What was your pathway to publishing?
Unusual and accidental. My Uncle, who was on the management board of Magabala Books, told my dad there was a job going. I was nineteen and needed a job, so I sent my CV. I had zero experience in publishing, had never heard of Magabala, and didn’t choose the ‘pub’ life. After a two-hour phone interview, Peter Bibby, the then managing editor, told me I had the job and asked me when could I get there. I was in Perth at the time. A week later I stole my brother’s bike, packed my bag, and got on a plane. I was first employed as a project editor. Sometime later, Magabala had three positions for trainee editors. I performed so badly at the interview that the committee didn’t want to give me the job, but for some reason they did. I learnt everything on the job and in later positions. I have had the most amazing teachers throughout my career.
How many titles do you publish each year?
We’ve capped the titles between fourteen and sixteen. We’re a small team: to do justice to our creators and books, we’re committed to doing them well and within our capacity.
Which book are you proudest of publishing?
Too hard to say. I’ve enjoyed all of them.
Do you edit the books you commission?
Very few these days. My job doesn’t allow me to do many. I love those I do edit. I value the relationship and the conversation around the why and the how, especially the motivation of the creator. It is an extraordinarily humbling craft and profession.
What qualities do you look for in an author?
The qualities of the story.
In your dealings with authors, what is the greatest pleasure – and challenge?
My greatest pleasure is seeing and knowing a creator is happy with their book. The biggest challenge is letting the creator know that there isn’t much money in it.
Do you write yourself? If so, has it informed your work as a publisher?
I have written a children’s picture book. The experience has made me much more aware of the process. I have always believed that publishing is an exercise in the lost art of conversation, in all its stages and all its forms. As an Aboriginal publisher, I believe in deep listening (to our creators). There is as much said in cultural silence as there is in the noise of words and white-speak. Culture is as much as what you don’t say as it is about what you do.
What kinds of books do you enjoy reading?
I rarely read for pleasure these days. When I do I’m not fixated about what I read. I try to read children’s picture books, junior fiction, YA, fiction (good, bad, ugly), general non-fiction, gift books, the back of cereal packets, any blurb I can get my hands on, advertising catalogues in newspapers, comics, graphic novels, bad westerns, cards in newsagencies, scripts. I watch good television drama series to dissect the writing. I read, watch, listen to everything that falls inside and outside the box. It’s about being able to think differently and to reflect this in what gets published.
Who are the editors/publishers you most admire?
The individuals who have impacted my journey, have taught me and continue to teach me: Peter Bibby, Bruce Sims, Meredith Rose, Rhonda Black, Josie Douglas, Sandra Phillips, Lisa Fuller, Ruth Gilbert, Margaret Whiskin, Rachael Christensen, Maryann Ballantyne, Grace Lucas-Pennington, Ellen van Neerven.
What’s the outlook for new writing of quality?
As an Aboriginal Publisher at a small Indigenous publishing house, it’s about quality storytelling and the process of writing is what may come later, in some instances. Thinking that new writing of quality will come from ‘literate’ peoples marginalises where some of the greatest stories will ultimately come from. I don’t like to assume that great writing and storytelling needs to emerge from individuals or communities who/that are ‘literate’, and I refuse to ostracise those that may have a voice but not the ‘socially accepted’ form to tell it in.
I do think that concentrating on getting good stories from literate peoples may be a narrow way of looking at the world. Statements by some non-Indigenous publishers that they have ‘standards’ when it comes to First Nations writing are also extraordinarily limiting. Honestly, you mob seriously need to think outside the box and open up to different ways of thinking.
As Adam Savage of Mythbusters said, ‘I reject your reality and [we] substitute our own.’
In a highly competitive market, is individuality one of the casualties?
Different strokes for different folks. I think there is room for all types of literature, at all levels, for all types of people. With many small, quality Indie publishers, and the commitment to great storytelling, there will always be fabulous stories.
On publication, which is more gratifying: a brilliant launch, a satisfied author, encomiastic reviews, or rapid sales?
Hands down … always a satisfied author.
Rachel Bin Salleh is a Nimunburr and Yawuru woman from the Dampier Peninsula in the Kimberley of Western Australia. She grew up in the pearling town of Broome and joined Magabala Books in 1993. Rachel has worked with Indigenous writers, storytellers, poets, yarners, songwriters, playwrights, performers, and illustrators from across Australia. Rachel is passionate about publishing First Nations creators on a national and international literary stage.