Publishing Focus Part Three – Alanna Books

For Publishing Focus, we will be speaking to publishers across many different areas of the industry. From education to fiction, we’ve got it covered. This week we’re focusing on children’s publisher, Alanna Books, creators of the highly popular Lulu series. I spotted Alanna Books in an article on The Bookseller highlighting their success in the USA, where turnover has exceeded $1 million. A remarkable achievement for an independent publisher, with estimates suggesting that around 6 million children have read a Lulu (Lola in the US) story.

We battled some problematic internet connections to interview publisher and owner of Alanna Books, Anna McQuinn.

Hi Anna. Thank you for taking the time to chat to Ribbonfish. Could you tell us a little about how Alanna Books got started?

I’ve worked in Children’s Publishing since about 1990, starting my own list Zero To Ten in 1997. Following a takeover I was made redundant and worked directly with children for some time alongside freelance editing and writing.

I developed a number of projects (including the Lulu character) which I presented at the Bologna Book fair where I sold the USA, Danish and Dutch rights. I still hadn’t found a UK publisher as I was about to go to print, I decided to publish it myself in the UK, forming Alanna Books to do that.

You seem to be doing remarkably well. How are you approaching such a competitive industry?

I think it’s tremendously hard to be a small publisher. If I were making handbags or cheese, I would be regarded as ‘artisan’ and could charge a premium for being so hands-on. But books have set price points and mine have to compete head-on with those published by enormous groups like Penguin-Random House and Scholastic. So, you have to offer something unique – we gained quite a lot of respect for our innovative multi-language CDs.

We commissioned a lot of parents to translate then read the Lulu story in their own language, then put all the recordings on a CD. It means that children who don’t speak English as a first language can enjoy the book – they can listen to it being read and follow along by looking at the pictures. It also means that grandparents, for example, who don’t read and/or speak English can share the books with their grandchildren.

In addition, I think because I continue to work directly with children, we can be very confident about getting the pitch right/at the right level. A concept doesn’t get diluted by doing the rounds of rights and promotions and different sales offices – so it retains a very strong coherent core.

How important would you say storytelling is for children and young people?

I could write a book about this. In a nutshell, at very least it improves their language skills which in turn helps them to do much better in the world. It also gives them insights into worlds and experiences outside of their own which helps develop empathy for others, ambition, imagination and creativity.

Congratulations on reaching $1 million turnover in the US. How did you make such a great impact across the pond?

We found the most wonderful partners. From the outset they ‘got’ the Lulu character and became champions in the USA. Finding someone who will champion your books whether it’s an agent, an editor or a company is key to success.

What do you think about the state of the modern publishing industry?

Publishing has become more challenging with more competition from other media. Sadly I think a lot of publishing reacted by becoming quite risk-averse and doing ‘safe’ publishing in a bid to guarantee income. I think publishers who are brave and take risks are more likely to be successful in the long run.

I also think as an industry we need to better reflect society – publishing continues to be predominantly white, and on the wealthy end of middle class. A more diverse work force would be more likely to publish books which reflect the whole of society which would be healthier in so many ways.
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In that light, what advice would you give to publishing startups in today’s world?

I would advise really researching the area you want to publish in and finding out as much as possible about sales and distribution channels. I constantly meet people who’ve set up a small company, gone ahead and commissioned and produced books and are only then really looking hard at how to market and sell them. I think lots of people who don’t have publishing experience think that making the books is the hard bit – actually that’s the nice bit – marketing and selling (and fulfilling orders) is the hard bit.

What missions do you have in the future for Alanna?

This year we’re a re celebrating 10 years of Lulu – so I’m hoping the various events and blogs and interviews will help put Lulu and Alanna Books in the spotlight. As a tiny publisher, it’s hard to gain traction and while it’s gratifying when you an event to hear customers say things like, “oh wow – these books are wonderful” it’s sad when it’s so often followed by “I’ve never seen these before”. I’m hoping that this extra attention will get Lulu the exposure she deserves.

Thank you to Anna for speaking to us. You can learn more about Alanna Books on their website.

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