Thursday, May 08, 2008

Publishing Down Under

‘Chance favors a prepared mind’ Louis Pasteur

It was at the urging of a good friend and colleague (it’ll be fun, we can drink a lot and gossip all night) that I rashly signed up for a conference. ‘All the Wild Wonders’ was the Children’s Book Council of Australia’s 9th National Conference and Expo in Melbourne (2nd- 4th May) . I say rashly because the NZ$900 odd fee, associated airfares and accommodation meant that this effectively null and voided any book publishing income I might receive in a year. Still, I’m not one for sitting back and letting life happen, wondering where it at has all gone wrong, and if this could provide any clues, then I was in.

I’ll bypass the travel details- they remain the same for anyone (hours at departure lounges drinking overpriced under caffeinated coffee) and skip straight to the opening night.
Imagine a couple of hundred librarians in a conference centre gulping down the wine I should have got (but was too slow) and chowing down on the canapés and that was about it, except for a very longwinded book launch of ‘The Australia Book’ (Black Dog Books). Note to publishers: never ever let an academic get hold of an audience outside of a uni lecture theatre. He had them and wasn’t going to give them up in a hurry. I have no idea what he was saying as I had drifted off into a comatose state by the second breath and was distracted by the alcohol I had paid for, slipping down the throats of large, chiffoned ladies all about me. I cast my eye about for gorgeous men, but alas there were none to please my artistic view. I hoped the speeches and eye candy would improve on the morrow.

Friday morning and the conference kicked off with 5 groovy gals by the name of Coco’s Lunch a cappella heaven, singing the theme song: ‘All the Wild Wonders’. They sent a delicious thrill down my spine which was stopped short by the panel on next. The topic ‘Maintaining the Wonder, Why should Books Matter in the 21st Century’, was covered not at all by an ill prepared group of Australian media stars who obviously hadn’t given the topic much thought beyond ‘what’s my fee for this?’ It might well have been entitled ‘Maintaining celebrities, Why should they matter in any century?’ Denise Scott, a comedian on the panel saved herself by declaring she was mostly illiterate and thinking about wine at that particular moment. At least she was honest… and amusing.

We expected the next speaker up next to carry on Denise’s comedy act. With a name like Jack Zipes and promoted as a storyteller, I expected a Dr Seuss character to step up onstage in a funny hat and outrageous tie. He was less outrageous than outraged. A specialist of German at the University of Minnesota who knows everything about fairytales, he commenced with a diatribe on the evils of marketing pointless series books at girls, the flogging of fairies in particular. I squirmed; I am in the throes of creating a fairy series (in my defense Fairy Glad is an environmentalist). Zipes highlighted the extravagant use of ‘miscommunication’ where the publishing industry churns out ghost written crap to a mass market for the sole purpose of selling another book in the series to unsuspecting kiddies. No inherent literary value, no moral justification. He left the audience well told off, and some were actually asleep, but soon woke up to the best comedy juxtaposition that was to happen for the entire weekend. The launch of ‘Go Girl! Free to be Me! A Girl’s Guide to feeling great’ (Various Authors, Hardy Grant Egmont).
‘Milk the cow when it’s full, and when it no longer provides, kill it, skin it and wear it.’
Professor Jack Zipes on the nature of publishers.

I’ve never felt particularly sorry for publishers, particularly as they generally get a wage rise every so often whilst I seem to get poorer by the hour, but I wanted to run on stage and tackle the poor woman to the ground, dragging her off before she made more people snort with ill suppressed laughter. Her speech was as she had written it prior to the Zipean rant. Introducing the gaudy metallic and daisy covered books as a new series for girls each one designed to have the reader want more, she then put on a media presentation with a boppy sound track and little (all white) girls giggling and being ‘besties’. By this stage the audience were shaking in their seats, hands clapped over mouths and squirming with embarrassment for the publisher who soldiered on regardless, reminiscent of a tap dancing child who falls off the stage in a rousing rendition of ‘Yes we have no Bananas’ but carries on with a broken leg, smiling through the pain. The launch was saved, just, by the child psychologist bought on to talk through the series idea. It’ll sell in the thousands. Zipes’ will be pissed.

