I’ll be back in St Albans as artist in residence at the new museum St Albans Museums from 21 – 23 august. More giant pop-up cardboard frameworks which will be used to create three collaborative works with families exploring the lives of local women through the ages – the fierce and revolutionary queen Boudicca, noblewoman and shrewd business woman, Sarah Churchill, and local Suffragette, Constance Lytton.
Artist in residence for week two (28 – 30 aug) is the wonderful textile artist Felicity Cooke Flea Cooke Art. Image shows my pop-up roman kitchen workshop at St Albans Verulamium Museum in 2017.
Recently, I went to the SCWBI event, Picture Books: Discover and Be Discovered, at the Centre for Literacy in Primary Education CLPE where American illustrator, Paul O. Zelinski, spoke about his journey from being a compulsive child drawer to critically acclaimed children’s illustrator and Caldecott winner. During his time at Yale College, he took a class on the history and practice of the picture book which was co-taught by Maurice Sendak and it was this that inspired him to become a children’s illustrator.
Borrowing a line from an earlier talk about websites, “ It’s not about you, it’s about them,” Paul O. Zelinski tweaked and applied it to the job of illustrating. “It’s not about you or them, it’s about it,” he said, referring to the fact that each picture book cries out for its own style of illustration (or writing). Paul O. Zelinski is happy to oblige, successfully breaking the golden rule about maintaining a consistent, recognisable style.
The topic then switched to the marketing side of the business. Candy Gourlay focused on the target market and getting an understanding of just who actually buys books. She divides these into three categories; hot (dead certs – family and friends), warm (the ‘maybes’ who know who you are but haven’t got round to buying your book) and cold (those who’ve never heard of you). She stressed the importance of shifting efforts from the hot to the cold in a bid to move those on the outer reaches further down into the purchase funnel. Interestingly, independent bookshops feature high on the list of places where books are bought for all age groups up to 10, in addition to charity shops (0-4 and 5-7), children’s book and toy shops (0-4), and bargain bookshops (5-7).
She also talked about what she termed as ‘eggs in your basket’ – what you’ve got, what you can control and what you can create? You’ll probably have a blog, website and archive, social media platforms, research, a publicist perhaps… All of these you can control, including your publicist with whom you should be building a relationship – he or she needs to get to know you. She stressed the importance of online content, especially useful information which helps to attract and grow a fan base. On Amazon, you can control the write up as well as create an author profile with an obligatory photo of yourself from ten years ago. You can create how-to videos in order to engage with fans and, if you visit schools, teachers will often show these to the children before you arrive. She added that the resources you create will also be appreciated by teachers who always need them.
It’s important to build and join communities and visit schools, if that’s your thing. And it’s always useful to re-purpose existing material, create content that will increase your presence, and build and maintain relationships.
For the final segment of the afternoon, Candy put on her interviewer’s hat and spoke to Hilary Delamere who promptly dispelled the myth that agents are a tough, ruthless bunch, before discussing the search for representation and what happens once you’re taken on. Here are some of Hilary’s dos and don’ts:
Think of approaching agents in the same way as a job interview.
Don’t lie or be rude to the agent’s assistants.
Make sure what you’re presenting is the very best it can be.
Have a fantastic title and opening line and end on a brilliant line
Don’t over-explain what your project is.
Authors, don’t get your own illustrator on board – it will end in tears.
I was asked to deliver a session on multitasking to a group of illustrators at the SCBWI conference in Winchester last week-end. Jack-of- all-Trades: How to Have Multiple Careers as an Illustrator looked at choosing the right activities to complement and benefit your core practice as an illustrator of children’s picture books, getting the balance right and recognizing the boundaries? I also ran a hands-on activity where illustrators flexed their creative muscles in a mini workshop combining pop-up design and illustration.
I think multitasking is inevitable when you’re a self-employed creative, especially when dealing with the day-to-day running of your business. However, is it a good idea to diversify creatively, to expand your activities in different directions or even to add to your skill set. It does encourage thinking outside the box, leads to cross pollination of ideas over different disciplines and helps create new income streams. However, does diversifying stretch you too thin and can the problems outweigh the benefits?
For me, what started out as a plan to be an illustrator, turned into an ambition to illustrate and write books. This was followed by the desire to add paper engineering to the mix as well author visits and family workshops.
Something that was quite simple to begin with, turned into a practice that has encompassed schools visits, talks and workshops on how to create your own pop-up books, editorial illustration, card design, pop-up picture books, public art trails and other collaborations with artists, not to mention co-creating a number of children’s theatre productions. This is further complicated by the fact that it’s all done as a joint business with an artist wife with a great deal of crossover between both practices.
I think problems arise when one strand takes over and dominates to the detriment of everything else. It can be very easy to lose sight of your initial goals and to forget what’s really important. It’s also possible to become so immersed in a project that you fail to measure what you’re actually getting out of it – it’s not always a good thing to let your passion get the better of you.
I think it’s always helpful to have an idea of what you hope achieve from your activities and what proportion of your time you want to spend on each thing. If one area becomes neglected, it’s time to address that. Always place your projects in order of priority and importance. With each one, you need to balance the equation: does the time, work and money spent equal the income received plus other benefits. Think about soft benefits – recognition, exposure, does it lead to other opportunities, are you gaining valuable experience?
With collaborations, sometimes you need to tread carefully. Before you start illustrating (or writing) your best friend’s story, think about whether a publisher is likely to accept the whole package. If not, would you be happy with that and is it worth losing a friendship over? With any collaboration, be clear what it is you want from it and what should happen in any given scenario – then get it all down in writing and signed by all concerned.
In my opinion most long-term collaborations have a finite lifespan; the key is to know when it’s time to stop. The ones that continue past their sell-by-date risk creating negativity and spoiling any residual benefit that continued contact and friendship generate.
Dream collaborations do happen – those rare situations where two or more people speak more highly of each other than they do of themselves in an atmosphere of mutual respect, loyalty and transparency. Egos and glory-hunting take a back seat in an arrangement where no one’s bigger that the whole picture. These are the ones you should definitely embrace.
I was asked to briefly address the prize winners of the GDN and CO-Gas Safety competition in Committee Room 10 at the House of Commons on Tuesday. I’ve been involved with the judging of this for many years – my way of giving something back to the charity CO-Gas Safety for their support and help after we suffered from the effects of low level CO exposure in 2003.
Up to now, it’s been run as a poster competition for primary school children. The Gas Distribution Networks have taken over the project and under new rules, it can involve any form of creative expression to highlight the dangers of CO – so pick what you’re good at. It’s now also divided into KS1 and KS2.