Half a competition is better than none?

Over 3 years ago, I got my hopes up that this picture would change my life. It undoubtedly did, but not in the way I’d hoped.

I expected to see more discussions on the SCBWI social media pages in regards to why the illustration category of Undiscovered Voices was dropped. In fact, I at least expected some discussions, but there’s been nothing. Why? Well, I know better than to start the conversation myself. There’s a set of unwritten rules in the publishing sphere, largely because it is a very small world and a close-knit community. Unfortunately this means that it can seem a little like a clique, especially if you don’t feel that your face fits. I’ve always felt quite cynical about the publishing world – for an business that expects you (rightly) to accept critiquing and criticism at every step, it often appears to have a very difficult time in accepting criticism itself.

I do feel a little guilty that I may be at least partly responsible for the Undiscovered Voices Illustration category being dropped. However I do feel that the criticisms raised by myself and some other winners of UV2018 was justified. We knew something was amiss when we saw the guest list for the winner’s party. This was THE main event, where the year’s winners would get to meet industry representatives – agents, editors, art directors, publishers – and (hopefully) make connections that would lead to some publishing success. This was what it was all about – we’d heard all the stories of UV winners being snapped up and getting book deals. Looking back now, it was all so one-sided. We were never told about the ones who didn’t make it after winning. I can now see how dishonest it was. Like a confidence trick, or a sales pitch. There were certainly plenty of guests who’d be wanting to meet the writers (literary agents, editors etc), but there was almost nothing for the artists – no art directors, and most damningly, no dedicated illustration agents.

Why was this? In the weeks leading up to the event, I did hope that it was just a case that they still had yet to get confirmed RSVPs. But I think that people looking for artists just weren’t interested in this competition, after all, I’d seen SCBWI events that had illustration agents as (paid) panelists, so clearly the contacts were there. Illustration is just a different business dynamic.

The evening for the illustrators was quite a disappointment. A number had travelled to London at great expense (I’d fortunately been able to come straight from work – a 15 minute tube ride). We were set up in a side room with tables for portfolios and we waited while the winning authors’ bash was in full swing in the main hall (we’d been promised that publishers and agents would come to look at our work and that we should be there to talk them through our folios). Instead it was just immensely awkward. Virtually no one seemed to know or care that we were here. Few of us wanted to stray too far in case we missed someone important, and when I ventured into the hall (a stack of box-fresh business cards covering for me in the side-room) it was almost impossible to strike up any conversations. No one helped introduce the illustrators – there were knots of conversations between industry friends and the authors, but it was one of the most intimidating and unfriendly parties I’ve ever had the misfortune to attend. I wasn’t the only one to think this – this was our event and we were basically being ignored. Because we didn’t really matter.

Eventually, I spoke to representatives from two agencies (one of whom admitted that they weren’t particularly good as they didn’t really promote their artists, the other I knew wasn’t interested in my work), I spoke to one of the competition judges (who was lovely), and met up with an author whom I’d worked with as a librarian. I chatted with him regarding an art director who I’d seen was on the guest list whom I wanted help tracking down, and he very kindly went off to find them as he knew who they were. They returned to tell me that the art director had left after having a couple of drinks and a chat with some editors they knew. They apparently hadn’t been bothered to even look in at the portfolios of any of the artists who were one of the reasons that they were even there in the first place. It was literally free booze and a quick natter.

I went home cold and miserable. I’d been able to network with no one and I knew that UV2018 would soon be yesterday’s news. A few weeks later I visited a number of publishers’ showcase evenings (librarian business again) and spoke to the staff there about the competition. One editor simply said “Well, I suppose you’ll be needing an agent” and that was it. Another member of the publishing team (who by that time had snapped up one of the writing winners) looked interested that I knew their new pet author, but had no interest in talking further about my work and changed the subject. The one illustrator from that year whom I know has got good work post-UV, I found was snapped up only after her (Cambridge MA) college show at Bologna – I don’t think they’ve even mentioned Undiscovered Voices since. It was then that more puzzle pieces clicked – why we were told at the pre-event portfolio review that we should consider signing up for a masters in illustration – that they were politely saying that there are very different routes to getting recognised as an illustrator, and a select few recruiting grounds for agencies unless you’re extremely lucky or wealthy enough to pay tuition fees on top of dropping to a 3-day week. Another illustration winner got agented, but it doesn’t seem to have lasted, and they’ve returned to another field. A waste of talent – their work was fantastic.

I wrote a polite email to the UV organisers stating what I felt were the shortcomings of the event in regards to illustrators, and I’m fairly sure that at least two others did the same. I rounded off the email by stating that perhaps the formula of the competition was not suited to the needs of illustrators. Within a couple of months I’d heard that the category had been dropped and that SCBWI would be doing different events to support illustrators, though nothing approaching the flagship status of UV has yet appeared in the last 3 years. They kindly offered to further promote the work of the illustrators – doing an interview each week which they promoted on social media. Interestingly, mine never got posted. perhaps it was an oversight, but I honestly don’t think that it was. I’d overstepped the mark. I’d been negative.

I’m not being bitter, by the way, just honest and disappointed. The winners event was introduced by Francis Hardinge who stated how all of us winners were taking our first steps to being published. The SCBWI community is almost ludicrously positive, almost terrified to accept the truth. Unpublished creatives are now called ‘pre-published’, and there is never any talk about how unwelcoming some parts of the industry are. I only hear this side of the story when I’m wearing my librarian’s hat, sharing a cup of tea with a writer whom I’m looking after during school visits. The impression I now have of the industry is that it’s like an abusive relationship that the abused partner insists is all fine because they just want to be loved. And I know this, that the publishing industry can be as nasty, bitchy, two-faced and dishonest and elitist as any business. Just because it deals in pug-unicorn hybrids doesn’t mean that it’s all rainbows and sunbeams.

And yet for some reason I’m compelled to keep drawing.