27 February 2014

And so it goes...

There's a sad sort of clanging
From the clock in the hall
And the bells in the steeple, too
And up in the nursery
An absurd little bird
Is popping out to say coo-coo
(Coo-coo, coo-coo)

So here we are, not blogging. Please forgive us.

We have enjoyed your company. You have been truly excellent readers. And we thank you.

We may blog again. We may not.

In the meantime please slip on over to Things Made From Letters, who are our people and have many items of interest.

Or, if your particular fancy is all things Young Adult, may we recommend Susannah & Beatrice, the blog of our Onion in New York on the Beatrice Davis Fellowship. She is funny and wise and she is having adventures – we are much enamoured of her findings so far, and we think you will be too. Go forth.

Herewith a final: ‘Things Overheard in the House of Onion’. Enjoy.

'Fine, I won't give you any more work. That would suit me down to the ground.' 
'I can't remember how to spell "school", but I think that's correct.' 
'Please don't suffer.' 
'I think the mum should be killed outright, and the dad go into a coma for months.' 
'Sorry if I sound slightly maniacal, I don't always sound like this.' 
'That's really bad. That's worse than me putting the whole watermelon in the Bokashi bucket.' 
'It's okay you making those long phone conversations, it's just white noise to me.' 
'You can be kind, and supportive, and all those nice things. But not right this minute.' 
'Are you going to show me something that I don't care about?' 
'But why couldn't she make an enormous chicken?'  
'I did a terrible thing! You know how I'm a bit...you know. Well, anyway...' 
'We can just drink it, it's still alcohol.' 
'I have moments of bravado and moments of fear. That was my bravado speaking.' 
'Being impaled and splattered are not good.'
'Don't look a gift "I'll do it" in the mouth.' 
'Is there such a thing as a chocolate charity box with good Belgian chocolate?' 
'We just have to laugh, don't we?' *laughs hysterically* 
'And there was this old man in a hat who turned out to be incredibly famous.'

So long, farewell*
Auf Weidersehen, goodbye
(Coo-coo, coo-coo)

* One might expect that there would be cake to console us. Alas. There is not.

23 October 2013


So it seems we are not the only workplace at which colleagues adopt similar sartorial sensibilities.

The good folk at I Like Looking Like Other People - who are in the business of celebrating that awkward moment at work when you realise you're wearing pretty much the same thing as someone else - reveal we are not alone. We give a great big two thumbs up to your excellent tumblr.*

* For a while we were curious about why Ffion and Terry are holding a pumpkin - then we remembered... (Beware: swears.)

18 October 2013

Friday Stuff and items

1) Remember how this happened?

And then this happened?

Well, now this has happened ...

We should just institute a uniform and be done with it. Now... I wonder what that should look like...?

2) Neil Gaiman says fiction is a gateway drug. We reckon if you mainline Neil Gaiman, you'll be on the way to a full-blown fiction addiction. Eeeexcellent.

3) You know we love Our Colleague Jarvis Cocker. Well here he is reading Seamus Heaney's poem 'Digging'. This Onion spent most of Year Twelve studying Seamus Heaney, and studying Jarvis Cocker - so this is something of a ... moment.

08 October 2013

How the Guinea Pigs got their Mystery

This, O my Best Beloved, is a story - a new and a wonderful story - a story quite different from the other stories - a story of co-operation.

We tend to think of book-writing as a solo occupation. One writer, head exploding with ideas. One writer, alone with a blank page. One writer, huddled over their typewriter [Macbook Air], in a drafty garret [comfortable study], looking out over Paris [Preston], their housekeeper [husband] putting plates of cheese sandwiches [cheese sandwiches] through the door in a desperate attempt to sustain the lonely genius.

Well, sometimes that's true (especially the Paris bit), but sometimes books are a much more collaborative effort. Sometimes it takes brains sparking off each other to create the magic.

Sometime-solo-genius Ursula Dubosarsky talks about what it was like to be part of the brain stew that created The Cryptic Casebooks of Coco Carlomagno (and Alberta) :


They often tell you in writing classes - write about something you love. Well, three things I love are:
guinea pigs,
detective stories,
and the city of Buenos Aires, Argentina.

