, prize-winning illustrator of children’s books, once said that to me. She was speaking of the art students she’d taught in England and in Australia and of the likelihood of their becoming illustrators. If your idea of an artist is he who wears a beret and a floppy bow in a garret while burning the furniture to keep the paint at the right consistency, Jan’s may seem a revolutionary statement – but it’s one that all craftsmen will agree with: talent is only the beginning.
Booksellers’ shelves today are stacked with children’s books where imagination married to technique has resulted in unparalleled choice – and all available at near-paperback prices. Children’s books are big business and as such subject to commercial cut and thrust. Between the promise of the drawing board and the reality of the bookseller there are many stepping stones to be negotiated.
And if artist and publisher are the base of a triangle, who stands at the apex? Who else but that most unpredictable of creatures on whose approval will depend a book’s success or failure, that ultimate if innocent arbiter of recognition: the child.
It’s an intriguing thought – the combined talents of artists, authors, editors, publishers, typesetters, designers, printers, booksellers, sales reps all united to engage a child’s taste or, in the case of a young child, perhaps more significantly, the taste of the adult who first chooses the book.
So begin on the inside looking out – begin with the desk of a publisher’s art editor who, during the course of the year, will see dozens of drawings, paintings, sketches, scripts for potential books. Some may come through the post, some are brought by artists who make personal appointments – it will be the editor’s job to sift through, reject, encourage, suggest changes or, in some instances, marry an illustrator to a script he already has. On his flair and judgement and his ability to guide a project through may depend the eventual result: an actual book with pages that turn and pictures that adorn.
‘But it’s rare that anything good comes out of the blue,’ says Ian Butterworth who, as Art Director of Collins’ Children’s Division, is responsible – with reprints and rejacketed books – for some 400 books a year, ranging from the baby boards to art books and teenage offerings.
‘The standard of illustration in Britain is very high,’ he maintains, ‘although I think that there’s not quite the clamour at the moment to get into children’s book illustration that there was a year or two ago.’ The reason, he thinks, is that there are more outlets – illustration is increasingly used for advertising, packaging, and television commercials: graphic art is used in educational books, in textbooks, instruction manuals.
But if new talent doesn’t come through the letter box, where is it to be discovered?
‘I go to as many art school exhibitions as I can. Most art editors will do the same and, having seen someone whose work appeals to me, it’s a question of getting in touch with the artist and assessing if what they have to offer is what I’m looking for. Sometimes students will bring in an idea or a project they’ve worked on themselves.
I try to see everything that’s brought in – preferably with a senior designer or an editor; it’s always better to talk to an artist and discuss their work and what I want. If a project is accepted in principle then the artist will probably work with one of our editors who may suggest changes and advise on certain technicalities – the format we want, the number of pictures, the ratio of colour to black and white, the necessity to keep an eye on the possibility of selling abroad as a co-edition.’
This latter has great importance: the production cost of a colour book is so high that often publication is only viable if the book can also be sold to overseas publishers who will then publish in their own language but share the initial outlay.
It’s beginning to emerge now, why talent is only a beginning.
‘One painting – however good – isn’t enough,’ says Amelia Edwards, Art Director of Walker Books. ‘There must be continuity in a book: you have to understand pace. You can teach design but some things you can’t teach.’
She makes a point which is repeated by many publishers. ‘There’s no shortage of artists – only of authors to produce good text.’ Yet sometimes partnerships ‘happen’. One successful Walker marriage is David Lloyd’s Gammer Gurton’s Needle, illustrated by Charlotte Voake. ‘Charlotte brought us the idea – she wanted to illustrate the old medieval tale and David was asked to produce the text.’ The result is a book whose text retains the rumbustiousness of the original while the pictures have the delicacy inherent in all that Charlotte Voake produces.
Amelia Edwards admits that ‘it’s an arduous task’ to meet all the would-be illustrators who ask for appointments. `But how else will they get a beginning? Yet of all the new work I see perhaps only five in a year will see publication.’
The number five has a somewhat emotive ring for Roy Smith, Art Director of Ladybird Books. It was the time they took to produce the book Royal Wedding to celebrate Prince Charles’ marriage to Princess Diana. Not five months, nor five weeks but five days – ‘that was working all night…’ he admits.
