Avid Reader: ABIA Bookshop of the Year
In conversation with owner Fiona Stager, Michelle Law and Christopher Currie
by Connor Parissis
Brisbane’s iconic bookstore, Avid Reader, was awarded 2021 Bookshop of the Year at the Australian Book Industry Awards (ABIA) in April. The award is testament to not only emerging as the centre of Brisbane’s reading culture but by being the centre for the local writing and literary community. We spoke with Fiona Stager, owner of Avid Reader bookshop (and neighbouring speciality children’s and young adult store, Where the Wild Things are), about their ABIA win.
Situated on Turrbal and Jagera land of Meanjin, Avid Reader opened its doors in 1997. The store has become a frequent host of book launches, signings and its many book clubs. Fiona feels, “we’ve been embraced by the community and we’ve embraced the community. We have really established ourselves as a place for authors.”
In fact, Avid Reader’s support for local authors begins behind the counter, employing many aspiring and published writers. Two notable past employees, now authors, Michelle Law and Christopher Currie, described their time there, respectively, as “the most fulfilling workplace,” and a “rare workplace that you’re excited to be a part of, invested in its everyday success and genuinely connected to your community.”
For Fiona, it’s important for the store to act as a conduit between authors and publishers. “We often are the first place that authors do their first reading… I like to think we have a cradle to grave approach where they start off as a reader and then decide to do a writing workshop and then eventually launch their book on our back deck.”
Michelle Law, author of Single Asian Female and the upcoming Asian Girls are Going Places, worked there for five years, following in the footsteps of her two older siblings Ben and Tammy. She started in the Avid Events team, “which was an incredible resource as a writer as I was getting to meet Australian and international authors every week.” Working on the floor kept her up to date with new releases and trends – “from what genres were in vogue and what book designs had been done to death.” But it was working alongside so many incredible writers that was so hugely inspiring. “You’re able to share exciting news with each other and commiserate about the struggles you’re facing as an author.”
Christopher Currie, author of Clancy of the Undertow and The Ottoman Motel, worked at Avid Reader for 13 years. His time there was “certainly an inspiration…” but more importantly, he says, “it was a place where having a creative interest was not something that was ever viewed as getting in the way of my work. Much of this stems from Fiona Stager and Kevin Guy, who believe so much in what a bookshop can mean to both micro and macro communities… and what it can mean for employees who are empowered to pursue their artistic interests and to treat every aspect of a ‘transactional’ experience with compassion, integrity and good humour.”
Fiona told us, “Our staff are our greatest strength,” but Avid Reader’s commitment to community goes beyond authors, with a concerted effort during COVID-19 to coordinate with Brisbane Domestic Violence Services, running book, games and toiletry drives to assist vulnerable women and children suffering from domestic violence. “Women and children often have to flee violent situations without anything. They are then placed in hotel rooms with nothing to entertain or comfort the children. We gave 10% off anything bought from our shops.”
Avid Reader struggled immensely, as many other retailers did, during the pandemic. The store, often at expense to themselves, transformed their events online, broadening their reach across Australia. When asked why Avid Reader was so committed to hosting online events, Fiona said, “I really felt for those debut authors. All of their tours had been immediately cancelled. I felt a commitment to them and also to our readers.” Fiona and the staff were encouraged by the positive feedback from these events which engaged literary communities across the country and put Brisbane’s literary community in the spotlight. Now the Avid team are working towards hybrid events, trying to find the right balance between engaging online audiences and serving physical attendees their wine!
Another issue important to Fiona is the store’s commitment to First Nation voices and local issues. Having grown up in far north Queensland and working in Aboriginal land management, Kev and Fiona saw prioritising Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander voices as “a natural part of our business.” Alongside actively hiring Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander staff, they look for First Nation authors to participate in panels, and use First Nation books for their book clubs and book of the month program. “It’s very organic. It’s something we’re always learning about. Things like going to Black Lives Matter marches is really important and we’re lucky that we can do that. That’s who we are.”
Michelle Law commended Avid Reader for being a store that, “actually walks the talk when it comes to their politics. I learn so much from Fiona and Kev about what it means to be ambassadors for what you believe in.”
