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Publisher, writer and editor Sophie Hamley (1989) did not expect that one of her earliest mentors would be someone from school. “There are some girls who might think any ambitions they have occur beyond school, but there may be guides there – a student, or a teacher who might say something which provides the spark of a story,” Sophie says. “Life doesn’t begin after school; it has already begun.”
For Sophie, that person was Fiona Daniels (1987), a Wenona alumna who was a Senior Editor on the Commercial Fiction list when she arrived as a "baby editor” in 1996. While Fiona wasn’t her direct line of command, they became friends: “Everything I learnt, I learnt from her.” In the publishing world, that meant honing an understanding of readers (“buying books is an emotional decision”), producing structural reports and having an eye for detail. “I think now, when I look at page proofs, ‘what would Fiona say about that messy patch there?’”
Producing digital content at the Seven Network two years later, Sophie “really learned to think about readers”. With a focus on producing content around Home and Away, she had a new task, a new audience and a new platform. From her first week, she was motivated by her question: “how could we get more people looking at this [online site]?” The answer? By working out what readers want. Blue Heelers was Australia’s number one TV drama at the time and Sophie began writing for that audience. She wrote concisely without being shallow, and tailored content to varying audiences. “If I was writing about All Saints, I had to be judicious,” for example.
When Sophie found herself in hospital in 2011, television became her primary way of accessing stories. “The need of storytelling is primal and fundamental to all humans,” she points out. Her attention had been disrupted. She couldn’t concentrate on a news article, let alone a book. “And that’s where Law and Order came along,” she says. It was only when her dad pointed out: ‘it really moves along at a cracking pace’ did she realise why it held her attention. At that time, a book just seemed inordinately hard.
She wound back up in a publishing industry that had “changed profoundly” – working as a literary agent from 2006 and as a Non Fiction publisher at Hachette Australia from 2014. The landscape had changed, “we have Netflix now” and the way people buy books is different (far more romance novels sell as eBooks, for example). But the mandate to contribute to culture remains. And while these are often similar stories to what Sophie published 20 years earlier, she says “readers have an infinite capacity to adapt to new stories".
In 2014, a chance meeting with Toni Tapp Coutts, a member of the Katherine region writers’ group in Darwin, sparked an idea to disseminate more diverse Australian stories. In her eight years of working as an agent, Sophie had not seen one submission from the Northern Territory. “I couldn’t believe no one was writing,” she said. “They thought no one wanted to see their submissions.” There was no outlet for those stories and Sophie drew up a proposal.
That proposal burgeoned into the Hachette Mentoring Program, which now links up with Writers Centres across the nation. As coordinator of the program, Sophie chooses the program recipients, conducts structural edits and spends time with authors – in person, via skype or email. “My dream is that we continue to foster Australian storytelling, that we are proud of our national culture,” she says “and have a diversity of voices.”
And while Sophie never imagined she would end up in publishing when selling books as a teenager at her local bookshop, she believes it was the best education she could have had. “That’s how you learn about readers,” she says. She suggests that girls interested in the industry begin there: “it’s a really excellent grounding". But failing that – and this teachers and parents might agree with – she says girls should read a lot. "That’s the best education: reading, reading, reading”.