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Gina Newton - Author Year in Review 2020 - Hoping for a Phoenix for my Book!

Friedrich Johann Justin Bertuch (1747–1822)

Early 2020 – Fire & Pestilence

January was a retched month for many with the Black Summer fires. The loss of life, homes and businesses was unfathomable. The loss of billions of our amazing wildlife creatures and the destruction of millions of hectares of their habitat was incomprehensible; as an ecologist, I am acutely aware of the implications. Then in March 2020, we were hit with a global pandemic!

Dream Shattered?

Compared to these events, other matters pale into insignificance. But, as an author, I had another shock in store in early January. My dream, my heart’s passion, my very own ‘pièce de résistance - was terminated. And this had nothing on Schwarzenegger!

Following the success of Amazing Animals of Australia’s National Parks (sold 10.5 k; won 3 prestigious awards), I signed another contract in March 2018 with the National Library of Australia (NLA) to produce a new animal book. My dream book focused on threatened Australian animals and conservation methods, by drawing lessons from the past and combining this with new knowledge and technologies. It’s a timely manuscript, given Australia’s recognised ‘extinction crisis’ (Australia’s faunal extinction crisis Senate Inquiry 2018-2021). It’s also a book that must be researched and written with scientific rigour at its basis, notwithstanding to need to ensure accessibility, readability and impact for children. The book was originally contracted as Going, Going, Gone? Saving Australia’s Endangered Wildlife, but I’ve since re-titled it as Conservation Nation: Saving Australia’s Endangered Wildlife.

Although not yet completed, when I got the bad news I had researched and written this manuscript for close to two years in my spare time. (I work full time in a day job and I’m a single mother to two tertiary students, hence ‘spare’ time is limited). Most of my work on the book happened during my holiday leave or by taking extra unpaid leave from work (so it had already cost me around $15-20 k in salary). By Jan 2020, the table of contents (ToC) for the book had been forensically reworked (i.e. from the draft ToC submitted for contract) – with the six-chapter format and every one of the 166 pages accounted for. Chapters 1 and 2 were researched, written and had been mostly reviewed by many generous experts. The remaining four chapters had each been partly done.

I was at work when I received the somewhat cold phone call on January 16th. No warning. No preparation. Naturally, I let out a loud cry of denial, leading my work colleagues to look up from their desks in concern. My usual publisher at the NLA had been away for a long time and the person who delivered the message was unknown to me. I was told, in no uncertain terms, that the decision to terminate my contract for the animal book was final. Sadly, and ignorantly, I had presumed that that particular little clause in the contract would never be acted upon, not by one of Australia’s national and most iconic cultural institutions - surely not! And yet it was.

Fight or Flight

Not one to give up easily on my dream, I wrote to every relevant Minister I could think of and the NLA Board - all to no avail, as it turned out. I learnt that quite a few contracts had been terminated from the children’s publishing list at NLA – all in the throws of cost-cutting and meeting their government required efficiency dividend (ED) savings (who invented that policy I ask). I have also recently learnt that the award-winning Amazing Animals is out-of-print and will not be reprinted, in the same vein of cost cutting (although surely it must have made a tidy profit one would think!). It is also now extinct!

In February, I was fortuitously, contacted by a journalist from the Canberra Times interested in doing an overview article on the NLA terminations – including a lead-in statement from the esteemed past Australian Children’s Laureate and author, Jackie French, and including my sorry tale (published Canberra Times, Feb. 16th).

Silver Linings

They say every cloud has a silver lining – well it did for me as an author, if not for my Conservation Nation book as yet. A Melbourne publisher (Wilkinson Publishing) reached out to me, interested in branching into the Australiana children’s genre. I ended up signing three contracts with them – two Middle Grade novels (eco-adventure mystery series) and a picture book featuring spiders. I had already finished the manuscript for one MG novel and the picture book.

Continuing on a positive note, I had two further books released on 1 October 2020. So, the year was a busy one (in my spare time), what with editing, proofing, liaising with publishers and illustrators, and preparing Teacher Notes and media releases for the books – Hold On! Saving the Spotted Handfish (CSIRO Publishing) and Combat Wombat to the Rescue (Ford Street Publishing). Both were a joy to work on, and both also held great personal meaning to me (the first was 18 years in the making, and the second was 6 years – but that’s another story!).

The release of these two books was a highlight for me in this challenging year. Along with the immensely talented illustrator of Combat Wombat, Tiffanee Daley, we were able to organise and hold a fantastic Book Launch at the Artist’s Shed in Canberra – on National Wombat Day (22 October). And the books were launched by none other than Canberra’s own, infamous Tim the Yowie Man. Luckily, many friends and family were able to attend.

Another highlight for me this year with my author hat on, was undergoing the structural editing process, with the highly renowned Sue Whiting, on my first (MG) novel, Down Under Mysteries: Pirates of Penguin Island. As a children’s author, I learnt a great deal during this process and it certainly improved the manuscript.

Also, on a high note and thanks to the pandemic travel-bubble between the ACT and SA, in November I was able to undertake a wonderful research trip/holiday to Kangaroo Island (KI) with a dear friend, Patricia. KI is the location of my second MG novel. What a magical place, but sadly nearly half of it was burnt out by the terrible Black Summer bushfires. I was mesmerised by the Sea of Spears from the Yacca grasstrees.

Yaccas spearing and flowering after bushfires on Kangaroo Island

(probably triggered by smoke as these ones didn’t actually burn)

At year’s end, I’m still hopeful that Conservation Nation: Saving Australia’s Endangered Wildlife will, like the legendary Phoenix, rise from the ashes! I would love to partner with a Conservation NGO to make this happen – that’s my goal for 2021 (hope the Universe is listening!).

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