The power of fairy tales: an interview with Katherine Langrish

katherine langrishToday I have the pleasure of interviewing Katherine Langrish, author of a number of wonderful fantasy novels for older children, who has just released her new book–a collection of essays on fairy tale.

Your new book, Seven Miles of Steel Thistles, has just been published by Greystones Press, and unlike your other books, it’s a work of non-fiction: but like your other books, it shares a common element–a fascination with fairy tale and folklore. Why are you so interested in them?

Quite simply, I’ve loved fairy tales and folklore ever since I was a child.  I’ve never understood why some people feel it’s a taste adults ought to grow out of, unless perhaps the only fairy tales they’ve encountered have been the simplest versions retold for very little children.  Fairy tales can be profound and as inexplicable as poetry. As I discuss in the book, a story like the Grimms’ tale ‘The Juniper Tree’ deals with enormous themes – murder, jealousy and abuse as well as birth, resurrection, and joyful communion with the natural world.  It will ‘mean’ something slightly different to everyone who reads or hears it, because it elicits from each person their own emotional and spiritual response.  In fact, this story was probably rewritten by a German romantic poet, but that’s the other fascination of fairy tales.  They don’t ‘belong’ to anyone, they’re anonymous, so they adapt to the voice of whoever’s telling the story. And they’re so old!  People have been telling stories like these for centuries.

It’s such a large topic–did you try to pursue a particular line of inquiry or reflection in the book, or is it more organic? And what challenges and pleasures did you find in putting together the collection?

Many of the essays in the book began life on my blog (see below), although for this collection they were massively rewritten and extended. I did not think I had chosen any specific line of enquiry, but to my own fascination I found as I went through the rewrites that a theme was in fact emerging: that of ‘authenticity’. What does, what can that mean in terms of traditional tales?  Is the ‘earliest’ version of a Seven Miles of Steel Thistlesparticular tale ‘more authentic’ than a later one?  My conclusion was, repeatedly, that while it can be fascinating to trace the history and analogues of a tale, it renews itself on the lips of the latest storyteller.

Did any particular fairy tale or folklore scholars influence you in terms of interpretation and reflection?

There are so many wonderful fairy tale and folklore scholars, an embarrassment of riches, but I have to mention the great Katherine Briggs, whose four volume ‘Dictionary of British Folk-Tales’ is a Bible in the field, and whose other books of fairy lore I love – such as ‘The Anatomy of Puck’ and ‘The Vanishing People’. I like her insistence on the primacy of narrative.  I also love Max Lüthi’s ‘The European Folk Tale’ which so clearly illuminates the form and content of the classic European fairy tale.  Most of the interpretations and reflections in ‘Seven Miles of Steel Thistles’ are my own, however – if only because I read the stories long before I read any of the scholars.

You’ve maintained a blog with the same name as the book, over several years. It’s a wonderful title. Where does it come from, and was the blog a bit of a testing-ground for the book?

The title of both the book and the blog comes from an old Irish fairy tale, ‘The King Who Had Twelve Sons’. In it, the hero has to ride ‘over seven miles of hill on fire, and seven miles of steel thistles, and seven miles of sea’.  I love it as a metaphor for overcoming life’s difficulties, including the sometimes endless-seeming struggle to write well.  I suppose the blog has become a testing-ground for the book, though I never expected a book to come of it. I began the blog simply as a place where I could write about the things I love – children’s literature, fantasy, fairy tales and folk-lore – and where I could talk with others who love them too.  Does it sound too fey a comparison, if I say that the blog turned into a fairy garden and the book has grown up out of it like a tree?

Do you have particular favourites in terms of fairy tales? If so, which–and why?

I do – and I’ve written about some of them in the book.  I’ve already mentioned ‘The Juniper Tree’, and I also love ‘Briar Rose’ and ‘Jorinda and Joringel’.  But the story I love best to tell aloud is the English fairy tale ‘Mr Fox’, a very old version of Bluebeard with a far more intelligent and courageous heroine.

What are your favourite folkloric creatures?

My absolute favourites are the household fairies – the brownies, nisses, tomtes and domovoys which live with human beings and help (and sometimes hinder) them. I’ve written about then in several of my books for children: they’re an independent, mischievous, yet devoted race. They offer their services freely and will stay for so long as they are treated with respect and a dish of cream or oatmeal is left out for them on the hearth.  I love the way stories about them mingle Otherness with domesticity.  And I think they’re very, very old – as old as the story of Rachel in Genesis, who steals the household gods from her father Laban.

Your novels and short stories borrow from several different cultural traditions–can you tell us a little about that?

I began with Scandinavian folk-tales about trolls.  I’d been trying to write a story about a young Viking boy which involved him encountering some of the Norse gods. The story just went completely dead on me – I couldn’t find the way forward at all.  If a god befriends your character, why shouldn’t everything go smoothly for him or her? It seemed to me I was having to find complicated explanations for my hero’s predicaments. Then I began reading folk tales about trolls, and realised the book ought to be about them.  I got rid of the gods entirely as an unwanted extra supernatural level, and the book – ‘Troll Fell’ – worked much better as a fairy tale rather than a fantasy.troll fell

When I came to write the third book in the trilogy, I wanted to take my characters over the sea to ‘Vinland’ – North America – something we know Norse men, and probably Norse women too, actually did.  And there my characters would inevitably encounter Native American people, just as the Greenlanders’ Saga describes. It seemed to me legitimate to introduce Native American characters into the book: it was that or pretend North America was unpopulated, a clear impossibility. What may not have been so legitimate – yet it seemed to me important – was to introduce, as players on the North American scene, creatures in some way parallel to the trolls my Norse characters cohabited with. I thought long and hard about it and spent months of research, trying my best to respect and faithfully represent the culture I described. Whether or not I succeeded is not for me to say. The one thing I was sure about was that there would be no ‘white saviour’ in the book.  My Norse hero owes his life to the Native American characters he meets, not the other way around.  I wrote at length about this issue in an essay called ‘Cultural Appropriation and the White Saviour’, and though the discussion has moved on over the last few years, I still cautiously hold to what I said there.  Here’s the link:

In books such as Dark Angels and the Troll trilogy you explore the worlds of what might be called ‘the hidden people’ and their interactions with humans. The idea of a ‘hidden people’ with a wide range of magical powers (from large to small) and alien intelligence but with many similarities to humans and who appear to be drawn to us–if only to exploit us at times–is part of the traditional folklore and stories of many cultures right across the world. Why do you think this is such a universal notion?

Wow, that’s a huge question… and yet maybe it’s a small one too.  Haven’t we all had the experience of laying something down and then minutes later not being able to find it?  It’s so, so frustrating: ‘It has to be there! I know perfectly well I put it there, just before the phone rang!  And now I’ve looked everywhere – and it’s gone!’  The temptation is to blame borrowers, or gremlins, which we know is a joke – but it still makes us feel better to be able to focus the frustration on some invisible, tricksy thing that’s sitting there laughing at us. Maybe it’s a human trait to imagine the universe as personal rather than impersonal. We can deal with the personal, we can understand it and negotiate with it – we humans are very good at that.  Such feelings must have been far, far stronger in the past, before science began coming up with ‘rational’ explanations for everything.dark angels

Incidentally, just where have I put my keys?

You have been a storyteller as well as a writer. How does that influence your fiction?

I began story-telling years ago when I lived in France and our children were small.  I joined a a weekly English-language story session at the Bibliotheque de Fontainebleau for children aged three years and up. It can be quite hard to keep the attention of a group of fifteen to twenty little ones when reading from a picture book: you’re facing them, and you have to keep stopping and turning the book around so they can see the pictures, and that interrupts the flow.  An inspirational friend suggested that we all tried telling stories ‘from the heart’ instead of reading aloud. I loved it. I found you could keep the children’s attention better and they make the pictures in their heads. I continued to tell stories to older groups of children for many years, and learned a lot about pacing a story, about narrative structure, and about the kinds of things children enjoyed – what got them excited, what made them laugh. So yes, I think it really did help my writing, which loosened up and at the same time became more confident. I just – love telling stories.

A new way of writing: an interview with Simon Higgins

Simon Higgins Web Friendly Biog PicToday I am interviewing author Simon Higgins about his extraordinary new creation, DarkSpear, which features an intriguing way of writing combining several art and media forms.

Simon is an Australian screenwriter and author of books for young adults. Originally a police officer, then private investigator, he turned writer in 1998. He has 13 novels published so far, often combining crime, speculative fiction and historical adventure. His 2008 novel, Moonshadow: Eye of the Beast, was an Australian bestseller and was also published in the United States, Germany, Indonesia and England. He currently lives in China where he works in several creative fields.

Simon, this exciting new release of yours, DarkSpear, is what you have called a ‘visual novel’ . Can you explain what that means?

Sure, Sophie. Visual Novels (VNs) are something quite fresh and exciting for many in the Western world! I keep summing them up for people in these terms: they’re books you play, games you read, a hybrid of textual novel and interactive computer game.

They evolved originally in Japan, spread throughout East Asia, and are now gaining many appreciators in both Europe and English-speaking countries like the United States, Canada, Australia and New Zealand. But not enough yet, I say.  🙂  They have so much to offer!

