Tuesday, April 15, 2014

From the deepest recesses of the bottom drawer

When querying, should I mention the three other never-to-see-the-light-of-day manuscripts I've written or not? I feel their existence shows I've been working hard on my writing for some time, but they're not published (nor should they ever be). Also, if I do mention them, what should I call them? Unpublished novels? Blackmail material?

First of all: well done on completing three full-length manuscripts before writing the one you intend to submit. Consider them your apprenticeship. Also evidence of your patience. So, yes, for those reasons you should mention them - and you can do it in a humorous way (as your suggestion of 'blackmail material' indicates that you have a sense of humour) or any way you like. I personally like a touch of humour in a submission letter, done appropriately.

However, you can also just say that you have three manuscripts tucked away in a bottom drawer (hint: this is what you can call then - 'bottom drawer' being a phrase that publishing types like to use) that you never intend to submit to anyone - just to allay an agent/publisher's fear that you're about to send him or her three extra manuscripts - and that you feel that the one you're submitting is the beneficiary of everything you've learned on the previous three. Because that will probably be the truth. And agents/publishers do like to see evidence that a writer hasn't just finished the first draft of a first novel and sent it off that very same day.

Having said all that, if you don't mention them it's not going to affect your chances of being taken seriously. We always read the submission that's before it on its merits, regardless of what's come before. So go forth, submit and good luck.

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Stuck in the middle

I haven't had much luck with Australian agents -- apparently Aussie consumers and agents aren't keen on middle grade fiction -- but I have an American agent who is interested.

The contract says she'll have my manuscripts for two years. Is this a fair time frame, or should I be asking her to work on a manuscript by manuscript basis? Are there different ways agents work?

It isn't surprising that you have struggled to find an agent for middle grade fiction: children's books are a tough proposition for most agents to take on. The advances are usually very small compared with grown-ups' books but the amount of work is the same, so a lot of agents - especially those who don't have a particular passion for children's books - won't take on children's authors. And middle grade fiction is actually the toughest kind of children's book to represent - publishers want it but often can't say exactly what they want, as everyone is trying to guess what kids will like next, so for an agent submitting a middle grade novel or series, the risk of not finding a publisher and simultaneously disappointing the author is high. And like all forms of gambling, in publishing we have to spread our risk.

So: congratulations to you on finding an American agent. The USA is a far bigger market - many more children, for one thing, and therefore many more types of books they like to read and which can, therefore, be published. You say that she'll have your manuscripts for two years but don't say what this actually means - that she will represent you for two years only? That she'll give two years to the one manuscript she takes you on for but in that time you can't send her anything else?

It sounds as though this agent is saying she'll work with you for two years but if she hasn't found you a publisher in the meantime, then you'll part ways - and that doesn't sound unreasonable. She's managing your expectations upfront and she is also giving you both an 'out' clause if it doesn't work. And if it does work, she'll probably want to keep working with you, as will you with her.

Two years is a reasonable amount of time for her to have in order to find you a publisher. There are so many publishers in the US that it can take some time to submit to them all, especially if some expect an exclusive. If she is an experienced agent, then she would believe that two years is what she needs to give the manuscript the best shot - bearing in mind that it can take a long time, and sometimes it's the last publisher, the one you least expect, who makes an offer.

Most agents don't like to work on a manuscript-by-manuscript basis as if we love an author's writing and want to work with them, we just want to work with them - we don't want them to think that they'll have to start over for the next book, and nor do we want to do that. It would be inefficient to go on a per-manuscript basis.

But, still, I come back to the fact that I'm not quite sure what the terms of this agreement you mention might be ... so hopefully I've answered your question. If not, please be in touch.

Contracts and nothing but contracts

Do literary agents look at just one book contract without the author having to sign up with them, a one-off deal? I'm asking because an author may have a contract but want someone to look over it, etc? Do you know if literary agents do this?

Yes, they do - at least, Australian agents do. I can't/won't/don't enough to speak for agents from other lands.

Most agents receive the occasional request to look over a contract and, if we have the time, we will do it. Some agents will want to take on the author as a client but some - including me - don't do that even if the author asks. If an author already has a contract then I tend to believe they're past the point of me being able to do much for them - the existence of a contract signifies that the negotiation of advances and so on is over, so my usefulness extends to reading and negotiating the contract. I also don't like to take on clients unless I believe in their writing - the fact that they have a contract is not enough. But that's me. 

The only way to find out if an agent will look at the contract as a discrete action is to ask them - just don't ask all of them at once. Pick one and ask; it's a quick answer for an agent to give so you should hear back within a couple of days at most. If you don't hear back, move on to the next agent.

When agents give contract feedback as a one-off activity, they usually do not also negotiate that contract with the publisher - that responsibility falls to the author. But if you'd rather have the agent also negotiate the contract, you should raise that at the same time as you ask them to look at the contract.

