Can you tell us a little bit about yourself and how you got into the publishing world?
I’ve been an illustrator and designer for about twelve years, having worked for loads of companies all over the world including Cadbury’s, Nestle, Sony, RSPB, The Brownies, Girl Guides on all sorts of different projects. I’ve story-boarded TV commercials, I’ve worked on advertising for the Smurfs Movie and Slush Puppies, I’ve designed toys and games as well as illustrating books and comics. Basically if it’s drawing, I’ve probably done it at some point. It was working for other publishers that lead me to set up My Little Big Town. I became disheartened with some of he work I was getting (it was all a little sickly sweet for my taste) and wanted to set up a company that published fun, silly, quirky children’s books.
What can a reader expect when they get a book published by My Little Big Town?
We publish books that are written and illustrated with children in mind. Many publishers target the parents (they are the ones who actually buy the books after all) but My Little Big Town works hard to create books that children really WANT to read. They are often disgusting, scary, silly books. We like to take risks when it comes to our titles and pride ourselves on publishing fun books, with great authors behind them.
What is your first love: writing or Illustrating?
Illustrating. It’s hard to explain but for me illustration is just who I am. It’s what I’ve always done and would do it whether I was doing it for a living or not. Writing is kind of the same but if I absolutely HAD to choose one or the other it would be illustration.
Who has been an inspiration to you in your journey as a writer/illustrator and what do you love about their work?
The two biggest influences for me happen to be children’s literature’s greatest team. Roald Dahl and Quentin Blake. Roald Dahl is in my opinion the best there ever has been or ever will be. He just had a way of writing that worked perfectly for children’s books. He understood on a wonderful level how children think and see the world. Quentin Blake has the same talent with illustration. He draws how children think. His illustrations are free and loose and energetic and exciting. He doesn’t worry about making mistakes or getting everything precise, it’s more about how the illustration makes you feel. They’re always fun. As a duo they had something very special.
People talk a lot about writer’s block. Is there something similar in an illustrator’s world and what do you do to overcome it?
Yes, of course. I can sometimes stare at the drawing board for hours struggling to get something down on paper. When that does happen I tend to work on something else to just chill out and take my mind off it for a bit. I have quite an odd way of working where I usually have at least three or four illustrations on the go at any one time, side by side. These illustrations are usually vastly different. One might be a children’s book illustration while another might be quite a dark comic book illustration, another may be something quite technical. I have a very large desk/work space and have a drawing tablet and two drawing boards all side by side, allowing me to work in this way.
As a publisher, I imagine you must get a lot of manuscripts on your desk. What key elements make you stop and take notice in a manuscript?
It’s very hard to say. It has to be different and have something special, but exactly what that ‘special thing’ is… well, it’s not an exact science. I may like a general concept, or I may like a particular character, or even a style of writing. I’m always looking for that ‘something’ that gets my attention, but that something can often be very different things.
Can you take us behind the veil and explain the process from when you (or one of your authors) get an idea until it gets published and seats on a shelf in a local bookstore?
It’s a pretty long process… usually from us receiving the initial manuscript or story it’s about 12 to 18 months until it hits the shelves. In this time the book is edited, an illustrator is sought for the project and the illustration process begins. Marketing of the book begins a long time before it actually hits the shelves, often 6-8 months before. This is to allow time for the stores to stock the books, buyers to pre-order copies and for us to make sure as many retailers as possible have the book on their shelves (or websites). We make sure that the author and illustrator work closely together but the final decision on the style of illustrations is primarily based on the market and what we think will work for the book buyers. Once the book is edited, illustrated and ready we go ahead with an initial print-run, with numbers based heavily on pre-orders and potential sales. At the same time the book goes to print we are editing and producing the eBook versions across all formats as well as often producing interactive versions for tablet computers and phones.
How critical is marketing in the success of a book and what three marketing paths have proved the most successful for you?
Marketing is everything. You can produce the best book in the world but unless people know about it, they’re not going to buy it. The key to successfully marketing a book is to target ALL areas, from social media, to print advertising and real world promotion. In the past we have had great success with real world marketing including a launch campaign involving hundreds of pupils and dozens of schools across the UK through to photo-shoots with the New Zealand cricket team. The key is to spot these opportunities to gain exposure in interesting and original ways, then to pounce on them and make the most of those opportunities to gain newspaper/magazine space or radio and TV time. In the past we have successfully worked with thousands of pupils, hundreds of schools, gained national, regional and local newspaper, TV and radio coverage and we continue to promote our books in new and exciting ways. This year will see us launching books at haunted houses, we will be taking part in the World Porridge Championship and organizing a series of writing and illustration workshops across the UK and Scotland. It’s this variety and innovative way of marketing our books that has helped us establish ourselves in the industry.
