Bestsellers and booksellers: emerging publishing professional Jessica Checkland on what she learned from the Business of Being a Writer seminar
Held while Perth Festival’s Literature and Ideas Weekend was in full swing, the Business of Being a Writer seminar hosted by Fremantle Press was filled with excited writers eager for knowledge. Part of the Four Centres Emerging Writers Program, the event was proudly supported and funded by the WA Department of Local Government, Sport and Cultural Industries.
There were several panels throughout the event, and I had the pleasure of sitting down for one hosted by Holden Sheppard: ‘A Day in the Life of Bestselling Authors and Booksellers’ with Natasha Lester, Michael Earp, Allyce Cameron, and Aisling Lawless.
The first half of the panel with Holden Sheppard and Natasha Lester was an unusual but effective mix of styles, combining ‘grunge with high fashion’, as Holden put it. Both City of Fremantle Hungerford Award winners, the pair had a wealth of insight into the publishing world. Natasha began by emphasising why every writer should enter the Hungerford, which is currently open for submissions, saying, ‘Winning the Hungerford Award kickstarted my entire career … Without that, I wouldn’t be here today.’
Having spent five years writing her first book, Natasha stressed the importance of loving what you write because, as she put it, ‘Writing a book is like having a child – you can’t just get rid of it. And when you love what you’re writing, the reader can feel that love.’ She concluded with a refreshingly insightful note on productivity and discipline, stating, ‘The muse turns up when you do.’
For the second half of the panel, guests were given insight into the lives of booksellers Michael Earp of The Little Bookroom in Melbourne and Allyce Cameron and Aisling Lawless of Dymocks in Morley and Joondalup.
I particularly enjoyed the discussion on bricks and mortar bookstores versus online retailers, in which all the panellists argued for the value of bookstores. Aisling Lawless advocated for the ‘community hub which a bookstore provides’ and their ‘invaluably personal’ experience for readers, with booksellers providing personal recommendations and the opportunity for connections with like-minded people at bookstore events and book clubs. Michael Earp affirmed that ‘People are the heart of bookselling in stores: both the readers and the authors.’ Holden summed this up nicely with the catchcry ‘People, not algorithms.’
There was a range of thought-provoking questions raised in the Q&A, but a stand-out for me was a question about graphic novels in the market. Each panellist confirmed that the stigma around graphic novels is decreasing and, as a result, these books are ‘booming’ and even ‘flying off the shelves’. Aisling gave a perfect response to the stigma behind the graphic novel: ‘If a parent comes to me worried that their child is only reading graphic novels, I say “The important thing is they are reading something”.’
The final slices of advice from the panellists were especially wise: Michael claimed, ‘You can’t expect anything from booksellers because there is, financially and physically, not enough space for every new book in the market’; Aisling said, ‘You have to engage and build relationships with booksellers’; and Allyce advised, ‘Don’t cold call or email if you’re promoting your book to a store … Go instore and market yourself’. An interesting titbit from the panellists was that Perth authors sometimes receive support from local booksellers and often their books are stocked and promoted for longer. I’d summarise this panel by stressing the importance of building personal relationships within what Aisling coined as ‘the holy trinity of the reader, the writer and the bookseller.’
After the event, I spoke with Holden Sheppard, who said, ‘Even as a published author chairing one of the panels, I found myself making mental notes as the panellists spoke. I learned so much about navigating different elements of the publishing industry in such a short space of time and the audience members I’ve spoken to have said how incredibly valuable the day was.’ Holden had nothing but praise to give: ‘Congratulations to Fremantle Press and Perth Festival Literature and Ideas Weekend on continuing to support the professional development of writers as part of the festival’s range of offerings. The massive attendance at the event is a testament to the health of WA’s pipeline of emerging writers and also signifies how vital it is that opportunities like this continue to be held in future years in order to foster new breakthrough talents in our state’s literary scene.’
About the author
Jessica Checkland is a graduate of Edith Cowan University with a bachelor’s degree in writing. In 2016, she was awarded an ECU Excellence Scholarship. She has volunteered at Peter Cowan Writers Centre and coordinated their 2018 Publication Event. She has written for Junkee Media (2017), worked as a subeditor of literature and film at Dircksey Magazine (2019), and worked for Westerly Magazine (2019) through their internship program. In her spare time, she enjoys reading, writing, and indulging in tsundoku (book hoarding).