The Story behind the stories – Winning the Waterstones Prize 2014, Vicki Willden-Lebrecht

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Great books always have a story so here is the behind the scenes stories to two of the most successful books this year, and after last nights Waterstone’s Award Ceremony, certainly the most talked about.

Out of the 2000 books that went through the selection process, only 6 were selected. To be recognised in the shortlist of 6 of the Best Childrens Books is dream stuff and well done to each and every author illustrator in the final 6. As an agent, to have 2 of your debut talents that you have found and nurtured was pretty exhilarating and I wanted to explore a little more about how this happens and what makes a great book. Is it luck? Is it selection? What gives a book the edge and why do some make it – becoming loved treasures – and others get lost?

Do I have the all the answers? No – but I have some ideas and I wanted to share some of the things that I do as an agent to make my artists books the best they can be and the best sellers of our time.

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Vicki Willden-Lebrecht, Bright M.D 

Great books don’t just happen, and when your editor asks for changes, when your publisher pushes for more and when your agent says its not ready just yet- remember the best books are a collaboration of relationships. It’s a great team that makes a great book, as well as a great author/illustrator and idea generator. Everyone needs to be an expert – or on their way to becoming an expert – bringing specialist skills into the pot. No one can make a book without the author/illustrator and the originator of an idea or a story, and no one can make a book without the publisher with their vast expertise of marketing, production, distribution, connection to book sellers. Without the agent making that initial discovery and keeping the wheels on the tracks, the story would not go on and build it’s own story of how it finally gets into the printed page.

It’s a collaboration, and the best books are where those relationships and expertise are fully respected and you collaborate together. Each party, with their own unique expertise, listens and respects the other and you work as a team, there’s a strategy and direction. Ego’s are left at the door and you work respectfully, excitedly and passionately to the common goal- a great book, loved by many.

Yasmeen Ismail’s book ‘Time for bed Fred!’

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Yasmeen’s story took many turns before it became Fred. I remember meeting Yas through a different meeting and seeing the image of Fred. Picking up the character immediately, I walked away knowing it would be BIG. The character, the energy was there but the story needed to be right for it to be truly great. A loveable character was not enough – it needed an anchor to being real to enable children to relate to Fred. I was determined to make that happen as it gave me goosebumps when I saw the artwork, and when I met the infectious and bubbly Yasmeen I knew she, together with the work, had star potential.

Yas’s attitude was always collaborative, having come from an animation background. She naturally understood the power of team work and was open to ideas, expert advice and wanted her work to be the best it could be. Yas listened without ego, but with self-respect to take on board direction and then bring her own ideas. Fred originally had a very sophisticated theme of being very hairy, and the brilliance of Emma Blackburn at Bloomsbury worked with Yasmeen to develop Fred into a character that children could relate to. The activites and the world of Fred is familiar to children and they could relate to his experiences. What makes Fred different from a picture book format about a dog and his family, is that every family with a dog can relate to Fred and every child the world over experiences what Fred does. It’s an incredible simple book about a dog – yet it touches and relates to each and every child. This is why this book works. It was Yas’s amazing work ethic of listening, resolving, and collaborating that made her good idea with great artwork about a dog, become an incredible picture book about about a very special dog.

Nicola O’Byrne’s book ‘Open Very Carefully’

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In every line up there has to be a winner, and in this case Waterstones chose Nicky’s Open Very Carefully, published by Nosy Crow. The award rewarded the books unique slant on making the reader ‘ an active participant and confidant ‘.

Nosy Crow, Nicky and myself  know the extent of the twists and turns this story took before it made its final printed version. From finding Nicky and signing her as an undergraduate, to brokering and managing her first book deal – and for Nicky to endlessly improve and deepen this original creation with the creative minds at Nosy who didn’t stop pushing the book – is what collectively delivered a brilliant masterpiece of original and interactive experience for children to love, that last night was recognised by the industry and Waterstone’s as the best Picture book.

This book took 3 years to make, had 4 different format changes and at least 7 different endings until it was finally decided to just ‘cut a hole’ and have him run out the back of it. Creating novelty that is truly intrinsic to the story of the book is what is the engenious originality of this book. Kate Wilson told me 10 years ago ‘lift the flap’ books only work if it is ‘where is it?‘ or ‘what is it?‘, Kate knows that novelty has to be part of it the story, its not a stuck on embelishimnent but it’s part of the experience  of the story.  This is what ‘Open Very Carefully‘ does – it is a true interactive experience using novelty in it’s simplistic, yet most effective way, with the Croc (previously known as Arnie) as the most flamboyant, characterful, energetic, humorous and lovable lead.

To Bright’s two rising stars – this is your day, infact this is your year. I have loved being part of both your journey’s and look forward to our continued unfolding of putting your stories into the printed page.

To Waterstone’s – thank you for so enthusiastically supporting, nurturing and encouraging new talent. We applaud you, as it was said last night – Waterstone’s need creative world class books to sell, and authors and artists need world class book sellers to sell their work. This is the ultimate collaborative partnership. Thank you.

As an agent it’s important you know why books work, how they will be successful and finding the right relationships that will develop and partner with to make them happen.
This is what Bright does. Yes we are a family of creatives, a home for illustrators and a growing community of creatives, but we deliver. We manage artists to reaching their full potential and reaching the peak in their careers. We are this generations talent finders and managers, this is what we do differently and this is why we are one of the fastest growing respected agencies in the world.
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Congratulations Nicky and Yas!! Thank you Waterstones, Nosy Crow and Bloomsbury.