The do's and don'ts of approaching a publisher

There are two stories that Sue Whiting tells about publishing. One of them is true, one of them is not.

The first tells of an email she received after arriving back at her Stanwell Park home from her work in Sydney.

"I was writing on the train and got home and checked my emails," Whiting said.

"I had one from the gentleman who said, 'You don't know me but I was sitting behind you, on the 5pm train to Port Kembla'.

"He wanted me to critique his poems. He saw my name, looked up my website and contacted me. It was creepy.

"It would have been better if he'd just tapped me on the shoulder and asked me. I still would have said no."

In the second story, she is sitting on a toilet at a function and an unpublished manuscript is passed under the cubicle door.

"That hasn't happened, but I joke about it," Whiting said.

What has happened, is that desperate authors have approached her in the queue for the toilet.

Whiting knows it from the both sides.

As the publishing manager at Walker Books, she works with authors and illustrators to produce children's books.

And as an author of books for children and young adults, she know how hard it is to be published.

"The rub is that there is not a lot of return on illustrating children's books," Whiting said.

"It's very hard to make a buck in publishing at all if you are a creator. That's the tricky bit.

"People who are unpublished - or pre-published, as we sometimes say - tell me it's hard and it's harder than ever before.

"I don't know if it is harder than ever before.

"I think it's always been hard and it was when I started 15 years ago.

"It is hard, but it's not impossible. If you want to get published you have to persevere and you practise."

Whiting fell in love with books at the age of eight, when she started reading Enid Blyton as she grew up in southern Sydney.

She still has the book that started it all - a cloth-cover hardback of Five Go Down To the Sea, inscribed as a gift to her cousin who then passed it on to her.

It's a strangely appropriate book for Whiting's current circumstance, living in a house perched on a cliff overlooking the ocean.

"I remember reading this over and over. I couldn't go into any cove when our children were little without thinking it was a smugglers' cave," she said.

"Even now, when I see a boat on the ocean I wonder if it might be a smugglers' boat."

It was not the only book connected with the house she has shared with her husband and two children for the past 17 years.

One of the first novels she wrote was called Battle of the Rats and was based on the experience of moving in to a dilapidated beach-comber that was infested with rodents.

Though Stanwell Park is never mentioned in the book, the place is clearly recognisable and it is still studied by Year 6 students and the local primary school.

Whiting started out by teaching primary students for 25 years and only became a writer because her university course demanded a book as a condition of graduation.

Even then, it took another decade - until she was in her late 30s - for her to start writing seriously.

She is now in the enviable position of being unable to say how many books she has had published ("About 70 I would think") because she later worked in the educational and novelty markets.

So for a while, she churned out - if that is not too unkind - the kind of books that kindergarten children use to learn how to read.

If you don't count those, or the novelty flap books, she's published 13 books - six picture books and seven chapter books.

The latest, Portraits of Celina, was published in April and tells the story of a girl haunted by a girl who used to sleep in her bedroom but disappeared.

"A ghost story. A love story. A story of revenge," reads the back-cover blurb.

Yet - as everyone involved in any kind of publishing is too aware - her industry is in turmoil, living through a revolution where complete collapse is a possibility.

Whiting's employer, Walker Books, is doing better than most and the children's book market is relatively untouched by e-readers, but no-one escapes the revolution forever.

Nevertheless, Whiting is optimistic that there will still be a place for a quality publisher in years to come.

"You can do it yourself, but I think there are couple of things you need to consider," she said.

"If your aspiration [is] simply to publish a single book, then do it yourself.

"You might sell a few copies, or you might sell lots, but you have more chance of winning the lottery than replicating a book like Shades of Grey.

Publishers can still nurture authors and their work and Whiting believes that readers will tire of the mass of self-published, poor quality work available.

"Eventually, you will learn that you need a recommendation," she said.

"That's where the publishers will come in. You will want to know that you can trust this book, that it's worth putting effort in."

Whiting is one of a number of guests appearing at the Southern Highlands Writers' Festival being held in Bowral from Friday, July 12 to Sunday, July 14.

She will be talking about books you should read to your children (see box) and the rise of young adult fiction.

Sue Whiting will be a guest at the Southern Highlands Writers' Festival. Details here.

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