Inside the Australian and New Zealand book industry

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Introducing Sophy Williams

Sophy Williams is the international director for Melbourne publisher Black Inc., which specialises in ‘serious nonfiction books, including politics, current affairs, biography, memoir and history’. Alongside its core list, Black Inc. also publishes literary fiction, children’s and young adult (YA) titles, as well as the periodicals Quarterly Essay and Australian Foreign Affairs. Williams spoke to Think Australian about her acquisitions work.

What makes Black Inc. unique?

We turn 44 this year, which makes us the oldest independent publishing house in the country, having been on the scene under various imprints, starting with Outback Press. Our sister publications, The Monthly and The Saturday Paper, give our company a kind of newsroom energy, and the group as a whole has become something of a cultural hub. We acquire as a team, eschewing the traditional publishing hierarchy. We are nimble and bold and we have wonderful trade loyalty and support, particularly with the independent booksellers.

How many books does Black Inc. publish—and what kinds of books?

We publish between 70-80 books per year, including four issues of Quarterly Essay and three issues of Australian Foreign AffairsWe are the leading publisher of serious nonfiction books, including politics, current affairs, biography, memoir and history. Alongside this core list, we also publish commercial and literary fiction, young adult fiction of all stripes, sports books and poetry.

Have you sold international rights to any Black Inc. books?

Yes, we’ve been selling rights since about 2003. I attend the London and Frankfurt book fairs annually, both acquiring and selling rights for Black Inc.

Which titles have been most successful overseas?

John Hirst’s The Shortest History of Europe has sold in 15 territories and sales in China have exceeded 300,000 copies. Other rights successes include It’s Alive! Artificial Intelligence from the Logic Piano to Killer Robots by Toby Walsh, which has sold in seven territories; as well as High Voltage: The Life of Angus Young – ACDC’s Last Man Standing by Jeff Apter and Destination Simple by Brooke McAlary, which have both sold in five separate territories. The US edition of This Annoying Life, a satirical colouring book by Oslo Davis, was published by Chronicle Books and has become a bestseller.

Which title or author on your list do you believe deserves bigger recognition overseas?

We have had some success placing Alice Pung’s books, but I would love to see translation territories waking up to her particular genius. Laurinda has sold in the UK (Legend) and USA (Knopf). Dennis Glover also needs translations. The Last Man in Europe, his novel about George Orwell and the writing of Nineteen Eighty-Four, is a wonderful read and an important book. We have sold it in the USA (Overlook) and we are looking for other territories.

Have you acquired the rights to publish any international titles in Australia? What have been the most successful?

We have licensed books from the USA, Canada, UK, France and Germany. The Hidden Life of Trees, by Peter Wohlleben, is an Australian bestseller and continues to backlist. Continuing the ‘tree’ theme, David Haskell’s poetic The Songs of Trees has also been successful. Gloria Steinem’s My Life on the Road was very strong commercially, supported by a great author tour.

What will you publish next (that may appeal to international publishers)?

We’re very excited about a debut novel by Moreno Giovannoni, The Fireflies of Autumn. It has echoes of early stories by Italo Calvino. The writing has also been compared to Elena Ferrante and Colm Tóibín. Erik Jensen’s masterful Acute Misfortune is being made into a major feature film and we hope the tie-in edition will sell globally. Other highlights I will be talking up in London are an exciting feminist young adult series—The Chess Raven Chroniclesand Toby Walsh’s forthcoming 2062, which forecasts the future of AI.


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