Founder, Cicada Books
Tell us about your background and how you came to establish Cicada Books in 2009.
I set up Cicada after the birth of my daughter, Edith. I had been working as an editor for a small independent company but had handed in my notice when I got pregnant. I wanted a part time editorial job with another design-oriented independent but there was nothing available. I had had a couple successes at previous companies, so slightly foolishly assumed that it would be no big deal to set up my own company. It’s been a lot harder than I ever expected, and there have been a lot of ups and downs. But I’m still standing, and that makes me pretty proud.
You launched Cicada with a focus on beautiful books and fresh talent. Tell us about some of your favourite titles and success stories.
The company has been through various stages. We started out making design/gift books for adults, then moved into activity books for children and finally into picture books.
The picture books are a new venture for me and I’m still bursting with enthusiasm, so it’s hard to pick a favourite. Sock Story is probably my most successful picture book to date. It’s about a pair of socks that get separated in the wash and then have to decide what it means to be a pair if one of you has changed. It’s got a philosophical touch and a lot of humour and it’s beautifully illustrated by Eleonora Marton. It’s printed in pantones with a die cut cover, so quite a wow factor. We had a great critical response, including a review in the New York Times, and it’s selling through really well.
And how about the future? What do you have in the works?
I’m working on a couple non-fiction titles with two great illustrators. Sophie Williams is illustrating a book about natural disasters. She’s got a really warm style that is perfect for conveying information. I’m also working with Katie Brosnan on a book about the microbiome. Her style is very narrative and imaginative, which is unusual for non-fiction, but actually works really well – and makes a complex topic very accessible and inspiring.
After these books go to print it’s back to the picture books with a gorgeous book of Alice Bowsher’s about a dog called Scruff who hates being scruffy. I’ve also got one with Daniel Gray-Barnett called the Pocket Chaotic, about a kangaroo joey who’s mum is very messy. I love books that make me smile.
What are some of the biggest challenges you face when running a new and independent publisher?
Wow. Where to begin? I’m an editor, not a business woman by nature, and it’s been a long hard journey getting to grips with the nuts and bolts of running a company. Many, many mistakes have been made along the way. My main challenge is making it all add up. Books have a low profit margin that seems to only get lower as paper prices increase and the value of the pound decreases. It’s a constant battle between the head and heart. What can I afford to do, how much can I afford to pay, how many copies will realistically sell, how commercial is the idea. I have to say, mostly the heart wins!
Run through a typical workday.
A typical workday is a balance between doing the stuff I love – writing and editing, communicating with illustrators, researching new projects, planning the future lists. And the other stuff: foreign language rights, shipping, production, checking on sales figures and stock levels… posting books out…. It’s certainly never dull!
What do you love most about your role?
I love the moment when you can feel a book in your head. You have the story, you’ve attached the right illustrator, you’ve discussed the visual approach and suddenly you see exactly how it’s going to look and you know exactly what you have to do to get there. Of course it’s a long road, but I know that if I have that clarity of vision at the beginning of the process, the end product will be a good ‘un!
If you could change one thing within children’s publishing, what would it be?
I don’t really know. It’s hard for a small publisher to survive, but I think that’s true for any small business in a globalised world. I sometimes feel like the mainstream industry leaves it to the little guys to take all the risks and the risks that pay off are effectively stolen and commercialised, which can be very frustrating. But again, I think that’s true for a lot of industries, not just publishing.
What qualities do you look for in an illustrator?
It depends on the book, but I’m always looking for warmth and expression. For the picture books I want illustrators who can convey emotion in the faces of their characters, and also a sense of movement that can draw readers into the story. On the non-fiction side of things I’m looking for an illustrator who can convey information with a human touch.
What kind of illustration styles or subject matters are you particularly interested in?
On the non-fiction side of things I’m always on the lookout for science or geography topics that can be presented in a new way.
On the picture books, I’m looking for funny. I like books that make me smile and that have a touch of the subversive. Once they’re of school-age there’s a lot of pressure on kids to conform and I like books that challenge that either directly or indirectly.
Illustration styles – I’m open to anything really. I work with all sorts of illustrators working in any number of styles and mediums. I don’t know what exactly I look for, but I know what I like when I see it!
Outside of your own list, what children's books are you drawn to or admire?
I love all Mo Willems books – Pigeon, Elephant and Piggie and Knuffle Bunny. You can’t beat him for the lol-factor.
I love the American I Can Read books from the 1980s, including Go Dog Go, the Best Nest and Hand Hand Fingers Thumb.
Jon Klassen is amazing. This is not My Hat and I Want My Hat Back are brilliant.
Lucy Cousins is a favourite – I love the Maisy books and Peck Peck Peck is a book I always buy for small children. The die cut holes are so clever. Julian is a Mermaid by Jessica Love is a book I wish I had published.