SCBWI Bologna 2006 Publishing Director Interview: Anne McNeil

From SCBWI Bologna 2006:

Publishing Director Anne McNeil will be speaking at the SCBWI Bologna 2006 conference in Bologna, Italy, March 25-26, 2006. Other speakers include: Authors and illustrators Scott Westerfeld (author interview), Sara Rojo Pérez (illustrator interview), Justine Larbalestier (author interview), Doug Cushman (author-illustrator interview). Editors: Victoria Arms/Bloomsbury, Judy Zylstra/Eerdmans, Mary Rodgers/Lerner. Agents: Rosemary Canter/PFD, Barry Goldblatt/Barry Goldblatt Literary, Rosemary Stimola (agent interview), and others. See registration information.

Anne McNeil is the Publishing Director of Fiction and Picture Books at Hodder Children’s Books. She was interviewed by Ann Jacobus in November 2005.

Ann Jacobus: Please tell us a little about your background.

Anne McNeil: Passionate reader; I applied for a job as advertised in the Guardian for an editorial assistant in the early eighties, and that was my beginning. I have always worked in children’s books.

AJ: What is your all-time personal favorite book?

AM: I don’t think I can name just one, I’m afraid. I would include Breaktime by Aidan Chambers (Bodley Head, 1978)(Red Fox Definitions, 2000), as it used form and content so perfectly. I found it so thrilling in its accessibility and such a brilliant rendering of the state of adolescence. On the list would also be Middlemarch [by George Eliot], which I love for its scope and characterisation. And I would have to include Under Milk Wood by [Dylan Thomas (1954)], which my father read aloud to me before I was old enough, and I adored its dialogue so much I tried to mimic the characters – until I heard Richard Burton’s fabulous audio. And then there’s Wind in the Willows [by Kenneth Grahame]…

AJ: What book(s) are you proudest of having worked on and why?

AM: Shirley Hughes’ A Life Drawing [Bodley Head, 2002] would be one. The story of Shirley’s life through her art read perfectly as a work of narrative. And then, suddenly, between us we had the vision of the potential for artwork. The book is a collection of her own paintings and roughs – along with reproductions of many of the classic painters who inspired her. It is a beautiful book and very interesting, both from a domestic history perspective and from the perspective, too, of a working illustrator. The Great Grammar Book [by Kate Petty, illustrated by Jennie Mazels (Bodley Head, 1996)], and its follow up titles, was one of the most innovative pop-up titles of its time. I learnt about conceptualising in 3-D. Cressida Cowell’s Hiccup titles have shown how a picture book author can very successfully make the leap up the age range, and David Almond’s Kate the Cat and the Moon demonstrates the same in reverse. Hilary McKay’s Permanent Rose is a masterpiece of characterisation and was absolutely terrific to edit. And Susan Cooper’s The Boggart is the last one I will mention. She wrote it after a long gap from the end of the classic The Dark is Rising sequence – it felt like a new beginning.

AJ: How would you describe the children’s publishing program at Hodder?

AM: The Hodder list has an immensely strong fiction programme. Underpinned by very successful series and brands including Enid Blyton and Animal Ark – it is a wide-ranging list which includes top literary titles like David Almond’s Skellig, Hilary McKay’s Casson family books and newer stand-alone titles like the bestselling The Valley of Secrets [by Charmian Hussey (excerpt)]. Hiccup by Cressida Cowell is a global brand in the making, with extremely strong and funny writing selling in over 21 languages; and Cherub by Robert Muchamore goes from strength to strength. We are currently expanding our younger fiction through innovative sequence publishing. We publish approximately 70 new fiction titles each year, and are growing to about 40 picture books. The picture book list is strong on novelties and character including Felicity Wishes and Kipper. We have a successful stand-alone list, also, with illustrators such as Lauren Child and David Melling [scroll for interview] to name but two.

AJ: What about the picture book publishing programme? Do you have a specific brief? How many picture books do you produce each year? Do you handle board books as well as picture books?

