Double Act 7: Anna Solding of Midnight Sun

anna soldingToday,  I’m revisiting my ‘Double Act’ series of interviews with authors who are also publishers, and who started their own publishing houses.  And I’m interviewing Anna Solding of Midnight Sun Publishing, a small press that has gone from strength to strength since it started a few short years ago.

Anna, when and how did Midnight Sun start? What motivated you to start your own publishing company?

It started one day when I had lunch with a close friend who is an entrepreneur. Even though my novel manuscript The Hum of Concrete had been nominated for three awards for unpublished manuscripts, no publisher had picked it up. My friend thought this was a shame so he suggested: ‘Why don’t we start a publishing company?’ You know, as you do, over lunch, just like that. My, quite logical and heartfelt, reply was: ‘Because we are not crazy…’ Five years later, we are crazier than ever and MidnightSun is beginning to take off in a big way. My friend’s initial expertise and help was invaluable and I would never have contemplated starting a publishing company if he hadn’t come up with the idea. My novel The Hum of Concrete went on to be nominated for another three awards once it was published, including the Commonwealth Book Awards, which meant we were off to a promising start and we felt that perhaps we could keep doing this.

How did you initially persuade booksellers to stock your books?

I was lucky enough to convince Wakefield Press, another independent Adelaide publisher, to distribute our books nationwide. It’s not really what they normally do so they only did it to be kind and give me a break, which was very nice of them. For the last couple of years our books have been distributed by NewSouth Books, who do a terrific job, getting our books into bookshops (and occasionally even into discount departments stores) around Australia and New Zealand.

Have your aims and strategies as a publisher changed from the beginning? How?

Yes and no. The aim has always been to publish amazing books, both in terms of content and design; books that you can lose An-Ordinary-Epidemic-Amanda-Hickie-The-Clothesline-192x300yourself in, books that look stylish and feel good in your hand. That is still our main aim. On our website we say: ‘MidnightSun Publishing has grown out of a disenchantment with the established publishing houses in Australia. We know there are plenty of fabulous manuscripts about unusual topics floating around, but publishing new and unknown writers poses a big risk. MidnightSun is prepared to take that risk. We want our readers to be entertained. We want to challenge, excite, enrage and overwhelm.’

When we started, we were mainly focused on adult literary fiction but now we also publish a wide range of books for children, from picture books to YA. I have always said that I will only publish books that I love and I think that is a good strategy for a small publisher. Because we spend so much time with each book, we really need to be comfortable talking about all aspects of it to anyone who will listen. Originally, I thought we’d just publish one or two books to see how they went but as all our books have made a profit it has always been easy to keep moving on to the next project. The more well-known MidnightSun becomes, the more high quality manuscripts are sent our way and the more projects we take on. When we started publishing in 2012, we did two books per year, in 2017 we are planning to do five. To publish five or six books per year would secure a more regular cash flow situation, which is something MidnightSun is still struggling with. The more I learn about the business, the more confident I get about all the small steps that need to happen for each book, including the metadata, the AI sheet, different ways to promote the book and which festivals and media contacts to approach.

Has working as a publisher impacted on your own career as an author–whether that be positive or negative?

Yes, I don’t think of myself as a writer first and foremost any more. Publishing has taken over my life, but I have let it happen and I love my job passionately so I’m certainly not complaining. I work with interesting people who all love books, so that has to count for something. Last year, I was fortunate enough to be awarded two writers’ retreat residencies, one month in Finland and one month in Perth, which were both fantastic months when I felt like a writer again. For years, I’ve been working on a ‘companion novel’ to The Hum of Concrete, also set in Sweden where I grew up, and it’s almost finished but I think I need one more retreat to get there. I would like to incorporate more writing into my everyday life, but when I can’t even get a Q&A like this one written until weeks after I should have delivered it, I’m not quite sure how to manage it.

What are the challenges and pleasures of small-press publishing, in your experience? Any memorable anecdotes?

IPLKS_cover love finding new talent and nurturing the writers from the beginning. Kim Lock, whose novel Peace, Love and Khaki Socks, was published by MidnightSun in 2013 has since evolved into being our regular designer. Her new novel has recently been published by big publisher Macmillan, which we think is fantastic. Last year, we published Amanda Hickie’s An Ordinary Epidemic and that book will come out with a new cover and new title (Before This Is Over) in the US next year. There are so many pleasures.

