The View From Here Interview: Barry Cunningham
After an English degree at Cambridge, Barry joined Penguin Books in 1977. As Children’s Marketing Director for Puffin, he worked with all the great names in children’s books including Roald Dahl and Spike Milligan, and was responsible for the re-launch of Beatrix Potter. In 1984 he was promoted to the Penguin Board and became responsible for the marketing of all Penguin Books, a position he held until 1988, when he was headhunted by Random House.
In 1994 he was approached by Bloomsbury to set up their first children’s book list. Not only was the new list a success, but Barry soon became one of the best known names in publishing after he signed up J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone.
‘If it wasn’t for Barry Cunningham, Harry Potter might still be languishing in his cupboard under the stairs… I doubt any of the writers with whom he has worked could be more grateful to him.’
Barry left Bloomsbury in early 2000, and decided to start his own publishing company. The result was Chicken House, a lively and creative company publishing highly original and enjoyable children’s books, with a special emphasis on new fiction.
At a time when some were wondering about the future of publishing houses, you had the freedom to set up independently; you set up the wonderful free-range house that is the Chicken House. How did you choose the name?
Well, I had an old-fashioned chicken house in my garden, and it was on wheels. It used to be wheeled around, literally from field to field, and my young children, used to play in it, when they were little. We liked the name, and as soon as we thought of it, we thought of doublecluck dot com as the address and we liked all the jokes about ‘a plucky little list’ and things, whilst it’s kind of strange name, it’s quite a memorable one. And it’s got to be quite well known now, so we no longer get orders for take-aways. Yes, that’s how we started.
So what’s happening at the moment and next for The Chicken House?
After Germany, expansion into Holland is next, starting in January 2013. And who knows beyond that, new digital futures and more. We started Chicken House Germany 2 years ago now, a cooperative co-venture with Carlsen in Germany out of Hamburg, it’s done really well, it’s a great market for children’s books.
I saw you have so much going on there with Cornelia Funke…
Yes, we’re quite the German-philes.
And you have Rachel Ward promoted out there in Germany at the moment.
Yes, Numbers. It’s been really really successful out there and in fact next year it’ll come out as an adult paperback in Germany as well as a children’s book, it’s been quite a phenomenon.
I saw you’ve expanded Germany with similar books on the list as the UK, it looks as though you approach markets in much more global way, simultaneously, with the same books in different markets at the same time than perhaps was done in the past?
Yes, if anything, that’s been perhaps the secret of our success. Really my judgement is that children around the world, particularly older children, 9 years and above have more in common than they have differences. And if you find the right kind of books then imagination really travels for not only that age group but for teenagers as well.
And how do you find, do you think, and obviously with all your experience at Penguin and Bloomsbury and beyond, those books that click for you, that will travel?
I think it’s the voice. It’s something a lot of people say, but I think it’s almost instantly recognisable really. It’s when a writer can find the authentic voice which speaks from their own past, their own experience, or their own imagination, and it feels right. And obviously a great plot and wonderful characters are equally important, but in a sense I think it’s getting that voice right is the thing that I’m looking for. And it’s much more difficult than people who are outside children’s books think. You know it is calling up in a very different way than adult books, calling up the inner child and recreating that as an adult for a child reader. It’s a magical process, being able to re-feel, if you like, the love, the anger or the hate that you feel as a child.
I had read that one of your key tips for writers is asking yourself if you can remember being the age that you want to write for…do you think it is key then, that writing for children or young adults, has to have a character or protagonist that is that age for you?
Not necessarily, it helps. It kind of provides the avatar, the vehicle. But Cornelia Funke’s latest book we published, Reckless, doesn’t have a child protagonist. And a couple of other books we’ve done have children, but they are not in the primary roles, you know a bit like Treasure Island (the classic tale by Robert Louis Stevenson), whilst Jim is important it’s Long John Silver that is perhaps more important. I think it’s the experience that you’re describing, which is more important than strictly having a child protagonist.
