Tuesday, 29 January 2013


Many new writers are desperate to find an agent to represent their manuscripts to publishers. They believe that only via an agent can their work be ‘discovered’ and published. Getting published this way certainly results in success for some authors, but my experience might result in you changing your mind if you are desperately searching for an agent. Over a long, successful literary career in children’s books, I’ve had three agents; however, I have managed to place all of my manuscripts – fiction and non-fiction – by myself.

It was easy enough to find my first agent (Ms X) and to have her represent my interests. Ours was a verbal contract; she was to place my work and to charge 10% of my income if successful. It didn’t take me long to discover that I actually knew more than she about the Australian children’s book market. In fact, I soon discovered that I was the first – and only – children’s author she represented. This was pre-computer days so our communication was via phone and letter. However, Ms X was difficult to contact by phone, and she did not answer letters. One day, while I was attending a writers’ festival, I saw her and tried to engage her in conversation. At the time she was accompanying a highly regarded author; in passing, she promised to ring me ‘soon’. There was no phone call. Consequently, I wrote her a polite note letting her know I preferred to go my own way. I have no idea whether she ever sent off any of my manuscripts to publishers. The bottom line was that she did not sell anything I wrote.

For a long time after this, I continued to represent my own interests and was very successful, sometimes placing up to seven or eight book manuscripts a year (mostly to the educational market which was flourishing at the time). However, a time came when I was very ill and needed help. When I rang Mrs Y, a highly regarded agent, and told her I had four contracts that needed to be negotiated, she expressed surprise that I’d contacted her. ‘Di,’ she said, ‘you know more about publishers than most writers.’ When I explained why I needed her help, she agreed to represent me. Before long the four contracts were signed and delivered.

I then began sending manuscripts to her. A publisher was interested in a joke book I’d compiled but, because the jokes were culled from various sources and were not ‘original’, the company offered only a paltry royalty which I would not accept. Mrs Y was unable to change the publisher’s mind, so the manuscript was withdrawn. She submitted other manuscripts of mine, but without success, though I managed to place some manuscripts and she negotiated those contracts. Royalties and royalty statements began to come in via this agent. It was fortunate that I took the time to check the statements because there were mistakes in payments. Mrs Y had negotiated a rising royalty on contracts, which meant that after a certain number of books were sold, the royalty would rise from ten to twelve and a half percent of RRP. My sales on several books exceeded the ten percent number; however, the publisher had not paid the twelve percent. Mrs Y had not bothered to check my contract against the statements. It was then I realised that not only was she not thorough in handling my affairs, but she was over-worked with too many clients. As well, she had not managed to place any of my manuscripts. I decided to terminate our relationship, though she continued to handle royalties on those books she had negotiated contracts for.

Notwithstanding these two poor experiences with agents, I nevertheless decided, many published books later, to secure the services of an agent who might be able to sell my manuscripts overseas. Mrs Z had a good reputation and had even managed to negotiate film rights for a colleague, so I wrote and asked her to represent my overseas’ and local interests. No problem there. The problem, however, was Mrs Z’s lack of communication. She was very slow to respond to emails (when she did) and phone messages went unreturned. On the positive side, it seemed that she did have publishing contacts, especially in America, and, when she bothered to contact me, she did let me know where my manuscripts were sent, and how the overseas’ publishers had responded. Unfortunately, Mrs Z was unable – as I had been – to place any of my novels overseas. Meanwhile, in Australia I had managed to interest a publisher in one of my books; however, the publisher was dragging its heels with a contract. It was when I caught Mrs Z out in a lie about communicating with this publisher, I decided the time had come for us to part company; thus I wrote her a short yet hopefully tactful letter terminating our verbal contract.

