I think that I first started thinking seriously about the picture book form in the mid ’80’s; I know that I was inspired to write my own after reading Maurice Sendak’s ideas on the subject. That may have been through reading ‘Caldecott & Co’; it was a long time ago. I never thought that much about the market or what was current – I only wrote books that pleased me, and that seemed and still seems like the right way to go. In the 90’s I felt confident enough to begin sending things to publishers and agents – and though I had begun to write longer pieces, and even pieces without pictures, I never lost my love and respect for the picture book form.
Well, that was almost twenty-five years ago, and I have had a lot of fun but no real success in the publishing business. I guess I should have given up long ago, but no one ever actually told me I was no good; in fact quite the opposite – all the feedback I was getting (when I got any at all) was that my stuff was great – but too different, too unique, too clever, too whatever. My own view is less cynical than that. I couldn’t ever persuade myself that there was no room in the world for anything different; in fact I simply can’t understand why anyone would go through all the trouble of writing a book and illustrating it, just so that it would be the same as a hundred other books. If I had wanted to do dull and bland work I didn’t care about, for no other reason than to make a profit – well, selling seed corn or outboard motors would be a lot easier than trying to sell picture books for a living.
After five years of trying to sell a series of novels I had written, I lost my London agent. What had seemed a sure thing turned into nothing at all, and I was very angry and depressed. But I happened upon a little book about creativity and business called ‘Dear James’ by the great animator and illustrator R O Blechman.
He had a website, and an email address, so I wrote him and thanked him for his work, and for writing the book, which had really helped me. He very kindly wrote back, and I can’t help but quote what he said in his message – I took it as a personal motto:
‘I recently came cross a quote from Georges Bizet whose opera, Carmen, closed after one performance. Now it’s a standard in the opera repertoire. He said of opera, “What a wonderful art form. What a rotten business.” The same can be said of so many other art forms (illustration included, at least to a certain extent). But we carry on, as we must.’
After trying a bit longer to approach agents in Europe and the U S with my books, I came to realize that the rotten business had gotten rottener since I had started all those years ago. What if I could start my own publishing company? What if I could be my own editor? With Amazon, I could get worldwide distribution, and perhaps 100 people would read my books before I died. It seemed like a good idea, since the alternative was to have no actual readers at all, and only a handful of agents glancing at my work before rejecting me.
And so my friend Cayem Rawin and I are starting down a new road, with the Red Admiral Press, and gradually publishing all my old books and hopefully some new ones. I’m not sure if it will be a stepping stone, or an end unto itself, but it’s certainly a lot of fun.
We carry on, as we must.