I have always loved guinea pigs. The first book I published for children was about a guinea pig, and they have scampered into several of my other books since. My love of detective stories also began in childhood, and it's been a long-term ambition to write one myself.  Buenos Aires, admittedly, is a love that appeared later in life. My husband grew up there, so we have returned to visit several times over the years, and what a grand, intense and beautiful city it is. And of course, guinea pigs do come from South America...

But how did these three loves find each other? 

Usually I sit quietly at home thinking of things to write, but in this case, publisher Anna MacFarlane suggested that she, I and illustrator Terry Denton get together one day and see if we might come up with an idea for a series of books that combined puzzles and problem-solving with the pleasures of character and narrative.

We sat and ate and drank and chatted and wondered and thought aloud, and Terry drew and doodled, and made us laugh (of course). And eventually, in one of those mysteries of creation, by the end of the day there was Coco, head poised, looking nervously about the room for possible clues for the most improbable of crimes...

Three books later, Coco and Alberta, Ursula, Terry and Anna have proved themselves a cracking good team.

17 September 2013

How the Whirlpool Got Its Spin

In the High and Far-Off Times, O Best Beloved, the Publisher had no stories. But she had a friend, a Literary Agent. And so that was all right, Best Beloved. Do you see?

Sometimes, publishing is like trying to find your true love at a bar in the CBD on a Friday night. There are a lot of fish in the sea, and not all of them are going to *ahem* meet your exacting criteria. So, to narrow the field and increase their chances of finding their one true love/the perfect book, publishers often look to a matchmaker - otherwise known as a literary agent.

Agents know their clients' work, obviously, but one of their other great skills is building deep and lasting relationships with publishers and editors, and knowing exactly which book and author might suit which publisher. If a literary agent you trust sets you up, chances are you'll be going home together.*
Publisher Anna McFarlane remembers one such match-made-in-heaven:

My first day at Allen & Unwin was 20 July 2010. And while I was excited, I was also discombobulated. I had a desk, a print-out of procedures, a phone, a wall of bookshelves without any books in it, and an email address (although only one email -- the subject being 'Testing your email'). I was a blank slate and even though I was happy, Bad Thoughts were starting to pop into my head. Was this the right thing to be doing? Could I still publish books? Would I ever fall in love with a manuscript again? It was all rather nerve-wracking.

But at 1:40pm on that very first day, I received my (second ever) email, subject: 'New Book'.

Hello Anna
Welcome to your new home!! I know that today is your first day and you probably haven't even found the mail room yet (first door on the left) but wanted this to be the first thing I send you.


It was from Curtis Brown agent and MD Fiona Inglis and the 'this' was a new novel by the award-winning writer Andrew McGahan. Rather surprisingly to all involved (even him), Andrew had written a young-adult novel set on the high seas in a strange-but-familiar world. Luckily, I was able to read it straight away (empty inbox, after all) and very quickly I was captivated by the Great Ocean and the splendor of those tall ships, and longed to read more about Dow's journey from timber cutter to great mariner.

Reading the manuscript was a beautiful experience, not just because I was being transported by the story to a world of wild storms, terrible beauty and that dangerous and mysterious ocean, but also because those Bad Thoughts had disappeared.

It was day one and I had fallen in love with a manuscript. I desperately wanted to publish it. And (ironically if you know the story, which questions the very concept of destiny, and challenges the idea of portents and superstitions) it was also a sign that this was indeed the right thing to be doing.

And there you have it. True love fostered, fears allayed and zeal renewed, all without Anna needing to leave her shiny** new desk.

Thank you, Fiona - and thank you to all the other agents who help us to find stories we love and authors we adore.

* Metaphorically. METAPHORICALLY.
** Metaphorically. This is publishing, after all.

10 September 2013

How the Tashi Got His Tale

 Before the Chapter Books and the Bind Ups and the Box Sets, O my Best Beloved, came the Time of the Very Beginnings.