While still riding the wave of their ABIA win, Avid Reader has even more to look forward to, now one of three bookstores in the world nominated for London Book Fair’s International Excellence Awards – Bookshop of the Year. Despite being baffled by the shortlisting, Fiona muses that, “I really think it’s because we represent all those hundreds and thousands of booksellers throughout the world who don’t have grand, beautiful 100 year old premises. We’re working in the spaces we have and can afford. We’re working within our communities… I’m really proud to be a bookseller. I feel like we’re representing the everyday, hardworking, extraordinary bookseller… But I’ve got my money on the Romanian bookshop.”
Mandy Macky – Dymocks store owner and bookseller of 30 years inducted into the book industry Hall of Fame
Mandy Macky, owner of Adelaide’s Rundle Mall Dymocks store, has been named the Lloyd O’Neil Award recipient for 2021 after 30 years as a bookstore owner and seller. The award, which celebrates extended and exemplary service by an individual in the book industry, comes ahead of her retirement. Mandy is said to be a generous colleague, often the first to send a bunch of flowers when a “situation” arises and she has mentored numerous employees, authors and other bookstore owners. Once the National Head of Girl Guides, she transferred principles of team building and encouragement to those she worked with and was a key figure in the Adelaide retail network, and Dymocks business. Mandy was the chair of the Franchise Business Development Council for 6 years (as a Dymocks franchise owner representative) and is said to have a sixth sense for buying books, and remembering every title – including author and supplier – that comes through the store.
Managing Director of Dymocks Retail Mark Newman says the company is, “honoured to have had a long and fruitful association with Mandy and congratulate her on this well deserved prestigious award.”
“Mandy has championed innumerable initiatives and improvements within the business.” Mr Newman also says, “Mandy is a wonderful mentor to her loyal and dedicated team, finding their strengths and then encouraging them to follow through and improve and have some control of those areas. She sets the highest standards for customer service, and her willingness to go the extra distance for a customer is an example the team follow.”
When international bestselling author Fiona MacIntosh was first starting out it was Mandy and her husband Bruce who gave her sound advice: to say yes to every opportunity that came along to promote her storytelling.
Despite a deep fear of public speaking at the time, Fiona could tell this was solid wisdom. “I was getting no invitations as no one knew me and I was writing fantasy, which was still much of a cult genre in 2001. Yet, my first invitation came. Girl Guides. I said yes. It was a local South Australian branch so it couldn’t be further from the limelight. And while youngsters were doing cartwheels and generally not paying attention I rambled on, red faced and squirming. The next was a school. Again, I don’t know why these invitations were coming as I was writing for adults, not children but I remembered the advice and drove north to a school quite a long way from home and there, despite the fact that no one had heard of me and few were paying attention I did my piece. What followed was a series of tiny library events where perhaps 20 chairs were set up and if I was lucky two were filled. One person was coming in from the cold and the other because tea and coffee was on. And so it went, forgettable event after nondescript event. One book to spruik. Until suddenly I had two, then three. Events began to escalate and by then, I realised the true wisdom of the Macky advice because by then I’d conquered my fear of public speaking. And Mandy was always ready to have an event with me – get me in front of people. She was always so generous.”
It wasn’t just her own staff and company Mandy was generous with. When Mostly Books owner Charmaine Power opened up her store eleven years ago, “following a naive dream,” she says, “Mandy sent me a message offering help if needed. I don’t think there has been one time since then that Mandy has not answered a call or met with me ( we have had some lovely dinners) to provide her guidance and share her experiences on any question or problem I have had. Mandy is generous, clear and practical and all decisions I have made with her guidance have been the right ones. I can sincerely say that my little bookshop thrived because of Mandy’s support. Mandy is a generous mentor and a friend for life.”
Generosity has been a word that has often been used when speaking with associates about Mandy’s career. Mandy Macky answered a few questions about her career and her induction into the Hall of Fame.
Mandy Macky, how does it feel to be named the Lloyd O’Neil recipient for 2021 and now in the book industry Hall of Fame?
It was the most wonderful surprise! I feel very humbled to be included in such an illustrious group of book people.
You’ve been a bookseller in the shopping district of Adelaide for 30 years. What’s the best and most challenging thing about selling books in the city of churches?
The best thing about bookselling has been the people – the wonderful customers and my terrific staff, many of whom have been with me for many years, the publishers’ reps and the fantastic authors who are so passionate about their books. The biggest challenges have come from competitors (Borders and BigW in particular) and online bookselling.
You’ve shared in another article that you thought you would become a librarian when you were young. Have you ever questioned whether bookselling was the right choice? What’s been the greatest joy in your career as a bookseller?