Monday, February 10, 2014

Doubling up

Whilst searching today for unsolicited manuscript opportunities for this year, I found a children’s picture book that has many similarities to mine!  [NB: the author sent examples of the similarities between the two books but because question-askers are anonymous here, I've removed them.]

I wrote and reviewed and rewrote and re-reviewed my book throughout 2012, and submitted it to a publisher January 2013 (not lucky, obviously – possibly due to that very same query letter that lacked finesse). Apparently the other author was working on this book for four years prior to her publication. 

My question is… is my book now dead on the vine – did I get pipped at the post?  The books are of course different, but outstandingly share those close similarities of wording and essence. Can I even submit my book to publishers now or could it become a copyright or plagiarism issue? I wrote my book independently for over a year before the other book was published (and the only way I could in any way really prove this - your blog with my query letter competition submission)  

I guess this would be a situation of ‘great minds thinking alike’ rather than thieving. Or, on the other hand, if I were to pursue the publishing of my book could I then use the other book as an example of similar books already published, since publishers seem to like a writer to mention these in their submission? Perhaps I just have to do a whole rewrite so we’re not using those same phrases – ouch!

I feel really devastated right now that I put so much work into my story, and my query letter, finally ready to make my second attempt at the publisher juggernaut and it might all be for naught. Do I still have a chance? And if I do have a chance how would I, or do I have to, explain this situation to potential publishers?  Where can I go from here?  In your own words “…you might find you are wasting your time if there is a similar book out there”.  Also, even by putting ‘Copyright (year date)’’ on work, how can a writer protect their unpublished writing ideas from others if we enter competitions and make submissions when we need people to read them? 

In the world of picture books for children, the similarities you mentioned between your manuscript and the published book are not unprecedented. I've seen many a picture book in my time and there are definitely themes that emerge, and limited ways to explore those themes. If you believe the popular maxim that there are 'only seven stories in fiction' and then apply it children's picture books, you start to see where the doubling up - or quadrupling etc - can happen. Especially when books involve counting, as yours does, there is a risk that someone else will get there first. 

If you submit your project now, you won't be considered a plagiarist, for the reason mentioned above, but it could be that picture book editors and publishers think that your project is too similar - at least, for now. Because in the nature of there being not a lot of originality in themes and subject matters, everything 'comes around' (or everything old is new again - you get the picture) and the time for your project may be in a year's time. 

You also shouldn't suspect any dodgy behaviour from the other writer, again for the reason mentioned in my first paragraph.You don't know at what point that book was contracted - the author said she was working on it for four years, and they could have been four contracted years, which means she had a publisher well before you sent out your submission.

So: dust yourself off, accept that these things happen (and they really do, with all sorts of books - sometimes books with the exact same title are published very close together, and it's a complete fluke) and make your own submission the very best it can be so that your project is irresistible. Once you send it out or submit it to competitions, copyright law is your only protection - but, honestly, instances of ideas and/or text being 'borrowed' are so rare. People in the publishing industry are generally very much in favour of copyright, and they're also in favour of keeping their reputations intact, so they're not likely to do anything that jeopardises that. There is always a risk, whenever you write anything and release it to anyone other than yourself - for example. how do I know the content of this blog isn't being replicated wholesale by someone else? You can choose whether or not to accept that risk, but in your case it sounds as though the other publication was a coincidence - and you should definitely try to submit again. Just leave it a little while. 

Friday, November 29, 2013

Seriously, now, don't do these things

There is a lot of information 'out there' for writers, including this here website. Lots of dos, lots of don'ts, lots of advice in general. Still, though - STILL! - the same errors crop up in submissions over and over again. So here's a short list - a reminder, if you will - of what not to do.

1. Do not send out your manuscript if it's still at first-draft stage -  there will always be room to improve after that, and you need to send out the best possible version of your work.

2. Do not send out your manuscript if you know, in your gut (or your heart - whichever you prefer), that it isn't ready, even if it's had several drafts. You only have one chance to submit to agents and publishers - once you've been rejected, it is highly unlikely that the same manuscript will be looked at again. And, deep down, you know when it's still not ready - you're just trying to talk yourself out of it.

3. Do not send your submission to someone who isn't interested in the genre or category of book you're writing. Children's authors, you're the big culprits here - many of you send submissions to agents and publishers who don't represent or publish children's books. 

4. Do not ignore the submission guidelines - they're arbitrary, yes, but they're our attempt to create order out of chaos.

That's my short Friday afternoon list. If you want some more pointers, play this game.

Friday, November 1, 2013

An invitation to the dance

Some months ago I received a rejection that I thought was a bit nicer than the average bland "does not fit …". Recently I re-read it. The publishers stated that if I "significantly revised"  the manuscript I was welcome to re-submit it after six months, and that they hoped I would consider them for my next project. My question is, does this actually mean anything or is it just a polite formula, as I first understood it. And if they are suggesting I revise it, how do I know what they would like me to change (if I can)? Would it be acceptable to ask them this question, especially as there has been a time interval of a few months? (They may have totally forgotten what the manuscript was all about!)

