Ep 62 We discuss the most borrowed books from libraries in Australia, the death of the paragraph, new freelancer website, crime fiction inspired by Bruce Springsteen. And we talk to children’s book publisher Suzanne O’Sullivan

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In Episode 62 of So you want to be a writer: Sydney Writers’ Festival wrap up, the most borrowed books from Australian libraries, how much (or little) publications pay freelance writers, the rise and demise of the paragraph, crime short stories inspired by Bruce Springsteen songs, the book ‘How I Became a Famous Novelist’ by Steve Hely, an interview with children’s book publisher Suzanne O’Sullivan, Spotify music streaming service, how to stop editing and get on with writing, and more!

Click play below to listen to the podcast. You can also listen on Apple Podcasts, Spotify and Stitcher Radio. Or add the podcast RSS feed manually to your favourite podcast app.

Show Notes

The week that was: Sydney Writers’ Festival

ALIA reveals most borrowed books

A new website wants to disrupt how freelancers do business

Breaking point: is the writing on the wall for the paragraph?

Book review: Trouble in the Heartland

How I Became a Famous Novelist by Steve Hely

Interview

Suzanne O'Sullivan wearing black framed glasses and an orange scarfSuzanne O’Sullivan is the commissioning editor for Lothian Children’s books, the children’s imprint of Hachette Australia. She has worked in the book industry for over a decade, and has spent most of that time in children’s books, editing everything from board books to YA/crossover fiction.

At Lothian she publishes authors and illustrators including Lachlan Creagh, Mandy Foot, Ursula Dubosarsky, Mark Wilson, Cheryl Orsini, E. Coombe, Karen Erasmus and Felicity Gardner.

Suzanne on Twitter

Hachette Australia on Twitter

Hachette Children’s Books on Twitter


Web App

Spotify music streaming

Working Writer’s Tip
How to resist the urge to edit when you should be getting the words down.
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Your hosts

Allison Tait
Valerie Khoo / Australian Writers’ Centre

Connect with us on twitter

@altait
@valeriekhoo

Email us
podcast at writerscentre.com.au

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Transcript

Allison

Suzanne O’Sullivan is the associate publisher of children’s books at Hachette Australia, which was named on the weekend as Australian Publisher of the Year at the Leading Edge Book Conference. She has worked in the book industry for over a decade and has spent most of that time in children’s books, editing everything from board books to YA/crossover fiction.

 

In the spirit of disclosure, I should also say Suzanne is my most excellent associate publisher at Hachette.

 

Suzanne, how about we start by you telling us a little bit about yourself? How did you get into children’s publishing and why?

 

Suzanne

Well, I knew when I finished my degree, which was an arts degree, majoring in English at uni, that I wanted to get into publishing. I had worked in bookstores in the last couple of years of high school and right through uni. I didn’t know then exactly what area I wanted to be in, and I started working in legal publishing, which was very, very dry. And because I was finding that not quite stimulating I decided to do some part time study at the same time.

 

My job happened to be just down the road from Macquarie University. I was looking into courses there and I saw that they had a very highly regarded masters in children’s literature. I thought, “Well, I’ve always loved selling kids’ books in the bookstores that I had worked in,” and I had studied some children’s literature in my undergrad degree. So, I thought that I would get into that and I absolutely loved it. And, that made me realize that those were the books that I really wanted to be working on.

 

Then I just kept trying and trying until I was lucky enough to get a job actually in children’s publishing.

 

Allison

Where was your first job? Was an entry level sort of position, or did you go straight in as a publisher? Or how does it work?

 

Suzanne

Yeah, so I started in legal publishing as a production editor, so that was a job that involved copyediting, but also more production things, like formatting text and getting it all ready for printing or for publishing online. And then I worked as a junior editor in educational publishing, and then another junior editor role in children’s books, and then… yeah, gradually worked my way up.

 

Allison

Is children’s fiction something that you’ve always reading? Have you always been a reader of YA, et cetera? Or was that something that you came to when you decided it was an area that you wanted to go into?