When you come back to voice, I think it’s hard in particular for new authors, to really understand what that means. You know, you can have a good story, plot and characters and research and put together your submission package carefully, but without that ‘voice’ you will find it hard to have your book taken on and be successful. Do you think that’s something you can learn, or do you think writers either have it or they don’t?
I think it’s something you can refine. I think if whatever reason you can’t have a child’s eye view of whatever you’re describing, if you’re only, if this makes sense, looking backwards at childhood. If you can’t manage to look at experience from what it might mean to a child and how a child would experience all that, then it can be difficult writing for children or young adults. But it can absolutely be refined. But you know, as we work with new authors, coming in either through our competition or other sources. We often work at getting that book out of your head and on paper. And with our help or others editors help, accessing that, making it more real and finding those reference points that children want to know about. It is a great deal of skill and a great deal of craft, but I think at its heart, there has to be the authentic inspiration to make it work.
You mentioned new authors coming in through your competition. I believe you’ve just been judging the Times/ Chicken House 2012 competition; it seems to be a really diverse shortlist of new authors?
Yes, really, and it makes it really difficult to judge, on that shortlist we have a very edgy teenage novel, a comic novel for 9-10 year olds. It’s very hard to judge the best, or the most original exciting book in that. But yes, it’s really tricky but we’ve had a great, very lively judging with lots of different opinions. But at the end of the day, it’s really quite simple. I’m looking for the book, which has the most potential for children.
Yes, so I’m sure you’re not going to give anything away…
No, I’m not allowed to, not until March 17th…
An exciting time for you, great to have something exciting to be taking on…
Yes, and exciting for authors, to have a competition where anybody can send in a book, and they all get read. We have great teams of readers, and one of the hardest things for new writers is to get your book read by someone who can make a difference and you know, to be able to enter a competition, to get your book read and hoping to get through stages, and you’re not dependent on agents or getting through the barriers…
Yes, as standard I believe, the Chicken House doesn’t take on unsolicited manuscripts?
No, we used to, but we just got deluged. We filter them all through the competition now, and I think it works, you know if people are really serious, then they have to produce, and enter. Of course, we occasionally break our own rules. All of us, go around the country, and indeed around the world, to festivals and so on, so you know when you’re met by someone eagerly pressing the brown paper parcel into your hands, it would be churlish to not read it…laughter.
but very generous of you…
We do break our own rules, sometimes.
Particularly for new authors it can be hard to know when to follow all the guidelines and where you can bend them. For example, in the (Times/Chicken House) competition I read that the length guidelines are no more than 30-80,000 words, but if you consider Jo Rowling’s books, they broke those quite considerably…
Indeed. I think that between those two lengths (30k-80K) is somewhere right - you know very occasionally, we’ll say it’s not long enough - there’s part of the story missing here. Or you know it’s too long. But we’re kind of old-fashioned there, we sort of treat everything as the next draft, there’s always work to be done. That might include eventually making it longer or shorter.
So that’s key for you, for new authors, to have people have that understanding, and flexibility, that they are willing to work with you and do what’s necessary, to see what edits are needed?
Yes and you know today when the whole role of publishers is being questioned, what are publishers really for, I think there are two key things. The first one is selection. To say this book has potential, and these not such big potential. And the second is the editorial process. I”ve never met an author who hasn’t benefited from having somebody who can work with them closely, can help them write their book even better. And that goes for all the big names and there are very few authors where you can say, I don’t need an editor. I don’t need a sparking tool to help me make this the very best I can do.
Yes, and to that mind, would you always recommend people get an agent?
Well yes, I think that again, there a wide variety of agents. Some agents are absolutely terrific and really fulfil that first process. Helping an author shape a book, saying when it works and is going well. But it’s not true of all agents. If you can, and you can be lucky and you really can, choose the agent and the editor, because they are your partners. And you have to really trust them and be able to get on. I think a bad agent and bad publisher can really hinder your career and not help it.
