Tuesday, December 11, 2007

The Amazon Breakthrough Novel Competition

I recently entered an American writing contest called the Amazon Breakthrough Novel Competition. In short, it took the first 5000 eligible entries, gave the first 5000 words of each of those (which hadn’t been disqualified for contravening pedantic rules about pagination, margins, spacings, page breaks, word limits etc) to (unpaid) Amazon top reviewers and Amazon Editors to whittle down to a maximum of 1000. Those entries go to Publishers Weekly for a review of the full manuscripts, and then voting is open to the public from Jan 15, 2008 (the public sees an excerpt plus all reviews on a book page set up on Amazon). Penguin USA reviews the reviews and votes (not the submissions), and chooses the top ten between March 3 and March 31. Amazon customers then have one vote to choose the winning novel & an expert panel from the writing industry provides “insight and feedback” on the 10 finalists’ submissions while Amazon customers vote. The winner is published by Penguin USA with a $25,000 advance, and promotion from Penguin and Amazon, along with a suite of products from Hewlett Packard.

Is this competition being followed at all in Australia by the publishing industry? Is it just an experimental business strategy, or a genuine writing competition? Or both? Is it the way of the future?

I didn't even know about this competition so my answer to your first question would be 'no'. And to answer the others, I'd say it's a combination of business strategy and genuine writing competition, as well as an opportunity for NaNoWriMo writers to do something with their new manuscripts. I doubt it's the entire way of the future - the amount of resources needed to pull it off is extraordinary, so I can't even imagine that they'll do it every year - but it's good customer- and brand-building for both Amazon and Penguin (we help unpublished writers!). All publishers want to get their hands on great new talent, but this is a laborious way to go about it considering that they'll probably find it hard to find 1000 good manuscripts out of 5000. As a guide, I request full manuscripts from no more than 5% of the people who send submissions to the agency; they're hoping for a 20% strike rate.

Trends in fiction

What’s hot in fiction? Do overseas trends affect what publishers buy here?

The winds of change in fiction blow quite slowly. Thrillers, romance, crime, women's saga, chick lit - they're all still popular here and overseas, and they'll remain popular as long as there are authors who do them well - and that's what truly determines what's hot and what's not.

Overseas trends do affect Australian publishers, which is why there are so many US and UK authors sitting atop our bestselling fiction lists (and as soon as more Australian writers start producing good commercial fiction, I'm convinced they'll be shoving the northern hemispherians to the bottom rungs). There's the odd little trend that doesn't translate - vampire fiction is big in the US but, despite all my post-Buffy yearnings, it's never really taken off here. And romance writing isn't really out of the closet here - it's given its own section in Borders but it's still looked down on, despite the fact that it sells much better than most other genres.

We still largely take our cues from overseas, and the emerging Australian writers who actually think about having a career - and what they need to do in order to have one - are starting to realise they need to write what people want to read, which means looking at the bestseller lists each week and checking out which genre has the bigger section in their local bookshop.

When you don't need an agent

I have my first novel coming out next year with a well-regarded Australian independent publisher. The publisher is keen to sell the book overseas - I sold them world rights - and judging from their list they have good relationships with publishers in the UK and US. Do I even need to think about talking to agents, or should I just leave it in the publisher's hands?

Not only do you not need to talk to an agent, but there's nothing for them to do - all the rights are with the publisher, so the agent can't help you decide what to do with them or help you place them. The publisher should let you know if they receive offers from overseas, but as they hold the world rights they don't technically need your approval to accept or reject such offers - so an agent can't even help you with that bit. No, this agent horse has bolted.

Friday, December 7, 2007

What Not to Do when Submitting

This week I was going through some submissions to the agency and growing more and more en couleur due to a few small things which, collectively, really annoyed me. When an agent or editor is getting annoyed reading a submission becase of some easily avoidable things a writer has done, it makes us less disposed to like their submission. Having said that, I’ve found that there’s a direct relationship between dodgy cover letters and dodgy writing almost 100% of the time. And if someone’s writing is great, I’m prepared to forgive them for making a mistake in their submission.

Still, a lot of you who send submissions to agencies have been writing for years and have all your hopes pinned on your first novel – it would be a shame to ruin your chances when you really don’t need to. Accordingly, here’s my list of What Not to Do when Submitting.

