Looking after The Books – a job for life…

The Books

Looking after a Literary Estate is a dream job, especially if you happen to be a reading addict –  the danger is that you may never leave your room again, or in my case, the shed…but in these strange times, what could be better?

My good fortune was to be Joan Aiken’s daughter, and so I grew up immersed in a world of stories, but then went off to spend many years travelling the ‘real’ world, having trained in Amsterdam and Paris, working in theatre. Although I was often asked as a child when I was going to write my first book, I never thought writing would be my world – but it caught up with me in the end… one day my mother announced:

‘Someone will have to look after the books when I go, and it’s going to be you!’

I realise what a tremendous compliment this was, but it has taken me all of fifteen years and more since her death to fully understand the responsibility. I had of course been steeped in her writing – which was sometimes read aloud to me as a work in progress – since I was a child. Later, when I read each new book before it came out, often sitting up reading manuscripts well into the night, I unwittingly became an expert on her work – I was one of the few people who had actually read all of it – over one hundred books!

However, I was surprisingly new to the publishing business, given that it had been my family trade through three generations, and I struggled to grasp the scale of the job. How do you value a literary estate? It turns out to be a mathematical formula, nothing to do with the content of the work. The question was really how many books had she published,  and where were they all? – in other words with which publishers and in how many countries?  Where, more importantly were all the contracts?

My mother attempted to prepare me, and gave me a tour of her study  –  ‘Don’t call it the attic!’ as she used to say furiously… With her help I had drawn up a map of where everything was filed, although much of it was in parcels and boxes under the eaves, and suitcases in between the rafters – the accumulation of fifty years and a fairly recent house move. When I had to bring all the paperwork – let alone multiple copies of the books in every possible language – up to my house in London, I realised I would have to build a new room for it all – hence the shed!

Aiken Museum

First I spread the contracts out all over the floor and gradually got them into order,  then onto a spreadsheet, and then – truly miraculous – on to a complete (I hope!) online Bibliography and a website – The Wonderful World of Joan Aiken .  This is what I like to imagine as a virtual museum for her life and work, and it is much easier to keep in order! Weekly updates come on a Joan Aiken Facebook page or via Twitter and more news and background can be found here on the Blog.

My greatest supporter and guide until just last year was Joan’s long time agent, Charles Schlessiger.  I first met him aged ten on a trip over to America to meet another of his clients – Joan’s father, my Grandfather, the poet Conrad Aiken.  Charles who only retired at the age of eighty-one, introduced me to the publishing world, and patiently educated me with all his delightful grace and charm.  He is the only other person I know who has read everything Joan Aiken ever wrote, and these days I see what a rare qualification that was; together we lived through changes in technology which radically altered the profession for writers and publishers today. Now the internet makes the writer’s life less isolated, and self-publishing allows many more writers to bring out their own work.

Over the last fifty years, fashions, particularly in children’s literature, have come and gone, but through all of this I have come to realise the real and lasting value of some of the classic books I have been given to look after. Some, like The Wolves of Willoughby Chase, have remained in print ever since their first publication over fifty years ago.

Keeping all of Joan Aiken’s work in print is probably an impossible task, there is so much new writing coming out which will be the classic material of the future,  but my best help comes from the people Joan herself knew – her readers. My heart is gladdened by the letters and reviews of her stories that regularly turn up on book sites saying things like:

  ‘A long, long time ago I read a magical book about a lost slice of rainbow…and now that I have found it again (and passed it on to my eight year old!) I can die happy…’


‘The creativity is awe-inspiring, the writing beautiful and the stories exhilarating. I only wish I’d joined Dido on her adventures when I was 10 instead of discovering them at nearly 40!’

These are the people who keep me going – the ones who love to sit down with a favourite Joan Aiken story – because they are the ones who are really looking after the books!

* * * * * * * * * *

Still trying to think of the name of that long lost story? The Queen with the screaming hair? The man with a leg full of rubies? Get in touch – I’d be happy to help!

Contact me via the website or in comments below

Contact Marianne Merola for US enquiries at Brandt & Hochman New York

 Joan Aiken’s London Agent Julia Churchill at A.M.Heath 

New editions coming out can be found on Joan’s Author pages at Amazon


12 thoughts on “Looking after The Books – a job for life…

  1. It’s such a wonderful but frightening task, I would imagine, being custodian of such a legacy — both awesome and awful at the same time! I salute you, Lizza, though as the best person in the world to do it you may now be the only one to do the task justice! I can see it can just turn into a full-time job, and as with any job there will be times you may wish you hadn’t started. But be heartened by enthusiasts like me as well as enthusiasts who may not express themselves so readily — we do appreciate it all, from the marvellous website to republishing in new media and all the rest we don’t see or know.


    • Agreed! I left a comment on the Facebook page, but I wanted to speak up here as I am one of the aforementioned enthusiasts who doesn’t express herself so readily. I have loved your mother’s books since I was small, and I’m now in the fortunate position of having two boys who I can soon indoctrinate in the ways of Arabel and Mortimer, then Dido, then Felix… The first story of Joan’s I ever read was “The Patchwork Quilt”: the image of the quilt made of stars has stayed with me for decades! Thank you for all your work on this page, and with the Literary Estate.


  2. Hi Lorna, thank you so much! I imagine you have your hands pretty full, so I’m even more impressed you get round to reading this, let alone expressing appreciation! It’s for enthusiasts like you that I know it’s worth trying to replace some of those dog eared old copies with shiny new ones for the next generation to chew on – Joan and I regretted not letting the merchandisers rip on some Mortimer toys all those years ago – think what fun the babies could be having!


  3. I can’t resist looking them up on second-hand book sites, there are some wonderful bargains, and yes, with those lovely illustrations, and some simply astonishing prices – I saw one going for £4,641.25 – how do they work that out?

    Which is your favourite?


  4. Reblogged this on Julia Lee Author and commented:
    If you have ever wondered what goes into looking after a famous writer’s literary estate – apart from nice liquid literary lunches and denying access to anyone you think might write an unflattering biography (or is it just me who got that impression??) – read Lizza Aiken’s account of reading, and wrangling, every single thing her mother ever wrote:


    • Not so many of those lunches – dream on indeed! But the greatest pleasure is the reading – and in this case I am lucky to have been left a lifetime of books, and so much of our shared life is in them… Book wrangling? Now there’s a job description!


  5. Hello, I am desperately searching for a story from my childhood that I believe was written by Joan Aiken, about a magic paintbox given to a girl living in a caravan. Anything painted came to life, from what I remember! Is there anyone who can point me in the right direction? I would be most grateful.


  6. Hi Candy, I think the story you remember is The Cat Sat on The Mat from Joan’s book called A Necklace of Raindrops. The girl is given three dresses, and a kitten; when the kitten sits on the mat she makes him from the grey dress her wishes come true – one wish is for a box of paints, and she paints on the wall of the orchard where they live in an old bus…sounds like the one? You can find the book here! http://www.joanaiken.com/pages/picture_books_04.html


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