Not one of the three agents – all respectable and with many clients – managed to place one of my manuscripts. However, I have placed over 120 children’s books in the past 30 years. Yes, it is more difficult these days to get publishers’ locked doors. But it can be done. I do it all the time, even when publishers’ websites indicate they don’t take unsolicited manuscripts and will only accept them through an agent. I have written an article, ‘How to Get Past Publishers’ Locked Doors’, giving tips on how to succeed and am happy to send it to you free of charge if you write to me c% dibates@pacific.net.au

Getting an agent is sometimes as difficult as getting a book acceptance. Agents can be, so I’m told, very helpful. Some are more proactive than others, but some, I think, represent too many clients and as a result are over-worked and not as effective as a writer can be who is talented and determined to have her books published.


DIANNE (DI) BATES has published 120+ books for the education and trade markets. Some of Di’s books have won national and state literary awards; others have sold overseas.  Di has received Grants and Fellowships from the Literature Board of the Australia Council and has toured for the National Book Council. Di has undertaken commissioned writing for a large number of organisations and has worked on the editorial team of the NSW Department of Education School Magazine. She was co-editor of a national children’s magazine, Puffinalia (Penguin Books) and editor of another national magazine, Little Ears.  In 2008, Di was awarded The Lady Cutler Prize for distinguished services to children’s Literature. Her latest books are 11 titles in the fictional Bushranger series (Desert Dan the Dunnyman won the KOALA children’s choice book award) and Crossing the Line, short-listed for the NSW Premier’s Awards and sold into Germany. Currently Di works as a freelance writer. She lives in Woonona, north of Wollongong, NSW, Australia, with her author husband, Bill Condon. Their website is www.enterprisingwords.com




Monday, 28 January 2013


 What kinds of influences draw a person into the world of children’s literature? Contemplating this recently, I decided to draw on my own life experiences to see why three decades of my life have been devoted to the subject.

As a child who was a voracious reader, I only ever owned one book – Heidi, which was a birthday gift one year and which I re-read many times. When I was young there were few books specifically for children; every Friday I fronted up to Mortdale Public Library and asked the librarian. “Has Miss Blyton written another book this week?”  Other books I remember reading avidly as a child and teenager were The Swiss Family Robinson, How Green was my Valley, and Charles Dickens’ novels. I also found a coverless book of Australian poems which I fondly read aloud and copied, attempting to write poems myself. At school a fifth grade teacher read aloud the whole of Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn (both of which I loved), I don’t remember any teacher ever encouraging me to read. What I do remember was that at home I was discouraged from reading in order to “better” spend my time working on our family farm. Ours was a home without books or reading, though occasionally my mother bought a woman’s magazine.

It never occurred to me to become a writer: my career goal was always to become a famous painter. However, lack of talent put paid to that idea, so as soon as I was able I left home, armed with a Teachers’ College Scholarship. Two years later I graduated and became a primary school teacher, a job that I loved and flourished in. I especially loved writing plays for my students to perform and reading and recommending books to them. It was only some years later that I was asked by a schools’ inspector if I would like to take on a temporary (six month) position as assistant to the editor of the NSW Department of Education. Working with the editor, children’s author Lilith Norman and alongside assistant editor Joanne Horniman, I soon learned how to edit my writing ruthlessly.

My secondment finished, I moved to a remote area of NSW where I began writing my first children’s novel, Terri. Reaching a stumbling block with it, I enrolled in a five-day writing course with (the late) author Joan Phipson (whose stories I had read in the NSW School Magazine), author Eleanor Spence and Children’s Publisher Ann Bower-Ingram (of William Collins). I learnt much during that short period and was able to finish my novel. In the meantime, I met the late author/editor Michael Dugan at the Adelaide Arts Festival and when he’d stated he’d only ever had two manuscript submissions during his editorship of the national children’s magazine Puffinalia, published by Penguin Books, I secured the correct address and began submitting short stories I’d written. Michael was kind and generous, and moreover published my stories. He also agreed to read my completed manuscript of Terri, passing it on to Kay Ronai, then children’s editor at Penguin Books. The day I received a call from Kay saying Penguin wanted to publish Terri stands out in my memory. I rang my mother with the good news. “That’s nice, dear,” she said. “Did I tell you that your sister won the Tomerong Ladies’ Squash finals last week?”

