A Creative Hub: Busybird Publishing

Busybird Publishing is the product of husband and wife team Blaise van Hecke and Kev Howlett, who met in photographic college way back in 1986, and – after the obligatory holiday, setting up life together, and kids – formed their little business in 1998. Originally known as Busybird Publishing & Design, Blaise and Kev offered photographic services, then added illustration services, but when their primary client, Ford, began to outsource work overseas, Blaise and Kev were forced to rethink the direction of their business.

Blaise studied Professional Writing and Editing to develop her own writing, but fell in love with the publishing progress along the way. She gained a diploma, with a view towards evolving her little home business into a fully-fledged publisher, now known simply as Busybird Publishing.

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Just some of the books published by Busybird. Image Credit: Busybird Publishers.

The first project was [untitled], an annual anthology of short stories that aimed at giving exposure to new and emerging authors, promoting mainstream fiction (along with literary fiction), and giving her – and her team – an indoctrination into the world of publishing. [untitled] provided everybody involved a crash course in what was required to produce a book – from soliciting submissions, to editing (and working with authors), proofing, lay-out, cover design, and setting up a launch. It was a heady journey, but one that was both rewarding and educational.

‘We were frustrated by how hard it was, as a new writer, to get published in Australia so [untitled] was seen as a new avenue for new writing,’ Blaise says. ‘It’s hard work producing a short story anthology but very rewarding. The best part is being at the launch and meeting new writers who are excited to see their work in print.’

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The next project was Journey: Experiences with Breast Cancer, an anthology of nonfiction and poetry about people’s experiences with breast cancer. Blaise’s own sister, Sara, had just battled the disease, and Journey’s aim was to be informative to those touched by breast cancer. A portion of proceeds were pledged to BreaCan and WHoW (Women Helping Other Women).

‘This anthology was rewarding in two very significant ways,’ Blaise says. ‘Readers tell us that the stories help them with their own cancer journey and the writers say how good it was to share their story, that it’s been therapeutic.’

With several [untitled]s and Journey now under their belt, it was time to diversify with the children’s book, Who is a Cheeky Monkey? Written by Blaise and illustrated by Kev, Cheeky Monkey has a message for kids about perseverance. Proceeds were also pledged to Destiny Rescue, a charity set up to end child sex trafficking.

‘There seems to be a theme building here at Busybird,’ Blaise says. ‘We feel that these projects can help in so many ways. To raise awareness, funds for places that need it and they are great stories. Is it too much to say that we think we can save the world one story at a time?’

Whilst Busybird remained small, producing only a book and one [untitled] yearly, it had started to earn a reputation for quality work. It’s possibly for this reason that they were approached by editor/writer Tiggy Johnson, former owner of page seventeen, about taking on the anthology after Tiggy had decided to move to Queensland. It was another book to add to Busybird’s growing stable.

The biggest change in Busybird came, however, when Blaise and Kev leased premises in the suburb of Montmorency, Victoria. The building has a large loft, separated into a gallery where they are able to hold exhibitions, as well as work and a workshop area, and a photographic studio for Kev, who’s been a photographer for over twenty-five years.

A new sideline also emerged. Until this point, Blaise had worked part-time as a literacy coordinator in Victoria’s library system. Due to her publishing endeavours, she was regularly approached with questions about what it took to self-publish, an avenue that Blaise endorses as a viable alternative to traditional publishing.

She was appalled, however, at the horror stories she heard from any number of authors duped by so-called partnership publishers who flattered authors – many of them inexperienced in the industry – into partnership publishing under the pretence it was the traditional route, charged (and often overcharged) them for rudimentary services, and then claimed half their royalties.

‘I’ve had people on the phone to me in tears because their book, something that has taken them years to write, isn’t progressing as they expected because of misleading contracts from a partnership publisher,’ Blaise says. ‘It’s made me aware of being completely transparent about our processes and over-delivering on what we promise.  Whilst we help people self-publish, we charge only for services and take no royalties.’

Self-publishing became one of the new services Busybird offered, although any authors who come to Blaise have a frank discussion about what exactly their book requires to go from a Word document into a real-life book.

‘We are writers and artists ourselves, so we know how much sweat goes into a book,’ Blaise says. ‘For that reason, we encourage authors to be diligent about how they publish it. Why take five, eight, ten years to write something and then not have it edited? I don’t care how good a writer you are, your book needs to be edited.’

Many of the authors who look at self-publishing are business owners interested in passing on their knowledge and/or promoting their business. Others have been interested in community or family history. A few have written poetry anthologies or novels, and a handful have looked at self-publishing children’s books, which Kev has illustrated.

‘There’s nothing I love more than to be given a project and to help bring it to life,’ Kev says. ‘I love working with people to help them realise their vision.’

Despite the steady self-publishing stream, Busybird is still focused on producing its own books: [untitled] and page seventeen remain annual; there’s Blaise’s own The Book Book: 12 steps to successful publishing – a handbook on writing and publishing; they are currently working on a companion to Journey, an anthology about prostate cancer experiences entitled ‘Below the Belt’; ‘Walk With Me’, a full-colour photographic coffee table book detailing Kev’s recent trek up to Mount Everest Base Camp to raise money for the disease CMT; and they’re in the final judging for their inaugural Great Novella Search competition, the winner of which will have their novella published as a paperback and digital book. Busybird also offers on- and off-site internships to those – usually Professional Writing and Editing students – interested in learning more about publishing and gaining both theoretical and practical experiences.

‘After I finished my diploma, I had all the theory behind me to publish a book,’ Blaise says. ‘But there’s nothing like the real experience and you don’t really get told about what not to do. Our interns gain hands-on experience in all aspects of the publishing process, which we think is invaluable.’

But through its Montmorency studio, Busybird has continued to diversify, with an interest in becoming a community hub, a drop-in centre for people with any creative pursuits. They offer a whole range of publishing, photographic, and imaging services, hold a monthly Open Mic Night (highlights of which go up on YouTube), host art and photography exhibitions, and run a variety of workshops centred around writing, editing, or photography. It’s a vision Blaise has nurtured for fifteen years.

‘One of my favourite parts of this work is receiving a box of newly printed books, even though they aren’t my own,’ Blaise says. ‘The look on author’s faces when they get them is priceless. To top that off, seeing them sign books at their launch makes me all warm and fuzzy.’

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