That achievement was only possible because Ladybird, unlike most publishers, are also their own printers with their own studio, photographer, designers, proof readers, illustrators, technicians. Originally a firm of printers, their books are produced to a standard size and format and their schedules are planned two years ahead.
But despite their efficiency they find that ‘good artists are rare. When we’re approached by a new artist we ask them to send a sample of their work. If that seems suitable then we’ll ask him or her to come in and talk. The result can very likely be a commission.’
In the summer, Ladybird take two students into their studio to cover staff holidays. ‘Ideally we like to take them from the local art college. One or two have since become permanent members of our staff, although much of their work here would not be illustration but rather concentrate on layout, cover design, the size and weight of type and so on.’
Very different in size from Ladybird Books is an imprint of Macdonald – Beehive Books, under the sole direction of Managing Editor, Georgie Adams. She is responsible for about 25 to 30 books a year and makes the point that of the students’ and artists’ work she encounters `much has artistic merit but isn’t commercial’.
‘I have “old favourites” among artists whom I always want to use but of course one is always looking for new talent. Occasionally there is a wonderful surprise when someone comes in unexpectedly and has something that’s right.’ She too goes to exhibitions, and keeps a look-out for artists whose work she hasn’t used before – ‘particularly when I want to link a text I have in hand to an illustrator’.
Both she and Jim Marks, Art Director of the Purnell/Macdonald/Pergamon umbrella, will also use artists’ agents. These are the middle negotiators who will market and negotiate artists’ work, taking in return a sliding commission from 15 per cent upwards on whatever fee the artist gets.
‘There’s no doubt that agents can be very useful,’ says Georgie Adams. ‘For one thing the work they show you has already been “sifted” by them – they are reasonably confident of their ability to sell it so they’ve saved you time.’
Agents also do all the hoof work, carrying round unwieldy and heavy portfolios from publisher to publisher. An art director will know that a good agent can recommend certain artists for certain types of work and an agent could be the first he would contact if he needs an illustrator.
‘Some artists like to deal direct with publishers,’ Georgie Adams says, ‘others would run a mile from negotiating and selling. And of course it depends where they’re based: someone living a long way from London – where most publishers tend to be – could waste so much time trying to sell he wouldn’t have time to produce …’
Agents, however, won’t take on just anyone: they need to be convinced of the merit and saleability of the work they’re required to handle. A good agent can be immensely helpful to an artist, advising and directing a client towards commercial acceptance in the way that a publisher’s art editor or editor would also do. They know of openings, new projects in the pipeline – and the right fee to negotiate!
There are two main ways of attracting a publisher’s attention. The annual publication European Illustration is a reference of available artists in the way that the publication Spotlight is a reference of available actors.
Inclusion in the annual has to be merited – and paid for. Their selection of what to include is rigorous but having accepted the work (by seeing slides) they will allow a number of examples to be published and these may well result in commissions or interviews with publishers on the look-out for more illustrators. Carol Wright, for instance, as a final year student at Harrow School of Art had her final year project – a children’s book – accepted for publication through her own efforts, but showing examples of some of her work in the annual resulted in Ian Butterworth getting in touch with her and commissioning another book, to be published next year by Collins. Illustrating another script given by her by an acquaintance ‘on spec’ resulted in acceptance of both script and illustration by Methuen.
But a third way into publishing is through a magic word: Bologna. Try to get in touch with most publishers in the week or two leading up to early April and you will be told they’re ‘getting ready for Bologna’. Here, every spring, a Children’s Book Fair takes place. For inside of a week publishers from all over the world converge on the medieval city to buy, sell, negotiate foreign rights, and generally see what’s going on in the children’s book world.
It is an opportunity for editors, art editors, artists, authors, publishers to browse, to remember and perhaps eventually to deal with the originators of the work on show – whether that is published work or work in progress. Although primarily intended for the buying and selling of rights Bologna still remains an excellent window for the display of talent.
Published work is also, of course, a window for talent. And sometimes it also opens unlikely windows … Malcolm Bird is primarily a magazine illustrator yet he admits that he owes some of his introduction to books to a fried egg and a penguin. The fried egg (on a card he sold as a student to Gallery Five) was seen by the cookery writer, Fay Maschler, and resulted in his illustrating Cooking is a Game You Can Eat. As for the penguin – knowing, wayward, with a maverick look in the eye – I myself saw this in a magazine and as a result was able to commission further work for children. His own books with his collaborator, Alan Dart, include the best-selling The Witch’s Handbook and The Christmas Book.
