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David Fickling Talks with Roger

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david ficklingDavid Fickling, editor, has been with us for quite some time, since 1978 when he began his career with Oxford University Press and subsequently the UK arms of Doubleday and Scholastic, bringing us, among others, Philip Pullman and Jacqueline Wilson. David Fickling Books, entity, opened in 2001 as an imprint of Random House. And this year, the imprint has joined forces with Scholastic once again. In a phone call whose logistics proved as complicated as publishing itself, David and I talked about wading through submissions, bringing books across the water, and the virtues of small-pond publishing. Enough with the aqueous metaphors!

Roger Sutton: Let’s discuss transatlantic publishing. Have I ever talked to you about the Jacqueline Wilson problem?

David Fickling: No, but do. Jackie just got the J. M. Barrie Award.

RS: I think she’s great, and I have always loved her books. It seems that there have been repeated efforts to make her happen in the U.S. in the same way that she happens quite well in the UK. Why isn’t it working?

DF: Do you know, or do you want me to try and answer that?

RS: I have a theory, but I want to know what yours is.

DF: Well, I don’t know for sure, but I suspect it’s because of how the books are presented to the reader. Like you, I like her work very much. Her voice has a very warm tone that I think would appeal to American readers as much as British readers. But there are intervening steps between book and reader, and even if everyone goes in with great intention, that great intention can be a difficulty, in a sense. It means people can’t discover it for themselves. It’s oversold. So much of reading is discovering for yourself, forming your own opinion.

RS: Though there’s also something enjoyable about reading a bestseller because you want to be in on the buzz. What is everybody talking about with this Fifty Shades of Grey, or whatever the book might be? But I think you’re right — mostly readers want to feel like they were the first person to discover something.

DF: Yes. It’s almost like you’re talking directly with the author — how lovely that is. But then again, actually meeting an author you really adore can sometimes cause difficulty for young people.

RS: Oh, I don’t like it either.

DF: Yes, me neither.

RS: Authors can be so different from their books.

DF: It’s so disappointing, isn’t it? Publishers can be incredibly disappointing, too.

RS: I think of people who are so witty on the page, and not so in conversation. Or the opposite. They write these terribly serious books, but they’re a laugh-and-a-half when you talk to them.

DF: It’s curious. I’m sure there are good explanations for it. Sometimes if I read a really good book, I don’t want to tell anybody about it at all, even as a publisher. I want them to discover it. I just leave it lying around.

RS: Well, that can’t be good for business, David, can it?

DF: No! It’s terrible.

RS: I can’t speak to a British audience, but to an American audience, there’s a difference in the ways domestic fiction and fantasy fiction translate from one country to the other. I mean, Philip Pullman, another one of your authors, had no problem translating.

DF: No. When somebody says to me, “That’s very British,” I tend to take that to mean it’s not very good, and they’re just being nice to me. Only the things that really strike can move easily overseas. There may be something in Jackie’s work that doesn’t travel. What is that? Sometimes you don’t know what the little cultural misstep is. Or it might be so big that you can’t see it.

RS: Now that Scholastic has set you up in your own shop again, how much do you have to think beyond the UK market?

DF: We’re tiny, Roger. I describe us as the Magnificent Seven-and-a-Half. Actually there are a lot of part-timers, so we’re probably only the Magnificent Five-and-a-Half. But I am astonished how global we are. The difference is that the authors are inside with us, really. The situation is different in large publishing, where I think the authors are more like Hollywood stars in a studio system. That’s not a criticism of them. It’s just the way it is if you’re huge.

RS: I guess I don’t completely agree. If you’re huge, you do have those books that are filling the maw, but you can have the kinds of books that you’re describing, too.

DF: You can have both. Some of the most brilliant editors in the world are working at large companies. My view is, though, that the trend is towards a studio system, in which debuts aren’t understood in the same way, or books that don’t immediately strike or those that might not be considered commercial for some reason aren’t given enough time.

RS: I just read this morning that Kwame Alexander — who won the 2015 Newbery Medal — was just signed up for four more books with Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. One is a prequel to the Newbery winner and three are a trilogy. So there’s an attempt to develop franchises around authors. How do you let them be free to do what they want to do?

DF: I don’t much like multi-book contracts. I’m not sure they work for either party, author or publisher, and definitely not for the reader! There is a problem of completion and thus quality. Give me a contract-by-contract, book-by-book dance card any time. Editors can go to the ball! Trust is a wonderful thing for the editing process.

RS: How do you stave off middle-age ennui? Asking for a friend.

DF: Got to get a dog.

