Friday, 23 November 2012

Interview #13: Steve Bicknell, Maverick Books

Here's another first for Bookengine. I'm shifting the emphasis temporarily away from writers to the people who make their dreams come true. The publishers.

And I'm thrilled to tell you about my chat with one of the most exciting independent publishers around, Steve Bicknell, managing director of Maverick Books.

Boasting such classy picture book authors as Julie Fulton and Giles Paley-Phillips, Maverick is set to unveil further exciting talent in the near future.

Steve is passionate to the point of being evangelical about books and publishing.

Maverick title: Fin and Zoa's Dog Detectives
"I can't imagine a child growing up and not having books. A children's 32-page picture book is still only £6.99. It isn't much past the price of a pint.

"They make marvellous presents - you can put a lovely message in the front. A teenager later will pick that up and read it. That reaffirms that the family is important."

I couldn't agree more.

Yet publishing is a relatively recent venture for the energetic Mr Bicknell.

He was a professional photographer for 28 years. He was very successful and for the last few years was doing global commissions working for very large companies, doing photographs for their annual reports.

“But the warning signs were there that big commissions with an open cheque book were under pressure.

“So I decided in 2004 to move into publishing. I formed Icarus and published photographic calendars. I was trying to get into the high street market."

His breakthrough came when he published one featuring a waterskiing Westie dog. "It was an instant hit," he said.

Other ideas were brewing.

“I split the company and formed Maverick. I am a creative and visual person and I was drawn to children’s picture books, working with an illustrator.

"Our first books were very visual but weak editorially.

Maverick title: Izy Penguin's quirky Grandma Bendy
"Three years ago I took on an editor Kimara Nye and with her we filled the list. She assesses all the submissions. She presents likely texts to me and my wife, Karen. It’s a very collaborative process.

"We have 14 first-time authors now. This is the heart of Maverick, championing new talent. We would like to provide the next generation of children’s authors.

"We live in a very fast-moving world and the basic family structure has been under pressure for some time. A lot of parents have to work so contact with their children is not as much as it once was. Bringing up children is not an easy process because of peer pressure and distractions. And the temptation is to plonk children in front of the television. I don’t blame parents but it isn’t a great thing. It’s not a positive thing to do. Children are influenced by their parents.

"The process of reading a story to a child is fundamentally key in a child’s upbringing.

"When we publish a book I have a mental picture of a mum or dad sitting on the side of the bed and the child propped up in bed listening to one of our books.

"I love it when an adult says Sophie’s favourite book is so and so, and it's one of our books."

Steve's ambition is to turn his authors into must-have children's authors.

"I want them to collect our authors' books the way people collect Julia Donaldson. There are people who will buy every new book that she does. Oliver Jeffers is another one.

"I feel Julie could eventually be that appreciated."

He remembers how Julie Fulton was spotted by Kim.

"Kim said, Steve there’s an interesting text for you to read, so I sat down and read it. It was so funny and I thought I think I can publish this. But I thought Mrs MacCready would leave people rather offended. And I didn’t want to be shot at so early in Maverick’s career.

"But I believe in Julie so much. I think we can build up a series around Hamilton Shady (the town where Julie's stories are set)." (Check out my interview with Julie here.)

Steve says it isn't easy competing with major, established publishing houses.

“Children’s book publishing is so competitive these days. There is a huge legacy of classic children’s books stocked by major retailers. Books like The Tiger Who Came To Tea. Sales are all about shelf space.

"Because there is such a lot of competition, we have to stand on our own two feet if we are to be as good as Walker Books, Random House and Macmillan."

One of the best ways to get the Maverick brand known is for the authors to get out and meet their readers.

Giles Paley-Phillips' The Fearsome Beastie
Steve says both Julie and Giles Paley-Phillips are great performers who bring their work to life. Maverick really looks after its writers - both Julie and Giles told me of the welcoming and encouraging culture there. And having spoken to Steve, it's clear that this ethos cascades down from him.

