Tuesday, November 28, 2006

A wand'ring minstrel I...

The calcification of the brain, along with that of the joints, is something to look forward to, but until the day comes when we seize up completely we must take what pleasure we can find.

I've been waking up at quite reckless hours recently and listening to Gilbert and Sullivan on my Zen player. Does this willingness to drink from the deepest pools of musical depravity herald - or indeed hasten - the onset of delirium wooferandum (barking madness), or is it evidence of a still enquiring mind? Maybe it's simply the fact that an awful lot of G&S question seem to have come up in the local quiz league lately.

I don't know any more. I just don't know, I tell you.

From Ali da G. to Leo da V.

I posted a couple of months ago about a kids' history book that I'd been asked to write. Originally the subject was to have been Napoleon, but then it was changed to Alexander the Great.

Writer Tom Saunders pointed out to me in this very blog that Mr. The-Great was perhaps a little too fond of children for comfort. I reported this fact back to the publishers and the project was pulled. Now they've gone for Leonardo da Vinci.

Mr. da Vinci's activities were of course entirely confined to painting, drawing, and inventing the helicopter. (Oh yes they were, and there's an end to it.)

Monday, November 27, 2006

Collector's market

Yes, the strange and wonderful world of the book collector. I didn’t really know of its existence until shortly after The Various was published, in 2003.
Then some chap emailed me and asked if he could send me his copies for signing. I said sure. (What, he’s got more than one copy, I thought? He must be keen.) Then this big box arrived with about 25 books in it. I think that’s when I began to realise that there was something weird going on.
Shortly after that, somebody told me that they’d seen an early proof of the book sell at auction for about £70. I found this astonishing. Who’d pay that kind of money?
It gradually became apparent that there was a lot of interest in The Various from people who didn’t exactly fall into the 9-13 target reading age group. Some were very obviously dealers, some were private collectors, but all seemed keen to buy signed copies – or better still copies with a little doodle in them. So I’d obligingly do a sketch on the title page (grateful that the book was getting some attention) only to see the thing come up for immediate sale on ebay.
I started asking questions, and learned that there’s a lively futures market in books and their authors. Rare signed first edition copies of books that have gone on to be successful can fetch hundreds of pounds. Dealers and collectors look closely at newly published books and take a punt on those they think will be successful. So a good quality hardback book, from an emerging author and reputable publisher, is likely to attract attention from the collector’s market – the more so if the initial print run is low volume.

The collector’s market for children’s books is particularly strong. JK Rowling’s first Harry Potter book only had a print run of about 500, I think. Nobody could have foretold just how successful she was going to be, and so a mint condition copy of this first edition is going to be worth a lot of money. The downside of book speculation, as with all gambling, is that you can just as easily catch a cold as make a profit. Authors whose early work once seemed so promising can quickly fade away, and you're left holding a stack of signed books that nobody wants.

The most I’ve seen a copy of The Various go for is £900. This was an advance proof, sometimes known as an advance reader's copy or ARC, like the one above, in which I’d done a little colour illustration. Amazing. Since then I’ve embellished quite a few copies of both The Various and Celandine. They do still come up on ebay, but I think that a lot of people are now waiting for the third book to be finished – then I imagine that we’ll see complete ‘sets’ of collector copies coming up for sale. I’m in touch with a number of serious dealers and collectors, and I’ll very often produce work to order – a drawing of this character or that scene. I’m happy to do it. It’s just free-lance illustration as far as I’m concerned, and if these copies then go on to trade hands for big money, then I’m delighted. My primary concern is to produce the best writing that I’m capable of. Anything that then helps bring that writing to a wider public has to be a good thing for me.
They’re all mad, of course, these collector types. And I'm all for that. The world needs enthusiasts, and book collectors are among some of the most knowledgeable and enthusiastic people you’re likely to meet.

Wednesday, November 22, 2006

Hoxton Fine Arts

The limited edition prints mentioned in previous posts are now available from Hoxton Fine Arts and Books. The whole batch was sent to me for signing last week, and I have to say that the printers have done a very fine job. Good quality paper, and excellent colour reproduction. I went down to London to help oversee the print run and the printers in question could not have been more professional and helpful. I'll see if I can insert a link.

Hoxton Fine Arts is a new venture, run by David Hitchcock, and well worth a look for those interested in book collecting. David's a real enthusiast for this kind of thing, and a very knowledgeable man. I've been meaning to write a post about the whole book collector's market for some time. Maybe this week.

Friday, November 17, 2006


This week I visited a school in Birmingham, doing a pop-up workshop with some Year 8 students. I was telling them how it's OK to get things wrong. Most of the time - maybe nine times out of ten - I get things wrong. I try and write something and it's wrong, try and draw something and it's wrong, try and figure out some idea for a pop-up book and it's wrong.

Not only am I used to being wrong most of the time, I accept that it's an inescapable part of the process of finding what's right. Very often I can see it for myself. An idea will come up and I'll soon realise that it's no good. Other times I need an editor to tell me why it's no good - or at least why it's no good for them.

Same with getting things 'right'. Sometimes I have an instinct that I might be onto something, and sometimes I really can't tell. This little comic strip thing is a case in point. I enjoyed drawing it, but I can't see it the way somebody else would.

The above is an extract from what was submitted as a one-page strip. Twelve frames. It looks simple, but I spent a lot of development time in filtering it down to that simplicity. Easy's never as easy as it looks. (And clever's never as clever as you think it is.)

But this turned out to be that elusive one-in-ten.The publishers really like it, and so it looks like it's a goer. I'm delighted, and can now begin to get excited about how I might develop the idea. Yet if those same publishers had said, 'Steve, this is no good,' then I'd have let the whole thing go and forgotten about it within a week.

Friday, November 10, 2006


Sometimes you get offered a job outright, and sometimes you have to pitch for it. This happens a lot when you're a freelancer, whether it be for writing or illustrating. A pitch is very much like an audition. Maybe you're right for the part and maybe you're not.

There's a new weekly publication - a comic - coming out next year, supposedly a BIG SECRET, but I imagine it's more or less common knowledge within the business and anyway I'm naming no names. I've been asked if I'd be interested in becoming involved, and so I'm trying to put some thoughts together.

I've done comic-strip work in the past, and have learnt from past mistakes. The big secret as far as I'm concerned is to develop a style that you can live with week after week, month after month. It stands to reason that if you have a 12 frame strip to produce every week, and each of those frames is a full day's work, then you're in trouble from the start. Your 'pitch' may look impressive, but you're never going to meet the deadlines. So keep it within the bounds of what you can realistically achieve, given the time limits.

I bought one of those graphics tablet things, and at the moment I'm just messing around with it to see what kind of line I can produce. I haven't even thought about colour yet. Technology is wonderful, but I'm still not entirely convinced. So it's quick and convenient to draw straight from pencil roughs onto the screen. Proportions and composition can be easily altered, mistakes easily erased or rectified. But does it lose something by not being pen and ink? Don't know.

Ideas are cheap, as always. Anybody can come up with an idea. Extending an idea into something beyond the flash of its own little light bulb is another matter.