Earthquake Inspires New Zealand Author to Launch Own Press

In Children's by Dennis Abrams

New Zealand YA Author Jill Marshall forming her own publishing company, Pear Jam Books.

By Jill Marshall

CHRISTCHURCH, NZ: My career as a writer began when I decided to give in to the creative undercurrent that had been niggling away at me for years. I stopped working as Training and Development Director for a large multi-national telecommunications company, took an MA in Creative Writing, and basically just gave myself permission to write.

After the usual round of rejections, my agent at the time submitted one of my titles to Macmillan Children’s Books, UK, and rather to my astonishment, Jane Blonde was born. This may make it sound as though it was all speedy and easy. It was not! From the initial spark of the idea for my girl spy to publication of the first book, Jane Blonde, Sensational Spylet, took eight years.

From then on, however, Jane Blonde became an all-consuming position in my life, not to mention the lives of several die-hard fans and my wonderful commissioning editor. That first title, which broke the publisher’s records for a debut children’s book, led to another and another. In the end the series reached seven books (or should I say 007 books), with translation into ten different languages and sales in a couple of dozen countries – though not, for some reason, in America. A special charity version of Jane Blonde sold 12,000 copies in a week and charted in the Times Top 10  Films and TV deals were discussed, and fans wrote in from all over the world pleading with me not to end the series.

End the series we did, though, and I went on to publish two books about a boy-turned-Anubis, Doghead and Doghead Bites Back, as well as three adult books that are notionally in the “chick lit” genre – whatever that means! After the success of Jane Blonde, I hoped for great things for my new characters, but a number of issues affected their progress, including the promotion and loyalty programs that had served her so well in the early books tailing off and my commissioning editor and major champion leaving the publishing house.

The Jane Blonde series continues to sell well around the world, and I still get heart-breaking fan mail from girls who tell me that Janey/Jane has changed their life. That’s all so priceless that I couldn’t ask for more. I have, though, been pigeon-holed by the booksellers as a “tween” girl author (writing for 9-12 year old girls, which doesn’t count as YA in UK/Europe but may do in US). This is frustrating to me as a writer who enjoys writing for adults, boys, and younger kids just as much, and knows that the readers love them, too.

That said, I have returned to that lovely fanbase with my new series, Matilda Peppercorn, and have had huge fun writing the first book, Matilda Peppercorn: Manx, about a quirky kick-boxing girl who finds herself in a highly unusual situation. It’s also my very great pleasure to be publishing Matilda through my own publishing company – so if it doesn’t do well, but I know it’s the right thing to do. And I’m pretty sure it’s leading to a rip-roaring adventure that my darling Jane Blonde would absolutely relish.

Taking Control of My Career

Did I mention that I was frustrated with what was happening with my career? Well, that’s probably a tiny understatement. I was outraged with what was happening with my career. Poor communication, poverty, lack of promotion, feeling unloved and unwanted, and having no control over many rights issues were just some of the topics that fuelled my fever. This was also during the ascendancy of the e-book, and I began to recognize that many areas of the traditional publishing chain were just not working – or if they were, it was for the wrong people. Surely, I thought, the parties who should be the most connected and the most supported should be the individuals at the beginning and end of that chain; the authors and illustrators who created the book in the first place…and the readers who love them.

The idea of providing stories in formats to suit and benefit the creative and the end-user led to the creation of Pear Jam Books. Every story should be available to the reader in whatever way they would most like to receive it. As a story-teller, I don’t mind if an individual loves their print book, their e-reader, an mp3 download or they want to watch the film – my story, in the way the most enjoy it. So PEAR is P for play (game, app, film, TV), E for e-book, A for audio, and R for read in the traditional print version which so many readers still love, and which many authors still see as the ultimate validation.

These thoughts spun around in my head for years, but it took a tragedy to turn them into reality. Though UK-born I now live in New Zealand, and for many years in addition to being an author, I’ve run a writing consultancy to help others write their books too ( I’d just sent a manuscript back to a client when the massive earthquake of February 22nd 2011 struck Christchurch on NZ’s South Island. The effect it had on that beautiful city and this tiny nation is hard to describe. Nearly 200 people lost their lives, and everyone in NZ wanted to help but couldn’t think of a way to do it.

I got on with my work to distract myself from staring impotently and tearfully at the TV as body after body was pulled from the devastated inner-city. Only then did I discover that my client, Emma and her family were shopping when the quake struck.  They survived as best they could though their home and surroundings — and their state of mind — were seriously affected.