The challenges are plentiful, as they should be. It took almost a year to design the cover for Cameron Raynes’ First Person Shooter and we finally decided on one we all liked after rejecting about 30 others. Fortunately, we have a very patient designer. However, one of the biggest challenges for small publishers is to get noticed in the mainstream press. MidnightSun has a loyal following in Adelaide but it’s always a struggle to even get a tiny review in the larger newspapers, let alone a feature article. The other main challenge, at least for us, is to manage our cash flow. Because MidnightSun is doing really well, our first picture book One Step at a Time by Jane Jolly and Sally Heinrich has been nominated for several awards including the important CBCA award, we are in a position where we need to reprint the book but we have had to take out a loan to be able to do so.

As much as there are plenty of challenges for small publishers, the pleasures of seeing a project through from manuscript form to the final product, a beautiful and thought-provoking book, clearly outweigh the challenges. The buzz of opening a box from the printer to see a new book for the first time is very special and I don’t think I’ll ever get tired of that feeling.

Any advice for aspiring author-publishers?

Go for it! If you are passionate about books and have some sense of business, publishing might be the perfect place for you. I’m not going to pretend that it is easy, because it certainly isn’t, but if you surround yourself people who can help you with aspect that you might be less familiar with, it could be worth giving publishing a go. I have had a bookkeeper and a designer from the start as those were two aspect of the business that I didn’t know that much about. Other than that, you have to learn to wear many different hats; as editor, publicist, sales director, head of marketing and the one who is ultimately responsible – whether things go fabulously or the complete opposite.

Distribution is extremely important and it’s very hard to find a distributor so it’s worth doing some research on this before you take the plunge. Dennis Jones distributes many small publishers. Talk to other small publishers, research printers, become a member of Small Press Network, learn the terminology (what is metadata? AI sheets? ISBN?), subscribe to the daily newsletter from Books+Publishing and, most importantly, find amazing manuscripts to publish. Without intriguing content One-Stepand stunning production your books won’t be noticed. MidnightSun started in 2011 and we published our first book a year later, which felt right as that is how long it took to learn a bit about how the business works. The longer you have to prepare for a book, with marketing material, review copies, interviews, the better. Now that we are more established, we often work on a book for two years before publication. But don’t be scared, if publishing is your passion, just go for it!

Anna Solding

P.S. Metadata is the information that is put into search engines so that it will be easy to find. AI sheets are advance information sheets about the book, which often contain the cover image, a blurb, an author bio and photo, size, price, publication date and the all-important ISBN. The ISBN is the 13 digit number that is under the barcode, which is used by booksellers to identify the book.

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Busy days coming up!

I’m off to Sydney today for a packed program of book events. Tomorrow I’m giving the Keynote Address at the Society of Women Writers lunch meeting in the State Library, as well as giving a workshop the same day in the same venue! On Saturday it’s the Australian Society of Authors’ AGM and then a Board meeting, also in the State Library. Next week on Wednesday and Thursday, I’m going to the Visiting International Publishers program events, and on the Thursday I have appointments with no less than seven visiting international publishers, to talk about our Christmas Press list! Then from Thursday evening to Saturday afternoon, it’s the CBCA National Conference, at which I’m a presenter–and will also be on a Christmas Press trade display table! It’s going to be hectic–but great!

Speaking in Tongues: a guest post by Sophie Constable

Sophie Constable greyThe pleasure and challenge of not being restricted to just one language is a subject dear to my heart (and close to my experience!) so today I am delighted to publish on my blog a wonderful article by writer Sophie Constable about the situation for multilingualism in Australia.

Sophie Constable has worked as an Antarctic researcher and veterinarian, been an expat trophy wife in the Middle East and did her PhD on health education with remote Australian Indigenous communities.  Throughout, writing has remained her passion.

Speaking in tongues

by Sophie Constable

Exploring Australia’s language skills crisis

Rejoice!  Jules Verne’s Mikhail Strogoff has just been published in English for the first time in over 100 years.  I loved this book and I love that new generations of English speakers are getting the chance to follow the fabulously intrepid Mikhail through the Wild West of Russia’s Far East.

