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Diary of a Publisher: A career built on books

Books & Poetry

Wakefield Press’s new publisher of young adult fiction has held numerous ‘bookish jobs’ over a 27-year career and has a passion for ensuring South Australian and Australian stories are read far and wide, writes Michael Bollen.

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“The pocket rocket!” Wakefield Press designer and my wife Liz Nicholson exclaims when I mention Jo Case’s name.

We know how big Jo is for books. Writing, editing, publishing, discussing, reviewing, publicising, marketing, selling: the whole shebang.

Passionate is the word. Injustice gets her dander up. Jo Case is a believer. A force for good.

She writes an InDaily column as an Imprints bookseller. Her other role is associate publisher at Wakefield Press. Now, or from next week, she’s also publisher of our young adult fiction list. Jo has acquired that baton from pioneer Margot Lloyd, who too soon will be Brisbane-bound in her jalopy, risking roadblocks and quarantine to take up a senior editing position at University of Queensland Press. (Interesting that our Athens of the South hasn’t managed a proper, lasting university press.)

Comings and goings, as ever. Jo Case is one who came, went and came back again. You’d like to think it was her love for Adelaide, or even for Wakefield Press, that lured her back from Melbourne. I believe, however, her true love for one Luke Sawford was vital in the mix.

“You’re always living a whole other life in your head,” Luke told her the other day.

“He said it because I was so upset about the fate of the schoolboys on The Wire,” Jo says, but generally her head has been full of books and writing since she was a little girl scribbling Annie fan fiction.

After school, at 17, her first job in books was at the late lamented SA Book Place in the late lamented John Martin’s. “I’d see the sales reps come into the shop, and that made me think about working for a publisher.”

Different days! Johnnie’s, and DJ’s and Myer, had solid book sections then, with local ordering – hence the local sales reps who inspired young Jo’s mind to wander.

“I got out the Yellow Pages and wrote to every publisher in Adelaide (I didn’t realise most of them were distributors, not publishers),” she says.

“One called to offer me a week’s work experience. It was Wakefield Press. You guys had just published a bestseller, Home of the Blizzard, and my bookshop experience in packing books fast came in handy.”

Hmm, memories coming back. This was the mid-1990s.

“You and Stephanie Johnston hired me then, at $50 a week.” Generous souls! “I couldn’t believe my luck.

“Through working at Wakefield Press I got to know how the publishing industry worked, and what jobs were available in it. I was trained in sales and marketing, assigned to help Steph, the marketing director, and got to write press releases and learn how to proofread.

“I picked a book from the slush pile – Jumping from Heaven by Katherine Goode, which is still in print, 24 years later – and was allowed to edit it. I never finished my uni degree, because I’d found what I was going to do.”

Jo Case (right) with Stephanie Santich in her early years at Wakefield Press.

The trail, as for so many young people, took Jo to Melbourne, where she lived in a caravan park and then a backpacker’s hostel before finding a share-house in Carlton. Her career across the border shows just how many nooks and crannies there are in this industry.

Among various bookish jobs in 27 uninterrupted years – “apart from one year when I worked in corporate PR, and got paid more than I ever have again” – Jo has been program manager of Melbourne Writers’ Festival, edited the monthly publication for independent bookselling chain Readings, and was deputy editor of Australian Book Review, books editor of the Big Issue, senior writer/editor at the Wheeler Centre, associate editor of literary journal Kill Your Darlings, and part of the original management team at Dymocks’ flagship store in Melbourne.

She reviews books for major papers, and has essays and stories published in anthologies. A few years ago, Hardie Grant publishers released her own book Boomer & Me: A memoir of motherhood, and Asperger’s. Benjamin Law called it “stunning”. “This book will do a lot of good in the world,” Maria Tumarkin wrote.

So now, back again in Adelaide, what does Jo Case reckon?

“I’m passionate about local publishing – both SA and Australian – in terms of making sure people can see their lives and places explored in what they read,” she says.

“Telling our stories and providing a platform for our voices to be heard across the world.”

She adds, however: “It’s really hard to publish outside the Melbourne-Sydney nexus. We’re outside most of the literary ecosystem and have a much smaller – though loyal and valuable – bookseller hub.

“The industry doesn’t enjoy the level of government support Victoria does. After 21 years working in the Melbourne literary scene, I really notice this, in a way I hadn’t before.”

Soon, we’ll have our traditional Wakefield winter lunch, this year farewelling Margot Lloyd and celebrating Jo Case’s new roles. The chatter, no doubt, will turn to who gets Margot’s desk by the front window, who takes the windowless room. This makes me deeply anxious.

“When in doubt, look helpless,” my father once advised. I’ll do that. Let others decide.

Michael Bollen is director at Adelaide-based independent publishing house Wakefield Press. He writes a regular column for InDaily.

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