In the children’s book world there are a few people everyone likes to keep an eye on. Willing to take risks, outspoken, with a clear vision of what children’s publishing should be, they challenge, provoke, arouse admiration, respect, surprise and controversy. One such person is Klaus Flugge, the man behind Andersen Press.
It is now just seven years since he founded Andersen Press. Of the current position he says. ‘We are now doing well enough to publish books that are not successful. I will always go on publishing books that are not successful.’ He means it seriously and his German accent seems to emphasise the earnestness of the statement. That is not to suggest there is no twinkle in the Flugge makeup. There most certainly is. He uses words like ‘original’ ‘imagination’. ‘creative’ and ‘exciting’ as often as many publishers talk about print runs, prices, margins and paperback rights. It is the spark of imagination that has fired his publishing and gives him the conviction to publish books that are ‘unique and different’ whether interpreting a fairy tale or telling a new story.
Born in Hamburg in 1934, apprenticed to a bookshop and sent to Book Trade School in Leipzig, he emigrated to America at the age of 23 as an East German refugee who spoke only German and Russian, knew no-one but felt that America was ‘a most exciting country’. After a variety of jobs, a period hitch-hiking, and two years as an American GI, he was offered a job working as a Personal Assistant to Lew Schwartz, owner of Abelard-Schuman publishing in New York. After only a year and a half Schwartz suggested he go to Europe to build up the very small list they had there. So, in 1961, he came to London. ‘not knowing what to expect, young, full of complexes, a stranger in Great Britain.’ He found it difficult. In America he was one of a large immigrant population. Not so here. He was also discovering how very little he knew about publishing. `I had no experience. I thought I could publish mid-Atlantic editions, that books would be equally accepted on both sides of the Atlantic.’ He had to learn fast, publishing fiction, poetry, books on garden architecture and some children’s books. By the time Schwartz died and Abelard-Schuman was bought by Blackie he had acquired a more international outlook and ‘a strong belief in co-productions, particularly in the field of picture books, which need international support’.
Blackie were ‘distinguished, old, traditional’, but his ‘ultimate goal’ was always to have his own publishing company. By 1975 ‘I knew that if I could get the right organisation to give me support in terms of sales, distribution, publicity, I was ready to start my own company. By that time I was a very committed children’s publisher; I felt most confident.’
With a strong presence in the market place, thirteen reps, agencies abroad and a small children’s list, Hutchinson seemed an ideal publisher to approach. His idea was well received and an arrangement made whereby Hutchinson have shares in the new company and use Klaus as a consultant; he uses their premises, their catalogue and distribution. In the autumn of 1976 Andersen Press published its first four books. Why the name Andersen? Well it’s easier to spell and pronounce than Flugge and, of course, the name of Hans Christian deserves to be honoured. (1 shouldn’t say that should I. He may not be being honoured!)’ For Klaus Flugge, Andersen was an ‘original writer who contributed more to children’s books, internationally speaking, than anyone else.’
The association with Hutchinson has provided a great strength. ‘I needed that strength. A lot of the people I publish have become close personal friends and I must be able to stand up and say to them, “I’m giving you as good a deal as you can get from anybody else.” Otherwise I couldn’t look them in the eye. People tell me business and friendship don’t mix, but with one exception people who have stayed with me over the years have remained friends. That’s marvellous and shows I’m doing the right job for them.’ Klaus Flugge was the first to publish David McKee (currently re-illustrating his first book Two Can Toucan – published by Abelard – for Andersen), Ruth Brown. Joan Aiken, Roy Brown. He brought the stories of Christine Nostlinger to this country from Austria. In 1983, with a total staff of three, Andersen published 26 books. He is still fascinated and involved with the ‘very creative process of putting words and pictures together’ in picture books, and with finding and publishing good stories for children. The Andersen Young Readers Library is now well established as a place to look for reliably readable, well told stories for difficult to match middle juniors. Regular contributors to the Andersen list include Ralph Steadman, David McKee, Tony Ross, Leo Lionni, Naomi Lewis, Philip Curtis and more. ‘If I take on someone else now it’s got to be a new talent, someone with something really different to offer. I am in a position to say that now, which is marvellous.’
In 1976 Tony Ross was a new artist who came to the new press with his portfolio. Klaus saw him as ‘a major new talent’ and Goldilocks became one of Andersen’s first books. Here was an artist whose style was unconventional, very unlike what is traditionally thought of as children’s illustration. His pictures for a book like The Enchanted Pig don’t soften any of the more gruesome or explicit parts of the tale. Klaus is convinced that children can take this, just as ‘they don’t need a straight story; they don’t need things explained. They love to be mystified and to discover; and they are a lot more intelligent than some parents or teachers give them credit for.’