"We prefer to give a good royalty to the writer. We find the illustrator and do a 'buy-out' of the artwork so that Maverick owns the illustrations. Kim draws up a shortlist of illustrators she feels would be suitable to the text and Karen and I choose two or three illustrators to do a test. They do the same double-page spread and you can see whether an illustrator has caught the flavour of the book."

Steve is excited about the future. As well as new titles, the company has branched out into e-books on the Nook. And on the day we chatted on the phone, Steve had met with a television scriptwriter about a possible future project.

One forthcoming title that interests me is Rachel Lyon's The Cautionary Tale of the Childe of Hale, which tells the true story of gentle giant John Middleton (1578-1623).

Rachel Lyon at the cottage of the Childe of Hale

Middleton lived not far from where I live in Cheshire and his cottage still stands in the village of Hale. Steve says of Rachel's rhyming story about the giant: "It's going to be absolutely amazing. We want to give it an interesting old look without falling into cliches."

A double page spread from The Childe of Hale

I thanked Steve, as we wrapped up our interview, and it struck me how approachable and welcoming he was. That's truly the hallmark of Maverick.

* Thanks to Steve for chatting and to Maverick for helping to promote Bookengine.

You can visit their website here. Their blog is here. To take a look at Maverick's range of books and to buy them, click here. A budding author? Click here to find out how you can send your picture book ideas to Maverick.

Friday, 16 November 2012

Kate Hanney and Wendy Storer: Applecore Books

I'm giving you two authors for the price of one this week, Bookengine followers!

Wendy Storer and Kate Hanney are writers of exciting contemporary teen fiction with a social conscience.

They are also publishing trailblazers.

I interviewed them separately but they've made a special announcement which has led to this joint profile. It could have important implications for other authors in the future.

Drumroll, fanfare...

They have decided to join forces to publish their work as e-books under the umbrella of Applecore Books.

Kate told me: "Applecore Books is an independent writers' co-operative that Wendy and I have set up to publish our books. It's still very much in its infancy, but we are hoping it will grow and that other authors might join us in the future."

On their new website,, Wendy and Kate say: "Created by the authors themselves, Applecore specialises in fiction for children and young adults that is based on real life. We don't do fantasy, sci-fi, paranormal or futuristic - instead, we believe there's enough emotion, action, excitement and adventure right here, right now, in the world we all live in."

The first three books to be published, all available as e-books, are Kate's - Watermelon, Someone Different and Safe.

Wendy's titles Bring Me Sunshine, Where Bluebirds Fly and How To Be Lucky will follow.
So let's meet these two talented writers and entrepreneurs.

Kate Hanney

Kate Hanney never dreamed of being a writer as a child.

It was never a burning ambition. She never wrote in her spare time. The only writing she did were the usual school exercises.

Kate Hanney, an author with a social conscience
But that changed when she became an English teacher working with disadvantaged young people in Barnsley.

Troubled by what she saw and heard, she finally picked up a pen and started writing.

She didn't know how you went about writing a book. She didn't know if she was breaking the rules because she didn't know what the rules were.

She had to find her way through the story with nothing more than her intuition to guide her. Then her first daughter was born and the story was put on hold.

But time passed and Kate finished her story.

She called the book Safe.

"It was never written with a publisher in mind. I was setting out to try to develop sympathy for a teenager," Kate told me, speaking from her home in Sheffield.

Safe is the story of a teenager who steals a car, crashes it into another vehicle in which a young girl is killed. It is the story of what led to that horrific event and the consequences.

"I have been teaching for 14 years now, in a very deprived area with low qualifications and poor GCSE results and I suppose that is where the idea started.

"Until you get to know these kids you don't understand a lot about them. And in Safe this kid has done something awful, but this story is what led him to do it. It's not trying to justify it, but it is an explanation.

"I see this a lot in my job, youngsters from very troubled backgrounds."
Safe is hard-hitting

As she was writing the book, Kate read parts of it to her pupils. And they liked it. Boys who had never read much suddenly wanted to read her story.