 

 

 

Suzanne

I suppose I never really stopped reading it. I was at uni when Harry Potter started to take off. In fact, I remember in the first year of uni someone at one of my seminars, it was completely off-topic, talking about Harry Potter and how great it was. At that point there was three books out, or the third book had just come out. I immediately read those. And, then a few other books that came along.

 

I never felt any kind of stigma about still reading them. I was relatively young, they were still for me. And then, you know, once I realized that was what I wanted to work in. Of course, as a bookseller you’re reading all sorts of things to sell to your customers.

 

Allison
Now, as the associate publisher of children’s books at Hachette, how many manuscripts do you receive a week into your offices?

 

Suzanne

That varies. I would say I get sent at least one thing every day. We don’t accept unsolicited manuscripts, so those have been sort of coming from agents, from foreign rights departments, or overseas agents, or from authors that we have already worked with, or recommendations that have come through people that we have worked with, or, again, people that I’ve met at a conference or something like that.

 

Allison

Is there a reason that you don’t accept unsolicited manuscripts?

 

Suzanne

Mostly just the lack of eyes in the office, really.

 

Allison

Right, time and space.

 

Suzanne

We want to be able to look at everything we get, and unfortunately we just don’t have enough time and people to look at absolutely everything. So, we try to keep it manageable. We do accept adult unsolicited manuscripts. It’s just children’s at the moment we’re not.

 

Allison

Of the manuscripts that are receiving is there a trend towards one section of children’s publishing? Like, are you getting a lot of YA, are you getting a lot of middle grade, are you getting a lot of picture books? Like, what the kind of percentages are you looking at?

 

Suzanne

Getting a lot of YA, even though I don’t publish a great deal of YA. The next biggest area that I receive is probably picture books, which is good, because I publish a lot of picture books. I don’t see as much middle grade as I would like to, I think a lot of people are really keen to get into the YA area that I think could maybe give a bit more thought to where the middle grade might be better for them. It would be better for me.

 

 

Allison

Why do you think people are shying away from middle grade? Is it an age group thing, is it more difficult to write? Like, is it just sort of like trying to come up with something that is not Wimpy Kid? I mean what do you think is the barricade there?

 

Suzanne

I suppose there might be an element of it seeming a bit harder to write. I think there’s a big perception that YA is massive, which it is to some degree, but it tends to be a small handful of authors that are huge blockbuster sellers, and then a long tail of…

 

Allison

Everyone else?

 

Suzanne

… of everyone else.

 

I think there’s a very popular perception that YA is where it’s at, and you’ve got to be writing YA because that’s what people want.

 

Allison

 

Suzanne

Whereas I think if you look at the middle grade market level, is so incredibly strong, maybe people don’t quite realize that.

 

Allison

As a publisher yourself, do you have a favorite category? I mean you’re sort of doing everything from board books to, as you say, some YA. Is there one of those sections that really makes your heart sing?

 

Suzanne

Not really, to be honest. Anything that’s really good, I love. If we get something that’s a really great picture book I’m really excited about that. But, then, you know, when I open a new YA manuscript it might be sensational as well, and that will be my favorite thing at the moment. Yeah, lucky to like all of the different areas that I work on.

 

Allison

That then begs the question, because there’s a huge difference between a picture book, you know, which has got probably 500 very, very carefully considered words in it, if that, if it’s a board book it’s probably got fewer, through to like YA, which might be 60,000-65,000, obviously also very carefully considered words. But, what are you looking for when you open a manuscript, and how do you know you’ve found it? I guess that’s the big question.

 

Because that’s the easy question for me to ask you, isn’t it? You’re like, “Please don’t ask me that.”

 

 

 

Suzanne

I think how you know you’ve found it is just a gut reaction on a lot of levels. It’s an informed gut reaction from reading a lot and for things that you’ve worked on over the years.

 

I would say what I’m looking for primarily is really good writing with a really strong voice, something that just speaks to me very directly and feels new in some way. It doesn’t necessarily mean that it has to be a completely brand new genre that the author’s invented, but the voice is a voice that feels fresh to me, you know? I get a bit tired of reading things and going, “Oh, yes, I recognize exactly who your influences are.”

