Saturday, 23 June 2012

Packagers, picture books and pop ups

Our guest blogger this month is writer, designer, packager and publisher Tony Potter, of iSeek Creative. Tony worked in-house for Usborne and Collins before setting up his own packaging company in the late 1980s when the world was a happier place, books were easier to sell, but a darn sight harder to create without the benefit of InDesign, Photoshop, scanners that cost less than a quarter of a million pounds, DIY typesetting and instant communication. He specialises in creating unusual and innovative children’s books, and has links with publishers worldwide. He has a several nom de plumes.


Tony's website is at www. www.iseekcreative.com

Packagers, picture books and pop ups

When people ask what I do, I usually say that I make books and that I run a book packaging company. This usually leads to confusion right away, as people think I'm a bookbinder and packer. When I then explain that I create books, the response is usually "Oh, I've always wanted to write a children's book," or "my aunt / best friend, Mum, sister, etc., has written a children's book - can they send it to you to publish?"

We don't publish anything right now, but we do create and sell a lot of books - perhaps 50 titles a year to clients around the world and we let them get on with the exciting but unpredictable job of holding stock and publishing into their own market - one which they understand and know much better than we do. Right now, our best markets are Brazil, France, USA and Canada. Our worst market is the UK,  but that's perhaps the subject of another blog.

Nearly everything we create begins life in-house. I create books every day of the week (and often half the night too!). I conceptualise books and formats, write, design, do paper engineering and occasionally illustrate - one way or another I bash a project into shape from an idea to a printed book. My work also involves art directing illustrators and freelance designers, briefing editors and commissioning text. The best writers, for our projects, are those that can write visually to a brief. Occasionally, but very rarely, someone sends us a manuscript for a picture book or an idea that gets us excited.

The mission is to make books that are compelling, that are good quality, have high production values and which have the potential to sell in as many international markets as possible. Every book we create has to be pre-sold before we print it, so a lot of time is spent making prototypes and proofed dummies that can be shown to publishers and other clients who may be interested in joining a print run.

Creating books that work editorially and stylistically in many markets isn’t easy. What works in Germany invariably doesn’t work in France, where the aesthetic is very different. Books that are loved in Spain often work well in Brazil, but what’s great for a book club in America is often impossible to sell anywhere else, and so on. In the end, a great idea is a great idea, but even the best ideas are more or less successful in different places and often at different times.

All of our books are illustrated and a few are conventional 32pp picture books. We spend a lot of time worrying about the aesthetic direction to take with a new idea and this is often dictated either by the idea itself (as in, this pop up would work really well, but only if it’s illustrated with, say, a very French aesthetic), or by a specific client or group of clients we have in mind (as in, there’s no way that bookclub X will ever buy this activity book unless we make it a certain way). So although we’re creating books with the whole world in mind, in reality we tend to create books that we think will appeal to certain markets and particular clients. The mission remains the same regardless and sometimes we’re surprised. An idea that last year sold in, say, Italy and Australia, but nowhere else, suddenly becomes popular for reasons that we often can’t discern.

Choosing illustrators for a book has never been easier, or harder at the same time. We work with illustrators around the world and this has opened up the possibilities of exposure to very different aesthetics and styles for books that might not have been so possible even 10 years ago. It makes life much harder for UK illustrators, of course, as they are competing for work with the rest of the world, but the important thing for me is to choose the right person for the job.

It’s been a varied week this week: I’ve been making pop-ups for Brazil, working on picture books for Australia, activity books for America and secret new ideas for the Frankfurt book fair. The one thing I know for sure is that although there’s more of the same for next week, there are a hundred ideas waiting to be thought about, developed and conceptualised and every one of them will be a surprise until it’s bashed into shape, finished and in a shipping container on the way to somewhere!

14 comments:

  1. Interesting blog, Tony. Your work must be so enjoyable (unless you have a brilliant concept that others don't appreciate!). I wonder why Brazil is currently a good market for British produced books? Is Brazil taking them from other countries, or primarily the UK? For the first time I have a Brazilian co-edition coming out, which I'm looking forward to seeing.

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    1. Hi, Tony has been unable to make his 'reply' button work so he's asked me to post his reply, Peony, which is ....

      Hello Paeony - thank you for your kind comments. I think the market in Brazil is so buoyant because of the general economic situation there, which is thriving. I visited Sao Paulo in December and was astonished by the number and quality of bookshops. Each had huge and dedicated children's sections and were busy and exciting places. Prices are very high, but people seem very keen to encourage their children. I also visited a "pop up book shop", in a park, which was full to overflowing with excited children and which had hosted author events.

      There was a very high proportion of illustrated books originating from the UK and US. I think it's fair to say that the UK is a world leader in this respect. Good luck with your Brazilian co-edition!

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  2. Thanks Tony for capturing so well, and sharing, the huge amount of detailed market knowledge that's needed in order to translate an idea into something that sells to particular groups of people. The care you take in putting your creations together rings out from the post.

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  3. Interesting how different books appeal in different countries. I also have a Brazilian co-edition that in now in its 10th edition and consistently sells well.

    Thanks for an insight into yet another fascinating area of the book world.

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  4. Really interesting post, thank you.

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  5. I'm intrigued by this, and not a little puzzled - do you publish yourselves or do you work for/with publishers? I have to confess a personal interest in this, since I sold a picture book text last year, but the publisher's still looking for the 'right' illustrator. Does that mean they're looking for some kind of international packager?
    An interesting post.

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    1. Hi, I'll reply on behalf of Tony for now as he is struggling with how to get his 'reply' to work. A packager comes up with book ideas, which they produce physically and sell on to publishers around the world. They do not publish themselves, they sell on the 'package', as it were, to publishers. No, a publisher wouldn't generally go to a packager with a text. A packager would go to a publisher with a project and sell them the rights to sell it. The packager pays for text/illustration/ design etc and will often print for the publisher, too, but not distribute. There has been a strong children's book packager industry in the UK for some years.

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  6. Hi Tony - sounds as if you have a wonderful job, and buckets of enthusiasm and expertise. Very interesting, too about different countries having different aesthetics - as a writer, it's not something I'd thought about before.

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  7. Fascinating post! I wonder if you could say more about the different "aesthetics" in different countries? I've spent a lot of time in the US and have always been intrigued by the different "look" of their children's books, although I find it hard to explain the difference. I think it's less colourful and to a British eye maybe "old fashioned" although no worse for that. What is distinctively French or German about the look of a book?

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  8. I too really enjoyed this post. Perhaps something for another post is a selection of images - showing what has sold well in different markets - to give us a little bit of an insight into the different cultural aesthetics.

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  9. I loved reading your post and would like to know more. As suggested by Playing by the Book it would be great to see some pics as well.
    Absolutely fascinating.

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  10. Hasn't the world shrunk in recent years! I think that international experience in children's stories is a very positive thing for children, but also wonderfully exciting professionally. Thank you for the insight, Tony.

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  11. I've worked for packagers so know how the process works. It's interesting to read it from the other side of the desk. I just get given the brief, write the words, become a hand model (if needed) and that's me done!

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  12. Really interesting, Tony. I've always found it fascinating checking out picture books in bookshops in other countries. I've never been to Brazil and haven't had a co-edition there yet but it's always intriguing to see which countries your own books get picked up in (although I suspect it also has a lot to do with the relationships your UK publisher has with various overseas publishers... Must check out the Brazilian market... Thanks, Clare.

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