Penguin published my second novel, Piggy Moss, which had an amazing launch at a Sydney school (even though there were no copies of the book available on the day as the Melbourne publicist had forgotten them!) It was at the launch that I met other children’s literary figures, such as Simon French, Lowell Tarlington and Maurice Saxby. Lowell’s book Taylor’s Troubles, co-launched the same day (no copies available, either) and Terri were among the first Australian Puffins ever published. (Prior to that, Australian children’s books were always published in the UK and exported to Australia.)

It came as a blow when Penguin refused my third book (and one of my favourites), the humorous tall tale The Belligrumble Bigfoot, but I was happy when it was contracted by Kangaroo Press. Many books I have written – over 100 – have since been published by publishers such as Hodder Headline, Random House, Rigby, HarperCollins, Harcourt Education, Angus & Robertson and numerous others.

During my career in children’s books, I have worked in other fields besides authorship. As well as speaking at conferences and attending numerous CBCA children’s literary lunches, I have sold books, including my own remainders and in a Wollongong bookstore, working with Jean Ferguson of the ABA who introduced me to many wonderful titles. Then I sourced and sold new and second-hand children’s books at book fairs in local primary schools. For many years, too, I worked as a schools’ performer on author visits at hundreds of schools around NSW and interstate. At first I worked alone, but then my husband, award-winning children’s author Bill Condon, joined me. He would perform for children in the infants’ department while I worked with primary students. At lunch-times we often sold our remainders - thousands of them over the years! Often I also presented writing and editing workshops to primary-aged children and to teachers. Sometimes I gave talks to parents and/or ran Wordgames’ evenings for them (Wordgames are writing games I devised for team competition; they were very popular, and helped schools raise funds.)

At various stages of my career I have founded writing workshops and groups. These latter included the Fellowship of Australian Writers (at Campbelltown and still running over 25 years later) and the south-west branch of the Children’s Books Council of Australia (also at Campbelltown in 1993). During the four years I presided over the two CBCA branches, we had many successful functions. These included literary lunches with authors (Jackie French came along to one, shortly after her first book was published) and with local identities, as well as author evenings. One night we had a huge crowd for the English children’s author, Pat Hutchens. We also organised a very big conference at Warwick Farm where speakers included Bruce Whatley (at his first CBCA gig), Duncan Ball and others. Unfortunately the CBCA branch floundered when I left town three years later. However, in that short time, we managed to have more than 40 authors and illustrators visit the south-west. In February 2008, I formed the Illawarra branch of the Children’s Book Council of Australia and was elected its President, a position I held for three years.

Many years ago, too, I co-founded (with authors Mary Small and Joan Dalgleish) the Sydney Network of Authors and Illustrators, a loose group of published children’s book creators. Originally we met for some years at the Australian Journalists’ Club near Central Railway Station, but more recently Network met at the Hughenden Hotel in Woollahra. Some attendees at early meetings included the late David Bateson (who was our unofficial photographer), Vashti Farrer, Margaret Wild, Nigel Gray, Libby Gleeson et al.

In my job as co-editor (with Doug Macleod) of Puffinalia children’s magazine (published by Penguin Books), I mentored many young writers: one of them, a recently published 15-year-old, made the trip from Melbourne to visit Network with her mother. Sonya Hartnett was reserved, but obviously in her element. Since then, Sonya has written numerous books and won major literary awards including the highly lucrative Pippi Longstocking (international) Award.

