Dinosaur and Usborne are two publishers who enjoy a remarkable success with non-fiction. How did it all start? What’s the secret?
Peter Usborne says he can speak German, French, Spanish and Swahili ‘well’ and another twenty languages ‘badly’. He also says he reads grammars of foreign languages ‘like other people read thrillers’.
About seven years ago, with his first child on the way, it seemed a time for decisions, so he left a prestigious job in a large publishing group (he was heavily involved in launching Starters for Macdonald Educational) to start his own publishing company. The languages came into their own, because his other obsession is colour pictures. And the only way to publish full colour books at reasonable prices is to have big print runs. For that you need lots of customers.
When Peter Usborne started, co-editions (books published simultaneously in different countries using the same pictures) were almost unknown in children’s publishing. ‘In art books they’d been doing it for years. I thought there must be a way to apply it to kids’ books, so I went off and did it.’
With the business side straight, he spent the first year of his new company’s existence ‘doing nothing but thinking of a new style. I felt that no-one was doing books which combined outright popularity with a sense of quality, and there was a gap in the market to be filled.’
The new style he came up with owed a lot to his own childhood, and especially comics. ‘You can spot an Usborne book 100 yards away. They’re very densely visual, very humorous. I believed- and I still do – that kids love very tightly packed material.
‘That’s what the British comic tradition is all about, being tightly packed. I hate “creative use of white space”, and using very large pictures of not very much. I feel cheated if I read something like that, and I think kids do too. I set out with a commitment to be child-orientated in this visual sense, and do books on subjects which kids want to read about.
‘My publishing model is The Eagle. A lot of people in children’s books seem to feel that to be popular means being “commercial” and therefore bad. We’re here to prove them wrong. The Eagle was popular, but it was totally marvellous and successful. We want to be popular and good. In children’s books being good and unpopular is quite common.’
Once they’ve got an idea, they ‘sell’ the book first to distributors and foreign countries, and then set about putting it together. ‘It’s a team job, and very often the chief creator of a book is the person who had the idea first, but the most important controlling hand is that of the editor.’
‘Sometimes there’s an outside author or expert who works with the editor or designer, but we always commission all our books. I’ve never published any book which has just been sent in.’
Design and the visuals come first, and the team works very hard at planning the book from the point of view of what they think children in their age range (about 8 to 12) want, and rigorous checking is a vital part of the process. ‘We believe in a philosophy of “nothing but the best”, and we’re all perfectionists in the production of our books. This means we’re terrible from the point of view of our schedules. Books are continually being held up while we check a fact and then find we’ve got to change something. We all go through a lot of agony and tears for each book.’ One large-format, 32-page book can take anything up to a year to produce.
There is a definite continuity of style and tone in Usborne books. ‘Subconsciously we are more like people working on a magazine, and each new book is like a new issue of the Usborne magazine. I suppose it’s because I do like the idea of getting a lot of people to read our books, and I also feel absolutely no affinity with the small circle of prizewinning children’s fiction.’
And what about the future’ ‘We can’t go on churning out information books for ever, so we’re going into the classics – fiction, and probably adult books too. We’re doing the Odyssey in 32 pages; it’s called The Amazing Adventures of Ulysses. I think it’s a triumph of compression. It’s not Asterix, but it’s in the same vein, and we do the story in a very popular way. I think we’re going to turn a few thousand kids onto Ulysses and the Greek gods, anyway.
You might be forgiven for thinking that nothing much happens in the Cambridgeshire village of Over, until you discover Beechcroft House, home of Dinosaur Publications.
In 1967, Althea Braithwaite and Mike Graham-Cameron were running a design, advertising and printing business, and Althea made some books from paper offcuts ‘just for fun’. Mike encouraged her, and they decided to publish them properly. Althea made all the plates, Mike printed them on their own press, and cut and bound them. The original print runs of Desmond the Dinosaur and Cuthbert and Bimbo were 500 of each, and Althea went off to London to sell them to ‘all the posh shops’. They went very well, although at 2/6d (old money) Fortnum and Mason weren’t having any because they were ‘too cheap’.
Dinosaur hasn’t really looked back since. The ‘Althea series’ of books, aimed at children from ‘0 upwards’ has gone from strength to strength, and as well as stories now includes non-fiction titles like Making a Road and Visiting the Dentist.
They moved into non-fiction publishing because they felt that there was a gap in the market to be filled. ‘Young kids are fascinated by facts, and they’re always asking questions about things we take for granted, wanting to know why, when, where.’
Making a Road, for example, came from Duncan, Althea’s son, then three years old. As they drove past a huge road-making machine, he asked ‘What does that do?’. Nobody really knew. For the ‘thousands of kids who want to know about things like that’. Althea created that book, Making Television Programmes, Making a Book – and many others. ‘Lots of books are suggested to me,’ said Althea, ‘by kids or teachers.’
In non-fiction, she does two sorts of books: those that explain and those that are designed to be reassuring, like Visiting the Dentist, which she feels strongly about. ‘There’s a big need for them because kids need to have situations explained to them. If they’re prepared on a subject like going into hospital, it helps them cope better. But if you’re going to tackle a problem, you’ve got to tackle it. If you’re talking about having your tonsils out, you’ve got to say that it’s going to be pretty nasty at times. I believe that kids can take it if they know what’s going to happen, and so if it’s going to hurt, you should tell them.’
A lot goes into an Althea book. She believes firmly in on the spot research, so with Making a Road she went to a construction company and watched them doing it, as well as talking to everyone from the PR department to the technical experts. She gathered huge quantities of notes, literature and photos, ending up with a file of material several inches thick. Out of this, in a process which involved ‘much shunting between artist, author, designer, sub-editors and experts’, and at least five drafts, a book of 24 pages (which takes less than five minutes to read) was distilled. ‘Accuracy is vital,’ said Mike. ‘We always use experts to check the books. That way we can try and make sure errors don’t creep in.’
For the past two years Althea has been working on a non-fiction book about death, and has compiled ‘heaps’ of material. Eventually this will take its place beside the other titles, the most adventurous of which was the recent What is a Union? Althea’s going to follow this one up with a book on the stock exchange. She doesn’t think Dinosaur will make a radical change of direction in the future.
‘We’re going to keep moving in the same direction. I think there’s still an enormous amount to do for young children.’