I first met Jane Morrow at the Sydney Writers Festival in 2011 where she had just been announced winner of the prestigious Beatrice Davis Editorial Fellowship for 2011-12. This blog post should be tagged ‘Living Vicariously’ because what Jane has ahead of her is so exciting and I’m looking forward to following the journey on her blog! Read her guest post following.
Next week I’ll hang up my Penguin book bag for 10 weeks to head to the US as part of the Beatrice Davis Editorial Fellowship (BDEF). I first heard about the fellowship back in about 1999 when I was just starting to work in the publishing industry. One sweaty summery evening, in a bookshop in Sydney’s north, children’s publisher Erica Wagner (then Irving) enthused about the eye-opening trip she had just returned from, where she had worked alongside and learnt from some of the publishers she admired most in the world. My interest was piqued. Whose wouldn’t be? An award for a mid-career editor of a fully funded opportunity of a lifetime: to meet, investigate and work alongside publishers in the biggest English language market.
Since that day 12 years have flown by as I’ve busied myself with working at HarperCollins Australia, then Penguin Australia, then Elwin Street (a little coedition publisher in London), then Penguin again, not to mention the arrival of a couple of kids in that mix. For most of this time I have worked as an editor of non-fiction books, many of which fall into the highly illustrated ‘ooh aah’ category. I love developing strong concepts for titles with authors who are expert in their fields (but not always expert writers) and, together with clever designers, producing a book that is both wonderfully written and a beautiful object to interact with. It is a thrill to work with top-class authors to make their books even better than they had first conceived. There is so much scope for creativity – and admittedly rather a large demand for sensitivity and diplomacy as well, which appeals somehow. Any regular visitor to Australian bookshops over the last 10 years will know that the illustrated book business has been in overdrive. How many cookbooks did you own 10 years ago? And how many now? I rest my case.
But against this background, publishers of illustrated non-fiction, of course along with publishers of every other category of books, have been put on a state of high alert. (I keep thinking of that phrase ‘Be alert but not alarmed’.) We can’t keep publishing the way we have done. As if the combined stress factors of sales going online and offshore, the collapse of REDGroup (goodbye 10–20 percent of that print run) and the high Australian dollar weren’t complicating things enough, we have to get real about the fact that business models need to change as more and more readers want to read in digital formats rather than print. And publishers of illustrated books – I’m thinking about everything from a cookbook to a kid’s picture book – have the special challenge of trying to make sound business decisions when the technology isn’t quite there yet to produce digital products that are genuinely satisfying.
Digital publishing guru Mike Shatzkin recently made the point here that the digital future is set for those who publish ‘immersive reading’, but for illustrated books it is still somewhat of a mystery. (Interestingly, Penguin Australia has already broken their operations into three distinct businesses, as Shatzkin suggests might be the way things go more generally in publishing. Penguin Australia now has separate divisions for general publishing, illustrated books (for adults) and children’s books.)
I’ve been thinking about these issues and discussing them with colleagues for a couple of years, so when the call went out for applications for the BDEF in early 2011, I had a project in mind and it seemed the right time to throw my hat in the ring for this award. The great benefit, as I see it, for the Australian book industry right now in learning from that of the US is that they are widely acknowledged to be one-and-a-half to two years ahead of us in terms of the adoption of digital reading technology and the content industry that supports it. Sometimes it helps to have an older sibling who can go through all the trial and error before you do.
So on 10 February I’ll fly to New York, initially to attend O’Reilly’s Tools of Change conference, where I’ve heard publishing people are ‘told what they need to hear, not just what they want to hear’. I then take up placements for three weeks each at Penguin and Ecco (a clever little imprint owned by HarperCollins) in New York, followed by three weeks at Chronicle Books in San Francisco. In addition to these placements I have what currently feels like a frightening number of appointments with everyone from sales reps to literary agents, digital start-up publishers to old-school kids’ book editors. And I’ll be meeting Mike Shatzkin himself.
At the larger, more established publishing houses I hope to learn how they are adapting and remaking themselves as publishers across multiple media. How have they changed their thinking? How are US editors approaching the digital project-management workflow and how does this interact with their traditional book-making? Are specialised digital teams the answer, or are the traditional roles of book publisher and editor expanding? How are they industrialising their processes so that they look after their authors, those in the industry and maintain their editorial standards? What have they learnt about the place in the market for illustrated book apps? And to anyone in the industry willing to talk with me, I’ll be asking them what innovative projects have worked and what haven’t, in an effort to take home to Australia some information about what our publishing future might look like.
Wish me luck!