A group of published UK-based authors and illustrators of picture books, children's and YA.
Barry Cunningham, MD of The Chicken House has had a frankly, jaw-dropping career in publishing. 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 1994 he was approached by Bloomsbury to set up their first children’s book list, where 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. In early 2000, Barry decided to start his own publishing company, The Chicken House, which describes itself as ‘a small, highly individual children’s book publishing company with an enthusiasm for new fiction.’
‘If it wasn’t for Barry Cunningham, Harry Potter might still be languishing in his cupboard under the stairs…’
Rachel Ward (RW): Thanks for joining us today on Author Allsorts. As this seemed like a golden opportunity, I asked around for burning issues, so some of these questions are mine and some come from other Allsorts or members of Southwest SCWBI.
(RW): Chicken House is 15 years old and you’ve been working in publishing for a lot longer than that and yet, to me, you seem continually optimistic and excited about children’s books. How do you retain your enthusiasm for your job?
Barry Cunningham (BC): I think I’m better at living in the might-be worlds or the intensity of imagination than the more mundane real world, so all those voyages of inner or outer discovery are endlessly exciting to me!
RW (From SCWBI): How many manuscripts do you receive every year and how many new writers do you take on?
BC: We have about 400-600 from agents or overseas publishers and about 1,000 from the Times/Chicken House Competition/Conferences/Open Coop and odd friends (in both senses) and we take on about 15.
RW: When deciding to publish a book, or sign a new writer, is it a purely business decision or is there any room for sentiment, emotion or intuition? Does the head always rule the heart?
BC: Commercial reality is really the same thing as letting your heart and emotions rule sometimes, because that’s what rules our readers – not necessarily the best writing or the most sensible subject! But success is necessary – so sometimes it’s the second or third novels from an author that are the most difficult to sustain commercially. I have to balance how best to use resources – decisions, decisions.
RW (From SCWBI): Why don’t Chicken House publish picture books and do you think there’s a trend towards more author-illustrator books?
BC: We stopped publishing picture books as they seemed very ‘samey’ even to us! We are looking for younger fiction now by writers who can also illustrate, as this seems to inspire younger readers.
RW (From SCWBI): How explicit can YA books be? Are you constantly second guessing how ‘gatekeepers’ may react? Given that many YA readers are in their twenties and older, does Chicken House market these to adults too?
BC: We would love to do more novels like ‘Lobsters’ but as we are partners with Scholastic who are a children’s only publishing company it is difficult to cross over. If content is part of the story and it’s age appropriate, then we always try and find ways of making it work. However, I’m not a fan of ‘adult orientated’ content for the sake of it – and I think that verges sometimes on the exploitative.
RW (From SCWBI): Do you think there’s a market for historical fiction for children?
BC: Yes! We are publishing a Guy Fawkes novel next year. And there’s always a market for First and Second World War stories, but I believe other periods can work too.
RW: Some years ago you advised me to keep up the day job for a while (which I did – I finally gave it up 3 years ago). What advice do you give to today’s new writers? Do you think it is realistic to think of writing for children as a career, given the low average earnings?
BC: I think times are difficult and as margins fall, author advances are falling and foreign rights sales are more tricky. Most importantly backlist sales drop like stones – so all argues for caution!
RW (From Author Allsorts): Chicken House is innovative in looking for new ways to bring stories to children and to work with different partners in the media and in different countries. What’s next for your film/book concept (e.g. Big Game)? Any other exciting developments you’d like to share?
BC: Yes! We are developing a film and book project together from the outset – with Gemma Fowler’s Moonrise, a novel set on the moon. And we have a wonderful imagining of the secret diary of young Lydia Bennet from Pride and Prejudice by the amazing Natasha Farrant.
RW (Me and Author Allsorts): I cry very readily at films, TV programmes and The Archers(!), but rarely at books. The last book that made me cry was probably A Monster Calls. What was the last book to make you cry?
BC: H Is For HAWK – a beautiful and moving experience about dads, love, hawks and how to be you!
RW: What would be your three desert island books?
BC: Treasure Island, Wuthering Heights, a set of Harry Potters.
RW: Back to publishing, what’s the best thing and worst thing about being a children’s book publisher?
The best is having the best audience in the world and the worst is children’s books not being taken seriously (still).
RW: It’s a tough industry to break into. What advice would you offer for anyone who would like to work in publishing?
BC: Take any job you can and work all hours reading, reading, reading!
Rachel Ward grew up in Bookham, Surrey. She began writing in her 30’s, starting out with short stories. One of these short stories formed the first chapter of NUMBERS, published by The Chicken House, which has sold to 26 countries and was the winner of several awards including the Flemish Children and Youth Literature Prize 2011, Angus Book Awards 2010 and the Salisbury Schools Book Award 2012, as well as being shortlisted for the Waterstones Children’s Book Prize 2009, the Branford Boase Award 2010 and the Deutscher Jugendliteraturepreis 2011.
The sequel to NUMBERS 2: THE CHAOS was released in 2010 with NUMBERS 3: INFINITY following in 2011. THE DROWNING and WATER BORN, gritty paranormal thrillers, were published in 2013 and 2014.
Both NUMBERS and THE DROWNING have been optioned by film companies.
Rachel lives in Bath, Somerset.