Spotting Malcolm’s pictures in the first place could be regarded as a certain amount of luck but, as the cliche has it, ‘luck comes to the prepared mind’. ‘It isn’t any good being airy-fairy about art,’ Malcolm says. ‘You have to be professional, on time, produce what you’ve been asked to produce . . .’ His own work is meticulously presented, on time, and what’s been asked for.
What’s been asked for is an interesting idea – how much do editors dictate, how much leave to the artist? Rosemary Collins of Methuen likes to leave the choice in fiction to the artist – ‘to see what he wants to do; but when it’s fact, then usually I need to direct.’
Although all art must to an extent be derivative, each artist brings an individual vision to his work, whether he is interpreting another’s text or complementing his own.
A publisher may look, in an aspiring illustrator, for competence to produce work in a style which is already ‘tried, tested and safe’: at the same time his commercial antennae are constantly poised for the original, both of approach and execution. An editor’s skill may consist in steering that talent into acceptable publishing potential – of allowing the head to float while the feet are anchored!
Fashions change in all media: pop-up books may be yesterday’s story; line illustration may be in – or out; colour wash, pastels, etching, oils – each not only serves a different illustrative purpose but also has its period of popularity, of that indefinable sense of contemporary ‘rightness’ into which illustrator, author and publisher must be tuned.
‘Artists don’t always know much about publishing,’ says Babette Cole, successful author/illustrator of The Trouble with… books, ‘but they ought to find out.’
Illustrating children’s books – like any other job of work – could consist of learning from what has been done before and then departing from it: either with the tentative steps of the novice, the firm tread of the committed, or the space-age leaps of those who chart the skies – the astronauts.
For pictures can kill or enliven the imagination: they can open windows or close them. Their appeal could be as different – to use a contemporary example – as radio or television when a favourite book is dramatised and when the actors don’t follow one’s mental picture.
An illustrated book, it seems to me, is like the Ancient Mariner. The picture should grab us with ‘his skinny hand’ but the text should make us ‘stand still’.
We are the Wedding Guest and the feast awaits us: only sometimes it’s just a takeaway: sometimes it’s good home cooking: sometimes it’s champagne and caviar and the bubbles don’t half go to your head …
All good art is hypnotic … only what hypnotises you may not hypnotise me … with book illustration it is, as Doctor Johnson said in quite another context, ‘the wonder is not that it is done well but that it is done at all …’
But the fact is that it is done well: extravagantly, excitingly and stimulatingly well … and, phew, talent is only the beginning…
A freelance journalist, Margaret Carter is a former Editor of Mother magazine, is a director of Ragdoll Productions which makes children’s television programmes and is a member of the selection panel of a national children’s book club. Currently she’s working on a series of TV programmes with the illustrator Rod Campbell.
Bologna and Beyond
Marc Vyvyan-Jones, our illustrator, has recent first-hand experience of what Margaret Carter is talking about. Following a self-financed foray into the world of children’s books at Bologna last year, he’s just produced his first picture book. It’s called Maurice (Spindlewood, 0 907349 64 1, £4.95) produced with a text by a neighbour and family friend, Sue Stops. ‘Marc needed a book,’ says Sue ‘and one day I suddenly woke up with an idea that seemed to fit him perfectly since he’s a morris-dancing fool as well as being daft about illustration. It’s the story of a little kid called Maurice who simply can’t keep still. He decides he wants to dance – and one May Day gets involved with morris-dancing…’
They worked on the book together, then took it to Michael Holloway who runs Spindlewood Press. The book was published on St George’s Day this year. Sue insists ‘every teacher of primary-age children will recognise Maurice’. She should know since she’s a member of staff at Westbury Park Primary School, Bristol. Though she’s organised many a book event – including Avon’s highly successful Book Week last year – this is her first published work, too. Not her last, though. Later this year, also from Spindlewood, comes Methusalah, the tale of a boy who catches a monster-pike with a wine gum. Her illustrator? Marc Vyvyan-Jones, naturally.