Barrington Stoke, the children’s publisher that specialises in accessible books, is riding the wave of a “remarkable” 2020, during which the Edinburgh-based business grew royalties for authors by 22% and saw several of its writers win or be shortlisted for major prizes.
“Last year was strange in many ways, but it felt like we finally broke out of the niche of being a specialist publisher and were recognised as creating works of fiction for all readers, not just those with difficulties like dyslexia,” says Ailsa Bathgate, who joined the company as editorial director in 2018. “Our books are a gateway into reading.”
One of those titles, Anthony McGowan’s Lark, won last year’s CILIP Carnegie Medal. Julia Hale, chair of the judging panel, said that the novella’s short form was one of its strengths, and that the judges admired the book “for its clear simple storytelling; combining authentic characters and realistic situations in pared-down prose with blunt humour, genuine tension and moments of pure poetry”.
Another popular title was Kate Milner’s It’s a No Money Day, shortlisted for this year’s CILIP Kate Greenaway Medal, and the company’s bestseller in 2020 was After the War by Tom Palmer, which has won praise from the Anne Frank Trust for its portrayal of the Holocaust.
“Our books are for all readers, not just those with difficulties, or with dyslexia, and last year we broke out of that mould,” says Bathgate. “What has become apparent over the past 23 years is that, due to the quality of writing from the authors we work with, our books can be enjoyed by all readers. They are a quick, engaging win for confident readers as well as a satisfying achievement for those who have to work harder.”
Barrington Stoke was founded in 1998 by Lucy Juckes and her mother-in-law Patience Thomson, who wanted to combine their joint expertise in publishing and dyslexia. Dyslexia is a learning difference typically associated with letters and numbers, and to describe it Bathgate uses the analogy of a pack of cards: in the neurotypical brain, the information is arranged in suits running from ace to king, while in the dyslexic brain the same deck of cards is there but mixed up. It can therefore take longer for the person with dyslexia to extract the information required because they need more time for processing.
All Barrington Stoke books are printed in a specially designed font, and on a yellow-tinted paper, which reduces glare. Bathgate now publishes 40 to 45 titles per year and has in recent years commissioned a wide range of children’s authors, including Malorie Blackman, Cornelia Funke, Chris Priestley, Alex Wheatle, Holly Bourne and Alexander McCall Smith. “Writers are really behind what the company is trying to do to get all children reading,” she says.
“Lisa Thompson was one of the first I brought to Barrington Stoke. I approached her agent, explaining why I thought her writing would appeal to our readers, and she said she would love to [work with us]. I get such a lovely response from authors. Sometimes they are too busy with their main publishers, but often they fit working with us around other projects.” Bathgate says Covid-19 was a “weird” time, and that the fact bookshops were closed for such a long period of time was “diffi- cult”. The company therefore decided to drive sales through its website, achieving an increase of 27% in direct-to-schools and website sales when compared against 2019, and it also focused on its backlist. It boosted royal- ties for authors by 22%, despite having to move 25% of last year’s publishing into 2021.
The company reached out to teachers and parents by, among other things, creating a free pack about home learning for children with dyslexia, and hosting online Zoom calls and events with teachers.
The bottom line
Annual turnover is around £1.2m, and last year Barrington Stoke grew its profits with a 16.5% net margin. This summer it will publish its first book by Onjali Q Raúf, entitled The Great (Food) Bank Heist, as well as another title by Thompson and something by Keith Gray, whom Bathgate says has been nominated for “every great prize in children’s literature”.
When asked what the company’s goals are, Bathgate says she would like to sell Barrington Stoke books to more countries around the world (it currently sells to around 25 territories worldwide), and publish more picture books and graphic novels. She also has an “endless list” of authors she would like to work with, including Pamela Butchart, Anna James, Aisha Bushby, Maz Evans and Abi Elphinstone.
The business isn’t particularly focused on Scotland or Scottish writers, but has “definitely” benefited from being located in the country, says Bathgate. “The scene here is small, everyone knows each other and is supportive of each other. In London we might be overlooked, but here we are one of the few children’s publishers. It feels like a vibrant, expanding scene.”