 

Allison

Would you say that is one of the most common mistakes that you see? Wearing your influences on your sleeve?

 

Suzanne

I wouldn’t say a mistake necessarily, I think it’s a thing that comes with practice and with revision and with rewriting. The more people write the better they get at creating their own voice.

 

Allison

Right, OK. What would you say are the most sort of common — what are the most common things you see that would make you say ‘no’ to a manuscript? Let’s put it like that.

 

Suzanne

Yeah, overly derivative voice or story as well. As I said, a story doesn’t have to be completely original and unique, but it can’t be too indebted to anything in particular.

 

Allison

Yeah.

 

Suzanne

Another thing that I find a lot, particularly in kids’ books, is wanting to tell me everything upfront, too much description and a complete back story of every character right from the very beginning. I like to get right into the story and I think most kids do as well.

 

Allison

I guess from my perspective as someone who does write middle grade, you’re kind of writing for that 10-14, whatever, sort of age group. But, I mean you’re obviously not 10-14. Do you have to then put yourself into the position of a 10-14 year old to read this stuff? Or how do you read it and think, “Yes, that’s going to resonate with the market.”?

 

Suzanne

That’s a tricky one, because it’s very difficult. But, I think what you need as a publisher and also as an author is to be able to remember quite clearly what it felt like to be a kid at that particular age, and also to try to keep up to speed with what are the other things that kids are not just reading, but the games that they’re playing and the movies that they like and all of that now.

 

I do try to think about, “Is this appealing to me, personally,” and it has to be on some level, but also, “Would this appeal to me as a nine-year-old boy?” And sometimes an author might have pitched something in a particular way that you read it and think, “I don’t think they’re right in saying this is for a nine-year-old, but what they’ve got here is a lot of potential, it could potentially be something for a 13-year-old.”

 

Allison

So, you just get in touch with your inner nine-year-old and judge it based on that?

 

Suzanne

Hmm.

 

Allison

You said that you do publish quite a few picture books, so when you get picture books are you judging them solely on text? Because I think that when people write picture books they probably try to describe everything that should happen in the picture as well as what’s happening in the text, is that how you like to see them? Or what do you like to see in a picture book pitch, so to speak?

 

Suzanne

I like to see just the text, and to only have a description of what the author would like to go in the illustrations, if it is something that is absolutely essential. For example, a lot of picture books there’s a gap between the text and the illustrations, so there’s something, a bit of a dissidence there, something that isn’t described in the text, but is it in the illustrations and that makes the story whole.

 

For example, the author might want there to be a [inaudible; 0:13:12.0, sounds like: “word list braid”], where we see a particular thing happening. Or, it might be like Drac and the Gremlin, where the text is describing this fantastic science fiction adventure that the pictures reveal that it’s actually just two kids playing in the backyard, so a bit of a one-sentence at the beginning of the story would be all that is needed there.

 

Allison

To set that up.

 

Suzanne

The text has to work on its own merits.

 

Allison
How do you then choose an illustrator to work with the text, because it’s a very collaborative thing, a picture book, isn’t it? I think a lot of people maybe don’t realize how collaborative it can be, because I know a lot of people I’ve spoken to who have wanted to do picture books, they want to work with someone they know to create the pictures and then send you the whole thing, which I know is not necessarily how publishers like to work.

 

Suzanne

No, it’s very unusual for it to come from the author and illustrator together. There are certain circumstances, I’ve got a book coming out later this year called Our Dog Knows Words, by Peter and Lucy Goldthorpe (spelling assumed) where Peter has written the text, he’s obviously a very acclaimed author and illustrator in his own right, but in this instance his daughter, Lucy, is illustrating, and it’s her debut book. So something like that works, where they’ve come up with it together and there’s that connection.

 

So, it does happen, but 95 percent or higher of cases the author sends us the text and we discuss here who we think would be a good illustrator for it. We consult with the author to make sure that they’re happy with that as well. But, that’s something that generally happens in the publishing house, those discussions of, “What’s the right direction for this text?” “Who do we think would be good?” “What’s going to work in the market right now?” All those things.

