Monday, November 8, 2010

Concern from a reader plus an actual question

Are you ok? I’ve come back to reading your blog after a few years and immediately noticed how much angrier you’ve become. Your posts have gone from telling non-fiction writers their chances are “excellent” to ranting about capitals in query letters (although, admittedly, the Winnie the Pooh-style use of caps did make me wince). Is being an agent wearing you down?

That aside, I could use your advice on my situation. I’m setting aside a few months from full-time copywriting to start researching and writing a non-fiction book. The book will be about our the current fascination with turning mega-popular novels into blockbuster movies, and how audiences feel about seeing their treasured tomes represented onscreen. It’s something I covered in undergrad studies and I’ve already started researching and writing. However, because I can only really spare a few months of full-time writing, would you suggest I focus on getting an intro and a few chapters polished, or should I try to get the whole thing written before submitting to an agent or publisher? Have you any other tips for when I hit the pitching stage?

I had to take a deep breath before answering this one - then I used that breath to let out a little scream. Not because I'm angry, as my correspondent suggests - just because I felt like it. Similarly, I occasionally use a snarky tone in this blog because I feel like it. 'Agent Sydney' is a persona - there's a reason why I don't use my real name - and accordingly it frees me up to have a bit of fun. Agent Sydney isn't the 'real me' - especially as some of you think AS is male - but she's an aspect of me, for sure. It's the aspect that would like to be blunt each time I give talks to writers or give feedback to writers who have sent submissions. I'm not blunt in real life because my mother brought me up to be a polite young lady; also because there's no point being blunt in an industry that primarily deals in dreams. Dreamers will just keep dreaming, and gods know we need them to, even if it means they don't usually listen to concrete advice.

That aside, I'm confident most agents feel worn down from time to time, and we're especially worn down at the moment. After spending many months on parallel imports, the real elephant in the room - digital publishing - is throwing everyone into a loop, and that's off the back of an uncertain economy. (Every time the RBA blinks, bookshops stand empty.) So it's probably the toughest time any of us has known. I saw with interest that blogging US agent and author Nathan Bransford has decamped for the online world; most likely several will follow. For all I know, I'll be one of them. We just don't know what's going to happen over the next year or so, and uncertainty is hard to work with; it's not a powerful motivator either.

Now, to your question. I don't know if you're in the US or Australia. If the latter, publishers are increasingly wanting full manuscripts for non-fiction, particularly if you're a first-time author. But you're doing this on your own time and your own dime, so just do as much as you can as well as you can in the time. It would be better to have five fantastic chapters than twelve that really aren't ready and that you'll have to fix in your spare time. If you do submit a partial manuscript, though, be ready to indicate how much longer you'll need to finish it, and also be aware that if you find a publisher you'll have a deadline. That's the trouble with getting a contract on a partial manuscript - you have to finish writing it on the publisher's terms.

If you're in the US, from what I understand you can still submit on a partial for non-fiction.

Other tips: make sure you can clearly identify who your potential reader is, and also think of some ways to reach them. You're writing a book for a film audience, not a book audience, and you can't assume that the film audience frequents bookshops (especially not these days).


John Dalton said...

Great article thanks. I agree, digital publishing is the great unknown. Definitely going to happen, the unknown part is what effect it will have. I don't think it will be an admission of defeat if you join the online camp.

Theresa said...

AS., you're needed right where you are, so don't be going anywhere. Scream plenty, if you need to.

The issues facing the industry are probably bigger than anyone has quite fathomed.

You write to an audience of (predominantly) authors. For authors, there are some things to get a little excited about (because it's always been pretty bad for authors - can only get better?).

But for book sellers, I think it's beyond grim unless government and industry sorts it out quickly, and book sellers reinvent themselves into entertainment & book-enriching venues which highlight the value of human, face-to-face contact -not just for buying books, but for interacting more with authors & other book lovers, along with Bunnings-type DIY related projects to tie in with book launches, exclusive book related merchandise etc and maybe a lot of wine and coffee. They also need access to e-book kiosks.

My blog is consumer-oriented rather than author-oriented, and from that perspective, some of my thoughts on book pricing, e-books and the death of book stores appear at

Bravery now; brilliance later.
You're heaps hectic, Agent Sydney. Keep it up.

Anonymous said...

Dear Agent Sydney,

I adore your sarcasm.

Love, the internet

Renee said...

Thanks for the advice, Agent Sydney. I didn't mean to imply that you were angry or rude - just that publishing sounds like a tough business.

I'm in Australia, so I'll take your advice and will work on getting as much done as I can before submitting. Luckily, I'm not a 'dreamer' and am used to deadlines from working in the corporate world!

Thanks again.