Business profile: Barry Cunningham and Chicken House Publishing

If anyone in publishing is entitled to describe a children’s début as the “next Harry Potter” then it is Chicken House m.d. Barry Cunningham, the man responsible—as J K Rowling herself described—for bringing Harry Potter out from “his cupboard under the stairs”.

After lengthy stints at the top of the marketing and sales divisions of both Penguin and Random House—where he worked with legendary authors including Roald Dahl and Spike Milligan and re-launched Beatrix Potter—Cunningham was approached by Bloomsbury in 1994 to set up its children’s list . . . the rest is boy-wizard history.

Leaving Bloomsbury Children’s Books in 2000—“which was a bit like leaving The Beatles”—Cunningham established Chicken House Publishing, with the aim of finding those books “that children hug and sleep with under their pillow”.

Now a team of six, based in Somerset, it’s a mission that seems to be going well: Chicken House has sold more than six million copies of Cornelia Funke’s books worldwide and the five books in Roderick Gordon and Brian Williams’ Tunnels series have seen UK sales of close to £650,000 since the first title, Tunnels, was published in 2007.

“My job isn’t to be confused with any sort of literary mission, my job is to get kids reading, to provide entertainment. Sometimes it is not about literary merit but emotion, I have to be on the look out for that, the emotional punch.”

Chicken House started life as a joint venture with Egmont. In 2005, after a brief period of buying itself out of the Egmont partnership, the publisher was bought by Scholastic Children’s Books—providing the small UK independent with huge international clout

“Right from the beginning Scholastic US approached us to be the only non-Scholastic list they distributed and when they bought us, they wanted us to remain as Chicken House—a completely separate list from the rest of Scholastic, with our own vision and identity. It was a very wise stance for them to take, because big companies, when they take on little companies tend to lose all the things associated with smaller companies. Scholastic took our editorial judgement without question, they never tried to make us be like them.”

It is a business model that has proved to be the strategy behind all of Chicken House’s global success. In 2010, in partnership with German publisher Carlsen Verlag, Chicken House Deutschland was launched and Chicken House Nederland will follow suit in March 2013, in partnership with The House of Books, Holland. “For us, there is always just one editorial, one decision for the US, Germany, Australia, Canada, so in essence it is based on a brand vision rather than a publishing vision.”

Its international reach provides an interesting perspective when it comes to digital developments, too. The US market is slightly ahead and the German market is slightly behind, but Cunninham explains that Chicken House will be experimenting with enhanced alternative endings. “We will look more into the idea of digital narrative expansion, as one of the more interesting things for us is to open up the dialogue between author and reader, in the same way that Pottermore does.”