Brenda Gardner: Piccadilly line keeps moving

Brenda Gardner: Piccadilly line keeps moving

Having been made redundant "once too often", Brenda Gardner decided it was time to set up her own children's publishing company. She turned down her next job offer and, advised by Klaus Flugge at Andersen Press, found an accounting book and a solicitor and launched Piccadilly Press.

It was 1983, when coedition picture book sales were there for the taking and the early teen market was in its infancy: sectors where Piccadilly Press would make its home.

In fact it was a chance meeting several years previously with Kaye Webb, then head of Puffin, that led Gardner into children's publishing. She had met Webb at a party, soon after moving to the UK from Canada with her husband. Webb told her she was "wonderful with children", and should come and work for Puffin. "What I didn't realise of course was that Kaye said that to everyone," Gardner laughs. She determinedly pursued her until Webb relented and found her a job at Puffin.

Gardner went on to work for a number of other publishers, setting up the children's lists at W H Allen (now Virgin) and E J Arnold. But both companies decided to pull out of children's publishing, so Gardner chose to turn down the next job offer and go it alone.

Some 25 years later, Gardner admits that running her own company has been more of an adventure than expected. There have been many upsides for Piccadilly Press, including spotting Louise Rennison (Gardner asked her to write a "Bridget Jones for teenagers" after reading her column in the Evening Standard) and the picture book glory days of the late 1980s.

Inevitably, there have been difficulties, but Gardner is pragmatic and wryly shrugs off mistakes made. The biggest of these was acquiring the building occupied by Piccadilly at the height of the property boom in 1989. "I was advised by my accountant to invest our business profits and one of the options was property." Just around the corner was the recession, a huge slump in property prices and a dramatic cut in US acquisitions of picture books. It nearly cost the business, but Gardner rallied her nerve, sold "family silver" including rights to some backlist, and survived. Even the mortgage, which she describes as "enforced savings", was worth it, as the building has now more than doubled in value.

Gardner revels in the freedom of making her own business and editorial decisions. She has a quick eye for good writing, and authors she has nurtured in their early days include Malorie Blackman, Terence Blacker, Tony Bradman, Ros Asquith and Cathy Hopkins. There have also been the ones that got away. John Farman was commissioned to write The Very Bloody History of Britain in 1992— preceding Scholastic's Horrible Histories phenomenon—but then pulled out. "David Kewley [former m.d. of Scholastic UK] used to say: "You got in there first", and I would say: "But you made all the money", Gardner recalls.

Being small— with three full-time and eight freelance staff, and a turnover of £1.3m— has enabled Piccadilly to ride the storms and spot market opportunities. The first of these was the early teen market, which Piccadilly began to publish into in the early 1990s following the collapse of coedition sales. It was a long time before Meg Cabot and Cathy Cassidy arrived on the scene. Louise Rennison was eventually poached by HarperCollins, but Gardner is gracious, acknowledging that the process was "civil and professional", and that the deal gave the business "a very nice cushion".

Piccadilly has maintained a small picture book list and built a surprisingly successful non-fiction line of parental guides. Its latest, Willies: A Users Guide, was recently described by the Daily Mail as "a vile book" — "which we liked", Gardner laughs.

The firm remains small, confident and mobile. She has taken on two new editorial staff, Ruth Williams and Anne Clark, to expand the list into new directions. Because of the squeeze on the teen market, Piccadilly is adopting a slightly younger approach with books for "tweens" (nine to 11-year-olds) such as The Sprite Sisters by Sheridan Winn. It has also tested the boys market with detective series Saxby Smart by Simon Cheshire.

Gardner believes it is time for Piccadilly to venture into uncharted retail territories, too: namely supermarkets, where its mass market titles will have a natural home. The company has taken on Bounce! Sales and Marketing to handle its trade sales, and is developing a supermarket profile with authors such as Cathy Hopkins now being sold in Sainsbury's.

While she has stepped back from the day-to-day editorial processes, Gardner is not threatening to throw in the towel just yet, citing Klaus Flugge and Peter Usborne as role models. "We are a very solid company, we know where we are and where our markets are," she says. But she also sounds a note of caution. "I did the recession in the '90s and I don't want to do it again like that in the 2010s. We have more security now, but we also need to find new outlets and new publishing patterns to recession-proof the company."