[Meet the Author] "The Caribbean needs more young readers": Interview with Macmillan Caribbean Publisher, Nicholas Gillard

Macmillan Caribbean Publisher, Nicholas Gillard talks to Summer Edward about regional children's literature
Macmillan Caribbean Publisher, Nicholas Gillard talks to Summer Edward about regional children's literature and the changing face of publishing.

Nicholas Gillard was born in Glasgow, in the west of Scotland. He attended the High School of Glasgow and the University of St. Andrew (yes, where William and Kate met.) He has been working with Macmillan Caribbean "longer than he cares to remember." He began as a Commissioning Editor at Macmillan and is now the company's Head Publisher. Although Gillard feels that it is best left to others to name his accomplishments, he admits that building up the Macmillan Caribbean list over the past decade is a source of pride for him. Often asked by people which is his favourite Caribbean island, he usually replies "The one I'm in right now" (If pressed however, he will confess it's Jamaica.) 

Although not an author himself, Gillard admits that he has thought about writing books. His favourite children's books are The Hobbit by J. R. R. Tolkien, Asterix the Gaul by René Goscinny and the William Stories by Richmal Crompton. His favorite Caribbean children's books? All the ones his company has published, "with special mention to Everard Palmer." Books published by Macmillan Caribbean have been shortlisted for major regional and international literary prizes, including the Ondaatge Prize and the Commonwealth Writer's Prize.

In April 2011, Anansesem's Managing Editor interviewed Gillard via email about his company's approach to publishing Caribbean children's and young adult literature.


Summer Edward: Over the years, you have been closely involved in scouting regional literary talent and working on the ground to help your authors promote their books. How closely are you yourself involved in promoting Caribbean children’s or young adult literature in the region? Is it something that is close to your heart or are there other individuals in your company who handle the “juvenile” side of things?

Nicholas Gillard: We have a separate Sales & Marketing department for all our books. It’s actually bigger than the Editorial Department. But of course when travelling around the region one is constantly promoting – “off-line” as it were. The lines between editorial and marketing blur when you are travelling. I want all our books to be successful so, yes, I would say they are very close to my heart if not always under my control.

Summer Edward: I imagine you are a busy man, but have you had the chance to meet or perhaps sit down and chat with any of the children’s authors published by your company? In terms of personal and professional qualities, what are some of the things you look for in the authors that you publish?

Nicholas Gillard: I’ve met virtually everyone we’ve ever published. I think it’s hard to judge things properly without meeting someone face to face – that goes for the author too.

I look for someone who is serious and realistic about what they are doing and not looking at the glamorous end product or asking about book launches etc before the book has even been written. The rewards will come but through hard work and perseverance but they should never be a goal in themselves.
Fundamentally though, we are looking for talent. Talent + Hard Work + Luck = Success. Although sometimes you might get away with just hard work and the luck - those are key.

Summer Edward: You live in the UK and you’re actually Scottish, am I right? So that leaves me with the inevitable question― how did you get interested in publishing and promoting Caribbean literature anyway?

Nicholas Gillard: Yes I was born in Scotland and now live in London. I applied for the job from an advert in the Bookseller. I had no previous Caribbean experience or much knowledge of the Region when I started. I got interested in publishing really by chance. An English degree has no real vocational element so I just got a entry job with Blackwell’s in Edinburgh when I left University and one thing led to another.

I’m interested in all forms of literature and personally I don’t differentiate as to where the author is from in my own reading. A good book is a good book. And in my experience, most writers from the Caribbean want to be considered a Writer first and foremost and not pigeon-holed as a “Caribbean writer”. I suppose Macmillan Caribbean rather distorts that in what we do but Caribbean is our publishing ground. Also remember we are a “jack of all trades” publisher. We do most types of books and genres (including school books) for the Caribbean. So we would never claim to be a specialist publisher in the literature for children much as we like doing it.

Summer Edward:Two of my all-time favourite Caribbean children’s books are Ears & Tails & Common Sense by the Sherlocks and Backfire: A Collection of Caribbean Short Stories, edited by the Giuseppes, both of which I loved as a child. These classics of Caribbean children's literature were published by Macmillan Caribbean back in the 70’s, along with several groundbreaking juvenile novels by the likes of C. Everard Palmer of Jamaica and Michael Anthony of Trinidad. Do you remember what children’s publishing was like in the region at time? How would you describe Macmillan Caribbean’s contribution to regional children’s literature during that post-Independence era?

Nicholas Gillard: Yes I love those ones too. I was still at school in the 70’s but I’ve heard stories about Andre Deutsch travelling the Caribbean with a cheque-book and signing people up on the spot. That’s certainly true of Michael Anthony and Everard Palmer who are from that generation. I think it was much more informal in those days and more publishing led than sales and accountancy led – probably a very good thing too!

I think we’ve contributed by providing a forum for children’s literature where very few other options were open. So I’m pleased about that.

Summer Edward: Macmillan Caribbean is a household name in the Caribbean yet there are some who have criticized your company’s alleged role as a gatekeeper of regional literary production. I’m thinking of one Trinidadian writer and cultural critic in particular, who takes issue not only with the quality of Macmillan Caribbean publications, but also with the fact that your company allegedly seems to favour authors who are expats or Afro-Caribbean people. How would you respond to this?

Nicholas Gillard: I certainly wouldn’t see us a “gatekeeper”. Far from it. We are just one of many publishers in the world who could, if they wanted to, focus on the Caribbean. It just so happens they don’t right now. Personally, I would welcome more players in the field. Competition is the key to literary strength. But remember, most publishers specialize in genres not regions. Plus we are a multiple genre publisher. So I think this is where that perception might come from. It’s quite an unusual approach.