What mistakes do authors make when they approach publishers that you have noticed?
There are a number of sure fire ways to get a submission rejected as far as I’m concerned. Firstly, not reading the terms and conditions. We have very clear guidelines on our website for authors wanting to submit manuscripts to us. There are a number of points, but they are very simple to follow. Not following them is the first mistake. (it’s always amazing how many people don’t follow the guidelines).
Sending in incomplete manuscripts or ‘ideas’ is never a good tactic. A good idea is pretty easy to come across. A good idea doesn’t however make a good author. We want to see that an author can actually write and develop their good ideas into great stories. Possibly the most frustrating submission we’ve ever received was an envelope stuffed with glitter. The person submitting the manuscript obviously thought that the idea would make them stand out, and it did… just not in a good way. After spending half an hour cleaning up glitter from the office floor we weren’t exactly in the best mood to read the new submission.
How do you handle bad reviews to any of your work?
If the bad reviews come in the ‘testing phase’, and it’s suitable to do so, we edit the books. All of our books are tested on children before publication to make sure they work, and appeal to as many people as possible. It’s how we built the business and it’s a key part of how we work. We genuinely value what children think of our books, so we listen and take action. Some bad reviews can always be expected after publication and to a certain extent it has to be taken on the chin. Not everyone is going to like all of our books all of the time, especially with the sorts of books that we publish. We like to take risks and publish books that other publishers may not always take on.
What were your favorite books growing up?
Anything by Roald Dahl. He was a genius when it came to children’s books. I have always been a huge horror and science fiction fan. The Riverworld series by Phillip Jose Falmer is my all time favorite set of science fiction stories. I have always loved anything scary too, from classics like Frankenstein and Dracula, to The Shining and Pet Cemetery.
What has been the craziest request/question a child has asked you at a school event?
I always end my sessions with a question and answer session. Questions are always entertaining (and often nothing to do with books). Where did I get my trainers from? How tall am I? What’s my favorite food? are all questions I’ve had from kids. I often sketch whatever children want me to sketch too… just a quick scribble of whatever is shouted out. The strangest has to be a monster that had the head of a dragon, legs of a horse, ears of a lion, fifteen eyes, a snakes tongue and wings of a pigeon… that was a fun one to draw.
What is your favorite Disney/Pixar Movie and why?
I love loads of Disney/Pixar films and watch them again and again. For me though it has to be, Up! simply because it’s one of the best all round films ever made. From a storytelling point of view the first ten minutes of the film were amongst the best cinematic sequences, animated or otherwise, ever put together. I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve seen that film.
Most of the visitors to this blog live outside the United Kingdom. Where should they go or do when they visit the North of England where you’re based?
They should visit us at our new offices and stop by for a coffee on the balcony. We have a fantastic space complete with a ‘chill out zone’ (bean bags, computer games, TV and snacks). We’re also in the process of setting up an ‘art cafe’ and an art gallery on the bottom floor our building!
What can we expect from Calvin Innes and My Little Big Town in the next 12 months?
Lots of fantastic new books, both printed and digital. We have ten new printed titles and over twenty digital titles being released over the next twelve months. We are also launching two new imprints, ‘Room 110’ which will be publishing comic books and graphic novels and ‘Last Door On the Left’ which will be publishing books for teens and adults, including our first non-fiction books. MLBT is also venturing into TV with My Little Big TV and Radio with the My Little Big Radio Show. It’s going to be a busy year.
What advice do you have for authors who have received multiple rejections from publishers and are at the brink of giving up?
Just keep going, it’s as simple as that. Even the best authors get rejected (often a lot). If you’re getting the same feedback or advice on how to improve again and again, don’t be too proud to take it. Even great writers improve over time and sometimes need to take a step back to assess themselves and their writing. Get feedback from people who aren’t related to you. Just because your kid’s like your book doesn’t mean other people will.
Wow! There’s just so much good stuff you’ve shared with us today Calvin, I’ll definitely be coming back to read this interview. I love what you said about Marketing being everything. While it’s a bit frustrating to see average or poorly written books sitting at the top of best-seller lists, the sad reality is that if a writer/publisher does not grasp the importance of marketing their books, then they could very well admit they’re pursuing a hobby and not a professional endeavor. You can discover the latest news and giveaways at Calvin’s firm by following them on Twitter at the link below
A great interview David with so much helpful advice, as well as a very interesting peep into the life of an author, illustrator and publisher. I think this an interview I will be returning to from time to time to refresh my memory
Thanks for stopping by. I definitely agree that there is a wealth of information here that would be worthy of a second and third read. It was a pleasure getting to see things from a publisher’s point of view and the effort put into marketing their books.