VNs are, at the core, literary, but like computer games, they offer new ways to enjoy fiction by thatching in extra mediums to intensify the reader/player’s immersive experience. So although text heavy, they also employ elements like a short opening film, sumptuous backgrounds, detailed images of the characters, sophisticated music, and even sound effects, to intensify story impact.

They are also an interactive storytelling medium, kind of the cyber-era descendant of those delightful old ‘Choose Your Own Adventure’ style books and games from the 80s. This is what you could call their gaming side. A player must decide what the protagonist will do at certain points, choosing from two or three options that suddenly confront them.

Different choices lead to different storylines, which in VN jargon are called routes or paths. Should you pick one that eventually ends in some decidedly nasty fate, it’s okay…because you also choose ‘save points’ along the way, which you can return to anytime using the menu. Thus, having noted where you made that critical wrong turn, you’re able to just dive back into the story world again, land close to that point, and take a different path!

Depending on exactly how the VN has been written, you may, or may not, on behalf of the protagonist, get to cheat what we could call ‘the hero’s ultimate fate’, but with each route you try, the journey will certainly change. It’s a pity real life doesn’t offer such options sometimes, heh? 🙂

How did you come up with the concept, and why? How long was it in the making?

 I wish I could say I’d invented the concept, but alas, it was more a case of stumbling on it while living and working in creative circles in China, and immediately thinking, ‘Wow! So many imaginative people I know in the West have probably never heard of this medium, but would absolutely love it!’

Quickly thereafter it also occurred to me that this could be a powerful rescue tool for all those parents and teachers who bemoan having a clever, curious teenager in their lives who just-won’t-read while computer games stalk the face of the earth and compete with books for their brain space.DarkSpear1

Here, I thought, is a bridge between the two worlds, one immersive and engaging enough for anyone to want to cross it, at least once. Now I should warn that not all VNs I’ve seen are what you might call wholesome, just as can be said for books. But many are, some are utterly delightful, and a few are even pure art.

I also (as I sometimes formally testified in court, way back in the police force) ‘formed a certain suspicion on good grounds’. A suspicion that once writers in the West, be they self-published, emerging or established authors, read a VN with good storylines and dialogue and gripping ideas, a cry would go up that I’d be able to hear all the way from China. A cry of ‘I want one too!’

Once I’d developed that feeling, and of course, found the right creative partners, the process, from the birth of the dream to my VN’S first ‘draft’ in playable form, took about four or five months. That included writing the tale’s routes, and programming.

DarkSpear is a multi-arts, multi-media project. Who did you collaborate with, and how did the process go? What challenges did you face?

 I teamed up with Lava Entertainment, an ambitious, intensely creative young company based here in Guilin, China, who had set up shop, as fate would have it, just walking distance from my own office at Crane Animation.

That’s where I write for Gemini Fables, an animated TV show, coach the in-house writing team, fine-tune crucial subtitles, and get to participate -to various degrees- in a wide variety of awesome projects. I get to travel regularly with my work, and sometimes have the joy of meeting Chinese directors, screen writers, TV celebs and actors – so many lovely and stimulating people.

I’m Crane Animation’s chief creative consultant and my official designation, based on my track record in the West, is Foreign Expert. Kind of chuffed about that, seeing as the first one ever was Marco Polo. 🙂 Always nice to feel you’re following in a legendary author’s footsteps, though happily, unlike Marco, nobody ever points crossbows at me when I move between provinces for business travel. 🙂

My regular work can include tasks related to animation, filmmaking, educational and safety initiative creation, commercial branding character design, and all sorts of projects that harness story and imagination to help build international friendship ties between China and other parts of the world, including Australia and France.

But the Visual Novel project with Lava was aside from all that, out of my comfort zone you could almost say, because it required me to quickly get to know a brilliant young team of artists, programmers and business people who spoke, in some cases, minimal or no English. That was naturally an ongoing challenge as my Mandarin is very basic.

However, we all persevered, and as we worked on the project, they coached me in the technical side of putting together a VN, which at the outset, involved me, the author, not only writing the story but creating at least three primary variations to its overall arc and then designing a series of sub-deviations within each major ‘route’.

Along the way, I had to chart out where key moments would turn into decision-points for the reader/player, and depending on their choices, sweep them seamlessly into other paths, and possibly, back out again to the original route, later. At first, it was mind-bending. 🙂 I remember hunching over my notebook, in genuine zombie mode, after working on it intensively one weekend, my wife devotedly shovelling noodles into my mouth with chopsticks, murmuring, ‘You can keep working, but you gotta eat.’

I also had to conceive and storyboard all the major background art, and work with the Lava team on character design, choices of music, and desirable sound effects for heightening the drama at certain points. And, towards the end of the whole process, I had to script, storyboard and direct the promotional and opening-of-game short films.

So the mission took in elements of novel then script writing, computer game design, film production and directing. I totally loved it, such an intense creative stretch! 🙂 My wife Jen, who won her creative master’s degree at RMIT in Melbourne, gave me many fabulous ideas and edited the final short films, even organising a Beijing composer to create the videos’ original music while actually watching the footage in real time.

One interesting challenge was the area of writer’s vision v. artist’s vision, something I’m sure is familiar territory to anyone who’s ever worked collaboratively on a picture book or illustrated anthology. Two different styles of creative mind, coming at the same territory from two different frames of reference, well, it can easily become a Batman V Superman-level epic clash. So yes, I did end up negotiating, at times, with the team’s artists over story v. imagery.

Fortunately, Chinese artists, in my experience, are the absolute opposite of volatile. We did have the odd lengthy chat about why, in certain instances, it really was necessary to stick to what my text described, as opposed to the artist’s view that a more free-form interpretation of that passage ‘could look so beautiful.’

But there was a great spirit of teamwork prevailing overall, and in the end, I did- happily- make some concessions, including changing certain details in the story to fit the envisioned art. I just had to. So many of their random ideas were just great! And I really love their distinctive work. Kai, the chief artist, for instance, somehow manages to bring digital and classical art style elements together in a really absorbing way.

DarkSpear2 DarkSpear is set in a dystopian future, and centred around a feisty, talented heroine, Kitty Sato, who is drawn into a dangerous secret world. How did you create the character of Kitty, and research the interesting phenomenon of psi-gamma(ESP) ability?

In some ways, Katherine ‘Kitty’ Sato was all about coming full circle for me.

1998 saw my first novel, Doctor Id, hit the shelves courtesy of Random House, and its star was young Jade Draper, a policeman’s daughter and reluctant psychic, misguidedly drawn into a hazardous opportunity to bring down a serial killer, and, fittingly for one of my characters, doing so with the aid of her Asian best friend and some-time love interest, Wing Tran.

The story’s murderer used the internet, which in 98 was wild and ‘un-policed’ compared to this century, to select and stalk his victims. I’ve been told -and I don’t know if it’s true- that I was one of the first authors to employ the whole ‘killer harnesses the net’ device in a crime novel. It did seem to surprise reviewers.

Whatever the case, that ‘X-factor’ certainly gave the book, a young adult tome, a topical edge that kick-started my career and garnered a Notable listing from the Children’s Book Council of Australia -no mean feat I think, given its gritty elements, including visceral nightmares and strangulations with superhuman strength.

Flash forward to a different century. 🙂 Late 2015, me contemplating my 13th novel. This time, though I again wanted to write about a tough young woman with precognitive abilities, I felt that this time round, she should be of mixed racial heritage (Jade and Wing combined, or perhaps a parallel to their potential child) and in no way reluctant to delve into her latent though unmanageable powers. I decided that this time, rather than be up against a killer, my heroine should be up against THE killers…in some timely but ultimate sense. And who would they turn out to be? Sorry. You’ll have to read the book, AND make some sound choices, to help Kitty find that out. 🙂

Once I’d come up with Kitty’s profile, I knew that, in a world now more savvy and cynical than the one I was first published in, this new young psychic Miss would need a credible backbone for her paranormal abilities, so I hit the books and the net (while feeling very safe from the serial killer I long ago created, thanks to the Great Firewall of China) and did lots of research…

It is just plain fascinating to discover how long and hard humans, educated, science-based, sceptical ones included, have relentlessly pursued what is in essence a romantic idea. ‘I can foretell future events; I can sense what’s in your pocket; on the back of that card in your hand; in the depths of your heart.’ Really?

Never, it seems, in the lab, under the scrutiny of objective, careful observers using reliable, untampered-with equipment. So says history, lots of it. Of course, part of the mythos of special powers is that real psychics are indeed among us, but being the real deal, will always refuse to be tested, even though they’d pass with flying colours.

As an amateur sociologist, anthropologist and self-resigned poster child for OCE syndrome (Obsessive Compulsive Exploration) I found this area of study utterly riveting, and dived into it fanatically while developing Kitty Sato and her world.

And while reading around the subject, I relentlessly beset my poor wife with sudden, random ‘Hey! Did you know…?’ outbursts. To her great credit, even when my excited rants had reached the double numbers, she still responded with patient smiles as opposed to kung fu. 🙂

So I got to know a world so interesting to work with, it became the reason DarkSpear is subtitled The Prologue. Yes. Good news. Lava Entertainment and I are planning at least one, possibly two more VNs in this series.