I became a bookseller by serendipitous chance when my husband decided on a new career after being a banker. And I have loved it from day one. It has also been a joy to share it with my four children (who have gone on to completely different careers) and now my two eldest grand-daughters who have worked with me for several years. One of the greatest joys is to put a book in the hand of a customer and have them come back and say ‘Thank you, I am so glad that I read that book’.
What’s the best advice you can give to someone about the ins and outs of book retail?
‘Retail is detail’ is sound advice I was given many years ago. So true! And that nothing beats excellent customer service. Now that there are so many shopping options, when a customer comes into a bricks and mortar store, they are expecting much more than an online store can offer. They appreciate the staff recommendations and the special promotions. They love to discover a bargain or two. And they want to find a staff member
who can help them with an enquiry or who can offer an opinion on a book they would like to read. Or who just greets them with a smile.
You’ve been said to have mentored many people across your time. Was this a conscious thing to support other, younger booksellers? Can you tell us a little about your approach?
I was a Girl Guide and then a leader for over 40 years and that is where I learned the most about team building, leadership and encouraging girls to challenge themselves. I have run my store in much the same way. It is so important to give people encouragement and opportunities to do something new and different. If they are not sure I ask them “What is the worst that can happen?” It has been a delight to encourage and support other booksellers as well. We all benefit when the industry is doing well.
What’s been the benefit of being a Franchisee of a bookshop company? It seems that you are able to operate like a local independent bookshop but have the backing of a bigger brand.
The benefits of being a franchisee include being part of a recognised Australia-wide brand but being able to have our own identity and range. We are supported by a national marketing program and now, through Click and Collect, customers can order books directly from us while they are browsing online. The ‘know before you go’ option on the online store has also helped bring customers into the store. Having a national database of books enables us to refer customers to other stores which might have a book which is out of stock with us. And similarly we get calls from all over Australia for books which only we have in stock. We also benefit from state meetings and the annual conference where we can share ideas and issues with other franchisees. I have been on the Dymocks Franchise Business Development Council for the past 5 years and have appreciated being able to have input into the strategic directions of the chain.
Can you describe the bookselling trade throughout the decades – in a paragraph or two? What was common practice when you started and how have things changed? What do you miss from the “old ways” and what is a blessing to have now?
Fortunately for us when we bought Dymocks there was a computer system in place. Previously everything had been on stock cards, which must have been such a challenge. However it was very early days and we had to rely on microfiche from our US suppliers, which of course were out of date the minute they were posted to us. To check on the availability of books in Australia we had to ring the suppliers’ customer service departments. Thank goodness for Titlepage!
Then there were stocktakes! Our first ones were done with wide printed pages which were difficult to manage, hard to read and took hours and hours. Hand scanners have made that process so much easier and quicker.
We also had to mark-up order sheets and then enter them into the computer, which was a weekly process. Orders used to be printed and faxed to the supplier which was very time-consuming and one could not always be sure that the order had reached its destination. Daily ordering is now our standard practice and EDI has been such a boon to be able to send the order straight from the computer and have a response that it has been received. Similarly electronic invoicing has saved hours for the warehouse staff.
There is not much to miss from the ‘old days’ – everything that gets a book into the hands of a customer so much faster is a bonus. Computers have allowed us to search the world to find books for our customers and even if we can’t source them, we can tell them where the book can be purchased from.
From your perspective as a bookseller and shop owner, who are the unsung heroes in the book sector?
Apart from the well-known authors there are so many unsung heroes in the book sector –
- the editors who discover the new bestsellers and promote them passionately;
- the publishers who take a risk on an unknown author;
- the bookstore staff members who hand sell good books and inspire customers to discover new authors;
- the reps who quietly encourage booksellers to stock their titles;
- the customer service people at our suppliers who work out the problems and cheerfully reassure us that ‘it’ is fixed; and
- the warehouse people who wrestle with new releases every month and help to get them on the shelves as soon as possible.
COVID created many difficulties for book retailers. What was your experience and what was the most valuable thing you learned in 2020?
We remained open for “call and collect” customers during the shutdown in Adelaide. While the sales were dismal, it was so important to us to keep our loyal customers happy. We also delivered books to some customers as we couldn’t rely on the speediness of Australia Post at that time. It was a difficult time but we all got fitter running up and down the stairs!
Who do you credit for supporting you most in your career? What did they teach you?
