I’ve known Jon Appleton a long time: since I was a pretty newly-published writer, and he was an articulate teenager passionate about books and writing to the extent that while still at school he founded, wrote, and edited a fabulous magazine called Rippa Reading. Since those days, Jon has gone on to have a stellar career as a publisher, in Sydney and in London, working with great authors and illustrators. And now he’s embarking on a new challenge–taking the independent road, as a new author and self-publisher.
First of all, Jon, congratulations on the release of your first novel, Ready to Love! Can you tell us a bit about it, and its road to publication?
Thanks, Sophie! Ready to Love is about the way we see ourselves and how we think other people see us, and the different kinds of attachments we form to those around us: family, friends, lovers, colleagues. Ultimately, it’s a rom-com.
Its London setting is quite important to me, and I began the book when I was living in Australia for a year in 2011, feeling quite homesick. I put it aside for twelve months when I came back to England, and then returned to it, working on it continuously for the next two-and-a-half-years.
Comedy is difficult to pitch to agents and publishers, I’m told, because it’s not viewed as a commercial genre. (Of course, we can all think of exceptions!) But I submitted it to agents nonetheless. Quite a few never replied (which I took to mean a ‘no’) but of those who did, several responded encouragingly from a reader’s perspective. I thought, ‘If only I could get past the gatekeepers, to readers, they would enjoy it too.’
Working in publishing, so much of my time was spent rejecting really good books (for reasons not dissimilar from those by which my own work had been rejected), and it was quite dispiriting dishing out ‘no’s all day only to come home to more ‘no’s from the other side of the desk. So I looked into the self-publishing option.
I knew the stigma of self-publishing has lessened dramatically in recent years. At the London Book Fair, there is a whole corner devoted to independent publishing that is reported on and taken very seriously. The timing was right.
I found the right outlet – Clays, the printer, recently established an independent publishing strand of their business – and began the process.
Putting together a book, from manuscript to finished product, is something you have a lot of experience of, in terms of other people’s work. But what was it like being in charge of your own?
I love the completeness of publishing a book – from discussing the concept with the author through to sending them advance copies. So the process of getting Ready to Love was extremely satisfying because I took a very hands-on route. Clays put me in touch with editors, designers, typesetters, Nielsen (who handled the bibliographic data), etc, but I did the legwork. It really helped maintain a sense of ownership of the process.
I sometimes think that writers feel they hand over their work without fully understanding the process – and why should they? But they can always ask! – and feel they’re being excluded. It’s never worse than when a book ends up with a cover a writer doesn’t like and the book fails to make it onto shortlists or in-store promotions. The author feels a sense of surrender when, in fact, the publisher really is on their side – or means to be.
You have just moved from the corporate publishing world to becoming a freelance, independent author/publisher. What has that move been like–the challenges and the pleasures?
I’ve known so many authors – and freelancers – that I’ve always felt I sort of knew what it was like to be them. I appreciated how isolated authors could feel. I’d sit at my desk, and suddenly think, ‘Haven’t heard from Author X for a while. Wonder what they’re up to …’ and get in touch – particularly in the long periods when there wasn’t anything formal to do on their current book.
That’s changed, in recent years: there’s always something to do on a book, especially after it’s been published. You can revise your Amazon profile or write a blog, or reach out to potential new readers on Twitter. I’ve spent a lot of time in the past couple of years encouraging writers to be active on social media – and we’ve spent more time than ever on revising synopses and pitches (because, for many authors, it is harder to get published than ever before).
Now I’m learning, first-hand, exactly what all that entails. The main thing I’ve learned is to be focused and to think always: ‘What am I trying to do? Who am I trying to reach? What kind of writer/publisher do I want to be?’ I’ve got a blog that explores these questions – www.jonappletonsbooks.com – and it’s very much an exploration and I’d love people to join in. There are no finite, permanent answers!
You worked for a long time as a children’s publisher: but as an author, you are writing adult novels. Do you think your publishing experience has influenced your writing in any way?