The vast majority of our authors are of Caribbean origin or live in the Caribbean so I don’t accept that point. In fact, we actively look for Caribbean writers at all times for all our books. That’s really what we are all about.

I do think some blogging can be rather self-indulgent and often says more about the person writing it than the object of the discontent. However, everyone has a right to their opinion and to express it as they see fit. As we know from the Middle East and China in recent times, freedom of speech is one of our most valuable human rights and I’m glad we are able to take it for granted where we all live. Plus if someone doesn’t feel Macmillan is doing a good job then don’t buy the book. There are plenty of other publishers to choose from. Competition improves quality, lowers price and encourages innovation and progress so if Macmillan isn’t performing as a publisher ultimately it will affect our strength as a business and our ability to publish more books. The market will decide in the end. And that’s all of us.

Summer Edward: Do you feel like Macmillan Caribbean has played a role in changing the face of Caribbean children’s literature and if so, how?

Nicholas Gillard: I don’t think we’ve changed the face. Nothing changes that much aside from the technology and distribution of content. But we’ve created some household names and perhaps without Macmillan they might never have reached a wider audience. I think it’s Apple and Amazon that have and will truly change the face of publishing. And that process has only just begun.

Summer Edward: I really like the Macmillan Caribbean website but one thing I’ve noticed about the site is that that it contains very little information about the children’s authors that you’ve published in terms of bios, photos, links to interviews etc. Curwen Best has said as much about your site in his book, The Politics of Caribbean Cyberculture, stating that “Macmillan Caribbean […] does not display its authors […] intimately, so upfront, on its main pages.” Does Macmillan Caribbean place importance on leveraging the publicity of its children’s authors?

Nicholas Gillard: Thank you, I think it’s just the house-style not a deliberate omission or policy. They aren’t personality driven websites but I agree with you and it’s something we should look at. Many authors now have their own Facebook and Twitter sites and they link those to ours. So the marketing website is not the only forum anymore. Even one of our more eminent authors Edward Seaga has his on Facebook site now which I thought was a sign of the times!

Summer Edward: What types of children’s and young adult books does the Macmillan Caribbean catalogue offer?

Nicholas Gillard: Pretty much everything. Please take a look:

We are also now developing a brand new Early Childhood Series for the 3-5 year olds that will develop the reading habit from the earliest possible stage. And the BookStart scheme in Jamaica is actually developing books for 0-12 months range which is also something we are looking at. Future is bright for literacy I think.

Summer Edward: I’d like to see Macmillan Caribbean publish more trade books for teens. Are there any young adult publications in the works? What about the Island Fiction series? Is it still open for series writers?

Nicholas Gillard: Me too. We’ve published six books for teenagers in the “Island Fiction” Series. And these are now all in eBook format which we hope will let them travel even further. Joanne Johnson from Trinidad is the Series Editor. If they are a success we would certainly like to do more. Have you read the The Rough Guide to Books for Teenagers by Nicholas Tucker (Penguin)? Worth a look.

Summer Edward: I am an aspiring Caribbean children’s or young adult author and I want to submit my finished manuscript to Macmillan Caribbean? What steps should I take?

Nicholas Gillard: Email us via our editorial in-box listed on the site. Describe your book and what stage it’s at and tell us something about yourself. Or simply email us the manuscript with a covering letter. Many of our email enquiries say “I have a book what’s your submission policy?” And in fact we don’t have a formal submission policy and don’t usually work through literary agents. So we take every proposal on its own merits. Just be very clear and detailed as to what you are proposing. If you can’t write a good proposal letter then most publishers will assume you can’t write anything else.

Summer Edward: What are some of the qualities you look for in the Caribbean children’s and young adult stories you choose to publish?

Nicholas Gillard: Authentic Caribbean flavour or authentic to the island and/ or country in question (not forgetting Belize and Guyana). This includes illustrations which are critical to our children’s publishing and an essential requirement for our list. The other qualities are exactly the same as for any other book regardless of where it’s set: a good story, well told, with good characters. All you need really but easier said than done.

Summer Edward: Let's talk about the business/industry side of things. As an insider in the publishing trades, what do you think explains the slowness --some would say the failure-- of Caribbean publishing to develop a strong track record for producing best-selling Caribbean children's books?

Nicholas Gillard: I think the lack of competition and demand is the main problem. The Caribbean needs a trade publishing industry and more readers and writers. It also needs literary agents who can connect their authors with the main publishing centres of New York & London and the Book fairs of Frankfurt, London and Bologna where rights can be bought and sold. However, the eBook revolution represents the biggest and best ever opportunity to change that. Printing, distribution and warehousing are some of main obstacles to starting up a publishing business. They are a major and constant overhead in terms of cost. That’s where big multi-national publishers like Macmillan can always be strong. But with eBooks these boundaries fall away.

It does require a shift in the culture of reading though. But this generation of children worldwide will be the first true digital eBook natives so the time is now. And with free viral marketing now an option for everyone, opportunity knocks.

But above all, the Caribbean needs more young readers. And technology can’t change that alone. So I congratulate you on your work in promoting children’s literature. They are the writers of the future so you are making a difference. Thank you.


About the Interviewer...

Summer Edward is from Trinidad and Tobago. She is the Founder, Managing Editor and Nonfiction Editor of Anansesem. She blogs about Caribbean children's literature at The Pickney Project. Her poems and art have been published in tongues of the ocean, BIM: Arts for the 21st Century, St. Somewhere, Philadelphia Stories, The Columbia Review and First Reads.

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About Anansesem

Anansesem is an online magazine of Caribbean children's and young adult literature by adults and children. We strive to bring you the best in news, reviews and creative content from the world of Caribbean children's publishing.
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