One achievement I feel very pleased about was establishing a weekly online newsletter, CAINON, for those in the children’s book industry, which I ran as a volunteer for over six months, building up a following of over 500 before the job overwhelmed me and I passed it on to a young woman I had been mentoring for some time. She, in turn, re-named it Pass It On (PIO), and began charging a fee for it. As time passed, I regretted my decision and so started up an online magazine, Buzz Words (All the Buzz about Children’s Books), also for people in the children’s book industry. I relied on freelance writers for most of the Buzz Words book reviews, and paid article and interview contributors as well as writing many articles myself. After five years of putting out Buzz Words ,  I passed it on to Vicki Stanton, a children’s writer I mentor. (www.buzzwordsmagazine.com)

Over the years I’ve devoted myself to other aspects of children’s books. At one time I presented a one-hour program on community TV, a children’s book chat show where I interviewed authors such as Margaret Clarke, Susanne Gervay, Moya Simons, the school boys who financed Colin Thompson’s first trip to Australia and numerous others, including schoolgirl, Jessica Carroll, who wrote her first (and only) picture book text, Billy the Punk (illustrated by Craig Smith) when she was in sixth grade as a class project. I have also mentored and/or taught many new writers in the early stages of their careers, namely Margaret McAlister, Sue Whiting, Susanne Gervay, J A Mawter, Moya Simons, Sandy Fussell, Maureen (Mo) Johnson, Delwyne Stephens, Jackie Hosking, to name but a few. All of them have gone on to publish children’s books; Margaret is also a highly regarded teacher and writing mentor (Writing4Success); Sue now works as children’s editor for Walker Books Australia and Susanne Gervay won the 2007 Lady Cutler Award for services to children’s literature.

I’ve presented papers on children’s literature and writing at many institutions, and taught writing and editing classes at evening colleges, universities, primary and high schools, TAFEs and writers’ centres. Currently I have a correspondence creative writing course running for young writers (through the NSW Writers’ Centre) and an online writing course for adults wishing to write for young people. For a time, too, I handled the publicity for the KOALA (Kids Own Australian Literature Awards) organisation.

As well as reviewing many children’s books (Reading Time and Buzz Words), I’ve worked as a children’s magazine editor. For several years Doug MacLeod and I co-edited Puffinalia magazine; I worked as story editor for Little Ears, a magazine for children aged three and up. (www.littleears.com.au) While at Puffinalia, I published the writings of three newcomers to children’s books: Robin Klein, Errol Broome and Alan Baillie.

In the 30 plus years since I first started writing for children, I’ve progressed from typing manuscripts on an old-fashioned Olivetti manuscript typewriter to working on the latest whizz-bang computer. Over the course of my career in children’s books, too, I’ve met and made friends with many other children’s writers and editors. Being in this field is like being part of a large and caring family. Time and again I hear budding children’s authors say how generous my colleagues are with their time and advice, and it’s true: there is a genuine camaraderie in the industry. I feel privileged indeed to be a part of the children’s books fraternity and hope to continue being here for many years to come.

Dianne (Di) Bates’ most recent book is Crossing the Line (Ford Street). She is married to award-winning children’s author, Bill Condon, and lives in Wollongong, NSW. Her website is www.enterprisingwords.com


Writing led to my husband and I meeting one another; it was a crucial element of our courtship, and now 30+ years later it is still a vital part of our lives together. In 1981, the author of two children’s books (both with Penguin), I applied for funding from the Literature Board of the Australia Council to run a poetry reading during the Campbelltown Fisher’s Ghost Festival. Part of the funding agreement was that half of the invited poets should be from the local area. Someone told me about a quiet, unassuming man who wrote hilarious poetry so I followed the lead. On the program were poets of the calibre of Nancy Keesing, John Forbes, Chris Mansell, Geoffrey Lehmann, Susan Hampton and Max Williams but the audience favourite on the day was that local, Bill Condon.

A short time later Bill joined the South-West regional Fellowship of Australian Writers of which I was the founding-President: soon he was elected Secretary and we worked hard to raise the profile of writing in the Macarthur region. For years Bill had written plays, poetry and short stories while working as a shift-worker in a milk factory: a few of his stories had been published in a greyhound racing magazine. My background was in journalism and teaching: I’d been seconded from the latter for a short period to work on editorial team of the NSW Department of Education School Magazine.

