Friday, 22 January 2010

Wise owl has a new barn

In 2000, when I was launching Armadillo magazine, Ann Jungman published her first four titles as Barn Owl Books. Both initiatives grew out of the writers' and artists' support group, Northern Lights, which we had founded together in 1995. We had our meetings mostly at illustrator Jane Ray's house because her husband is a conductor and finding babysitters was sometimes difficult.

Most of us lived in North London - hence the name, which I remember asking Philip Pullman's permission to use - but there was no hard and fast geographical rule. Other members included Georgia Byng, Kaye Umansky and the late Kate Petty. We shared news and views about publishing in general and our own writing and illustrating. Publishers trembled: "They've only gone and set up a union!" said one. But we hadn't. We were just trying to overcome the isolation and ignorance that can be felt by creative freelances working solitarily from home (this was before Facebook, Twitter and other such virtual forms of interaction).

Armadillo came about because I wanted to see more review space for children's books. Barn Owl because Ann, an ex-teacher, believed passionately that good children's books went out of print all too soon in a market increasingly interested only in quick and plentiful sales. It's even worse now but none of us knew that at the time.

Setting up a publishing house costs money and Ann had come into some from her grandfather's property in East Berlin after the wall came down. Most people in the insecure profession of writing would have put it into a pension or bought a modest house. Ann put it all into setting up Barn Owl Books.

The first four books were: Michael Rosen's You're Thinking About Doughnuts; Gwen Grant's Private: Keep Out; Jacqueline Wilson's Jimmy Jelly and Adèle Geras' Voyage. Two subsequent Children's Laureates, a distinguished Carnegie shortlisted author and a Guardian Lucy Mangan top pick for building a children's library. No-one could say Ann didn't have a good eye for a book.

Co-incidentally, another person was setting up a children's re-print house at the same time. Jane Nissen had retired from a distinguished editorial career at Hamish Hamilton and Penguin in 1998 and started her own list a few weeks after Barn Owl, Jane Nissen Books.

Would the two go head-to-head in finding great books whose rights had reverted to their authors? No. The two women amicably decided that Jane would take pre-1970 titles and Ann those originally published after that date.If they ever strayed into each other's territory, they sorted it out by mutual agreement, meeting regularly and supporting each other's ventures.

Over the last ten years Barn Owl has published nearly a hundred titles, including more by Mike Rosen, others by Malorie Blackman, Joan Aiken and Quentin Blake, Gillian Cross and many by "the Two Steves" (Barlow and Skidmore).For most of its lifetime Barn Owl has had its books distributed by Frances Lincoln. Now after ten years of hard work, Ann Jungman has sold the stock to that publisher. She will remain as consultant and the Barn Owl imprint will publish more books in the future, if finances permit.

But the climate for print publishing is pretty dire currently. The loss of the bookshop chain Borders just before Christmas has not helped to improve the picture. Many people, including Ann Jungman and the Maven, opposed the purchase of Ottakar's by Waterstone's in 2006, believing it would lead to a monopoly on the High Street. And this has come to pass.

But even Waterstone's while, virtually unopposed, is struggling against online sales, ebooks and illegal pirated downloads of books.

So one small barn owl has had to fold its wings. Ann will go back to thinking of herself primarily as a writer, rather than a publisher, and has many irons in the fire. Best know for her humorous books for juniors, like the very successful Vlad the Drac series, Ann is currently writing a serious novel called Red Ribbon, set during the Gold Rush in Australia, a country where she lived for many years and visits regularly.

Jane Nissen won the Eleanor Farjeon Award for services to children's books in 2007. The Book Maven thinks that Ann Jungman deserves at least a special mention for service above and beyond the call of duty.


Lucy Coats said...

Hear hear! I definitely think Ann J deserves far more than a special mention. She deserves a special medal, and I hope the powers-that-be who organise such things are reading your blog and arrange it.

Nicola Morgan said...

That's a really interesting story, Mary, some of which I didn't know. Thank you to you, and to Ann and Jane, of course. And I vote for Ann to have an award, too!

Katherine Langrish said...

Me too. I can't imagine the amount of dedication, courage and effort she must have needed. Look forward to reading her novel when it comes out.