Do you think you notice, when work comes into you, people that have had broader experience, if they have done an MA or had other peoples influence on how they write?
Yes I do. And I’ve changed my mind completely on that. In the old days, actually just a few years ago, I used to be quite dismissive of writing courses that maybe they weren’t a help to creativity. Now I think that people who’ve had a chance to air their work, to get advice and have others opinions; they’re already interested in making their work better. I don’t always agree with the advice they’ve been given, you know that’s a tricky area, but I think it is mostly a terrifically useful experience.
Perhaps it helps particularly as a new author, to gain a consolidated learning of the publishing industry, markets and what you, yourselves as publishers may look for. But I think it is quite hard to decide as a writer, do you aim for just a good old story, characters and the rest will come. Or do you think from a very early stage about markets, target audience and tailoring your subject matter to it. Do you think it matters, or would you recommend authors just get on with their story, we’ll worry about that part?
I think largely, get on with the story, we’ll worry about that part. But at the same time, when you’re writing for children, you’re automatically writing for an audience, you’ve already got some part of childhood in mind. Whether you call that a market, an audience, a readership. You’re already in the process making adjustments to your adult experience, making it more acceptable, more popular for a different age group, a different market if you like - the process that children’s writers have is very different then, for adults writing for other adults, you’re already thinking about does this work, have I gained their attention, am I boring them. But I wouldn’t let it overwhelm you, I wouldn’t think have I got the movie thought out, will this character work well in sequels and so on. Just get on with writing a good story.
In terms of story, and subjects, some people would say, there seem to be no "taboo" subjects anymore at least in contemporary realistic stories. I spoke to a bookseller recently who felt that current teen books have too much bad language and too much sex, and she said parents return stories with bad language issues. Yet as authors, you are encouraged to be authentic and contemporary. Where do you find the balance?
I think it is a very difficult balance. I think that for YA, for some stories dealing with contemporary issues, children would be astonished now, if they weren’t set in a relatively realistic way with tone and language, subject matter, but at the same time, those very same children, will accept and welcome fantasy and escapism that can cover the same issues but in a different way. I don’t think they want only realism and can only cope with that. I think they want all kinds of experience. There is, and I think most editors and publishers would agree, in the way that realism is portrayed, bad language, sex and drug issues, we still have a responsibility to show positive experience and hope, if you like, in those experiences, however dire or difficult they are. I think the representation in children’s books, I think it’s difficult to find books that don’t show, that you have a chance, by being true to yourself and your friends, an opportunity to overcome and get through those things. I think they’re always about coping in a positive way. I don’t think children’s books are dominated by sex and violence. They are elements. And whether they are in Twilight or Hunger Games, I think they’re dealt with in an age appropriate way, mostly.
In terms of young people, and how they interact, compared with in the past. Social networking and online interaction. How important do you think it is important for authors to understand and is it important to work in that are, for you?
I think it can be exaggerated. I think most of our teen authors have very active Twitter, or Facebook, websites, and you get a lot of older authors engaging with their favourite authors and subjects. But I don’t think it’s vital to the success or not of an writer, it can be very distracting and instead of getting on with your writing you can spend a lot of time Tweeting or Facebooking or blogging. But because of the amount of material on the Internet, I don’t think it has a huge marketing benefit. I think a lot of key writers find that authors talk to themselves. A lot of the activity is other authors supporting each other, which is nice as well, but so I think it has exaggerated importance. It’s lovely to have fans and have that kind of access, but what I think is more interesting is what Pottermore will do eventually, and what other authors will do, is where fans can provide alternative endings, collaborate on fan fiction, what if this had happened in your book. Genuine interest on spinning out different ideas. Building on ideas in a different way. I think those start going into areas breaking the bounds on how the book starts or ends, and of course, some authors love that and some hate it.
