Where in the World is Angus Yuen-Killick? The Coming of Red Comet Press
I’m new to this being-old-in-the-business thing. I’m children’s book business middle aged, I think, because a lot of the people who were around when I first started have moved to so many different places. Case in point, Angus Yuen-Killick. When I first started out in the early 2000s, Angus was a staple of the ALA Conference floor. But this past year, with cancelled conferences and distant Zoomable friends, I find myself growing nostalgic for the folks I knew first. Happily, Angus recently announced some good (and interesting) news, so I asked if he’d be interested at all in an interview. And wouldn’t you just know it, he was!
Betsy Bird: Angus! How the heck are you? It’s been years (or maybe, because of COVID and not seeing anyone at conferences, it just feels like years). Speaking of which, how are you and your family holding up these days?
Angus Yuen-Killick: Thanks for asking! We are all hunkering down in our brownstone in Brooklyn — my two sons (15 & 19), my husband, and the dog. Thank heavens there’s a good amount of space, for living and business! We are lucky in that respect, but like everyone else, we cannot wait to bust out and get back into the wider world. Aside from running and walking the dog, it’s a whole lot of indoor time. I miss seeing everyone so much. It’s going to be a spectacular coming out party when we emerge from hibernation and catch up. I cannot wait.
BB:You’re so well known in the industry that I do have a tendency to forget that not everyone has met you (yet). Can you give me a rundown of your career thus far? You may need to abbreviate since it can be extensive.
AYK: Oh gosh, long before working in publishing, I taught English in Rome. That detail is somewhat pertinent as you’ll see. I moved back from Italy and worked for a couple of years at my father’s small poetry press in the North of England, learning the ropes from typesetting (which I did myself, using the old code system) to printing, marketing, and distribution. The press was in an old cotton mill in West Yorkshire and the printer was on the lower floor of the building. It truly was a hands-on apprenticeship.
Fast forward a couple of decades (alright, 3) to a different continent and several big publishers later (DK, Penguin, Disney, Macmillan), I’m back where I started at the kitchen table — or rather, the desk in the back bedroom of the parlor floor. Wait, no… I mean the nerve center of activity from which Red Comet Press was born, that’s it! But this time, I have a wee bit more experience under my belt.
My true passion for children’s publishing was ignited when three amazing editors came from Orchard Books to DK to set up an author-led imprint called DK Ink; Neal Porter, Melanie Kroupa, and the late Richard Jackson. All three were incredibly generous mentors and, as their dedicated marketing and publicity person, they introduced me to everyone they knew. Every conference was a whirlwind of introductions and the welcome was just so warm and embracing. It was at this time that I truly fell for the people who make this business tick — the teachers, librarians, booksellers, authors, illustrators, and my publishing colleagues. Well, you know what an amazing community we are blessed to work in. It was just so great to unite with people over a common cause. I felt like I had found my place.
Recently, I’ve been in touch with both Neal and Melanie to share the latest mischief I’ve been up to. They are to blame, and I will always be grateful.
BB: So, this feels like as good a time as any for you to tell me about Red Comet Press. How did you end up in your new position?
AYK: I have harbored a long-held dream of starting my own publishing business, but I never thought I’d be brave (or crazy) enough to do it. I left Macmillan just before COVID-19 hit and then found myself with hours to contemplate the future. I picked up some great consultancy jobs, but one day last August I literally woke up and thought, “If not now, when?”
I have the advantage of hands-on experience in a broad range of areas of publishing, so that put me in good stead for running my own operation. I have always had an entrepreneurial spirit. But critical to making this work, I am also aware of my weaknesses and so I reached out for help and support in areas I know little about — can you say royalties accounting for one?
