Double Act 4: Dianne Bates and About Kids Books

In the fourth of my series on author-publishers, I’m interviewing Dianne Bates, who is in the early stages of setting up her own publishing company, About Kids Books.

Author of 130+ books, Dianne (Di) Bates is a full-time freelance writer. Di has worked as a newspaper and magazine editor and manuscript assessor. She founded Buzz Words  in 2006. Di is a recipient of The Lady Cutler Award for distinguished services to children’s Literature. Her website is http://www.enterprisingwords.com.au

Dianne-Bates

First of all congratulations on starting About Kids Books! What motivated you to start your own publishing company?

For many years I aspired to setting up a national children’s magazine; (I’d worked on Puffinalia and NSW Department of Education School Magazine). When I landed a job as editor of the national magazine Little Ears and saw how the owners went broke very quickly after investing a lot of time and money, I changed my mind, especially as I didn’t have any contacts (such as distributors) in that industry. More recently I’ve been inspired by self-publishers who have managed to set up their own book imprints so I’ve been able to ask a number of them of their experiences. All have given me valuable advice so I feel confident now of some degree of success.

What are your plans for the list? What will you be concentrating on?

I intend to publish quality children’s books for readers up to 12 years (excluding picture books). At the moment I would like to publish three books a year, assuming I find manuscripts which fit my brief. I have a personal preference for social realism, but am open to publishing all genres.

What are the challenges and pleasures so far?

I am constantly challenged by a lack of skill in computing so I need to invest money in employing people who are proficient in this area. At the moment I have someone designing a website for About Kids Books. Meanwhile, I am reading and assessing manuscripts which writers have sent me.

You have been a publisher before–of magazines and websites. How do you think this new direction will differ?

Hopefully I will discover and nurture new authors and illustrators, and help productive authors to extend their lists. Since 2006 I’ve offered numerous writing and illustrating competitions and have discovered talent through my publication of Buzz Words, a magazine for those in the Australian children’s book industry.

What do you think being a long-published author can bring to your new career as a book publisher?

Certainly over the past 30 and more years I’ve made many contacts in the industry, which as anyone can tell you is filled with generous people. My ‘name’ might result in people wanting to purchase the books I’ll be publishing and thus help defray costs.

Any advice for aspiring author-publishers?

Like any new venture, you need to do your homework: for example, check out printers, designers, distributors, book clubs and library suppliers before you take the first step. Having some capital behind you is also a must!

PS: Di Bates contributed a guest post earlier this year to my blog about her magazine, Buzz Words. You can read it here. 

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Double Act 3: Michael Wagner and Billy Goat Books

In the third of my series on author-publishers, I’m interviewing Michael Wagner.

wagnerMichael Wagner is the author of more than 70 books for children which include the much loved, 20-book Maxx Rumble series (still in print after 11 years); a collection of delightfully silly and warm-hearted stories about a family called The Undys; the best-selling picture bookWhy I Love Footy; and many more.

Prior to becoming a children’s author, Michael worked for ten years as radio broadcaster with the ABC, wrote and produced award-winning television animations, and wrote everything from copy to songs and comedy. His latest challenge is starting his own micro-publisher called Billy Goat Books, with the first book, Pig Dude: He Can Do Anything! published in late August this year.

First of all congratulations on starting Billy Goat Books! What motivated you to start your own publishing company?

Thanks Sophie. Well, to be honest I was motivated by two things: fear of rejection and the desire to, sometimes, just sometimes, have total creative control over my work.

By ‘fear of rejection’ I mean that I’ve recently discovered that some of my writing just doesn’t appeal to many publishers, even though it has widespread appeal to kids in schools. I speak in schools a lot and often test stories out. In 2014, I wrote a book called Pig Dude: He Can Do ANYTHING! When it felt ready to read, I tested it in a dozen different schools, and I was thrilled by how it went. It received an overwhelmingly positive, and very spontaneous reaction, maybe the best reaction I’ve ever received for any of my books. I felt like I was onto something.

