Wednesday, June 27, 2007
There are a few different questions in this post, so let's break 'em down:
1. Are agents interested in first-time authors with a good product or generally speaking do they prefer published authors only? All published novelists were first-timers once - if publishers and agents were only interested in published authors, we'd be out of business in about 15 years' time. I can't speak for all agents, but I'm always interested good product regardless of how published or not the author is. For reasons discussed in other posts, publishers and agents are slower to take on first novelists than someone who has an existing readership, but 'slower' doesn't mean 'never'.
2. Are first novels worth the same to publishers (given the apparent risk of the author being a one-hit-wonder or not at all) or are agents able to negotiate better deals than the novices? Deals for first fiction are not generally worth a huge amount of money regardless of who is involved (and which country you're in); where agents tend to make a difference is in finding you a publisher in the first place, because a lot of publishers won't look at first fiction unless it's from an agent, and in ensuring that the contract is fair and you're not unwittingly signing away rights that you might want to keep. If there's more than one publisher interested, though, they can certainly make a difference in the amounts of money involved.
3. I don’t know whether to send my completed MS to the editor who requested to see it 3 years ago ... This editor is clearly interested in your writing (no one exhibits that sort of interest for the fun of it), and as she's working in publishing she's probably realistic about how long writing takes. Three years is really not much - some (published) people will take much longer than that to finish writing a novel - so she won't hold that against you. She's gone out of her way to let you know that she wants to keep talking, so why not drop her a line and say, honestly, that you've been distracted by children and moving house, but the manuscript is finally ready so would she like to see it? She'll say 'no' if she doesn't want to, but the reason most likely won't be the amount of time you've taken. Very few writers can write full-time; most are fitting it in around life.
The chances are excellent. There are more non-fiction than fiction books sold in this country — thus publishers are often more interested in non-fiction — so agents definitely will not turn away non-fiction writers. Each agency has its own tastes and areas of interest, though, so it's worth calling or emailing them first to find out whether they're interested in your particular genre of non-fiction.
Monday, June 25, 2007
This is somewhat related to the earlier post about self-publishing, but does highlight the particular difficulty of letting people know that your book exists, and the conundrum contained therein.
The difficulty: if you're not already famous, how do you get the sort of TV coverage necessary to promote your book? The answer: hire a publicist. Publicists have the contacts necessary to ease your way into the media. They can't guarantee anything, of course - there are over 1000 books published each month in Australia, so there's a lot of competition for publicity - but they can cut out all of your sweaty efforts. Yes, a campaign will cost money - that's the danger of being self-published, you have to bear all those costs yourself. But the alternative is you cold-calling every media organisation in the land and probably getting knocked back (and this process will take you months). Closed shops are only closed to those outside the door; publicists are inside the building.
The conundrum: your book is only stocked in five bookshops (presumably all in the one city). If you do secure a spot on national TV, how can you supply enough copies to meet potential demand? What if there's someone in Hobart who wants to buy it but no bookshop there has ever heard of it? Most bookshops won't take orders for a book they can't easily locate on Bookscan or Books in Print. Even if they did, the impetus from your national TV appearance will be lost within a couple of days, and potential customers would lose interest. The answer: once you've hired the publicist, call other bookshops and tell them about the campaign he or she has organised for you. That will be an incentive for them to order stock.
A possible final solution: there are companies who distribute books for small and self-publishers, who have sales reps and might even help with publicity - call the Australian Publishers Association for some advice.
Friday, June 22, 2007
There are 27 agents listed in the "Australian Writer's Marketplace" alone. Overseas websites list hundreds. Please would you tell me how I can find an agent who is respected and utilised by one or more publishers - preferably big international publishers, because my novel is a very ambitious world-ranging saga.
