LIFE IN THE OLD BOOK YET
by Ann Jungman
LIFE IN THE OLD BOOK YET seems like a very appropriate title for this
talk because what I feel Barn Owl Books is doing is providing a kind of
literary Battersea Dogs Home for unwanted, lost or forgotten books. What
gave me the idea to start a publishing house
entirely dedicated to reprinting worthwhile but out of print children's books was receiving an ever increasing number of letters from publishers like this highly imaginary one.
Dear Mr Milne
I am sorry to be writing to say that we have been reviewing all our stock and sales levels of individual titles on our list. WINNIE THE POOH is one title that seems to be overstocked. Month on month sales so far indicate that the annual sale of this title will fall below the 1000 sales per year we need to keep a book in print. We are now looking for high discount sales but it is likely we will be remaindering this title shortly.
What I feel when I get a letter like this is that the only criterion for the survival or not of a particular book is the level of sales with no mention of the quality or otherwise of the book. That is not the issue or even an issue, the only relevant fact is that magic number 1,000. Now had I received a letter which read,
After extensive and energetic attempts to sell your wonderful book ....... we regret very much that we have to tell you we cannot revive its fortunes. To date we have:
Put the three books in the series in a special Christmas Edition
Sent a poster about you and your books to any schools or libraries that show an interest.
Issued it as a package complete with the Chivers Audio Tape.
Informed environmental groups of its existence, in view of the relevant subject matter.
Bought time on prime television to advertise the book
Kidnapped the head of Wait Disney and tied him to a chair while he read the book from cover to cover and threatened him with terrible tortures if he didn't agree to animate it as a major motion picture immediately
Yet even after all these efforts no one wants to read or buy this book. etc.
Then I would not be unreasonable - I would say fair enough, you did your best. None of us feel that every book we write deserves to stay in print for ever. But before a book is consigned to the dung heap of history and the remainders shops, I think most writers feel that publishers could give some small effort to reviving its fortunes and not just dump it like an old sock. Of course publishers are stretched and pushed and overworked and underpaid and understaffed but the basis on which good books just disappear for ever does seem to be terrifyingly arbitrary
When I had eight books go out of print within one year, I began to feel pretty depressed and convinced my writing career had reached an abrupt end. But then I realised that other authors were having exactly the same experience and librarians and teachers were grumbling about the difficulty of getting certain books and expressing their amazement and confusion that those books had gone out of print so suddenly. So I thought, this is not a personal failure. This is a widespread new and unwelcome trend in the book world. Why were books being allowed to go out-of-print so much more rapidly in the 1990s?
It seemed to me there were numerous reasons. First of all and mainly, all the corporate takeovers of the 80s meant that publishing houses became part of very large global conglomerates and profits had to be maximised. This meant the men in suits took over who were entirely unsentimental about the product, which in this case happened to be books. Publishing became just one arm of giant enterprises that ranged from food production to computing to electronics to clothes to film and television to paper production and often these companies were unwilling to accept a lower level of profits from their book division than in these other areas. The day of the gentleman publisher was over.
Somewhere I read that when the Americans who took over Allen Lanes empire saw how much lower Penguin's profits were than they could have been, they were amazed and bemused. According to my informant, they simply could not understand why profits from say an Agatha Christie book were used to subsidise an excellent but expensive book on say Byzantine frescoes that would never reach a mass market.
I'm not suggesting that the new giant companies don't want to produce excellent books. They do of course, but that that is markedly secondary to profits. Clearly this is not at all unique to publishing. It has happened in all industries, even in industries that used not to be industries like health and education. Publishing was hit by the operation of the free market rather late but it seems to me very dramatically - the drastic reduction of the back list is just one of the results. And it seems to me that this is the modern folly of short termism as it applies to publishing.
Secondly and as a direct result of the corporatisation of publishing, there has been a shift in power away from the editors and towards the marketing and accountancy departments. Which books are accepted now seems to be decided largely by committees that include the money and marketing people and there has to be an anticipation that the book will make a lot of money and make it very quickly. The days when commissioning editors could read a sample chapter and a synopsis and commission a book without consulting anyone else are over and I suspect that every single author regrets that.