There is another fascinating aspect to DarkSpear too, in which a player’s own psi-gamma levels are actually evaluated during it. Can you tell us more about that?

dark spear 3Me being me, I was, as the project unfolded, once again hoping to come up with some ‘X-factor’ element that would really enhance the VN’s immersive qualities… 🙂

Once I knew that one of the major themes in my story would be Kitty’s psychic powers and how they might be both detected and scientifically demonstrated, I did my research then laid quite a challenge on the brilliant young minds I was working with.

Why? Because the Lava crew had said to me early on, during an initial brainstorming session, ‘Please suggest some sort of appropriate puzzle that could be included in the VN. Sort of a game within a game, for added interest and value for our customers.’

There were some very interesting expressions around the table when, in a later meeting, I explained Zener Card experiments at Duke and Princeton universities, as well as under the auspices of the CIA, in the latter’s case, as part of their hunt for real psychics to recruit as spies -all of this, now well-documented history.

The eyebrows really went up when I asked Jie Deng, CEO of Lava, if he thought he could design a real, scientifically-credible ‘Zener test engine’ and embed it in the VN. Well, he burned the midnight oil and went at the challenge like a trooper, employing skills he’d learned studying gaming science in, of all places, Birmingham, England, where he also developed his great -and now frustrated- love of ‘real’ fish and chips.

Jie’s subsequent success was to become that longed-for ‘X-factor’ component, DarkSpear’s utterly unique feature that sets it aside from all other VNs! Yes, if you are that rare, rumoured to exist individual with latent psi-gamma capacity (parapsychology-speak for real ESP) this humble Visual Novel can scientifically prove it, and by way of screen shots, help you document it. But I wouldn’t necessarily suggest sending a triumphant email – with supporting attachments – to the CIA. 🙂

How would you summarise the main features or benefits your Visual Novel offers readers and/or game players?

 Firstly, it’s a true read but with something more added: sensory immersion. Music that alters with the story, striking visuals that shift and change, sparingly (and strategically) used sound effects. But not everything is shown or done for you…so imagination, visualisation, and engagement on a thought level remains a major factor.

dark spear 4Secondly, while predominantly a book, it’s one you run on your phone or tablet for convenience, and also part-computer game, hence genuinely interactive. You help steer the story, and that’s exciting and unpredictable. You can ‘live it’ more than once, each journey as unique as the choices you make, but not too much is laid on you. The interactive aspect is not relentless, so you can still lose yourself in the tale.

Thirdly, it’s a kind of Trojan Horse. It has the potential to lure some, who just aren’t, in their own estimation, ‘reading types’ into an experience that may expand their habits to their lasting benefit. Put it on a young hard-core gamer’s Android, iPhone or iPad, and if they don’t delete the new ‘oddball’ game, they just may bring it inside the city walls of their personal culture, where, come nightfall, out will tumble the hidden warriors of readership. At least I pray as much, to all the gods, old and new. 🙂

Thanks so much for the interview, Sophie! As you know, I love YOUR work. 🙂 And by way of epilogue, I should probably also mention that anyone visiting the Official DarkSpear Page on my website, can download their own free 13 piece set of original artwork used in the VN. Just go to





Author site:

The translator’s art: an interview with Stephanie Smee

Stephanie Smee portraitTranslation is an art both precise and subtle, and the work of distinguished Australian translator Stephanie Smee has those qualities in abundance. Stephanie has translated several works of French literature into English, and I first met her some years ago, after the publication of her translations of classic French children’s titles by the Countess de Ségur. We got talking about other French classics, and I happened to talk to her about one of my favourite books growing up as a French-speaking child: Michel Strogoff, a great adventure novel by the legendary author Jules Verne.

Well, that conversation has led to today, and the publication by Eagle Books of Jules Verne’s Mikhail Strogoff. This is the first English translation of this wonderful book in over a hundred years, and as one of the publishing team at Eagle Books, I worked closely with Stephanie on the project, impressed as ever by her great attention to detail and her thoughtful and perceptive understanding of the literary work she was translating. And so today, to celebrate the release of Jules Verne’s Mikhail Strogoff, I talk to Stephanie about translating the book–and the art of translation in general.

Stephanie, translating Jules Verne’s Mikhail Strogoff was a massive and painstaking undertaking. How did you prepare for it initially?
Like many Anglophone readers, I was really only familiar with those books of Jules Verne that have always been popular with English readers… Around the World in Eighty Days, Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, and I confess it had been many years since I had read those tales.
So, when discussing with you possible ideas to pitch to English language publishers, your enthusiasm for this historical adventure tale took me a little unawares. However, after getting my hands on an original French edition, and spending some considerable time researching, I realised how enduringly popular Michel Strogoff has been with its French readers. And I became increasingly nonplussed as to how it had slipped from the catalogue of Verne’s other, perennially popular tales which had been translated into English.
How does one prepare for a translation task such as this? A number of readings of the text, of course, which serves to allow your mind to “relax” into the rhythm of the text, but then the close readings are required, and the true breadth of Verne’s rich vocabulary and sentence structure sinks in. At that point, there’s nothing for it but to “dive in”!
 What challenges came up for you as you worked on the book?
mikhail strogoff finished 1 front coverVerne’s vocabulary is encyclopaedic, and one can almost sense the glee with which he displays his research into the historical, geographical and cultural specificities of his setting. I was very fortunate to have been given some magnificent 19th century French/French and French/English dictionaries by my father-in-law, Jim Schoff, and there is no doubt these proved very useful in grappling with some of the more obscure terms that came up from time to time. I also found some of the 19th century maps of Russia, Siberia and “Independent Tartary” (again, supplied by my father-in-law) absolutely invaluable. One editorial challenge, with which you were very helpful, was determining the appropriate transliteration of place names. Of course, Verne had transliterated place names from the Russian cyrillic into 19th century French. We then had to settle upon the appropriate way of spelling all of these names for our 21st century Anglophone readership while remaining authentic to the historical setting of the novel. As readers will be aware, customs surrounding the spelling of Russian names can be a moveable feast and often differ from one current newspaper or novel to another, depending on the editorial decisions made. The historical maps I had at my disposal were certainly useful, but again, it was customary in the 19th century for many mapmakers to use French spelling of Russian place names, as it was assumed that educated readers and scholars would have French at their fingertips and unfortunately, we can’t make such assumptions for our readership anymore!  
I did often wonder how translators used to manage before the internet allowed us access to so many superb resources, including to such things as 19th century accounts of travellers making their way through the same or similar parts of the world as our hero, Mikhail Strogoff! Images of Tartar battle dress or Siberian towns which I was able to access through Google books often allowed me to create a mental picture of the word-image I was trying to paint with my translation of Verne’s detailed text.
Verne’s narrative is quite straightforward but his style is richly laced with idiomatic and other flourishes. How did you capture that very particular spirit?

The longevity of Verne’s popularity, in my opinion, derives from his masterful skills as a storyteller. His tales are built on a driving narrative force that reveals itself to the reader – and thus, to the translator – as we turn the pages. Verne is a great “scene-setter”. And so, he interlaces his chapters with scene-setting descriptions, often packed with information, followed by “lighter” chapters of spirited dialogue. There is nothing staid about his evocative descriptions. Rather, he successfully evokes a landscape which will then be the setting for the following dialogue between his characters, all of whom are very brightly drawn, from the main protagonists, Mikhail Strogoff and Nadia, to the testy muzhik responsible for leading them across the Urals, and to the jocular journalists who act as the entertaining Greek chorus to events as they unfold. All of this to say that the

Strogoff 6

Illustration by David Allan

translator’s task really has to be to imagine herself into the landscape, listen to the rhythm of the descriptions and the dialogue and try to render that same rhythm into English. Where there is a particular urgency to the events unfolding on the page, I’d like to think that a good translator will be able to reflect that same urgency – whether it’s as simple as adhering to similar sentence length, or perhaps through a choice of words that will help make the narrative pop and crackle with that same sense of urgency. Of course, 19th century literature often uses tenses  and moods that are rarely employed in modern literature and ideally, those grammatical nuances will be reflected in the English too, although there is a fine line to be drawn sometimes when translating tenses which would perhaps seem “clunky” or awkward to a modern reader’s ear. As for the dialogue, there is no doubt Verne’s own skill in drawing his characters rendered it a joy to translate their dialogue as it meant I had little difficulty imagining myself into their conversations and under their skins.