 

Allison

As an author you really need to be willing to let go of it a bit as well, don’t you? To realize it is a collaboration and that you need to work with the publisher to get the best possible product.

 

Suzanne

Definitely. And that is something that I see quite a bit from people who haven’t had a book published before, in submissions where they’re really saying, “This is exactly what the pictures should look like.” But, the illustrator is basically an equal creator of the book with the author, so there needs to be space for them to interpret the story themselves.

 

The author always gets to see the roughs as the illustrator is working and to have their input, but, yeah, it’s a difficult task, I think, to be able to step back and say, “Yes, I’ve written this story, but someone else is interpreting it now.” Yeah, to have that space for them to do that is very important.

 

Allison

You’re basically creating a springboard for the picture book as a whole to sort of take flight, aren’t you? Because you’re giving the basis and then you have to allow someone else to come in and, as you say, interpret that.

 

Suzanne

Exactly. Yeah.

 

Allison

With regards to the manuscripts that you do receive, how much work are you willing to do with a writer if you think that there’s promise but their manuscript is maybe not currently working in its current format. Like as you suggested before, like perhaps the person has envisioned it for nine-year-olds, but you’re thinking maybe what they’re presenting would work better if it was rethought for 13-year-olds?

 

Suzanne

It depends on a sort of case by case basis on a lot of things. One would be how much potential I think it has and how close it is, because I don’t want to string people along too much. If I read something and I felt that if the author went back and made some revisions and resubmitted it that it would be in a really good position to get published then I would definitely do that.

 

But, if it were a case of thinking it needs to be rewritten altogether I might send some general notes, general feedback, but not necessarily want them to do a huge amount of work —

 

Allison

Leave it up to the author.

 

Suzanne

— expecting that I will definitely pick it up.

 

Allison

Yeah.

 

Suzanne

The other constraint is, again, time. There might be something that I look at and I think it’s got a lot of potential, but if it hits me at a particularly busy time I might not be able to give the author as much detailed feedback as I —

 

Allison

As I might need. OK.

 

On that, how many projects are you working on at any given time?

 

Suzanne

Many.

 

Allison

“Lots,” she says.

 

Suzanne

I have around 20 books on my list for 2015. At any given time I might have — I have one, I’ve just one a structural edit on it, another one where we’re working on the cover design, another one, a picture book, and the illustrator has just submitted their roughs and we’re going over them. So, I could have around 10 projects at any given time that I’m actively working on.

 

Allison

Wow. That’s kind of interesting though for you too, isn’t it? Do you have a favorite part of the process? Are you someone who loves a good structural edit, or would you sort of rather sit around and talk about illustrations and cover designs? Which bit do you enjoy the most?

 

Suzanne

That’s a tricky one.

 

Allison

I’m good at tricky questions.

 

Suzanne

It varies. I love getting roughs from an illustrator, that’s always a very exciting stage of a picture book, where you first start to really see what it’s going to be like. That’s always very exciting.

 

I also just often think that those are really beautiful illustrations, because when the illustrator is not worried about getting it perfect and getting all of the details in there and having it all polished there’s a real looseness often to their work that’s quite lovely.

 

Allison

Lovely.

 

Here’s the big question, I guess, what are you looking for at the moment? Is there anything in particular that you need to fulfill your every desire?

 

Suzanne

Picture books, always looking for new picture books. And also really looking for illustrators. I think in some ways it’s harder to find new illustrators than it is new authors, perhaps there aren’t quite as many established channels.

 

Allison

How do you go about finding them? Do people submit possible work to you? Or are you sort of always actively looking at what’s around?

 

Suzanne

Yeah, people do send us portfolios, but we also find people online. There are a few different websites for illustrators to post their portfolios on. I attend things like the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators Organized Portfolio Day each year, where illustrators submit their portfolios and publishers from all different companies come to look at those. And sometimes we’ll spot someone’s work on something quite unrelated, in an exhibition somewhere, or they’re selling their post cards at a market or something like that.