But, when I sent it to a couple of publishers, it was fairly flatly rejected. Feeling a bit taken aback, I took it back into schools and tested it again. Once again, it got that big, positive reaction. But something told me sending it to more publishers was likely to be a time-consuming and, most likely, fruitless exercise. (I may have been wrong, but that’s what my instincts told me) And I didn’t really want to face a string of rejections with something that seemed particularly viable to me.

Now, having something of an entrepreneurial streak, I decided to publish it myself. It was a relief not to have to go through the submission process and I felt excited about being able to get started straightaway and about having so much more creative control over one of my books. Something about that really appealed. So I formed Billy Goat Books and published Pig Dude: He Can Do ANYTHING!Pig-Dude-Cover

What inspired the name of your press?

That’s actually a tough question. I tried about a million names, including Chilli Pepper Books (too suggestive of erotic fiction, apparently), Sparky Pepper Books (too random), Rocket Boy Books (too nothing), Bugle Books and Toot-Toot Books (both of which have flatulence connotations), etc, etc, and finally settled on Billy Goat Books. I like the playfulness of the name and the slight masculinity. My books are often quite boysie, so it felt right to me. And it hadn’t already been taken, which was a surprise, so I grabbed it.

What are your plans for the list? What will you be concentrating on?

As it costs quite a lot of money to created illustrated, printed books, I’ve decided to grow quite slowly – probably by only a book or two a year for the first few years. And, as I have a stockpile of my own stories ready to go, I plan to learn the business with books I’ve written.

I think, in a way, that’s fairer on other authors, because after a couple of years of learning how to create and sell books, I’ll be much better placed to provide a valuable service for others.

So, for now, it’ll just be my writing, but with the help of various illustrators, depending on who suit the different titles I have lined up.

What are the challenges and pleasures so far?

For me, there was an enormous learning curve. To minimise costs, I taught myself to design both the cover of a book and the interior pages – something I’ll have to learn all over again with each book, unless I employ a proper designer. That meant teaching myself software programs like InDesign and Photoshop – not easy!

And there are jobs like writing a contract for an illustrator, working out printing specifications, setting up distribution, creating Billy Goat Books, its brand and website, organising publicity, etc, etc, etc.

It’s a big job and probably best entered into completely naively, because knowing too much would be quite a disincentive. It’s best just to take it one job at a time.

On the other hand, if you’re creating a text-only ebook, the job is MUCH smaller. Printed books with illustrations are at the more difficult end of the publishing process, ebooks with only text are quite straightforward by comparison.

But, for me, learning new skills is exciting and having control over the product is extremely creatively satisfying. And when you hold what you’ve made in your hands for the first time, you know you did it yourself. So, on balance, I’ve enjoyed it immensely.

What do you think being an author can bring to your new career as a book publisher?

I think the big advantage many authors have is that they can test their material on their target audience. That takes a lot of the guesswork out of the publishing process.

Of course it’s not definitive. There are many successful books that would be incredibly difficult to read to an audience – like Goodnight Moon, for example. Really intimate books like that one are perfect for reading one-on-one, but might not work well with an audience. So not all fantastic books would test well. But when a book feels wonderful when it’s being read to an audience, chances are it’s worth publishing.

Being in front of kids many days a year allows authors to road test and refine some of their material and I think that’s a huge advantage. You really get the hang of what your audience likes when they’re sitting in front of you.

Any advice for aspiring author-publishers?

Hmm? Beware. If you’re printing illustrated books, it’s a lot of work and not cheap. But it’s very handy if you’ve been unable to land a publishing deal with something you truly believe in (having tested it with audiences), to be able to publish it yourself. Self-publishing or micro-publishing is a bit of a safety net, meaning you don’t have to simply shelve a manuscript you really feel is good enough (as far as any of us can tell that about our own work). It’s a fallback position, and that’s something authors have never really had before.