I have had wonderful support from so many people that it is hard to limit it to one or two. My reps have been a wonderful resource of ideas and encouragement. My fellow franchisees have shared their ideas and successes and inspired me to try new things. I have attended conferences in Australia and overseas and come home with new ideas and renewed enthusiasm. And my staff have been wonderfully supportive – when I suggest something new and different they get onto it straight away. After coming home from BEA several years ago one of my staff asked me the single most important thing I had learned from the workshops and I told her it was the importance of social media. That afternoon we had a Twitter and a facebook account! Our social media, which now includes an Instagram account as well, has been so successful in keeping our customers and others amused, engaged and informed about what we are doing. And we even get orders from these sites. We often get lovely comments from authors whose books we have promoted.
And finally, what do you have planned for your retirement?
With regard to my future with books I am at last going to catch up on some reading. I have enormous stack of books which I havebeen saving for just this time. I am also going to continue with my wonderful book group which has had its home in the store forthe past couple of years.
Congratulations, Mandy. We wish you all the very best and thank you for your service to the book industry.
Pixie O’Harris Award recipient 2021 – Maryann Ballantyne
Jane Covernton who is a former publisher and was the Pixie O’Harris Award recipient in 2018, nominated this year’s Hall of Fame inductee, publisher Maryann Ballantyne from Wild Dog Books. Jane writes about Maryann’s career below.
The Pixie O’Harris Award recognises book industry representatives who have worked consistently in the field of children’s literature, demonstrated commitment beyond the call of duty, and who have developed a reputation for their contribution. It is named in honour of children’s book author and illustrator, Pixie O’Harris (1903 – 1991), who had a longstanding career in publishing and painted many murals for children in hospital wards, health centres and schools.
Maryann Ballantyne has worked in the Australian publishing industry as an editor, packager, publisher, and mentor to writers, illustrators and members of the book industry for more than 35 years.
She began her career in Australian publishing in 1983 as a work experience intern with Penguin Books Australia while studying for a degree in Communications at RMIT, Melbourne. Soon after she joined the company as a full-time editor working for the dynamic publishing director, Brian Johns, and associate publisher, Jacqui Yowell.
In 1989 after a brief move to Five Mile Press, Ballantyne took up a role as managing editor at the nascent Reed Books, where she worked on Lindy Chamberlain’s book Through My Eyes and the story of John Friedrich – Code Name Iago, ghost written by then unknown author, Richard Flanagan.
In 1991 Maryann was appointed the inaugural Children’s Publisher at Reed, going on to publish many notable books, such as The Blue Dress edited by Libby Hathorn, and a host of authors including David McRobbie, Gary Crew, Brian Caswell, Libby Gleeson, Sophie Masson, Nadia Wheatley and John Marsden.
In the early ’90s Ballantyne joined her husband, Andrew Kelly in his book packaging business, Black Dog Books. In 2000, after building up a very successful series of primary readers, Black Dog stepped into trade publishing, thus beginning Black Dog’s steady transition from a packager to an independent children’s publisher of note.
Between 2000 and 2010 the company published multiple award winning and short-list nominee titles – including When Mum Was Little by Mini Goss winner of the Crichton Award for Children’s Book Illustration in 2002 and Carole Wilkinson’s fantasy novel Dragon Keeper, winner of more than five awards, including the Children’s Book of the Year Award: Younger Readers.
In 2011 Black Dog Books was sold to Walker Books, with Maryann appointed as publisher to look after the Black Dog imprint. During this time Maryann focussed on the works of Indigenous Australians, with a particular emphasis on those living in urban areas. The book she is most of proud of publishing while at Walker is Welcome to Country, written by senior Wurundjeri elder Aunty Joy Murphy and beautifully illustrated by Trawawool woman Lisa Kennedy.
Seven years later Ballantyne left Walker Books to take up the role of publisher of children’s non-fiction and picture book imprint Wild Dog Books, and to pursue her interest in fostering the work of Indigenous writers and illustrators with the WA based independent publisher Magabala Books.
In 2019 as part of an editorial team with illustrator and designer Donna Rawlins she was responsible for producing the childrens’ book adaptation of Magabala’s best-selling title Dark Emu by Bruce Pascoe, Young Dark Emu.
Maryann has always been passionate about publishing new authors and illustrators and stories that ‘tell us something about ourselves’ and reflect upon ‘where Australia has come from and who we are now’.
