Posted by: Vanessa Barneveld | April 9, 2009

Good Friday with Walker Books Australia publisher Sarah Foster

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.

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Responses

  1. Open worldwide?

    If so, Dancer by Colum McCann, White Star by Elizabeth Vaughan and Mucho Caliente! by Francesca Prescott :D

  2. Vanessa, what a great interview! Sarah, thank you so much for your generosity in giving such frank and detailed answers. A lot of what you say applies for the adult market too – especially that bit about rewriting!

    At the top of my TBR pile is Paris, the Secret History by Andrew Hussey which sounds like it’s going to be a hoot.

  3. I have such a backlist to finish off, I’m still trying to read 13 Reasons Why by Jay Asher, but I have to be in the mood with no distractions to continue.
    Sarah thanks for coming by and sharing your time with us. I finished Cassandra Clare’s ‘City of Glass’ last week and loved it.

  4. Hi, Blodeuedd! We meet again. The contest is open to all, no matter where in the world you are. Mucho Caliente sounds like a lot of fun.

    Anna, couldn’t agree with you more on rewriting. It’s a lesson I learnt early on – the hard way!

    Natalie, I think Cassandra Clare is an author to watch out for. And don’t you love those amazing cover designs?

  5. Evermore by Alyson Noel – I wanna read it now but if I don’t start Brsingr I’ll never get it finished in time to take back to the library!!!

    Anyway, what a great interview, I really enjoyed it!!

  6. Sarah, thank you for the insight into the YA market Downunder. Vanessa, what a great interview!

    YA seems like such an interesting market. So fluid and edgy and with the crossover appeal to the adult market as well–all very exciting!

  7. Ooh, Amanda, Evermore’s on my pile too. Glad you liked the interview. I really appreciated Sarah’s honesty.

    Now, can someone please tell me how to pronounce ‘Brsingr’? Burrsingurr?

    Hi, Christine! You’re so right about the appeal of YA. I really feel you can tackle (almost) any subject – what make it so interesting AND challenging is viewing those subjects through teenage eyes.

  8. Great interview, Vanessa and many thanks to Sarah for her fab answers. We have MANY Walker books in our house, the keepers from when the kids were little like Bob Graham, the Bear series books. The boys are now 10 and 14 but we’re all suckers for a great picture book.

  9. Vanessa, I do love the way Cassandra Clare keeps you on edge. Much like Melissa Marr and her faerie series.
    Christine do you think we’ll see some YA regency stories from you? The Dangerous Duke’s Niece Goes to London?

  10. Thanks for stopping by, Fiona. Great to hear your boys have so many Walker keepers at home. I have a few too – Carolyn Mackler’s ‘Love and Other Four Letter Words’ among them. Giggles guaranteed.

  11. Sarah and Vanessa, thanks so much for this post. The opportunity to hear from an insider in the industry is great.

    Am smiling at your rewrite, rewrite, rewrite, Sarah. I was guilty of not heeding that early on and learned the hard way how important it is to hold of the ms, not for a week or so but much longer before submitting.

    I was saddened to hear about the children’s picture books not getting the recognition they deserve. As a way into literacy they absolutely can’t be undervalued.

    Thanks for sharing with us!

  12. Hi, Annie! Thanks for coming along for the launch week. Looks like we’ve both learned from submitting too early. I’ve actually grown to like rewriting…and rewriting…and rewriting.

  13. What a fabulous interview! It’s always great to hear from an insider point of view. Thank you Vanessa and Sarah.

    Top of my TBR pile (wish it was a pile, that would suggest some form of organisation) is Leftovers by Sara Weiss. I’ve read the first chapter. I’m on rations, I have to edit a chapter of my own before I can read another chapter.

  14. Sorry that was Laura Weiss (Leftovers). Brain not quite in gear yet.

  15. Hey Vanessa, wonderful interview – well done.

    And thank you to Sarah for sharing with us, especially your submission for the Productivity Commission and the dreadful proposed change for parallel importation.

    FYI: if you are in the Brisbane area Thursday 16th, authors are getting together outside Dymocks at 10am with placcards for a photo shoot and an article written by Rosemary Sorensen to appear in the paper. This is a peaceful get together.

    Bye 4 now
    Tina

  16. Love hearing about these books to add to my own disorganised pile, Diane. Actually, make that plural – piles.

    Tina, thanks so much for stopping by and for telling us about the parallel imports demonstration. I wish I could get home to Brissy for that. Wave those placards high for me!

