Chris Powling examines the progress of a publishing house…
It’s hard to believe that six years ago the name Walker had never appeared as publisher on the spine of a children’s book. Even harder to believe that it is less than two years since Sebastian Walker took the list he had been developing under the joint Methuen/Walker imprint and launched Walker Books. So spectacular has been the company’s success – whether its output is measured in terms of quantity or quality – that many rivals must be waiting (or praying) for the bubble to burst, for the meteoric rise to become an equally eye-catching fall. Look, after all, at the Walker record sheet: Zebra books launched specifically to knock the spots off Ladybird; the Mother Goose Award last year for the Mayne/Benton Hob books; Helen Oxenbury transformed from distinguished but modestly selling status into equally distinguished global best-sellerdom … and just about everybody who is anybody in picture-books eager to hitch themselves to the Walker wagon. Can it possibly keep on rolling?
Sebastian Walker himself has no doubts at all. ‘When the recession itself recedes we’ll be doing even more at Walker Books to increase the world’s awareness of the educational potency and the sheer fun of children’s literature.’ When he says world awareness, moreover, he means just that. Fixing an interview with him is less a matter of consulting a diary than negotiating an airline schedule since the company fortunes have been based from the start on a recognition that sales abroad are at least as important, sometimes more important, than sales at home. So adroit is he at setting up joint ventures with overseas publishers that he’s been dubbed The King of the Co-Edition. Nevertheless, he insists that ‘co-editions only happen if you’ve got frightfully good books of the highest possible quality. The public won’t buy the notion of a shoddy children’s book. .. if you cheat, you’re cheating a child.’ How, then, does he define the typical Walker Book? ‘Well, it’s inexpensive compared with other people’s books. It’s rather beautifully produced in a no-nonsense, wipe-able way since it’s quite often for a younger age-group – about sixty percent of our books are for under-fives – and it’s always, we hope, an original work. Also it tends to be terribly well-designed, as we’re rather keen on the fact that marketing and design are inextricably linked.’
The latter point is echoed at once by Amelia Edwards, chief designer and co-founder of the firm, who maintains that ‘the form of a book and how the pictures work with the words – the timing, the anticipation and how it’s all planned out – can take long hours of discussion with an author and illustrator because it’s a matter of letting them fill the book, as it were, letting them confront the book’s pitfalls and problems. Invariably they’ll solve them.’ Priority for the author/illustrator is central to the Walker philosophy, in fact – and what persuaded Amelia to set up with Sebastian Walker in the first place. ‘He said to me “I want to do children’s books for the rest of my life … how about you?” He broke down all the barriers. I loved his dedication to artists.’
So fierce is this dedication that Sebastian is disarmingly off-hand about his company’s own contribution to the creative process. ‘We’re just the clerk and the nanny. We do the dirty work of the commercial world.’ Even so he acknowledges the importance of providing the right conditions for his clerks and nannies. ‘Because we’re a new company and a very democratic one in terms of structure, there’s a rather splendid lack of self-importance here. I’m abnormally uninterested in telling people what to do and become quite overwrought if I’m compelled to tell them. Companies, on the whole, are successful if clever people do better than their best. You don’t need a computer in our business, just a trestle table and a bright idea.’ It helps, nevertheless, if there are cut flowers on the trestle table and an endless supply of good coffee and fresh orange juice – standard features of the airy, open-plan offices at a distinctly non-posh address into which Walker Books recently moved. This, too, turns out to be a concession to the figure he regards as indispensable to publishing success. ‘Why,’ he asks, ‘should an author pay for smart premises?’ On the contrary, he sees it as part of his responsibility as a publisher to ensure that an artist reaps a just reward for his or her efforts. ‘One wouldn’t dream of going and suggesting a book or an idea to somebody unless they were going to earn a lot … I mean, five hundred pounds’ advance for a year’s work is undignified.’ A Walker advance tends to be three or four times as much which helps account for the orderly queue of kid-literary lions beating a track to his door. If, that is, a track to their door hasn’t been beaten already by Sebastian Walker. Typical of his approach was a visit, a year or so ago, to William Mayne – a trip across half-flooded Yorkshire which resulted in the commission of a somewhat unusual text. He admits ‘I couldn’t understand a word when I read it in typescript’, but backed it nevertheless. After this, Amelia Edwards coaxed a new talent into illustrating it: Patrick Benson. The outcome was the premier picture-book event of 1984: the Hob stories.
So far, so good, then. If Walker Books is currently ahead of the field, what’s put it there is sheer commitment. ‘We’re specialists,’Sebastian insists. ‘Nobody here is terribly interested in grown-up books. It’s a common failing of publishers that they prefer those – they love the razzmatazz of the latest Adult Thing. I think we’re all rather unmoved by that. This has meant that a lot of highly professional and experienced energy has been directed with a very high focus at the illustrated children’s book and what it can do.’ Which is, as the expanding Walker empire demonstrates, a great deal more than many realise. In its combination of quality and mass marketing, Walker Books invites comparison less with other publishing houses than with companies in different fields altogether – with the early days of Disney, say, or of High Street moguls like Conran and Sainsbury. These are, of course, hard acts to follow and doubtless there are tough times ahead for Sebastian Walker. But times may be tougher for his rivals.