When an author brings a work to us they often imagine it in a particular shape or form. But part of the publisher's job is to know the market, to understand the material, and to see possibilities that the author or illustrator never even considered. Often, the author's initial vision is very close to the final product. But sometimes, with time and discussion and consultation it grows (or metamorphoses) into something else entirely. 

You might think of the editorial process as a bit like helping the sculptor to find David in the block of marble. 'Chip that nose a bit. A bit more. A bit more. Perfect!' And mostly, that's true.

But it can also be about thinking differently about what's already there: 'You've been going for David, but actually we think you've made a very handsome Daniel.'*

Other times it's about plucking up your courage and saying, 'Look, Michaelangelo, I don't think marble is your medium; have you considered watercolours?'

In the case of Tashi - Anna and Barbara Fienberg's much-loved hero - it was perhaps a bit like encouraging a minnow, to grow to a school of fish, to become a blue whale - while still being Tashi all the time.

Anna Fienberg conceived the original Tashi story as a picture-book text. It had so many appealing qualities: a rich friendship between boy and friend (or alter ego); a teasing relationship between boy and father; a fresh take on the 'tall tale'; a fearless blend of European and Asian folk story traditions; larger-than-life villains; an irrepressible hero living by his wits (brain not brawn always triumphs); action aplenty; exotic landscapes; and scope for cinematic pictures…

And Kim Gamble was the perfect illustrator, given his previous collaborations with Anna, his talent for characterisation and his lovingly intricate scenery.

But the manuscript was too long for a standard picture book, and the writing too good to cut.

Rosalind Price, head of children's publishing at Allen & Unwin at the time, knew there was a need for short, engaging 'chapter books' for young readers and nearly-readers. So instead of chopping back the text, she said 'write another story!' We chose a slim, economical paperback novel format, with two stories and lots of black-and-white illustrations. It was hard to forego Kim's delicious watercolours, but his detailed pencil drawings have their own intimate appeal, and leave room for the reader to imagine the world of the stories. And suddenly there was scope for all the further adventures that Anna wanted to explore!

That first little Tashi book led to 18 years (so far) of publishing Tashi. There have been sixteen chapter books, an activity books, a few bind-ups, and a couple of box sets.

In 2004, Tashi finally appeared in the form that Anna had originally envisioned - in the beautiful full-colour picture book There Once Was a Boy Called Tashi.  This November, Tashi goes picture book again in Once Tashi Met a Dragon, which features a beautiful - but very hard to photograph - sparkly dragon on the cover.

So in some ways, Tashi has come full circle. But he's also branching out into brave new worlds. Next year, Flying Bark Productions and ABC TV will let loose Tashi and Jack and Lotus Blossum in animated form!

But whatever the format, with or without the sparkles and glitter, no matter how fat or how skinny the book, at the core of Tashi are the rich, warm, imaginative characters and stories that Anna and Barbara Fienberg and Kim Gamble created. 

Our original marketing copy included the line 'Tashi tells the best stories …', and 18 years later that line still appears on almost all of the book jackets, and in much of our marketing material. Because he does; Tashi tells the best stories.

* 'And there's a gap in the market for a good Daniel.'

09 September 2013

Just So Stories

For our 25th anniversary we've been sharing the Origin stories of the Onions. We walked a lot of different paths to the House of Onion, some smooth, some thorny and some with a higher-than-expected number of door-to-door encyclopedia sales.*

But what of the books themselves? How do we find our authors and our books - or how do they find us?

Pure and simple: how do the books become?

Well, we must begin with the confession that, as Algernon Moncrieff so tartly put it, 'the truth is rarely pure and never simple. Modern life would be very tedious if it were either, and modern literature a complete impossibility!'

Sometimes they come to us.

Sometimes we go to them.

Sometimes they arrive fully formed.

Sometimes the gestation is long, and the incarnations are many.

Sometimes, we feel like Kipling's whale, opening its throat and swallowing all the stories in the world.**

Sometimes we feel like Taffy, creating the alphabet from scratch

Often, we feel like Pooh and Piglet - keeping company with authors and stories, lending a paw, navigating heffalump traps and having a little smackerel of something at eleven.  