 

Allison

Wow.

 

Suzanne

So always on the lookout.

 

Allison

Always.

 

Well, speaking of always being on the lookout, I guess I need to ask you the question of whether you look at author platform when you consider a manuscript? I mean with children’s fiction is it difficult for a children’s author to establish a platform before publication? Are you looking at sort of what they’re doing as far as raising their profile is concerned?

 

Suzanne

To some extent, yeah. One thing that is good to know is how willing an author is to put themselves out there and to promote themselves.

 

Allison

Right.

 

Suzanne

So even if they don’t necessarily have a huge following already, if we can see that they’re keen and they’re looking to make connections and market themselves, that can be quite helpful. It’s not essential, but it certainly can help a lot.

 

Allison
Do you find most people are these days, or is there still sort of a reticence about it in a way?

 

Suzanne

No, I think most people are quite keen and quite understanding. The other big thing for children’s authors and illustrators is school presentations.

 

Allison

Yes.

 

Suzanne

So traveling around to schools, particularly during Book Week. Obviously, that’s not something you can do as an unpublished author.

 

Allison

No.

 

Suzanne

But, it’s something that can make a big difference. So, if I knew that someone absolutely positively didn’t want to do anything like that, you know, depending on the book that could make a difference. It might be something where we think, “Oh, well, that’s not quite the school’s market, so it doesn’t really matter,” or for whatever reason, that’s not a factor. But, sometimes that can make a big difference, knowing that someone will be really pushing the book as much as they can.

 

Allison

I think it’s probably fairly well regarded that children’s fiction is actually, it’s a very strong part of the publishing industry at the moment. It’s selling very well. Why do you think that’s the case? Is it driven by YA, like people think? Why is children’s fiction selling where perhaps adult fiction is not doing as well?

 

Suzanne

I think there is an element of the big YA smashers in recent years, and a lot of adult reading is actually of YA books.

 

Allison

Very true.

 

Suzanne

I think that is a factor, but it’s not the whole story. I think that people still give kids books as gifts a lot, which makes a big difference.

 

Allison

Yes.

 

Suzanne

People really want their kids to be reading, even people who might not be big readers themselves, it’s important to them to see their children reading, they give them books, they encourage them to buy books. So, I think it’s lovely to see, really.

 

Allison

Yeah, absolutely. I’m all for it.

 

Suzanne

There’s all the other things going on in kids’ lives.

 

Allison

I’m all for it.

 

All right, well, let’s just finish up with our favorite last question, which is your top three tips for people writing for children? That’s always an easy one just to finish up with.

 

Suzanne

Lovely. Top three tips…

 

Well, my first one would be to read a lot.

 

Allison

Yes.

 

Suzanne

And read a lot of current kids’ stuff as well, because you need to know what else is out there and what appeals to kids.

 

Allison

You can’t just rely on your readings of the famous five from 20 years ago.

 

Suzanne

Exactly. Yeah.

 

Allison

Yep.

 

Suzanne

As much as we love them here at Hachette.

 

My number two would be to revise your work a lot, even if you’re only writing a 200-word picture book, it really needs to be polished, don’t write something and then fire it off to a publisher right away. You know, put it in a drawer and come back to it two weeks later, have another look, see if there’s anything that you could do better in that.

 

And my number three tip would be to just try to speak as directly and clearly as you can to kids. I think that’s what really works in children’s writing.

 

Allison

  1. So, no overwriting for children?

 

Suzanne

I think avoid it as much as possible is a good idea.

 

Allison

All right, Suzanne, thank you so much for your time today. We really appreciate it. I know that our listeners will appreciate it, because we’ve had lots and lots of requests for a discussion about children’s fiction. We appreciate it.

 

Congratulations on the Publisher of the Year award, I’m sure that’s been celebrated with much champagne in the office.

 

Suzanne

It certainly has.

 

Allison

We shall leave it there. Thank you very much.

 

Suzanne

Thank you, Allison.

 

 


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