Thursday, November 07, 2013

Mirrors and Windows by Erica Wagner

Anniversaries of any sort allow for reflection and this year, the 25th anniversary of Allen & Unwin’s publishing for children and teenagers is also, coincidentally, my personal anniversary of working in publishing.

The books I’ve edited or published speak to me like powerful time capsules - taking me right back to when I nervously started off as a trainee editor with Penguin Books in 1988 through the years to Allen & Unwin, where I am so lucky to work today.

More information on this book can be found here.

Publishing remains a mysterious business to outsiders as the main stories that we read in the media feature authors whose work has been plucked from obscurity, become international bestsellers, turn into films or mini-series and everyone lives happily ever after.

The fact that this happens to only a tiny fraction of writers and illustrators is generally glossed over. But despite these harsh odds regarding monetary success, it is still possible to live a fulfilled life making books. Many children’s authors and illustrators supplement their incomes through school visits - still the most effective way of becoming known and building an audience.

In fact, a significant proportion of sales for publishing houses, and particularly for children’s books, come from what is known as the backlist. Books that quietly, steadily, sell over the years: slow-moving tortoises gradually overtaking speedy hares.

Of course, as publishers, we need both tortoises and hares! Cash flow for our business is as important as it is for anyone, so we need books that fill a gap in the market, that satisfy what readers want right now, as well as those books that are trying something new and might take a few years to find their audience.

We have a responsibility to support authors in taking creative risks, while at the same time we have to be responsible to the company and most importantly the children and teenagers for whom we are publishing. Nothing is a sure thing! And the riskiest projects - often the most exciting to work on - are those that have the potential to fly, but need the help of something outside our control in order to succeed.

Allen & Unwin’s publishing list began in 1988 with Rosalind Price’s ‘Little Ark’ list, which included a book by an author-illustrator at the start of her career - Alison Lester.  Alison’s books with Allen & Unwin include the classic picture books Magic Beach and Imagine, being bought by the children who first enjoyed them, now adults and parents, for their own babies.

Alison, with another Allen & Unwin author, Boori Monty Pryor, presently share the honour of being Australia’s first Children’s Laureates, spreading the word about children and reading throughout Australia and internationally.

I was introduced to Boori by the late Margaret Dunkle in 1996 and had the privilege of working with him and Meme McDonald on the groundbreaking book, Maybe Tomorrow (first published by Penguin Books Australia).  Meme and Boori went on to publish a number of highly regarded children’s books at Allen & Unwin and a couple of years ago I was able to acquire the rights for Maybe Tomorrow and re-publish it at Allen & Unwin.

More information on this book can be found here.

Alison and Boori are the perfect ambassadors: charming, articulate, passionate, and able to speak to the idea (coined by former publisher and children’s book champion, Margaret Hamilton) that books at their best are mirrors and windows - as mirrors, reflecting ourselves back to ourselves, and as windows revealing different lives and cultures and ideas. This ability of books to facilitate self-knowledge as well as compassion and empathy is what keeps us all doing what we do.

When I was a young editor, I heard Bruce Sims - a publisher at Penguin - describe the ‘chain of enthusiasm’ that enables books to reach their audience.  I still believe in this chain, even as the links have stretched to embrace technology.

The chain begins with the creator of course, then the editor who is the first to read it. The editor then enthuses the publisher, who in turn convinces the sales and marketing team, who in turn excite the booksellers, who in turn make the books available and attractive to readers.

These days, of course, we are speaking directly to readers and consumers more than ever, rather than just to booksellers. But ultimately - as much as all this is affected by clever marketing and exposure on shelves, in the media, online - we are really still talking about word of mouth: a friend telling another friend about a book that made such an impact on them that they want to share the experience.

In our children’s book world we rely on a powerful network of allies - booksellers, teachers, librarians, parents, children’s literature enthusiasts. Everyone has a part to play. I have seen this chain in action for so many of the brilliant creators I’ve worked with and from whom I’ve learnt so much about the creative process: Isobelle Carmody, Leigh Hobbs, Maureen McCarthy, Terry Denton, Catherine Jinks, Roland Harvey, Judith Clarke, Andrew Weldon, Paul Jennings, Rebecca James, the late Greg Rogers. (I wish I could go on but there is a word limit …)

Of course, times have changed a lot in 25 years. Back in 1988, there were fewer books competing with each other, there were fewer publishers and smaller lists. But during the 80s and 90s and 2000s, the number of books being published each year has exponentially grown.

