A View of One’s Own

I am not tremendously for or against ebooks – they simply are but one more form that stories can take. Unlike newspapers, I think there will always be a market for printed books, and that print will remain the preferred form for illustrated books in particular.

Max und Moritz

At A&U they have been part of our lives for several years now. Our ebook queen Elizabeth Weiss, also our Academic publisher, felt the impact of plunging text book sales and the rise of ebooks much earlier than the rest of us and made it her business to change our systems so that we could take advantage of the digital revolution as it developed. And she was right – the sales trajectory across the whole A&U list is zooming up. Ebooks are here whether we like them or not and as publishers we have to engage or die.

But I want to segue here and not give you the publishers’ perspective – there is so much written on this topic and to be honest I am more interested in what makes a literary culture vibrant than what Richard Flanagan described in the Age on June 16 as the ‘determined, dreary excitement around digitisation’. I am not a luddite, nor a technological whiz – I am simply someone who uses a computer, has borrowed the office Kobo ereader, owns an iphone and may have an ipad by the end of this year. I also live in a house stuffed full of books and art.

I compulsively devour stories in many forms. Pictures excite me as much as words and I love the visual storytelling found in picture books, graphic novels, experimental hybrids. I also love movies, old and new, and tv serials – my most recent obsessions including the Danish series The Killing and Vince Gilligan’s Breaking Bad. For someone as squeamish as me about violence, the only reason I can tolerate the blood and guts in these shows is because of the brilliantly written characters and how they behave under pressure. I relate to them, and I understand them, even as they are put into situations beyond my personal experience.

The Wild White Stallion book - one of the saddest and most wonderful books I've ever read

For me, it always has and always will be all about story – my whole working life has been in the service of bringing books and young people together. And I believe that no matter where or when we are born, there is magic of some sort at work and that we will get the stories we need at the time we need them in whatever forms are available to our particular generation.

My parents had a number of very old audio reels of German children’s stories – not just the Brothers Grimm – though they were favourites – but a range of stories about humans and animals. I was the youngest of five and would listen to these stories with rapt attention, while drawing horses, or making something eccentric out of wool or felt. Those stories captured my imagination. Later I listened to Disney’s ‘long-playing records’ which used the phrase ‘turn the page when Tinkerbell rings her little bell like this’ – a sure-fire way to entertain me for hours. Using the record-player was a big thing in itself – I had a powerful fear of damaging the needle … Of course I also read for myself, but the experience of hearing words read aloud made me aware from an early age of the rhythms and drama and power of the spoken word.

Being read to – in German and English – was also a huge part of my childhood. I’m sure our mother did read to us, but I don’t have as clear a memory of her doing that as I do of my father reading stories of loyal horses and dogs usually coming to some sad but noble end. We would lie on our beds, tears running down our cheeks, Dad included. This must have served some cathartic emotional function, for my outer life was relatively normal and happy. My older sister also read to us two little ones – her most impressive feat reading the entire Hobbit and Lord of the Rings to us when I was 7, as well as the entire Silver Brumby series.

Fast-forwarding to when I became a parent, reading aloud to my two children was as essential as keeping them fed and clothed. Any troubles and tensions from the day dissipated when we snuggled up and shared hundreds of picture books and novels. Peter Pan fascinated my 5-year-old son so much that we read the unabridged version at least 3 times that year. We discovered treasures together, like Tove Janssen’s beautiful, complex world of the Moomintroll series, Robert O’Brien’s The Rats of Nimh and Beverly Cleary’s Ramona series.

Der Rote Wolf - an incredible German book Isobelle will remember because it brought us both to tears in recent years ...

My son and daughter shared a bedroom until they were 8 and 10, so there was never any gender discrimination. We just read everything together. Both children are well and truly adults now, but they both say they have no memory of learning to read – it was just a given, as natural as breathing.

Fast-forwarding to being a grandparent to a 2-year-old boy and a soon-to-be-born girl as well as a step-grandma to two gorgeous boys in Perth, many kilometres away, books remain at the emotional heart of our bonding.