1. Don’t ignore the agent’s (or publisher’s) submission guidelines. If they ask for a cover letter, a short biography of you, a synopsis and the first three chapters, don’t decide you know better and that you’ll just send the synopsis and the first three chapters, and forget the rest. The first thing we think is, ‘This person can either not read or doesn’t think they should have to do the same thing as everyone else’. If you can’t read, you’re not going to be a good writer. If you think you don’t have to do whatever everyone else has to do, we’re going to presume you’re either rude or arrogant and we won’t want to work with you. Possible redemption: your first three chapters are outstanding, thus leading us to believe you left out the cover letter by mistake because clearly you are a wonderful writer. But they need to be OUTSTANDING.

2. If you do ignore the submission guidelines, do not then acknowledge the fact and give a reason. I have seen far too many cover letters which say, ‘I know you wanted the first three chapters but I really think you’ll want to read the whole manuscript, so here it is.’ (No! I don’t want to read the whole thing unless I ask you for it! I have a hundred manuscripts here already!) Then there are the ones that say, ‘I know you wanted a synopsis but I just can’t write one, so I’m not sending one.’ (If you can’t write a synopsis we’re going to have serious doubts about your first three chapters.) Submission guidelines are not set up to torture writers – they exist to help agents order things, and to put boundaries around that first contact from a writer. If we didn’t have them, every writer would send in their full manuscript and we’d run out of oxygen in the office. Possible redemption: none.

3. In your cover letter, do not say that your manuscript is ‘like Dan Brown’s’ or ‘will be read by Di Morrissey’s readers’ or is ‘as sophisticated as Ian McEwan’s novels’. If you compare yourself to a bestselling author you’ll always come off second best. It’s quite all right to mention some writers you like and whose style you admire, but don’t compare yourself to them. Possible redemption: see point 1.

4. In your cover letter, do not say that you are ‘the greatest undiscovered writer in the world’. Moreover, do not threaten that we’ll ‘deeply regret it’ if we don’t take you on. Possible redemption: none.

5. In your cover letter, do not use the term 'fictional novel' to describe what you've sent. A novel is fiction, by its very definition. Use of the term 'fictional novel' makes us think that you've never read a novel before and are not sure what it is - this is not a good impression to convey if what you're submitting is, in fact, a novel, and it's an even worse impression if what you're submitting is actually non-fiction. Possible redemption: see point 1.

6. If we request your full manuscript, don’t forget to include a cover letter. Sometimes manuscripts come in months after we ask for them and we’re not going to remember whether we requested it or not. Possible redemption: actually not that serious an offence.

7. Do not call or email asking if we have received the submission. We get a lot of submissions each week – if each writer called to ask if we received the submission, we’d never get anything else done. We understand that you’re anxious about your submission, but please respect the fact that we’re trying to run a business. Possible redemption: if another agent has said they want to represent you (but don’t fib about this!) so you need to know our response sooner rather than later.

8. Do not call or email two weeks after submitting to ask if we’ve read it yet. This is probably the greatest annoyance of all and the one most likely to make us not look favourably on your submission. Thinking that it takes two weeks to read a submission indicates that the writer has a complete lack of awareness about how publishing works, and also a lack of awareness that there are other people in the world. Certainly, if it’s been three months and the agency had said they’d get back to you in six weeks, put in a call. But not after two weeks. And certainly not the next day (yes, it happens). Possible redemption: usually none. Although if you do turn out to be the next Ian McEwan, we’ll change our minds.

A lot of this is going to sound harsh, but when we're looking at fifty submissions in a row, these details become amplified. There are so many other writers submitting - don't distinguish yourself by doing all the wrong things, and don't ruin your chances of getting an agent or publisher by behaving as if submission guidelines don't apply to you. Yes, it's a bit like being at school. But we have to keep order somehow!

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Ghosts in the machine

Is ghostwriting a good thing to do? How does one get into ghostwriting? Do agents ever represent ghostwriters?