Publishing companies won't name preferred agents for at least one good reason: in a market as small as Australia, they probably don't have any. They'll have to deal with all the agents and have probably had good and bad experiences with all of them, because that's just the nature of being in a creative business. Even if they did have a personal favourite, because they speak on behalf of the company they wouldn't really be able to say. Also, they risk upsetting the less-favoured agents and therefore not receiving submissions from them. So I guess they're in their own Catch-22 in that regard. If you asked me who the best Australian publisher is, I couldn't give you one name - each of them is good at different things, some of them are good at the same things, and all that will change over time as their personnel and business imperatives change.
In regard to how you should know which agents to query, Miss Snark would have told you to query them all. Most agents are reputable - word gets out too quickly if they're not, and even in the US it's a small industry. Just to make sure, though, there's a list of Writer Beware's 20 Worst Agents here: http://www.absolutewrite.com/forums/showthread.php?t=28961 (it's for the US). In Australia, the industry is far too small for agents to behave disreputably and get away with it for long.
In general, though, you should be doing your research - check agents' websites, see which of their authors are published and with whom. This research is part of your work as a writer - no one else can really do it for you. But Google helps a lot - Google your favourite authors and you'll probably end up at their agents' websites before too many clicks.
The main point, probably, about why there's no definitive 'good' and 'bad' list is that deciding on the 'best agent' is highly subjective, just like everything else to do with writing. Publishing is a personality-driven business in that it's the networks within the industry that are relied on more than anything, and whenever personalities are a determinant, people will always have different opinions.
This is not something to worry about until you find a publisher - unless you're actually defaming one of them, in which case you should remove the material immediately (because you certainly won't be able to publish it). For most non-fiction works which refer to living human beings, publishers will have a lawyer check the material for potential defamation problems. And the lawyer will recommend whether you need to change the names or not. Usually name changes are recommended when the book has something to do with policing or a court case; they're not generally needed if the material you're writing is legally benign. Still: don't worry about it right now.
Thursday, June 21, 2007
1. How do I decide which bookstores should sell my wares? Do I decide that??
2. How do I convince a magazine/newspaper to run a story about me? Or do I simply write one, submit it, and hope for the best?
3. Another friend insists that self-publishing - "vanity publishing!" - is for lightweights. Yet the slush pile is pretty demoralising when you've just bled four years of your life into your first novel. While raising kids and running a business. Which way should an author turn?
I'll start to address the broader issue of self-publishing by saying that writers' centres give a lot more information about this than I can fit in one post, and there are links to them on the right-hand side of this page.
Now: the brutal truth is that self-publishing is usually a great deal harder and more demoralising than being in the slush pile. For when you're self-publishing, you're not just the writer - you're the publisher. That means you take on all the responsibility that a publishing company would take on: editorial, design, typesetting, publicity, marketing, sales AND - the big one - distribution. There is no MySpace of books, so your manuscript can't be distributed easily like a song can (distribution used to be the thing that kept the large record companies in gravy, but the Internets are changing everything). That means yes, you do get to choose which bookshops your book goes to, but you have to convince every single one of those shops to take it. You also won't get the prominent stand at the front - that is reserved for the larger publishing companies or the bolt-from-the-blue successful book from a small publisher. You also probably won't get interviews in major media, unless you hire a freelance publicist to run a campaign for you, so it will be the local paper and a website (which you should probably set up if you haven't already).
There's a reason why it's difficult to get published: not everyone's a good writer, but lots of people write manuscripts anyway and send them in. Agents and publishers have to filter out the good stuff, and that takes time. Publishers are not a cabal working in concert to keep authors from being published. They accept a huge degree of financial risk when they take on new authors - sometimes even established authors - so they have to be cautious. I don't take on that sort of financial risk but I do have to make a decision about where my time goes, because I need to honour my existing clients while ensuring I have enough time to dedicate to getting a first-time novelist published (which is the most difficult of placements). But the slush pile is only demoralising if you believe that you're not good enough for people to want to agent and publish. The great writers do find agents and publishers. They may have to wait a while - sometimes years - but you only get one shot to be a first-time writer and it has to be done properly, or your career is over prematurely. Certainly, self-publish if you don't want to wait or you're despairing of getting noticed. But do be aware that it will take a lot of time, money and effort on your part, and if you can't distribute your book - no matter how much publicity you get - you'll end up with hundreds of copies in your garage.
