Clare Millar interviews Danielle Binks, agent at Jacinta di Mase Management and author of The Year the Maps Changed.
What did you study?
After Year 12 I studied a Bachelor of Communications and Journalism at Monash University, then I did the RMIT Professional Writing and Editing Certificate and Diploma courses after that.
What is the most useful skill you learned in your degree? And what was the most enjoyable part of your studies?
Learning the program InDesign was genuinely helpful, but probably studying journalism and actually how to construct an argument/article and get to the point without flowery language. And overall, both courses taught me and encouraged me to read more—and outside of my comfort zone too.
What does a typical day look like for you? What skills make you successful in doing that?
Emails. Emails always play a big role.
I’m also currently on deadline for my new book—The Monster of Her Age—I’m at the copy editing stage for that, which is about the third draft of the manuscript and it’s the stage where someone has come in and really looked at the big-picture and is helping me tidy up sentence structure, timeline inconsistencies, and just generally spitballing when ideas aren’t quite landing or a scene isn’t quite gelling. So that’s due tomorrow, and I’ve literally got one more chapter (the last chapter!) to edit. I want to make pretty big changes because when I first wrote this big finale scene, I didn’t really know what I wanted my protagonist to *say* at the end, but now having been on the journey more closely, I’ve got a much better grip. So after a walk with my dog tomorrow I’ll tackle it, and pull everything together that I want to.
My front-cover artwork for the new book is also pretty close to being done, and I fully expect my editor will send me through some ideas about typography for the title that I’ll need to sit down with. That’s some really fun, visual stuff – and a nice break from the usual *words* in paragraph form that I have to heap onto the page, lol. I’m really excited about this cover too because I got to suggest my illustrator —Anne Barneston—and I love the work she’s done.
I’ve also got two of my authors with books out in mid-2022 who’ve sent me the latest versions of their manuscripts (about the copy-edit stage for them too, meaning everything is reading a lot cleaner and pretty close to what will be going to the printer). So I’m trying to get caught up on those and see the changes they’ve made, also so I can be here to spitball any ideas they may have about marketing and publicity (everything from publications that might like to review, to authors and celebrities to approach for endorsement quotes etc.)
And then I’ve got one of my authors out ‘on pitch’—meaning we’ve sent her idea for a manuscript out to publishers to consider. It’s slightly different from a fiction pitch where I’m sending a completed manuscript—this is a non-fiction pitch where the author is as much apart of the drawcard, and it’s “on spec” (on specification) so she has a general idea but we’re hoping a publisher will come onboard, buy it, and help her in crafting it etc. Right now I’m fielding queries from publishers who want to know her Instagram stats, her target-audience statistics of social media engagement etc.
So I’m always reading a lot, and engaging and generating ideas on the fly based on what I’ve just read. It’s all very creative, and networking. I think constantly being out in publishing and writing communities (even virtually) really helps with engagement, and always reading and reading critically – analysing what I’m consuming and then going off and doing a little extra research when something really lands with me to say how that author or that publisher did it.
How has the pandemic changed your work?
Well, I’ve always worked from home and been mostly online anyway. That didn’t change. The socialising and networking changed. Normally once a month I’d be going interstate for conferences and festivals, and meeting colleagues in the industry, getting face-to-face time with publishers or catching up with authors who live all over. Book launches in the city were frequent occurrences every week, getting to unwind and celebrate with others in the industry. All that has stopped. So I have to be a lot more open and proactive in making myself available to people if they want to Zoom, or chat over the phone (or if I have to sign up to Zoom book launches and set reminders on my phone to actually log in and interact!). It’s harder to be personable, and to have those kismet connections that lead to great endeavours. I literally once sold an author because I sat next to an editor at an industry event and chatted to her all about how great she was and how much I loved her manuscript. That doesn’t happen anymore, and I’m still adjusting.
Tell us about being an agent! The Australian market has largely functioned without agents for a long time, so how does your work fit into the industry? How do both authors and publishers benefit from an agent like you?
I joined Jacinta di Mase Management in 2016, so I’ve never existed in the industry without agents being pretty central. And look, just because you get an agent, doesn’t mean you’ll get a book deal. I’m biased—but I definitely think you have a better opportunity with an agent … not least because it’s my job to know what publishers are looking for, and I can ensure your work is in the best possible condition before it’s sent out into the world. PLUS it’s always a good idea to have an agent for contract negotiations because the average person doesn’t know the new compensation standards for ebooks and audiobooks, say … but the reality is just because you have an agent, doesn’t mean you’ll get a book deal.
