Liz Cross, managing and publishing director of David Fickling Books looks back over the ten years since its formation, and highlights what makes the company so successful.
Ten years ago David Fickling had a dream – to build a truly independent publishing company that was rooted in editorial excellence, supporting its authors and illustrators for the long term, and trusting the instincts of its team to find and nurture the very best creators, the very best stories. Ten years on, that dream is a wonderful reality, and as we celebrate DFB’s tenth anniversary it’s a great opportunity to look back at some of the wonderful books we’ve published in that time, and how we’ve tried to remain true to that central ethos of publishing from the heart and backing the things we believe in.
Looking at our list, it’s immediately apparent what a central role is played by the relationship between DFB and the Phoenix comic. These two companies enjoy a wonderful, symbiotic relationship, which has resulted in an incredible range of comic book and graphic novel publishing – not least the all-conquering Bunny vs Monkey series. DFB published the first BvM book on launch in 2014, drawing together six months of strips from the Phoenix. The books weren’t an instant success – they had a modest, mainly online, sale to begin with – but the belief in BvM, and in creator Jamie Smart, from the teams at both the Phoenix and DFB never wavered, and together they kept at it, keeping the same wonderful content but working with the book trade to develop just the right publishing format and programme to relaunch and hit the market square on – with glorious results. It’s very easy in publishing to think that a book only has one chance to make its mark, and that if it doesn’t find its audience right away then it’s just too bad – but the success of BvM in its reissued form is a real counterexample to that, a rare instance of a series that’s been boosted to bestseller status through a new format and a renewed campaign. It’s a great case study in sticking with what you believe in.
Sticking with what you believe in can take other forms, too. Sometimes it means standing alongside an author and giving them the time they need to write the very best book they can. In 2022 we published Tyger by SF Said – a book that was nine years in the writing. (When SF sometimes mentions, at events, how many drafts he went through, I’ve seen other authors and editors in the audience turn positively pale…) Throughout the process, both SF and the DFB team were totally focussed on ending up with the very best book possible – from the wonderful text itself, to the astonishing artwork from Dave McKean, to the care and attention to detail in all aspects of production. Tyger is a really great example of how striving for excellence can sometimes not be the speediest of paths – but that if the whole team is committed to the process, then the results can be spectacular. In a market where the received wisdom is that a writer should publish a book every year, it takes a certain bravery to take the time to get things right.
Of course trusting your instincts and backing your beliefs isn’t just about perseverance and publishing people you’ve worked with for a long time. It’s about spotting exciting new writers too – finding the people you want to welcome in and hope they become a part of your future list. So debuts are of great importance to us – from Lisa Williamson’s groundbreaking The Art of Being Normal back in 2015, all the way through to the sparkling Girl on the Fly by Nansubuga Nagadya Isdahl, coming in 2024. Finding a new voice is always thrilling and we’re really excited too about the Search for a Storyteller competition we’ve just launched, to find a new writer to join our list.
It’s also about taking chances on things that might not seem to make immediate commercial sense, but which the team feel passionate about. One of the books I love most on the DFB list is Thornhill by Pam Smy. Published in 2017, this is a hardback book of over 500 pages; a challenging, haunting story told half in prose and half in pictures. With solid black edges and a dark, brooding cover, it’s a truly distinctive physical object. On any normal ‘commercial’ costing model it would be hard to make this book make sense – but at DFB belief carried it through, and it’s been a wonderful success. I’d go so far as to say it’s become iconic – I probably have more conversations with authors and illustrators about this book than any other on the list.
It’s also important to us to stick with authors and illustrators across different kinds of books if that’s what they want to do, rather than being too prescriptive. So we have the phenomenal Philip Reeve and Sarah McIntyre, separately and together, published across a range of genres and ages – Sarah’s wonderful picture books, Philip’s brilliant Utterly Dark novels, and the totally delightful illustrated young fiction series they’re working on together, Adventuremice. Or Chris Wormell, who is of course one of the pre-eminent illustrators working today, but who publishes his own wonderful illustrated fiction with DFB.
There are so many other books and creators I would love to mention – across picture books, fiction, comic books, poetry and non-fiction – but the one author I really can’t finish without talking about is Philip Pullman. Philip and David have worked together for decades, and the importance of Philip to DFB, as an author, a friend, and a supporter, cannot be overestimated. We are so proud to publish The Book of Dust in partnership with PRH – a wonderful example I think of the way publishers can work together without competition or mistrust, in order to do the very best for a book and an author, and the openness of all concerned to this cooperation is wonderful to be a part of. Incidentally I know many of you reading this will be eagerly awaiting the third volume of The Book of Dust – I will say no more than watch this space…
So what has changed in ten years? Well – as is so often the case – both everything and nothing. DFB has moved from tiny start-up to established company – but is still in our cosy little offices in central Oxford. We have grown from the initial team of three to ten members of staff – but we are still proudly part of the Independent Alliance and love the community of independent publishers that Faber has created. We reach more customers and more readers every year – in the UK and across the world – and we are constantly looking for the best ways to help our books travel as widely as possible, whether that be innovations in format, in production, in systems or in logistics. But at the heart of it, the important things remain the same – the faith in the instincts of our brilliant team, the love of a good story, the drive for excellence, the desire to provide the very best for readers – and, always, that determination to stay independent and publish from the heart. Whatever changes in the next ten years, we know these principles will remain for us – and we can’t wait to see what they bring!