I think I realised early in my career that I love children’s books because I love the idea of children being confident and able through literacy, and cherishing the books they read when young their whole life through. I really like helping an author shape the sound of the voice of, say, an eleven-year-old boy. But I have no interest in trying to locate that youthful voice myself. I’m not one of those children’s editors who read only children’s books. My adult, reading self is nourished by other books which are more akin to the novels I want to write, and write about.
As a teenager you founded a respected literary magazine, Rippa Reading, which focused on books and authors. Can you tell readers about that, and some of your favourite stories from that time?
Rippa Reading was a fan magazine for authors which I began in late 1986 and edited until the end of 1995, just before I moved from Sydney to London. It was published and supported by my old school, SCECGS Redlands and, joyfully, the entire children’s publishing industry. It was an amazing time for which I am hugely grateful.
The magazine was born out of my desire to be a writer and to find out what writers were like, and it led to my career in publishing. Undoubtedly, it was inspired by The School Magazine which not only presented the best in new writing but made its creators available to readers through the magazine’s pages and especially to me with personal friendships with the staff.
There are so many highlights and stories from that time – genuine friendships with brilliant, creative people, many of whom now are no longer with us, but other connections endure 30 years later, like our own! It was fun being part of the CBC committee and appearing on TV and radio to talk about new books. It was an honour to receive awards, and even more so to be an early fan of brilliant new voices, like Jackie French to whom I was introduced by the wonderful Cathie Tasker (through whom you and I met, Sophie!), who was then at HarperCollins and Ursula Dubosarsky, who once taught at Redlands.
But the story I want to share now makes me happy because it brings my connection to Australian children’s books more or less up to date. When I joined Hachette Australia as Children’s Publisher at the end of 2010, I finally got the chance to publish books by Australian authors and illustrators – some of them award-winners but others, excitingly who were new to the industry. The concept for a children’s edition of the bestselling book about Tom Kruse the outback mailman had lingered for some time, but the concept hadn’t been fully realised, nor, crucially, the right illustrator found. I remembered Tim Ide from when I’d done work experience at Omnibus Books back in 1990. (Jane Covernton, who established Omnibus with Sue Williams, was always hugely supportive of Rippa Reading.) One afternoon at Omnibus, I’d been lucky enough to be taken to tea by Tim and Max Fatchen to celebrate their new book, A Country Christmas, which perfectly evoked the South Australian countryside in years gone by. So, many years later, I got in touch with Tim he agreed to work on the book. At that point, everyone in-house (and the author!) felt energised by the project, and it went on to win the Eve Pownall Award in 2012.
What’s your view on the situation for authors, and publishing today–the issues and the opportunities?
For the majority of writers, it’s tough to make a living. The obstacles are numerous: small advances, a paucity of review space, overstretched marketing budgets. More than ever, authors are expected to sell their own books – whether they publish independently, or through a mainstream publisher. That doesn’t suit everyone, I realise, but I do think that, usually, the author is his or her book’s best advocate, so it makes sense. And there are so many ways for authors to engage with readers – it’s not all about author visits and festivals. Authors need to be authorpreneurial, a term I hear a lot now. It takes time away from creative work, of course, but it’s necessary. It’s part of being a writer.
What are you working on next?
I’m planning a new novel, but I’m really aware of the need to make the most of the opportunity created by publishing Ready to Love. So I’m very happy to write about it or talk about it and to engage with people – anywhere! – in the hope that they might choose to read it, and to be receptive to further novels by me. At a practical level, I’d like to recoup some of the cost of publishing it by selling subsidiary rights – audio, translation, US and Canada and, of course, Australia!
I’m also in dialogue with writers’ groups and students who need help not just with writing, but preparing themselves for a writing life. People are aware of the challenges I outlined above (and many others), and part of my new work portfolio is helping them find ways to pitch themselves successfully and achieve an audience in the face of these challenges.