I think authors benefit from having an agent because it’s literally someone in your corner, looking out for your best interests and advocating for you. From thinking about new ideas to pursue, to working on the edits of a manuscript so it’s as polished as can be, and speaking up if you really *hate* the direction a cover-design is going in … we speak for you and support you. Who doesn’t want that in their business? I’m also in a position now where I can make connections for my authors and illustrators—something I recently did for my illustrator Sher Rill Ng, when I asked her who a dream author-partnership would be for her and she said Alice Pung. Well. Alice and I worked together on the anthology Begin, End, Begin—she’s a friend—I connected them and they hit it off, and we just got a 2-book deal for them with Harper. All because I’m an agent in a position now to say to my clients; “Hey, tell me your pie-in-the-sky professional dream and I will try to make it happen.”
You’re a huge advocate for Australian middle grade and young adult books. How do you campaign towards?
I was lucky enough to help with the founding of “#LoveOzYA” – the grassroots movement to talk about “the books of our backyard” and why it’s important to support local creative industries and keep telling our own stories. For more about that you can read here.
And look, for me it’s really simple—if we don’t support Australian creative, artistic endeavours and industries (everything from theatre to music, books, film, TV and everything in-between) it will disappear. It won’t get government funding (it already gets the bare minimum) and all we’ll have is a pipeline of American content telling us it represents us as well as anything. Well I’m sorry but, no. American content will not carve out space for First Nations voices here. Or examine the uniquely horrible way Australia is combating climate change or human rights abuses we perpetrate. Art changes people, and people change the world—so if Australians want to give a damn about their country, they’ve got to engage with it through art. The earlier you can start with that engagement, the better.
Tell us about writing your own books. How does your own writing differ from what you do as an agent?
Oh gosh, I would so love to say that every bit of good advice I give to my authors I absorb myself and I have the healthiest relationship to my own writing and processes but I … um … don’t. My debut middle-grade novel The Year the Maps Changed took five years to write. FIVE! And not all of it was spent writing, but actually procrastinating. And worrying that people would judge me so much more because I’d been a critic of Australian youth literature, and then an agent representing those authors and maybe I had such a grander height to fall from if it all went wrong. So I was paralysed by fear when it came to my writing, truly.
What helped was research—travelling to the library at Singleton and literally digging through archives about their own ‘Operation Safe Haven’ history. And also deciding to stop listening to my own inner-critic, and just let my protagonist guide me … On the first day of those five years when I decided to sit down and write a story about a young girl in 1999 whose family life is turning upside down *right when* hundreds of refugees of the Kosovo War come to seek refuge nearby to her town, I had my opening line: “Maps lie. Or at least, they don’t always tell the truth. They’re like us humans that way.” I had her voice with me the whole time, but it took four years for me to return to the basics and let the story—and that character—guide me, and put all my fears aside.
What do you see for the future of Australian publishing?
Braver and more inclusive. There are so many stories not yet told; so many marginalised people who haven’t had a chance to dream and dream up stories for young people who are also *craving* being seen in the pages of books. That’s changing, slowly (please see: The Boy from the Mish by Gary Lonesborough, Tiger Daughter by Rebecca Lim, and Sunburnt Veils by Sara Haghdoosti—the last one is my author I rep!) It’s changing slowly, and will change more still—thankfully.
And braver too. I want to see graphic novels make a big wave here in Australia (heck, I am so excited to see UK author Alice Oseman’s Heartstopper adaptation selling to Netflix!) it’s happening, also slowly. I know my author-illustrator Sher Rill Ng is keen to develop something. And a graphic novelist I rep—Briar Rolfe —has just received funding help to complete their trans rom-com graphic novel that is *so good* I get happy-teary just thinking about it.
It’s all changing, slowly. But it’s changing.
And what are most proud of in your career so far?
I mean … releasing my debut middle-grade during a pandemic was pretty great. And that there’s an audiobook of The Year the Maps Changed too! I never thought I’d write a book that gets an audiobook.
Mostly I am proud every time I get to add an author to my growing list of books I’ve sold as a literary agent. Every time I do, it represents a title that they’ve worked so hard on and I am so excited to see the rest of the world get to fall in love with too. That’s a heart-swell, right there. Knowing a book is finally going to get to reach readers. Nothing better.