She is known for her fierce intellect and curiosity, her innate sense of style, taste and judgement, her unswerving loyalty to her authors and illustrators and her great respect and commitment to the Australian publishing industry. In her 30 or so years of publishing she has given several generations of young readers books and stories that explore what it means to be part of a dynamic, and ever-changing Australian culture and society and provided them with a valuable sense of community.
Congratulations Maryann Ballantyne.
Above and beyond in 2020: the best local bookshops of the year
Bookstores played an outstanding role in promoting Australian writing and contributing to their local communities said the ABIA judges.
According to Robbie Egan, the CEO of the Australian Booksellers Association, ‘Bookshops will continue to survive because they are awesome. As far as I’m concerned bookshops are integral to their community and should continue to be so.’
‘We are lucky to have such a high percentage of books be sold through independent bookstores,’ he said.
Read about what these six shortlisted Australian bookstores did across 2020, which has put them in the running for the ABIA Bookstore of the Year award, as submitted in their nomination pitches.
The Avid Reader, in Brisbane’s West End, was established in 1997.
In 2020, the store hosted over 10,000 registrants over 244 virtual events. Avid Reader’s staff transferred the store’s ‘personality’ online to create safe, warm, well managed and engaging events. And it paid off! People attended from around Australia and the world.
It continued to focus on the local community and supported nearby businesses. It encouraged its newsletter subscribers to shop local and when COVID-19 first struck, its first response was to run a book drive with Brisbane Domestic Violence Services to gather much needed books, games and toys for women and children finding refuge and emergency shelter.
Avid Reader embraced the artist-lead economic recovery initiative Chrysalis – and helped raise money for the Word Up! mural by the artist Vernon Ah Kee. In addition to Vernon Ah Kee – the bookstore continued its longstanding support of First Nations writers and artists, providing an office for Melissa Lucashenko to use as a writing room. The Avid Reader also has two First Nations people on staff.
Books Kinokuniya in the heart of Sydney has over 300,000 books – with a range of English, Japanese and Chinese titles. Celebrating many genres and categories – the store even has a Japanese stationery department.
With lockdowns, people working from home, and a decrease in foot traffic in Sydney’s CBD, Books Kinokuniya had to change their usual ways of doing things. Despite closing for five weeks during the height of lockdown, the store was able to retain its 80-odd staff.
Books Kinokuniya found innovative ways to highlight local stories and authors (whether on Zoom or other platforms) and invited authors to film and create content. With an increase in online sales, the team adapted roles and shared the workload – pitching in to pick and pack thousands of orders.
Being surrounded by hotels, the store extended its book curation service to nearby accommodation where people were quarantined, offering books hand delivered and free of charge – a boon for folks with insufficient reading material for a 14-day quarantine period!
Mary Martin Bookshop Southgate
Located in the Melbourne CBD, The Mary Martin Bookshop faced a ‘frightening’ fall in revenue in 2020. On a pre-COVID world its location meant its customers were tourists, office workers and out-of-towners who visit the bookshop as an add-on to a theatre or restaurant experience.
Its immediate priority was staff care. Their original team is intact – and with two new casuals on board – it’s a strong indicator of the bookstore’s resilience.
The bookshop continued to remain open seven days a week for all of 2020 – and ran a pop-up shop for a fortnight with proceeds going to the CFA. The bookshop continued its giving programme, supporting the Royal Children Hospital and the Indigenous Literacy Foundation.
To survive they prematurely launched a website enabling online sales, managed its stock and negotiated with landlords, financiers and suppliers. It figured out creative ways to attract visitors back into the city in a COVID safe manner – working with author illustrators to create maps and art installations.
Matilda Bookshop is set in the Adelaide Hills. It has six staff, including the two co-owners.
In 2020, the small team offered a free Adelaide Hills Delivery service and managed to grow and transform its business. The store hit its highest ever sales figures in 2020.
Its online author events and books sales exceeded its expectations – thanks to book pre-order offers. In addition to events, Matilda continued to find ways to support local South Australian authors with online readings, a dedicated author page and promotions.
While they were not required to close their doors in South Australia, Matilda Bookshop made the decision to close for an extended period ‘as an act of community-centred leadership’. They hand delivered books in the Adelaide Hills suburbs (to a range of 40kms) – and the initiative that was so successful it continues to this day.
The Little Bookroom
The Little Bookroom, in Melbourne’s Carlton North, has been operating for sixty one years.
The Little Bookroom began preparations as COVID-19 disruptions loomed, with an awareness that it and its staff were on the frontline in 2020.
