Winning Opportunities: The Role of a Small Independent Publisher

12th July 2023
5 min read
17th July 2023

In this new extract from the Children’s Writers’ & Artists’ Yearbook 2024, Bella Pearson shares the values that drive her work as a children’s publisher.

Children's Writers' & Artists' Yearbook 2024

[…] Publishing is a very strange business. And it can be a very difficult one for all involved, especially for you, the creators – the authors and illustrators. It can be lonely, it can feel as if the industry is closed, opaque and, on top of that, everyone else seems to be doing it better. It’s easy to watch other creatives having success and to feel left behind – though I can guarantee that they, too, will have had their insecure moments. An aspiring writer or artist’s journey goes up and down; there is no simple upward trajectory, unfortunately, even for the most successful. And then, getting a deal is far from the end of the road. Even when you are published – at that stage, perhaps, by foreign publishers or film companies – it can feel like a long process of rejection: book sales aren’t as strong as you hoped; there’s an award shortlisting you aren’t included on. As a small independent publisher, we try to help our authors through this process as much as we can. We aim to be as communicative and transparent as possible. We’re small – we keep in regular touch with our authors and illustrators; we try to provide as much clarity as possible, especially to debut authors when they first set out. It is so important to us that all our authors have a positive experience of being published by Guppy. Although we can’t control everything that happens when the book goes out in the world, we can be there every step of the way on the journey – to do our very best for each title individually and to be supportive when things don’t work out quite as planned. […]

The other thing I was intent on, when setting up Guppy, was to be as open as possible to the multitude of writers out there who neither have an agent nor have been previously published. But as a small publisher (or to be honest, even as a larger publisher), it is impossible to be open to submissions all year round. The number received would be so high that, in order to respond to everyone, we simply wouldn’t have time to do the actual work of producing any books. But there is another way.

In the spring of 2020, when suddenly the world had shut down and the summer was stretching out ahead of us in a very different way, it felt like the perfect time to hold the first Guppy Open Submission competition. Over the course of a week, we invited unpublished and unagented writers to submit the first 2,000 words or so of their young adult novels (one year we ask for YA, and the following year for middle grade). In that first pandemic year we had nearly 400 submissions. We whittled this down to a longlist of around 35, and subsequently a shortlist of ten which was read by a selection of expert judges. I also offered an editorial session for all shortlisted authors. We then went on to choose a winner who was offered a contract with Guppy Books. It was an overwhelming but incredibly exciting experience – to receive so many submissions in one week, and of such high quality too. 

In 2020, 23-year-old law student, Nadia Mikail, won the prize with her extraordinary YA post-apocalyptic novel, The Cats We Meet Along the Way, which Guppy published in February 2022. And just over a year later, in 2023, this very novel went on to win the hugely prestigious Waterstones Children’s Book Prize.

Bella Pearson has worked in children’s publishing for over 20 years. After working in an independent children’s bookshop, she completed an MA in children’s literature and then moved into publishing at Transworld Children’s Books. In 2001 she began work as an editor with David Fickling, helping set up his eponymous list under the umbrella of Random House, leaving as publishing director in 2018 to set up her own publishing company Guppy Books. Bella won the Branford Boase Award for Siobhan Dowd’s A Swift Pure Cry (Penguin Random House 2006) in 2007 and has been shortlisted a further six times. For three years she was a mentor at The Golden Egg Academy, and has also edited for many children’s publishers including Puffin, Chicken House and Oxford University Press. See for more information and follow on Twitter @guppybooks.

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