The era of “cute” picture books is over, according to Flying Eye Books co-founder Sam Arthur, whose mission to produce highly illustrated hardback books paid off last month when Will Grill’s Shackleton’s Journey won the CILIP Kate Greenaway medal.
Arthur and Flying Eye co-founder Alex Spiro began creating children’s books at NoBrow, the publishing company they set up in 2008, and their intention was always to produce highly crafted titles to last a lifetime.
“It’s definitely something that we seem to have lost with children’s books,” Arthur said. “They’re not necessarily designed to last a few generations anymore. Our books, I’d like to think, will be around for some years to come.”
In 2013 the pair set up in Flying Eye, a children’s- specific imprint publishing illustrated picture books for readers aged three to 11, after they noticed that NoBrow books “weren’t necessarily getting into the children’s department of bookshops or libraries”. Flying Eye publishes around 15 non-fiction and fiction titles per year—all in hardback—and all with a reasonably high price point (around £11.99) compared to other titles in the sector.
Arthur said he spotted a gap in the UK market for a highly visual kind of children’s publishing. “We have a very literary publishing culture [in the UK], so it gave us a bit of space to offer something different.”
Every book published by Flying Eye has an old- fashioned luxuriance; its staff spend a lot of timethinking about colour, using Pantone colours as well as the standard CMYK (cyan, magenta, yellow and black) system of printing. “If you want pink, for example, using CMYK, you print lots of tiny dots of magenta. It’s a very subtle difference and if you put the
book side by side with one created with Pantone colours, someone will walk into a bookshop and pick up our more colourful one.” He added: “It’s an old-fashioned way of working and harks back to a time in publishing when colour in children’s books was created direct- to-plate.”
Arthur prints “about 95%” of Flying Eye titles in Europe, which he says is no more expensive for premium products, and allows for quick reprints if necessary. There is also an ecological consideration, and the company always tries to use paper cultivated from
Forest Stewardship Council- approved trees.
Shackleton’s Journey is Flying Eye’s most successful title to date. A non-fiction picture book about Ernest Shackleton’s crossing of Antarctica in 1914, it is the début of author and illustrator Grill, who became the youngest winner of the Kate Greenaway Medal in 50 years when he was awarded the prize in June.
Arthur discovered Grill at the latter’s degree show, where he had created a pamphlet of drawings about the Shackleton story. “Will is an exceptional illustrator and storyteller and just looking at his imagery and the way he was doing things made it a very easy decision for us to publish him,” said Arthur. “Although I never expected to get to the point where I’m telling people it won the Kate Greenaway. I find that incredible.”
The book has racked up unit sales of 11,582 copies, for a value of £79,490, since publication 18 months ago. March 2015 was its biggest month of sales, shifting 2,325 copies through UK bookshops. The next two biggest sellers from Flying Eye are Professor Astro Cat’s Frontiers of Space, a non-fiction guide to space by Dominic Walliman and Ben Newman, which has achieved sales of 10,067 units; and Wild by Emily Hughes, a fictional story about a girl who grows up in the wild (5,100 units). Arthur is a big fan of physical bookshops, because so many booksellers have passionately supported his titles, and is keen to develop those relationships through illustrator in-store events.
Of the books Flying Eye is publishing this year, Arthur is particularly excited about Whatever Happened to My Sister? by Simona Ciraolo, which is about the relationship between two sisters; and Jose Domingo’s Pablo & Jane and the Hot Air Contraption, described as “a look-and-find mixed with a comic book”.
Arthur is keen to stress the importance of visual books, and insists that fantastic artwork will prevail. “One of the things we are really keen on pursuing is the idea that comic books for children are important,” he said. “Seeing that as a gateway to literacy has, I feel, been forgotten about by the powers that be. Instead of seeing picture books as a distraction from reading literature, they should be an essential gateway for children. I can’t stress how important we think that is.”