SPECIAL EVENTS FEATURE: Q&A With Publisher Barry Cunningham

Barry Cunningham, founder and Managing Director of Chicken House Publishing Ltd, talks to Events Editor, A. M. Dassu about the children's publishing market, bestsellers and what he looks for in a submission.

Barry Cunningham has worked with Spike Milligan, Roald Dahl, Quentin Blake, relaunched the Beatrix Potter series and is renowned for signing J.K. Rowling. He is considered a leading figure in children’s fiction and SCBWI are thrilled to have him join members at a London Industry Insiders panel event in June alongside author, Robin Stevens and literary agent, Stephanie Thwaites to discuss what universal features make a bestselling book.

Ahead of the event, I thought it would be great to find out more about Barry and am delighted to share his insightful and enjoyable interview with you.

Hello and welcome Barry!

Q. You left Bloomsbury in 2000 to set up Chicken House, what was your main reason behind that decision?
I loved my job – but wanted to work in a ‘children’s only’ company, that focused only on children’s books – and to live in the countryside with my young family!

Q. Is it true that you once had a long beard and Roald Dahl based his character, Mr. Twit on you?
Roald Dahl always said so – but I don’t believe it! He said I only had to eat one meal a day because I could just pick the bits out of my beard!

Q. How can you be sure a book will sell? Do you take a risk every time you sign a deal?
I never buy a book that I don’t know how to sell – my job is to find the right readers for the right book. So we don’t always succeed but I feel we know what we are aiming at – editorially, in covers and presentation, and in marketing.

Q. At your first meeting, you told J.K. Rowling that she’d never make any money from her book, has the success of Harry Potter made you assess new submissions differently?

No – I still look for the books that children themselves will respond to. I only meant that life was tough for new authors then – and it still is!

Q. The Girl of Ink & Stars by Kiran Millwood Hargrave was awarded the overall Waterstones Children’s Book Prize 2017 and was named Children’s Book of the Year at the British Book Awards 2017, did you feel the same way when you first read her submission as you did when you read the first Harry Potter? Did you know it would make a splash in the world of children’s publishing? Huge congratulations by the way!
Thank you! Sometimes it’s readers themselves that create a success – and for Girl of Ink and Stars (like Harry Potter) I didn’t imagine that it would sell to so many different age groups – from teens to adults, as well as the core middle grade readers that I knew would be captivated by Kiran’s magical story.

Q. You signed SCBWI member, Ally Sherrick after she submitted to a ten word novel pitching competition, what was it about her short pitch that made you want to read more?

I loved the hanging, misunderstandings, perils and the ‘real’ story behind a famous bit of history! Historical fiction needed a shot in the arm – and I felt Ally could give it one!

Q. What can SCBWI members do to ensure they get Chicken House’s attention?
Enter our Times/Chicken House Children’s Fiction Competition – it’s open annually to unpublished writers. Look out for our regular ‘Open Coop’ amnesty submission days!

Q. I’ve learned that when acquiring a book, publishers consider the space a book will take on a bookseller’s shelf, if you loved a submission because of its strong plot, vivid writing and strong voice, would you reject it based on its length and the space it would take on a shelf?
No – never – a great book finds its own space!

Q. Middle grade books are selling very well at the moment and were the focal point at the Bologna Book Fair this year, why are YA books not selling at the moment? Should authors continue to write YA and wait for it to become popular again with publishers?

I agree with the wonderful David O’Callaghan at Eason – YA is really not a category – each individual book has its own profile, so the opportunity for great bestsellers is still there. Look out for our own ‘fandom’ later this year.

Q. You sold J.K. Rowling’s bejeweled handwritten book, The Tales of Beedle Bard last year, do you know who bought it?

Yes – a lovely family with three great bookish daughters, and I met them for tea. Beedle the Bard will be on display at the British Library later this year in the Harry Potter exhibition.

Q. Favourite place to read?

By a warm fire on a snowy day in Scotland.

Q. Favourite character from a book?
Long John Silver

Q. Ebooks or paper books?

Always paper – and vinyl records!

Q. And finally which house would the sorting hat put you in? Hufflepuff, Slytherin, Gryffindor or Ravenclaw?
I am a Ravenclaw!


Barry Cunningham has had an impressive career in publishing. After an English degree at Cambridge, he joined Penguin Books in 1977. As Children’s Marketing Director for Puffin, he worked with all the great names in children’s books including Roald Dahl and Spike Milligan, and was responsible for the re-launch of Beatrix Potter. In 1984 he was promoted to the Penguin Board and became responsible for the marketing of all Penguin Books, a position he held until 1988, when he was headhunted by Random House.
In 1994 he was approached by Bloomsbury to set up their first children’s book list. Not only was the new list a success, but Barry soon became one of the best known names in publishing after he signed up J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone.
Barry left Bloomsbury at the height of its success and, in early 2000, decided to start his own publishing company. The result was Chicken House, a lively and creative company publishing highly original and enjoyable children’s books, with a special emphasis on new fiction. Chicken House has grown to be one of the most successful new companies in Children’s Books – with multiple bestsellers in both UK and USA – alongside many major translation partners. Recent successes have included BEETLE BOY, APPRENTICE WITCH, WHO LET THE GODS OUT, SECRET OF NIGHTINGALE WOOD - Chicken House has just won the British Book Awards Best Children’s Book of the year Award for Kiran Millwood Hargrave’s GIRL OF INK AND STARS, a new classic.

Twitter: @BarryChicken


N.B. SCBWI members have a fantastic opportunity to spend an evening with renowned publishing professionals on 13th June 2017. Those attending the event will be able to ask Barry questions in person. Buy your ticket now and start jotting your questions down before you forget!


A. M. Dassu is a member of the Words & Pictures editorial team, she manages the Events team and SCBWI BI events coverage. She has written five picture books since becoming a SCBWI member and is currently editing a contemporary teen novel.
Contact her at events@britishscbwi.org
You can find her on Twitter @a_reflective and Instagram @a.m.dassu

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