Can you give a short overview of your publishing career?
Twenty years ago, while working at a specialist children’s bookshop, I wrote the text for the graphic novel Ashe of the Outback. It was written specifically for reluctant readers, who predominantly seemed to be boys, and increasing in numbers. The style was inspired by Asterix and Tintin, who were both incredibly popular with these readers.
Two picture books, In Flanders Fields and The Call of the Osprey, both illustrated by Brian Harrison-Lever, were then selected by Fremantle Press. After that, I produced two semi-autobiographical comedy novels for teenagers, A Fine Mess and Another Fine Mess 002, about two boys in a county town getting into all sorts of trouble. I had loads of fun writing them.
In 2008 Jack’s Island, a historical novel set off the coast of Western Australia during World War II was released. Then in 2011 James Foley and I created the picture book The Last Viking and soon after The Last Viking Returns, the sequel. I also have several other picture book texts and I am working on number 3 in The Smuggler’s Curse, series.
Has it changed in the last few years? In what way/s? Do you think it has become harder to stay published? Or have more opportunities arisen?
I don’t think my actual writing career has changed that much. I get more work, though, talking to school kids because I’m better known now, but even with winning awards and reasonable sales, I still can’t afford to write full-time. Being from faraway Western Australia, I’m not that well-known to the publishers, so haven’t had too many approaches to write for them or to appear at east coast festivals.
What strategies for ‘staying published’ have you adopted—and how have these changed over the years?
Basically, I just keep writing. I have tried different styles, including graphic novels, picture books, comedy novels, serious historical novels, and the occasional article, mostly, I suspect, to see if I am capable of writing them. I think if I were to write only picture books I would go totally mental, always trying to keep to the discipline they require. Writing a story in so few words and then watching the carefully chosen words get slashed as the pictures develop is so difficult to handle.
I’m looking forward to being an ‘overnight success’ after twenty years slogging away at it. Perhaps that’s it, you just have to keep slogging away at it until you do the magical ten thousand hours? As Churchill said, “never, never, never give in.”
I have stayed with Fremantle Press for most of my career with only two editors, originally Ray Coffey, but mostly, and happily, Cate Sutherland, and because they have completely different tastes you would think I might choose subjects to write about to suit their preferences, knowing it might improve my chances of being accepted. In reality, I write to keep myself amused, hoping that there are some other twelve-year-old kids out there, just like me, who might just ‘get it.’ Being a forever twelve-year-old trapped in an aging writer’s body is not so bad.
I keep up my membership with ASA and SCBWI. I find it very valuable meeting with the members of SCBWI, who in WA are a really marvellous bunch of supportive creators. We are very encouraging of each other and we share industry news such as which publishers are looking for submissions, but also discuss each other’s plots and writing styles, as well help each other through the successes and inevitable heartaches.
What do you think are the main pitfalls today for writers aiming to maintain a long career?
Other than losing heart after too many rejections and giving up writing altogether, the obvious pitfall, other than a serious Facebook addiction, is not having a runaway success early in your career, otherwise, you have to work at something else to earn a living while trying to write. Even with the lack of time by having a full-time job, just being worn out at the end of a regular working day can kill creativity stone dead. Though many of the writers who are career authors also spend so much time on the road touring schools that they too have little time or energy left to create either. And creativity does not flow easily while you are all alone in a dingy county motel. You, somehow, have to maintain the passion in spite of the slings and arrows of the daily grind.
Do you have any advice for writers who have already started their publishing career—i.e. have had one or two books published—but are having trouble maintaining publisher interest?
Treat your writing as a business – as a way to make money, otherwise, you will need a regular job to support yourself. The business is not just composing words, but just as importantly, promoting. Publishers like that. They want you to have as high a profile as possible. The more you are seen, the more likely people are to buy your books. The way a great many children’s writers earn their real incomes is by school talks where you are spruiking your word to something like a thousand kids a week.
Even if a publisher thinks a particular story of yours is only okay, they might take a chance on it because you are seen as an excellent salesman for them.
My other two pieces of advice are firstly, not to take rejection personally. That is the hardest part of putting your soul on the page, but when a publisher says, ‘your work does not fit with our list’, they probably mean just that. It does not have to mean that your writing sucks and you should go back to flipping burgers. Maybe, too, the publisher has contracted to publish twelve books this year, and yours is the thirteenth to come along. It could just be luck.
My second piece of advice is that quote from Churchill that I mentioned earlier, never give in, ever. The publishing world is full of long delays and endless waiting for things to happen, so learning patience is recommended. When I am rejected I immediately think of J.K. Rowling and Bloomsbury Publishers and the fifteen other publishers who rejected Harry Potter, to their collective horror, I suspect. Can you imagine being one of those editors and sitting at your desk knowing what you had done, while watching as the sales figures over at Bloomsbury went completely ballistic?
Wearing your prophet’s hat—how do you see the publishing industry in the future?
I see fiction continuing to be published both as print and e-books for quite some time, but Google is hurting non-fiction. Children’s and young adult books are still selling remarkably well, with no slowdown in sales at all and, in fact, have helped maintain many publisher’s profits during an economic downturn. That market seems likely to be encouraged and will grow, though I don’t know what will be replacing wizards, vampires and angels. I did notice in my local Dymocks that YA fiction now takes up over a third of the fiction shelves, whereas, for most of publishing history, it was shoved away in the back corner. What stands out in the YA section, though, is that nearly every book cover is dramatically coloured black. I do hope YA will lighten up a little in the future. I’m well over angst.