Under the new regime, there is no time given to build up an author or illustrator. The law of the market dictates immediate success or off with the book's head. However, this is particularly illogical for children's books; children's books sell differently, often on a slow burner. A children's book often sells in a samizdad kind of a way; one teacher will tell a group of others at an inset day how well a book worked with their class, a librarian may start to spread the word to their colleagues, a book club can make a reputation by selling tens of thousands of a book. The CAPTAIN CORRELLI'S MANDOLIN phenomenon of a huge success by word of mouth is much more usual in the children's book world than in the adult sphere. A new writer is much more likely to be established quietly from below (unless they make it onto a prize list) than via reviews and publicity, but it can takes months or even years and that lee way is not given any more, to the detriment of new and struggling writers.
The third reason for the decline of the back list seems to be an obsession with the new. Again this is not confined to books. It is true in fashion, music, art and design - the view that what is new is best. When talking about Barn Owl, I always find myself telling the same story, not only because it is a good story but because it is true. In Sydney I went to hear Roald Dahl speak and when asked why he had shifted to writing for children, he gave the following answer. "Children's books are cheaper than adult books but the compensation is that they have a very long shelf life, each year there is a new swathe of 8,10, 14 year olds to appreciate one's work." Then he went on to tell how to test his thesis he had phoned Graham Greene to ask him how much Greene's current royalties were on the book of his that was published in the same year as CHARLIE AND THE CHOCOLATE FACTORY. The sum was a fraction of Dahi's Charlie royalties. It seemed to me the point Dahl was making was that the audience for a good children's book was constantly being renewed. I think it was true then and it is equally true now but publishing practices do not reflect it.
Now I don't want this to sound as though I am attacking editors. I think many editors have much more sympathy and common interests with their writers than they do with the economic managers of the companies they work for. It is almost as hard for an editor to see a book they have chosen and nurtured and worked on disappear as it is for the author. With the absolute nature of the cut-off point of selling 1,000 or 3,000 books a year to justify keeping it in print, the editor has no flexibility at all.
But to go back to the emphasis on the new -of course it is much more interesting for an editor to work on new books than just keeping a back list going. The new books present a challenge, are exciting, create the possibility of a best seller or a prize winning book. Reputations are made through the front list and it is entirely understandable that this is what engages editors, their job is to edit.
And the fascination with the new extends beyond editors, to critics, librarians and sales reps. A great friend of mine in Australia who works as rep for a leading publisher and consistently wins Rep of the Year Awards, was telling me how a new book was coming in a famous American series, I think it was Lois Lowry, HARRIET THE SPY series. I commented, "Oh that's good, now you push the whole series again", My friend groaned, "Oh no, I've been selling those for years and I'm so bored with talking about them. I'm only interested in the new books that are fresh to me."
I can understand that in her place, I'm sure I'd feel exactly the same but that attitude has nothing to do with the quality of the books on the back list. So all this, combines with the fact that more and more books are being published, more than 8,000 a year, so just to find shelf space for all the new books some of the old ones have to go. This creates a scenario that didn't exist twenty years ago.
It seemed to me that maybe another layer was needed in the new world of corporate publishing. The mainstream publishers would publish huge numbers of books, many or even most of which would go out of print very quickly. But there would be a safety net in the form of companies who sift through this huge number of unavailable books to select the best and reprint them. This new pattern that is emerging seems to me to actually have advantages over the old system in which a book stayed on the backlist of the same publisher for years because a whole new enthusiasm can be brought to the reprinting by a different company. Books that are just the backlist to the first publisher, to me at Barn Owl are my wonderful, exciting new frontlist. It's a bit like panning for gold. I go down to the river with my huge sieve and wait for the gold nuggets to show themselves.
However having identified the new niche, I didn't have any money so there was nothing I could do about it, no way I could test my hypothesis that many of the out of print books still had some life in them. Suddenly out of the blue I inherited some money from my long dead grandfather's property in East Berlin and I decided to put my money where my mouth was and start Barn Owl Books.
