Monday, July 9, 2012

And another thing: serve your customers

Not unrelated to the previous post is a little rant that I've scattered throughout some other posts, but here it is in a different form.

Basically, all of us in the publishing industry need to remember who our ultimate customers are: readers. Where the industry is hamstrung at the moment is the point where we're holding on to the old supply chain and how that has affected our ability to meet readers' demands. Between the author and the reader there has existed a number of organisations who have all been each other's customers: agents to publishers, publishers to printers and then to booksellers, and a few other people in the middle there somewhere. None of those folks, apart from the booksellers, deal with the readers. And even then the booksellers can only give the readers what the publishers give them. The result has been difficulty in giving many readers what they really want to read.

What's been going on thus far can be analogously described this way: Say I run a pub - an ordinary, suburban pub with a bar, a bistro, pokies, a beer garden. Say I decide that I no longer want to serve white wine at the pub because I just don't like it and think that people who drink it don't really appreciate proper wine. They can drink red wine or nothing. And don't even get me started on beer - I may just take that away too. I'm then mystified - nay, shocked - that the white wine drinkers either stop coming to the pub altogether or go to the little bar around the corner that serves white wine. In withdrawing the white wine from sale I attempted to manipulate demand by restricting supply - but it didn't work. The white wine drinkers still wanted white wine, and they just found somewhere else to get it.

In this analogy white wine could stand in for genre fiction; for ebooks; for a first-novel imprint for Australian writers. It stands in for anything that a reader wants and can't get, not because it doesn't exist, but because no one wants to supply it. It would be very difficult for an industry in a capitalist economy to survive by ignoring what the market demands, or attempting to manipulate that demand by manipulating supply. And, love it or hate it, a capitalist economy is what we have.

The publishing industries here, and elsewhere, have largely tried to do that with fiction, in particular. It probably hasn't even been conscious, but it's happened, and now readers are getting their white wine from other suppliers. Some of it's not even good white wine, but they want the white wine and they're prepared to put up with lower-standard white wine if necessary. What I don't understand is why we aren't all just honest about it and say, 'You know what? We made a mistake withdrawing the white wine from sale. We are going to reinstate it immediately and we would like your feedback on our selection.' The only thing anyone has to lose by doing that is pride. Maybe some money as they readjust - but I bet the white wine drinkers will be happy to have a new selection to choose from.

And lest I sound like I'm beating up on the industry I'm very happy to be working in: in my youth I was one of the worst anti-white-wine snobs. I sneered at anything that wasn't literary fiction, until I realised that was just ego - I wanted to be thought of as smart, when in truth I read a wide range of books and some of them were 'trashy'. Once I was in a position to place books with publishers, I also started to pay more attention to what people want to read and I realised that there are sectors of the market we're just not catering to very well. All it takes is a shift in attitude and then some follow-through. If I were running that pub and seeing my margins getting thinner simply by not serving white wine, I'd be doing whatever I could to get it back on the wine list - and then I'd tell everyone about it.

Here's an idea, publishers: a first-novel imprint

The publishing industry is having an interesting time - and I am purposely saying 'interesting', not 'challenging' because we can all put forward our own interpretation of things. What's clear, though, is that we can't do things the way we used to, not even how we used to do them three years ago. We are in  the Customs queue for a brave new country; some of us have visas for it and some of us don't. Some of us will be granted asylum there but will still have to prove that we have the credentials to be there.

What's needed in this brave new country is, well, bravery. New ideas. Old ideas reworked. A willingness to try something different. What's not needed is a whimpering poor-me look back to the past. The past is past, appropriately enough. We can't change what happened then to make what's happening now different. We can, however, change the future.

In my private time - mostly spent on public transport each day in the company of hundreds of strangers - I occasionally come up with ideas. Sometimes I tell people these ideas and they don't like them or say they can't work. And that's fine. But in this instance I have an idea that I've been mentioning now and again for about seven years and no one has yet taken it up despite the inherent merit I'm convinced it has (bien sûr). It's not an idea I can do anything about without a big business loan that I probably will  never be able to pay back. So maybe if I put it on this blog, someone else can use it.

In the past I've written about why people, perhaps, don't read Australian novels as much as the industry would like them to. One of the reasons is, no doubt, the cost of those novels. Most people I know in the publishing industry won't pay $30 for a debut novel - let alone $35 - so I can't imagine why they want other people to do just that. Part of the cost of putting any book together is paying an advance to the author, getting the cover design  and so on. There's also the challenge of letting people know that the novel exists - how do you promote a debut novelist when there are so many other writers competing for that publicity attention.

