Allen & Unwin
Erica Wagner - Children’s Publisher
Tell us a little about yourself and your history in the publishing industry.
I had a part-time job in a bookshop when I was at school and then later, having two small children, having dropped out of uni, lived in a tent and worked on farms, I ended up working there again. I read voraciously and became the buyer for the children’s section. One day I had an epiphany and realised I wanted to work with books but not with the public … so I wrote to Penguin and asked what I had to do to become an editor. Luckily the reply I received encouraged me to take any job I could in the publishing industry and work my way up. That was 1988 and shortly after that I became a trainee editor at Penguin Books Australia. I stayed there for 10 years, leaving to start up a new children’s list for Duffy & Snellgrove. The list was called Silverfish and was acquired in 2000 by Allen & Unwin where I’ve been a publisher of books for children and young adults ever since.
How long have you been working with Allen & Unwin?
What can you tell us about your publishing house and what you publish?
In the children’s area, we publish around 85 new books a year – this breaks down to around 20 YA novels (for ages 13-16 and some 15+), 20 junior fiction (for ages 8-12), 20 fiction for younger readers (for 6-10 year olds - these often include black and white illustrations), around 10-12 full colour picture books (for ages 0-4, 4-8 and a very small number of sophisticated illustrated books for older readers), around 3-4 books of non-fiction and some repackaged backlist titles – eg bind-ups, or books with toys and jigsaw puzzles. We cater for a broad range of readers from sophisticated literary works and challenging topics, to series fiction and popular genre titles. We work with some international authors and acquire books from overseas publishers but mainly we focus on working with Australian and New Zealand authors and illustrators.
What qualities do you look for when deciding to publish a picture book? Is there a checklist you use when considering manuscripts?
We do have a secret checklist … but mainly we are looking for books that we can whole-heartedly champion – ie work that will be a strong contribution to the world of children’s books and which Allen & Unwin is well placed to publish successfully.
Does it help when selecting an author for publication if they already have a presence in the children’s book industry?
It can help, but is not essential. We are always looking for new talent.
Are there any specific subjects that seem to be addressed more in Children’s Literature?
There are perennial themes that remain universal and relevant; these could be described in terms of mirrors or windows – by this I mean that children’s literature can reflect a child’s contemporary experience back to them, to help them make sense of it, gain insights or feel an emotional connection of some sort OR provide a window into a completely other world, be it imaginary or describing experiences, extreme situations or other cultures children may never encounter in their normal life. Most books touch somehow on navigating family and friendships, dealing with change and loss, finding humour in daily life, liminal moments of change, surviving crises, learning about life etc.
Are there some issues you would like to see more focus on?
I think we need more stories by writers from a variety of cultural backgrounds – stories are the best way for us to understand ourselves and others.
I have written a children’s picture book manuscript – do I need to find an illustrator myself?
No – we prefer to come up with a vision for the book which we would then discuss with the author, and then commission the illustrator ourselves.
Does having an agent push you to the top of the slush pile?
Sometimes. Though we now have a manuscript submission process called The Friday Pitch, which means that you will hear from us within two weeks if we want to take your story further.
What’s a common mistake you find when reading a manuscript?
An assumption that rose-coloured memories of childhood will make an engaging story for children today. This results in stories that aren’t satisfying – that are more like incidents or vignettes, and that don’t give a sharp or memorable enough reading experience.
How many submissions do you receive per year? Out of those, how many do you publish?
We receive around 3000 submissions a year. These come from agents, authors we have published before and some through the Friday Pitch process. We publish around one or two manuscripts from the Friday Pitch each year.
How long from acceptance until the book hits the shelves?
If the book is in good shape and doesn’t require illustration, it’s usually 12-18 months. If illustrations are needed, the time frame can increase from 18 months to, in some cases, 3-5 years.
Should a potential author be discouraged by the dreaded rejection letter?
No! They really must not. The letter simply means that the story is not right for that particular publisher – this could be because they already have lots of similar books on their list, or that it’s something they are not well placed to publish successfully.
Tell us something that has caught your eye, in a good way, in a cover letter?
Cover letters don’t have to be fancy … it’s the words on the page of the manuscript that will win us over. I like a very simple letter and a sense that a real person is at the other end – not a marketing machine.
And finally, what are publishers looking for in a submission?
Something that gives us a tell-tale shiver up the spine – it’s the real thing! It’s a story that touches, moves or excites us – it feels timely, truthful and has something to say to young people today.