Friday, July 17, 2009

Turning water into wine

For the past four years I've been writing my own humour column for a street magazine with a monthly readership of around 70,000. I've also contributed similar writing to other magazines with a weekly readership of around 90,000. Within those numbers, the readership of the column has to be worth taking notice of.

The column was said by one of my editors to be 'like a less gay version of David Sedaris', which sparked the idea of compiling the columns into book form.

I put together some samples and a proposal which outlined prospective, established readership, my previous writing achievements in both short fiction and national magazines. Promotional editorial would be dead easy to organise given my contacts.

I felt the proposal was solid and I have received much feedback from readers over the years, so I know the writing is popular with a specific audience and could be popular with a wider one, given the chance.

In spite of this the first two standard rejections have come in, and it's a little disheartening. I understand that humour is subjective and I accept that the David Sedaris comment could have been misguided, but I also can't help thinking that publishers and agents might be simply going to dismiss this idea because it doen't fit easily into the norm. It's non-fiction, it's humour, it's a collection of short pieces.

My question is: do I knuckle down and keep trying agents and publishers or do I look into self-publishing and books on demand? I'm not sure how to go about these last two but I have been hearing more and more mention of them.

It's pretty clear to me why you haven't been picked up by agents or publishers.

1. Everyone who knows who you are has already read your columns.

2. You have no means of establishing a readership outside of this without a publicity hook - or, as the Americans call it, 'platform'.

3. A collection of columns is difficult to publish even when you have a public profile - can you think of any Australian writers who have successfully published books of columns in the last few years? And by 'successfully' I mean 'sold more than 2000 copies'.

Before you consider self-publishing or books on demand - before you submit your manuscript to anyone else - ask yourself this one, very important, question which all writers (whether they're on book one or book ten) should ask themselves: who is my reader? You say the manuscript could be popular with a wider readership - why? What's it got that is going to catch the eye of the radio and print journos/producers who will need to notice it in order to give it the publicity it will require to get some new readers? True, some books succeed through word of mouth - but you still need some publicity. What's your hook? Funny writing alone won't cut it. Being 'less gay than David Sedaris' won't cut it either - women are the biggest book buyers in this country and, as un-PC as it is to say it, they don't tend to buy stories about the gays, or the less-gays. They want stories - and columns are little stories - that relate to them somehow or are so out-of-the-box unrelatable - like fantasy - that they can escape.

So, yeah, maybe self-publishing is for you - but again, who is your reader? Who's going to buy it? And, in this age of blogs, why do you want a book so badly? Sometimes I ask authors what they want: do they fundamentally want their writing 'out there' or are they really attached to the book? Neither answer is incorrect; it just helps me work out how they see themselves. If what you want is to get your writing 'out there', there's this great new-fangled invention called Teh Internets that can help you. If, however, you're attached to the artefact of the book, that's fine too - but it may not be the right medium for this particular project.


Denise said...

Re question 3, I can think of maybe a couple. In Melbourne, Catherine Deveny from the Age has published collections of humorous columns -- more than one, so I guess the first must have done OK? But she's a high-profile writer in a capital-city daily, and the Age spruiks her books like mad. Street press & similar, whatever the official circulation figures, mightn't make a writer a big enough name to convince a publisher to take a gamble?

Humour can't survive being oversold -- it's like when someone is introduced at a party as being "really, really funny: Go on, Steve, say something funny!" It's asking for disappointment. The David Sedaris comparison is the kind of claim that would be brilliant if made by someone else, someone whose name people know & respect (eg "The Australian David Sedaris!!" -- Shaun Micallef). Not so much when it's made about yourself or by a friend/colleague/relative.

Agent Sydney's question about "why do you want to be published" must be the best advice an aspiring writer can get, I reckon.

Lee Bemrose said...

Thank you for replying, Agent Sydney, and for your comment, Nom de Gare.

Over the years I've had plenty of positive feedback about the columns and simply thought it was a bit of a waste for them to be out for a week or a month and then gone forever. Established readership, the street mags spruiking the thing... just seemed like it could be a fun project that could work.

Who is my reader? The person who reads the column on the bus on the way to work and who wants to read another one before next month. The office worker having a shitty day but knows a bit of lunchtime reading is going to cheer them up.

It was worth thinking about.

Thinking as I write. Will think some more. But I do thank you.

The Rejection Queen said...

I will never resort to self-publishing. Ever.

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