Robert Watkins, Head of Literary at Hachette Australia, spoke to Emma Cayley about Own Voices, the current publishing climate and writing outside experience.
EC: Hachette Australia is one of the publishers leading the way in bringing Own Voices writing to a mainstream audience, certainly in Australia. How did this progressive shift happen?
RW: We’ve had a long history of publishing a broad spectrum of Australian writers, including celebrated writers like Leah Purcell and Shaun Tan. I have loved working with the passionate and supportive team here on books by authors like Maxine Beneba Clarke, Peter Polites, Zoya Patel, Michael Mohammed Ahmad and Claire Coleman, but I also know that my colleagues have been publishing excellent works by Deng Adut and Future D Fidel, and that’s just to name some of them.
Our company aim, as our Australian list grows, is to publish books that enhance Australian culture and that reflects Australian readers – so publishing people from all walks of life is very much part of that process.
EC: Is the shift at Hachette mirrored elsewhere in Australian publishing? And globally too?
RW: I think we’ve seen Australian publishing as a whole pursue a broad approach to publishing over the last few years – and Hachette UK are actively seeking to reflect diversity in their publishing and staff (see thebookseller.com/insight/hachette-team-reveals-how-publisherchanging-story-876231). I think we need to see the push towards an inclusive workforce as well as inclusive publishing In Australia and I know that is a core goal for Hachette Australia and many other Australian publishers.
EC: How do you see the role of publisher in the current climate?
RW: Books should entertain, challenge and educate. I think that at the core of all publishing is the idea that books are capable of achieving all of those goals. If they can do them all at the same time, even better.
EC: What are the qualities that excite you in a debut manuscript?
RW: A great story well told. Anyone who is writing books that stand out as unique and challenging always excite me. Anyone writing books that sound and feel relevant to our global culture and our changing society excites me. It does however always come back to the skill of the storyteller.
EC: For writers that are writing from marginalised backgrounds, do you have any advice for them in developing their work for publication?
RW: Seek out advice and guidance from other writers and writing organisations that have proven themselves to be allies. Seek out a publisher/agent/writing group that is a safe space and has a track record of championing and nurturing writers from similar backgrounds. Believe in the importance of your unique perspective and don’t be afraid of telling the stories you have to tell.
EC: Do you have advice for writers endeavouring to step outside their own lived experience (on the page), especially when writing characters from marginalised background?
RW: What a complicated question, which sounds exactly like one I’ve heard at every single writers’ festival I’ve ever attended. If you have not experienced the story you want to tell, make damn sure you research the story. Investigate the background, engage with that experience through conversations, critical feedback and interactions with those who actually have experienced the background you intend to tell.
Always ask yourself ‘am I really the right person to tell this story? Am I enhancing the conversation around this lived experience by engaging with this narrative or am I pursuing this story simply because I think I am entitled to tell it?’
EC: What excites you about the future of publishing in Australia?
RW: Australia is full of passionate readers, a passionate writing community, a passionate bookselling community. I am constantly impressed with the work coming from Australian writers and am so excited to see what more there is to come.
Working with black&write! at the State Library of Qld is something I am particularly excited about.
It is a wonderful program that has two active aims:
-to mentor and publish more Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander writers
-to mentor and train Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander editors
Programs like black&write! could have a profound effect not only on the works being published but also the editors working on and (ideally) those commissioning the works being published.
I am excited to see the industry embrace not only inclusive publishing but also an inclusive workforce.
About Robert Watkins
Robert Watkins is Head of Literary at Hachette Australia and has worked in books for over 20 years including stints in sales, marketing and publicity. He’s published fiction and non-fiction award winners and bestsellers including Sarah Schmidt’s ‘See What I Have Done’, Maxine Beneba Clarke’s ‘Foregin Soil’ and ‘The Hate Race’, Clare G Coleman’s ‘Terra Nullius’ and Steven Amsterdam’s ‘The Easy Way Out’ alongside others.