Yes, finding an agent is difficult - there aren't many in Australia, and the ones who do exist usually have too much to read at any one time. Every so often some of us have to limit submissions because we need a little bit of our weekend back, which is why you'll often see the drawbridge raised on popular genres like crime. Lots of first-time novelists are writing crime, which makes good sense - it's a commercially successful genre and gives great opportunities for having fun with plot and characters - but it does mean that agents can be inundated with crime manuscripts.
Having said that, not all agents will specify which genres of fiction they accept - they might consider crime to be 'popular' or 'commercial' fiction, and that's what their guidelines say they accept. So unless they specifically say 'no crime' (or 'no submissions'!), it would be worth checking before you send it in. The ALAA list is a good place to start, but more detailed information is usually available on the agencies' websites, so go to them first. If you're still not sure, you're allowed to call or email us!
It's difficult to answer this question fully without knowing what sort of book it is, who the publisher is and exactly what sort of publishing history you've had. It's quite unusual for a publisher to suggest that an author change their name after they've already been published a few times. Clearly, they think you're a very good writer because they want to still publish you; the fact that they want to do it under another name is somewhat perplexing, as it means they'll be launching new-you as a new writer, and launching a new writer can be a challenge. If I were you I'd be asking them why they feel they're going to have better luck with you using a new name and what plans they have to ensure the 're-launch' works. One would certainly hope they'd be getting behind this new book if they're going to the trouble of launching new-you.
It's unlikely you'll end up writing under many different names - unless you want to. There's certainly a sort of career to be had in ghost writing or co-writing, and some writers don't want to use their real name for this as they'd rather save it for work that's just theirs alone. So the pros of a pseudonym include the fact that you can merrily publish some material that you don't want to put your name to for various reasons; one of the cons is that you're always going to wonder why you couldn't make it under your own name.
Fundamentally, go with your gut instinct: if you feel uneasy about using another name, trust that feeling and talk honestly with your publisher. It's your writing, after all, and no one can force you to do anything. Of course, it may mean that you don't get published with this book, but maybe another publisher will want to publish you and get behind you with your own name.
Tuesday, June 19, 2007
And some samples are shown below - sublime!
Three things are certain:
Death, taxes, and lost data.
Guess which has occurred.
-- David Dixon
- - - - - - - - - - - -
Everything is gone;
Your life's work has been destroyed.
Squeeze trigger (yes/no)?
-- David Carlson
I'm sorry, there's -- um --
insufficient -- what's-it-called?
The term eludes me ...
-- Owen Mathews
- - - - - - - - - - - -
Windows NT crashed.
I am the Blue Screen of Death.
No one hears your screams.
-- Peter Rothman
- - - - - - - - - - - -
Seeing my great fault
Through darkening blue windows
I begin again
-- Chris Walsh
- - - - - - - - - - - -
The code was willing,
It considered your request,
But the chips were weak.
-- Barry L. Brumitt
- - - - - - - - - - - -
Printer not ready.
Could be a fatal error.
Have a pen handy?
-- Pat Davis
- - - - - - - - - - - -
A file that big?
It might be very useful.
But now it is gone.
-- David J. Liszewski
- - - - - - - - - - - -
Errors have occurred.
We won't tell you where or why.
-- Charlie Gibbs
- - - - - - - - - - - -
Server's poor response
Not quick enough for browser.
Timed out, plum blossom.
-- Rik Jespersen
"I’ve placed three first novels in the past few months, with good prospects for others." How do you find new authors, Agent S? Do you just stumble upon them in the 'slush pile'? If so, what makes them stand out from the crowd?
I have stumbled across some in the slush pile; others have come through referrals from existing clients or are writers I've met in the course of work.
