For our August First Friday Club we were joined by Isabel Staas, production manager at Hachette Australia. Isabel spoke with our program officer, Dan Hogan, about the production process, the future of printing technology and the rise of the audiobook.
Isabel has been making books beautiful with Hachette for almost a decade, working on a diverse range of titles that include cookbooks, novels and children’s picture books. She also runs the production of audiobooks. Our membership intern, Alexander Wells, sat in on the session.
A career in production
Isabel first applied for work as a production assistant because her father had been a printer. ‘When you start in production,’ Isabel said, ‘you do a bit of everything, and as you progress in your career it becomes more specialised.’
Now she is Hachette’s production manager, which means she is responsible for the activities of the production department: scheduling, costing, printing, obtaining commissions – ‘basically anything that’s not the words on the page,’ she laughed.
Isabel reflected that her many years of experience really prove useful whenever things don’t go to plan. ‘When chaos is reigning,’ she said, ‘you can say, OK, I know how to resolve this.’
Day in the life
The production process will vary depending on the type of book. When working on Adam Liaw’s cookbooks, the process included everything from making mood boards, directing photoshoots, and producing design briefs to finalising reproduction and printing. With an artist like Shaun Tan, ‘someone who has a clear vision and knows what he wants,’ the role for production is rather different.
Above all, the process must be consultative. ‘Every person in the production process is very important,’ Isabel said. ‘Author, reader and everyone in between – it doesn’t work without them!’
Authors, trust the experts!
When asked if some authors come in with overly strong ideas about design, Isabel laughed.
‘Trusting the professionals is extremely important,’ she said, explaining that Hachette’s designers are experts with a well-developed sense of judgment. ‘A lot of debut authors don’t have much experience of the process so they can feel railroaded – but they need to realise what we bring to the table.’
Audiobooks in Australia: a rising tide
Isabel also oversees the development of audiobooks, which Hachette has been producing for around four years.
When Audible, a subscription-based service owned by Amazon, entered the Australian market, Hachette decided to keep audio rights rather than selling them on. Hachette produces their audiobooks themselves, which is unusual among major publishers.
The Australian audiobook market is in its infancy compared to the US and UK, partly because of Amazon’s limited market penetration here. In addition to Audible, audiobooks are available via Google Play, iTunes and Kobo, as well as on CD at local libraries. Hachette’s audiobooks currently make up only a tiny fraction of their revenues, but their sales are roughly doubling each year.
Making it in audio
Usually the decision to record an audiobook is made when the book is first published, so the promotion is simultaneous. For literary fiction, however, books might be recorded long after their release if something like award hype has driven the demand.
Isabel recommends that writers pitching to publishers show an awareness of the broader marketing picture. For example, a book might sell poorly at Big W but very well on Kindle, or it might fare differently in the digital world where it has to compete with internationals and self-published authors as well. ‘There’s a whole marketplace outside the bookstore that you have to understand,’ she explained.
Books are chosen to be recorded as audiobooks based on their past sales as well as target demographics, Isabel explained. Alongside the ‘healthy market’ for commercial women’s fiction, a new and perhaps surprising group is promising growth for the audiobook: young men.
The audiobook is not a new technology but the modes of delivery are new – and young men love to feel like they are on the cutting edge. ‘If you’re subscribed to something like Audible, it feels cooler than going into a bookstore and buying a book,’ Isabel said.
The audiobook is also helping to increase the accessibility of literature. Isabel has been working with Vision Australia, for instance, to help bring books to people with difficulties reading print.
‘It’s only fair that everyone has access to literature,’ she said, ‘and it’s only fair to our authors that they reach the broadest audience.’