I believe that the solution is a first-novel imprint that is visually branded and marketed as such, with a price point between $15 and $20 for physical books and $10 to $12 for ebooks (but it should be the same price each time, not changing with each book). The cover design could be templated, to cut down on the costs - each cover would look subtly different to the others but not enough to require a new design each time. The advances could be modest and maybe offer the author a reward if they sell a lot (a royalty riser at 5000 copies sold, for example). In my experience a lot of novelists would happily take no advance if they thought it meant their book would get out into the world with support from a publisher who will edit it and promote it effectively. The novel is already written - it's not like the advance pays for their writing time, as it can do with non-fiction books.

Having an imprint that is identified as being for first novels only enables booksellers to consistently sell books on that imprint. The price of the books also makes it easier for them to convince people to try a new author. Most of us would take a risk at $15; we're not going to take it at $30.

And if the figures don't work for print books, at least do it for ebooks. There are plenty of debut novels out there as ebooks, yes, but there is still value in a publisher saying, 'This is what we've chosen to publish, and we've edited it and given it lots of attention, and we believe it's great.' That sends a signal to booksellers and readers that the book can be trusted, to an extent. And we do need to win back readers' trust where Australian novels are concerned. Wouldn't this be something we could try, to do just that?

The Australian market cannot be treated like the American or UK market. Our closest comparison is Canada, in terms of size. A first-novel imprint wouldn't work in a huge market but it can work in a small one where it would be different and new (for a while) and get attention for being so. It can also work in a small market where you're not dealing with hundreds of thousands of potential debut novels - just thousands of thousands. So maybe some publisher will see this post and think it's a good idea, and do something about it, and bring more Australian storytellers to public attention. Then they can have second novels and get published on the standard old imprints - and make way for still more new voices to be heard, and new stories told.

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Follow-up to post on shipping costs

To everyone who has yelled at me about the shipping costs post, saying I'm an idiot, lying etc etc, please read this post by Elly Keating from the Fancy Goods blog. Postage and shipping in Australia is between 80% and 90% more expensive than it is overseas. So before you presume that I'm an idiot, please presume that I'm not just plucking these ideas from the ether. Also, please remember that I'm a human being who writes this blog due to a (it now seems) misguided sense of duty to writers, in my spare time and without putting Google Ads on the side - I'm not a robot and I don't appreciate being yelled at, even over email. Please also remember that I'm an agent who reads submissions and when you use your real name, I can easily check if you've submitted something to me ... *evil cackle*

Let's pick a scenario

I have written an epic fantasy novel (in the 6th-7th draft stage, I lost track...) and was extremely lucky to establish contact with the sci-fi &fantasy editor at a major Australian publisher. They were happy for me to send them my manuscript which I did, however they resigned shortly after. Before leaving they gave me some good feedback, asked me to trim from 240,000 words to 180,000-200,000 words, and then resubmit to their replacement. Two days ago I resubmitted and am now wondering about agents and what the best next step is for me. Should I start looking for an agent using the feedback I have so far received and the fact my manuscript is currently with a publisher? Or should I wait and see the response (I know it is highly unlikely I will be offered a contract but I will at least have a great deal more feedback) then ask the editor if they have a preferred agent they have a good working relationship with and get an introduction from there?

There is absolutely no harm in looking for an agent now, and there's also no harm in waiting until you hear from the publisher. Let's look at the different scenarios, though, just to make sure ...

A. If you get an agent and then the publisher doesn't want to publish it, you will have someone already in place to support your writing and help you find the right publisher for you. 

B. If you get an agent and then the publisher does want to publish it, you will have someone already in place to negotiate the deal for you and, hopefully, provide editorial support (depending on the agent - not everyone does this) and give advice.

C. If you don't get an agent and then the publisher doesn't want to publish it, well, you're in the same position you're in now.

D. If you don't get an agent and then the publisher does want to publish it, you have about a week in which to find an agent (if you want one at that stage) before the publisher starts pressing you for a response to their offer.

If you ask the publisher if they have a preferred agent they are likely to tell you that they don't, as it's unwise for publishers to play favourites lest they incur the wrath of the well-known harridan agent cabal. They may unofficially suggest someone but this does not usually happen. Your best bet for finding the right agent for you is to query agents who represent authors in your genre or authors who are on this publisher's list. Sci fi/fantasy is not represented by a lot of Australian agents so you probably won't have to send a lot of queries.

Good luck! And good on you for doing that many drafts - many people fall well before that hurdle.