Those who came from the slush pile have a few elements in common:
1. Fantastic query letter. You'd be surprised how often the covering letter says something like, 'Here is my novel. I hope you like it' and that's it. All the written communication from an author is an indication of how they write, from their cover letter to their emails and all points in between. I'm sure that often writers don't know that they shouldn't do this (hence one of the reasons for this blog - to shine a bit of light on what authors need to do), but they really shouldn't. Because a letter like that makes me think that the author can't articulate what their novel is about, they can't tell me who they are or what they want from their writing, and they certainly can't tell me why they approached my agency. Writing a query letter is a skill, and good writers refine their query letters several times. There are workshops on it in the US, and you may find the odd one at a writers' centre here too.
2. The author has taken their time with the manuscript before sending it in; it is usually the fourth or fifth draft or beyond by the time they send it in (and they say this in the query letter). They may also have done some courses, such as QWC's 'Year of the Novel' or a program at Varuna. This indicates that are realistic about how much work is involved in writing a novel and will therefore be more realistic about the publishing road ahead.
3. They are great writers. Their prose may shine like a jewel; or maybe it doesn't but they tell such a fantastic story that the prose is not the focus.
4. They are polite in their communication with the agency and respectful of the amount of time it may take us to make a decision about their manuscript. This point is actually quite important, because I, at least, feel that I'm 'auditioning' writers for publishers (and that does not mean that I think agents should be treated as if on a pedestal - although I do like my grapes peeled occasionally). Writers who are unreasonably difficult with their publishers often never get published again, because the Australian publishing culture is quite genteel and really doesn't take well to foot-stompers. So if someone is routinely shirty with me, I know exactly how they'll behave with their publisher and what that will mean for their book: usually, not much. It takes more effort to be angry than to be reasonable, and it's easier to be reasonable when you remember that agents and publishers aren't the enemy. We love books - that's why we work in publishing. We just don't have 24 hours a day to read submissions, so it will take us some time to get back to you. If you respect our request to give us three months to read your submission, we'll respect your writing. If you, instead, call after two weeks to complain that we're taking too much time, that doesn't really bode well.
Monday, June 18, 2007
First, I have to say that the first statement is a SWEEPING generalisation. Literary agents don't shun unknown authors; we just have to be selective about how many of them we can take on. I certainly don't shun unknown authors - every author is unknown to start with, and I'd be pretty silly if I only relied on previously published authors to walk through my doors.
We have to be selective, though, because not all unknown authors are created alike. Some of them send in their very first draft and declare it the best unpublished piece of writing ever. Unfortunately, first drafts are never that. So when they are submitting alongside people who have been to Varuna twice, won the odd short story competition and are actively involved in trying to make their writing better, that first-draft writer is going to get rejected every time. Writing is a job as well as a craft, and the best unknown writers - the ones most likely to get published - are the ones who apply themselves to the task of getting published and are realistic about the workmanlike aspects of it. Agents can help - quite a bit, we would like to think! - but the writer also has to do more than just write their first draft. Yes, it's hard. But if you're good, someone is going to notice.
(It's especially difficult for first-time novelists, in particular, to get published because the obvious publicity hooks aren't there (as discussed below). But that doesn't we automatically say no.)
For an American perspective on why agents will and won't take on new writers, go to this link:
http://rejecter.blogspot.com/2006_10_22_archive.html and scroll down till you see the heading 'New Writers - Why We Seem to Hate Them'.
Can you please tell me why it is so darn hard in this country to find (a) a publisher or (b) an agent unless you are either a celebrity or former sports star?And why are we all so snooty about genre and children's writing?And can you please fix my ceiling - it's leaking because the lady upstairs' bath has overflowed again.
