The Insider: Anne McNeil

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Bright Group is starting a new blog series, The Insider, one where we interview influential people in the publishing industry. These interviews will give everyone great insight into the industry for all readers, authors, illustrators, agents and publishers! (All of the images below are from the Internet, and are not Bright’s self-promotion. They are solely for visual references.)

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We are excited to start off these new blogs with a bang!

We interviewed Publisher Anne McNeil, who works at Hodder Children’s. Continue reading below to learn all about Anne, Hodder Children’s and the world of children’s publishing!

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Talk us through your career in publishing, including key milestones and your current position as Publisher at Hodder? 

I began as an Editorial Assistant, within the Hutchinson Group – learning the ropes and supporting an amazing publisher. I worked with an astonishing list of talents, including Brian Jacques. Then I moved to The Bodley Head, where, as Children’s Editorial Director, I consolidated my experience across fiction and picture books, working directly with authors from Susan Cooper to Shirley Hughes and many others besides. I was lucky to be involved, too, in paperbacking the Andersen Press List on Red Fox; which brought me into contact with David McKee, Tony Ross and many others – and I had my hands on the paperbacks of such wonderful children’s voices as Quentin Blake.  So then I moved to Hodder Children’s.

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Key milestones include the conversation I had with Cressida Cowell about Hiccup the Viking Who Was Seasick – where we discussed taking the character from picture books to fiction. I have been lucky enough to personally edit all but the first of these astonishing fiction titles since then – having just worked to put book eleven on the shelves. It is now a major DreamWorks brand – and the readership is now on a stellar ascendant.

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 David Almond’s My Name Is Mina was another milestone for me, personally – and I’ve just signed up his two new teen fiction titles. We have sold a million copies of Skellig in the English language in its fifteenth year. There are others whose texts I edit including the amazing Hilary McKay ; Charlie Fletcher of Stoneheart fame, and the astonishing Mick Inkpen…  but part of the joy, too, comes from the amazing team of people at Hodder Children’s Books who are bringing in talent across the board, from Alex T Smith and  more recently Lee Wildish to many others.  Robert Muchamore is a case in point – his CHERUB books are on every ten year old’s shelves (or should be) and our designers and editors are hugely involved in his brand. The list is endless – and I can’t go on and on. Suffice to say I love my job; and consider myself immensely fortunate to have a career that is so fulfilling.

How has publishing changed in this digital revolution? What are the most obvious differences from then and now?

We sell our fiction simultaneously in e.book alongside the paper format. We think of the book now not in one way, but many – right from the start.  Always on picture books, form and content have worked alongside each other. Now, with apps, enhanced e.books; and different digital platforms, we take a 360-degree view of each project. It’s immensely engaging.

Tell us about the publishing department, how do you choose what to publish?

Astonishingly, passion still lies at the heart of this business. This, coupled with a good awareness of market – and a tenacity about putting the original voices at the heart of what we do. It’s not a science, although nowadays we do mix intuition with strong consumer data.

Are their any specific content, subject matters should writers and illustrators of children’s books concentrate on? Are their subjects that just are not well-received and best avoided- or is every story a possibility?

Every story is a possibility. One of the great things about children’s books is that we get a new audience every five years.  And, with digital, backlist becomes front list.

Selling co-editions is as important as ever, are their any tips for authors or artists to make sure their book has the best chance to co-edition?

I would say concentrate on being a leader not a follower. The minute you spot a gap in the market, it’s already full. Do something that is worthy of translation cost – because its meaning is so vital. In the UK we export our creativity all over the world. I have just come back from the States and, once again, the portfolio is full of treasures that will sell globally. This is testament to the ideas of our contributors.

What has been one of your favourite projects to work on so far? 

That’s impossible to say. I have loved many, many projects over the years. The truth is, I can still recite picture book texts from twenty years ago – even though I can’t remember what is in the fridge, or who is going to be there at dinner.

Are there any current projects you can tell us about – even little snippets of details?

We are in the early days of planning an amazing new fiction series, written by someone who is known for his art. Neal Layton, is all I will say. A genius.

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What do you look for in an illustrator?

Creativity, tenacity, a narrative voice in their work. Someone who can work with our brilliant Art Director and designers to make a unique project.

For aspiring designers and editors how did you break into the industry?

I broke in as an Editorial Assistant – a route that is still possible. I do advise people to take any job though – and work their way across the departments to where they want to be.

What makes a great children’s book character?

A character in children’s books is someone you either want to be, or want to be with as a reader. You must care enough to follow the character through whichever plot arc the author decides is appropriate.

What are your favourite children’s books, and why?

I have many favourites. A few include I am the Cheese by Robert Cormier, which shook me to the bone as a young woman; the Narnia books, which I read obsessively when I was ten; and Skellig – which I will always love.

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How important do you think it is that a book’s illustrations and story text match? Give us an example of when this succeeds and an example of when it struggles.

It is important that they each tell a different story – and combine to make something that neither can do alone. Otherwise they are decoration. So, an obvious is Alfie Gets in First by Shirley Hughes, where the gutter becomes a doorway. The text and art combine to create a simple masterpiece.

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What books that are publishing now do you think will stand the test of time? 

I’d like to say all – but can’t.  So I will just mention one author who I haven’t mentioned before – the amazing Catherine Fisher, whose fantasy titles are out of this world, and one poet who I am proud to be publishing again, the astonishing John Agard who just won the Queen’s Award for Poetry.

What’s the best piece of career advice someone has given you, and what would you pass on to the next generation?

Follow your nose. Go where you feel at home – where you can most honestly contribute – and then put your all into it.

What would you like to see in the future for children’s books?

I think all the platforms will co-exist; we are hard-wired to need story. Because we are born, live and then die – we respond best to stories with a beginning a middle and an end. Therefore children’s books – will always exist. Children need to understand the world they live in through words, pictures and friends, both real and imaginary.

What do you like about working with Bright’s artists?

They are imaginative – and schooled in narrative. They come to us often, with ideas that are more than single images. They know that to make something that matters, they must put their best into it.  They are enthusiastic and believe in their futures.

What are Bright’s best quality?

They are great to work with – so full of enthusiasm and ideas; far-reaching and yet good at detail.