For this ‘i’ generation, devices with cameras, games and animations one small finger touch away, are as commonplace as milk and bread. My 2-year-old grandson is mesmerised by our i-phones and can already navigate his way around the icons, locating apps that amuse him and pictures that make him laugh. We share picture books and draw and play as we’ve always done, but through his eyes, I can see that the wonder of technology is not to be feared – it is simply another way to get to stories.

My hope is that books in all forms will continue to connect us to each other. Imagination and empathy are needed in this world more than ever, and books are one of the best ways to feed our curiosity, develop our minds and help us to be compassionate and courageous and the best we can be.

Erica with her beloved grandson Marlo

Erica Wagner is a publisher of books for children and teenagers at Allen & Unwin. Before, she worked at Penguin books as an editor, and one of her first editing jobs was to work jointly on The Farseekers, with my then editor, Kay Ronai. Kay was brilliant but Erica and I just had a special relationship right from the start. Erica edited almost all of my books from then on until she left Penguin. Among those was The Gathering, which won me Book of the Year. It killed me when Erica left, but she had promised to find a replacement that would measure up and she put me together with Nan McNab. The closeness and longevity of my working relationship with Nan shows how well Erica knew me and what I needed. But still I missed her and I have maintained a strong friendship with Erica. Last year she published The Wicked Wood and The Wilful Eye, containing stories Nan and I had collected and this year, Allen & Unwin published Metro Winds, my first collection since Green Monkey Dreams was published. ( A&U also produced a lovely reprint of Green Monkey Dreams as a companion book, with an exquisite new cover by Zoe Sadokierski, who did the Metro Windscover).I signed the contract for Metro Winds more than ten years ago. Aside from all of her other virtues, Erica has patience.

This is all by way of telling you that Erica played a profoundly important role in my life as a writer, as well being someone I love as a friend and admire as an artist. You can see her work and at work wearing her artist hat here: www.ericawagner.com.au. Have a look at the vimeo of her Dark Horse show and as well as admiring the work, look how many illustrators are there, vowing undying love! Terry Denton is hilarious.

There is simply no one else like her and when I asked her for a piece for the book form debate, I knew she would produce something thoughtful and heartfelt. Erica Wagner never does ANYTHING by halves.

22 Responses

    1. Beautiful post, Erica.

      I also learnt to read through audiobooks. When we lived in Cressy, a pinpoint inland town roughly an hour from Geelong, my parents bought me a subscription to a series of fairytales on tape to wile away the long drives to crèche. Every week I would receive a new cassette and accompanying picture book in the mail, and the hours would fly by. And at some point, the words I heard and the hieroglyphics on the page began to match up without my noticing.

      What stuck with me was the love of reading, of course, not an allegiance to the technology. These are tools for broadening our appreciation of narrative, not eclipsing it.

      • Deb says:

        I still have vinyl 45s of Dick Whittington and His Cat, among others, though sadly not the books that go with the records. I think they were the main reason I learned to read so young.

      • Erica Wagner says:

        Yes, I think it’s something about reading along at your own pace, and the repetition. I agree with what Virginia says below too about the sound of language being important.

    2. Erica Wagner says:

      Thanks, Rebecca. I agree.

      The amazing thing was, after I wrote this post, I had a yearning to find a copy of The Wild White Stallion again – I think one of my sisters has our childhood copy. I found it (on amazon, I whisper …) but then discovered it was originally a film, made by the same man who made The Red Balloon. So now I’ve also bought and watched the DVD with both short films on it – making me weep again – but isn’t that interesting. The novel was written in the 50s as a film tie-in book, but to me it was a purely written story that touched my heart.

      • And I do agree with you re e-readers and their lack of a place in reading with children–and I think people feel like that everywhere. I heard a Russian publisher say recently that in that country, children’s books are the only ones safe from piracy because Russian parents and grandparents don’t want to read e-books to their kids at all.

      • Erica Wagner says:

        Fascinating. Yes, the other thing I’ve observed with older kids is that apps based on books are enjoyed for their game qualities more than the narrative. Again, I’m not anti this – just interested.

        It is true, though, isn’t that, that all of us can remember those key childhood books that helped to form us … Same cannot always be said for books in adulthood.

