Monday, August 25, 2014

If a writer writes in a social media vacuum, are they really writing?

Trying to research possible agents, and finding numerous quotations about how they always google prospective clients, and almost certainly pass if there is no web presence. Googling my (fairly uncommon) name brings up a number of people, many of whom are apparently authors, and at least one is dead. Some time ago I tried to get myself interviewed (one success) and also wrote a short piece for an e-magazine, then painstakingly answered each person who commented, which took me an entire evening. Neither activity translated into any sales whatsoever.
I have read articles insisting that I should be out there blogging, twittering, building a "platform" (hope not to fall through it!) and generally jumping through hoops to connect with … somebody? I have read other articles saying that unless you really enjoy this activity for its own sake, have something to say that people will find useful, or have a lot of spare time, you're better off just continuing to write. All caution that you shouldn't actively try to "sell" your book(s).

I am feeling more and more dejected about this, especially as writing – the important stuff! - happens only  when I can snatch a few illicit moments (recipe for FRUSTRATION). And what on earth should I blog about anyway? As a writer of fantasy (often romantic), I feel people are not going to flock to buy books by someone who cannot comment on her working day (would get me the sack immediately); doesn't want to put her private life out there (every year the police give schoolchildren the serious warning which they possibly ignore but I take to heart); does write for a site about nervous horse riders (a huge attraction for every fantasy reader, I'm sure); and can't provide a useful service for readers (how to give intramuscular injections to livestock? where to buy beading supplies in a small country town?).

You see my problem (and at this point may be rolling your eyes and sighing). The nitty gritty: is this trend as widespread as it appears to be? Do writers now have to be accomplished  business people and publicists to get anywhere? I don't expect my mechanic to do plumbing as well, nor do I rush to read all about what my favourite authors are doing (OK, most of them are dead too), but am I just a dinosaur who should get real?

You've raised some important points - which is why I've published the entirety of what you sent - and these are points that trouble a lot of writers. 

From my point of view, whether or not I take on a writer always depends on whether or not they can write - and the writing I'm interested in is the manuscript they've submitted. If they have a web or social media presence, that's nice but not essential - social media profiles/presences can be built, but great writing is hard to find. There's also the fact that you can pay someone to build and manage a social media profile for you but you still need to be able to deliver a great manuscript, and it's harder to get paid help for that.

Managing a social media presence can also take up a lot of time, and it's disruptive of attention - you can flit in and out of Twitter but that doesn't help you sustain concentration as you try to write your novel. In fact, it can make it increasingly harder to concentrate as you 'lose the habit' of writing fiction in favour of developing the habit of tweeting. For that reason, too, I'm not that fussed about authors having a social media presence before I take them on.

We also have no data to prove that social media presence leads to increased book sales for any author who does not get a contract because of their social media presence - that is, if you're an author who has become famous for your blog, we can expect that your blog will play a large part in the promotion of your book, but if you're an author who has written a great novel, is having a blog going to help all that much? We just don't know. So I'm loath to tell authors to spend a lot of time blogging when it could be disruptive of their attention and consume a lot of their time without any discernible benefit to their writing career. 

Of course, we may get data soon - and if it's demonstrated that social media is important to some or all all types of writers, then those types of writers will need to engage with it. But if we do get that proof that social media is so important in the promotion of the book, that's actually something the publisher should provide a lot of assistance with - to the point of undertaking to do all the social media for authors who simply aren't great at it. And some aren't - their Twitter voice isn't engaging, or all they do is implore people to buy their books. Those authors should stay away from social media - but if they absolutely need to have a social media presence, the publisher should help them with it rather than let them hoist themselves on their own petard.

And here is where we start to look at the suite of services publishers can offer writers - and at whether or not 'new contracts' should start to accommodate them. If one author is great at social media and can handle everything themselves, should they receive the same royalty as someone who needs a publicist to do it all? It's entirely plausible that the social-media-adept author might start to think there should be some allowance made for what is, in effect, an extra skill that they're bringing to the publishing contract. And what happens if that particular author has to choose between publishers - one publisher offering them a slightly higher royalty rate in recognition of this skill, and the other not? Will this start to become a factor in the author's decision making? Perhaps not. But perhaps it will. 

In the meantime, though, my advice would be to focus on your writing. I'm sure I'm not the only agent in the world who is more interested in how an author writes their manuscript than how they write their tweets. 

Thursday, August 21, 2014

Honesty is such a lonely word

I recently had a rejection which stated they thought my story would find a home somewhere, but that I should not have said in my query that a previously published e-book had not sold many copies (I gave a few reasons, including my lack of time promoting plus maybe people just didn't like it) though it was a finalist for an award. I thought it was better to be honest up-front: after all, can't they easily check that it had a poor sales record? I had read somewhere that lack of sales could be off-putting for future publishers, but I didn't want to pretend that it had sold well. What is your advice? 

There is currently no way - for Australian publishers, at least - to know how many copies of an ebook have been sold. BookScan is the technology used to track print book sales, but as yet ebooks are not part of BookScan. And it may take some time for there to be accurate reporting of ebook sales anyway, as the retailers who currently have to report ebook sales - e.g. Apple and Google - are mostly not booksellers at their core, so they aren't as attuned to the rhythms of publishing as a bookseller would be. 