At this point, I should also underline my gratitude, not only to my editor and publisher–yourself!–but also to my father, Michael Smee, whose assistance in proof-reading – offering second and third pairs of eyes and ears to “hear” the rhythm of the text – were quite invaluable.
How different was it working on this translation as opposed to those you have worked on before, such as the Countess de Ségur’s classic children’s books?
The translation of Mikhail Strogoff was indeed quite an undertaking, and in this respect, it really felt quite different to sitting down to translate the Countess de Ségur’s books, which although quite lengthy for their genre, have a considerably younger target audience to that of Strogoff. (That said, I just received a very enthusiastic message from my 11 year old nephew telling me how much he loved this Mikhail Strogoff finished 2 back coverlatest translation, but that while he had been waiting for his copy to arrive in Boston, he had eagerly revisited all of my translations of the Countess’s books, so there is obviously a little bit of audience cross-over!) In attacking a work like Strogoff, there is a different level of stamina required both in respect of the novel‘slength and the complexity of its vocabulary. Julie Rose’s masterful translation of Les Misérables of course takes that degree of difficulty to a different place altogether! Verne and the Countess de Ségur did at least share some similarities of the epoch in which they were written, being works penned in the 19th century.
Russian-French writer Andrei Makine, in one of his novels, Le Testament Francais, has his narrator say ‘the translator of poetry is the poet’s rival; the translator of prose is the novelist’s slave.’ What is your opinion? Do you have a philosophy of translation? 
I can quite understand narrator’s standpoint in Makine’s novel. It suggests a degree of “freedom” that perhaps a translator of poetry might enjoy, compared to the prose translator. But I’m not sure I agree entirely.
While the quote from Makine acknowledges the “originality” of the poet/translator’s new work, I disagree with the suggestion that the translator of prose is in any way more the novelist’s slave, to use that same imagery.  The rules relating to the translation of the ‘form work’ and ‘scaffolding’ of prose might be different to that of a work of poetry but at the end of the day, translators of prose and poetry are both working creatively and originally, both limited by a desire to remain as faithful as possible, not only to the original text, but to its emotion and rhythm. In many ways, as illuminated by the comments below of John Edmunds, renowned translator of the verse-dramas of the likes of Racine and Corneille, translators of poetry might feel more “enslaved” by the need to adhere to the particular poetic structure and rhythm of the original work.
As a translator, I stand most in awe of those who translate poetry but are they the original poet’s “rival”? A good translator of poetry is truly not just any ordinary linguist – they must hear the poetic rhythm in the source language and be able to recreate that beauty, that mystery, that imagery in the target language. It requires decisions about meters, rhyming – whether it is best to try to retain those rhythms in the target translation or stray a little from the source language in order to recreate a rhythm that somehow best captures the original imagery and magic of the poetry.
I recently read John Edmunds’ notes on his extraordinary translations of the plays of Corneille, Racine and Molière (Penguin Classics, 2013). They are illuminating, and in fact suggest that the translator of these “verse-dramas” are, in a way, just as much these play-wright/poet’s slave as their rival. He says:
A translation intended for performance not only must be immediately intelligible to the listening ear, but ideally, I have always thought, should be capable of delivery by a putative bilingual cast in precisely the same way in either version. Like musical scores these verse-dramas have their crescendos, staccatos and rallentandos: in the new medium they need to be preserved. This can be achieved only by maintaining the sentence-structure so that the actor’s breathing-pattern is reproduced, because the pulsation of the performer’s vocal energy is the life of the play. And, clearly, the action has to flow at the same pace as the original. This necessitates a line-by-line rendering.
A play written in verse is truly recreated in another language only when it has the formality of disciplined verse-structure. Which form to employ?
And Edmunds then goes on to discuss his choice of Shakespearian blank verse “which has a driving impetus and the rhythm of colloquial speech” over the English alexandrine which, he suggests, is “too stately for drama; and the rhythmic beat of our heavily stressed language does not need rhyme to create form.” He also comments that rhyming couplets can sound jokey, at least to British theatre goers “reared on pantomime.” Ultimately, he says, the translator can only do his best with the tools available to him in his own language in reverence to the “supremely gifted authors” one has the privilege of translating.
My own “philosophy” of translating? Many scholars and practitioners have penned many thoughts on this topic and I’m not sure I should be so bold as to add my own. I do know, like John Edmunds, that I feel an enormous sense of privilege to be working as a literary translator, particularly translating the work of a literary figure such as Jules Verne. And even though I am not a translator of poetry, I also know that beautiful prose, too, has its own rhythm, its own fluidity, its own internal mysteries which any good translator must try to encompass in their work. So, if a translator can recreate that original sense of wonder and excitement generated by any good piece of literature, whether it be a work for children or the most fiendishly obscure piece of poetry, then perhaps the translator has succeeded in her task.
It’s been said that there aren’t enough novels from non-anglophone countries translated into English. Would you agree? And why do you think that is? 
Yes, indeed I do agree – as both an avid reader of translated literature and as a literary translator! Although I hasten to add that I have been very, very fortunate to have a number of my translations published beautifully by both Simon & Schuster (Aust) and of course, Eagle Books. That said, Linda Jaivin, in her essay Found in Translation published in the Quarterly Essay (issue #52, 2013), referred to statistics that are enough to make any literary translator cry.
 “[H]alf of all books available in translation around the world have been translated from English, and only 6 percent are translated into English. The rest are translations between non-English languages… In 1950, American publishers produced 11,022 books, of which 563 were translations. In 2010, the number of books published there climbed past 200,000, but only 341 were originally in other languages. … In 2012, according to Bloomberg, American publishers bought translation rights to only 453 foreign titles; figures in the UK are said to be similar.”
And, she goes on to say, there is no reason to believe the situation is any better in Australia – in fact, she says, it’s probably more dire.
Why is this the case? There are many reasons, but most of them come down to the fact that English has become the “default” language of the world. And at the same time as the rest of the world has adopted an educational approach that emphasises the need to learn English, largely for trade reasons, the number of people who still learn foreign languages in English speaking countries is plummeting. This can only lead to serious cultural insularity and, while learning a foreign language is not an easy task, as Jaivin acknowledges, “a sensible corrective is access to a rich body of global literature in translation.” Yet we are failing on that front, too. Monolingual publishers/editors make it difficult for foreign language publishers to sell their works into the English language market, as they are forced to rely on potted descriptions, quickly translated excerpts, and, only if they’re lucky, some healthy sales figures or reviews in the original language market. The same difficulties confront literary translators trying to pitch ideas to Anglophone publishers. Even when books have earned their stripes in sales and reviews in their native market, I have often been met with the response: “translations are very hard to find space for in the market”.
Why  they are any harder to find space for than untested English language books is quite mysterious to this literary translator. Sales in Anglophone markets of Pippi Longstocking and Asterix would, I’m sure, rival sales in their own market, due to their very skilled translators and to the fact that they are quite wonderful books! Yet I do know why. In a market where publishers are being forced to tighten their belts, there is little cash to spare to pay for English language publishing rights, as well as a skilled translator. And I can only assume also that sales and marketing teams must know there is an inherent reluctance or suspicion on the part of readers when it comes to foreign literature. Fortunately, at the same time as so many of the large publishing houses are publishing fewer and fewer works in translation, there are increasing numbers of independent publishers, like Eagle Books, who recognise the need to take a stand against the cultural hegemony of the Anglophone publishing industry and who are making it their business to publish works in translation.
Our wonderfully cosmopolitan and plural society deserves no less, particularly if we mean to engage in a meaningful, reciprocal and generous way with the billions of people on this planet for whom English is not their mother tongue. We need to be able to hear everybody’s stories!
What are you looking at translating next? 
I’ve in fact embarked on a terribly entertaining translation project with my Swedish mother. We are translating some very well-known (in the Swedish market) children’s stories by Gösta Knutsson about a little cat called Pelle whose tail was bitten off by a rat when he was a kitten. They were first published in Sweden in the late 1930’s-1940’s and Knutsson continued to write for many decades. They’ve been enormously popular in Sweden since they were first published.  The first three in the series are to be published next year by Piccolo Nero, the children’s imprint of Black Inc publishers.
I’m also working on some submissions involving the translation of some modern French novellas and short stories which I’m very excited about. They’re written in very different language to the 19th century text of Jules Verne, but I’m loving the challenge. They’re wry and erudite, fanciful and yet thoroughly modern… works that are very much for and of our time.

Do It Yourself Book Publicity: An interview with Emma Noble

diy book pr guideGetting your book written and published is one thing. Getting it noticed in the flood of new titles is quite another! Today, I’m interviewing publicity specialist Emma Noble, who’s just released a book that answers a lot of questions about how to plan and run a great book publicity campaign. It’s a book that will be of much interest both to authors and small publishers.

Emma, your book, The DIY Book PR Guide: The Happier Guide to Do-It-Yourself Book Publicity in Seven Easy Steps, has just been published. Can you tell us something about it, how it came about, and who it’s aimed at?

 It’s aimed at self-published authors mostly, but also at traditionally published writers who want to better understand what their inhouse publicist is doing for them, and perhaps even to support their efforts. I wrote it out of sheer frustration, actually, at the number of authors I wasn’t able to take on because of time constraints. I wanted to try to help them in some other way. Book publicity is most definitely not rocket science but it’s convoluted and time-consuming if you don’t know what you’re doing. The DIY Book PR Guide lays down the basics of planning and executing a campaign that is tailormade for your book.

You run a boutique communications and book publicity agency, Noble Words.  What kind of services do you offer writers and publishers? And what sorts of projects have you been involved with?

I mostly work with big publishers who need a helping hand during busy periods, and I tend to be given campaigns that might be slightly more complex or time-consuming than usual; for example, footballer Chris Judd’s nationwide tour to promote My Story in late 2015. I also work with an increasing number of self-published authors on promoting their books. This month, I’m working with: social enterprise Thankyou on their book-slash-crowdfunding campaign Chapter One; self-published YA urban fantasy writer Karyn Sepulveda on Choosing Xaverique; novelist Lynnette Lounsbury on her modern take on a beatnik road-trip, We Ate the Road Like Vultures, published by indie outfit Inkerman & Blunt; ReadHowYouWant, the Australian company responsible for bringing the dyslexie font (which greatly improves the ability of dyslexics to read) to a huge range of local titles; the Little Darlings Childcare Centres on their self-pubbed cookbook, Yia Yia’s Kitchen Secrets; parenting expert Maggie Dent’s first picture book for kids, My Cool Plastics Cupboard; and, last but not least, I’ve been running courses on DIY book PR for the Australian Society of Authors and the NSW Writers’ Centre.


