Rachel Williams is the editor and publisher at Wide Eyed Editions, a publishing house that creates original non-fiction for children and families and believes that books should encourage curiosity about the world we live in, inspiring readers to set out on their own journey of discovery. The imprint’s stellar cast of illustrators and authors brings a new sense of wonder to classic themes in simple, quality formats that look and feel like beautiful objects. Wide Eyed books focus on key interests in the arts, natural history and armchair travel. The imprint was started in 2014. Frances Lincoln Publishers has been publishing since 1979 and has been creating illustrated books of the highest quality ever since, offering British style and expertise to readers worldwide in the areas of gardens, heritage, the outdoors, and lifestyle. Both publishing houses are now part of the Quarto Publishing Group UK, and between them publish 120 new books every year.
Gráinne Clear, Publishing Manager and Art Director at Little Island Books, sat down with Rachel Williams to ask her about these two imprints.
So tell me Rachel, how did you first start out in children’s publishing and how did it lead to your current job?
I started out by doing a creative writing degree, and fresh from college I got my first job as an editorial assistant at a scientific journal. It was, in fact, a journal of gastroenterology and not really my thing. Very soon after that I landed a job at Lonely Planet as commissioning editor and I was there for five years. At Lonely Planet I learned to think of travel books as a window into the world no matter where you are, and we specialised in beautiful armchair travel books. A good friend of mine at the time was working in children’s books, and I knew that I wanted to also tell stories, so that inspired a change.
I moved to the UK in my mid twenties and worked at Templar for a few years, working mostly in non-fiction as I just thought that area was most interesting. Illustrated books were always my particular area of interest. After this I went to Phaidon for a few years. I guess when you’re from Australia you want to do a lot and explore the world – there are a lot of entrepreneurial Aussies – and working at Phaidon was interesting as it opened my eyes to an area of children’s books that I thought was being under published: design and art books for children but also for families.
My old boss from Templar asked me to come back to do something different, which was Big Picture Press. There I worked with illustrators and designers that hadn’t done a children’s books before and we worked in a different way than most publishers do — we took their work and built a book around it, rather than the other way around. That publishing house launched Christmas 2013, and really we created books that showcased their artwork but also created a story around their work. That story text was usually written by an in-house editor — sometimes by me. That imprint went on and continues to do well, but then after a couple of years my boss left and so did we all. From there I moved to quarto and started Wide Eyed Editions, taking the editor from Big Picture with me – Jenny. In Wide Eyed we have a purely non-fiction list and our key subjects are natural history and geography and art. I was also overseeing the Frances Lincoln fiction list and I wanted something to complement that.
In Wide Eyed Editions we find established art makers and talk to them about a subject that they’re passionate about, which is usually evident from their work. From there we either pair them with an author or write the text ourselves. We definitely draw on their visual stimulus. An example of that would be The Wonder Garden. The artist, Christiana, did a catalogue for a liberty campaign about a year ago and after spotting that, we just went to see her. A lot of her pictures were habitat-based, so we created a book that had five real habitats within it and the editor Jenny wrote the text around the animals that live here. The idea is that it’s a book that is about the real habitats of the world, and that is a mix of fact and magic; there are some surreal elements in them but all the animals are true to life. We of course had all of our facts checked by a natural history expert.
What is it that you hope to do differently with Wide Eyed Editions?
The aim for the imprint is to see if we could make the real world as amazing as fantasy to kids and families. And we want the adults to enjoy reading the books as much as the kids do too.
Where do the ideas for the books come from?
Being honest, of course we are recycling ideas. Most of us aren’t ever doing anything really original because there isn’t anything that is really original. We have an upcoming series that draws on old vintage informational charts, which we’ve reimagined as a miscellany and we’re doing one big book of those a year. It will be a mixture of drawings on great design pieces of times gone and working with artists who are making great stuff now.
Do you feel that the books have a strong appeal to young readers, even though many of them are inspired by retro styles?
Honestly, it’s the parents buying the books, so that helps a lot. Also there are design and illustration styles which have surpassed time, that won’t and don’t go out of date. Of course these books aren’t for everybody. We wanted to make a list that shouted about the science of good design and that good design is for everyone, but these aren’t everyone’s tastes. We also try to make the books a lot of fun, and we want to make them great value — a lot of them are over 100 pages, which they need to be when parents are paying twenty pounds.
Do you sell internationally as well as in the UK and Ireland?
Oh yes, we sell everywhere. Our latest book, Atlas of Adventures, was on the Waterstones shortlist, and we sold 25000 copies in the UK. It’s really exiting to see people respond to this area of nonfiction. Not since Dorling Kindersley has anyone really consistently published this kind of nonfiction, and we’re now doing between twenty and twenty-five books per year. We also have a full foreign rights team to help us sell rights abroad.