Starting free local home deliveries, the bookstore supplied orders with a speed unmatched by its bigger competitors, including multinationals. They created more meaningful work for its casual staff, retooled their systems and a quickly adaptated to an online business model.
Keeping connected was also important for the Little Bookroom, it kept its newsletter subscribers regularly updated, programmed online storytimes for families, and promoted the work of local creators and publishers.
The Little Bookroom participated in the Bushfire Book Appeal and worked with the Yarra Libraries and partners to distribute thousands of books alongside other essentials to families facing food insecurity.
It said ‘kindness is what kept us fueled last year’.
The Sun Bookshop
Located in Yarraville, Victoria, The Sun Bookshop is tucked in the Sun Theatre building.
In 2020, The Sun Bookshop like its namesake, rose to the occasion. Putting its staff and customers safety-first, the staff got on their bicycles and got in the shop car to meet customer demand for local deliveries.
It refined its systems for telephone and online ordering, and made the best use of social media and publicised its website and online store. It took its bookclub online, partnered with an office block in the CBD to bring a bookclub to employees stuck at home – and used QR codes as part of their window displays to connect their customers to their staff picks when people couldn’t browse at the start of lockdown.
The store worked to make its online presence reflect the ‘true Sun Bookshop vibe and culture’ and used YouTube to speak directly from their staff’s lounge rooms to their customers. They moved their School Book Fairs online, made a short film for Love Your Bookshop Day and Zoomed.
The bookstore’s customers kept returning – and were often generous and appreciative; leaving presents or cute drawings for the staff after receiving deliveries.
And that’s our shortlist of Bookstore of the Year for ABIA 2021!
The winner will be announced on 28 April 2021.
Meet ABIA Committee Member Dan Watts
Tell us a bit about yourself! How did you come to be where you are today?
I think a career in publishing was preordained. My mother was the children’s book publisher at Penguin through much of my childhood. On a daily basis she would bring home a carton of books from the returns pile at the warehouse. Before long every wall in our house was lined, floor to ceiling, with books. I was quite literally surrounded and my family was obsessive about reading. My childhood was filled with house parties in the company of authors like Paul Jennings, Maurice Gleitzman, Jane Godwin and now legendary publishing people from the Penguin of the 80’s.
From the age of about 15 I started doing some part-time work at Penguin in Ringwood after school, mostly photocopying manuscripts for internal circulation. The paper we wasted back then was incredible. Somehow, I fell into a junior marketing job after finishing high school. From there one role led to another. I transitioned to sales – admittedly being lured by the attractiveness of a company car – and came to learn my extroverted personality was well suited to working with people, which is quite the opposite to my mother and sister who are purely editorial.
Somehow seven years slipped by and I succumbed to wanderlust. I spent a year road-tripping the USA, 42 states and 26,000 miles, before running out of money. I took advantage of my UK passport and moved to England and landed a sales job with Penguin UK.
After a year it was time to go home, and within two weeks I fell into a new sales position with Pan Macmillan in Melbourne. After a couple of years repping the Melbourne bookshops I was called upon to take the visiting International Sales Director from Macmillan USA for some trade visits. Our lunchtime conversation left me in awe at the stories of travelling around Japan, Hong Kong, Singapore, Melbourne, London all in a week. That job became my career ambition.
A lucky break saw me transferred to Pan Macmillan UK to take up the role of International Sales Manager for The Middle East, Indian Subcontinent and East Asia. My territory grew overnight from Melbourne’s Eastern suburbs to 26 countries across the Eastern hemisphere. I’d visit each of them twice a year. It was an incredible experience for a young man in his twenties. In the course of a single business trip I could be in Beirut, Riyadh, Tehran, Delhi, Tokyo, Beijing, Jakarka, Hong Kong and Bangkok.
I fell in love with Asia, the food, the climate, the culture, the people and became especially fascinated with China’s emergence as an economic power and the opportunity it presented for publishers. I put a proposal to Pan Macmillan’s London board that we should start a sales office in Hong Kong to capitalise on the opportunities in China. In hindsight, it passed quite easily and within a couple of months found myself on a one-way flight to Hong Kong.
What was meant to be 2 or 3 of years ended up being 10. I met my wife, had children, you know how the story goes. Pan Macmillan Asia grew from a sales office to a standalone profit centre that was also publishing Asian writing under the Picador banner. The business grew 10-fold over that decade. It changed my view of the world and my perspective on the dynamics of the publishing industry.