Self-published authors often ask me about other aspects of the publishing process, too – distribution, bookshop ranging, a little marketing, and so on – and I find myself offering informal advice but I try to connect them with other specialists in these areas instead.

Before starting your own business, you worked for publishers in Australia and the UK. Can you tell us about that? What writers did you work with? And what prompted you to start your own publicity agency?

I started out in editorial for illustrated non-fiction with Phaidon and Quadrille Publishing in the UK, before deciding publicity was where all the real action was and moving sideways across departments. I worked with Orion Publishing in London for about five years, before moving to Sydney to head up publicity for Orion’s Australian office within Hachette Australia. I was lucky enough to have worked with some incredible writers, with a particular specialty in crime fiction, and celebrities.

Very few publicity director roles exist in Australian publishing so, when none of these jobs came up during my four years at Hachette Australia, the obvious step seemed to be to use my contacts and experience to best effect and start my own agency.

What in your view are the top publicity challenges for small press and self-published writers? 

Organisation and planning are huge challenges for self-published authors and small presses. When you’re responsible for every aspect of a book’s production, carving out time to sit down and nut out a comprehensive publicity plan can be hard. What’s more, self-published authors often have little PR experience so it’s all new to them. The planning phase is really crucial; spend your time well here and you’ll end up with a handful of great story ideas and a plan for which media to pitch them to, resulting in a campaign timeline that you can simply plug into your email calendar so you never miss a media organisation’s deadline.

Competing with larger publishers with marketing budgets and established relationships with media can also be challenging. But the beauty of book publicity is that it is an option for absolutely every author, and will cost you little more than your time and a few free copies of your book.

What are your top tips for book publicity?

a) Answer these two questions – what is my story and who is my audience – and you’re well on your way to creating a winning campaign. The first gives you your story ideas, the unique ‘angles’ arising from your book or personal history, that you will use to promote yourself. The second tells you who you should be trying to talk to and, by extension, the media you should be targeting. That’s half the battle.

b) Be honest. Firstly, with yourself; it’s a rare book that genuinely appeals to everybody and being frank about your target market will help you avoid wasting time pitching ideas to media who will simply never cover your book. Secondly, with media; it’s hard to keep track, in this increasingly multiplatform-oriented media world, of who publishes what and where so let journalists know when they indicate interest in your story what else you have lined up and let them decide if they want to proceed.

c) Work up a killer elevator pitch. This is a short, succinct and persuasive description of what your book is about and how it is different from others on the market. You’ll use variations of this description as the basis for all your interviews, press releases and pitches to journalists so it’s worth spending time on getting it right.

WIN! One lucky reader of this blog will win a copy of The DIY Book PR Guide, kindly donated by Emma Noble. To enter, simply contact me (through form on Contact page), with a comment on any aspect of book publicity–could be an anecdote, an observation or your own tip! 


An interview with Sandra Teles of City Writers Room

Finding opportunities to connect with readers, and overcoming a feeling of isolation, are twin challenges in the early stages of a writing career, when you are still finding your feet–and your voice! Recently, an informal writers’ group formed in London(of which my son Xavier is a member) launched an enterprise to rise to the challenge of both those things: City Writers’ Room, a curated blog site showcasing their writing, starting with narrative non-fiction. Today, I talk to Sandra Teles, one of the City Writers Room group.

Sandra Teles is an actress. Having worked in areas of film, television and theatre, she continues taking her experience to the field of writing.

First of all, congratulations to you and the other editors on the launch of City Writers Room! How did it start? And what were the challenges–and discoveries– you faced along the way to launching the site? 

Thank you for talking to us about our new venture. We attended a narrative non-fiction writing course at City University London last Summer. Many of us said we’d keep in touch, as most people hope to after they finish a course. Amanda Riddick took the initiative and got everyone together. Some of us continued to meet once a month to discuss our writing. Few months later, we talked about putting our writing on a kind of writers’ forum to critique it, giving each other feedback, etc. It very soon snowballed into creating our own blog. We discussed why we wanted to do this, who were we writing for, what were we going to write about? And finally, we settled on writing about city living — people, places, the challenges, the insights, topics hidden that we tend to deflect because they may not be mainstream.

The big challenge was finding the headroom to write consistently, and it still is. Many will agree the hardest part about writing is the discipline to write, actually sitting down patiently and being able to face a blank screen and not have anything coming to you — until it does.

You could also have viable ideas but they vanish quickly if you don’t write them down. There’s something to be said about scribbling on paper an idea that crosses your mind, or taking a photo of something that captures your imagination. It could give rise to a topic worth exploring. Ideas are abundant, but it’s a numbers game as only very few stick. So getting involved in this venture together has made us more attentive to those seeds of ideas.

City Writers Room is particularly focussed on narrative non-fiction writing about cities, in all kinds of aspects. Can you tell us more about that?

Since we worked on the narrative non-fiction course at City University, we’ve started with non-fiction. We’re still exploring topics that interest us like travel, history, politics, people, even film; and their relation to cities. I write fiction mostly; but it’s been a fruitful exercise reading and writing non-fiction. Both feed off each other so it would be a shame to not include fiction. The other writers (Carole Allsop, Xavier Masson-Leach, Ellen O’Hara and Amanda Riddick) have a strong point of view with regard to the non-fiction topics they choose to write about.

Can you tell us about how City Writers Room works, as a writing showcase?

We talked about City Writers Room being a forum for ideas, writing about people and places. In that we have the freedom to be as creative as we want so we can fine tune our craft as writers. We all have a voice and finding it takes time. We’ve all been writing in one way or another for years, but all of us felt ready to publish at this point in time. It does leave us feeling exposed but there’s comfort in knowing that we support each other in the endeavor.

Your writers are all very different in their approach to writing. Can you expand on that?

We’re very lucky to have come together on this venture. All our styles are different which showcases more variety. Interestingly, we’ve all traveled and lived in a number of cities. And although we have different interests, our strengths don’t clash, only complement. A couple of us really enjoy writing character profiles, so it might even lead to a further collaboration of some sort. For the time being, we are keeping things flexible. It’s an exciting time for all of us. There’s no expectation to be a particular kind of writer. We can stay true to our sensibilities and explore all kinds of writing styles if we want.

What’s the reaction of readers been like so far?

The feedback we’ve gotten has been hugely positive. We already have writers who’ve approached us to write articles for City Writers Room. That’s a big deal — when you get people excited to collaborate. Everyone has a story to tell and hopefully they see this as a platform to express those stories.

What does City Writers Room hope to achieve in the future?

It would be fantastic to bring together a community of writers (local to international) who are willing to share their stories. City Writers Room aims to uplift, entertain and even question the status quo. It would be great to build a space where writers can feel passionate about their work, feel like they can test their material to see what sticks. We’re taking small steps to get there and for now, we’re keeping an open mind as to the direction it might lead. In the very least, if we are able to kick start a process of writing consistently for ourselves, we will have succeeded in the venture. 


International Authors Forum: an interview with Katie Webb

IAF-logoThe increasing global challenges to authors’ rights and livelihoods in many different spheres has had one very positive result: the formation of the International Authors Forum, an organisation whose membership consists of national author organisations from across the world, and which exists to ensure authors’ rights and interests are represented worldwide.​​Today I interview Katie Webb, Executive Administrator of the IAF, about the important work the IAF is doing for the cause of authors globally.

Katie Webb holds an MA in Medieval English from King’s College London and a diploma in EU, US and UK copyright law. She has worked extensively with British writer and authors’ rights campaigner Maureen Duffy. Since 2012 Katie has coordinated the International Authors Forum.

Note: All images are from the IAF website, and used with permission.

The IAF is a fantastic initiative, and feels like an idea whose time has really come. Can you tell us about how and why it started? 

IAF was established formally in April 2014 but had been meeting informally since 2009. Its purpose is to give a worldwide voice to authors, in particular to writers and visual artists. It is a federation of organisations representing authors all over the world, and in particular their interests in copyright (or droit d’auteur in Civil Law countries) and access to fair contracts.

IAF started with a coming together of authors’ organisations in different countries – at that stage mainly Anglo-American and European – who met regularly, along with publishers and organisations which manage their rights collectively, through the International Federation of Reproduction Rights Organisations (IFRRO). This group decided that their members needed an international platform that was independent from publishers (who already have their own well-established international organisation) where they could be represented at WIPO (the World Intellectual Property Organisation) in Geneva, which is the UN special agency that regulates the international copyright framework. ( WIPO also recognised this lack of representation from the very group for whom the rights it looks after were created to protect, and has been very supportive of the initiative. Another very important reason for establishing IAF was to work for authors to achieve fair contract terms with Promo-pic-Version-2-e1453989402672publishers, unfair contracts being a near universal problem for authors, which is only getting worse in these global, digital times as the publishing industry is increasingly driven by the corporate interests of shareholders and only authors who will produce bestsellers and write works for the ‘mainstream’ get a look in.

