SCBWI Bologna 2010 Publisher Interview: Sarah Foster of Walker Books Australia and New Zealand

Interview by Laura Watkinson for SCBWI Bologna 2010

Sarah, you’re a publisher and managing director with Walker Books in Australia. Could you tell us a little about your career and what path you took to reach this position?

I joined Walker Books in 1986 as their first Export Manager and spent the following three years traveling five months per annum for the company in to Canada, Australia, New Zealand and the Far East in particular.

Part of that role was spending time with Walker authors in those territories, which Sebastian Walker felt I was good at and I enjoyed doing; good practise for what was to come!

In 1988, after a messy break-up in the U.K., I was offered the opportunity to run the domestic sales team for Scholastic Australia and emigrated in 1989; it felt just far enough away at the time, though I was sad to leave Walker.

I left Scholastic in 1992 to spend time with my first child and shortly after, was offered the job by Walker to set up the Australian company from scratch. We founded Walker Books Australia in 1993 and went in to New Zealand in 1999.

I have always had to have a number of roles at Walker Australia, in addition to simply running the business. Initially, I looked after all the product and the special sales and managed the sales team. Gradually, I divested myself of all those roles as we grew and took on more staff and then would adapt my role to whatever we needed.

We decided the time was right to set up our local list in 2006.

In 2007, we published our first five books; the list grew to 26 titles in 2008 and has been a similar size since. I took on the role of publisher partly as, with years of sales and marketing experience, I felt I knew our market and knew what we could successfully publish better than anyone who could come into the business would.

Also from a practical view, I knew I couldn’t edit or design a book to save my life and wanted to spend money employing some good editors.

What might you do during a typical week at work these days? Which part of the job do you enjoy most?

I never have two days the same–which is one of the joys of my job and one of the frustrations. I always think I’d love more routine, but in truth, I’ve come to realise that I thrive on the variety of it.

I have some set meetings–staff meeting runs on to a product meeting where we look at stock and print runs and new material on a Monday.

On Wednesdays, we have publishing and covers and marketing meetings.

I can be a Jack of all trades–I was on the phone last week to an aspiring author whose unsolicited offerings weren’t right but whose writing, with work and re-direction, could fit a particular range of books we publish. Whilst on that (long) call, I had two interruptions; one from our landlord about our lease being renewed and another from Toyota about a fleet car I was in the middle of purchasing for a rep. That sort of juxtaposition is quite typical.

I will think I have a day during which I can get on with working on some books, and one of my team will come and see me with a systems or staff issue, and there is the morning gone!

The nectar–the juicy bit–for me in my role comes from staff, working with them and seeing them grow in their roles and in the books. And I suppose seeing the same sort of development from our authors and illustrators.

What kind of direct contact do you have with your authors and illustrators?

Recently, I had three days in Perth. During that time, I saw all but one of our 11 authors or illustrators from WA. It was really rewarding, for me, anyway! And generated a lot of ideas and new opportunities.

So I tend to grab the opportunity when I have it, to see people.

With NSW- or Sydney-based creators, I like to get them in to the office as often as possible.

I am a big believer in phoning and talking an issue through rather than sending an e-mail. I am also aware that a lot of authors and illustrators work in isolation, and it is good for them to come in to the office and see the team behind the book–to meet everyone.

When I was in sales, I never felt I spent enough time with our customers. Now, as a publisher I have to say I feel I never spend enough time with our authors.

And do you have many opportunities to meet your target audience, the young readers?

Yes, to start with, I have four very different (in interests and reading ability) avid readers at home aged 17, 15, 10 and 5 (who is with us part time). I bother their friends with books for feedback. Also, I am one of those people who talks to kids in libraries, book shops–anywhere. Especially if I see them reading something, I want to know what they think of the book.

What is your submissions policy? Do you have a slush pile? If so, do you personally consider new submissions?

Our submissions policy is that we don’t accept unsolicited manuscripts. However, until recently, we did read manuscripts that arrived unsolicited, and we have just decided to no longer do that as we felt it was taking up so much time and so few of the submissions were worth even considering. Our editors would share the reading, and then if something looked of interest, I’d get to see it.

Invariably, I do read material that gets personally sent to me because I have met someone at a conference or through some personal connection, and two such instances have led to us publishing a book. One is a picture book we are in the process of signing up, and the other is a fiction title we published last year.

The difficult thing for me is that I have to read all the Walker, Candlewick and agency (i.e. Frances Lincoln/Gullane) titles that we publish in addition to the local manuscripts; a lot of reading, so I am very slow at getting to our local books.

Do you have any tips for aspiring writers and illustrators who are hoping to catch a publisher’s attention?

Yes! First rule–don’t harass publishers to get back to you. There is nothing worse than the unpublished author hassling you for feedback, who can very very quickly fall in to the “too hard/why bother” basket. We tell authors it will take three-to-six months, probably six…because it will!

Secondly, if you write picture books, never send in a picture book with your friend, neighbour, cousins’, etc. illustrations. Just send the story!

Work on your manuscript. When you have written something, put it away until you can look at it again with impartial eyes. Then re-work on it, and then look at sending it in.

What publishers respect most of all in an unpublished author is restraint. The two authors I have worked with who went on to win awards with their first books had both in fact written–and binned–a number of earlier manuscripts.

Would you say that the Australian/N.Z. market differs in any way from, say, the British market or the U.S. market? Or do the same good books sell everywhere in the English-language market?

The A.N.Z. market differs very much from the U.K. and U.S. markets. N.Z. is more similar in it’s taste to the U.K. market than Australia.

