Usborne editorial director Fiona Watt is one of the biggest-selling authors since records began and she’s probably the most ubiquitous author you’ve never heard of.
Let’s flashback to the old Nibbies book awards, 2008. Watt is up for the Children’s Book of the Year with That’s Not My Penguin, against an A-list of UK kids’ authors: Michael Morpurgo, Jacqueline Wilson, Francesca Simon and, um, Katie Price and her unforgettable classic My Pony Care Book.
“It was a really glam event,” Watt says. “But I did have to laugh, as before the actual ceremony we had to go to this red carpet and reception to meet all the press and other authors—and not one person knew who I was.”
This perhaps encapsulates Watt’s hybrid career as an author cum Usborne editorial director. She flies well below the radar—except to the millions of parents who buy her books—yet she is one of the bestselling authors in UK children’s publishing history, having earned £57.4m through the tills during the BookScan era—a sum only Wilson, Julia Donaldson and J K Rowling have topped (although David Walliams, currently on £55.5m, will likely surpass Watt this year). She is responsible for writing and helping to create some of the cornerstones of the Usborne business, such as the That’s Not My... board book series and the Sticker Dolly Dressing range.
Yet Watt insists she is completely comfortable being out of the limelight. In fact, she admits to being slightly ill at ease at the attention (and being interviewed). She explains: “I don’t do publicity. I don’t really need it. But, as a result, I know some people think ‘Fiona Watt’ is a made up name, like [Rainbow Magic collective pseudonym] Daisy Meadows. But essentially I’m part of a collaboration. Sometimes I have a difficult time saying that these are my books. My name goes on some of my titles [as an author], but not all. What we do is just as much about the design, the illustration, the production…”
Watt uses That’s Not My... as an example. She has worked with designer Non Taylor and illustrator Rachel Wells since the series launched in 1999 (the 50th in the range, That’s Not My Unicorn, is out in July). Watt also says Usborne art director Mary Cartwright, “whose name is not on many of our books, but is crucial to what we do”, along with publishing director Jenny Tyler, who has been at the company almost as long as founder Peter Usborne, are an integral part of the process.
For those not in the know, That’s Not My... is an Usborne “touchy-feely” range of board books, with patches of fabric or felt that children feel and then outline why that can’t be part of the subject of the book. “It’s a deceptively simple formula,” Watt says. “Its success is probably because it’s a tactile and sensory experience, but there is also a comfortable rhythm to the repetition of the words. It is a sort of subtle language learning.”
Incidentally, That’s Not My... almost did not see the light of day. Peter Usborne originally tried to squash the idea saying he did not want to publish a children’s book with a negative in the title. “‘Over my dead body,’ is what he said,” Watt laughs. “[Tyler] and I persevered and eventually brought him around.” Good thing: collectively, the series has shifted around 20 million units globally.
Staying the course
Watt originally set out to be a teacher, getting a bachelor’s degree in education, art and design from the University of Exeter. She worked for five years teaching seven to eight-year-olds in Kent and at an English-language school in The Hague, but then had the itch to do something more creative. She thought of going into children’s television, but then saw an advert for an editorial role at Usborne—it appealed because she was familiar with its books from her teaching career. That was 27 years ago and she has been with the company ever since.
People tend to stay on at Usborne. Watt says: “At [Tyler’s] 40th anniversary party, we were going around the table saying how long we each had worked here. When we got to over 300 years [cumulatively], we decided to stop.” Why is there that longevity? “Overall, there is a friendliness here. But no two days are the same and it’s a collaborative process. Nobody is precious about what they do, there are no prima donnas, or people saying ‘my book sold more than yours’.”
Peter Usborne is now taking a step back—though Watt says he often “plunks himself down in my office chair and says, ‘Show me something amazing’”—with daughter Nicola taking a more active role in running the company. The ethos will remain the same, though, says Watt. “That’s the nice thing about working for an indie company—Peter has always been willing to take a risk. We have done some things where the testing has been costly, but we know if we are selling in quantity and doing coeditions, it’ll work.”
The new lines Watt is working on reflect Usborne’s policy of taking an existing product or format that might have gone out of fashion, updating it, and doing it better than everyone else: a small-format pop-up range, rubber-stamping books and a resurrection of the magic painting watercolours craze of the 1980s, with new printing technology, are currently on her agenda.
The latter project came out of a meeting with some printers at Bologna 2016. Watt loves the Italian fair, not least because “it allows me to be a spy. I can go around to all the stands, see the trends across the world, get inspired. And maybe that’s one instance where it really helps that nobody knows who I am.”