When I reject things I certainly don't invite people to resubmit unless I mean it - for one thing, I'm not so desperate for people to like me that I'll give writers hope that one day I may reconsider my rejection of them if only they'd comply with my mysteriously absent feedback on their manuscript ...

So this publisher meant it. And they also meant they'd like to see what you write next (I make the same offer on occasion and I always mean it, but I certainly don't say it to everyone).

However, just because they asked you to revise the manuscript doesn't mean that they'll give you any pointers on how to do that. The main reason for this is that it can several hours to write a manuscript report and there's no guarantee that the writer will take any of it into account when writing the next draft. No one at a publishing company, or agency, has time for that. So this publisher likely hopes that you have your own methods of working out what to revise. Time is a good method (I'm being serious) - leaving a draft alone for a while can make it so much clearer when you return to it, and sometimes that bit of distance is all the writer needs in order to assess what should be changed. Some writers seek advice from other writers or from editors.

By all means contact them and say that you're willing to revise but you'd really appreciate any guidance they can give - just don't be surprised if they don't give it, for the reasons mentioned above. And also consider leaving this manuscript alone for quite a while as you get on with that next manuscript they have already said they'd like to see.

Thursday, September 12, 2013

Living in a fantasy world

I know you don't rep fantasy but I was wondering whether you knew the answer to this through your colleagues and general involvement in the publishing business.

On the majority of the agent and publishing blogs and information sites, the word is that you won't get a look in with an agent or a publisher with a fantasy novel longer than about 100K words, maybe stretching to 120K at most. It's been a pretty consistent message for the last few years; query review websites will say agents won't even read pages if they see a word count greater than 120K. 

The thing is, I can't remember the last time I've picked up a fantasy book that wasn't at LEAST 150K. I scanned my bookshelf and can't find more than a handful that would be close to 120K. Virtually every big name in fantasy puts out books much, much longer than that, and this is true of NEW big names too, not just established authors. And as a reader, I strongly prefer longer fantasy books, as does every other fantasy reader I know. So if no-one is getting agents or publishers with long books, where are all the skinny little fantasy novels that should be coming out?

Anyway, I wondered if my viewpoint is skewed because I do read a lot of Australian fantasy but most of the blogs are American. Do you know if the Australian publishing environment also reflects this new(ish) rule about length? And if it really is a rule, even here, do you think there's a chance it will change as ebooks take a greater market share, and length doesn't cost publishers anything?

That seemed a bit long and rambly in hindsight. Anyway, would love your viewpoint if you have the time and/or inclination!

Who says I don't rep fantasy? Maybe I just want you to think I don't rep fantasy ...

I'll start this answer near the end of your question: you read a lot of Australian fantasy but most of the blogs you read are American. Australian fantasy novels are usually as long as the story takes - I've never heard of a word limit being imposed on submissions, either by an agent or by an author. Some word counts are a bit outrageous - we don't want anything that is 500 000 words in a single volume - but most writers don't come up with such word counts anyway.

However, there is another issue with Australian fantasy: we're running out of places to publish it, at least in 'legacy' (i.e. print) mode. There are two large publishing companies who handle fantasy manuscripts - Hachette (who publish the Orbit imprint) and HarperCollins (Voyager). When the Borders and Angus & Robertson stores closed, they lost a large chunk of their fantasy booksellers. Consequently, they are not looking for as much fantasy as they used to, especially as they have existing authors who are writing trilogies or who may have new novels to bring to them soon.

What this means for Australian fantasy authors is that they may well have to submit overseas first or at least simultaneously - which means they'll come up against the word count limit, if it exists. I'm not an expert on the US market so I don't know if that limit is, in fact, real. If it is real, though, it may change - and you'll be able to thank George RR Martin for that. Those books are big. The sales of those books are big. They may change publishers' minds about big fantasy books (and yes, yes, I know, they're not 'fantasy' like some books are 'fantasy' but you can bet that publishers think they're 'fantasy' and that's all that matters when it comes to submissions). 

If you wish to submit to US agents who rep fantasy, I recommend you check their submission guidelines as a first measure to see if they mention a word count limit. If they do not, you can presume that there isn't one - or, at least, an arbitrary one. That doesn't mean you can write 200 000 words just for the hell of it - your story has to work. If your story works and it takes 200 000 words to tell it, then so be it: that's as long as it takes. If an agent wants to take it on but they think publishers will say it's too long, they'll work with you to trim it down. But don't worry about it until then unless they do mention a limit.

Also: someone should start an Australian fantasy publishing house! Except for that pesky bookseller problem, there's a market there for those stories. Due to that pesky bookseller problem, however, that market is probably going to be digital from now on.