So hear and attend and listen; for this befell and behappened and became and was.

Tomorrow: How the Tashi Got His Tale

The first two illustrations are Rudyard Kipling's own woodcuts from Just So Stories, the third, of course, is the wonderful EH Shephard.

*For a brilliant short story about door-to-door salesmen, we highly recommend 'The Devil and the Corner Grocer' in the collection The Chewing Gum Rescue and other stories by Margaret Mahy.

** Until a Mariner of infinite-resource-and-sagacity used a lifeboat and suspenders to create a grating to stem the flow. We call this grating The Friday Pitch, but more of that in due course.

06 August 2013

A Cake for All Seasons

On Sunday at the Little Bookroom in Carlton, Ann James launched Kirsty Murray's enchanting time-slip novel The Four Seasons of Lucy McKenzie out into the world. It was a lovely celebration; there was laughter, and champagne and there was a book cake. The best of all cakes...

And to make up for the fact that public holidays are thin on the ground about now, several Onions had the consideration to be born at this time of year, to give us something to celebrate.

We've had the ethereal, beautiful, delicious dacquoise for SB,

the wallowingly indulgent Chocolate Peanut Butter cheesecake for ALG,

and, because not everyone has a sweet tooth, party pies and tomato sauce for EJ.

Sadly the pies were eaten too fast to capture on film.*

Happy birthday to the birthday ladies!

Thank you, bakers!

And congratulations, Kirsty!

* Well, there's an obsolete expression. 

25 July 2013

It's not all sunshine and roses over here

To be sung, mournfully, to the tune of Red River Valley...

From this office they say you are going.
We will miss your dry wit and great style.
For from us you are taking the sunshine,
that has brightened our workday a while.

Come and eat gluten-free cupcakes, if you love us.
Do not hasten to bid us adieu.
But remember this old terrace building,
and the Onions who love you so true.

Tracy O'Shaughnessy - publisher extraordinaire - is leaving us.

Even though she publishes books for grown-up people, Tracy is a kindred sprit, and we will miss her very much - especially her warmth and humour ... and her willingness to go on the coffee run, even in the vilest weather.

Tracy is moving on to exciting new things at RMIT, and we wish her the very very best, but we're just going to sing a few more cowboy dirges and stuff our face with cupcakes while we get used to the idea.


23 July 2013

Breaking news!

We don't have a town cryer, or a gilt easel, but we have news. 
Hear ye.... Hear ye...

Not the royal one. Well, she's Fitzroyalty*, but not the other, more British, more expensive, more interesting to the newspapers kind.

HR** and her delicious new daughter celebrated five years (for mum) and almost-a-month (for daughter) of being an Onion and an Onion Sprout, respectively. Very good work, on all your productions, HR.

JW has clearly reached the straight mile of her long and winding road, because she's been an Onion for ten years! Amazing. AMAZING. We're so pleased your perambulations brought you this way, JW.

Our Lovely Leader LB, has been keeping A&U on the cutting edge***  of marketing for 15 years! Congratulations and thank you, LB - for everything, but especially for telling our story so well.

So how to celebrate...? How to properly mark such an occasion...? Oh, who are we kidding. You know full well...

with three cakes of course.

And also with brownies.

You probably think you know brownies too - well, think again. These brownies had Caramello Koalas in them. 


They came express from the kitchen of Amie Kaufman, and brought with them love from Meagan Spooner.  Amie and Meagan are the co-authors of These Broken Stars, which we are super super excited to be publishing in December this year, partly because we can use three of our favourite words to describe it: Thriller, Romance and Science-fiction.****

We've decided we are keeping them. Meagan and Amie, that is. The brownies are alllll gone.

Caramello koalas.

Inside the brownies.

All in all, it's been a very good day.