However, you're under no obligation to say how many copies of any of your books have sold, in print or digital. While it's admirable that you want to be honest about your sales record, almost every author starts her or his career with small sales and no publisher is going to expect that you've sold a tonne - otherwise they'd have heard about it already. And if they really want to know how many books you've sold, they can ask you. 

The other point in your question is that you mentioned in the query that you hadn't had much time to promote the book, as well as giving other reasons. Well, don't do that again - you have no way of knowing why your books do and don't sell, and neither does the publishing industry (if we knew, we'd patent it). So don't make excuses, don't give reasons which may or may not be true. The salient points are that you have written and you have published, so you already have experience. State your experience; state what your current project is. Be proud of the fact that you have both. That's it.

Friday, August 15, 2014

Arbitrary word counts and the end of Western civilisation*

I have completed a novel manuscript that is on the shorter side at 66 000 words. Initially I contemplated approaching agents and publishers who work with Young Adult titles, as it does have a teenage protagonist, but after sending it to a few writerly friends and colleagues (I'm an English teacher) for feedback, I was told what I think I already knew deep down: it's not really a YA novel. This leaves me in a bit of a dilemma when it comes to the length. From all that I have read online, agents are reluctant to take on books this short, especially if they aren't literary fiction and are coming from a first-time author. But I've also read that nobody wants to read filler scenes and you shouldn't bulk out a work more than is necessary to tell the story. Do you think it would be wise to try to add 10-15 000 words, to start sending queries about the manuscript at its current length, or is there something else I should consider? Or should I put this one away to gather dust with my first few (terrible) novels and focus on the next one?

Sixty-six thousand words isn't short for grown-ups' fiction; it's just fine. (At least, for Australia - I don't know which country you're in.) I don't know which websites you've been reading that say it isn't, but it wasn't this website ... 

'Ideal' word counts exist largely because of the costing of the book: the publisher has to buy a certain amount of paper to produce a book that will turn out to be X pages in length; they want to charge $Y for that book and the cost of paper therefore affects their margin on the book, which is likely to be very slim, because most of them are. Your word count is within the range of what's acceptable for 'general fiction' - a publisher could make their costing work on that. (It's slightly larger than most YA titles, though, in case you're curious.) The only genre where it might be problematic is fantasy, where readers expect the books to be about double that length.

Ultimately, though, you have to write the story and just let the word count sort itself out. If the story feels like it's too fat, trim it; if it could use more scenes, add them. But just let the story determine what it needs and work from there. 

*This last bit was added for dramatic effect.

Just because you're paranoid doesn't mean they're after you

I'm a Melbourne writer. I'm lucky enough to have a literary agent, and I have two completed mss to sell. My agent has been submitting them and both of us are learning just how tight the fiction market is at the moment. Where the first one almost got across the line with a couple of the conventional large publishers, the second one (which she thought would be a dead cert) also is struggling. My agent says my work is of a very high standard, she is an experienced reader and editor, and is selling her other clients' work, so I'm wondering if something else might be sabotaging the submissions.

1. My age? (I'm over 45 and it's a first novel situation. I've been published in lit journals etc but no book-length works published and no high profile/celebrity/'amazing personal story' for PR).
2. I wrote a couple of reviews on my blog in which I said I didn't love certain Australian books; have I been *blacklisted*. Does such a thing happen? 

I've asked my agent and she said she doesn't believe either of these things are relevant, that it would all be about the work in the view of publishers, that's all they look for. But really, can that be true? Don't publishers want as many positives as possible to try to sell more books, market etc.
Perhaps it really is just such a bad time.

I'll forgive you for being from Melbourne. Now let's move on ...

1. Your age is irrelevant. There appears to be a belief held amongst some unpublished writers that publishers (and agents) are madly judging all writers based on their age, but they're not. And if they were, that would be silly because most readers - especially those who actually buy books - are not twenty-five, ifyouknowwhatImean. There is no 'right age' to start out and if younger novelists were preferred, why do we need a whole literary award dedicated to them (the Vogel's)? 

2. If there is a blacklist, let me know where it is. Because I'm probably on it and so is everyone else in the industry - we all have books we don't like and most of us aren't shy about our opinions. If everyone only liked the same few books, we wouldn't have so many books published each year.

You haven't said what type of fiction you write - and that detail is important. Chick lit is, apparently, 'dead' - that is the term one publisher used when speaking to me recently. So times are tough for chick lit writers. Crime fiction is always hard, mainly because publishers believe it is - but that's a much bigger topic ... And 'literary fiction' (definition still elusive) is always hard.

In general, though, sometimes you just don't find the right publisher at the time when your novel is being submitted. Timing is so important: the right publisher needs to be in the right publishing house at the right time with the right sales and marketing support. And, yes, it really all does come down to the work. The bells and whistles are great but they're no substitute for the work. Bells and whistles we can help with; the wriiting, we can't.

So your time may not be now; it may be next year or it may be several years off yet. If your work is good (and your agent thinks it is, so that's a clue), have faith in yourself - and, most importantly, keep writing, because maybe it's your next manuscript that will break through. Then you'll have the current manuscript available just in case the publisher wants another one ...