Ghostwriting is a great thing to do, because it gives a writer experience in creating a long-form work and in meeting deadlines; often the writer has to shape a story out of material they wouldn't normally choose (thus forcing them to be even more creative); it introduces the writer to a publisher; the writer becomes familiar with the publishing process and people within the industry and is thus more likely to (a) get more ghostwriting work and (b) have their original work looked at by the publishers they have worked for as a ghostwriter.

The most direct route to ghostwriting is being a journalist. A ghostwriter is usually required for a non-fiction project that has a prominent subject (usually a person), so for a journalist it's a relatively familiar process (lots of interviewing and then shaping a story for a particular readership). If you're not a journalist, you'll need to have some relevant credits to present to a publisher, to prove that you can write something of book length and also that you are used to working with a subject who may have nothing in common with you. In other words: if you're not a journalist, it's hard.

Yes, agents can represent ghostwriters but they are usually writers who already have (non-fiction) books of their own, and we put them forward for ghostwriting gigs if a publisher says they're looking for someone.

Ghostwriting is not the easiest form of writing, because you have at least two masters (the subject of the book and the publisher) and the deadlines are often steep. But if you're not too attached to seeing your name on the cover of a book and you like a challenge, it's an effective way to make a living as a writer.

Friday, November 16, 2007

What's hot in non-fiction

What non-fiction topics do publishers and agents hunger for?

First, I'll apologise for using the word 'hot' in the header but I wanted to rhyme with 'what'. And now I'll get to the answer ... which should have appeared a few weeks ago, but I overlooked the question in my list! Apologies to the person who sent it in.

The non-fiction topics that publishers hunger for are often the ones agents can't get their hands on: specifically, autobiographies of sportsmen (and I used the 'men' bit on purpose). Sports agents tend to look after the book deals for their talent; it's rare that a cricketer or AFL footballer looks for a literary agent. The other non-fiction books that sell very well are cookbooks, but that can depend on whether or not the chef has a TV show, or whether there's a well-known brand attached to the book.

Each agent has their own interests and specialties with both non-fiction and fiction, but generally speaking memoir is a dominant genre (and covers a lot of ground - it could be a memoir about being a call girl or running a cattle station), as well as true crime, military history, medical and the odd motivational story. Science is also sought after, but it depends how it's written - if it's too academic, the audience will necessarily be small. Travel writing is a bit on the wane, unless it's done by Michael Palin. Business books can be tricky - again, a well-known face helps.

I suppose a basic rule for non-fiction is that if the author is famous (for doing something other than writing), publishers will want to talk to them. If the author isn't famous, then the topic needs to be something that would grab a journalist's attention, because the book will need publicity in order to clamber above the other 999 books published that month.

Thursday, November 15, 2007

Submitting illustrations with text

My husband and I have written a short children's book which my husband would also like to complete the illustrations for. How do you suggest we submit the book? Should we have the manuscript and illustrations separate from each other, or put the relevant text under each picture? Also, what percentage do publishers take?

What you should submit depends on what the agent or publisher asks for. If they say 'no illustrations', then don't include them. But if you're submitting the whole thing as a picture book, the best thing you can do - to show you're professional - is lay out the text with the pictures as if it were a book. This will require a bit of thought, to see how the text will fit on the page with the illustrations, and you may find it helps you rework the text if needed. Laying out the text with illustrations makes it easier for the publisher to envisage the final book. As for how much they take - that depends on the contract. A standard book royalty is 10% to the author, although with children's books it's often less.

When to bend submission guidelines

I am about to submit a query for an early-chapter text (aimed at6-8yo) to a local agency. They are currently accepting both adult and children's texts. As well as asking for a writing sample, they also ask for a synopsis. My question: as my story is only 1300 words, is a synopsis necessary? It seems a little ridiculous, as many synopses are about half as long as my manuscript! As part of the query I have obviously written a pitch (one paragraph), which is probably similar to what the synopsis would look like for such a short story anyway. I want to abide by their submission guidelines, but only if appropriate.

Submission guidelines are created by agents to try to give guidance to authors without them needing to contact the agency (if everyone who submitted to the agency I worked for called us to enquire about submitting, we would never get anything else done). Guidelines are necessarily strict in tone, but agents are humans too (really!) and respond well to plain speaking. So I'd suggest that, in your query letter - after the pitch - you say something like, 'As this is a very short story, I haven't written a lengthy synopsis for my story - hopefully this description will suffice.' Simply not including a synopsis without explaining would be potentially annoying, because the agent will think you've just decided not to include one. But if you state your reason why there isn't one, I'm sure that will be okay. Guidelines aren't laws!