      • Emily Craven says:

        How interesting. That’s the first time I’ve heard of a tie-in book creating as much emotion if not more than the movie 🙂 Normally you hear people bemoan that the movie does not come close to the book. Perhaps it depends on which order they are created…

      • Erica Wagner says:

        I think it’s also the quality of the writing and the quality of the original idea.

    3. A lovely post, Erica, really resonated with me too, both the childhood reading and reading to kids. And re the Wild White Stallion being originally a film, is that ‘White Mane’? That was by Albert Lamorisse, as was The Red Balloon–I purchased a DVD recently which had both films on it, really charming–it’s called Albert Lamorisse’s Classic Shorts, and it’s available through Madman. Well worth getting.
      I loved the Red Balloon as a kid, the book as well as the film–it was a gorgeous photographic picture book.
      Thank you for bringing back some lovely memories!

      • Erica Wagner says:

        Yes! I have also now bought a few copies of that DVD. I knew the Red Balloon only as the picture book as a child – so it was the first time I’d ever seen the film. A wonderful story. Proves to me that the story is the most important thing. There is huge poetry in both the visuals, the characters and the narrative in both the films and the books …

    4. Virginia Lowe says:

      The visual being as important to you as the words, Erica, is a fascinating thing, given your wonderful paintings (which I’ve spent time pondering over. Some tell stories, some not. But we love the Barmah Forest as you have – and Melville Caves too. And your moving people…)
      I know it is about the importance of narrative, and times change of course (with printing and universal literacy – ‘who will listen to Aunty May’s stories at the fireplace now they can read for themselves’ – i can hear the regret…
      So just as long as they are actually taking in the narrative, i guess it doesn’t matter how. But i want the love of language as well as the love of story, to continue to exist – isn’t this what makes us human?

      • Erica Wagner says:

        I agree, Virginia. It always fascinates me how some authors can evoke immense meaning with just a few well chosen words. Those are the great writers! They use words like artists – just enough to express what they want to say, and the exact right word in the exact right place. This is something so hard to emulate! Writing that pulses with life …

    5. carolko says:

      Hi Erica:

      How well I know and understand what you write. Reading to your child is a beautiful part of motherhood. When I was very young, I remember having ‘record books’. You would play the record while reading the picture book; with a bell to signal when the page should be turned. My favourite at the time and one I still possess was called “the magic toyshop” (which was about a doll that falls in love with a golliwog [incredibly non PC these days but fine and dandy in the late 60’s!]); but I regress…

      When I packed up and moved after my children were grown, I literally had boxes of children’s books; huge collections that consisted of everything from “Cat in the Hat” to “Anne of Green Gables” – and every conceivable book in between.

      The process of moving consisted of the unenviable task of “culling” and so I set about cleaning out the cobweb filled boxes that took up so much room in my garage, that I could no longer park my car. I listed a million things on eBay including a huge box of R.L. Stine “Goosebump” books that my children had read as they advanced from picture books.

      I received one email from a woman who asked about the expected cost of the box as her son had been saving his pocket money and was hoping he would win. I ended the listing and posted it to her because a little boy sitting at home, watching an auction and fervently hoping he would win a box of books is my kind of kid and should be encouraged.

      Books should never be draped in cobwebs; but should be in the hands of a child. And an eReader will never compete with sitting on a bed with a child and turning the pages while they sit enthralled, awaiting the end of the story…

    6. Richard Harland says:

      Your post brings back many memories, Erica!
      I’m a total believer in reading aloud to kids. For boys especially, in our age of instant visual media, reading words can so often seem a chore … a kind of hard work that, as they grow up, comes to be associated with school work and merely absorbing information for practical purposes. But read to kids when they’re young, and they overleap the chore factor and come to associate words with story, with characters and action – and most of all with reward, with pleasure. It’s a mind-set that needs building up – and reading aloud is absolutely the best way to do it!

      It’s not quite the same with e-books – you don’t have another person with you living the story and sharing the excitement. But for kids who enjoy being read to, yet haven’t acquired the habit of solitary text reading, e-books are surely the perfect transition. And if a kid stays with e-books and never takes up solitary text reading, well, I think that’s fine too!

