Children's Conference 2019: Publishing outside the London bubble

Children's Conference 2019: Publishing outside the London bubble

This year, several of The Bookseller Children's Conference speakers are from the book business outside London. Here they talk about the advantages and disadvantages of working where they do, and what the London-based industry can learn by looking further afield.

Penny Thomas
Publisher, Firefly Press

The UK has a diverse culture and is made up of four different countries with differing identities. Firefly is the only Wales-based publisher focusing exclusively on children’s books. The advantage of this is that not only can we can publish quality children’s fiction from anywhere in the world, but we are also close to Welsh writers and aim to sign some of the best stories and writing from Wales too. We can also publish writing from other areas such as the North, the Midlands, Scotland, Ireland or abroad, without having to put our senses through a London filter.

We have won UK awards, grown our business and received widespread recognition for our books. The key disadvantage we face is that a minority in the book trade find it hard to appreciate that we publish to the whole of the UK and beyond, just like a London or US-based publisher would. Our criterion is quality.

Penny Thomas with Chris Riddell and Branford Boase winner Horatio Clare

Our books are not lower in production or editorial values because we are outside the capital, and we can supply them on the same terms. Great books can come from other places too!

So we don’t just publish “local” authors, “local” settings or only for “local” children. It’s important that children from Wales can see themselves in books. But an outstanding book from Wales is an outstanding book anywhere—stories from different places are not a barrier, but vital to diversity, empathy and understanding.

Marc Lambert
C.e.o., Scottish BookTrust

While Scotland and England have been part of the same polity for 312 years, it is true to say that we remain, in many respects, strangers to one another, despite our long and fruitful association. One might have imagined the 1707 Acts of Union producing a greater degree of cultural homogenisation, yet the differences between our two nations becomes more stark every day, most especially under current sociopolitical and parliamentary conditions.

It is not easy to say what the constitutional result of this will be, but it doesn’t really matter in a cultural sense. Because amid all uncertainties, one thing is certain: the conviction in Scotland is that Scotland has a different destiny to England. If the past 300 years tell us anything, it is that this idea is persistent, has a very long pedigree and it isn't going away any time soon. 

At the conference, I will be illustrating some of the ways in which these sociocultural differences are made manifest and distinct in Scottish Government policy, most especially in the areas of Early Years, literacy, reader development, education and the support for languages other than English. These differences present challenges for London-based publishers and reader development organisations, but they also provide an environment which is far more enlightened and receptive to the kinds of work we all do, and to our shared aim, no matter our location, to bring all the pleasures and benefits of reading and books to as many people on this isle as possible.

Debbie Jane Williams
Head of publishing, UCLan

Often, people say that we're in "the North" but, strictly speaking, we are in the centre of the country. In fact, a telephone box three miles away from where our office is (in Preston) is in the exact centre of the country geographically. This means that we are incredibly well placed to travel anywhere in the whole country. For publicity, especially touring, this is a great place to be as we are not too far from anywhere.

There is no denying that the cost of living is also a lot cheaper. A living wage in Preston is a lot different to a living wage in London. Houses are affordable, as are rents, overheads and many other things. This means that we can recruit a diverse workforce from different backgrounds who cannot afford to live in London on an assistant’s wage.

Children’s book publishing, in particular, is extremely London- centric, so if you want a career in that genre, you have little choice but to move to the capital. That makes the workforce not very diverse which, for children's books, is (I would say) a huge problem. 

There is such a wonderful pool of talent and passion for publishing outside London, but the barriers to entering the industry, because all the bigger publishers are in the capital, are insurmountable to many people. I find it very hard to explain why there are no larger publishers in this part of the world, especially in the children’s book genre. Rents are cheaper, things are more central, there is a more diverse workforce to access. What’s not to like? I asked this question recently of one of the larger publishers based in the capital and was told that it was because all of the agents are in London, but this is simply not a problem for us. We can jump on a train, use Skype or the phone, as we do with agents that we deal with in the US. It is so frustrating that a larger publishing house won’t take the plunge and move a decision-making part of their business out of London.

Penny Thomas, Marc Lambert Debbie Jane Williams will all be appearing at The Bookseller Children's Conference 2019 on Monday 23rd September. Thomas and Lambert are participants in “Children’s Books Outside the Capital—Challenges and Opportunities” at 12.30 p.m. Williams is giving a talk about training the next generation of publishers at 3 p.m. Both events are in the Inside the Tent room.