IAF is here not only to tackle the problems though, but to give more authors the means to take advantage of the wonderful opportunities for finding audiences and making a living from their work independently, which are available thanks to new technology and the internet. We do this through solidarity, information exchange, creating a worldwide network and encouraging authors to strengthen their collective representation in their own countries. We also have partnerships with relevant organisations. For example, we have recently entered into partnership with the International Public Lending Right (PLR) Network and are working to promote the benefits of PLR to authors worldwide, as PLR is a right which is currently only available to authors in certain countries. The same goes for the re-sale right for artists, the campaign for which we also support, and are hoping will eventually be enjoyed by artists in all countries.


PLR International –

Artists Resale Right Campaign –


What challenges did you face along the way to establishing the IAF?

Creators are not by their nature necessarily given to operating within organisational frameworks, as the businesses which work with their rights are, so it is always going to be a challenge to create an organisation made up of authors. However, despite the individualistic nature of their work, working together to preserve the diversity so essential to their profession by advocating for their rights is a necessity most authors recognise and support.

Tavores-MakoreOf course, the more immediate and frustrating challenge is of resources. Creators of course need to spend most of their time creating, and it is a notoriously difficult profession in which to make ends meet – so of course the same goes for an organisation representing them – we are really pleased with the progress we’ve made so far, and have been lucky to have secured the funds to get as far as we’ve got, but getting IAF onto a sustainable footing is an ongoing challenge and one that won’t go away, so we are always open to opportunities for ways to make our limited resources through partnerships and joint projects. And, of course, we have to channel some of those resources into fundraising!

What is the aim or philosophy of the IAF?

IAF is here to give authors a voice worldwide.

The vision is to ensure the world is an environment where authors can create, in which their work is appropriately acknowledged for the value it brings to society, and that authors have the opportunity to be fairly paid for all uses of their work so that they can continue doing it.

Our mission is to preserve individual, independent creative expression and enable authors to exercise their human rights in the moral and material interests in their work (the wording used in Article 27 (2) of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), to which a well-functioning copyright regime makes a fundamental contribution, and also ensures that everyone can enjoy the access to science and culture to which the counterpart of this right (Article 27(1) UDHR) grants them.

We’d also like to remedy the perception among ‘free culture’ advocates that copyright is somehow ‘anti-access’ and bring the creator back to the heart of the rights in their work and the discourse about those rights.

Which author organisations are in the IAF? How is membership determined? And how do you go about holding meetings when members are scattered across the world and in different time zones?

Currently we represent 56 author organisations – unions and societies of writers and artists – in different countries, who between them have over 600,000 individual author members. We have members in all regions – we are pleased to say after a meeting in Mexico last year our first members in Latin America joined – they are from Panama, Belize and Mexico. A full list of members is available on our website.


To become a member, the criteria is straightforward: an organisation must represent only or primarily authors. We aim to be as inclusive as possible. We are lucky that our current Chair (just re-elected for the next two years) is the wonderful poet, novelist and Executive Director of The Writers’ Union of Canada, John Degen.

We hold two physical meetings a year alongside the International Federation of Reproduction Rights Organisations (IFRRO), which many of our members attend because they are also IFRRO members – so this cuts down on travel costs. Our Annual General Meeting is always attended by the majority of members by teleconference. This year it was in Sweden, which meant our members in Sweden and neighbouring countries could come. But to keep costs down we communicate with members mainly through regular newsletters and our website. We attend the Copyright Committee at WIPO in Geneva, which has two meetings a year, at one of which we usually hold a ‘side event’ on a particular topic relevant to authors, which are made up of presentations by authors from different countries describing their work and why their rights are so important.

For example:

We invite these authors to come to Geneva to meet IAF and the Government Delegates at WIPO who are members of the Committee – nearly 200 countries are represented on this Committee in total.

If we could get everyone together in one place at one time, that would be wonderful, but for now we have to see each other when we can, and make do with all the other ways to connect of which, luckily, there are plenty.

What are some of the issues affecting authors that the IAF is currently working on?

Authors’ rights are under attack on many levels worldwide. These can be seen in the issues arising at national and international levels.

Our members identified the priorities for IAF’s work in a survey we carried out in 2012 – 13. These are still relevant and determine the focus of our work.

They are:

  • For IAF to lobby to ensure that any exceptions to copyright are balanced properly with authors’ rights and enable them to be paid fairly for all uses of their work. Certain governments, particularly in Africa and South America, have proposed worldwide treaties for copyright exceptions for libraries and in education, which are currently being discussed at WIPO. Whilst the motivation for such exceptions comes from the good intentions to improve standards of education and access to information, if these efforts do not include the means to compensate creators for providing the essential ‘content’ upon which they depend – which could be the effect of overly broad copyright exceptions – the quality, quantity, variety and locally authored nature of such resources are severely threatened. This can be seen from the unfortunate case of Canada, where the broadening of the exception for education in copyright law in 2012 led schools and universities to abandon their copyright licenses and has resulted in losses of tens of millions of dollars to Canadian authors and has diminished the Canadian educational publishing industry. This change, intended to benefit education, has in fact seen costs to students rise at the same time as it is eroding the quality of materials to which they have access.

IFRRO has produced this valuable case study on what’s happened in Canada, and in February this year, the Copyright Board in Canada made the devastating decision to severely cut the tariffs set on its educational copyright licenses.

Link – IFRRO Study:

Link – Canada Copyright Board decision:

IAF is working to ensure delegates at WIPO know of these dangers and consider the impact of any decisions they make on the creator, especially with regard to copyright exceptions. Last year we produced a booklet of testimonials from authors around the world focusing on this issue which is available on our website ( along with the truth behind some popular ‘copyright myths’ by our very own John Degen. Both are available in English, French and Spanish.

Kevin-Francisco-Maureen-Maggie-7-Dec-2015-e1450277962780We have also developed ten principles for fair contracts for authors, which are applicable to authors in all countries.


Authors’ organisations in some countries are very active working with publishers to achieve fairer contract terms, but IAF’s principles are broad enough that they can be useful to any author who is confronted with the daunting prospect of signing a publishing contract that asks for their rights.  When this happens, although authors are pleased to have a contract, they are often in the position of being unfamiliar with the legal language used and up against a team of powerful business people who have access to their own legal support, when the author has none.  It is a joint venture in which the partners are not very equal. Ultimately, though, publishers are the authors’ means of getting their work to an audience and so they are often too willing to sign away more than they need to, or is fair to ask them for. Our fair contracts campaign aims to stop this exploitation and ask for fair contracts for authors, like those which are offered by the many responsible publishers out there.

About the campaign:

Another counter to this, self-publishing is being adopted by an increasingly significant number of authors and we are thrilled that the Alliance of Independent Authors (ALLi) (, became our first member working specifically in the interests of self-publishing authors last year.

We are about to publish a set of guidelines for authors on how to publish their works in formats which are accessible for people who are blind or have ‘print disabilities’, meaning they cannot read text in conventional formats, as part of our work on the Accessible Books Consortium (ABC).

ABC is facilitated by WIPO and has arisen in the wake of the Marrakesh Treaty adopted at WIPO in 2013, which represents a global commitment to ending the ‘famine’ of books available to people with such disabilities. ABC is dedicated to making this ambition a reality. We are very excited about our guidelines. By making their books accessible, self-published authors can ensure their work reaches as wide an audience as possible, which is after all what most authors set out to do.3-Maribel-in-red-jacket-updated-photo-April-20151-e1439914511681

The concerns of IAF and our members are not limited to the challenges and opportunities of technology, however. Our activities also include supporting and strengthening the representation of authors in so-called ‘developing’ countries. For example, we are currently supporting our member in Sudan, the Sudanese Writers Union (SWU), whose license to operate was last year revoked by the Government. The Union is struggling to be reinstated but of course, IAF and its members still recognise the SWU as a legitimate and important representative of Sudanese authors.

How do you see the future for the IAF?

I would like IAF to continue to grow and to represent authors in all countries in order to ensure the preservation and on-going operation and evolution of their rich and diverse cultures. Using the expertise and experience of its well established and active member organisations, we would like to encourage authors in countries whose collective action is not so strong, to take an interest in, understand and advocate for their own rights. Of course, this all strengthens IAF’s voice at WIPO, but we would also like to begin working more closely with relevant intergovernmental organisations such as the United Nations Commission on Human Rights (UNHCR) and UNESCO – so that they too, through IAF, have access to the perspective of real, working creators and are encouraged to give their rights appropriate weight in the decision-making processes that work toward the objectives which governments the world over are trying to achieve, especially at this time of such geo-political instability. That everybody can access the work of professional, independent, working creators – whose job is to communicate new ideas, foster tolerance and cross-cultural understanding and innovate with information – is such an important part of working towards a world with less of it.



Connecting with readers: an interview with Patrick Lenton of Town Crier Consultancy

Photo of Patrick Lenton by Daniel Boud

Photo of Patrick Lenton by Daniel Boud

Recently, author and digital and social media marketing specialist Patrick Lenton launched his brand-new business: Town Crier Consultancy. Town Crier is a social media and digital marketing consultancy for authors, teaching the skills authors need to create an online platform and sell their books. Patrick’s got the runs on the boards for his new business, having recently worked for Momentum–where I first met him–and several other major publishers. As a Momentum author new to the world of digital-first publications, I found Patrick wonderful to work with: both savvy and sensitive, flexible and focussed. And so, learning of his new enterprise, and intrigued to find out more, I asked him a few questions.