Wendy Cooling was up next and I wouldn’t go through the speakers one by one except that she made the morning not just bearable but fabulous. She is an English teacher and consultant to a range of children’s publishers, looks and sounds like Miss Marples, Agatha Christie and Miss Jean Brodie all rolled into one prime speaker. You got the feeling you could have a very entertaining night on the gin with her. Commanding, intelligent, warm and witty; a very good choice and antidote.

And so the conference was opened with talks and panels on everything to do with books and publishing. There were more book launches (very odd in a conference setting). A session on ‘The Harry Potter Phenomenon’ bought Sarah Odedina, the Bloomsbury editor to a table with Jack Zipes. He was rude and provocative, she; frosty the snow woman. You just had to imagine them insulting each other in private, Sarah throwing her brandy at Zipes, he spitting on a copy of ‘The Prisoner of Askhaban’ and then the two of them wrestling each other to the floor where they make angry love, tearing at each others hair and reputations. Well maybe at a Romantic Writers Conference. Zipe’s insistence that the Potterian wands waving about were the penis’s of adolescent boys and the resurrection of Harry was religious in its intent had the average Hogwarts fan confused. ‘I thought it was all about wizards at boarding school?’ Perhaps Zipes had been to a boys boarding school himself so knew all about wand fighting.

That evening saw drinking with my editor- that is after I managed to get out of the hotel. Note to self; never go through a fire stop door and hope to emerge anytime soon. It took several minutes of beating on the door until some one opened it and found me in a sweaty lather holding a bottle of Chardonnay wondering if I would ever get out alive. Bugger my pedometer; I shall never take the stairs again.

Shaun Tan was the keynote speaker the next morning. I saw him speak at the Heritage Seminars last year at Storylines; I almost gave him a miss and went shopping, figuring I’d heard it all before. Thank God my dwindling finances that had me think twice about going to Myers, because Shaun Tan was worth every cent of the conference fee. He showed us a picture he did at 5 of a dinosaur. It was a pretty good effort for a new entrant. Then came the one he did at 8. Now I was an advanced sort of artist at 8; good enough to stand out and have my pictures on the wall over and above others. Good enough to get top marks for presentation and consider art for a career, but Tan was a genius. As his work progressed through the years, he showed the kind of observation and creative thinking skills that are bestowed on a few and hard won by fewer. You couldn’t even be jealous; a sure sign of being in then presence of an art God. I could go on, but look for yourself: . I wondered if he had small children to look after; I have always been able to blame mothering on any deficit of perseverance. How can one sit and draw intricate details when kindy pick up is in half an hour? My children are 17 and 20 now and I am running out of excuses. Perhaps all those years of snatched moments, starting and stopping has worn my own attention span down to zero. He was told once that above all the important thing was to ‘finish’. It takes him years, but he does and is the product of concentration, commitment and huge talent. It probably helps that he has publishers who want him too; incentive is a marvelous thing.

When my daughter was a little tot, I read a book called ‘Messy Baby’ to her again and again. We both enjoyed it hugely and she is still as untidy now at 20 as the baby in the book by Jan Ormerod. Jan took the podium and I was in love for the second time that morning. Bought up in Western Australia but living in the U.K, Jan is prolific, talented and forthright. There was just a lick of sadness too, which made for wondering about her life, which career wise has been massively successful, but hinted at relationships that weren’t. I encountered her again on a discussion panel entitled ‘I know what I like- when illustration is art’ where she gave a fine illustrated talk about the Wyeths; N.C, Andrew and Jamie, three generations of American artists working in a realist style. If the audience had hoped to see more of her work, she disappointed, but more than made up for it with intelligent observation and comparison. I learned a lot and came away questioning that age old ‘is it art?’ conundrum again. Coming from such a commercial art background I have always discredited what I do. The meaning of that gorgeous peach I just drew? It meant the art director wanted a peach and had a budget of $200. I feel nothing doing it except relief that I can pay another bill. When you ‘feel’ your art and have others ‘feel’ it too, now that’s a different matter.