* Sorry everyone outside Melbourne, this is an inner-city elite gag.
** No, this is not short for Her Royal.
*** We know about the cutting edge because LB showed us the colour-photocopied, hand-cut, hand-assembled, recycled paper envelopes she made for booksellers circa 1999. CUTTING EDGE! (And very pretty.)
**** Okay - maybe we wouldn't normally hyphenate science fiction unless it was being an adjective, but then it would have been four words and that didn't scan so well. Editor's prerogative.

26 June 2013

Onion Origins - LB

In celebration of our 25th anniversary of children's publishing we are delighted to present the twelfth edition of Onion Origins - our Fearless Leader in the Mothership.

An 8-month maternity-leave position... (15 years later)

After managing a bookshop for four years I concluded that retail wasn't for me and that I wanted to try publishing. I decided the places to start were Allen & Unwin or Random House - purely based on the books they published and the fact they were in Sydney. As good a logic as any!

Allen & Unwin were then the distributors of Dava Sobel and Annie Proulx - authors I loved reading and recommending - and had published some of the Australian history and sociology titles I'd been inspired by at uni. And they had two jobs available - one in the Sales Department and one in Marketing/Product Management.

My first interview was with Robert Gorman* and he asked if I wanted to be an editor (I didn't). I'd read somewhere that being positive about where a company was located was a good thing in an interview so I was possibly too effusive about the lovely trees on Atchison Street and the proximity to cafes and a bookshop. I didn't get that job - Caitlin Withey did, and she, like me, is still at A&U today.

Liane Poulton was the A&U sales rep who called on the bookshop where I worked. She was wonderful and eccentric and a wildlife warrior. And also famously prone to injury. She was very funny, passionate about books and the book business, and bought me coffees and talked inappropriately loudly in the local cafe until I wasn't sure whether to laugh or cringe. She got my vote for Sydney Rep of the Year every year.

And I suspect she had a role in the outcome of my next - successful - interview at A&U, which was with Paul Donovan. I knew from experience that Liane had that skill of talking at you till you gave in, and I found out several years after the fact that she had cornered Paul in his office and talked at him about giving me a job. So I'm still not sure to what degree my employment was due to my own talents and to what degree it was about Paul buying himself a quiet life. But regardless, I'm grateful to both Liane and Paul.**

I started on an 8-month maternity-leave position; 15 years later I'm still here.

The original role was an odd combination of jobs: managing A&U's relationship with ABC Books & Audio (which we distributed at the time), as well as ABC Retail. Coordinating Special Sales. And Children's Marketing. I landed in the Children's Department a little by accident because it happened to be the job that was going - and I had enjoyed reading and recommending children's books as part of my bookselling role. I'd learned 'how to do it' by talking to kids who came into the store, reading the books, remembering what I had liked as a kid and why, listening to more experienced booksellers and soaking up any information I could get from my sales reps.

That first year the A&U local children's list was about 28 books compared to the 85 or so we do each year now, and marketing was almost entirely to bookshops with a little bit of school liaison. One of my first tasks was to make a poster for the Minton books by Anna Fienberg and Kim Gamble which we originally published in 1999 and then repackaged in a brand new format in 2008 . There was a launch event at a school near the bookshop I'd worked in, with a Minton cake, and the Year 6 girls made up a 'Go, Minton, Go' cheer performed with pompoms.

As well as working on our own list, I spent hours talking to David Francis, then Children's Publisher at ABC Books, often quite late into the evening, phone glued to my left ear, legs kicking out under my big old brown veneer desk. It was answering questions from David and his colleagues and solving their issues that forced me to develop my understanding of the market. And it was through the ABC that I learned how you can find a different market for a book by changing its format, and how to market both author-led titles, and those that weren't - Bananas in Pyjamas, The Play School Useful Book.

I also worked on the Bloomsbury children's list, at first under the guidance of Miranda Van Asch and increasingly on my own. Bloomsbury were kicking up a gear at the time, and publishing wonderful fiction including Sharon Creech's Love That DogCelia Rees's Witch Child and the extraordinary, and still best-selling, Holes by Louis Sachar. I learned the value of passion and word-of-mouth and how to start a chain of enthusiasm from inside the company.