      • Erica Wagner says:

        I agree, Richard. It’s what Paul Jennings said too when he started out – that he was writing for his son who hated books and reading, mainly because he hadn’t found one that he liked. I am excited by what ebooks can bring to the world – not least the more democratic playing field in terms of getting published and finding your own audience for your work.

    7. Paul Collins says:

      I envy that part of your upbringing, Erica. None of my family read — there was never a book in the house. (My father laughed when I said I wanted to be a writer. Some two decades later after I’d had about 50 books published I reminded him of that occasion and he said, “I don’t remember saying that, Paul, but if I did, I just knew you’d set out to prove me wrong.)

      Of course, being of my generation I don’t want to see books disappear. I suspect they will last as vinyl has, but more in a niche role. I predict small presses will become more dominant as time goes by.

      The main problem for the printed book is the outlet from which to purchase it. I see major publishers sacking staff, consolidating, therefore publishing fewer books. The US has possibly suffered the worst where indie bookstores are concerned, and I’d say this is directly linked with the e-book revolution. So with fewer reps going into stores the onus is on the already time-poor booksellers to search out the books they want which creates yet another hurdle to cross and one that is already at breaking point. In a nutshell, if the print book becomes scarce, booksellers won’t survive. A perfect example is the vinyl store. How many of them closed when CDs hit the stands? (Many, like my own stores, survived because we dumped the comercial vinyl — no one wanted it and it took up valuable room. But countless others closed their doors.) Perhaps there will be small shops like kiosks where people can browse and download the world’s stock of e-books? Touch screens and cutting edge technology will enhance the “e-book store” experience, luring the home-bodies (me) away from the computer and into the store). From my own (albeit limited experience) e-books alone aren’t profitable enough to sustain a company, and from what I see major Australian publishers aren’t yet doing that well from them.

      Those who diversify will survive.

      • Erica Wagner says:

        Yes, finding the business model as publishers that will work with this new technology is definitely the big question … I guess I saw the writing on the wall for myself a few years ago when I realised that my publishing decisions were getting more and more ruthless as I could see the market shrinking. The way to survive in these times is to carve yourself a niche that only you can fill and make sure it’s a niche that has a committed readership. Then, as always, you need the one bestseller (ideally more than one!) that will help to keep you afloat.

        Stephen Roxburgh has written an excellent article on this topic: http://www.hbook.com/2012/04/creating-books/publishing/the-e-future/

    8. nick bland says:

      I was reminded of my Wizard of Oz record i had in the 70’s with the white witch telling me it was time to turn the page. I’d forgotten how old the e-book format was. Something i have come to realise in converting current picture books into apps, is that e-books are intrinsically imperfect because they were not designed for technology but for the physical kind of reading. An author of any kind is expert in the art of making you turn the page. The second you stop turning, the book has failed. Ask any author to list these tricks and they probably have way more than they’re consciously aware of. So to convert a paper book into ‘e’ can never be perfect. But where else do you start? There’s a global market of readers and the only way to gather them to the ‘e’ market at the moment is to piggyback on the already established market. it’s the perfect way to learn how technology users are going to consume stories but it can’t be the endgame. until the e-reader market splits from the paper book market, the imperfection is going to be intrinsic, if subtle. As soon as critical mass is achieved in e-reading, then authors can start to create specifically for technology and head towards perfection in that medium. Write a book one year, write an e-book the next. Until then, we’re learning the new tricks, cutting our teeth on conversions. once that phase has passed, books can go back to being books and e-books can find their way. two great mediums from the same talent. you just have to watch the tv presenters of the 50’s and they’re just radio guys in front of a camera. And guess what, radio got stronger once everyone realised they were two different artforms.

      • Erica Wagner says:

        Completely agree and looking forward to talking more to you about this, Nick!

    9. Rosie Borella says:

      Hi Erica

      Beautiful, thought-provoking post. I’ve joined in a bit late here, but just wanted to say, you’re so right – whatever the medium, the story’s the thing that carries you along.

      And Nick has raised a very important point – as with writing for any form – e.g. newspapers, academic papers, for the web, TV, radio, novels or non-fiction – it’s all about writing to suit the medium.

      I’m off to find a copy of ‘The Wild White Stallion’ and also wanted to say, I LOVE ‘Breaking Bad’ as well! It’s just evil – but hilarious as well.