Rebecca Fletcher interviews Melissa Keil, Children’s Commissioning Editor and children’s author.
You have a really varied study and working background. Do you find that helps the work that you do now at all?
Yes, absolutely! I started working in publishing in my late 20s after a string of odd jobs both in Australia and overseas, and stints at university studying everything from anthropology to cinema. Working as a children’s writer and editor gave me the chance to draw upon even the most obscure bits of my work and study history. Book publishing – working across a varied list of fiction and non-fiction – really was the perfect career choice for someone with eclectic (and ever changing!) interests.
How would you describe your current role, and what does a typical day look like for you at work?
I’m currently working as a full-time children’s writer and freelance editor, so my days are fairly varied. I could be either writing or working through edits for my own book, or having meetings with my publishing team; or I might be working on an editorial report or a copyedit for someone else’s manuscript. I could be chatting to authors or designers or illustrators, or proofreading pages from one of my publishing clients. I also run writing workshops and give talks about writing and publishing, so I might be out and about visiting kids at schools, or chatting to budding writers at a library.
You have experience as both an author and as a commissioning editor. Which came first, and do you think it has made it easier or more difficult to work in this space?
I used to write quite a bit of fiction and short stories when I was a teenager, but stopped when I left high school, as I really didn’t see any future where writing was a career option (I came from a working-class background, and knew no-one at all involved in the arts). I started writing again when I started working in publishing, and realised that writing, like any job, is something that can be learned. For the most part, having a publishing background does make it easier to work in the space. I understand what goes on behind the scenes in a publishing house – how decisions are made, and how and why lists take shape in a certain way, which is all pretty useful!
Tell us about a frustrating experience you’ve had at work or in your career generally. Or perhaps something you’d like to see improved upon in your industry broadly.
As both a writer and an editor, I guess I’ve heard some of the frustrations from both sides of the publishing equation, and I think a lot of these frustrations are caused by the publication process sometimes being quite opaque. For instance, author advances and royalties are based on some pretty intensive number crunching that goes on between commissioning editors and publishers, sales and marketing teams, and production staff – these figures aren’t just pulled from the air, but are based on requirements that need to be met in order for a book to be viable. But authors aren’t usually made aware of all of this behind the scenes negotiating and work, and are typically kept in the dark about what is required to make a project viable – and so, very understandably, can sometimes be perplexed or unhappy when it comes to things like remuneration/contract discussions. I think more transparency and discussion of some of these things would benefit everyone involved.
What would you recommend for someone looking to work in children’s books in Australia? Are there any opportunities they should be looking for in particular?
I’d recommend joining as many publishing groups and organisations as you can – online groups, writers centres and so forth – and attending as many networking events as possible. The children’s publishing scene in Australia is quite small, which can make it tricky to crack – but it also means it’s relatively easy to keep on top of developments and opportunities. In normal (pre-Covid) times, there are always book launches, talks, workshopping sessions and other industry events happening, and these are all a great way to meet people and become involved in the industry. I’d also suggest reading really widely – apart from the fact that Australia produces some amazing, world-class books, children’s publishing trends can shift really rapidly, and so keeping on top of what various publishing houses are doing with their lists is important.
What are you most proud of in your career so far?
Getting my first novel published, and then being able to write a second and third, without succumbing to (too much) crippling self-doubt! Working as an editor with some brilliant debut authors and illustrators who have gone on to have fabulous careers. Being able to travel to New York and attend publishing events with my North American publishers. Switching lanes a bit to write my new book!
And what are you hopeful for or excited about?
I have a new book out later this year, the first in a new series, which is a departure from everything I’ve done before but which I’m super excited about. And I’m hopeful that all of the important conversations about diversity and inclusion that have taken place in the last few years will create some positive, long-term changes in our industry, both in terms of who is represented behind the scenes in publishing, and which stories have a chance to be told.