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Diary of a Publisher: The power of young adult novels

Books & Poetry

YA novels are a growth area for Wakefield Press – thanks largely to the endeavours of a young publisher who started out stuffing envelopes and now gets a huge kick out of putting South Australian stories out in the world.

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I’m listening to author Catch Tilly talking on ABC 891. Catch wrote the recent powerful novel for young adults Otherwise Known as Pig. It’s about schoolyard bullying and, in light of recent events, Catch has been called in as an expert.

Otherwise Known as Pig is among the multi-hued and growing list of YA novels we are publishing thanks largely to the endeavours and enthusiasm of one Margot Lloyd.

Margot says she worked here at Wakefield Press as a 14-year-old stuffing envelopes, a bit more than half her lifetime ago, and back in the days when you used to post letters. My memories of adolescent Margot’s employment are dim, as on so many matters, but I’ll take her word for it. She’s a trustworthy, uplifting soul.

After school and university, Margot vamoosed to Melbourne (as 20-somethings do), studying and working in publishing for a while before coming back to home sweet home. I remember how she got to this small firm for her second coming. Someone had left. We had a rare vacancy for a trainee editor and do-everything person. “Do you know anyone likely?” I asked my then fellow-director Stephanie Johnston.

“Margot Lloyd. Remember her?” Steph said.

Blank look from me.

“I’ll call her mum.”

It was a very good thing that Margot said yes, taking a pay cut from her job involving something to do with data. Indeed, she said that she’d always wanted to work for Wakefield Press, with her roots being strongly South Australian, including via her extended family’s literary, wine and food ventures. She took to publishing like a duck to water.

Now, a few years on, Margot is kicking goals as our publisher of fiction for young adults. How did this come about?

“First,” Margot says, “I edited Simon Butters’s novel The Hounded, which in 2014 was runner-up for the 2016 Unpublished Manuscript Award in the Adelaide Festival Awards for Literature. I loved the experience. The story reminded me of how keenly teenagers feel everything. I had hardly read any teenage fiction since I was a teenager myself, so I was surprised by how much I enjoyed it.”

“So ‘YA’ or  ‘teenage fiction’ was a known entity when you were a teen?” I ask. “Can’t recall it was when I was.”

“Teen books were a big thing!” Margot scolds. “I grew up on John Marsden’s Tomorrow When the War Began series, and Tim Winton’s Lockie Leonard books, and Melina Marchetta and Wendy Orr – there was a book by her called Peeling the Onion that I read over and over.

“I was probably reading one or all of those books when I was at Wakefield at 14 (as you decline to admit). As well as a lot of Tolkien and Jane Austen.”

Margot was part of the judging panel when Mallee Boys by Charlie Archbold won the Unpublished Manuscript Award.

“Both The Hounded and Mallee Boys were longlisted and shortlisted for awards, including the prestigious CBCAs [Children’s Book Council of Australia awards], and sold well.

“Poppy Nwosu’s Making Friends with Alice Dyson was the next YA title we published, and it also came out of the Unpublished Manuscript Award. I loved that book so much I chased Poppy down at the awards ceremony to tell her I wanted to publish it. I think I almost gave her a heart attack.

“But it’s obvious we have a lot to thank the Unpublished MS award for, as the beginnings of the list really grew out of what I was reading (not just the winners and runners-up) as a judge.”

And now, thanks to another rare position vacant, Poppy Nwosu is working for us in marketing and publicity (writing books has never paid anyone’s rent!). It must be a strange experience for Poppy, helping put together sales material for her lovely next YA novel, Taking Down Evelyn Tait, due for release in April.

Next in Margot’s list, in May, is a post-apocalyptic fairytale called Snow, by Gina Inverarity – who some time before Margot’s advent (perhaps a couple of talented young people before), occupied a trainee editor and do-everything chair before joining the diaspora in Wellington, New Zealand. She’s enjoyed a varied career in editing and writing.

Comings and goings, goings and comings! And demonstrating what a small world Adelaide is (and perhaps especially Wakefield Press), Gina’s brother, Jonathon, is our long-serving, magnificent warehouse manager.

Gina’s first book, a picture book called The Brown Dog, was published by groundbreaking Adelaide children’s publisher Jane Covernton, recently retired, her Working Title Press sold to big guys. Jane – take a bow, please – is, since January 26, Jane Covernton, AM. A richly deserved honour.

But back to Margot, who says “young adult” is often approached as a genre, “though it’s just a very broad umbrella term for books pitched at teenagers”.

“Having not been a part of the YA crowd before I started publishing, I found there were some well-established ‘rules’ that I had to learn, some of which turned out to be sensible (teen readers prefer to read about characters older than them, for example), but some I was happy to ignore.

“I get a particular kick out of putting South Australian stories out into the world, as I know how much my teen self would have loved to read books set in my home town.  But our books are by no means place-bound, with our latest release, The Girl with the Gold Bikini, set on the Gold Coast. Early reviews are coming out for that one, a Veronica Mars/Nancy Drew mash-up with a good dose of body positivity and wit, and people are raving.”

So is there anything specific that makes Margot thrill and tingle and think “we must” about a manuscript?

“That’s a difficult one. It’s something to do with needing to read more because I care about the characters. Bad dialogue can really kill it for me.

“Publishing for teenagers involves a lot of joy, and only a little heartbreak. I don’t think young adult books should be formulaic, but I do believe they generally have a stronger sense of justice than adult books. That’s comforting for readers of any age.”

Michael Bollen is director at Adelaide-based independent publishing house Wakefield Press. He writes a regular column for InDaily.



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