"The kids I showed it to loved it. It's full of colloquial language. It engaged a lot of reluctant readers."

It never occurred to Kate to approach an agent or publisher. Instead, she self-published Safe through the YouWriteOn scheme, available as paperback and e-book with a striking front cover by her brother.

"It would never have been picked up by a conventional publisher. I would have been encouraged to write a more optimistic ending," she said. Being true to the young people she writes about is crucial to Kate. She ponders the matter of how to end your novel in a brilliant blog post at Wendy Storer's wonderful website, Don't Tell Me The Moon's Shining.

Because Kate didn't know the 'rules', she began promoting the book herself. She persuaded 12 Waterstones stores to stock it, and got the book into Sheffield's libraries.

Six or seven of the city's schools ordered class sets of the book, which was thrilling for Kate, to think her book was being studied by the young people she was writing about.

She even got an email from a teacher in Canada inquiring about teaching resources related to the book.

Spurred on by this success, Kate began writing more. She sent her next book, Watermelon to Cornerstones, the literary consultancy, through whom she met her agent.

More and more revisions followed. "I enjoyed that process, I could feel the book was improving."

Watermelon is the tale of 15-year-old Mikey, who lives in a kids' home and will do anything to belong, even if it means running for a local drug-dealer. Kate explores the dark themes of rival gang warfare as she pushes Mikey to the limits and presses him to see what risks and choices he will take.

Kate has now completed another book, Someone Different, a story about a secret love between two young people from very different backgrounds and the pressures trying to pull them apart including drugs, abuse and youth crime.

All three of her books are now available to buy for the Kindle through Amazon under the Applecore Books imprint.

Wendy Storer

I'm delighted to introduce followers of Bookengine to Wendy Storer.

Wendy is the brilliantly talented author of teen fiction such as Bring Me Sunshine. She lives in my home town of Kendal, in the Lake District.

I first encountered her through her excellent blog Don't Tell Me The Moon's Shining which is a must-see repository of great advice for prospective writers. I recognised some of the photos on her site and made contact.

Wendy Storer
It turned out she lived around the corner from where I grew up and where my parents still live.

So we arranged to meet up for a chat. One wet Saturday morning in the summer I found myself walking with Wendy and her two labradoodles, Bodger and Bear, around Kendal castle (reputed and disputed as the birthplace of Henry VIII's sixth wife Katherine Parr).

The old advice 'write what you know' is all well and good, but what if you don't know much?

That's not a problem for Wendy, who has a wealth of experience to draw on.

She has worked as a waitress, pill-packer, shop assistant, nanny, child minder, shelf-stacker, cook, clerk, cleaner, teacher and hypnotherapist.

Wendy's first book
Wendy has been writing all her life, but she started writing longer stories in earnest when her daughter was diagnosed with diabetes a decade ago. When her job required her to divide her time between Barrow-in-Furness and Leeds she made a decision to quit and spend more time with her daughter. It also gave her the time she needed to write.
She'd found her vocation and couldn't stop. It became a compulsion.

She was drawn to writing about real life, real young people and their very real problems. Jacqueline Wilson was an influence.

I have a soft spot for Bring Me Sunshine as it is set in Kendal so I recognise the places she mentions and the annual Torchlight Procession that snakes through the town's grey streets.

It tells the story of Daisy who fears her life is falling apart. She worries about her Dad and her brother. Her friends think she's strange and she's given up playing the drums. Things start to look up when Dylan Bell moves back to town. Wendy says the book is  about living in the moment and the power of now

She followed this with Where Bluebirds Fly, about 13-year-old Ruby who meets Pearl at a residential school for girls with emotional problems.

Wendy's journey to Applecore has not been an easy one. She has acquired an agent and has been close to seeing her work published by major publishing houses.

When I walked with her in Kendal in August she said she thought the controversial subject matter she wrote about might be too strong for mainstream publishers and might be putting them off. She took inspiration from Kate Hanney, who was writing about similar themes.