This is a constant refrain among hopeful authors – with good reason – and the answer is fairly simple: it comes down to publicity. In order to sell large numbers of books – and publishing is a business, after all – publishers need to be able to get publicity for their books. With about 1000 books published in Australia each month, there’s a lot of competition for that publicity. If your author happens to be famous already, the chances of getting publicity are greatly increased. This is probably the main reason why it’s difficult for first-time novelists to get a break unless they’re already famous (for example, Tara Moss) – but it’s not impossible. I’ve placed three first novels in the past few months, with good prospects for others. Publishers are willing to look at first fiction and non-fiction – they are fundamentally book lovers, after all – but they also have to be realistic. If you really want to make sure first Australian novels get published, buy more of them!
As for genre and children’s writing – I love it, and snap up good genre and children’s authors as often as I can. People who look down their noses at books like these are completely missing out on great reading and, I would dare suggest, aren’t real readers – real readers want good stories, no matter what form they take. If people only read books for the snob value they may have, that's a boring old life.
Not sure what to do about your ceiling ... maybe call a plumber?
There are no agents who specialise only in children's books - it's not a feasible course for an agent wishing to have an ongoing career, so invariably we have to take on other projects. It is not that children's publishing isn't robust - it's very healthy in this country. But there are challenges with certain types of projects, and yours is one of them:
1. As it's a Christmas book, there's a very limited market for it. Booksellers could only sell it for two - maybe three - months of the year, and even then there is stiff competition (for example, Chris van Allsburg's Polar Express is still in print and remains a classic children's Christmas book). The competition is not just from other books, either, but from television, the Internet, comics, games, DVDs ...
2. At 1900 words, it probably needs some illustrations. Illustrations are expensive, both in paying the illustrator and in getting the book printed. Good illustrators are few and far between and may be booked up a long time in advance, so if you can't present a project like this with a reputable illustrator already attached, it's a harder prospect for publishers to take on.
3. Long-form poetry is somewhat out of fashion for children's books. I suspect this has something to do with fewer people reading to their children, and also with the fact that many grown-ups (teachers and parents) don't feel comfortable reading a poetic style of text to children. Whoever is reading needs to have a sense of rhythm and a good grasp of how to use voice to tell a story - they need to have some experience with poetry themselves, and many people no longer read poetry. So it's a hole in the culture that affects children's stories.
In conclusion: as is often the case, not finding an agent or publisher doesn't mean your writing is no good. It may just been that the time isn't right. Publishing is as much about luck and timing as skill - of course, this is incredibly frustrating to hear when you're the writer, but it's the truth.
Sunday, June 17, 2007
I'm not going to lie and say that literary fiction as a 'genre' is about to become the most popular thing around. It never has been - Jane Austen certainly wasn't literary fiction in her time, and nor was Dickens (who understood marketing even before it really existed).
Part of the problem is in classifying any writing at all as 'literary fiction', because these days that implies a novel that is worthy, turgid and requiring some work by the reader. It's much better to write what you want to write and let the agent/publisher decide what it is. You should always write a good story, well told, regardless of where you think it should go in the bookshop (which is really what categories are all about - making it easier for booksellers to shelve books).
The key words in your question are 'passion', 'emotional', 'evocative' and 'vivid'. Beautiful - this is exactly what all fiction should have. So stick to these principles and you may find that not writing about Opus Dei doesn't really matter. The books that come out of nowhere and surprise everyone with their popularity are books that don't follow a trend (because once a trend is identified, it's essentially over). I'd never advocate writing to follow a trend unless you do indeed want to write in a very specific genre.
But - there's always a but, isn't there? It is going to be harder to find a publisher for non-genre/'literary' fiction simply because most book buyers like to buy something safe. Doesn't mean it can't be done - just means you need to be patient and believe in what you're doing - you need to maintain your passion. And, just as I said to someone else below, the best thing you can do to make publishing Australian literary fiction an easier decision for publishers is to buy it - literary fiction always undersells genre fiction, with the odd exception (such as that 21st century masterpiece, Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell).
Short story collections just do not work well in this country and I’m not sure why – they’re perfectly suited to train journeys and the before-going-to-sleep time. They seem to work better in the US and, to a lesser extent, UK.