The same goes for writing which is where I muddle the conference order and go directly to Neil Gaiman. . Looked like a rock star- well we are talking about a conference starved of men, so it didn’t take much, but Neil was definitely more appealing than what we had seen so far. A top writer in modern comics, prolific in prose, poetry, film, journalism, song writing and drama, Gaiman is U.K born and lives in Minnesota. He came well prepared to the microphone, just after our own Bernard Beckett launched ‘Genesis’ in a forceful, passionate yet comedic manner. Hard work when you know the Australian audience are thinking ‘Bernard who?’ and ‘Let’s just get on with Gaiman.’ There were no pictures (the comic-mad chick next to me with a little folder of her own cartoons looked a little put out), but there were poems and anecdotes and stories and we were all entranced. I was prepared not to like him because he is so successful and I am not, but as with Tan, you couldn’t help but appreciate there are others in the world who create and finish their work and publishers who take a chance and get it out to the world. I came away feeling an urge to write fantasy; how bizarre.

And as for the rest of the conference? There was a fancy dinner, then more panels the next day, some of which were well prepared and some of which were not. There were also many trade stands where I found no publisher wanted to talk to you unless you were a teacher librarian and planning to buy for the school. The minute you said you were writer they backed away in dread in case you whipped out a manuscript and thrust it at them. I introduced myself to Walker Books as a judge for the NZ Post Children’s Book Awards, pointing out Tina Matthews Book ‘Out of the Egg’; one of our picture book finalists this year. If I had hoped for a ‘thank you for increasing our sales’, I was out of luck, she merely asked what school I was with and would I like to go on the mailing list. The only stand holder who showed any interest was when I pulled out the TV presenter card. She even pretended to have seen me; like you would in Australia for ten minutes on a Tuesday morning when all ockers are still asleep and The Good Morning Show airs in NZ. I decided after a while I could pretend to be anyone or anything. The devil gets into me in situations like that and urges me to tell strangers that I have my own chat show, or run a publishing house, or that I’m a ministerial writer. As a Kiwi it is very hard to impress a bunch of Australians, perhaps it’s because we make so many jokes about them. But I can tell you: they may have been unimpressed with us, but I came away with immense pride for our New Zealand Authors and Illustrators who struggle to make a buck in our tiny industry here. We produce some incredibly high quality work against the odds. We continue to come up with the goods, support each others efforts and battle away to get better production quality and consistency in a country that can only buy a few thousand copies of each run. We don’t have wombats on every page. Or white kids.

The (almost) absence of Aboriginal writers and artists at the conference in either the audience or the speakers was glaring to my New Zealand eye. The only nod to the indigenous population was from a white point of view. The Aboriginal people as ‘the other.’ We haven’t got it all right here, but it’s not all wrong either. But as with all endeavors, highlighted by the speakers I heard; you have to work hard- it doesn’t just fall into your lap. Success is the combination of skill, perseverance and hard work- and sometimes the gods favor you and put opportunity there to trip over. You are a fool if you ignore it.

On a final note, the only thing that felt really familiar about the CBCA conference was that it was run very expertly and quite brilliantly by a band of volunteers. And as a committee member for the Storylines Festival and the Wellington Children’s Book Association, I know what that takes. A New Zealand writer and artist earns and average of $20,000 . Factor in that many of us work in a volunteer capacity to support our industry and pay to attend any industry forums that may help to educate and extend us and given that reading is a fundamental skill for life, isn’t it about time these kind of events were more publicly funded?


Anonymous said...

Hi Fifi

I did enjoy seeing the conference through your eyes! However, just wanted to point out - there was one Aboriginal woman writer (Anita Heiss) and an Fijian Indian woman (Shalini Akhil)on one of the interesting panel discussions I attended, titled 'Real girls or dream girls'. And Anita was also in a session with Pat Torres (also Aboriginal I think) and Anne Devenish, on 'Community Publishing - Indigenous and Beyond'. So they weren't totally ignored - just a very small part.

Fifi Colston said...