Vowing not turn 40 in Hong Kong and risk turning into an expat who’s overstayed his welcome, we leapt at an opportunity to relocate to New Delhi to set up a new Pan Macmillan company. This involved establishing up a new warehouse and a publishing centre, which was no small thing in India. The challenges in South Asia were completely different to East. I wish I could claim the same level of success.
Thinking about the kids future, and after 14 years away, I decided to return to Australia and finish something I never really started…a university education. For a couple of years I threw myself into full time academia and completed a double masters in Entrepreneurship & Innovation and Business Administration. Honestly, one of the best things I’ve done with my life and I suspect all the more rewarding doing it mid-life.
Just a couple of months prior to graduating I was introduced to Thames & Hudson and here I am today 6 years later.
You have worked both in Australian and overseas, notably for Pan Macmillan in Asia and India, in your current role as Regional Managing Director: Asia Pacific for Thames & Hudson, and in your role as Chair for the ABIA committee. Are there any particular achievements that you are most proud of in all your time working in the industry?
I suppose I’m proud of the fact that I’ve never been afraid to have a go, despite the successes and the failures. You hope for more of the former, but inevitably can’t escape some of the latter. I never stop striving for improvement and never stop building on those past experiences. I’ve always had a high tolerance for risk and the thrill that comes when you succeed. It’s too easy to sit on the fence, paralysis by analysis. Sometimes you have to jump right in and have a go.
Achievements, well, T&H winning the ABIA for Small Publisher of the Year in 2018 was certainly a highlight, but equally so the books published under Picador Asia and the Australian Publishing program we’ve built up at T&H. Although, I’m equally proud of the experiences a life in publishing as brought, many of them coming from my time in Asia; playing tennis with author Peter James under the shadow of the Taj Mahal, addressing 500 Chinese publishing officials while sailing down the Yangtze, riding camels with a customer around the pyramids of Giza, a barefoot sales conference on the beach in Phuket and letting go a hundred flying lanterns. I can never claim publishing has been boring.
Tell us about your role on the ABIA committee and what brought you to join the committee.
My role as the chair is primarily to co-ordinate between the ABIA committee and the Trade Publishers Committee. In all honestly, the ABIA working group are a really impressive lot who do most of the heavy lifting. It’s made up of representatives from a number of different publishers in Melbourne, Sydney and Brisbane, management from ENT marketing and staff from the APA. Each person plays an important function whether its graphic design, running the judging panels, co-ordinating the talent and presenters on the night, the marketing, the social media comms, the publicity. It’s really pleasure to see this group working so well together when everyone is coming from very different professional background.
My job is to ensure the publishers interests are fairly represented, to aid in decision making and ensure communication between the ABIA committee and the TPC is clear.
What do you have to say about the new format of the ABIA’s this year?
Last year’s sudden pivot to an online streaming event came with a few surprise successes. The number of eyeballs on the event leapt from about 500 to more like 15,000. It was suddenly opened up to the wider public and the awards took on a whole new dimension. We didn’t want to lose that this year, and yet we were mindful that people from the industry get huge value from an in-person get together and networking opportunity.
This year we’ll combine the two in a theatre style event followed by an after party. The book awards will be broadcast live and simultaneously screened in the auditorium and the industry awards will be presented in person. The line up in talent is shaping up to be very impressive too. Cate Blanchett, Malcolm Turnbull, Trent Dalton, Charlotte Wood to mention a few.
T&H will bring a small delegation from Melbourne. The ABIA’s bookends with the Bookup conference and we’ll add a team away day to the Sydney calendar for the week. It will be a great change up for us and everyone is particularly excited at the prospect of being able to travel again.
Who would you like to recognise in the industry as someone who has supported your career in publishing? What did they do for you?
I’m grateful to a number of people who’ve aided my career over the years. However, in Australia a big shout out to Peter Phillips, the former sales director at Pan Macmillan. Peter created the opportunity for me to move to London with Pan Macmillan and to take up the International Sales role. Also to Ross Gibb, who managed me from Sydney while I ran Pan Macmillan Asia. Ross was a great mentor.
What are you reading at the moment?
Reading Barack Obama’s memoir, A Promised Land. Listening to The Dry by Jane Harper.
If you’re keen to join Dan and the committee at the ABIA this year, and you work for a member company of the APA, view ticket options here.
General Admission tickets are available from the Sydney Writers’ Festival website.