While the fundamentals of what we do remain the same: nurturing authors and illustrators to produce their best work, packaging and publishing the book as well as we can - it is true to say that things are harder than ever. The book trade is being shaken to its roots, as we are undergoing a digital revolution. From being a business built on physical books being transported to bookshops and sold to the public, we are now experiencing the effects of globalisation with all its challenges and benefits. Readers can now access the same book in various forms and make a decision about what to buy at what price at the click of a finger.

So what does the future hold for us? Will we still be publishing books for children in 25 years time? I’m a publisher and therefore an optimist - our business is built on hope! So I take a lot of heart from the new generation.

A little anecdote to close:

The other night I was sitting on the couch with Marlo, my two-and-a-half-year-old grandson. We were playing with my ipad, exploring the app for Herve Tullet’s Press Here, a brilliant picture book I first saw at the Bologna Book Fair and later acquired the rights to publish in Australia.

More information on this book can be found here.

The author and the originating French publishers had collaborated with other partners to produce an app extending the playful possibilities of the book. My grandson and I were playing the memory game. After that we played for a while with the Where’s Wally? app. Our job was to find tiny icons in the complicated pictures. We talked and laughed and discussed and played and my grandson spotted the hard-to-find objects at least as often as I did.

Later, while reading a bundle of picture books at bedtime, Marlo studied and touched the pictures, as he usually does, commenting on them in forensic detail. Then he said: ‘This picture’s not for pressing. It’s not an ipad, it’s a book!’ For him, there is no debate about which is better or worse, ultimately it’s still the pictures themselves that hold the magic.

More information about this book can be found here.

I was reminded in those moments how elastic time is. How it feels like simply no time at all since I was looking at these characters in these books with my own young children. There were no e-books then, no mobile phones, no computers. How the world has changed in that time – yet that essential comforting quality of sharing stories together – be they on paper or on screens of any size - remains as deeply satisfying as ever.

So in our 25th anniversary year, I salute everyone involved in creating, making, distributing, advocating and reading children’s books and trust that the magic in books like Alison Lester’s Magic Beach will continue to enchant and speak to children long after we have gone, and that the young book lovers of today will keep books alive by writing, illustrating and publishing stories to resonate with generations to come.

First published in an edited form as "Book to the Future" in Melbourne/Sydney Child, July 2013

About the Author

Erica painting at the Little Desert National Park, photograph by Libby Letcher

Erica Wagner has worked in children's publishing as an editor and publisher for 25 years.  They have been the perfect jobs for someone with a life-long love of children's literature, starting with The Story of Ping, Millions of Cats, and countless fairytales in German and English, through to The Secret Garden, The Hobbit and countless books about horses and dogs. In recent times she has loved Patrick Ness's brilliant Chaos Walking trilogy (starting with The Knife of Never Letting Go) and countless others about love, life and relationships.

Erica Wagner Artist:

In 2013, Allen & Unwin is thrilled to celebrate 25 years of publishing award-winning, bestselling and groundbreaking books for children and teenagers.  As Australia's largest independent book publisher, Allen & Unwin is proud to work with many of the world’s most talented children’s and YA writers and illustrators.  Allen & Unwin now publishes around 85 books for young people each year, and have sold more than 8 million books for children and teenagers.  A&U sell rights and export copies of our books to countries around the world, and many of our authors and illustrators have won prestigious local and international awards. 


  1. Thank you Erica!

    When I first started thinking about having a series of guest posts about the book industry - to give our audience some context about the books we love to read- I asked my friend, Susan Bridge, for recommendations for a publisher who would be able to provide insight into the world of book publishing, ideally for children. Susie suggested Erica, who generously reworked an article she prepared for another publication, despite it being her first week back at the office after long service leave!

    I couldn't have hoped for a better perspective - Erica looking back over 25 years of involvement in children's literature as an editor and publisher of children's books and looking forward to the benefits and challenges of the digital age.

    I'm so pleased to be considered part of the chain of enthusiasm - what a great description of a book's journey from creator to reader.

    One of the titles I considered for this piece was "Sharing Stories", taken from Erica's observation that despite the significant changes to book publishing over the last 25 years, "that essential comforting quality of sharing stories together – be they on paper or on screens of any size - remains as deeply satisfying as ever."

    Thank you Erica, for sharing your publishing story with us.

  2. What a wonderful post, I loved the insight it gives.

    What a fabulous journey children's publishing has gone through, enabling us all to delight in the wonder of reading.