Event Recap / First Friday Club with Zoe Walton


‘[Making a bestseller] is the mysterious combination of all those factors: the right time, the right place, a compelling story and the role of the publisher in making the most of opportunities.’


Joining us for our June First Friday Club was Zoe Walton, Children’s and YA publisher at Penguin Random House Australia. Zoe spoke with our membership and development officer, Sherry Landow, about the day-to-day life of a publisher, the importance of cover design, and how to boost your chances of getting published.

Zoe is the proud publicist of a range of Australian children’s and YA authors, including Deborah Abela, Tristan Bancks and Fleur Ferris, just to name a few. Most notably, she is the publisher and editor of John Flanagan’s Ranger’s Apprentice series, which has sold over fifteen million books worldwide!

Our membership intern, Geordie Timmins, listened in on the conversation.

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Humble beginnings

Zoe’s dream to become a publisher developed while she was working part time at her local Dymocks bookstore. She was studying for her Bachelor of Arts degree when she came to the epiphany: her greatest enjoyment wasn’t in the classroom, but in the bookstore.

Armed with the knowledge of what kind of books sell and how to sell them, it seemed only natural that Zoe would find her future in the publishing industry. She now works in the children’s and YA category which, Zoe says, ‘is where my heart has always been’.

However, if you think that the life of a publisher is just reading manuscripts all day, you couldn’t be further from the truth. In only the last week Zoe has proofread three books and has been in meetings with book-cover designers, authors and illustrators.

Reading manuscripts, she says, ‘is the one thing I struggle to find the time for. It’s what I spend my weekends doing!’

A look at the current market

When asked what makes a bestseller, Zoe laughed and said: ‘It is the mysterious combination of all those factors: the right time, the right place, a compelling story and the role of the publisher in making the most of opportunities.’

In terms of current market trends, funny books for kids, such as Diary of a Wimpy Kid and Andy Griffiths’ Treehouse series, are hugely popular at the moment.

There has also been a spike in children’s non-fiction, particularly books that hold inspiring true narratives and boast diversity, body positivity and equality (think Good Night Stories for Rebel Girls).

Although Penguin Random House weren’t responsible for these publications, Zoe remarked ‘we’re just happy to see children’s books selling!’

Some of the titles that Zoe has published. From left to right: The Stupendously Spectacular Spelling Bee by Deborah Abela, the Ranger’s Apprentice series by John Flanagan, and the Tom Weekly series by Tristan Bancks.

Judging a book by its cover

Contradicting the age old adage to never judge a book by its cover, Zoe revealed that a lot of work does go into the cover design.

In some cases, books that have been around for a while may need to be re-jacketed in order to keep up with modern trends.

The decision to re-jacket isn’t taken lightly, Zoe remarked, and often results in letters from frustrated kids who are upset when a book series cover changes. However, changing the covers can sometimes be a necessity, as an outdated cover may be diminishing a book’s ability to sell.

Submitting your manuscript

To submit a manuscript to Penguin Random House, Zoe suggests taking the following steps:

  • Manuscript submissions can be made via the Penguin Random House website all year round (with the exception of the Christmas period). While all submitted works will be looked at by Zoe and her team, only those they are interested in will get a response.
  • If you plan on making submissions to a range of publishing houses, be sure to do your research first and submit only to the publishers you feel your manuscript fits best. If you are struggling with this, acquiring an agent might be the first avenue to try.
  • It’s crucial to read the submission guidelines before submitting your manuscript. ‘If you can’t follow the publishers guidelines, the publishers will question your professionalism,’ Zoe said.
  • Revise, revise, revise. Make sure your manuscript is as perfect as you can possibly make it. Don’t defeat yourself with typos, grammar and structural mistakes.
First Friday Club on June 7, featuring Penguin Random House’s children’s and YA publisher Zoe Walton and our membership and development officer Sherry Landow.

Beyond the book

Zoe also suggested writers work on establishing their authorial branding outside the book. For inspiration, she recommends looking at how your favourite authors are presenting themselves to the outside world, on social media or otherwise. However, don’t feel the need to copy other people: be confident in your strengths and what makes you unique.

Attending festivals and events is another way to expand your knowledge and network with industry professionals. A publisher’s ability to put a face to the name may very well later influence their decision in the publishing process.

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Ready to submit your manuscript to Penguin Random House? Visit their website for more information.

You can follow Zoe on Twitter.

Zoe Walton is a publisher of books for young readers at Penguin Random House Australia. Zoe edits New York Times bestselling author John Flanagan, whose Ranger’s Apprentice and Brotherband series have sold fifteen million copies worldwide. She also publishes many popular and award-winning Australian authors, including Deborah Abela, Tristan Bancks, Fleur Ferris, Emily Gale, Tim Harris, Belinda Murrell, Elliot Perlman and  Renée Treml – as well as up-and-coming authors Catherine Greer, Nat Amoore and Gavin Aung Than, who have exciting new books launching in 2019.

 


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