It seems fitting that in Australia there are two publishing initiatives searching for new voices in the Young Adult (YA) readership; after all, YA is all about discovery and firsts. Both Text Publishing Company’s Text Prize and Hardie Grant Egmont’s Ampersand Project are finding new authors and remarkable books to feed this forever popular readership.
The Text Prize is an annual award that started in 2008 and searches for the best manuscript written for young adults and children. A.J. Betts won last year for Zac and Mia, while Diana Sweeney has been named 2013 winner for The Minnow.
Text Senior Editor, Jane Pearson, says she knew The Minnow was this year’s winner and ‘was ready to kneecap anyone who didn’t agree, but, as it turned out, everyone agreed.’ Text Publishing company has also acquired a second manuscript from the 2013 shortlist: Meg Caddy’s Waer; and this year they’ve published a 2011 shortlisted book in Kate Hendrick’s The Accident. Clearly, the Text Prize is proving to be a font of talent. Jane Pearson agrees: ‘We have such a vibrant YA and Children’s publishing and reading scene in Australia, and we’ve got brilliant writers. The Text Prize is certainly going to be around for many more years. Because we know there are many more wonderful writers out there to be found.’
The process of finding those new voices in YA is a difficult one, as Pearson explains: ‘Each year the number of manuscripts submitted has grown. We received about 200 in the first year and well over 300 this year. Each one is read by two people and we slowly but surely narrow them down to a shortlist. We have several reading sessions during the judging process. It’s a huge job, but a very exciting one.’
And it’s clearly proven to be a rewarding experience for the publishing company. The inaugural Text Prize winner was The Billionaire’s Curse by Richard Newsome, which went on to be shortlisted in the NSW Premier’s Literary Awards and win the Esther Glen Award. Since then, Text Prize winners have been shortlisted for Premier’s Book Awards, Golden Inkys (award by the Centre for Youth Literature) and CBCA notable book awards, not to mention overseas publishing successes. Pearson notes that ‘the calibre of the submissions has been steadily rising each year. That has made the selection even more exciting. Each year the winner has stood out, but finding more than one author we want to publish makes the judging process even more rewarding.’
So what makes for a standout manuscript in the Text Prize? ‘We’re looking for great stories, with engaging characters and writing that will sweep readers away and make them forget they are reading at all. Easy, right?’
New to the Australian YA lit scene is Hardie Grant Egmont’s (HGE) Ampersand Project, which is looking for YA manuscripts from unpublished writers across all genres. The inaugural winner was Melissa Keil for her novel Life in Outer Space, which is already proving a hit with young readers as it was longlisted for the 2013 Golden Inky Award.
For HGE’s Commissioning Editor, Marisa Pintado, the decision to open the manuscript floodgates was very much driven by the desire to find fresh voices for the readership. ‘I’ve been involved with the Emerging Writers’ Festival for several years now, and I’m always so impressed with the quality of the writing by people who are in the early years of their careers. It led me to ponder the huge amount of emerging talent in this country, just waiting to be unlocked, if only you could find the key! When it comes to YA, Ampersand is the key for us.’
And the Ampersand selection process is much the same as Text’s – whittling down some 200 submissions into yes/no/maybe piles. ‘We gather the editorial team at least once a week, and sit together while we read the manuscripts,’ explains Pintado. ‘We share aloud the good bits, the funny bits, and the clangers, and together we start to feel our way towards what we think the standard is that year, and who the stand-out writers are.’
Work on the Ampersand Project is done in conjunction with full-time editorial commitments, but it seems that the HGE team is driven by their passion for the project. ‘The acquisitions team and I make the final Ampersand decision together – we’re strong believers in publishing books that the entire team will champion and support.’
This year the Ampersand Project discovered two debut novelists to champion – The Flywheel by Erin Gough and Sky Hunter Conspiracy by Caroline Stills – one a contemporary drama and the other a political sci-fi thriller.
Like the Text Prize, HGE’s Ampersand Project is making a big declaration about the state of young adult literature in Australia – namely that publishers have as voracious an appetite as readers when it comes to good stories for young people. ‘One of the joys of being a small publisher is that we are able to publish books simply because we fall in love with them,’ says Pintado.
Another joy of the Ampersand Project for Pintado and her team is in nurturing the careers of debut authors. ‘The original hope was to see more variety being published in Australian YA, but we also wanted to connect with emerging writers who were ripe to become authors – ready for all the rigours and challenges of an editorial relationship, and ready to work hard. We knew interesting people were out there, and we wanted to find more of them!’
And if you want to know the secret to getting to the top of the Ampersand pile, the answer is much the same as winning the Text Prize: ‘So the safest way to answer this question is that I’m looking for an awesome story, well told. The rest is up to the writer!’
‘Perfect Pitching’ might help, as will reading the winning books to get an idea of the fearsome quality and competition of Aussie YA.
Danielle Binks is a Killings columnist and book reviewer on her blog Alpha Reader, with a particular interest in children’s and young adult literature. She is also Digital Editor at Spinifex Press, and is currently working on her first young adult manuscript.