The writer Nikki Gemmell pens a tribute to her beloved publisher, HarperCollins’ Shona Martyn, who has resigned after seventeen years at the helm of the Sydney office and is heading off for a new adventure in life.
So. The shoes. Always fabulous. Always unique. And always so very, very, Shona. The shoes that are vivid and unafraid and match the blare of the red hair, the splash of the clothes and the fabulousness of the personality. For Shona Martyn, there is a decidedly uncynical delight in a professional world more commonly peopled by black polonecks, elbow patches on tweed, eyes-down-the-nose-sniff and even, occasionally, sneer. Sneer isn’t in Shona’s vocabulary. She is a force of nature amid it all, with her terrier-like enthusiasm for a great book. Hers, or any one else’s. That is her generosity of spirit. Shona Martyn is a writer’s publisher – not all are – and I can’t bear the thought of not having her around anymore.
The red head whirlwind who was the publishing director of HarperCollins in Sydney first crashed into my world when HarperCollins in the UK bought the rights to my anonymous novel, The Bride Stripped Bare, back in 2002. It was one of those fevered situations just before the Frankfurt Book Fair where big decisions had to be made, fast. I already had an Australian publisher and I was more than happy with this arrangement. Yet it quickly became apparent that if I wanted this new book deal for Bride, I would have to ditch my long standing Aussie publisher for the Brave New World of Shona.
Shona Martyn? Eh? Hadn’t she edited the Good Weeekend? And HQ magazine? What would she know about publishing? I rapidly realised, an incredible amount. And I was blessed to have her. It was the richness of her past professional life that uniquely informed her job as publishing director. She wasn’t of the publishing world, and that gave her a freshness and dynamism that to a writer, was arresting, refreshing. She quickly became a guardian angel on my shoulder, guiding me through a very tricky and harrowing publishing situation. When my identity was uncovered in the most brutal of ways, all those years ago, Shona was right beside me, guiding me through the trauma of journalists banging on my door and ringing my in-laws to get their misguided angles on the situation. Shona was my harbour, my haven, to rest from the toss of the world. At times it felt hard to go on, as a writer; at times I felt like I’d shot my literary career in the foot, but she was always at the end of her mobile, whatever time of day or night it was, to guide, calm, advise. Her professionalism and wisdom went above and beyond the call of duty.
Shona shook up the publishing world. She was a disruptor before we knew what a disruptor was. An innovator, an enthusiast. She had an ability to think outside the box because she had been outside the box. The industry in return got a breadth of vision, marketing nous, a keen eye about what would succeed in a commercial as well as a literary sense, and a deep understanding of how the media world works. She regularly appears in forums and on panels representing the Australian publishing industry. She is known around the world as a highly successful publisher. Kirsty Maclachlan, from my London agent’s office, DGA, writes: “Shona has only ever shown total commitment and passion towards her books. I will miss her true professionalism but more than that, her love for the gift of a truly brilliant book.” And for the lowly writer, she embodies the most reassuring of qualities: She makes you feel like you are the only author that matters in her stable. With every single one of us. Canny, that! And the paypack, of course, is undying loyalty.
I’ve always thought I could never leave her – but now she has left me. To a writer, she feels like that quintessential older sister or friend. A Jo March, a Ju Ju, an Anne of Green Gables – wise, protective, fearless, funny, brilliant and infinitely kind. Someone you always want around; looking out for you. I cannot imagine HarperCollins author gatherings without her laughter and her jokes and her loud interjections and her passion and her enthusiasm and her fabulous shoes. I have a book out next April called After, yet this tome feels oddly anchorless now because it will be my first one at HarperCollins without Shona – and that feels like a reeling loss.
But we all know that this is the girl who revels in risk. She has had several career reinventions, and I know she will do it again, with aplomb and huge success. Because that is Shona. Her next industry’s gain will be Australian publishing’s loss. A big, huge, irreplaceable Shona-sized loss. We need more Shonas in this business, not less. I leave you with the words of my agent in London, David Godwin: “I always remember Shona as wholly unpretentious and totally passionate about what she published. A fearsomely dynamic publisher. I also thought of her as a perfect Australian, direct, forceful, passionate and imaginative.” Well, she’s a Kiwi – but we won’t hold that against her. Here’s to the perfect Antipodean.
Photographs: Top left, Shona Martyn with Nikki Gemmell; above right, Shona with the author of The Bird’s Child Sandra Leigh Price; right Shona (centre) with Gail and Juliette O’Brien, authors of This is Gail.