But the fact remains that translation of foreign language books – be they new masterpieces or old classics – is a tiny proportion of the English literary scene, as Strogoff’s translator Stephanie Smee has discussed.  And globally, native English speakers are rarely able to enjoy literary works in the original language.  Nowhere is this more true than Australia, where multilingualism, already the minority, is in steady decline.

If language, at its heart, is about humanity, as author Elizabeth Little writes, then Australians are losing their ability to understand the world.

Being bilingual, I sometimes forget multilingualism, the norm for much of the globe, isn’t the experience of most Australians.  Though we’re a multicultural nation, most people consider English to be enough for our needs and even within bilingual families, bilingualism is declining across the generations.

Are Australians just not interested in languages?  Is it too hard in a geographically isolated, monolingual society?  What’s the point in learning languages anyway, apart from an exponential increase in the to-read pile?

Imogen Weafer, a retail assistant in Darwin’s Casuarina Square shopping centre who uses Japanese in her work, certainly wasn’t interested in languages when she younger, despite her grandmother and mother being bilingual in Latvian and English.

‘My grandma taught my mother, but I wasn’t interested.  I regret that now,’ she says.

Miss Weafer considered that she grew up in a society that didn’t value foreign languages.

‘I lived among generation after generation of farmers who all speak English and nothing else, and think Sydney is overseas,’ she said.

She didn’t consider learning another language until going to Japan after year 11.  She chose to stay in Japan rather than study Japanese at school:  ‘In school, my Japanese teacher was a French teacher,’ she said, unimpressed.  It’s a common problem: more than 100 schools discontinued their languages program between 2003 and 2006, specifically due to a lack of qualified staff.

But English isn’t Australia’s only local language.  Growing up on the edge of the Barossa Valley, Ingkerreke Commercial project manager Daryl Thompson didn’t consider German a foreign language.  He grew up with it, going to a high school where many students had German heritage.  Though all students had to learn to German, by the end of high school he’d learnt more from his classmates than from the teacher.

‘I could swear at people’ he said, ‘and they can understand.’

Darryl Thompson

Darryl Thompson

Despite only speaking English at home and never having taken a language course, Mr. Thompson has since learnt parts of nine other languages.  He learned these on building sites around Australia by talking with co-workers.  ‘The Australian construction industry is a multinational industry,’ he says.  ‘Italians and Greeks do concrete, Vietnamese do the tiling, Croats and Russians do the gyprocking.  Knowing a bit of their languages shows that you are interested in them as a person; they are more amenable to do what you want them to do.  People that don’t make an effort won’t get as far.’

Sure, many find the idea of learning a language confronting.  CSC Adult Night Classes Japanese teacher Mikiko Kawano explains, ‘just like losing weight, you have to do it for a long time to see a result.’ This largely explains why those who beginning learning at a young age become more proficient.  However the idea that it’s too hard to learn other languages doesn’t hold with Mr. Thompson.  ‘That’s just excuses,’ he says.  ‘In today’s era of technology, of internet, easily purchasable online media, audio and video, there’s no reason why people can’t learn.’  CDU Indonesian lecturer Nathan Franklin agrees, finding that the opportunities to learn languages are all around us.  ‘They are walking past us in the streets,’ Dr. Franklin says, ‘they are working in the shops.’

The latest census counted almost 400 languages spoken in Australia, including over a hundred Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander languages.  Most of Australia’s language skills come from recent immigrants: 87% of Australian secondary school students will have dropped out of language courses after two years or less.  For those who are studying languages, Australian students spend less time learning than any other OECD country.

I don’t come from a bilingual family.  Nor did I learn my second language overseas.  The reason I speak French is that my school went against the trend.  Telopea Park Public School in the A.C.T. has an agreement with the French government to import French national teachers to teach in a bilingual system from primary school onwards.  And it is one of the only schools in Australia producing entire classes of fluently bilingual students every year.

