This week I’m pleased to bring the second part of my online interview with Julie Watts, formerly editor and Publisher of Children’s and Young Adult Books with Penguin Books Australia.
In this section Julie discusses what she looked for in deciding whether to publish a book … and also, as an author herself, the view from the other side of the desk.
Becoming a publisher
You were appointed Penguin's Publisher for Children’s and Young Adult books. When? How did you make the transition? What were some of your big successes (among them Mao's Last Dancer)?
I began my career at Penguin in 1980 as secretary to the publishing department and in 1986 I was appointed Publisher for the children’s and young adult list. The company had been growing year on year, which afforded me many opportunities to work with a wide range of authors across all genres, but which by 1986 began to become too demanding.
Since I could no longer do justice to both the adult and children’s lists in my then role as Chief Editor, I was offered the choice to become publisher of adult fiction or publisher of children’s books.
I had to think long and hard about this because I loved both, but in the end I chose Children’s/YA for two reasons: one was that I could see the potential for massive growth in this area; the other was that I wanted children’s books to receive proper recognition, and to try and bring the whole field ‘out of the corner’.
Over the next ten years the Children’s/YA list grew tenfold, as did the wonderful team that worked with me.
Bites, Nibbles and Chomps
I have had the privilege of working with many of Australia’s top authors and illustrators but probably the best known are Pamela Allen in the pre-school area, Graeme Base with his more sophisticated picture books, Paul Jennings and his ‘Un’ series among many other titles at primary level and Sonya Hartnett as trailblazer in the YA field.
I am particularly proud of the Puffin Aussie Bites series for newly-independent readers which became a phenomenon (and a much-copied one) that went on to spawn Puffin Aussie Nibbles and Puffin Aussie Chomps.
It was always very rewarding to be involved with something that hadn’t been done before, such as your own narrative non-fiction, Tony, for all age groups. I believe Soldier Boy has become something of a classic, which is wonderful.
Mao’s Last Dancer
Towards the end of my 25 years with Penguin I found myself gravitating back to adult books and that’s how I came to be the publisher of Li Cunxin’s Mao’s Last Dancer.
How could I resist that 8-page bullet-point synopsis that was looking for a ghostwriter – when I could see not only an inspirational story for young people but also a full-blown adult memoir to rival Frank McCourt’s Angela’s Ashes, plus a Cinderella-style picture book (The Peasant Prince) and a movie, if only the subject would write the book himself?
Working with Li as his 680,000 words poured out of him (‘Don’t worry,’ I said, ‘we will only pick the best bits.’) was a challenge and a joy, made possible in part because of the wonderful training I'd received early in my career from mentors like Brian Johns, Kay Ronai, Bruce Sims and Jackie Yowell.
I remember working with that great editor, Suzanne Wilson, during the last stages of Soldier Boy, when she’d started cutting back Li’s vast manuscript. What are some of the key things you look for when deciding whether to publish a manuscript? The story? The quality of the writing? Presentation? Was an agent always necessary?
I don't like to say that I'm looking for anything in particular. A manuscript will tell me if it's something I believe in.
Of course the quality of the writing is important and the best books do have 'story' at their heart, but often one can come at the expense of the other and it doesn't mean something shouldn't be published.
There are many highly readable novels out there which are big on heart, peopled with characters that you care about and with a page-turning plot.
Many readers love these kinds of books even if the writing isn't 'literature'.
Similarly, you can have a beautifully crafted, faultless work that you are full of admiration for, but this might end up being something that appeals only to a refined intellect.
Bringing the right books and readers together…
As a publisher, I always felt it was my job to bring the right books and readers together. So long as a manuscript was the best it could be (or had the potential to become such) within its own genre and I could identify a need, a market for it, then that's what counted for me.
Presentation comes into it mainly because editors and publishers are so overwhelmed with submissions that it does help when something is presented clearly.
During my years at Penguin an agent was not necessary.
I had been trained from the start to look for potential in raw material and had discovered many a treasure in the 'slush pile', whereas often, via an agent, a work came already defined, with an opinion on it, or a pitch, that I might not necessarily have agreed with. (That wasn't always the case, of course – I'm just illustrating why it wasn't necessary.)
In later years, as publishers became completely overwhelmed with submissions and had to close their doors to unsolicited manuscripts, the role of an agent became much more important: we were glad to have the benefit of a filtering process and for submissions to arrive with recommendations.
Did you accept unsolicited manuscripts? What advice would you give to beginner writers wanting to submit a manuscript to a publisher? What are some of the dos and don'ts that new writers should follow?
I think I covered this in the point above. I believe it is very difficult now for beginner writers to break in due to huge competition and a diminished market. Maybe it's best to try and get an agent today.
Sometimes persistence pays, I guess, and certainly beginners will need a lot of patience as they wait for publishers in turn to consider (and this can take months) their material. If they wish to speed up the process they can submit to a number of publishers simultaneously, but would need to say so on their covering letter.
It's important to include a covering letter which acts as a kind of pitch. Along with a few sample chapters, a synopsis, an indication of market, the reason this book is necessary, any relevant information about the author – all of that is helpful.
Most publishers' websites will state if they are receiving unsolicited manuscripts and what their submission requirements are.
I would also advise against submitting material along with a gimmick, like a balloon attached to the manuscript, which happened to me more than once. It doesn't help!
In any case, work today would be submitted electronically in most cases.
Finally you became an author yourself with the biography The Art of Graeme Base. How difficult was it to make the change to the other side of the desk? Is there anything you would change to your approach as an editor and publisher in the light of your experience as an author?
I was commissioned to write this book, which is different to creating something from within me, if you know what I mean. So perhaps being on the other side of the desk in this instance wasn't as hard as it might have been were I pouring my heart and soul onto the paper.
I had a job to do, describing Graeme's childhood and the imaginative and creative process that came into play as he produced book after sensational book.
Trying to please both the publisher and the subject was sometimes tricky, and working with an editor who had no experience with children's books and therefore knew little about the field reinforced my belief that it's really important to match up the right editor with the right author.
Oh, and the schedule was pretty tight!
You retired from Penguin in 2005 honoured by the profession with the Dromkeen Medal and Pixie O'Harris Award. What are you doing now? Are you still involved with the business as a writer or consultant? Or are you looking at new fields of endeavour?
The first year or so after I left Penguin I was finishing various books that I'd already been working on, and I was fortunate indeed to be the freelance editor on Sonya Hartnett's The Ghost's Child.
The Art of Graeme Base occupied me full time for a whole year after that. All the while, I continued working with Pamela Allen on each of her picture books, something I still do today. We have now done 30+ books together.
I now live in the country where my husband and I are rebuilding our stone cottage and growing vegetables and all that kind of thing you do when you retire.
But I'm never far away from the publishing scene and I do take on the occasional private job, working from my garden studio.
Watch this space...
One such was working with the then unpublished novelist Jon Bauer on the early drafts of his Rocks in the Belly, which went on to win the 2011 Indie Award for Best Debut Fiction and was also shortlisted for the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award and long-listed for the Miles Franklin Literary Award.
There are a few other things in the wings, so watch this space!
Thank you Julie Watts. It’s been a privilege to have worked with you as an editor, publisher and friend for so many years, and for you to have taken the time to share your thoughts and experience with us on this post.
Julie Watts, courtesy Julie Watts.
Book covers all courtesy Penguin Group (Australia):
Fat Ferdie by Pamela Allen.
Mao's Last Dancer by Li Cunxin.
The Art of Graeme Base by Juilie Watts.
The Ghost's Child by Sonya Hartnett.