Congratulations on the launch of your new business, Patrick–what a great idea Town Crier Consultancy is! How did it start? Tell us about the development of the concept.
Thank you so much, Sophie. The idea was a bit of a slow burn, generated from conversations with authors who seemed to have a lot of misconceptions about marketing their books. There seemed to be a lot of fatalism – leaving the success of the book completely up to chance or the attention of the book gods, or believing that promotion involved more time or effort or skills than anyone possessed. There were also a lot of authors spending money on expensive one-off promotions and advertising that I knew from experience didn’t really do anything. I felt like lots of authors would jump at the chance to learn the skills they need to market efficiently, and decided to go ahead with the idea and create Town Crier!
You are both an author and a social media/digital marketing specialist. How do you combine these different strands?
It’s actually fairly separate skills for me right now – as an author I have a collection of literary/comedy short stories, which is a genre that is fairly immune to most digital marketing. However I think being an author myself means I have a lot of empathy and understanding for other authors. Unlike a lot of generic social media strategists, I’m fully aware that an author’s main job is writing, and all my town crier final logos small-01strategies and campaigns try to reflect that.

Before starting Town Crier, you worked for some time at Momentum, the very innovative digital-first arm of Pan Macmillan. What kinds of things did you learn from your time there?

Momentum believed in growing the author, rather than just marketing a book, which can be a very different strategy to a lot of publishing houses. That meant that we invested the time to teach an author skills and grow them as a cohesive brand (sorry for the marketing talk, it’s not great to be referred to as a brand). This was the biggest lesson I learnt, and one that helped created my view for Town Crier. It was also great to have the freedom to test out different strategies, and see how well they worked.

Your services are suitable both for self-published authors and for more ‘traditionally’ published authors looking to expand their digital and social media horizons. What kinds of things do you think each group of authors might be looking for?

All social media and digital marketing is about using online spaces to connect with readers! It’s an exciting time to be an author, because more readers than ever are online, and able to interact with authors and find more books that they want. Social media and online communities are basically digital word-of-mouth machines. Self-published authors are looking to sell to them directly, whereas traditionally published authors aren’t so dependent on that, and instead use the space to promote buzz and excitement about their books, so people can go and purchase them from bookstores.

What’s your number one tip for effective use of social media and digital marketing by authors?

Be genuine! The last thing ANYBODY wants is to engage with a Twitter or Facebook account that’s just an endless stream of ads and promotions. We’re very good at shutting advertising out, and even if it’s the best book in the world, we’ll probably ignore it if it feels like an infomercial is trying to sell it. Create your community by being engaged, genuine and interesting.

The Big Country Book Club: an interview with Bernadette Foley

bernadettefoleyThere are such interesting things going on in the book industry at the moment, and readers of this blog will know I’ve spoken to several industry professionals who have left corporate life to start exciting new enterprises. One I’ve discovered recently is a great initiative connecting authors and their books with readers, while using the opportunities of the virtual world to enhance real-world possibilities!  This is the Big Country Book Club, the brainchild of longtime editor and publisher Bernadette Foley, which launched this month, and today I’m talking to her about it.

First of all, Bernadette, congratulations on the recent launch of the Big Country Book Club! How did it start, and what prompted the idea?

Thank you very much, Sophie. The book club grew from a few ideas coming together. When my long service leave came up, after working in publishing for decades, I decided to try something new but still within the world of books. Also, I had taken part in regional workshops with the Queensland Writers Centre, which were very popular, and that led me to think about bringing author events to people in regional areas via an online community. Thirdly, a publishing friend told me about a bookshop in a small South Australian town that was thriving by selling books to readers in remote locations. I thought I would like to do that too. These were some of the thoughts that led to the development of BCBC.

The BCBC–what a great acronym, by the way!–seems like a very nice mix between the kind of publisher-based book clubs such as the old Doubleday book clubs, and the Scholastic book clubs still very popular with children today, crossed with the very popular idea of book club personal discussion that we see now. Is that a fair description or is there even more to it?bcbc-logo

Yes, that is a good way to describe BCBC (I’m glad you like the acronym!). Another feature is the small, carefully selected line-up of new releases I present each month. Instead of facing a huge range of titles, which many people find overwhelming, members pick a book from this curated selection. This is why some people have joined BCBC – they love reading but want help to find books they will enjoy.

I would also like to mention BCB Clubhouse – the book club and bookstore for children from babies up to the age of ten or eleven. It has all the features of BCBC but for children.

 I can imagine that setting up BCBC must have presented quite a few challenges–and occasioned quite a few discoveries!–along the way. Can you tell us about the journey towards launching the club?

Ah, yes! There are a million challenges – one is being patient. A new business doesn’t blossom overnight, and I secretly thought it would! A happy discovery, though, was finding that people are generous with offering moral support and ideas. Authors I have published over the years have written blog posts, publishers send review copies of books they think will suit the clubs, and Joy McKean, whose books I’ve published, was one of the first people to sign up as a member.

bcbclubhouse-logoHow do you go about choosing the books your members receive? Are there particular genres you focus on, for example?

I check the monthly catalogues from most of the small, medium and large publishing companies in Australia. Also, I am keen to include books from new publishers, such as Christmas Press and The Author People. I want a mix of fiction and non-fiction but beyond that I am open to choosing across genres. I don’t only pick books that I would personally enjoy! With my experience as a publisher, I select outstanding new titles for different reading tastes. For example, a book about revitalising Newcastle, Creating Cities, was popular with members, as was Joan London’s The Golden Age.

Tell us about what it would be like to be a member of BCBC. What can members expect?

What a nice question. People subscribe to become members and some received memberships as Christmas presents. Members go to BCBC’s site at the start of every month, read about the latest selection of books and choose one. They are all printed, not ebooks, and are posted to members’ letterboxes, wrapped in brown paper and tied with string. On the site there are blog posts and competitions; members can share their thoughts on the books they’ve read and join online conversations. Also, members who are writers can post issues they are having with their manuscripts on the Writers Forum and other members and I will offer suggestions to overcome the problem and give some feedback on the writing.

BCB Clubhouse members can also read blogs from authors, take part in activities, competitions, and choose a book every month.

Connecting books–and authors– directly with readers is the ‘holy grail’ of all sectors of the book industry, of course. How do you see the role of new enterprises like BCBC in this?

Australia has great books, devoted readers and hardworking, talented authors. Those of us in these new enterprises have to think laterally to find the best ways to bring the three together. One of my goals for BCBC is to create a community where we share thoughts about what we have read and meet authors, on the site and through events and tours. This community should be fun, engaging and interesting, otherwise people will spend their time elsewhere.

There are many interesting and lateral-minded initiatives happening within the industry at the moment: including those driven by people who like yourself and Lou Johnson of The Author People, have had long careers in publishing. Why do you think this is happening?

Also, your Christmas Press Picture Books, Sophie. The children’s books you’re publishing are exquisite, and I am so excited about your new imprints, Eagle Books and Second Look Publishing.

Is it like seeing red cars everywhere as soon as you buy one? Am I aware of these initiatives because I’m involved in one too? I’m not sure, but I know that a few of us who have worked for publishing companies for decades have each decided that we need to try new ways to publish, promote and sell books. We are all asking, ‘Can we succeed in doing something differently and better?’ ‘Can we make a living out of it?’ is the other question. You, Lou and I all love books, and we’re excited by the process of writing, making and selling them. I never want to lose that feeling; to keep it alive I left a job at a very good publishing company to see what would happen if I threw lots of ideas up into the air.


Small but Mighty book productions: an interview with Karen Small

1407558371118Since late 2014, my colleagues and I at Christmas Press have worked with a wonderful book production manager, Karen Small, whose fantastic business, Small but Mighty Productions, has enabled us as a small press operating on a shoestring budget and a tiny if very creative and hardworking staff to produce hard-cover books of very high quality, by taking the worry out of sourcing printers, materials, giving advice on all kinds of technical aspects of production, dealing with shipping, etc. We’ve worked on three picture books with her now, as well as the beautiful limited edition of the launch title for our new imprint Eagle Books, Jules Verne’s Mikhail Strogoff. It’s been a great, very productive relationship and also a very interesting process to be a part of. So today I’m interviewing Karen about what goes on behind the scenes, and the fascinating story behind her business.


How and when did you come up with the idea for smallbutmightyproductions?

Establishing my own business was something I always wanted to achieve – it was just a matter of timing. I discussed the original idea with one of Australia’s best book designers back in 2012 and he was very supportive. At the time, the publishing industry was shrinking dramatically with mergers and acquisitions, job losses, dwindling publishing programs and less emphasis on quality production. It felt like the creative heart was being torn from the Australian publishing industry and that’s when I started the first draft of my business plan. It took roughly 12 months of preparation, research and many more drafts of the business plan before I was ready to exit my day job and leap into my new venture. I launched in 2014 and I’m now in my third, exciting year.

The name itself sprouted when I was troubleshooting a problem many years ago and I achieved a great result for the customer. A colleague was impressed and said to me “you may be small but that was a mighty effort”. It stuck in my mind over the years and it seemed like the best descriptor of what I’m about, as well as being a play on my surname.’ 1441006207992

What were the challenges involved in setting up the business? And what are they now?