RS: I’ll receive something for review and think, “I saw this book twenty-five years ago.” But that kid reader, the one for whom the book was published twenty-five years ago, has grown up. There’s a whole new audience now. How do you keep yourself alive to possibility?

DF: I think it’s through selfishness. I’m still responding as a reader. It’s impossible to publish something you’re not excited by, I think. Even though you’re tired and ancient, your bones ache, and nothing’s ever as good as it was — the reading mind is still weightless.

RS: At its best, yes.

DF: And you work with a team. I work with some really wonderful people. It’s not just me. But I love being around the making of these stories. You mentioned Philip Pullman — can you imagine what it’s like to receive his next book? What you were talking about earlier, being one of the first readers. There’s a little bit of me that feels, “I’ve read that, and I’m not going to let anybody else read it.”

RS: I wrote an editorial about reading The Amber Spyglass. I had an early copy of it, bound manuscript pages, and I was on the beach on Cape Cod reading it, and it was just a transcendent experience. I did think, “Most people in the world haven’t seen this book yet.” And that felt great.

DF: That’s exactly how I feel — I can’t quite believe my luck. Philip would describe himself as a storyteller first, I think. He’s probably the greatest writer of descriptive prose we’ve got. And often writers change and improve. We’ve published a retelling of Robin Hood called Shadow of the Wolf. There’s a passage in that book which is one of the most extraordinary passages I’ve ever read. I hope there’s something in all the books we publish that is extraordinary, that hasn’t been seen before. That happens almost on every page with Philip.

RS: What I’ve always liked about his books is that they do take me someplace else. But I don’t feel like I’m being pushed into it, the way I do with a lot of fantasy. It’s like authors think, if I pile on enough adjectives, the reader will be convinced of this magical world. But he never does that. There’s so much breathing room.

DF: I think he described his work as “stark reality.” It’s an invitation in its way. You have that sense of “Oh, yes, I’m in good hands, and I want to stay here. I want the book to last longer.”

RS: And that connects to what we were saying earlier, about feeling like you’re the only one reading a book. So many books I get into the office now are crawling with quotes from bloggers and booksellers and letters from the editor, pleading with me.

DF: I don’t even want to send the books out to get quotes. Blurbs shorten the world of the book if they give too much away.

RS: Right. People want to find their own way into a book.

DF: That’s exactly right. The worst thing in the world is a synopsis. A book should command your attention, shouldn’t it? And surprise you. I always think the greatest thing somebody can say about a book is, “I didn’t think I’d like it. I don’t like that sort of book normally.” Or, “I’ve never read that sort of book, but I was amazed by it.”

You inhabit the world of consciousness about the reception of books. I can ask you all the questions you asked me, really, because you see way more books than I do. I see a lot of non-books. I live in an unpublished land.

RS: We have some screening before it gets to us.

DF: Do you despair of the level of screening?

RS: Sure, sometimes. The tricky thing for me is when I read a book and I’m not liking it, but I’m not quite sure if it’s because there’s something wrong with the book, or if I’m just not the right reader for it. And like you, thank God, I’ve got eight other people here in the office, so I don’t have my own last word, as it were.

DF: What you’ve got is the same experience I have. The books that spend the most time in the office are not the easy rejections. They’re the ones that swim around, where there might be something there, or there might not be. You’re not quite sure whether you’re being overindulgent or not indulgent enough. We’re so limited. That’s why it’s nice being a small outfit that’s not trying to control everything. We can’t control everything. Talk about global: I’m not sure I even understood the large publishing companies I was a part of, let alone the global market. What we ought to do is try to bring our best to the table, and then hear what the readers think of it. We’re the first readers. That’s very exciting. When you know you’ve got a live one, everybody knows. Very quickly. It’s everybody’s. That’s an exciting moment as well, when you’re done and the book goes out with a lovely crowd around it, and you settle back to everyday — stuff coming in, stuff going out.

RS: That’s life.

DF: Yeah. It’s breathing, really.

Sponsored byScholastic

Roger Sutton About Roger Sutton

Roger Sutton has been the editor in chief of The Horn Book, Inc, since 1996. He was previously editor of The Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books and a children's and young adult librarian. He received his M.A. in library science from the University of Chicago in 1982 and a B.A. from Pitzer College in 1978. Follow him on Twitter: @RogerReads.



  1. Thank you both for your thoughts on this subject of ‘discovering a book’.

  2. This is a great interview, Roger. I love the conversational flow, hearing two old hands share stories from the field, the tip on staving off middle-age ennui by getting a dog and also gaining an insight into Fickling. He does such good stuff. Bravo.

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