In between working full-time at our respective jobs, and over a period of about six months Bill and I co-wrote a collection of children’s plays which eventually was published under the title Madcap CafĂ© and Other Humorous Plays. Although long out of print, we still continue to receive occasional CAL payments and requests from teachers for permission to stage plays from the book. We also co-wrote a children’s action novel, The Slacky Flat Gang, also published and now out of print.

After ten years as a labourer, and at my urging, Bill quit his factory job with the aim of becoming a full-time writer while supplementing his income with part-time journalism at a provincial newspaper. However he was immediately offered a full-time job at the paper, quite remarkable considering he had left school in his Intermediate Certificate year. Meanwhile, I was doing as I had done for many years – freelance writing and working at a variety of part-time jobs including schools’ performer, writing teacher, bookseller, journalist and advertising sales’ rep for a newspaper. I was fortunate on four separate occasions to also receive grants and fellowships for the Literature Board, all of which allowed me to write full-time and to produce many books for young people. I’m quite sure that without the Board’s funding I would have given up writing and gone back to full-time teaching.

Bill worked for ten years full-time on the newspaper, and then part-time until eventually he left permanently, again with the idea of full-time freelance writing. By this time my well-paid work as a Department of Education Accredited schools’ performer gave me hope that I might one day own my own home so this became my main occupation, along with freelance writing. As his pile of manuscripts turned into published children’s books (mostly poetry and play collections and educational books), Bill joined me as a schools’ performer. He overcame his shy, retiring nature and developed some wonderful comic skills while working with infants’ children and their teachers. While he was entertaining in the junior school department, I would be performing to primary classes, both of us promoting our books and a love of reading as well as offering writing insights and advice. At lunch-times we would often sell our remaindered books, all of which we had autographed the night before. It was a hard-going but fun-filled few years before, finally, at the age of 50 my dream came true: Bill and I bought our present home in Wollongong, NSW.

A fantastic change occurred to us and to all (mainly) children’s authors in 2000 when the Federal Government introduced Educational Lending Rights, a payment scheme to compensate authors for books held in educational libraries. This annual payment combined with our annual PLR payments, meant that Bill and I can both work from home as full-time writers without having to undertake part-time work. We have also been able to cease commissioned work (mostly from educational publishers) and instead focus on what really want to write. In 2002, Bill’s YA novel Dogs (Hodder Headline) was awarded the Children’s Book Council of Australia’s Honour Book for the Year for Older Readers and a year later his second YA novel No Worries (University of Queensland Press) also won CBCA Honour Book of the Year. The crowning prize for Bill working in YA books was in 2010 when he won the Prime Minister’s Literary Awards for Confessions of a Liar, Thief and Failed Sex God.

Meanwhile, I have had the time and freedom to finish two YA novels (Crossing the Line, Ford Street) and The Girl in the Basement, a verse novel (Nobody’s Boy, Celepene Press, 2012), compile an Australian children’s poetry anthology (Our Home is Dirt by Sea, Walker Books, 2012), and work on a number of non-fiction children’s books (published by Cambridge University Press and Hinkler).

How is it working with another writer in the same house twenty four seven? Wonderful! Bill and I each have our own offices, mine downstairs, his upstairs. Normally we are in front of our respective computers by 9 am, although I often start very early in the morning, my preferred working time. We meet for lunch and generally finish around 5pm, but often we will work at night. Usually when one has finished a major writing project, the other will read and offer constructive criticism; sometimes we will thrash out ideas for new stories or scenes in books. Once a week we hold a weekly writing workshop in our home with other local children’s writers. This is our life: we are truly blessed.

Dianne (Di) Bates and Bill Condon have published over 200 books between them, mostly for the juvenile market. Their website is www.enterprisingwords.com