With the support of my husband, I decided to research acquiring titles for a list to see where that led me. I reached out to the Bologna Book Fair organizers and requested access to their online Global Rights Exchange. I had no idea what I’d find there, especially so many months after the Fair had ended. I spent hours trawling through the site looking at potential candidates and reaching out to publishers for pdfs of their books. I consider myself very lucky to have acquired the list I have. Each title was a jewel hidden in a cave of digital content, just waiting to be found. They each have something special to share and I’m truly excited to get them out into the world. The foreign publishers were a delight to work with. Maybe they had written off their rights sales for the year, but they were all responsive, enthusiastic, and prepared to take a chance on a new publishing company. I think I was pretty lucky with my timing.
BB: There are any number of fantasies people in the children’s book industry indulge in. Some create writing retreats out of barns. Some start B&Bs. Some open bookstores. And some wish they could start their own publishing companies. What precisely constitutes a “boutique publishing company” these days? And what’s the lure of working at one?
AYK: Great question: I am determined to keep this operation small. Small enough that I can have a hand in bringing each and every project from creator to reader and be involved in the process every step of the way. Boutique for me is about curation, care, and commitment. I want each of these books to sing, to be the best I can make them. Decisions will not be made solely on the basis of profit, although, don’t get me wrong, I’m always watching the bottom line. But because we are a lean operation, we can spend more on things that matter such as the production values of the books or tailored marketing initiatives and reaching out to specific audiences.
I am also interested in crafting books that feel as special in the hand as they are to read. Not that I’m overly precious; I want to bring a mix of commercial and literary titles . . . they go hand in hand and can support each other financially. I hope that’s the way to perpetuate the imprint without overwhelming it with titles.
BB: Certainly, you foresaw any number of difficulties when beginning this endeavor. What didn’t you see?
AYK: On the business side: shipping costs! Can I say ouch and then ouch again? Who knew COVID would strand containers all around the world in the wrong places, making getting goods from Asia to the US subject to surcharges? It hurts a little right now but hopefully, the costs will go back down and future printings will be more in line with historical prices.
On the creative side, I’ve pushed myself outside my comfort zone. I am making decisions and finding my footing on that front, but after a number of years in the industry, I have to trust my own tastes and editorial instincts. In many ways, it can be scary. You’re taking risks and joining a very competitive market, where it’s difficult to predict what will resonate (and sell) and what will fall to the wayside. I will say, though, with each of the books I’ve acquired, I found myself with a clear vision for how to bring them to market in English. There were many titles I found that I had to abandon, even if I loved them, because I could not see how they would be embraced by our market.
Putting your creative taste on the line can also be extremely rewarding, especially when you find an audience for a book and then that book takes on a life of its own in other hands. For me, that was one of the most affirming aspects of running the Kingfisher imprint at Macmillan. However, publishing is not an exact science. There has to be an almost magical confluence of circumstances to carry your book along to the reader. My job is to create the opportunity for the magic to happen. To present the books to people who will appreciate and share them. I want to make connections with booksellers, librarians, teachers, parents, and beyond. Hopefully, I can communicate my passion for these books and inspire others with that same enthusiasm.
BB: I hear you have a limited list of picture books slated for 2021. Can you tell me a bit about them?
AYK: First off, we have the story of a tiny elephant with wings in the super-relatable Mister Fairy by Morgane de Cadier. Our titular character goes on a quest to discover his purpose in life, which Florian Pigé brings to life with charming, sweetly funny, illustrations.
Speaking of relatable, who wouldn’t recognize the relationship between frenemies in Tullio Corda’s Cat & Dog? His genius is to tell a fully realized story in just 32 words — 16 pairs of opposites — accompanied by deceptively simple illustrations which convey a whole complex narrative with highs and lows, drama, humor, quiet moments, and joyful resolution. It’s a brilliant piece of work!
Before We Sleep by Giorgio Volpe is a gentle friendship story with a metaphorical nod to the bedtime ritual where the parent/friend leaves with the promise to always be there again in the morning. A delightful twist is that the character representing the child is more understanding of this particular situation than the parent. Classic, enchanting illustrations by Paolo Proietti underscore the depth of this exquisitely told tale with a comforting underlying message, perfect for the hibernation times of our age.
