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Book Publishing Down Under

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by Alicia Freile, Design Director, Tango Media

Photo of Alicia Freile

Alicia Freile

An expatriate’s observations of the publishing industry in Australia.

Just over 10 years ago, I left my job as a book designer at Running Press Book Publishers in Philadelphia, packed up my two suitcases, and got on a plane to Sydney, Australia. It was the right point in my career to take some time away and get my master’s degree in design management. And what better way to experience living overseas than to earn a degree abroad?

I quickly learned that Sydney was an extremely expensive city and that the reasonable monthly rental rates, which I had researched online before arriving, were actually weekly rates—yikes! I’d need a job while I was studying. Truly, I hadn’t even dreamed I’d be able to break into the fortress that is the Australian publishing industry—publishing jobs are hard to come by for locals, let alone a new foreigner. But, through a friend of a friend, I got in touch with the design director at HarperCollins Australia and ended up working in the company’s design department. Lesson No. 1: In Australia, it’s all about who you know. (Or luck, and having well-connected friends, in my case.)

Starting any new job is scary; starting a new job as a foreigner who recently arrived to an unfamiliar country is terrifying. My worries were unfounded. From day one, I realized the atmosphere of a publishing house in Australia was exactly like that in the US, but with different accents. The folks on the publishing side of the building were just like those back home. The editors were delightfully pedantic about grammar and their beloved Oxford commas. The designers wore what they pleased, filled their desks with visual inspiration for their next book, and had a reputation for rotten spelling. And the production team was a bit gruff at first but stellar once you got to know them. I felt at home.

I was the only American in the company. There were editors and designers from New Zealand, the UK, and, of course, Australia. But there are almost no “Yanks” (as they call us) in Australian book publishing. In my 10 years here, I’ve come across only one other American in the industry. It’s odd, because Americans represent in much higher numbers in other industries here.

There are plenty of differences between Australian and US publishing. The first and most obvious in my day-to day work: All measurements are metric. Remember how we learned about the metric system in school because we’d all need it some day? I’m happy to say adapting to the metric system took about three minutes; it was that easy. I also learned that measurements are listed in the opposite direction. In the US, we say 8.5” x 11”, knowing the width is listed first; in Australia, the height is listed first. I learned this the hard way after designing an entire cookbook in the wrong orientation.

Another obvious difference is the Australian way of spelling. “Colour” now has a “u,” which is easy enough. But the “tire” on a car is spelled “tyre,” and “jail” is “gaol.” Some tools and processes have different names, as well. “First pass” is “first pages,” and “silhouetting” an image is called ”deep-etching.” When I would need to see an image magnified, I asked my colleagues in the design department if there was a loupe I could use, and they all stared at me like I just made up a word—which, to them, I did. It all offered a generous learning curve.

There is a difference in what is, and is not, being published here in Australia. There are fewer gift books and book-plus items. These do exist on bookstore shelves but are mainly imported from the US and UK. Niche textbooks (fashion design, for instance) are imported, too. The population of Australia (at just over 23 million) is much smaller than the US, so the economy-of-scale factor comes in as well.

In terms of personnel, Australia has a much greater part-time working culture in professional industries than the US does, and book publishing is no exception to this. It was common to have colleagues that were in the office only on certain days or had flexible hours. Sometimes this made certain people harder to reach for an answer or a sign-off, as did the four weeks of vacation time employees have here.

With book design, I found Australian publishers were happy to take more risks. Marketing and sales did weigh in, especially on the mass market titles. But making a book really beautiful, interesting, conceptual, and iconic were all goals for the design team. Australian publishers want their beautiful titles to stand out on the world stage. Books here are more expensive, so aesthetics really matter when trying to emerge from the crowd. In fact, there is even an annual Australian Book Design Awards event, held just like any other industry awards, and hosted by a minor celebrity, with various categories, rigorous judging, and coveted goodie bags. It’s a real honor for the designer and the publishing house to win.

Books are more expensive due to Australia’s parallel import restrictions, which are part of their copyright act. When an Australian publisher has acquired exclusive rights to a foreign edition and publishes it within 30 days of the original overseas publication date, an Australian bookseller cannot import and sell the (cheaper) foreign edition of that book. So, for example, if an Australian publisher puts out the latest Stephen King novel within 30 days of the US publishing date, the bookstores here cannot sell the US edition. The Australian editions are more expensive, and the money generated by the book publishing industry’s parallel import laws goes to help Australian authors get published. The industry here is set on promoting Australian authors, illustrators, ideas, and stories.

This worked beautifully when bookstores were all brick-and-mortar chains and local shops. However, online booksellers have turned things on their side in the 10 years I’ve been in Australia. Currently, the government is talking about changing the parallel import laws, and it’s a very hot issue for Australian authors, publishers, and other industry professionals.

But back to the topic at hand: Being in the southern hemisphere, the seasons are flipped. Christmas is in the summer, Easter is in the fall, and there is no Thanksgiving (which means there is no Black Friday). Father’s Day is in September, but Mother’s Day is the same as in the US. The school year starts and ends at different times than what I grew up with; there is no “Dads and Grads” time for book promotions; and the Australian books about Santa often feature him in summer attire. (For the record, kids in Australia leave Santa a beer instead of milk and cookies.) I have to say, being immersed in the Australian publishing industry is the best way to learn about Australian culture.

These days, I run my own book design company, Tango Media. I have branches in the US and Australia, and I handle book design projects for big and small publishers in both countries. I try to take what I’ve learned over the last 10 years as the expatriate in publishing and apply that knowledge to helping clients from both countries bridge the gap across the Pacific. I’m still constantly learning about the nuances of the publishing industry Down Under, which, I must say, continues to fascinate me.

Alicia Freile is the design director at Tango Media, a boutique book design company servicing publishing clients across the globe. She is the author of E-READER DIGEST and the FOODIE’S COLORING BOOK.

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