17 September 2013

How the Whirlpool Got Its Spin

In the High and Far-Off Times, O Best Beloved, the Publisher had no stories. But she had a friend, a Literary Agent. And so that was all right, Best Beloved. Do you see?

Sometimes, publishing is like trying to find your true love at a bar in the CBD on a Friday night. There are a lot of fish in the sea, and not all of them are going to *ahem* meet your exacting criteria. So, to narrow the field and increase their chances of finding their one true love/the perfect book, publishers often look to a matchmaker - otherwise known as a literary agent.

Agents know their clients' work, obviously, but one of their other great skills is building deep and lasting relationships with publishers and editors, and knowing exactly which book and author might suit which publisher. If a literary agent you trust sets you up, chances are you'll be going home together.*
Publisher Anna McFarlane remembers one such match-made-in-heaven:

My first day at Allen & Unwin was 20 July 2010. And while I was excited, I was also discombobulated. I had a desk, a print-out of procedures, a phone, a wall of bookshelves without any books in it, and an email address (although only one email -- the subject being 'Testing your email'). I was a blank slate and even though I was happy, Bad Thoughts were starting to pop into my head. Was this the right thing to be doing? Could I still publish books? Would I ever fall in love with a manuscript again? It was all rather nerve-wracking.

But at 1:40pm on that very first day, I received my (second ever) email, subject: 'New Book'.

Hello Anna
Welcome to your new home!! I know that today is your first day and you probably haven't even found the mail room yet (first door on the left) but wanted this to be the first thing I send you.


It was from Curtis Brown agent and MD Fiona Inglis and the 'this' was a new novel by the award-winning writer Andrew McGahan. Rather surprisingly to all involved (even him), Andrew had written a young-adult novel set on the high seas in a strange-but-familiar world. Luckily, I was able to read it straight away (empty inbox, after all) and very quickly I was captivated by the Great Ocean and the splendor of those tall ships, and longed to read more about Dow's journey from timber cutter to great mariner.

Reading the manuscript was a beautiful experience, not just because I was being transported by the story to a world of wild storms, terrible beauty and that dangerous and mysterious ocean, but also because those Bad Thoughts had disappeared.

It was day one and I had fallen in love with a manuscript. I desperately wanted to publish it. And (ironically if you know the story, which questions the very concept of destiny, and challenges the idea of portents and superstitions) it was also a sign that this was indeed the right thing to be doing.

And there you have it. True love fostered, fears allayed and zeal renewed, all without Anna needing to leave her shiny** new desk.

Thank you, Fiona - and thank you to all the other agents who help us to find stories we love and authors we adore.

* Metaphorically. METAPHORICALLY.
** Metaphorically. This is publishing, after all.

10 September 2013

How the Tashi Got His Tale

 Before the Chapter Books and the Bind Ups and the Box Sets, O my Best Beloved, came the Time of the Very Beginnings.

When an author brings a work to us they often imagine it in a particular shape or form. But part of the publisher's job is to know the market, to understand the material, and to see possibilities that the author or illustrator never even considered. Often, the author's initial vision is very close to the final product. But sometimes, with time and discussion and consultation it grows (or metamorphoses) into something else entirely. 

You might think of the editorial process as a bit like helping the sculptor to find David in the block of marble. 'Chip that nose a bit. A bit more. A bit more. Perfect!' And mostly, that's true.

But it can also be about thinking differently about what's already there: 'You've been going for David, but actually we think you've made a very handsome Daniel.'*

Other times it's about plucking up your courage and saying, 'Look, Michaelangelo, I don't think marble is your medium; have you considered watercolours?'

In the case of Tashi - Anna and Barbara Fienberg's much-loved hero - it was perhaps a bit like encouraging a minnow, to grow to a school of fish, to become a blue whale - while still being Tashi all the time.

Anna Fienberg conceived the original Tashi story as a picture-book text. It had so many appealing qualities: a rich friendship between boy and friend (or alter ego); a teasing relationship between boy and father; a fresh take on the 'tall tale'; a fearless blend of European and Asian folk story traditions; larger-than-life villains; an irrepressible hero living by his wits (brain not brawn always triumphs); action aplenty; exotic landscapes; and scope for cinematic pictures…

And Kim Gamble was the perfect illustrator, given his previous collaborations with Anna, his talent for characterisation and his lovingly intricate scenery.

But the manuscript was too long for a standard picture book, and the writing too good to cut.

Rosalind Price, head of children's publishing at Allen & Unwin at the time, knew there was a need for short, engaging 'chapter books' for young readers and nearly-readers. So instead of chopping back the text, she said 'write another story!' We chose a slim, economical paperback novel format, with two stories and lots of black-and-white illustrations. It was hard to forego Kim's delicious watercolours, but his detailed pencil drawings have their own intimate appeal, and leave room for the reader to imagine the world of the stories. And suddenly there was scope for all the further adventures that Anna wanted to explore!

That first little Tashi book led to 18 years (so far) of publishing Tashi. There have been sixteen chapter books, an activity books, a few bind-ups, and a couple of box sets.

In 2004, Tashi finally appeared in the form that Anna had originally envisioned - in the beautiful full-colour picture book There Once Was a Boy Called Tashi.  This November, Tashi goes picture book again in Once Tashi Met a Dragon, which features a beautiful - but very hard to photograph - sparkly dragon on the cover.

So in some ways, Tashi has come full circle. But he's also branching out into brave new worlds. Next year, Flying Bark Productions and ABC TV will let loose Tashi and Jack and Lotus Blossum in animated form!

But whatever the format, with or without the sparkles and glitter, no matter how fat or how skinny the book, at the core of Tashi are the rich, warm, imaginative characters and stories that Anna and Barbara Fienberg and Kim Gamble created. 

Our original marketing copy included the line 'Tashi tells the best stories …', and 18 years later that line still appears on almost all of the book jackets, and in much of our marketing material. Because he does; Tashi tells the best stories.

* 'And there's a gap in the market for a good Daniel.'

09 September 2013

Just So Stories

For our 25th anniversary we've been sharing the Origin stories of the Onions. We walked a lot of different paths to the House of Onion, some smooth, some thorny and some with a higher-than-expected number of door-to-door encyclopedia sales.*

But what of the books themselves? How do we find our authors and our books - or how do they find us?

Pure and simple: how do the books become?

Well, we must begin with the confession that, as Algernon Moncrieff so tartly put it, 'the truth is rarely pure and never simple. Modern life would be very tedious if it were either, and modern literature a complete impossibility!'

Sometimes they come to us.

Sometimes we go to them.

Sometimes they arrive fully formed.

Sometimes the gestation is long, and the incarnations are many.

Sometimes, we feel like Kipling's whale, opening its throat and swallowing all the stories in the world.**

Sometimes we feel like Taffy, creating the alphabet from scratch

Often, we feel like Pooh and Piglet - keeping company with authors and stories, lending a paw, navigating heffalump traps and having a little smackerel of something at eleven.  

So hear and attend and listen; for this befell and behappened and became and was.

Tomorrow: How the Tashi Got His Tale

The first two illustrations are Rudyard Kipling's own woodcuts from Just So Stories, the third, of course, is the wonderful EH Shephard.

*For a brilliant short story about door-to-door salesmen, we highly recommend 'The Devil and the Corner Grocer' in the collection The Chewing Gum Rescue and other stories by Margaret Mahy.

** Until a Mariner of infinite-resource-and-sagacity used a lifeboat and suspenders to create a grating to stem the flow. We call this grating The Friday Pitch, but more of that in due course.