  17. Thanks so much Vanessa and Sarah for the great interview.

    And the tips for submitting work and marketing your book were so useful and relevant for me; particularly with my first YA book, Letters to Leonardo coming out with Walker on 1st July.

    I also think the government’s proposal to change the laws on PIRs is going to be really bad for our industry if it gets through. At the roundtable discussion I attended in Melbourne last Tuesday, everyone seemed unanimous in their belief that it will not only decimate the publishing industry but could in fact lead to more expensive books.

    Thanks again for your great articles. Love your blog:)

  18. Hey Vanessa! Waving madly! Really great interview. Clever, insightful questions answered brilliantly by Sarah. Thank you.

    And Sarah? Thank you for your time and for your frank answers. My husband sells books and Walker books are always superb quality – we love them and have heaps for ourselves. And now I can see ‘why’ they’re so good, you really take the time to get it right. Congratulations!

    So glad Annie shepherded me over here! Happy Easter all,
    Kaz Delaney

  19. Great interview – I love Walker Books – they’ve published the Mortal Instruments series, everything Carolyn Mackler, Mo Johnson’s Boofheads, Sandy Fussell’s Samurai Kids and much more.

    Great interview, nice to hear from the publisher’s perspective!

  20. Oops – meant to add some of the titles from my own tottering TBR pile. Okay – just from my YA pile:

    Twilight – yes I must be the only left in the world who hasn’t read it…

    Perfect Chemistry – Simone Elkeles

    Nailed – Jennifer Laurens

    Falling for Romeo – coincidentally also by Jennifer Laurens

    Kaz xx

  21. Hi, Dee! Thanks for dropping by. Congratulations on the upcoming release of Letters to Leonardo. Sarah’s description of it instantly hooked me – I’m looking forward to reading it.

    I do hope the government takes heed of our protests against parallel importation. I think it’s going to have a dire effect on our wonderful independent booksellers. And as Sarah states in her submission to the commission, PI in New Zealand has resulted in higher book prices, not lower as some supporters of the proposed changes claim.

    Happy Easter, Kaz!!!! (Waving back madly and jumping up and down). I’m so happy to see you here. You’ve been one of my greatest writing influences. How nice of that lovely Annie to lead you here. You must read Twilight to see what all the fuss is about. I read it while recovering from dental surgery and the story was so vivid for me!

    Hi there, Adele! Lovely to see another Walker Books fan here. They have a spectacular range of titles, and like Kaz says, quality stuff.

  22. Hi, this is for ‘Win A Copy of “POLAR BOY” comp, my current read is Shaolin Tiger by Sandy Fussell, followed by The Lampo Circus by Alexandra Adornetto for about the tenth time!
    From Brenton

    PS Great interview!!

  23. Hi, Brenton. Great to see you here. I’m loving all these titles. Sounds like I’ll have to add The Lampo Circus to my ever-growing pile. Ten reads – couldn’t ask for a better endorsement than that!

  24. Thanks Vanessa for your congrats on Leonardo. Like I said, I love your blog – am wondering if you’d mind if I linked it to my blogs:-)

  25. Dee, we would *love* a link on your blogs. Thank you! I’ve just added you to the We Love YA blogroll.

    ~ V

  26. Great interview Vanessa. Sarah’s take on what is selling was interesting. I always wonder why Australian publishers aren’t producing more paranormal.
    Best
    Cathleen Ross

  27. Imagine someone wanting to win a copy of my book! Thanks everyone. Great interview and great blog, Vanessa. My IT hat keeps slipping on as I admire the layout and design. I’m adding your site to my blog roll! :) Sandy

  28. Hi, Cathleen! So glad you made it here. I’d heard rumblings about demand for paranormals petering out from some quarters, but really, the girls hanging out at the bookstore yesterday were *very* enthusiastic about vamp stories.

    Sandy, it’s so cool to see you here! Congratulations on your CBCA nomination. I have my fingers crossed for you. I started reading Polar Boy in the bookstore and that’s when I got edged out of the aisle by the enthusiastic book lovers. Thank you for adding us to your blogroll. You’re now on ours!

  29. What a great site. Thank you very much. It’s always great to hear from industry insiders.

    Happy Easter Everyone.

