Susannah in New York

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Susannah Chambers, the 2013/14 Beatrice Davis Fellowship winner, is currently in New York. She's hanging out at Little, Brown and Knopf/Random House (as you do when you are in NYC), and talking to editors, publishers, agents and authors. Her mission is to 'examine young adult editing and publishing at a time of fascinating growth and transition'.

Later this month, Susannah will be attending David Levithan's Teen Author Festival, a free festival held in public venues across New York and Brooklyn. Last year, more than 90 YA authors signed up to talk about and read their books to crowds of eager readers.

We'll admit it. We're pretty jealous.

EV: Susannah, we've been following you on Twitter and reading your blog, so apologies for the non-literary nature of our first question. Exactly how COLD is it in New York at the moment? And how are you getting around to do all that research?

SC: It has barely cleared freezing since I got here. (A bit of a change from the old 40+ degree heatwave in Melbourne). The killer is the 'feels like' temperature. This morning was -8 but 'feels like -14'. But the subway is very good for keeping the city moving. I've had a couple of meetings cancelled because of the weather - but to be totally honest, I was quite happy to stay in bed and read while 18 cm of very pretty snow fell on Brooklyn.

 

Susannah Chambers 1

Susannah Chambers, all rugged up in a New York subway station that has her name on it.


So far, how different do New York publishing houses seem to you, compared with your experience as Commissioning Editor at Allen & Unwin?

I'm really only at the start of my explorations, so I don't yet have a wide range for comparison. But to generalise from the publishers I have visited so far: editors acquire/commission books much earlier in their careers (sometimes even editorial assistants can sign books!), and although the big houses are really huge, the small imprints within them retain a great deal of autonomy and personality. So publishing houses are bigger, but individual lists are smaller.

We're really interested in something you wrote on your blog before you left Australia. You said that sales figures showed that although there are clear local differences in the Australian and American adult fiction bestseller lists, Australian teenagers are still mainly reading books by American authors. Do you think that's about the quality of the work, the level of marketing or just the universal themes in YA novels?

I definitely don't think it's about the quality of the work. There are so many brilliant Australian writers of young-adult fiction, many of whom win prestigious awards in the US as well as at home. I think it's more that currently the really huge YA bestsellers are dominant in a way they aren't in adult fiction. The bestseller lists in Australia and the US include several titles by John Green, they include all Suzanne Collins's Hunger Games books and Veronica Roth's Divergent series - including varying editions, that's probably about 20 titles right there. So it's not just that American YA fiction is selling in Australia - but that some very specific YA titles and authors are selling everywhere. Most of those titles also have the weight of a film studio behind them - with marketing budgets that no publisher could contemplate. I do also think that young people are more active in fan culture and internet spaces - like Tumblr - where shared love for books, TV, art and music is very important, and where geographical boundaries are dissolved.

Are the publishers and agents you are meeting aware of our local talent when it comes to YA fiction? How well does Australian YA fiction translate to an American market?

They definitely are. My cross-section is a little skewed, as the agents and editors I first made contact with were the ones I had worked with, or who represented authors I have worked with, so obviously they are aware of the Australian market. But you only have to walk into a bookstore with any kind of YA section to find Melina Marchetta, Justine Larbalestier, Cath Crowley, Fiona Wood, Margo Lanagan, Laura Buzo, Alexandra Adornetto, Christine Hinwood and Garth Nix just for starters. And then, of course, there is Markus Zusak. The Book Thief was published as an adult book at home, but it is YA here - and the movie has lifted it back to the top of the bestseller lists, and into bookstores everywhere.

Are you already finding that you are thinking about YA fiction and our local content differently? Do you think you will be coming home with advice for aspiring YA authors that might have surprised you before you went to New York?

The second part of that question is a hard one. I think that the best books come when authors tell the stories that are in them to tell. So it's hard to think I will come home with advice for authors about what they should write. Or to put it another way, as one of the agents I met with pithily (and quite New Yorkily) said, 'screw trend'.

To answer the first part of your question (I think I'm need of my own structural editor here!), just as your home town looks different when you travel, I am definitely seeing our books and our market differently in the context of US publishing. Our industry looks smaller - print runs, advances, numbers of agents and editors, size of our bookshelves (Random House's foyer: OMG) - but at the same time pleasingly smart and solid. I hope it's not too parochial to say I have felt proud that Australia produces such great books with fewer resources and, I think, less cultural space devoted to the idea of making books. One of the very nice things I have discovered is that to be an editor in New York means something to people, even outside the publishing industry. If you say 'I'm an editor' at home, people tend to look blank and think you proofread all day. But here editing seems to have retained a rather old-fashioned and delightful cachet. If you say, 'I'm an editor' in New York, people think Maxwell Perkins and F Scott Fitzgerald; they think long lunches, they might even think important cultural tastemaker. My swollen head may never recover. (Obviously, this is a gross generalisation, New Yorkers don't ALL think this; I'm sure editors here get there fare share of 'huh?' as well, but they do report that there is a perceived glamour in editing.)

 

Susannah Chambers 2

'This is only a small fraction of the walls of books in the lobby of Random House. Yeah, so it's a little bit bigger than the bookshelf in the reception area on my home turf at Allen & Unwin Melbourne.'


Have you been able to identify any trends (for example, in content or marketing strategies) that you expect to start seeing in Australian YA publishing in the near future?

Trends are such fickle things. Everyone is trying to spot them before they exist, because once a trend is identifiable, it might be too late. Obviously, that's pretty near to impossible. I would say that publishing houses here are very aware of the crossover market for YA fiction, in a way that perhaps we haven't quite embraced at home. I also think that US publishers are much further down the path of exploring how to partner with crowd-sourced storytelling platforms like Wattpad to find and promote authors. And they're also investing more heavily in social media - for specific marketing campaigns, yes, but also for the house as a whole - to be present in the reading community, to build the publishing house itself into a recognisable brand and source of extra content, and to reach book-buyers directly. Oh and also, everyone seems to have at least one YA memoir coming out in the next 12 months.

Who are you most looking forward to meeting at the Teen Author Festival?

Ooooo. Hard question. I'll just be interested to hear everyone and soak up the atmosphere, I think. But I adored Eleanor and Park, so I would love to meet Rainbow Rowell.

Can you see the possibility for a festival focusing exclusively on YA fiction in Australia? (And can we help you organise it?)

Oh! Yes please. How much fun would that be.

You can follow Susannah's adventures at her blog, Susannah & Beatrice in NYC, or via Twitter, @suznannah.