 

Double Act 2: Julian Davies and Finlay Lloyd

Julian Davies

In the second of my series on author-publishers, I’m interviewing Julian Davies, one of the owners and founders of Finlay Lloyd, a non-profit publisher which has been going for nine years.  Julian describes himself as jack of a number of trades – writer, potter, painter and front-man for a non profit art gallery, The Left Hand. As well as publisher of course! He has lived in the mountains near Braidwood, New South Wales, for much of his adult life. The author of five novels, he has also written various stories and essays.

When and how did Finlay Lloyd start? What motivated you in the first place to start your own publishing company?

Finlay Lloyd was begun by four people – Phil Day, Ingeborg Hansen, Robin Wallace-Crabbe and me – all with somewhat varied interests in making books, but joining together to form a press with different values from mainstream publishers. Phil and Ingeborg had a background in producing inventive, beautifully set and designed handmade books, and had an interest in publishing fiction and poetry. Robin, a well-known writer and artist, had also designed books in his youth. I wanted to offer a counter-model, however modest, to commercial publishing. Our aim was to make

Phil Day

Phil Day

well-designed paper books while encouraging and supporting the sort of inventive writing that the big presses were too risk averse to back. It was important to me that FL was non-profit – we do not pay ourselves at all – in contradiction of the dominant paradigm.

How did you initially persuade booksellers to stock your books?

I simply got on the phone and called every bookshop I could locate, explaining what our intentions were. I made it plain that we were supplying firm sale, but that we didn’t want shops to buy books they couldn’t sell.

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

Through the nine years since the establishment of the press our values and methods have remained consistent, but with the departure of Ingeborg and Robin from Finlay Lloyd, Phil and I have settled into a pattern where we discuss everything but he sets and designs the books while I act as editor and deal with publicity and sales. Our partnership has become closer and more interactive (hence his doing almost 400 drawings for my novel Crow Mellow). We envisage the press evolving to mainly undertake collaborative projects, whether between us or with others.

Crow Mellow cover 2Has working as a publisher impacted on your own career as an author–whether that be positive or negative?

I’ve found helping other writers realise their projects as well as possible an intriguing and valuable experience. It has given me a greater perspective on writing, publishing, and bookselling. Although this was not my intention in starting the press, Finlay Lloyd has finally provided a means to publish my own books in an inventive, unconstrained way, free from the commercial imperatives of the big presses.

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

I’ve found the many aspects of making books both rewarding and challenging – the demands on my time have been considerable. I’ve often wished I could clone myself in order to cope better, but my family likes to remind me that one of me is quite enough. Perhaps the keenest pleasure has been learning at close quarters how other writers think as they respond to editorial input.

flsmallsAny advice for aspiring author-publishers?

Because the book industry has been in such flux in recent decades more room has opened up for small presses. With their business model under threat, the big presses have withdrawn from some aspects of publishing. Furthermore, computer setting and the reduced cost of printing have made the process far more accessible. With these factors in mind, I’d suggest that anyone entering publishing may be brave but not necessarily as foolish as it might appear. I’d also suggest that having a broad and perceptive curiosity about all aspects of writing, typography, design and book production is a prerequisite as rare as it is obvious and valuable. I can’t stress that enough. There is a plethora of badly made books out there in the world. Small publishers should be self-critical and nimble enough to reinvent what they do imaginatively

Double Act 1: Paul Collins and Ford Street Publishing

As director and co-founder of small publisher Christmas Press, as well as being an author, I’ve become very interested in the growing phenomenon I’ve joined: that of well-known and respected Australian authors who are also publishers. Authors who, not being content just to write books, also started their own publishing companies. Initially driven by frustration at seeing a particular text of theirs rejected by conventional publishers, these start-ups often soon expand into something beyond self-publishing, taking on other authors’ and illustrators’ work. And it’s happening more and more, in a time both of big-publisher list contractions, and a blooming of small press due in no small part to the effect that digitising files has had on the cost of printing books, which has come down considerably in recent years.