The writer's journey, the highs, the lows, the excitement of creation, the disappointment of rejection, all is detailed with eloquence by Wendy on her blog. And she is so encouraging of others, too. She tirelessly cheers others on from the sidelines, posting enthusiastic comments on blogs such as this. Indeed I owe Wendy a big thank you for pushing Bookengine on Twitter earlier this year which led to a flurry of interviews with other authors.

Wendy offers a manuscript appraisal service for children's authors, and urges other writers to use their craft to help solve problems in their lives. She calls this 'Writing Yourself Better'.

She says: "The beauty of writing is that you can do it at any time and any place to suit you. If you are upset or anxious, writing down your feelings and thoughts can help instantly; it is like having a friend to talk to. You can change your life for the better and you are not dependent on anyone else when you write. Plus, there is nothing to stop you from adding to your real life experiences, changing them on paper and developing your writing into a story or a poem or a play or a filmscript... there are no limits to what you can do."

Now, at last, with Applecore, her books are about to reach the audience they so richly deserve. She couldn't be happier.

She said: "Applecore is very exciting. It’s taken me a while to get my head around it, but I won a place at the Writers and Artists self publishing conference a couple of weeks ago and now I am totally up for it. (See my blog for reports on how that made me feel!)

"My thoughts on Applecore – I am really thrilled to be making progress, moving on, being in control, getting published. Although my books aren’t yet ready to buy, I may add some publicity about them. Bring Me Sunshine was long listed for the Mslexia Children’s Fiction Prize and I am waiting to hear if I’ve made the shortlist, so I am very proud of that. My other two books are Where Bluebirds Fly, and How to be Lucky, and I would be hoping to publish all three on Kindle in the next few weeks.

"Even though Kate and I have never met, we talk on the phone and email regularly and seem to think the same way about things. We have similar teaching backgrounds too. I think we make a great team!"

Storer and Hanney - a dynamic duo!

Wendy and Kate say on their website: "Our name is a metaphor. It's the bit of the apple most people don't want, and yet it's the bit with all the seeds for new growth. We have both worked as teachers with some of the most disadvantaged children in society, and believe that as with apple cores, every single child has the seeds within them, to grow into the person they would really love to be."

I wish them both the very best of luck.

* Here are the links in one handy place:

Buy here:


Someone Different

Wednesday, 7 November 2012

Interview #12: Giles Paley-Phillips

Giles Paley-Phillips can pinpoint the moment he was set on course to becoming a children's author.

One day, in his lunch hour, he popped into a charity shop where he stumbled across a copy of Shel Silverstein's sublime nonsense poems.

Giles collecting his People's Book Prize trophy
"It was in mint condition. I read it and became besotted with it. It was a real eureka moment," Giles told me, speaking from his home in East Sussex.

He paid a couple of quid for it and went back to work. Before his lunch break was done, he'd written his first children's rhyming story.

"The manuscript was scrawled on lots of Post-It notes," he laughed.

That was The Things You Never Knew About Dinosaurs (it will be published by Gullane Books next August).

It sparked an interest in poetry and writing in general, which had been totally unexpected.

"I didn't read a lot as a child. My mum passed away when I was six and life was difficult at home. From when I was aged three, she was in and out of hospital. I didn't have that 'before-bedtime' storybook experience.

"I am making up for that with my children. Now I am reading stuff to my boys and I am finding books I thought I knew, but actually I don't think I did read them. The covers must have been around at home.

"Stuff like Where The Wild Things Are and Not Now Bernard.

"I never intended becoming a writer. English was the only thing I was good at at school. When I left, I didn't finish college and I got into a band."

Giles played guitar with Little Ten for a number of years in the late 1990s and early 2000s, recording some albums and even playing Glastonbury.

"I also used to write quite a lot of the music and got into writing some of the lyrics. I was in a band from the age of 16 and music has always been a big passion.

