The We Love YA launch week continues with Sarah Foster, publisher and managing director of Walker Books Australia. WBA is a subsidiary of the UK’s Walker Books and a sister company to Candlewick Press in the US. Sarah has been in publishing for 24 years and is passionate about protecting the local industry. Believe me, she works incredibly long hours, so we’re glad she could stop by and talk to us about the Australian/New Zealand market.
1. What kinds of stories are resonating with readers right now?
Vampires, vampires and yes more vampires!!! OUR MORTAL INSTRUMENTS trilogy by Cassandra Clare this week was the fastest-moving title to enter the Nielsen Book Scan lists and is number 6 and 8 in the NZ best sellers after TWILIGHT.
2. You’re not wrong! I was pushed out of the teen fiction section of Dymocks yesterday by a group of girls hungry for vamp stories. So, what would you call a tough sell in today’s market?
One-off fiction – whether it is teenage or junior – if it is stand-alone by a new author, it is tough. Also, there has been a huge switch off from good early childhood picture books. Very few people review them and when you have been selling and making quality picture books since the ’80s as I have, it is disheartening to see how they are undervalued and under recognised.
3. Talk us through your acquisitions process.
We technically don’t accept unsolicited manuscripts – we simply don’t have the time at present. Also, we are rare – many publishers leave the m/s assessment to their most junior person in the editorial department. We don’t. Books get passed round all the editors who meet and discuss the books. I am of the view that tastes differ and it is dangerous to leave a book to one person to decide upon. This does make us slower as of course it means that we all have more to read but it does mean we don’t miss anything. Of course, there are titles that are assessed very, very quickly as they are really not up to the grade. Once the editors have seen and discussed the books, any that have potential then get caught in the time freeze of my manuscript in-box which is next to my bed as I never have time to read at work… So we are very slow.
4. What are the top three things an author should do before submitting their work to an agent or editor?
Re-write, re-write and re-write. Seriously, it is astounding the number of writers who type in their last word and then wing a m/s off to a publisher. I have worked with two award-winning authors who have been published immediately to great acclaim off the slush pile. One, an English writer Lesley Howarth, had written 10 previous novels and trashed them before sending the 11th to us and our own Sandy Fussell had done almost the same. And you can see the difference. My advice to any aspiring writer is to put your story in a drawer for six months when you have finished it. Start something new. Come back to that original story six months or more later and take a long hard look at it and then start re-working it, or trash it.
5. Who are your bestselling Australian/New Zealand authors?
Bob Graham and Jeannie Baker have produced award-winning and very successful books for us over a period of about 20 or more years! More recently, Sandy Fussell’s Samurai Kids series is flying and her novel POLAR BOY has been shortlisted for the CBCA. Brian Falkner in NZ is flying off the shelves with his eco thriller for teenagers THE TOMORROW CODE. Brian has been shortlisted for the NZ Post Awards but has had considerable commercial success with this book. We have a fantastic range of new authors I am very excited about – fresh voices – Malcolm Walker, Mo Johnson, Dee White, Meg McKinlay.
6. What can an author do to help market their books?
The most practical advice I can give is to learn how to talk about your work to school kids. School visits are time-consuming but schools usually pay authors to come and work with the kids and they are the most valuable way to meet your audience. Children will let you know in no uncertain terms what they think of your work. They also really talk to each other about what they like reading. Networking with librarians is really valuable as they are the way most children will get introduced to your book.
Publicity is tricky. The most wonderful books won’t always get publicity beyond reviewing in all the children’s literature journals, the book trade mags etc. For a book to get general print media, it really needs to have a story to why or how the book came about. The book itself isn’t a story for the media.
Having a charming, attractive personality really helps, though. If you do marketing off your own back, let your publisher know – they could be supporting you.
7. Anecdotal evidence suggests consumers are more likely to buy books during an economic downturn. Is this accurate?
Children’s books – with the exception of the Harry Potters and Twilights of this world – tend not to have the same huge peaks or troughs in sales as adult books do. Children keep being born, parents spend on their children more than they would spend on themselves etc. However, it is interesting that I have observed that in the US – which tends to be a hardcover market – paperbacks are selling much better than hardbacks at present. Consumers are cost-sensitive. Sadly, I don’t think that people see the value in books sometimes.
8. The Australian Government released a proposal which modifies the restrictions on parallel importation of books. In a nutshell, what do the proposed changes mean for local authors and publishers?
This is a huge subject and in my view if the government does make the changes, books will not be cheaper. However, they will certainly be more limited in choice and our authors and illustrators will be the first to suffer in restricted local publishing opportunities. It is an atrocious view and very, very short term; ownership of content and protection of rights is everything in this new world of information technology. I am adding my submission to the Productivity Commission here as I spent ten whole days, part of my Christmas holidays and many long, long hours writing my submission. I feel very passionately about it.
9. How did you get into editing and what’s the most rewarding part of it?
I haven’t – you’ve been sold a pup! I am the Publisher and MD. I first worked for Walker Books as their export manager in the UK in the ’80s selling foreign language rights and export in to the Commonwealth markets plus Japan and sometimes the US. I emigrated to Australia to run Scholastic’s trade sales division in 1989 and then set up Walker here in 1993. So my background is in sales and marketing. I am passionate about children’s books and very strict about my staff reading the books they are selling and marketing, knowing the books, knowing the authors and illustrators. I have been the Publisher here since we set up our publishing division in late 2006.
The most rewarding part of my publishing role is seeing fantastic talent and watching it blossom when it responds to editorial or art direction. The moment a finished book gets put in my hands directly from the printer, the only comparison I can make is to when my babies were handed to me. I am very, very slow to chose an illustrator for a picture book text – it is like match-making. I have to know it is the absolutely right one; it is a very intuitive feeling but I do hours and hours and hours of research to find that right one.
10. Tell us about upcoming YA releases from Walker Books.
We have three fabulous first-time authors this year. Elsbeth Edgar has written THE VISCONTI HOUSE – told in effortless prose – the story of two teenagers who – as they discover the mystery and romance behind the house one of them lives in – also discover they have much in common and are not the outsiders they each thought they were. I have read this novel five times now and the appeal has not waned remotely – it is such lovely writing. Dee White has written LETTERS TO LEONARDO; a boy turns fifteen, gets a card from his supposedly dead mother and realises – with serious consequences – that life and the choices people make for love, art or their better judgement aren’t always clear cut. Gerry Bobsien’s SURFACHE lures and immerses the reader, as well as the protagonist away from her comfort zone of ballet, life in Melbourne and old friends, to the magic of a new school and new friends and new world of surfing in beachside Newcastle.
Sarah, thank you so much for joining us for our launch week. It’s so rare to get an insider’s view of the Australian/New Zealand market.
By the way, an interesting article popped up in the New York Times on how, in this economic climate, romance novels are outselling other genres.
We’re giving away a copy of Sandy Fussell’s POLAR BOY to a lucky blog visitor. To be in the draw, just tell us what’s teetering at the top of your reading pile. Easy, huh? I’ll announce the winner next Friday.
There’s still time to win a copy of Amanda’s ZOMBIE QUEEN OF NEWBURY HIGH. Check out her post here.