From the beginning, A&U, and Paul in particular, put a huge amount of trust in me, allowing me to take on more responsibilities and run with new ideas. My role changed, our list and the Bloomsbury list grew, marketing strategies developed over time - and soon I had to shed some responsibilities in favour of others.

I'd started at A&U in 1998 around the time of the release of the second Harry Potter book, and during the 2000s, as that series became a phenomenon, large chunks of my days, evenings, weekends - life - were consumed by working on it while the rest of my job somehow went on. My work during 'The Harry Years' could be a blog post or three of its own, but suffice to say it was a unique project and an incredible opportunity, and not a week goes by that I don't use something I learned at that time in my current role.

And nine years later, when the final Harry Potter book was published, my role at A&U was focused entirely on children's books.

And now I oversee all our Children's publishing, marketing and distribution activities. Most of the time I work a suburb away from the trees of Atchison St in A&U's 'new' offices, with regular trips to Melbourne where more than half the team are based. My desk is modern grey rather than brown veneer; there are more contracts on it than design briefs for posters, and I'm more likely to create a spreadsheet than a promotional flyer. But I still have the plant that I inherited from my predecessor in that triple ABC/special sales/children's role all those years ago.

And it's still all about the books we publish, and making sure they reach and resonate with readers of all ages.
- Liz Bray, Children's Books Director

* RG was then A&U's Sales Manager. These days after moving to and returning from HarperCollins, he's our CEO.
** Very sadly, Liane died a few years later.

19 June 2013

Onion Origins - SB

In celebration of our 25th anniversary of children's publishing we are delighted to present the eleventh edition of Onion Origins.

Offering a bribe...

In December 1994 - so long ago! - I went to a Little Ark Christmas party where the publisher, Rosalind Price, casually mentioned that she was on the lookout for an editor. Little Ark was the children's books imprint Rosalind had established at Allen & Unwin. She said, 'Whoever it is, they've got to have the right sensibility. After all, I'll be spending more time with this person each day than I do with my husband!'

I'd been freelancing and mothering for fifteen years and longed for something different; moreover, I had been acquainted with Rosalind since the 1970s and knew her quality.

The interview was friendly, but not an unmitigated success and, after a week of silence, I feared the worst. I phoned Rosalind and rashly said, 'I know we could work together, I just know it!' and offered to bribe her with pictures - by sending her my favourite postcards as a starting point for a second interview. She laughed, and said would I at least like to work with her on a three-month trial, to keep things moving while she went to the Bologna Children's Book Fair. I said yes.

Among the books being published at the time were Margo Lanagan's The Best Thing, which I had done a reader's report on months earlier and found extraordinary; various non-fiction titles in the True Stories series; John Nicholson's The First Fleet; Natalie Jane Prior's detective story The Paw in Brazil, illustrated by Terry Denton. I revelled in the variety, the creative collaboration with Rosalind, and the chance to engage with authors (a rarity out there in freelance world). 

Then Sue Flockhart came in for an interview. Rosalind told me that whatever decision she made about Sue would not affect any decision she made about me, but I didn't believe her, and assumed that at the end of my three-month trial, I'd be out. 

At about this time I was offered an editorial job at Penguin. At the second interview with one of the senior people it was suggested I could soon be hobnobbing with famous authors from the adult book world and surfing the net (then a novelty) in a world-class multinational company; why would I even think of working in the narrow world of books for children?

During these negotiations Rosalind announced that she'd loved working with me and would like to offer me a permanent job at Little Ark. I explained about Penguin, and went away to agonise. The nimble, creative small outfit in the inner city appealed more - as did the chance to work with Rosalind - but would a period in the Penguin empire be wiser in the long run? Would I paint myself into a corner if I specialised in children's books?

That was eighteen years ago, and I am still here, and since then I have often had cause to bless the day I tried to bribe Rosalind Price.

Sarah wearing a possum-skin cloak (used by John Danalis in talks at schools) 
at the launch of Riding the Black Cockatoo.

- Sarah Brenan, Commissioning Editor