Friday, November 2, 2007

Are some publishing credits more equal than others?

How impressive are anthologies, small magazines or e-zines and small press credits of writers to agents? Are e-zine credits of less worth than the others (with the notoriety of the internet and all)? Or since they are mostly done with small print runs are they all not particularly interesting credits unless you have a full book published and sold?

Other agents may be different, but I don't mind much about the specifics of where authors have had small pieces published - those credits indicate that they've been writing for a little while and sending things out, and that's more important than where they are. Of course, if one of them is The New Yorker then you will get extra credit ...

Also, no matter how many credits you have, it will mean nought if your manuscript isn't any good. If I don't like the manuscript I won't hang onto it just in case the credits make me change my mind - because, six months later, it still won't be publishable. So don't fret too much about where you're getting things published - just get out there!

More about submissions

I am wanting to find an agent in Australia (like winning Lotto). I have had my first novel published (assisted) by Athena Press in UK and it is just now released in that country and on Amazon.com. My dilemma is whether to send my novel in its published form to a publisher or agent, or both, or whether in fact they would rather have it in manuscript form. In fact, do I tell them it is already published overseas?

Most publishers - and certainly most agents - won't want a full-length anything when you first submit. Why, just this morning someone sent us a self-published novel accompanied by a letter saying that he knew that agents normally want three chapters and a synopsis but he'd decided that he'd send this book anyway, to prove that he's serious about his writing and so we could get an idea of how he'd like the finished cover to look. After much mirth while reading the letter aloud so everyone could enjoy being told how to do their job, we wrote to him to say that, as he'd completely ignored our submission guidelines, we won't be reading it. So the important thing for you is to abide by the submission guidelines of whomever you're sending the novel to - if they want to see the whole thing, you can certainly send the book (they're easier to carry around than manuscripts) but feel free to ask the agent or publisher which they prefer. You must definitely tell the agents/publishers that it's published overseas, and by whom.

How publishers can tie authors up in knots

Is it reasonable for an anthology to expect first publication rights when a) 'all rights remain with the author' is specified in the submission guidelines and b) they are not paying you anything? It seems from what I read that first publication rights are something you specifically sell in a contract. A short story of mine was recently withdrawn from an anthology at the last minute because it appeared in another publication (I wasn't aware of the latter until after I okayed the former). Neither of these publications asked me to sign anything. I understand the courtesy, but isn't the onus on the publisher to specify what 'previously unpublished' means?

It does sound as if you've ended up in a tangle entirely not of your own making. (And for clarity let's call the first publisher you mention - the one who ended up saying no - Publisher A, and the other is Publisher B.) It's hard to know exactly what to say without knowing the specifics of each publication, but it does seem a bit draconian of Publisher A to withdraw your story. The idea of 'first publication' rights would be for the first publisher, whoever that is, to have the commercial advantage - but unless your story's presence in Publisher B's anthology was going to mean that no one would buy Publisher A's anthology, there was no commercial reason to pull your story. Especially when, as you point out, they're not paying you and you haven't assigned any rights in a contract. And I'm presuming Publisher A didn't say 'you cannot submit your story to anyone else while you wait for our decision'. So they're being churlish. And there's not much you can do about it.

Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Learning to sit on your hands

I have sent my first novel to four publishers, and had encouraging feedback from all of them, but not to the extent that they want to publish my book! So I was advised to try to get an agent. A published writer friend sent a very nice introductory letter about me to a well-known Sydney agency (several chapters of the novel have won prizes in short story competitions, and one has been published in Island) but three weeks later we have had no response at all. Is this normal? Do you have any recommendations/suggestions/advice on how I might proceed? (The novel is not a collection of short stories as such, but the story/chapters are closely linked, and there is an overall narrative.)

