From working with JK Rowling to book signings with David Beckham, Debbie Williams is now imparting her publishing wisdom to students.
Video made by UCLan - about the Letters to Africa book project
How does a woman who confesses she didn’t read young fiction growing up, end up being responsible for marketing one of the country’s biggest selling series of children’s books - Harry Potter?
Debbie Williams has always been into reading and she pinches herself when she looks over her early career as a book seller at Waterstones.
The 45-year-old admits she was apprehensive when she was given a job in the children’s section, as growing up, she more interested in delving into the adult literary world that reading young fiction.
But it soon opened up a whole new world for her.
Debbie, who grew up in Bamber Bridge, explains: “I used to go to Waterstones in Preston and Lancaster a lot and whenever I was there, people thought I worked there and they asked me for recommendations.
“So I walked into the Lancaster store and asked if they had any jobs. I was asked which section I wanted to do and which section I didn’t want.
“I said I didn’t want to be in the children’s section, as I didn’t have much knowledge of that genre. I didn’t even read children’s books growing up, as I would read adults books.
“I ended up in the children’s section and I was hooked.
“I soon moved up in the ranks and moved to the Manchester Deansgate branch, where I was named Bookseller of the Year. I got a job at the Picadilly store and designed the children’s section on the second floor.
“I then moved on to head office as a children’s book buyer.”
Debbie admits initially the children’s section was not that popular, but there was a book that changed everything for the young fiction market. And Debbie was the one to bring it to the attention of children - and adults.
She adds: “The first Harry Potter book was amazing. JK Rowling is very clever. She has read so many children’s books, which comes out on her work. Harry Potter was an amalgamation of other characters in other books but presented in the best way.
“She made very compelling characters and that was why the books are so popular.
“But it didn’t take off immediately, although everyone assumes it did.
“I remember doing an event with JK Rowling and nobody turned up.
“Then it seemed to take off. People were talking about it and Bloomsbury began to invest in the marketing.
“By the third book we realised it was not like anything else and with the fourth book we knew we needed to go all out on it, so we started the midnight openings.
“There was a stipulation that no-one could open the crate of books until midnight, so we made it into a big reveal with a countdown.”
But Debbie, who now lives in Lancaster, admits the first midnight opening was not as successful as she hoped.
She says: “We probably called it wrong for the first event.
“We built a Hogwarts and Diagon Alley inside the Waterstones branch in Picadilly, London, and invited celebrities and their children. “It was not open to the public and was select media. But we got no coverage. Instead, a rival book shop got the headlines, with the story about the queue outside.
“For the fifth book, we did it differently and made it about the queue. We had entertainment, fire eaters and glow in the dark T-shirts.
“We also held a competition - the Wow Factor - in partnership with This Morning and Faber and Faber, for people to write the first three chapters of a children’s book. We got thousands of entries.”
Debbie admits she has a strong bond with JK Rowling, as they have worked on many events together.
“JK Rowling is so lovely. She hates the fact she is famous - fame is not something that goes along with children’s authors.
“She just wanted to publish a book and then make a living out of it. She writes books because she is so passionate and enjoys it. She is so absorbed in the worlds and characters she creates.”
Debbie has also worked with Barry Cunningham, who edited the first four books.
She adds: “We met at an event and got talking. He worked very closely with JK Rowling and later set up Chicken House Publishing Company.”
JK Rowling is not the only author Debbie has worked with. She has co-ordinated many book signings and can add Terry Pratchett, David Attenborough, Joan Collins and even David Beckham to her list of writers.
Debbie adds: “I have met so many celebrities through book events.
“Joan Collins was a diva as you can expect. She was good fun.
“David Beckham was amazing - he loves children’s books. He was so lovely and amenable.”
After the hiatus of Harry Potter, Debbie opted for a change in direction as she left Waterstones.
She began offering digital training to journalists at Johnston Press and Trinity Mirror at University of Central Lancashire and took on a part time job at an animal park near Barrow.
She adds: “I always said I would see Harry Potter to the end and then do something else. I wanted to move back up north but didn’t know what to do, so I thought I would go back to what I did before Waterstones.
“When I was 14, I did work experience at Lancashire Post, Garstang Courier and Wigan Post. After completing a degree in American history at York University and a business degree in Manchester, I became a veterinary nurse, as I love animals. So I went back to those two fields.”
Debbie’s passion for books led her to creating a ground breaking publishing unit at UCLan and taking on the new role of associate professor of publishing and head of the publishing house.
“In the end I needed to choose one career path and UCLan won.
“With my interest in books and publishing, I questioned why UCLan didn’t have a publishing course and unit.
“There is nothing in the north, other than Scotland. They are all based in London.
“It took a while to set it up and a year to validate but the publishing course got off the ground.
“I was able to use my previous contacts in the industry to get speakers in.
“I wanted to make this course different to others. I wanted it to be entirely practical and I got a panel of very high level publishers to assist in setting up the course. I asked them what they would want from a publishing graduate and they said experience. So I decided to set up a publishing unit, which is run by the students. As soon as they join the course, they are employed by UCLan and they decide what they are going to publish for that year.”
Debbie is keen for students to gain as much experience as possible and has organised trips abroad to gather content and imagery for the books.
She adds: “We have gone to some exotic places to research and produce our books.
“The students flew to the Arctic to make a book about the Northern Lights. The students learnt the art of dog sledding and they were one of the first to fly through the Northern Lights.
“They also travelled to Kenya for our Letters to Africa book, delivering letters from children over here and getting the African children to respond, which we printed in a book. We put in lots of photos and facts and it made a great read. It is a great course and I really enjoy my job here.”