O.K., so maintaining the bi-national relationship was difficult at times.  I’ll never forget the expression on my French teacher’s face when a quarter of the secondary student body protested the testing of nuclear weapons at Mururoa atoll by refusing to stand for the French national anthem during assembly.  We experienced first-hand the impact of international relations at the personal level.  But isn’t that, after all, what language learning is all about?

Against the trend of declining bilingualism elsewhere, my new home in the Northern Territory has the highest proportion of multilinguists in Australia, and it’s rising.  I’ve come to the right place, then!

Eva McRae Williams

Eva McRae Williams

Eva McRae-Williams, Senior Researcher with Batchelor Institute of Indigenous Tertiary Education, finds exposure motivates others.  She says, ‘In Darwin you hear five different languages in the supermarket.  Warlpiri, French, Thai, Yolngu, Sudanese.’   These languages are economically important as tourism and remote community work are some of the biggest employers in the Territory.

Motivation is notoriously lacking in native English-speakers.  In French there is a saying: a man who speaks three languages is trilingual, a man who speaks two languages is bilingual, a man who speaks only one language is English.  Though English is the language which unites us, it’s also isolating us, Dr Franklin finds, because it reduces the compulsion to learn other languages.  ‘The Western mentality is that everyone needs to learn English, as English is the lingua franca of the world,’ Dr Franklin states.  Whereas ‘[English-speakers] don’t need to learn another language to get a job’, here, as well as overseas, ‘students and business-owners know they need to speak English and they learn out of necessity’.

However, in a global market place, sharing a language can markedly increase bilateral trade and reduces tariffs, according to research.  While historically this has been a boon for trade with the UK and the US, seven of the Australia’s top ten two-way trading partners are now countries where English is a second language, including China and Japan, as well as the vast majority of our fastest growing markets, including Indonesia and India.  That can put English monolinguals at a disadvantage at the negotiating table.  The rise of Asia may threaten English’s dominant economic position – and that’s a problem for many Australian businesses.

For Dr. Chie Adachi, speaking as Linguistics Lecturer at the Australian Centre for Indigenous Knowledges and Education, the value of language learning is broader than its purely economic context.   ‘If you aren’t learning a language because you don’t see a purpose in it, you are missing the point,’ she says.  ‘It’s about changing the way you think.’

New research by a team at the Stanford University is finding more evidence supporting the idea that languages affect how we think.  Lera Boroditsky’s team has found that which language you use affects concepts as varied as colour differentiation, spatial orientation, direction of time and causality.  Dr. Boroditsky’s findings make sense for Jack Wang, a Chinese-born administrative assistant.  ‘Being able to speak another language gives you a different perspective on the world around you,’ he said.   Growing up in censorship-rich China, that was ‘mind-blowing’.   Dr. Adachi agrees, ‘it allows you to think more broadly and in different ways, which can be a rare experience.’

Ms. McRae-Williams found being a minority English speaker in spaces shaped by Aboriginal languages a transformative experience, saying ‘it opened up another world for me.’ Like 80% of

 

Australians, Ms. McRae-Williams spoke only English at home before going to Ngukurr in the Northern Territory, where Ngukurr Kriol  is the local language.  ‘Kriol seems to have a smaller vocabulary of words but there are important subtleties when you use those words and who to,’ she says.  ‘Even though there are many English sounding words, they can be used differently, with different

Pitjantjatjara country

Pitjantjatjara country

connotations and meanings.  English speakers might think they are understanding what the Kriol speaker is saying but they are not understanding them, really.’  For example, she found  ‘that unlike English language it is rare for people speaking in Kriol to use the word “I” or “myself”, rather “mela” is used which means “we” or “us”. Her experience of how cultural perspectives and knowledge are embedded in language gave her a new insight into centuries of intercultural misunderstanding.

The misunderstandings over land are a prime example.  In Pitjanjatjara, you don’t say ‘what is that place?’ but rather ‘who is that place?’  Land is related to people like a grandfather or aunty is: land is a “person” in the Pitjanjatara world view.  The idea of “owning” your grandfather becomes nonsensical; the idea of abandoning it, impossible.

Given the historic and ongoing lack of understanding between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians, and the national and international consequences of wider intercultural misunderstanding, the question ought not be why learn a language, but why not?

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Hunting Papa in the Hills, by Alan Wilson, Pitjantjatjara elder