Most awards that children’s books are eligible for are for fiction. Do you feel a little sidelined in nonfiction?
I think it has been that way historically but i think it’s changing now. The Waterstones prize for example used to be for the best illustrated picture book, and now the prize is just for the best illustrated book. More and more space is being given on tables and front of store to these sorts of books. And, in a way, I get to work on both so it doesn’t really bother me!
Now you also run the Frances Lincoln fiction list. What’s it like to work on two very different lists — one brand new which you were instrumental in setting up, the other with a long history and tradition and a huge backlist of titles?
It is a challenge. Frances Lincoln has such a good reputation and such heritage. There are books on the backlist that people love — I still get emails from grannies looking for a book that was published 25 years ago for a present for their grandchildren. I suppose the thing that ties the lists together is that they are books that don’t shy away from telling the truth but are also books that celebrate narrative. Wide Eyed is more contemporary and bright and celebrates all that is popular of the moment, whereas Frances Lincoln has more of a traditional heritage feel. The two publishing houses are run by a small team that works quickly — editorial director and two designers and a great sales team. We run both lists at the same time.
Frances Lincoln has been more of a challenge to find my place within. I’ve had to find a way of digging into the heart of it and celebrating it in a fresh way. Even though it’s quite a traditional list, all of our books have a message of diversity for the 21st century, and there are issues being discussed like eating disorders and family breakups with fresh styles of illustration.
Frances Lincoln has always been really big with institutions but hasn’t had such a big presence in the trade, so we’re working to still keep the heart of it but we’re working with illustrators that will bring something fresh to it as well. I talk regularly to the editor that started Frances Lincoln to make sure we’re keeping it true to what it originally was.
You’ve also worked as a writer on some of the books that have been published by Wide Eyed Editions – Atlas of Adventures for example. How does that work when you are also the publisher?
I’ve actually written quite a few books, and wrote about five or six books when I worked in Templar. It’s very straight forward really, particularly when you’re working with a page that is 70% illustration, the brief that you’re giving the illustrator is essentially the text for the book. For Atlas of Adventures, I wanted to make an atlas that celebrated all the fun things that you could do around the world, and so I ended up giving the illustrator this long list of things that she could illustrate on every page, which dictated a lot of the text. Obviously I worked with a couple of geography experts to make sure that everything I created was correct. To be honest, most of the narrative element comes in through the pictures, not the words, so the text for books like this is quite straightforward.
How do you go about finding and working with illustrators?
Most of the books start with me commissioning a piece of art that will be indicative of the rest of the book. A lot of our books are formulaic in a way — there will be a single plan for a page and then you do it over fifty times, like in our books about the American states. Sometimes it takes a month to get that first piece of art right, sometimes it happens very quickly. A lot of these artists are so experienced that I can give quite loose briefs, but that’s not always the case. The artist who did Atlas of Adventures was completely new and had just finished school. I saw a piece of her art in a magazine and we went out for a coffee, and the rest is history. She’s just brilliantly compositionally, and I basically gave her a piece of text and a blank page and she did the rest.
So much of what we hear about in the media and at awards is high quality fiction. Does your type of non-fiction sell well in the current market?
There was a real lack of information books that were as visually exciting as picture books. We wanted to make books that children could explore completely unaided, in which the pictures were a narrative. Some of our books have sold 150,000 copies in the UK alone, and they retail for twenty pounds. With something like City Atlas, which is a brand new book only published ten days ago, we’ve already sold 12,000 copies, and 85,000 internationally. We have a big expectation for The Wonder Garden too and expect that to do very well. We’ve started publishing this larger trim size recently, especially where we feel that the content requires a large page. When it comes to Christmas time, this makes such a great gift. It’s interesting — in terms of business models, non fiction is actually a much steadier and guaranteed revenue than fiction.
Children are much more print-orientated readers than adults. Is this what you’re banking on with your focus on luxurious, high-quality books at Wide Eyed Editions?
We’re definitely focusing on the beauty of the printed book. We’ve been looking at research around the way that children and adults use technology, and you multi task much less with the printed page. You’re able to orientate yourself much better on the printed page; focusing your attention within four corners navigation is much easier on a spread as opposed to a screen when you’re never quite sure where you are. What we wanted to do was to supersize the experience of reading a book, without making a comment on what you can do on screens. We’re focused on making the most of the printed page.
To watch to a presentation by Williams from CBI’s 2015 conference, click here.