The UK was a busy trip for us, four days in Lichfield to see the family, a couple of nights in Oxford, and finally five days in London before heading back to Japan. I wrapped things up with a meeting with my children's book agent in London. Naturally I wanted to hear some good news that would encourage me to come running back to the old country, but all was gloom and doom.
"In 40 years in the publishing business I've never known it so bad for illustrators" I was told. She even suggested if I return to the UK I should consider taking a regular job just to get by. Great, just what I needed to hear.
As an example she described a meeting she had with one of the biggest publishers in the country, and asked how many picture books they released a year. "Between twenty five and thirty" was the answer, less than half of what they would have produced, say fifteen years ago. Of those thirty, how many were from new writers and artists (i.e. people previously unsigned to them) - "just two or three".
Why is this? Firstly it's the collapse of the library system in the UK. With libraries closing down everywhere the business has become hinged on retail sales, books have a shorter shelf-life, many are pulped early with no chance to develop a long reputation, everything hinges on easy-to-sell material.
Second is the decline of independent bookshops and the massive domination of chain outlets. HMV owned Waterstones, having bought up it's biggest rival Ottokars, has now declared that it will no longer stock hard cover picture books in it's stores, only paperback. This giant bookstore chain now represents 60% of all retail outlets in the UK. And yet the choice of books Waterstones sells are picked by a tiny 6-man team, marketing people who look for the most profitable titles.
Publishers therefore have to please the bookshops by concentrating on books they can sell easily, placing all their hopes on well known established creators, or new books that reflect the transient mood of the moment. There just isn't any room for anyone else.
My agent also bemoaned the ever-decreasing print runs and the lack of international sales because America isn't buying rights. So even if authors do get their books published on royalties it's extremely difficult to earn a living out of them. The books are no longer on the shelves within months of being released, sometimes pulped before the year is out. How are artists expected to earn royalties on books if the books themselves no longer exist?
Not everyone I spoke too was that pessimistic, but the general trend does seem to be one of despondency for children's illustrators. And yet this is the path I've determined to take. Having had 20 years sidetracked as a commercial illustrator in Japan I'm now finding myself focused more and more on children's books for the Western market, I just have to grit my teeth and hope that I've something to offer that others cannot deliver. Someone tell me it's not really that bad!