Of course, I was mortified, having pestered someone about their book when all this was going on. So when Emma said that she wanted to help her home town by publishing her fun picture book based in Christchurch as a fundraiser, I offered to help. The next fortnight was frantic as I raced to find illustrators, designers…and a publisher. I had everyone else on board within ten days — award winning designers and illustrators in the shape of Cheryl Rowe and Victoria M. Azaro, distributors offering their services (as did everyone else) for free, but no publisher would commit. After a very dark night where I wondered how I was going to tell everyone who’d worked so hard to pull this off that it wasn’t going to happen, I came to the conclusion that I had to do it myself.

Pear Jam Books was created the next day — with Pear for the formats we’d produce the book in, and Jam for my initials with an A for the artists who are at the heart of the whole business. Exactly one month after the earthquake struck, we released Curly from Shirley, the Christchurch Dog, with all profits going to Christchurch. And yes, that was in all four formats, with Curly pictures to color in, an ebook, the song recorded by eight-year-old superstar Christchurch Bob, and of course, the print picture book. It’s still available and all proceeds continue to go to Christchurch ( Curly went to number 4 in the NZ children’s best seller list in two weeks, and stayed there for another month.

During that month, I realized that I suddenly owned a publishing company. Now, what else could I do with it?

Facing a New Set of Challenges

I’ve discovered so much in the process of setting up Pear Jam that, frankly, has horrified me — things I was aware of as an author because I knew I wasn’t making any money, but hadn’t experienced first-hand: exactly how much the retailer takes, for instance, and the extent to which they’ve dictated what will be sold through their stores which then shapes the reader’s experience. What isn’t taken up by the bookseller is swallowed by the distributor — and yes, these do still apply to e-books, at least for the time being.

At every stage of the publishing process I’ve met with archaic procedures that go against the notion of a global economy and disintermediation (including booksellers and distributors who refuse to deal with publishers — go figure)  If I’ve heard this phrase once, I’ve heard it a hundred times: “That’s just the way we do it.”

The greatest challenge overall, then, has been in trying to do things differently so that the author and the reader are the ones getting the most benefit from these wonderful stories which may have been years in creation. That’s also led to the greatest rewards — the chance to take some of that fiction that hasn’t fitted into the “that’s how we do it” approach, and move quickly and positively to link authors and their readers. In the seven months since Pear Jam Books was formed, I’ve published 14 titles from authors and illustrators ranging from totally unpublished to award-winning. Those books are now out in one or more of the four PEAR formats, the author’s dreams have come true, and influential readers and bloggers have already listed some as their favorite book of 2011.  That’s just the way WE do it.

Publishing from a Different Perspective

Mostly, my view of the publishing industry has been consolidated rather than changed. All those issues I knew I was having as an author have now been illuminated. I’m very glad, too; if I hadn’t gone through this myself I wouldn’t be able to say, “Well, that may be how it’s done but it’s not really right, is it? Let’s try something else!” And I wouldn’t be able to guide the authors in the Pear Jam stable as effectively. I’m hoping to give them what I feel I missed out on: creative input and control, regular communication, a support network (we have regular meetings and operate as a team). Oh, and proper payment and recognition.

I probably have a little more sympathy for my editors since finding out how demanding authors can be on occasions, but as I’ve experienced those same frustrations myself, hopefully I’m able to tackle them for the author in a way which makes sense to them. The really big eye-opener for me, however, has been how critical the design of a book is. I knew about content and story and illustration, but not the extent to which great design can make or break a title. Cheryl Rowe has designed all our books, and they’re world class.

My Five Year Plan

In five years I see the Pear Jam brand being the go-to place for great fiction in whatever way the consumer likes it. Over the coming years we’ll globalize our services and books, take on authors from around the world, and disintermediate as much as possible to benefit both authors and readers. I see a huge emphasis on digital offerings, but also believe that there will long be a place in readers’ (and authors’) hearts for this print book so POD will definitely be a significant part of that equation.

I’m publishing fantastic fiction for any age. When people hear “Pear jam Books” they should anticipate a darn good read. I don’t mind whether it’s a picture book, YA, or genre fiction, as long as it’s the kind of book that someone will want to start reading again as soon as they’ve finished.

What I’m also looking for is someone I can work with, and that’s why all the books I’ve published have been and will be by clients of my writing consultancy, Write Good Stuff. They might have done my workshops, in person or online, or have manuscripts assessed by me, or both. Often they are books I’ve championed over the years, trying to help the author get them published through other publishing houses. Taking on books in this way means that I know the work already, and I also know the author can take feedback and is professional and committed. The author also knows what I require and whether they, in turn, will want to work with me. This is a long-term relationship, and it’s important to get it right.

About the Author

Dennis Abrams

Dennis Abrams is a contributing editor for Publishing Perspectives, responsible for news, children's publishing and media. He's also a restaurant critic, literary blogger, and the author of "The Play's The Thing," a complete YA guide to the plays of William Shakespeare published by Pentian, as well as more than 30 YA biographies and histories for Chelsea House publishers.