Lastly, I have an unusual 92-page, heavily illustrated novel by Elisa Sabatinelli, The Secret of the Magic Pearl. She has previously authored an adult novel but clearly has a serious talent for writing for younger readers. Her magical adventure features a young boy living in an imaginary coastal village in Italy with a cast of colorful characters and a mysterious pearl that sparks the book’s central conflict. The story is full of magic and mystery and is paired with the incredibly striking, evocative illustrations of Iacopo Bruno. Bruno won the Texas Bluebonnet Award for the book Sergeant Reckless, written by Patricia McCormick in 2019. His talent is on full display in this volume, evidenced by amazing details like the aquatic avatars that accompany each of the characters, or the nautical flags and color coding which are integrated into the structure of the book, indicating each chapter and its numerical sequencing. I challenge anyone to read the last chapter of this book and not come away with a powerful sense and yearning to visit this special fictional place. In short, all the books are sophisticated yet accessible, and full of multi-layered storytelling. I hope each one of them finds their audience.
BB: Couldn’t help but notice that these books have a bit of an international flavor about them. Are you particularly keen on imports? What’s the advantage of bringing overseas children’s literature to an American audience?
AYK: I LOVE the opportunity to bring international literature to an English audience. It was also an expeditious way to bring books that needed little work to market. Remember my early days in Italy? Well, five of the seven creators on our list are Italian. I have to say, I was drawn there to find my first projects. Italians have an extremely rich tradition of children’s storytelling and their children’s publishing scene is particularly vibrant.
I intend to continue to seek out jewels from Italy and other cultures and bring them to an English-speaking audience, but I am also planning to work with creators in North America as well. In many respects, I see this path I have taken as a journey and I will walk it with my eyes keenly open. I’m excited to see what shows up on the horizon and where it takes me.
BB: I hear there are also some Rosemary Wells titles in your company’s future. How did that come about?
Rosemary and I have worked together at several publishing houses over the past 20+ years. We have become great friends and when she heard about my endeavor, she wanted to be a part of it. Her agent, Brenda Bowen, and I also worked together at Disney/Hyperion. It seemed a great opportunity to reunite the team under a new endeavor. We’ve always enjoyed working together and I’m thrilled that we’re creating books together for Red Comet Press. In fact, she is getting a very close personal experience working on her first two books with us. My husband, Mike, has a background in graphic design and is Red Comet’s creative director, so he and Rosemary are exploring art directions and hashing out all sorts of new ideas and ways to tackle storytelling through illustration. I’m excited to see where it goes. The first book is due out in Fall 2022.
BB: So when, God help our souls, we at last have some in-person conferences in our future, will we see you manning the Red Comet Press booth?
AYK: I cannot wait for the time when we can commune together it will be so gratifying to be able to book talk my own list with my friends in the school, library, and bookseller worlds. That will be paradise. You know me, I love to catch up with people, meet new people, and introduce people to new books. Dream come true! See you there.
Wait, did I just put you in my dreams, Betsy? I think I did!
BB: Damn right.
Many thanks to the infinitely kind Barbara Fisch and Sarah Shealy of Blue Slip Media for helping to organize this interview, and thanks too to Angus for answering my questions. For further info, feel free to check out his interview with Publishers Weekly in their article A Fall Liftoff for Red Comet Press.
Filed under: Interviews
About Betsy Bird
Betsy Bird is currently the Collection Development Manager of the Evanston Public Library system and a former Materials Specialist for New York Public Library. She has served on Newbery, written for Horn Book, and has done other lovely little things that she'd love to tell you about but that she's sure you'd find more interesting to hear of in person. Her opinions are her own and do not reflect those of EPL, SLJ, or any of the other acronyms you might be able to name. Follow her on Twitter: @fuseeight.
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