Setting up a small business is a mammoth undertaking, but the key is breaking the steps down into smaller, more manageable tasks. There were many days early on where I was overwhelmed, but I reminded myself that it was a marathon and not a sprint and the longevity of the business had a great deal to do with me setting things up slowly and accurately. The other factor was being a solo operator. There were so many thing to achieve and no one else to assist, but it also meant I was exposed to all the facets of a business, so the experience I gained outweighed the challenge of doing it all myself.

Three years on, the biggest challenge is keeping up with the level of enquiries, making sure my potential customers receive the best customer service I can offer. I am known as small but mighty, but it is essential for me to be known for my quality, as well as my speed and accuracy.

IMG_3339What kinds of projects have you worked on?

The projects I’ve worked on with my customers are many and varied. I’ve collaborated with self-publishers looking for very limited editions of around 100 copies, right through to custom marketing pieces with print runs of up to 40,000 units. I can basically tailor my services to the individual and the type of book, using the very best, hand-selected suppliers. No book project is too large or too small.

What exactly does a book production manager do? How does a project go from start to finish?

The role of a book production manager is an interesting mix of a number of tasks, including project and files management, customer service and liaison, budgeting, forecasting, trouble-shooting, new vendor research, scheduling, inventory management and quality control. There is no such thing as a typical day and even after many years in the job, there are learnings to take away from each project. In a nutshell, I manage the project from initial costing enquiry, through to supply of print files, right up to final destination delivery in Australia or worldwide.

A typical project starts with a RQF (request for quotation) from which a project costing is created and supplied to the customer. Often a planning schedule is requested at the same time. Until the book specification is confirmed, the quotation stage can continue for several months or weeks. The schedule and project is then booked with the relevant print supplier and a sample book ordered. Customer files will then be prepared and supplied. Any issues with files will then be solved before approval is given by the customer to start printing. The book is then printed and bound with many quality checkpoints before progressing to each stage. Finished copies are checked and approved, with bulk copies then being placed onto the chosen vessel for sailing to the final destination. Freight logistics and delivery to the customer is the final stage in any project.IMG_1927


Your business involves many interlocking connections–how do you go about synchronising it all?

Often it feels like I’m a circus performer juggling 20 different objects at the same time, but the ability to successfully manage many different suppliers, projects and customers at the same time comes from experience. Being able to multi-task is essential and a keen eye for details is also an absolute must. I love my job, am passionate about the projects I work on and thoroughly enjoy seeing my customers bring their books to life. This is motivation enough to ensure everything gets done according to the customer brief.

IMG_2980You worked in other aspects of the book industry before you started smallbutmightyproductions. How has that influenced what you do in your own business?

I see each role to date as a learning experience and a stepping-stone to where I am today. Little did I know that in my first role as a production ‘runner’, pulling printing films from a dark and dusty library would have equipped me with valuable knowledge of traditional 4c offset printing. I used to hand-write all correspondence to suppliers and send via fax machine! I progressed from magazine production to books, entered and learnt about the next generation of CTP, digital printing, switched from the publishing side to a role with a major Japanese printer and also worked in London dealing with large-scale European printers, as well as taking up a position with a leading, global, trade publishing house. This colourful wardrobe of experience gave me the confidence to establish smallbutmightyproductions and offer a bespoke publishing experience where quality and customer service are best in the industry.



What are your plans for the future of smallbutmightyproductions?

From a strictly business point of view, I’d like to see continued growth each year, with an all-important expanding customer base with new and repeat clients. From a personal perspective, I want to continue to enjoy working with highly creative individuals who are as passionate about high-quality books as I am.



An interview with Rebecca Lang of the Alliance of Independent Authors

74121_462951207350_6316793_nThe book industry has changed a great deal over the last ten years or so, and self-publishing, or going it alone as an independent author, is something that has grown phenomenally during that time. It certainly no longer has the stigma once associated with it. It’s not only debut authors who go the independent route: many established authors, including, in Australia, such well-known writers as Isobelle Carmody, Steven Herrick and Hazel Edwards have all experimented with it for various projects, as indeed I have, with a couple of ebooks of short pieces produced with my micro-press Sixteen Press. But some writers choose to go the independent route not just for an experiment, but because they prefer it. And now there’s an organisation to support them: The Alliance of Independent Authors, or ALLI, which started and is based in the USA but which has chapters in several countries, including Australia.

I first came across it as one does, through a glancing mention in an internet article on publishing, and, intrigued, wanted to find out more. And so today I’m speaking to author Rebecca Lang, the Australian representative of ALLI, about the organisation and what it does.

The Alliance of Independent Authors (ALLi) is a fairly new organisation, isn’t it? Can you tell us a bit about how and why it started? And how long have you personally been involved?

ALLi was founded in 2012, I have been a member since the organisation’s inception, but I have personally been self-publishing since 2010.

I spent several years writing a book with my partner on Australian folklore – a niche interest area at the best of time – and shopped it around to a couple of Australian publishers, receiving a somewhat lukewarm response. As I used to work in newspapers as a journalist and editor, I decided to have a go at creating and project managing my own publication, and co-opted another friend into designing the book cover. I was really pleased with the end result. To date, I have produced three books and have another two in the pipeline this year, including my first foray into fiction.

I have also worked with other authors to guide and advise them on their own publishing journeys, editing books, refining book ‘blurbs’, assessing the quality of book covers, and creating successful marketing strategies.

As a writer and self-publisher I think my ALLi membership is one of the best investments I have ever made. Through ALLi I have been inspired, supported and most importantly connected to a community that by its very nature is ‘disruptive’ – it’s all about shaking up the publishing model to allow fresh and diverse voices to be heard.

Self-publishing – actually, ‘author-publishing’ is probably a better term given the number of hybrid and traditional authors who have now adopted the model (including successful children’s authors Cornelia Funke, and J.K. Rowling – the latter selling her Harry Potter ebooks exclusively through her website) – tends to attract dynamic and energetic people who have a strong creative drive. I think it’s this passion to succeed that authors need to get their work into print and into the hands and minds of readers. After all, it’s a highly competitive industry.

What does membership of ALLi offer to authors? 

ALLi offers authors an unrivalled peer-to-peer author-publishing experience, allowing seasoned and first-timers alike to interact, share their expertise and network to promote each other’s work.

There’s a real esprit de corps, and its membership is highly informed about all the latest publishing developments in business and technology.

And it’s quite a diverse crowd – you have romance and fantasy writers rubbing shoulders, and authors of non-fiction and fiction keeping company and swapping marketing advice. And it’s not just writers. ALLi also counts graphic designers, editors, copywriters and publicists among its members.

I would go so far as to say an ALLi membership is almost compulsory if you’re going to strike out on your own and navigate the publishing trail. Why wouldn’t you tap into the best author-publishing network in the world?

What are ALLi’s relationships with other author organisations, such as, in Australia, the Australian Society of Authors (ASA), the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI) and others, such as the Writers’ Centres? 

There have been some early discussions with some of these groups, but author-publishing is still in many ways in its infancy in Australia, despite being a successful pathway for many now ‘traditional’ authors including the likes of thriller writer Matthew Reilly (Contest), sci-fi author Simon Haynes (his first three Hal Spacejock novels), cookbook authors Rachel Bermingham and Kim McCosker (of 4 Ingredients fame), Frank Hardy (Power Without Glory), and Patrick White (Flaws In The Glass).

ALLi is very much about encouraging its membership to not only produce quality, professional products but to use the channels open to them to more effectively market their books. ALLi welcomes professional partnerships with likeminded organisations.

Over the years I have been a member of the NSW Writers’ Centre, the NSW Society of Editors and the Society of Women Writers, and have attended countless writing festivals around Australia. I see real value in writers coming together to seriously tackle the business of writing – not just mastering it, celebrating it and sharing it, but actually coming to grips with the nuts and bolts of marketing it, selling it (into foreign markets and on multiple platforms), and navigating the world of digital publishing. This is where ALLi excels.

I’d love to see more Australian author-centric organisations embrace, include and work with ALLi members and the author-publishing model.

As the Australian representative for what is an international grouping of independent authors, how do you see your role? And what kinds of things have you participated in? 

Being a regional representative involves raising awareness about ALLi’s services and getting involved in Australian publishing life. Most importantly, it’s about helping to build a network of writers and author-publishers to share knowledge and champion each other’s work.

I have been involved with quite a few online conferences and blogs, but I would welcome the opportunity to speak with Australian writing groups, centres and organisations about the benefits of ALLi membership, the role of author-publishing, and the business of being an author.

What’s planned for ALLi in the future?

ALLi has quite a few irons in the fire for 2016, chief among them the free Indie Author Fringe events, featuring some of the world’s most successful self-published authors.
Indie Author Fringe (formerly known as IndieReCon) offers FREE online one-day conferences for any authors interested in self-publishing.

Over the course of 2016, ALLi will take authors through the entire indie author journey, from writing to promotion and beyond. There are three planned online international events in 2016 on the heels of London Book Fair (April 12th-14th 2016), Book Expo America (May 11th-13th 2016) and Frankfurt Book Fair (19th-23rd October 2016). But it doesn’t matter where you are in the world, if you have an internet connection you can join in.

Thanks Sophie for the chance to share what ALLI does. It’s a really exciting time to be a writer involved in self-publishing!