Interviews with Industry Leaders: Karen Tayleur

Karen Tayleur—Editorial Manager, The Five Mile Press

Karen has written over 40 books for children, published both in Australia and internationally. She is currently the Editorial Manager at The Five Mile Press and her favourite motto is 'Life is not a dress rehearsal'.

 

 

Karen Tayleur—Editorial Manager, The Five Mile Press

Karen Tayleur—Editorial Manager,
The Five Mile Press

How did you wend your way into publishing?

A pretty straight-forward route, actually:

HSC > Bank Teller > finance officer ^ short story course CIT> work as a copywriter ^ copywriting & marketing RMIT ^ typesetting course ^ co-publisher Brave New Word  Short Story Magazine > Desktop Publishing Tech Support > owner/operator DTP business > admin/dtp at Melbourne Tourism Authority > dtp operator local newspaper > ^ professional writing and editing course > journalist local newspaper > editor performing arts magazine> managing editor same > ^ first book published  ^ Cert IV workplace training & assessment ^ further books published > editor black dog books > ^ sessional teacher at TAFE  ^ managing editor Black Dog Books > freelance editor/sessional teaching ^ fellowship at May Gibbs ^ Post-grad Certificate Children's Literature > editor at The Five Mile Press ^ Masters of Arts, Lit & Writing >  Editorial Manager The Five Mile Press

This seemed to work.

However, I would suggest a less circuitous route.

 

 How much is gut instinct and how much is reading the market when choosing books to publish?

The books we choose need to fit our list.

I know, you've probably heard that before.

What I mean is that I am not going to look at a 60,000-word World War II memoir for the Children's List. 

So the first consideration is the shape of the list, while always keeping an eye on potential growth or change to that shape.

The second consideration is the current market — what's hot and what's not — while looking beyond that to the 'next new thing' - so crystal-ball gazing at that point.

I also need to consider our current sales channels and where the book might sell.

The greatest consideration is the quality and uniqueness of the submission: does it stand out from the hundreds of submissions we see each year? Is there a unique style and/or authorial voice? Will the book appeal to children?

 

What are some of your all-time favourite kids’ books and what makes you so excited about them?

Seven Little Australians - Ethel Turner

All of a Kind Family - Sydney Taylor

The Railway Children - Edith Nesbitt

Each of these books featured a large family in the main cast of characters. This fascinated me as a child as I only had one sibling. I fantasised what it would be like to find myself part of a much larger family. I was heartbroken (spoiler alert) when Judy died in Seven Little Australians. It was the second puncture in my shield of childhood innocence. (The first was the death of Charlotte in Charlotte's Web.)

Hills End - Ivan Southall

This book was read to us during one hot summer when I was in Grade 6. The story was a reward to students on a Friday afternoon if we had fulfilled all tasks for the week — one chapter at a time (or two if we pleaded enough). Our teacher read it to the backdrop of cicadas, the throb of traffic from beyond the school gates, and the drone of the Grade 5 teacher's voice next door. We were captivated one and all.

Treasure Island - Robert Louis Stevenson

From my dad's bookshelf. A modest blue linen cover adorned only with a gold title and author name, it held such an exciting world inside.

Both books promoted children's agency, in a world (the 60s/70s) where many considered 'children should be seen and not heard'.

A Wrinkle in TimeMadeleine L'Engle

Alice In Wonderland - Lewis Carroll

Opened the doors to fantastical new worlds and possibilities.

Charlotte's Web - E.B. White

In Grade 5 a new librarian started at school. His name was Mr Zooker and he had lovely shoulder-length hair, false eyelashes and wore long boots with his maxi skirt. He read Charlotte's Web each Library session for a month and our project that term was to make a diorama of our favourite scene from the book. 

I couldn't look Mr Zooker in the eye, as it didn't seem right that he should be wearing false eyelashes and skirts to school. I didn't talk about it with my friends as they didn't seem to think it was a problem. I did discuss it with my father. 

The ensuing discussion was about seeing beyond the facade of a person. Beyond race, religion and gender. These were things we had talked about before at the dinner table, but I felt very grown up because this discussion was one-on-one. I promised to make an effort and next library session I looked Mr Zooker right in the eye, gave him a big smile, and tried to ignore his five o'clock shadow.

I looked beyond the fact that Charlotte was a spider and instead saw the qualities that made her a good friend. It's a lesson that has stayed with me. 

It took me a couple of weeks to work out that Mr Zooker was Miss De Zuker. 

But to be fair she had a very deep voice.

 

What is your take on the kids’ book publishing world today? Has it changed very much since you started?

I moved into kids' book publishing before JK Rowling — or, as I call it, BJK.

Well-meaning acquaintances would ask when I was moving into the real world of publishing (i.e. adult titles).

The whole Harry Potter phenomenon saw an avalanche of stories pouring into the slush pile. 

People who had never even put pen to paper were suddenly aspiring authors.

Random strangers at social events assured me that they had the next Harry Potter book in them.

Children's publishing was suddenly fashionable.

Also today, more than ever, it's all about the latest thing: the latest phone, the latest film and the latest book. Backlist feels like a thing of the past. This doesn't make sense to me. A good book is a good book. Art shouldn't be a disposable commodity. Some of the books I read as a child were decades (and more) old. I can't imagine missing out on them because they weren't 'the latest'. Where are the next children's classics coming from if they are only shelved in-store for three months?

 

As a writer, how do you decide which project you’ll work on next? How do you prepare the idea and the pitch? What is your process of pitching?

It has to be about the project that is shouting loudest to me.

I wrote my first pitch ever on a train trip to work.

I'd written a short story that I thought had legs and wanted to turn it into something more.

I wrote a query letter that didn't sound like a business letter and I secured a contract.

I've stayed with that pitching idea for subsequent books.

I like to have a strong idea of  the character and will have written a scene or five before I pitch an idea to my publisher. I have been lucky having such as wonderful trade publisher in black dog books. I actually wrote for them before I joined their team as an editor. Usually the pitch is in response to 'so what are you doing next?' So first there is a conversation. And then the pitch — no more than an A4 page — which includes a sample of the writing I have already done.

 

What advice would you give authors who’d like to pitch to you?

Can you write your pitch in one line?

My book is about… (fill in the gaps).

This might sound easy, but sometimes it's a very hard thing to do.

Distilling the essence of your story into one line that will attract the curiosity of an editor or publisher means you have to have a very clear idea of what you are wanting to achieve.

And if you can't do that, then maybe your submission isn't ready yet.

 

Also, I don't want a business letter.

By that, I mean, I want it to be professional — no flowery fonts, or pink paper, or glitter when I open the envelope — but I also want to see the personality of the author. I want to get a sense of who they are.

 

Publishing is a business.

Writing and illustration is an incredibly personal thing.

But submitting work to be published means you lose total control over your work.

It changes from the idea of 'art' to the idea of 'work'.

Are you open to working with others in a collaborative fashion?

Can you take editorial feedback?

If you've never been part of a workshop process, then feedback can be terribly confronting.

 

Finally, the floor is yours. Any last words? 

Bad reasons to write for children:

You are ready to make a billion dollars.

You have children and you could write/illustrate a better book than some of the children's books you have recently read.

You have had children/known children/been a child and you know what they are interested in.

 

Good reasons to write/illustrate for children:

That moment you sit down to create a story, 

the moment you get that feeling of excitement in the pit of your stomach when you nail that perfect voice, scene, facial expression, hair texture,

that ah-hah moment, 

that feeling of loss when you finally finish… 

these are all good reasons to create stories for children.

And whether you share this story with one child or a billion, the payback is priceless.