Some publishers do take a chance though – Scribe and the University of Western Ausralia Press, for example, and the University of Queensland Press probably wouldn’t run screaming either. And literary magazines such as Wet Ink and Etchings will publish short stories. There's also the odd aberration, such as the Girls' Night In collections, which I'd like to take as evidence that people read short story collections - but perhaps only for a cause.
Generally, though, writing only short stories will pretty much ensure that you will never have publication at a large house – and that’s presuming that that’s something you want, of course. Just because you’re not published by Random House doesn’t mean you’re not a good and valid writer! It does mean, though, that you'll have to work hard submitting your stories to literary magazines (or publishing online) and hoping that they'll be noticed enough for you to contribute to the odd anthology. You may also find that, having cut your teeth on short stories, you naturally move to longer forms. Many great novelists (Truman Capote, Samuel Beckett, amongst others) practised their craft on short stories, and continued to write them after their novels started to be published.
Just wondering if you have any insights into the comeback of HORROR!!
'The Independent' charts rise of horror in the UK: http://www.abc.net.au/news/arts/articulate/200702/s1844890.htm
And Hachette Livre seem to have gone to town on Jason Nahrung's 'The Darkness Within': http://www.abc.net.au/news/arts/articulate/200706/s1945042.htm
What's your feeling, as an agent. Is this just a blip, or is horror finally shrugging off the bad reputation earned by the schlock-merchants of the late 1980s?Horror will probably never have the profile or popularity of crime or thriller novels – it will always be niche in that respect. It would probably take a writer of the talent and prolificity of Stephen King to push it mainstream again. Edgar Allen Poe-style creepy horror will always have its place, but anything too gory will probably not attract female readers, who are the ones buying the bulk of the books. Women love crime novels, but in horror the violence is more explicit.
So while the bad reputation may be going, I'm not sure how many people will actually work that out ...
Friday, June 15, 2007
As a long-time Snarkling [go to http://www.misssnark.com/ if you're not sure what this means], I’ve often wondered about the differences between US and Australian protocols/etiquette for contacting agents. In particular, it seems to be encouraged over there to ‘query’ (i.e. send a cover letter plus pages and synopsis) multiple agents simultaneously, while here it seems to be frowned upon to approach more than one agent at a time. And since it has recently taken me 9 weeks to receive a rejection just on an initial query from one agent, and 8 months for a full manuscript from another, I could conceivably die of old age before I finish this process! What would happen if I applied Ms Snark’s advice to the Australian market, and just ‘queried widely’?
Because there are hundreds of literary agents in the US (mostly in New York City), it certainly makes sense to query widely there. Australia has a mere handful of agents but this is also one of the reasons why it takes so long to respond to submissions - there just aren't enough agents to go around.
I always presume that authors who send queries/submissions to me are also sending them to several agents, and I don't mind this one bit because I know it will take me a while to read their submissions - like most folks in publishing, I can only read them on the weekends in between housework. I would never expect an author to submit to only me - it's nice if they want to, but it's safer to hedge bets.
Having said that ... not all agents feel this way, so it's wise to check the agency's website or, if the information isn't there, call or email them before you submit to other agents. If you aren't able to find out what their policy is, presume that they don't mind if you submit to other agents and, as a courtesy, tell them in your cover letter that you've sent it to others (you don't have to say who).
If the agent you really want to send it to first says not to send it to anyone else at the same time, it's your prerogative to not send it to them at all if you don't like that policy.
Thursday, June 14, 2007
Friday, June 8, 2007
There's also a lot to recommend the Brisbane Writers Festival - last year's festival was the first for director Michael Campbell, and it was widely agreed that he did a wonderful job. Added to the fact that Brisbane as a city appears to be glowing and alive, and it's worth turning out for this festival. Of course, you may wish to see the program first ... You can wait for it at www.brisbanewritersfestival.com.au
But I'm not doing this blog so I can talk about literary festivals. I want to answer questions! Many questions! So please feel free to send them: firstname.lastname@example.org