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 Dog, Celia 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.