AM: We don’t have a specific brief, although we often look at developing characters. As above, there is a strong novelty list at Hodder which works well. A super lead for next year is The Story of Everything, which tells the history of mankind in ten spreads. We have established characters like Mick Inkpen’s Kipper and Wibbly Pig books, alongside Emma Thomson’s bestselling Felicity Wishes titles. We are aiming at approximately forty titles. Texts have to be absolutely brilliant – as they are much, much more than vehicles for the art. I do not publish non-fiction, but “yes” to board books.

AJ: Can you address the “co-edition” issue in regards to how Hodder produces a picture book?

AM: We proof our books a year prior to publishing, or eighteen months in the case of novelties. This gives optimum time for our rights teams to find customers. We publish only the books that we absolutely love – and hope to discover that others will love them too. We always print for all comers – sometimes splitting US from Europe against our hardback and then paperback pub dates. We attend Bologna and Frankfurt to sell rights – plus selling trips throughout the year to the US, France, Spain… As far as China.

AJ: What can you tell us about your fiction department? How many fiction imprints does Hodder currently have? How do they differ from each other?

AM: Everything is published under Hodder, the Hodder imprint. We only have one sub-imprint, which is Bite: a list for teenagers.

AJ: What are you looking for? (What grabs your attention in a picture book? What about a novel?) Anything you are definitely not looking for?

AM: Texts need to be strong – really strong, to stand the test of time. We do tend to publish quirky rather than cute; but that might change. We look for enduring themes, strong characters and great punchlines. Art needs to properly carry its own subtext so that the two combine to make something special.

AJ: Is there such a thing as the perfect Hodder book?

AM: Not really, although I would say that we are entirely child-focussed in our publishing. We don’t publish for the adult gift market but for the end reader.

AJ: What do you see as the role of the editor in creating books? What are some of the challenges you face working with first-time writers?

AM: It varies completely from project to project. Sometimes one’s role is minimal in that only line editing is required. Sometimes a complete re-think is necessary, and sometimes the author looks to the editor for primary ideas. The most important role for editors is that they should enable the author to write the book that is in the author’s head – the book they think they have written. The editor needs to stay close to the author’s vision at all times – whilst creating a bridge between the author and the market.

AJ: Are you aware of any trends in children’s book publishing at the moment? How do you feel about them?

AM: There are trends towards the upper end of teenage (the 18-plus market), which we are not really going for. Adult writers are experimenting more with children’s books, which can be successful if they are really prepared to change their vision and write from the inside out, rather than looking back on childhood.

AJ: What say if any does your sales/marketing department have in the look or type of book you produce?

AM: It is a collaborative process. The days of editors buying the books and then handing them over to colleagues has long gone, and personally I think it is for the best. Working on the book and taking it to market is the combined responsibility of everyone in the publishing house. The editors and publisher drive the process – but talk to all colleagues throughout. We work hard to bring colleagues in sales and marketing on board with all our decisions and listen to their views. Fiction covers absolutely must be approved by sales and marketing.

AJ: What are some of the common mistakes authors could AVOID making when submitting to you?

AM: Single-space typing and over-complicated synopses on fiction. For picture books it has to be the inclusion of roughs illustrated by a next-door-neighbour!

Cynsational Notes

British spellings remain as they arrived, which I wish was the case in American editions of British books.

Cynsational News & Links

Congratulations to author Phyllis Root, recipient of the Loft Award in Children’s Literature/Younger Children. Administered by The Loft Literary Center, the McKnight Artist Fellowships for Writers provide “Minnesota writers of demonstrated ability with an opportunity to work on their writing for a concentrated period of time. A $25,000 fellowship is awarded each year in children’s literature, including poetry, fiction, or creative nonfiction.” This year the award was offered to an writer for children younger than age eight. Next year, the focus will shift to a writer for older children. “The fellowship does not include educational material for children.”

The front page of Shutta Crum’s website is now a functioning blog. Surf over to check out photos from her recent school visits. Shutta’s books include The Bravest of the Brave, illustrated by Tim Bowers (Knopf, 2004) and My Mountain Song, illustrated by Ted Rand (Clarion, 2004).

Showcase: National Women’s History Month and National Poetry Month from CBC Magazine.