  30. Happy Easter to you too, Ebony! We’re thrilled to see you here. Congratulations on your deal with Egmont!

  31. *blushes furiously*
    thanks Vanessa.

  32. Girls the more links we get the better it is. Feel free to link in. Ebony Congrats on the two book deal, ferrets… how cool is that? Although we won’t talk about the guy with the ferret down his trousers ever.
    Sandy I haven’t read your book as yet, but it’ll go on my TBR pile for sure. Oh and the Samurai series, now there’s something right up mine and Kiki’s alley.
    That’s what I love about blogging, you get so many great hints on new books out there.

  33. Thanks Vanessa, I have now linked you to my blogs.

    ‘Letters to Leonardo’ is going on a blog tour from late June to Mid July. If you’re interested in being involved, please feel free to email me, and I can give you more details. I am also happy to host your writers on my blogs. I belong to a group called aussie blog tours

    Cheers

    Dee:-)

  34. Oh, I like the sound of that. We’d love to celebrate ‘Leonardo’s release with you. Virtual blog tours are so economical, aren’t they? ;) Thank you, Dee! I’ll be in touch.

  35. Thanks Vanessa. I’ve had some really interesting cybertourists at my blogs. Blog tours are economical and fun – great to learn about other authors and what the are up to, and find out about their great new books:-)

  36. I have a copy of Airframe by Michael Crichton that I need to get to soon …

    Lesley

  37. Good interview.This is my first time to this blog. Will be back again.
    What I’ve got waiting to read is Pearl verses the world by Sally Murphy, The Significance of Swans ( which is poetry) by Sorina Higgins and Auslander by Paul Dowswell- that’s for starters.

  38. Hi, Lesley. I inherited a bunch of Michael Crichtons from our house’s the previous owner. Thanks for coming round to the blog!

    Great to see you here, Dale. Looks like you’ve got some great reading ahead of you!

  39. I enjoyed reading the interview with Sarah. Thanks for asking just the sort of questions I would have.

    Thanks also to Dee for introducing me to your blog.

    Alas, my tbr pile has no top and I will never ever get to the end of it!

  40. Hi, Book Chook! Very nice of Dee to lead you to our blog.

    I’m glad you enjoyed the interview. I hear you on the never-ending tbr pile. It’s actually quite a nice problem to have, don’t you think? ;)

  41. Thank you! A most enlightening post. I am disappointed at the slow pick up of new writers of children’s picture books but agree there’s some wonderful YA material coming on stream. One I read recently is ‘Double Crossing’ by Eva Tal.
    Sandgroper (aka Mabel Kaplan – http://belka37.blogspot.com

  42. Hi, Mabel/Sandgroper! We’re spoilt for choice in YA fiction these days. ‘Double Crossing’ looks fascinating!

  43. Hi Vanessa
    Just read Sarah’s interview and thought your readers might like to know that as a Walker Books author, they are great people to work with. They published my first book, Boofheads last September. It was a CBCA Notable for Older Readers 2009. I worked with editor and fellow writer Sue Whiting on that and it was a brilliant learning experience.
    I also have a picture book called Noah’s Garden coming out with them next year. I can vouch for the care they take to get things right. NG was contracted three years ago. It will be gorgeous when it arrives thanks to the illustrator, Annabelle Josse (annabellejosse.com) and Sarah and her team.
    Great to read Sarah’s interview.

    Regards

    Mo Johnson

  44. Hi, Mo. It’s fantastic to see you here. Sounds like you’re well looked after by Walker Books. All the best with Noah’s Garden. I think it’ll be worth the wait!

  45. Hi Guys. Google Alerts sent my narcissistic self here (thanks for the mention, Sarah!). I wanted to add my (apparently fresh!) voice to the accolades for Walker. They are a dream to work with and really look after their authors. Congrats on your books, Mo – Noah’s Garden sounds gorgeous (coincidentally, I have a Noah in a book coming out next year, too).

    Dale, Sally gave me a sneak peak of Pearl Verses the World a few weeks back. It is such a beautiful book; I would move it to the top of your pile post haste!

    Great blog, guys. I will add you to my list of haunts.

  46. Hi, Meg! Thanks for coming over. I’ll look out for your work.

    ~ Vanessa

  47. You missed pointing out that Sarah Foster is a reverse sexist nazi & an evil c**t.

  48. Sorry. That was uncalled for a unsubstantiated. Just based on rumours from ex-employees. I don’t know Ms Foster & I apologize.


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