Amanda Wood | 'I wanted to make books which would be treasured things'

Amanda Wood | 'I wanted to make books which would be treasured things'

Amanda Wood, m.d. of Templar Publishing, which was named both independent publisher of the year and children's publisher of the year at last month's Independent Publishing Awards, dates the turning-point for her 26-year-old Surrey-based company to just five years ago in 2003. That was when Templar moved to Bounce for its sales, and when it came up with Dragonology the first in its series of elaborate novelty titles for older readers that have now sold 15 million copies worldwide.

When she first put the idea of Dragonology on the table, there was scepticism all round. It was to be an "authentic" illustrated account of the dragon species, beautifully produced and complete with pull-outs and features like sample "dragon skin". Although with Harry Potter fever at its height, the concept of witches, wizards and dragons was suddenly popular again for the seven-11 age group she was aiming at, this kind of novelty title was very unusual for that readership, and at £17.99, the price point was high.

But Wood was the mother of a six-year-old son who had grown out of picture books but didn't want to read a long text with no pictures, and she sensed that Dragonology could work. And she had a passion to create beautiful titles that would be precious objects for the children who read them.

"At that price point, books are fighting in the market against PlayStations and DVDs," she said. "But I was thinking: 'How can we create something that you feel OK about spending more money on?' because with £9.99 you can only do so much creatively. I wanted to make books which would be treasured things, like the Folio Society does with classics. I thought, 'How can we capture something of that and bring it to the high street, and to kids?'"

The result was a roaring success, prompting sequels and spin-offs, of which the latest is to be Monsterology, a "natural history of fabulous beasts" from yetis to krakens and unicorns, coming in July, also at £17.99.

Wood's background pre-Templar was as an illustrator for a specialist natural history publisher. She "got dragged into editorial" before setting up the company in 1979 as Kelly Carlisle, with Richard Carlisle, ex-editorial director of Marshall Cavendish. The company, which took the Templar name in 1981, was a packager for its first 10-15 years, doing part-works on the one hand and packaging books for the likes of Ebury and Hamlyn on the other, before Carlisle and Wood split the two divisions of the company between them and Wood took Templar into publishing.

Based in the archetypal Surrey town of Dorking, the company now has a 40-strong workforce including long-standing sales and marketing director Ruth Huddleston and and commercial director Richard Scrivener, who joined last year from a background at Penguin and Scholastic. Templar publishes around 80 titles a year, including traditional pre-school board books and picture books as well as its novelty titles, and its turnover in 2007 was £18m, with 30% of that in the UK, 30% in the US and other English-speaking territories, and 40% elsewhere.

Wood and Huddleston are both parents, and have used that experience to inform Templar's publishing decisions. The idea of their Amazing Baby brand of board books and novelty books for babies (1.5 million sales worldwide) came from having babies themselves and thinking about what inspired them at a young age, Wood says. "What gets their attention is high contrast black and white, they love rhythm and the sound of their mother's voice⁠—it's about sharing with your baby, with sounds and tactile elements." Templar gets a lot of letters from mothers about the series, says Wood, as well as about their recent novelty hit Calm Down, Boris! which features a bright orange puppet and has sold more than 100,000 in the UK since publication at the start of last year.

That passion for the physical look of the books is a constant at Templar, Wood says. "The great thing about being independent is that you don't have someone saying, 'Do you really need that jewel? Can you justify it?' There's always an inhouse negotiation, with Ruth trying to make a reasonable margin, and me trying to sneak in a little extra, but it's a good way to work. Our reputation is: If you loved the dummy, wait until you see the finished thing."

The quality of the titles also gives them backlist life, she says. "Five years down the line, Dragonology is still printing strongly, and the Snappies [the Derek Matthews series of Snappy titles] are still going strong. You've got to deliver enough to get the best chance of doing that, and in my experience that's not by taking something out."

Adventurous choices
Templar has also been adventurous in its choices for children's picture books, using unconventional illustrative styles like that of Simon Bartram, creator of Man on the Moon. Poet Carol Ann Duffy approached Templar to publish her new book The Princess's Blankets (forthcoming in September), and they found her the artist Catherine Hyde, who has produced a highly original treatment. "We can spot things that are different but which also work for their intended audience; we've got the courage of our convictions," says Wood. The result is that there is sizeable adult sale for Templar picture books, including among art students, and slipcased editions at a higher price point are a popular sale through museums and galleries.

Developments in the pipeline include a new series of novelty natural history titles, beginning this summer with Oceans and Bugs, which will make use of lenticular pop-ups. Next March, Templar will produce its first original fiction title, The Assassins of Sarajevo by Johnny O'Brien, a time travel story aimed at eight-12-year-olds, which will have a traditional full-length text but also include some of the physical added elements for which the publisher is known.

Wood says: "We are not creating to some kind of formula. We have the creative freedom for anything to be put on the table: there are no rules of what you can and cannot do. There's a genuine appetite to stave off the boredom by doing something different. A lot of staff have been here a long time⁠—there's real delight in what we can create."