Australia really straddles between U.K. and U.S. sensibilities.

In the A.N.Z. market, we love the funny and ironic books published out of the U.K. that often don’t sell in the U.S. However, we also do well with longer/older picture book texts, which tend not to work in the U.K. but have such a strong tradition in the U.S.

It is very rare to get young, illustrated fiction that works in all markets.

In the series realm, Megan MacDonald with her Judy Moody series has worked in all markets for Walker/CWP over an amazing ten-year period, and the Scream Street series [by Tommy Donbavand] is currently selling very well across all markets.

Quality writing from the likes of Kate Di Camillo crosses all borders, but it really is the top-notch writers that have the appeal at that level of readership.

YA and young picture books travel better as the themes and experiences at those age levels are more universal; whether you are looking at first love or potty training!

Primary schooling is a more diverse and culturally specific experience, and so it is harder for those books to travel.

What are your readers really enthusiastic about right now?

We do not have one set of readers. We have readers who love fantasy, readers who are pre-schoolers, readers who love pink books…. I think the only thing they have in common is that they expect quality and value for money.

Do you have a particular focus on books by writers from Australia and New Zealand or do you accept submissions from all over the world?

We buy in a few books by overseas publishers, particularly of the sort that we are not able to make ourselves, i.e. pop-ups/nonfiction, plus books in translation are of interest.

However, where we publish locally, as a matter of policy, I will always match an Aussie author with an Aussie illustrator, or a kiwi author with a kiwi illustrator as that way they will be eligible for the local awards, and being shortlisted for them is the single best way of establishing a book in the domestic market where the sales and royalties are premium for the author/illustrator.

Would you care to speculate about the way the children’s publishing world might develop over the next five years or so? Any important trends you see developing?

The technology for e-books is developing faster than any publisher can keep up with; especially in the realm of picture books, which are so slow to make anyway! E-readers are becoming lighter, brighter more attractive to children.

I think formats will change. Many books, just as they go through formats – hbk, pbk, board, etc. will develop an extra format: e-book. Other styles of book will develop just for the digital format. Everything is in a state of flux.

It is an exciting time; rather nerve-racking for those of us who aren’t hugely techno-savvy, but I think we just have to have an open mind as everything is changing so fast.

What kind of reader were you as a child? Which books have stayed with you since childhood, and did they influence your decision to work in children’s publishing?

An old family friend tells stories about how I played at bookshops with her sons as a young child (we moved opposite them when I was seven!), and she would have to run out and bring the books in when it started raining. So I guess I was destined to work in books!

I was a voracious reader.

I loved Anne of Green Gables [by Lucy Maud Montgomery (L. C. Page & Co., 1908)] and Little House on The Prairie [by Laura Ingalls Wilder (1932-2006)] best of all, but also loved Lorna Doone [by Richard Doddridge Blackmore (Sampson Low, Son, & Marston, 1869)] and The Children of the New Forest [by Frederick Marryat (1847)].

I hated C.S. Lewis–didn’t enjoy The Chronicles of Narnia (Harper, 1950-1956) or Alice in Wonderland [by Lewis Carroll (Macmillan, 1865)] till I read them to my children.

From the age of 11, I read Neville Shute and Georgette Heyer for my introduction to romance and Jane Austen and Thomas Hardy.

The nearest thing I read to a teenage novel was Edna O’Brien.

Which Australian/N.Z. authors and illustrators would you recommend for our reading lists?

Of our own, I would definitely say Sandy Fussell for upper primary readers – boys and girls; Brian Falkner for boys especially–that 10-to-15-year-old market.

We have a number of fab writers for upper primary/teenage girls: Aimee Said, Gerry Bobsien, Elsbeth Edgar and Elizabeth Pulford.

Meg McKinlay and Pamela Freeman write fantastic young illustrated fiction.

Sally Murphy has broken all the rules by writing verse novels that sell and are being published universally.

Mark Greenwood and Frane Lessac are producing some wonderful illustrated narrative nonfiction.

We have a range of really strong new illustrators; Mark Johnson and Heather Potter, Cassandra Allen, Sue deGennaro and of course Brian Lovelock from N.Z.

What advice would you give to an aspiring writer or illustrator who is visiting Bologna for the first time? Do you remember your own first visit to the book fair?

Don’t get put off by the immense output of children’s books. It can be really daunting being here. Just focus on what you do and think how you can do it better. Don’t look at what other people are doing other than out of stimulation or interest.

If there are things you like and are impressed by that you see around you at the fair, ask yourself what is novel about what you see, why do you like it. That sort of stimulus can help clarify your own tastes and interests

My first visit to Bologna was one of utter joy–just seeing how much nicer it was than Frankfurt!

Cynsational Notes

An Interview with Sarah Foster from We Love YA, and we talk about it! Peek: “The most wonderful books won’t always get publicity beyond reviewing in all the children’s literature journals, the book trade mags, etc. For a book to get general print media, it really needs to have a story to why or how the book came about. The book itself isn’t a story for the media.”

Laura Watkinson is a translator, from Dutch and Italian into (British) English, and an occasional writer. She translates children’s books for all ages, from picture books to YA/cross-over novels, and has recently completed projects for Piccadilly in the U.K. and Arthur A. Levine in the States. She’s a champion of books in translation and loves making different cultures accessible to younger readers.

The SCBWI Bologna 2010 interview series is brought to you by the SCBWI Bologna Biennial Conference in conjunction with Cynsations. To register, visit the SCBWI Bologna Biennial Conference 2010. Note: Special thanks to Angela Cerrito for coordinating this series with SCBWI Bologna and Cynsations.