Of course it’s evolving all the time, and when it comes to digital rights, sometimes you hear of authors saying their publisher at the time of a potential deal, isn’t yet clear what they will or won’t do in the digital market. Would you recommend an author sell the digital rights in the package?
Absolutely, and work with your publishers, and already most publishers, like us, will do a straightforward e-book, and already we’re experimenting with applications, and I think working with publishers on alternative endings or bits you’d like to add in, or prequels, all that will become clearer as time goes on, especially in the teen areas.
Now, you mentioned Pottermore (the upcoming J. K. Rowling Harry Potter online platform), we can hardly have an interview and not ask you a little about Harry Potter. It’s all very well documented, how you took it on (at Bloomsbury) after it had been rejected in various other places, and didn’t hold terribly high hopes for it at the time. Have you since learned the rules of quidditch?
No, I think we should have worked it (the rules) out a little better. But I see that they’re playing it at Oxford now, so they’ve managed to fill in the gaps in the rules. No, you know, it’s a lovely story. What I love about it really. It’s a genuine phenomenon created by children’s reading enthusiasm. Based on one woman’s imagination. It wasn’t cooked up in darkened rooms by marketing men in Disney, but absolutely changed the book and transformed boys lives. Think that it’s something which we share, which I am enormously proud of and am pleased to be associated with it, but I think I always knew that children would love it, but I could never have predicted that it would conquer the world and adulthood the way it has.
Do you have a lovely inscribed copy?
I do. She did seven handwritten copies of The Tales of Beedle the Bard, of which she very kindly gave me one, you know as one of the seven key people at the beginning of the (Potter) story, so yes. We get on very well. We don’t talk very often now, but I think she rang me after the third book, and said, ‘I had a dream about it all last night, and dreamed that it had all never happened.’ And you know, it still has that amazing dream-like quality. Doesn’t it? From nothing to world domination.
Indeed. Now to get away from that world domination, and despite being on the cutting edge of publishing, I heard that you like to listen to music on vinyl?
I do. I am a complete vinyl junkie, I love playing records on vinyl. I just love the sound that the kind of live warm sound that vinyl gives, and I’m glad to see that vinyl sales went up last year. A lot of people put their songs out as limited edition vinyls now. I love the opening up of the sleeve and reading the lyrics.
In the same way that you can be hands on with a paper book, so you’ll never be a 100% tablet person?
You know, if pushed, in the same way that I love vinyl, I love second-hand books. Which I shouldn’t really say as a publisher, I should only encourage the buying of new books. But I love a book that’s been pre-owned, you know, you have the lists and the shopping notes and the occasional bus tickets stuck in the back, I love the idea that someone else has been here before, and enjoyed it, stuffed it under their pillow. I love the smell of old books, the history of a book that’s been owned before.
The story, its own story?
Yes, it has its own story.
Do you have a favourite place to read?
Actually, I love to read on aeroplanes. I love it when you just break through the clouds and you’re alone and no one can get to you, you’re just reading up there. Yes. I like reading on aeroplanes.
And off to Bologna (Children’s Book Fair) next week? (19th-22nd March 2012) What will you be looking for there?
Yes, I like the idea of trying to find more stand alone novels for seven to nine year olds, it’s a neglected area, very difficult to find, so I’m looking in that area right now…
A huge thank you to Barry for his time and his both humorous and enlightening answers. It was an honour and great pleasure to be in 30 minutes conversation with Barry Cunningham. (Good job he couldn't see my boots shaking below the desk!)
Chicken House is a small, highly individual children’s book publishing company with an enthusiasm for new fiction. Chicken House books have found huge popularity with children, parents, teachers and librarians around the world. link: Chicken House The Times/ Chicken House 2013 competition will open from the end of March 2012. The winners of this year's competition will be announced on March 24th. You can also read Barry's top 5 tips for writers on video, here, on the Chicken House submissions page.
Photo credit top: Michael Orth