For about a year I just talked. I talked to anyone who was interested, authors, illustrators, librarians, book shop owners, teachers, the Society of Authors, the Arts Council, parents, children, critics, publishers, and generally got a very positive result. One small publisher who had been badly burned said grimly, "You will fail and you will go broke" before hanging up but he was the exception. On the whole people were wonderfully encouraging.
Finally I made out a list of ten books that I wanted to do and then got stuck. After looking at this long list for two days and feeling paralysed I picked up the phone and spoke to Judith Elliott who after running Heinmann's Children's Books for years had launched Orchard and then moved on to head the Orion children's list. I told Judith what I was trying to do and when she agreed to see me, I showed her my list and asked her what she would do if she was starting yet another new publishing house. "I would do two things,' she told me, "I would reduce this list to four books and I would contact Douglas Martin, who is a brilliant designer."
Suddenly it all felt possible. Four books, yes, I could manage that. I rang Douglas Martin in Leicester, who liked the sound of the project and asked me up to see him. We got on instantly and he agreed to work for half his usual fee in exchange for a high degree of non- interference. I had no problem with that as I don't like committees, I like to engage a professional and let them get on with it. Douglas is the real power behind Barn Owl Books. He he has been absolutely invaluable as not only is he a superlative designer but he has a wealth of knowledge about publishing and printing that I entirely lacked. Douglas has been more than a designer. He has been my support system, advisor, consultant and I could not have done it without him. So thank you, Judith.
The next step was to select the first four books. I knew the very first
list I put out would no easy task - who was going to trust a new publisher
with absolutely no experience? So I went and asked people I knew to trust
me with their books. Knowing so many people in the children's book world
was invaluable. Adele Geras is a friend. I had loved VOYAGE and Adele
generously agreed to let me have it. Jackie Wilson I met at a Society
of Authors Event and begged for a particular book. Jackie was unwilling
to let me have that one but offered me JIMMY JELLY instead, which I loved
and grabbed eagerly. Amazingly it had never been paperbacked so that was
a coup. Michael Rosen I knew from mutual friends and left political activity
and I remembered reading a review of YOU'RE THINKING ABOUT DOUGHNUTS alongside
a review of my VLAD THE DRAC VAMPIRE about twenty years ago, so I approached
him and again got a "yes".
I had met Gwen Grant at a school in Leicester and she told me about her out of print books. I read them all and consulted with Sonia Benster, who said "Take PRIVATE! KEEP OUT! It's a kind of female Just William."
So there they were, my first four books. Douglas and I discussed a look for Barn Owl Books and decided to have new jackets on all the books with a picture of the author and a bit of biography. With the covers, as with the books, I asked artists I knew and I think they worked beautifully. Through a contact in Australia I found a distributor. That was hard. No one wanted to take on a completely unknown quantity but finally I found someone. The books were printed, we had a wonderful launch party and I thought smugly, "This publishing, it's a piece of cake, nothing to it."
People said to me "Watch it, distribution is the problem" and boy were they right. With an extraordinary stroke of bad luck, the warehouse where Barn Owl Books were stored installed a new computer system that never worked. Consequently, for the first two month's of Barn Owl's existence, not a single book left the warehouse. This traumatised me and I felt I needed the support of a larger organisation so I approached Frances Lincoln who had published five books of mine. To my surprise Frances said she might be willing to take on the distribution of Barn Owl if her reps agreed. The reps did agree and in April, with a huge sigh of relief, I transferred my distribution to Frances and since then the problems have ceased, thank God.
Frances Lincoln has a terrific children's list but it is entirely picture books, so this seemed like an excellent solution. Feeling more secure I commissioned a second list. In this instance I asked various authors which of their books they felt would do well if still in print? I do feel that authors who spend a lot of time in schools do know which books still have an appeal.
