Yesterday’s ‘Whole Shebang’ session at MWF was a full day of professional development for about 110 folks building a career in writing and publishing. Guests included publishers, agents, editors and authors who dished amazing facts and information about the Australian writing and publishing industry. I was honoured to provide a presentation too, and sat in on the whole day, absorbing the wealth of wisdom shared. Highlights? Let’s start with the publishers sessions:

Bob Sessions, the gentlemanly publisher of Penguin, gave an overview of Australian book publishing ‘at this crucial moment in its evolution’. He acknowledged the rise and rise of eBooks, but pointed out that last year in Australia, Penguin sold 7 million books compared to 500,000 eBooks – ‘we are not experiencing the end of the book, but a watershed in the history of publishing and writing’. While acknowledging the instant gratification of one-click eBook purchase, Sessions championed the pBook as a cultural artefact of enduring value: ‘our books on our shelves in our homes says something about our culture.’

Sessions shared a fascinating insight: multinational media conglomerates, which own newspapers, magazines and film studios, try to ensure that they also own a publishing house – like Murdoch with Harper Colllins – because they are hoping to mine gold: the million dollar success story that often begins with an author’s brilliant idea. ‘Some of the best ideas start in books – writers are the best ideas people.’

So for Sessions, no matter the format, a publisher is still an ‘ideas facilitator’ or a ‘cultural business person’, who must filter, tailor and fund ideas – ideas which begin with the author.

Sue Hines, Publishing Director from the Australian-owned Allen&Unwin made an impression, striding up to the lectern claiming: ‘I’m a revolutionary – bring on the future!’ Allen & Unwin now produce an eBook version of every book they publish (except pictorial rich ones, due to tech constraints). Their business model is that eBooks staff will be integrated throughout the publishing house, resourcing another process in the complex series of interlocking steps involved in publishing. She is adamant that the role of the publisher and editor will continue.

Hines sees the real challenge for publishers as how to sell into the electronic market, without the bricks’n’mortar shopfronts for customers to browse. Publishers need to develop ways to get customers’ attention online: ‘the revolution is here – now we just need to work out what the new world will look like.’

Hines’s shared an interesting observation from her international experience in publishing. Publishers tend to describe their roles in metaphors: in Australia, it used to be that publishers compared themselves to caring professions – handmaidens and midwives. When Hines asked her New York colleagues, no one used caring metaphors – instead they saw themselves as generals, quarterbacks and gamblers. But when she returned to Australia, she found it a rougher and tougher place. Australian publishers now see themselves as orchestra conducters, team players – gone are the midwives of Australian books.

Ending on a positive note, Hines stated that the ‘new world’ will give writers more chance of getting published.

Aviva Tuffield also had positive news and useful insights for Australian authors. Tuffield was hired as Fiction Acquistions Editor at Scribe in 2006 specifically to build an Australian fiction list, and has achieved incredible success. After spending the first 5 years just getting Scribe on the fiction publishing landscape, Tuffield has gone on to develop an amazing list: 3 out of 5 of Scribe’s top bestsellers last year were fiction.

Tuffield reported that Henry Rosenbloom, founder and publisher of the independent Scribe, has a philosophy of publishing ‘books that do good as well as doing well’.
Tuffield works to a broad brief of finding and publishing ‘quality fiction’. She said for her, it’s the writing that matters, especially that ‘the narrative voice is very important for a writer to find – it’s about communication with readers– a sense of audience’. Tuffield hunts for promising manuscripts via literary agents, but also scours literary journals and competitions (and not just the winners). She urged authors to get their work out there – ‘it’s both an art and a craft.’

Tuffield is also a big believer in ‘late-bloomers’: the Scribe CAL prize for over-35s closes on Sept 15. Last year, out of 530 entries, the winner was chosen – and a 72 year old woman from rural NSW achieved her lifelong dream of being published – and Scribe then chose to publish the two shortlisted winners as well. These odds are much better than those facing unsolicited manuscripts.

Tuffield concluded by emphasizing that one major strength of small publishers is the care and attention they give their authors. Small publishers have limited marketing budgets, so they rely on good reviews and word-of-mouth to drive sales – which means they will take the time and effort to work with each author on each project to make it the best possible book it can be.

All up, The Whole Shebang provided a great industry overview from the publishers presenting. Next, I’ll share the highlights from amazing presentations by Clare Forster, literary agent, and Tom Cho, author and grants write, among others.

But right now I have to head in to MWF to catch a crime panel!

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