This is the first in a series of interviews, under the umbrella title of ‘Double Act’, which I’ve conducted recently with author-publishers, whose publishing businesses range from highly experienced and long-standing, to brand new and developing. And to start this series, I’m presenting an interview with an author who was one of the earliest innovators in the area, and whose Ford St Publishing has become one of the ‘heavy-hitters’ in the author-owned small press field : Paul Collins.

paul collins 1

One of Paul’s very early titles as a publisher

Paul Collins portrait

 

Paul Collins has written over 150 books and 140 short stories. He is best known for The Quentaris Chronicles (The Spell of Undoing is Book #1 in the new series), which he co-edits with Michael Pryor, The Jelindel Chronicles, The Earthborn Wars and The World of Grrym trilogy in collaboration with Danny Willis. Paul’s latest six part series is The Warlock’s Child in collaboration with Sean McMullen, and the anthology, Rich & Rare, which he edited.

Paul has been short-listed for many awards and won the Aurealis, William Atheling and the inaugural Peter McNamara awards. He recently received the A Bertram Chandler Award for lifetime achievement in Australian science fiction. He has had two Notable Books in the Children’s Book Council of Australia Awards.

He has black belts in both ju jitsu and taekwondo – this experience can be seen in The Jelindel Chronicles and The Maximus Black Files.

RIch and Rare FRONT cover

Ford Street is one of the most well-known and successful of author-owned and operated small press publishers. How did it start? What motivated you in the first place to start your own publishing company? And how did you target your list?

I started publishing back in the 70s. First up was a self-published novel called Hot Lead – Cold Sweat. Yes, I know, it was as awful as it sounds. However, it made me realise at the time that I liked the process. So I began a science fiction magazine called Void. It was the only Australian SF magazine at the time. I moved into publishing fantasy and science fiction back when the major publishers had no interest in either of those genres. In fact, I was the first Australian publisher to publish mainstream fantasy novels for adults. Distribution was really hard to get in those days and finally when a distributor called Buddy Reed disappeared with both my stock and the money he owed I decided to stick to writing short stories. In 2007 I decided to get back into publishing because I could see many things had changed. Distribution was easier – Macmillan took me on – book clubs had sprung up, and the Internet provided many avenues to reach an audience without cost. I’m discounting “time”, that is!

How did you initially persuade booksellers and other retailers, such as the schools distributors, to stock your books?

That’s really Macmillan’s job. I also have an educational distributor called INT Books. Together, they do quite a good job. I also send everyone I know media releases, just in case the distributors drop the ball on any given book. At the end of the day, if a school has a library, they need books. If you provide books that they like, the school librarian will gladly purchase.

Have your aims and strategies as a publisher changed from those early days? How?

I used to publish books for adults only. That’s an entirely different market from children’s to young adult. It’s a niche market when you’re publishing in just two genres. The main outlet in those days was minimal distribution to shops, and then going into municipal libraries and selling direct. The science fiction conferences were another avenue for sales. Today I have distributors who do all that for me.

Has working as a publisher impacted on your own career as an author – whether that be positive or negative?paul collins 3

I don’t think so. I can publish my own work if I wish. All modesty aside, my titles are among Ford Street’s best-selling books. Trust Me!, which I edited, is our #1 top seller. Wardragon (fourth of the Jelindel books) comes in at second. I wouldn’t be publishing my own books if they weren’t selling. I think that’s a trap for beginners. Publishing your own books works if they’re selling, but if they’re not, you risk bringing down your brand, and appearing like a vanity press. So far, I think I’ve avoided that label. And I can think of several editors who work for major publishers who have their own books published by their workplace.