"I worked in dead-end jobs to make my way as a musician, but it was very difficult. We got to the point where we had had enough of it.

"I got married and my first son was born. I decided I wanted to write something for him. I was trying to think of something to write and couldn't get inspired, so I wrote a book of poetry for adults. I self-published that."

Proceeds from that book of poetry went to a leukaemia charity in memory of his mum.

"The poems were a bit pretentious so after that I wanted to write something fun and was looking to be inspired."
It was shortly afterwards that Giles's serendipitous encounter with the Shel Silverstein book happened, putting him on his true path to becoming an exciting author of picture books.

The ideas began to flow from Giles's imagination and he  was signed up by an agent, Annette Green.

His collection of children's nonsense poems, There's A Lion In My Bathroom, illustrated by Matt Dawson, was published by the small publisher Rebel Books, and drew comparisons with one of his heroes, Spike Milligan.

Nice and scary!

The brilliant Maverick Books have published Giles's two monster-themed stories, The Fearsome Beastie and Tamara Small and the Monster's Ball, which have marked him out as a writer unafraid of using dark themes and violence to entertain his young readers. Even if it sometimes unnerves the parents.

"I guess they're wary of their children having night terrors," Giles said. I point out that many adults - parents and school librarians - were initially opposed to the books of Roald Dahl when they were first published. Dahl's darkness was seen as unsuitable, but he is now revered.

I won't give away the story to the deliciously gruesome The Fearsome Beastie, but there are echoes of fairy tales like Little Red Riding Hood.

Giles revealed that Dahl's Revolting Rhymes was an early favourite of his. He also loved the work of Edward Gorey and Tim Burton and the nightmarish fairy tales of the Brothers Grimm.

The Fearsome Beastie earned great reviews in the Telegraph and from Julia Eccleshare in the Guardian. It also won the People's Book Prize.

Next out of the blocks was Tamara Small and the Monster's Ball. This, like The Fearsome Beastie, was beautifully illustrated by Gabriele Antonini, and again it is a wonderful marriage of rhyme and pictures.

Giles couldn't be happier working with Maverick.

"They have got this lovely family ethos. They are like an old school, small publisher from the 1950s. The book launch was held at managing director Steve Bicknell's home and he provided the food - he's an excellent cook. And his son did the cocktails and other Maverick authors were there, including Julie Fulton."

We spoke on Bonfire Night. The previous week, nicely coinciding with Halloween, Giles had been promoting Tamara Small at bookshops across the south of England.

Giles has been doing readings and signings at Waterstones in the south of England...

"Events are very important. For me it's a bit like doing a gig. I did about 40 events for Fearsome Beastie and by Christmas I will have done 30 events for Tamara Small.

"I did a sold-out event in front of 40 children at the Discover Children's Story Centre in Stratford, London, opposite the Olympic village. It was very humbling. And I was very privileged to be asked as they'd recently had Oliver Jeffers and Shaun Tan there.

"I love reading the books to the children and getting them to do noises and sound effects."

Giles would like to write stories for older children, too. He has written the beginning of a story about a boy with two left feet who falls in love with a young girl at a dance studio. He's called it Left-Footed Lance.

Giles's newly published book
 He would also like to write a novel in poetry, which sounds like a huge challenge.

But he absolutely loves writing picture books and is delighted Maverick want to keep working with him. "I feel like I am still learning the ropes."

So what's in the pipeline?

"I've got another book, Princess Stay Awake!. It was inspired by my youngest son, who was going through a period of not staying in his bed. I switched the sex of the child in the book. But a series of characters - the king, a wizard, the jester and a knight - try to get her to sleep. It finishes with them having to bring in a super nanny."

Remember the name Giles Paley-Phillips. He will soon be joining the ranks of Shel Silverstein, Julia Donaldson, Edward Gorey and Roald Dahl.

* Many thanks to Giles for speaking to Bookengine. His website is here. Take a look at his blog here. And please visit Maverick Books' wonderful site here.