Inside the Australian and New Zealand book industry

Image. Advertisement:

Spotlight on Annabel Barker

The launch of your own agency was quickly followed by the pandemic; how did that affect what you were pitching and how you were making deals?

Like others, I had to cancel my trip to Bologna Book Fair with two weeks’ notice and pivoting to digital meetings was, to begin with, really challenging. The deals were very slow to start, as publishers grappled with what to do with existing books. Backlist boomed and new children’s books were badly affected by the closure of bookshops and libraries, so debut creators were hard to sell. I didn’t really change the books I was pitching, but everything slowed down. Thinking back, there was so much uncertainty around what would even happen to the industry.

But there were positives toovideo calls enabled me to connect to editors who do not usually travel to bookfairs. Working flexibly was effective for selling rights. I was probably also in a more fortunate position than many others, as my business was in its infancy when the pandemic hit and I did not have any expectation of immediate success. I also really did not have any of my client’s books publishing throughout at least the first year of Covid. I do not mean to lessen the tragedy of the pandemic but I do appreciate, in hindsight, the relatively fortunate position I was in during that time.

When you launched you represented Hardie Grant and Berbay into the UK and North America, is this still the case? Have you added any other publishers?

Honestly, I pivoted very quickly from managing rights to acting as a traditional literary agency. I no longer represent publishers, except on the occasional book-by-book basis where it does not conflict with my own business. My own writer and illustrator clients take up all my time. I now represent around 25 writers and illustrators who create books from picture books up to young adults, including comic and graphic novel formats.

You have a particular focus on illustrators and comic artists, can you tell us about demand for these genres? Where is it growing at present? And what changes have you seen in the kind of book/ages in demand?

I really love visual narratives of all kinds so this felt a very natural progression for me. Many of the writers I represent; for example, Anna Zobel or Judith Rossell, also illustrate their stories. I think there is a trend toward illustration in fiction for all age groups (even for adults, although I am sure many people will query that!) and I particularly love hybrid-illustrated fiction for all ages. I feel this generation of children is so used to visual stories on demand and books need to keep up with that.

There is demand for comic artists in every age group from young children up to adults, and graphic novels and graphic memoir are particularly big. The middle-grade graphic novel market is so immense now that perhaps there is a sense of ‘wait and see’ if that can keep going – but graphic formats are such a natural fit for these readers I don’t see this trend going away. There is definitely growth in older age groups including YA graphic novels.

You visited New York as part of a rights delegation last yearhow was the experience, what connections did you make and have any deals come of the visit/relationships as yet?

It was fantastic to visit publishers and agents in NYC last year, the benefits of meeting people in person are so great. When we were visited there were still a lot of empty desks; the Australia Council did a fantastic job of setting up meetings within this tricky scenario. The relationship building benefits of those trips is hugeI can honestly say having one good meeting is worth going for.

Yes, I am finalising a post-trip deal now actually but it can’t be announced quite yet.

Do you have thoughts on what the industry can do locally to encourage more publications in the illustrated/graphic novel genres, rather than having creators go overseas for publication?

That is such a hard question because I know, coming from publishing, what a huge investment a graphic novel is for an Australian publisher. Justifying the printing alone can be really challenging. It is also an enormous workload for the artist so publishing overseas can often be a financial necessity.

I think there are models whereby publishers here and overseas can share publication or publish simultaneously—which gives the comic artist a ‘home’ publisher in Australia (something I feel is important from an author care perspective) but helps to make the project financially viable. Those kinds of connections are something I try hard to work on.

I do also find comic artists are frequently unsure who they can submit to in Australia, also which prizes are open to comic formats and which mentorships might be open for them to apply, so perhaps there are steps that could be made to help make the industry more visibly welcoming to these creators. I think there has previously been a disconnect between the comic and book publishing communities and it’s great to see that changing; with creators like Safdar Ahmed and Miranda Burton winning really major prizes this year.

Do you have any recent acquisitions or sales you’d like to highlight?

I am really excited about Rebecca Lim’s middle-grade book Two Sparrowhawks in a Lonely Sky, coming later this year with Allen and Unwin. That will be a big focus for me for Bologna—as will Lauren Draper’s fantastic new YA novel Return to Sender, publishing with Pan Macmillan in 2024.


Category: Think Australian profile