Ross was the first of many. ‘Britain is full of talented artists and writers. I would rather create my own books than buy them in from abroad.’ There are one or two exceptions to this Flugge rule, like Janosch, whose Trip to Panama is, he believes, ‘one of the perfect modern classics in the picture book field … irresistible to old and young alike; as endearing as Shepard – but remember Janosch writes the story as well.’ Andersen books sell well abroad. But the British public it seems does not react well to foreign names. ‘People are not so much conservative as just a bit insular.’ The resistance is such that a foreign name might sell one third less than a British name.
One of the most successful of Andersen’s books is The Tiger Who Lost His Stripes, a ‘perfect story’ written by Anthony Paul and illustrated by Michael Foreman which has sold almost 100.000 copies worldwide and just been published in paperback by Sparrow. The association with Sparrow via Hutchinson is fortuitous for book buyers who get high quality, sewn paperbacks, (often printed from original Andersen film or plates) which are excellent value. In general Klaus doesn’t worry much about selling paperback rights. ‘Paperback editors come to me if they are interested in something.’ But he is aware of paperbacks as competition. ‘With cuts in public spending and the fact that both adults and children seem to find paperbacks more appealing than hardbacks as well as cheaper I’m surprised we are selling anything! I expected our sales to droll but instead they seem to be increasing steadily.’
Klaus Flugge likes the sense that Andersen is now ‘on the map’; but his attitude towards success is ambivalent. He is not interested in ‘jumping on bandwagons’ to get it or keep it; more in putting his faith in artists he ‘believes in’, a kind of acute artistic integrity whereby he almost suspends commercial judgement if the key elements of ‘freshness, originality and excitement’ are present. Of course he hopes that others will see this potential too, and that his risks pay off in commercial terms. But books like the Waddell/Dupasquier Great Green Mouse Disaster and Tomie de Paola’s The Hunter and the Animals which he has great faith in ‘haven’t sold as well as they should.’
Recently David McKee’s I Hate My Teddy Bear was attacked by critics as ‘difficult’. `surreal’ and ‘indulgent’. How does he react to this? `Sometimes you simply have to do a book. If you believe in an artist you respect his feelings on the matter and believe in what he is doing. Having a special closeness with the artist helps you to understand him, see his point of view. I’m enthusiastic about this book: but it’s the sort of book adults find difficult to accept and comprehend for children; children don’t have that problem, they take what they find. It has sold well abroad.’ Another comment on the conservative attitude to children’s books of most British adults? Perhaps the progress of Not Now Bernard (another David McKee/Andersen book originally greeted – like Sendak’s Wild Things – with adult outcry) towards the status of a modern picture book ‘classic’ is a sign that we get there in the end.
The success of an equally challenging book, Angry Arthur, in this country (7,500 copies sold since May 1982) is encouraging and particularly sweet for a publisher who sometimes sees himself battling against adults who `simply want a straight story to read at bedtime.’ Andersen books thrive on being pored over, talked about and shared. Author Hiawyn Oram brought the story of Angry Arthur to Andersen and in what he calls a ‘fantastic example of creative publishing’ Klaus Flugge gave it to a young Japanese illustrator, Satoshi Kitamura, because he thought it would ‘strike a chord.’ Kitamura, on the verge of going back to Japan, fed up with hawking his portfolio around publishing houses and angry with the reaction to his work here, produced the amazing illustrations which won this year’s Mother Goose Award for the most promising artist newcomer to picture books.
Generosity of spirit, a far-reaching vision and conviction drives Klaus Flugge to push out the boundaries of picture book publishing at a time when most are cautiously testing the waters or producing novelty books. He is one of only a clutch of publishers (he cites Gollancz, Bodley Head, Cape and Julia MacRae as examples) who are attempting to publish books which are even vaguely ‘experimental’. And, he says ‘small is beautiful’, the only way to be truly creative, to remain intimately involved in the publishing process. ‘I don’t want to be a manager. I want to be involved in every aspect; that’s what gives you the satisfaction, makes you make more of an effort to get it right.’
Of course the future of the book worries him. But what concerns him more is that the most important function of a book, to be the focus of communication between adult and child which can ‘introduce the child into some of the mysteries of life’ is being eroded because adults don’t make time for sharing. ‘The book involves the imagination more than anything else. That is what will make it last. It is more necessary than ever, with TV and video, to be drawn into books as if by magic. You don’t need non-fiction books you know. Non-fiction you can have on video. You don’t even need the Human Body Pop-Up because you can show these things much better on TV .. . Fiction has the unique ability to make contact with the imagination at its deepest level.’
It is heartening to hear someone talking of the magic of books, especially when there is a basic common sense rooted in the adventurous pioneering spirit. And the future for Andersen Press? Good books! New books! Exciting books!’ It’s like a patch of blue sky appearing among the greyness and gloom of most publishers’ forecasts. Klaus Flugge is doing for publishing what he says the picture book should do for the child. Like a conscientious parent he is taking time and care to ensure that as essential and neglected a thing as the imagination is nurtured so that a child can ‘switch over to a different world’, and that that world is a fresh and original and exciting one, not merely full of cliches and the classics of a previous generation.