I still write for other publishers. In the past year I’ve had six books in the Legends in their Own Lunchbox series (Macmillan) and next year two short story collections in collaboration with Meredith Costain Paul Collins 4(Scholastic) and three plays (Pearson), due.

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

Challenges are time, money, finding suitable books, getting authors/illustrators to promote their own books. Pleasures are creating books, working for myself, thereby having very flexible working hours (I work seven days a week, but that’s my choice), the joy of knowing a book is selling really well, or selling overseas rights, taking on books that major publishers have rejected and seeing sales go paul collins 5through the roof. One example is my own The Glasshouse. It was rejected by a great many publishers, some, like Penguin – my own publisher at the time, didn’t even respond to the submission. Ford Street published it and I sent it to a book club. They purchased 4000 copies. It went on to sell another 1200+. They’re not bad sales figures for a small press. It went on to be chosen by International IBBY as an Outstanding Book (only two other Australian books received this) and was short-listed for the CBCA’s Crichton Award.

Any tips for aspiring author-publishers?

As I’ve just mentioned, be careful about publishing your own work. If you do, ensure you get it professionally edited. Make it the best you can. Ensure you have distribution. Without this, you’ll wind up with boxloads of books in a garage. On this note, don’t print too many copies. I know the more you print the cheaper the unit cost, but if you wind up with 2000 books in storage, it doesn’t matter how little they cost you – you’re still stuck with 2000 books (and hopefully not paying for storage!).

Think about getting trailers produced, get bookmarks, posters of the covers – anything to help promote your books. A website is essential. I know authors and illustrators who still don’t have websites and this is just craziness in today’s climate.

Covers are important. Don’t settle for second-best. The more professionally you can present your books, the better your brand name will be. I’ll always remember a librarian telling me that she would always order McPhee-Gribble YA books, because they rarely if ever published a dud book. That’s a recommendation that a small press should strive for.

Visit Paul’s websites: www.paulcollins.com.au, www.quentaris.com and www.fordstreetpublishing.com.

burning sea

 

Guest post: Dianne Bates on Buzz Words

Dianne (Di) Bates is one of the most hard-working and dedicated writers I know, and has been in the industry for decades. She has published over 120 books for children, some of which have won state and national awards, including two children’s choice book awards (WAYRBA and KOALA). She is married to award-winning children’s author Bill Condon; they share a website http://enterprisingwords.com.au

As well as being a writer, Di is also the founding editor of the highly-respected industry magazine Buzz Words, an invaluable resource for anyone involved in children’s books. In this guest post she profiles the magazine. I highly recommend subscribing to it!

Buzz Words: All the Buzz About Books

By Dianne Bates

In 2006 I started a subscriber-based twice-monthly online magazine exclusively for people in the Australian children’s book industry, such as writers, illustrators, librarians, publishers – in fact, anyone interested in children’s books. As editor I gather material from many sources and sometimes commission material. Buzz Words’ aim is to keep readers abreast of what’s currently happening in the children’s book industry and to give them as many opportunities to get informed and possibly published.

Every issue contains industry news, publisher profiles, profiles of people in the industry, an interview (editors, publishers, designers, etc), opportunities, markets, competitions and awards, recommended books and websites/blogs, festivals and conferences, workshops, article/s, subscribers’ achievements, letters to the editor and children’s book reviews. Links are frequently provided to help readers.

Buzz Words is as subscriber-friendly as possible. Preference for interviews, articles, profiles, etc is always given to subscribers. Subscribers are also given the opportunity to advertise for free if they have a product and/or service.

The magazine also has a children’s book review blog http://buzzwordsmagazine.com where a new children’s book review appears every day. Reviews are also linked through the magazine to the blog. Buzz Words has 20 reviewers; we review for most children’s publishers in Australia.

I am happy to send anyone the latest issue of the magazine to see if they would like to subscribe. Contact dibates@outlook.com. Cost is $48 per year (24 issues). The magazine is distributed on the 1st and 15th of every month.