‘Between the Covers, Behind the Counter’ seminar brings publishers, authors and booksellers together

During the busiest week of the year for WA’s literary community, the Perth edition of the Australian Publishers Association (APA) and Australian Booksellers Association (ABA) seminar ‘Between the Covers, Behind the Counter’ attracted some more than 20 participants from the worlds of bookselling, publishing and writing. Marketing and Communications Manager Claire Miller reports.

Author and former HarperCollins designer Matt Stanton started proceedings with a presentation about what he called ‘design thinking’. Contending that the publishing industry was not in the business of ‘stories’ but in the business of ‘stories told’, Stanton said his strategy as an author was not to start with an idea but always to start with the audience – in other words who he wanted to write his books for, not what he wanted to write. Bookstore merchandising and promotion, he suggested, should be driven by the same concerns and therefore it was essential for booksellers to determine who was visiting their store and what was important to the local community each store was a part of.

Stanton shared the design thinking behind his latest series, Funny Kid. He said the large head on each cover was inspired by his work designing biographies and autobiographies and therefore featured a head that was as close to life-size as possible, with eyes that seemed to meet the customers’ eyes as they walked into the bookstore. He chose the brightest spine colour, yellow, and made it consistent across all books in order to make his series stand out on the shelf and therefore easier to find.

This prompted comments from booksellers about the importance of having clear titles on spines and numbering books in series to make it as easy as possible for time-poor parents and their kids to work out which books they’d already read. The booksellers said they also appreciated it when the cover colour-wrapped around onto the spine because most booksellers used the online book cover colour to find individual books from a row of multi-coloured spines. Stanton then moved on to discuss author promotion, stating that he mostly used Twitter and his website to communicate with teachers and that to reach kids directly, YouTube was his most effective channel.

This information was backed up in the next presentation by Juliet Winters of Nielsen BookScan. She said a 2016 report in the UK, Understanding the Children’s and YA Book Consumer, indicated YouTube was one of the top three leisure activities for 0–17 year olds and use of the channel had grown since 2012. Despite a corresponding decline in the amount of time spent by the age group on reading activities, Winters reported that Australian children’s book sales in 2017 had grown in volume by 1.9 per cent, though the value had declined slightly by 0.4 per cent. She said while the average price of books had gone down, the average price of cinema tickets had gone up, making books much better value per hour and a purchase that was perceived by many parents as ‘guilt-free’. Within the children’s genres, there was a decline in the sale of books for young adults but a rise in the sale of children’s non-fiction titles, with the popularity of hardback books at an all-time high.

Cate Sutherland of Fremantle Press was joined by Rachel Bin Salleh of Magabala Books and author Meg McKinlay for a behind-the-scenes look at how books are created. Sutherland provided an overview of the publishing process from receipt of manuscript through to book sales and licensing. Bin Salleh then described the particular challenges of working in an Aboriginal publishing house operating with a moral imperative to educate the educators one story at a time. She said publishing in this sphere involved negotiating with both storytellers and their communities to ensure that the right person was telling the story using the most appropriate language. Bin Salleh pointed out that many creators were living below the poverty line, with limited access to Western culture and therefore limited knowledge of books, much less the process of book production. Author Meg McKinlay said as a writer you had to give up on a sense of total control and enter into the push and pull of the editorial process. By the same token, she said authors had to define what was important to them. She said though it was tempting, when new, to grab the first publishing contract offered, it was important to know yourself and whether or not the publisher and editor were the right fit for you.

The afternoon bookseller session was run by Jane Seaton of Beaufort Street Books, Jennifer Jackson of Paper Bird Children’s Books & Arts and Beth Herbert of Dymocks Busselton. Jackson described her journey from mental health nurse to owning and operating a specialist children’s bookstore and art space. She said for her the store had to be more than just books on shelves and that she’d worked hard to make Paper Bird an active part of the Fremantle arts space, with exhibitions, book clubs, an Airbnb space, resident artists and writers, and a forthcoming Aboriginal storytelling festival called Woylie Festival. Seaton said her emphasis was on getting people through the door and that she’d worked out how many books she needed to sell, then calculated how many books she could sell per person and worked back from there. She said she had worked hard to build relationships with local schools – hosting professional development sessions instore, distributing specialist children’s catalogues and offering a school rewards program to parents and teachers. Beth Herbert said her background as a teacher was invaluable and that every children’s bookseller and buyer should get to know the Australian Curriculum. She recommended finding out the names of enthusiastic local teachers and said knowing what you stand for and good employees were incredibly important because passion could carry book sales.

The final cross-industry session of the day represented publishers, authors, booksellers and event programmers. Maria Alessandrino described the new Scribblers Festival in Claremont and how she went about the programming process, before Aisling Lawless and Chloe Taylor of Dymocks Joondalup talked about their active and vibrant young adult book club, which typically attracted some 50 people per month. This prompted comments from booksellers in the audience that getting the age groups right for young adults could be tricky and that booksellers were often surprised by the antagonism between parents and their children when making book purchasing decisions. Jennifer Jackson suggested that parents should be encouraged to buy one book that they read to their child and one book that their child chooses for themselves. Booksellers then mentioned the stigma associated with graphic novels, which some parents did not want their children to read, and the level of anxiety parents had about their child’s NAPLAN reading level. The day ended with a general consensus that it was important to promote the benefits of reading for pleasure to parents and children.

Throughout the day there was a strong emphasis on collaboration. It was wonderful to see franchises and indie bookstores as well as large and small publishers sharing information with one another in aid of a common goal – getting more kids into reading and books. There was a definite buzz as success stories were celebrated and new ideas pooled.

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