Good. I should have left out going to the'Whats so Funny?' session then. Which wasn't funny and I thought Bernard Beckett was going to hit the panel he looked so fed up with their daft comments. Where were the idigenous artists though?

Maureen Crisp said...

HI Fifi,
so was it worth it??? I ask because the $900 fee took me by surprise...
If you look at the U.S. society of children's book writers and illustrators The cost is under $500 and publishers and agents are actively touting.
did you get any ideas for out own proposed conference?
maureen- feeling a little disappointed for you

Fifi Colston said...

Pack away your disappointment! I had a good time once I got over being a small fish- well actually more of a single cell organism. Bonded with my editor- always good in a relationship. Got some great ideas for our own conference. Was in the same room as people I had admired my whole illustration life... I could have touched them but that would have looked creepy!

Anonymous said...

Dear Fifi,

You have written this so well - I did enjoy it. I'm going to refer my Bulletin people to it, as another view.

And I'm so impressed with you having written it already. I've just felt relieved that I don't have to do a bulletin for weeks yet, and so don't have to get my head around writing it up. In fact I'll refer them to this blog and just make a few comments that struck me immediately.

Yes, it is apallingly expensive - it means that students can't come, and people without a salary, like you and I, really struggle. I'll give this as feedback (as I have all 9 times, I'm sure).

The thing about indiginese is that ANY representation is a coup. You just don't see them, or references to them, in our society. They are just not visible as the Maories are. This could be partly because they are proportionately a much smaller group. In Melbouren, you could grow up never seeing one unless someone deliberately went looking to find some to show you.

ANitta Heiss is a very high profile Aborigine - writer, and president of the Aust Writers' Assn - just so rare to have an aborigine in that sort of position. And an academic. But this is so rare! Yes, you do it much better in NZ. We do now usually acknowledge the original owners at the beginning of things, but even that has only been in the last few years. It must be 20 years ago that I first heard it done in NZ, and was so impressed.

I should have put all this on an email (then I could have spell-checked it, bother)

Cheers, Virginia.

Dr Virginia Lowe
Create a Kids' Book
PO Box 2, Ormond Victoria 3204
ph: 03 9578 5689
fax: 03 9578 3466
mob: 0400 488 100
"Stories, Pictures and Reality: Two children tell" (Routledge 2007)

Anonymous said...

Hi Fifi

i think the system ate my last comment - rats! Nice picture of Mr G and fairy Glad and excellent sum up of the conference.

Having a bottle of chardonnay handy for emergencies was a smart move. That would have kept you going at least a couple of days in the stairwell although we would have noticed you were missing.

The publishers did seem allergic to the writers and illustrators at CBCA, although i've heard from a friend who attended the Society for Childrens Book Writers and Illustrators conference in Sydney in february that the publishers were just as shy there, even though that was part of the purpose of the event.

Can we get Wendy Cooling along if we ever have a conference in NZ? In fact can we get her to talk to the govt about the importance of books for children now? Sigh

looking forward to hearing how Glad is getting on.


Anonymous said...

Dearest Ms Colston,
Damn you for making your blog so interesting, informative and well-written. I have just spent a precious half-hour reading it when I should have been a)doing the dishes, b)ensuring my children are not reading under the covers, c) conversing with my partner, d) planning my busy day tomorrow, e)answering infernal emails, f)having a well-earned gin. I comfort myself with the fact that I had a good cackle.
Your somewhat grumpy admirer

Fifi Colston said...

Why thankyou! Why is it I find writing for my blog so much easier than finishing the YA novel, the picture book and the Chic Lit manuscript? I am so easily gin too. A woman after my own heart!

Anonymous said...

What a fabulous summary of the CBCA conference.
I'm interested in your comments re indigenous representation. I sit on a committee that raises funds for the enhancement of literacy in remote indigenous communities (Anita Heiss is a wonderful ambassador) - a project that is supported by the Australian Book Industry but when i asked if i could speak about the project to delegates when they were in one room my request was declined. For a conference that was all about the promotion of books, story, literature and literacy i was dumbfounded and disappointed to say the least. Seems there was no room for something so worthwhile.
Information about the project can be found at