Reflections by Emma Bowd
As I reflect on the past four years of attending KidLitVic Meet the Publishers Conferences (KLV) I have no doubt that my journey from published author of fiction and non-fiction for adults, to a writer of children’s literature, has been empowered by this premier annual event in the Australian Children’s/YA Literary Calendar.
Now, I’m not just being a typical Melburnian when I use the term ‘premier’ (as I know we do have a tendency to err… spruik our ‘bigness’ and ‘bestness’). But the buzz at this year’s KLV was palpable. And I spoke to lots of local and interstate publishers and delegates during the course of the day, who all echoed the same sentiments: that the superior level of organisation and conference content made this year’s KLV an undeniable and huge success.
Officially, KLV is the brainchild of Melbourne’s Alison Reynolds – a highly respected and accomplished writer, presenter and editor within the children’s book industry – a legitimate mover and shaker. How she manages to coordinate such a professional, yet warm and personable conference, with constantly evolving content and only three other team members to assist her – the inimitable duo of Coral Vass and Nicky Johnston from the very beginning, and the newly joined arts events professional Sarah Reynolds – is worthy of high praise indeed.
It’s not easy to keep content fresh in an annual conference of this kind, and to likewise appease the interests of both novice and seasoned children’s/YA literature creatives.
I’ve enjoyed seeing the KLV program grow and evolve over the past four years, to include more Masterclasses for authors and illustrators (presenting up-to-date industry information applicable to portfolio and manuscript development, presentation and submission); more publisher Assessments and Pitches; more Panels exploring the publishing process, including agents; ever more polished and engaging Panel Facilitators with obvious industry experience (this year competently handled by Katrina McKelvey and Davina Bell); bigger Illustrator Showcases; an exciting Open Question Time; and for the first time this year a Quiet Room, as well as Up Close & Personal small group meetings with publishers – incredibly invaluable experiences.
I also noticed significantly more blokes amongst the delegates this year, as well as a wider age-range compared to previous years. All healthy signs of an increasingly diverse and growing children’s/YA book industry. And a cause for much celebration.
The venue move from the State Library of Victoria to the Melbourne Town Hall occurred last year, to accommodate the ballooning number of delegates. (Can you believe KLV had a wait list of 100 this year?) I really liked how the room allocations and layouts were re-jigged this year – it all seemed to flow perfectly. My only niggle was the clunky IT in the booking process (gah – we only ever talk about IT when it misbehaves) which I’m sure will be looked at closely before the start-of-play next year.
A publisher I had a manuscript assessment with this year asked me if this was my first time attending KLV, and appeared quite surprised when I said that it was in fact my fourth. Clearly intrigued, she asked me, ‘Why?’. The first thought that came to my mind was the desire to connect – with like-minded people who were also stepping away from their solitary creator’s caves; and with the industry as a whole. Finding my tribe. Something she acknowledged that she also very much liked about KLV.
I’ve personally enjoyed making many friends with writers and illustrators at KLV, who I’ve also gone on to connect with at SCBWI, in online kidlit groups (a big shout out to my fellow Duckies in The Duck Pond and Scribblers), and also a critique group.
My own KLV journey has gradually percolated from spending the first two years listening, learning, digesting and connecting – by attending Panels and Masterclasses. Who knew email signatures and branding were so important to a children’s writer? (Thank you Lisa Berryman, of Harper Collins). I then continued to write, re-write, submit, re-submit, and keep connecting with my SCBWI and kidlit community on social media, and in real-life (gasp), as well as entering creative writing competitions (and getting short-listed). Much of this was done thanks to advice received directly from the mouths of publishing professionals at KLV.
Eventually, I signed up to some publisher assessments at KLV last year and this year, and have received wonderful verbal and written feedback via professionally marked-up manuscripts. Generic rejection letters/emails from publishers just don’t give you the feedback on which to grow and develop your craft. So these documents and the fifteen minutes we get to discuss them at KLV assessments are absolutely worth their weight in gold. And it also made me realise just how much I missed the editing process (which I really enjoyed during the publication of my novel). It’s an absolute privilege to have an editor dive deep into your work, and know and understand it as intimately as you do. Likewise, to hover above it, and notice subtle or glaring holes in the rhythm, pace and plot – which is so easy to miss when you are so close to it. To this day, ten years post-publication of my novel with Bloomsbury, I’m still very good friends with my divine editor.
That special bond between the writer and editor/publisher was on full display during the Panel Discussion: ‘The Inside Story’, when Davina Bell interviewed acclaimed children’s author Jen Storer and her publisher, Lisa Berryman, of Harper Collins. I think every delegate was genuinely lulled into reverential silence by the hardworking ‘Dream Team’ up on the stage, giving us so much to aspire to, as they explained the detailed process involved in creating the best possible body of work. It was evident just how much they loved the characters, the words on the page, the illustrations, the design and of course the sharing of fan letters sent in by readers.
But most importantly, Jen and Lisa credited the success of their long-term partnership to a deeply invested foundation of trust, respect and boundaries.
I also very much enjoyed the Panel Discussion: ‘Find Your Perfect Match: From Big Publishers to Small Indie Houses’, again facilitated by Davina, where three publishers of small (Scribble), medium (Text) and large (Hachette) publishing houses gave an incredibly frank insight into their inner workings during the acquisition, and nuts-and-bolts phases of bringing a book to market. I was really struck by the candour of the publishers Miriam Rosenbloom (Scribble), Jane Pearson (Text) and Suzanne O’Sullivan (Hachette). I felt that several times they could have easily held back and been more commercially cautious in their answers, but actively chose to share information. Leading a delighted Davina (who works for Affirm Press) whispering into her microphone that she felt like she was engaging in corporate espionage – much to the delight of us delegates. Nevertheless, irrespective of size, budgets, staffing and resources, all three publishers were fuelled by a love, passion and excitement for children’s/YA books.
Their universal advice to prospective authors and illustrators was to really spend time researching the types of books which are similar to yours, and find the right publishing ‘fit’ when you are submitting. And for writers, it’s your ‘voice’ that will get you across the line for the editors every time. As to whether that will be enough to equally enchant the sales and marketing team, is another proposition entirely.
It’s clear that KLV 2019 more than comfortably achieved its official mission statement, “to connect children’s literary creators with Australia’s leading children’s book publishers, as well as seeking to empower authors and illustrators with the tools to manage their career and develop professional relationships.” The genuine level of collegiate sharing amongst the delegates and publishers was inspiring, and can surely only result in the Australian children’s/YA book industry becoming stronger and smarter and a producer of more outstanding works.
As a creator and writer of stories, I walked away from KLV 2019 nourished and energised, both professionally and personally. I will now try to do exactly what the brilliant Keynote Speaker, and champion of the power of stories, Michelle Nye (Teacher Librarian/YABBA coordinator), urged us all to do: to go away and think, dream, wonder and question; to create stories that can be shared, told and re-imagined for years to come; stories that will entertain and inspire, and help connect us to our inner selves, our surroundings and our world, by stretching our minds.
Oh, and I will also definitely take-up the very kind offer of the KLV organisers to send in a bonus query letter to the publisher of my choice, from the list on their website, on Monday 3rd June. I’m really excited to see that a publisher I missed out on booking is on that list. Ahh…another great opportunity from the KLV conference that in every sense is on our side, urging us onwards and upwards, to create fabulous books in the name of Australian children’s/YA literature.