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

12 June 2013

Onion Origins - AMcF

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

Impossible possibilities

I find it hard, almost impossible, to explain how I ended up in children’s books because no matter how I try to tell the story, the road from being a some-time childcare worker, a disenchanted actor and Dramatic Arts graduate living in Adelaide, to that of a publisher of children’s books living in Sydney is not linear. In fact, it seems kind of improbable when I look at it on paper, although the reality of my groaning book shelves, overflowing inbox and occasional parking tickets, reminds me that, yes, it is indeed true. That earnest and vocationally challenged person in Adelaide did indeed finally find her way into the job she wanted.

The first person to ever interview me for a publishing job was incredibly influential. I didn’t get the job, but my interviewer was kind and passionate about what she did, and it ignited a real passion in me to work in the industry.

The second job I applied for was at Allen & Unwin’s Melbourne office as an editorial assistant, assisting the non-fiction adult books publisher. I was keen for a job in children’s books, but any job in the industry would have made me happy. At the same time I applied for a position as a junior trainee assistant children’s book editor in Sydney. I felt the Sydney position was unlikely and I anticipated that I would be moving to Melbourne to be an editorial assistant.

But I did get the job as a trainee editor - my first job in publishing. And so, I thought it was goodbye to Allen & Unwin and off I set to make my home in Sydney and my career at HarperCollins Publishers.

I spent five interesting years at HarperCollins learning to be an editor and then ten exciting years at Pan Macmillan where I ended up as the publisher of children’s books. It seems ridiculous to summarise those years so swiftly here, because they were fantastic and hugely effecting, however, even though I loved my job, the Dramatic Arts graduate still lurked and when the opportunity to work for an independent film production company arose, I took the leap. I spent the next two years helping produce an animated short, as well as developing other projects, all of which was a great experience.

Me, producer Garth Nix & writer, director and animator Jonathan Nix
at the 2011 IF Award ceremony.
The Missing Key won Best Short Animation.

But as the film neared completion, my publishing instincts started twitching again. I was irresistibly drawn back to the world of books, but not sure where I should go or where I could work.

Then, in 2010, at a party during Adelaide Writer’s Week, I met A&U’s chairman Patrick Gallagher. Patrick and I discussed all matters of publishing and children’s books, though in my mind it was just an enjoyable conversation – the actual prospect of me joining Allen & Unwin didn’t seem possible.

A few weeks’ later, after more pleasant phone calls and lovely meetings with Robert Gorman and Liz Bray, the impossible was starting to feel perhaps possible. And I liked these people, this company – but would they want a children’s publisher in Sydney when the rest of the publishing and editorial children’s team was in Melbourne? And would they want me?

During yet another conversation, the possibility of working for Allen & Unwin finally felt real and I was assured that it definitely could work – there could be a publisher based in Sydney with regular meetings in Melbourne... And I was thinking, ‘Wow, this job sounds awesome, just what I’m looking for, with this great company, and terrific people, and that idea I have about a book, maybe I can look into it …’ And I was so busy thinking about all of this, I kind of missed the moment when I was actually asked if I was interested. Please don’t tell anyone that my pause on that day in April 2010 wasn’t strategic, I wasn’t playing hard to get. In fact, I was lucky the question was repeated and I was able to answer: ‘Yes.’

So after seventeen years, numerous publishing industry positions, two multi-national companies and a side-trip into independent film production, I finally work at Allen & Unwin. I count myself incredibly lucky to be working with such a wonderful team, which, by the way, includes the very first person ever to interview me.

- Anna McFarlane, Publisher

05 June 2013

Onion Origins - LW

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

A happy surprise

When I was at school I loved to read, liked writing and hated maths. At uni I did a Bachelor of Media in Writing, which luckily required no maths skills whatsoever. While I was studying I had the idea that I’d like to work as a journalist so I did some work experience at newspapers and magazines, but when I graduated there weren’t any full-time jobs in journalism so I accepted a job as a marketing and publicity co-ordinator with a local book distributor. I learnt a huge amount while I was there and discovered that the publicity side of working on the books was what I enjoyed most. My boss had previously worked at Allen & Unwin and after hearing her talk about A&U, I thought that might be somewhere I’d like to work one day.

After two years at the book distributor I decided I wanted a change, and I left for London with a working visa and not nearly enough warm clothes. When I arrived I was fortunate enough to be offered a job as a publicist for a small publisher based in London. Before I started with the publisher I went to the London Book Fair as a volunteer. I still remember how big it felt when I walked through the doors, and how insignificant I felt in comparison. I had a great time there and met some lovely people, the most lovely of all being Bridget Shine, the Director of the Independent Publisher’s Guild, who was endlessly patient and kind.

I lived in London for a year and then decided I missed the sun and blue sky too much to stay another year. So I travelled around Europe a little before I moved back to Sydney where I was offered a job as a publicist at HarperCollins on a twelve-month maternity-cover contract. As the year was coming to an end, I applied for a job as the Children’s and Young Adult Publicist at Allen & Unwin. I had always loved children’s books and had worked on some great children’s and YA titles while I was at HarperCollins. Lo and behold, a happy surprise: I got the job, and I was delighted.

I started at A&U the week of our annual sales conference and those first few days are still a blur, but after being here for just over a year now, I still feel as happy as I did that first week. Allen & Unwin is filled with kind, funny, generous and supportive people who all LOVE books. The children’s team are endlessly hard-working, kind, patient and best of all, fun! It’s been a fantastic twelve months and I’ve worked on some amazing books with some incredible authors – including the fabulous Libba Bray. Here we are at the recent Sydney Writer’s Festival.

I can’t wait to see what the next twelve months will hold!

- Lara Wallace, Publicist