Bernard Ashley suggested YOUR GUESS IS AS GOOD AS MINE, a story about a boy getting into a stranger's car by accident, touching very sensitively on paedophile concerns. Chris Powling felt his THE MUSTANG MACHINE about a multi racial group of children who defy bullies was his "most likely to do well", I read them both, liked them and took them on. My agent also acts for Joan Aiken and I asked her about the MORTIMER books. One, THE SPIRAL STAIR, was available, a gloriously wacky funny story about zoo thieves. Joan readily agreed and then I had to persuade Quentin Blake. I wrote to Quentin, managing to misspell his name, Joan's name and his agent's name but not withstanding Quentin agreed. I needed a fourth book, Frances needed covers quickly for the catalogue. So I decided to do one of my books that had a great cover that could be used as it stood. In that way LEILA'S MAGICAL MONSTER PARTY found its way onto the list. Also of course there is no author I find as easy or as cheap to deal with as myself.
The spring 2000 list has just been compiled and is the beginning of Barn Owl International as I have bought two Australian and two American books. I hadn't intended doing this , it just evolved. My agent represents the Robert O'Brian Estate in this country, Robert wrote MRS FRISBY AND THE RATS OF NIMH and Z FOR ZACHARIAH. Years ago in Australia I had read his other book THE SILVER CROWN and absolutely loved it and was shocked to realise that it had gone out of print.. The American agents were reluctant to let me have it, so I went to New York and talked them into it. Many librarians and teachers had asked me to bring back TUCK EVERLASTING, by Natalie Babbit. I got a copy, thought it was brilliant and put in a bid, only to be pipped to the post by Bloomsbury. Then I met Jane Yolem, an American writer, very famous there but hardly known here. I had read one of her books THE DEVIL'S ARITHMETIC in the States and found it a very challenging difficult book about a n American Jewish girl who time travels back to the Polish stetl in 1942, where her family had lived. When the Nazis arrive she knows what is going to happen but no one believes her. It isn't an easy read and it may be controversial but I felt as my inheritance had come from Germany I felt that I had to honour the memory of my grandfather, who died in Terriesianstadt camp, with this very powerful book. From my years in Australia I had read many of the wonderful Australian children's novels that young friends recommended and two in particular I loved, PLAYING BEATTIE BOW by Ruth Park, who is the grand old lady of Australian literature, a time travel story from modern Sydney back to the early years of settlement of Australia and THE GATHERING by lsabelle Carmody, a younger Australian writer, a very powerful allegory about fascism. I have just commissioned four new covers and feel very excited about this new departure.
What does the future hold for Barn Owl? Well I'm not sure. For one thing since I initiated this project two years ago, there has been a huge spate of reprinting. Harper Collins have their wonderful list of Modern Classics, as do Puffin. Egmont have reprinted a lot of the old Reed List. OUP also have an exciting list of reprints. Hodder have been taking on out-of-print books from other publishers and incorporating them onto their list and, of course, Jane Nissen has started her terrific new company with wonderful titles from the 30s to the 60s.
Barn Owl differs from all of these in one way. I am not focusing on classics. Obviously I've got nothing against classics, it's just that I think they are being well taken care of. What I have been going for are books that may never become classics but which are excellent nonetheless, books that children will be keen to read, books that will feed a hunger for the written word, books that make the world a better place by being available. Oddly people seem to find this hard to accept. No matter how often I state that I am not specifically looking for forgotten classics, every journalist, friend, interviewer I say it to, continues to insist that Barn Owl Books are classics. In fact I'm beginning to feel a bit persecuted by that word, it's in danger of becoming the "c" word to me or the other "c" word. I definitively do not feel that only classic books should be kept in print. That is much too exclusive. I want to spread my net wider and I am relying on everyone in the children's book world to help my attempts to rescue good books.
So please do let me have your suggestions, do let me read your books and generally lend your support to my categorically unclassical list.
© Ann Jungman
This article is adapted from a talk given at Flying Off the Shelf, the Society of Authors conference in September 2000.
You can contact Ann at firstname.lastname@example.org
or find out more about Barn Owl Books by visiting their website.