Three weeks! This is but a nanosecond in reading-manuscript time. Well, a bit more than a nanosecond. But definitely not a minute. In order for a well-known agency to read a submission in three weeks, they would had to have lost 75% of their clients and all other submissions. There's a sort of formula for reading manuscripts that has as its result that the number of clients an agent has is in inverse proportion to the amount of time they have available to read submissions. As mentioned elsewhere in this blog, it's not because we don't want to read submissions, but it has to be done around our existing business. If the agency got back to you within three weeks, you should be worrying about how successful they really are. And I'm sorry to so that a letter of recommendation from a published writer won't speed things up - if they're a client of the agency it will get you read faster than other submissions, but it won't mean they drop everything to read it.

Three months is actually more feasible, and that's the point at which you can drop them a line and enquire about what's going on. If you feel that's too long, send out the submission to other agents - but let the first agency know that you're doing it. Email this information to them, rather than calling. And whatever you do, if it's before the three-month mark don't ask if they've read it yet.

Monday, October 29, 2007

Answers coming soon ...

Thanks to those of you who have submitted questions in the last three weeks, and apologies for not responding sooner - I did a forum for the Queensland Writers' Centre and then felt all answered out. But your answers are forthcoming ... probably this week. Unless one of the dead tree piles on my desk falls on my head.

Wednesday, October 3, 2007

Common writing mistakes #2 – What is the narrative voice?

A big question for any writer is: who is my narrator? And are they talking in the first or third person? Or, sometimes, second person (but make sure you can carry it off à la Jay McInerney in Bright Lights, Big City or don’t even bother attempting it)?

In first novels the narrator – whether in first or third person - is often the novelist, and this is understandable but it’s usually a mistake, because it means the writer ends up producing something for an audience of one: him- or herself (see Common writing mistakes #1).

The narrative voice needs to be immediately engaging and consistent throughout – although that doesn’t mean you can’t have an unreliable narrator (i.e. one who is concealing things from the reader, like Lionel Shriver’s Eva in We Need to Talk About Kevin). It just means that the unreliable narrator’s voice needs to be reliable. We need to trust that, when we open that book up after a three-day absence, we’re being told the story by the same person who was telling it to us three days ago.

A consistent, appealing voice is difficult to attain and takes practice, and yet more practice. Quite often it helps to read your work aloud – humans were originally oral storytellers, so a good story should always be read-aloudable, and difficulties with the narrative voice may be revealed by a read-aloud exercise. But once you’ve got the voice – once you can hear the narrator chattering away in your head – then you can tell your reader anything. Plot is important, characters are important, but that narrator … well, there’s no story without them.

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

The quid pro quo

If a top Aussie publisher has requested a rewrite on my novel, is this the time to call an agent?

It's time to get some advice, whether that's an agent or someone else who might have some knowledge about the industry (for example, a published author or someone at your state's writers' centre - links are at the right for those). It sounds as though the publisher has not promised anything much in exchange for the rewrite - they're asking you to do what may amount to a lot of work presumably in exchange only for another reading by them, not for a promise of publication. If you want to do this work anyway - you were planning to do another draft, and their feedback is just exactly what you wanted to hear - then that's great, because even if they don't end up taking the novel, you have a new draft to send to agents and publishers. But if you're only doing this work because they're asking you to, it's time to get a second opinion.

Keeping up with the Rowlings

How much attention should we pay to the current market of the genre we write in?
I was reading about current trends in fantasy at the moment from an American publisher and had no idea – he mentioned the “hot” ideas at the moment being zombie fiction and superheroes in novels, but I haven’t seen anything like this at all. When Harry Potter first became famous (I think it was the second or third novel it really started getting publicity), fantasy books about the typical coming-of-age/orphan hero stories set in a wizard school started appearing everywhere.

Then again, some people say not to care about the current market at all because by the time you start writing and finish your book, many months, if not the usual years, would have passed and it would have all changed again.

As an agent, would you reject something because it isn’t a ‘current fad’?

My general rule is that once a trend has been identified, it's over. This is particularly true of publishing, because the 'trend' books of today were actually being picked up by publishers at least a year ago, and they're probably onto something else now. It's also the case that true global trends should just be left to wear themselves out - none of the HP imitator books did as well as JK Rowling's tomes (how could they, after all?) and those authors who did imitate her might have done themselves out of the career they may have had if they'd written stories they really wanted to write rather than trying to follow a trend.

I never pick novels, in particular, because of a trend - I choose them based on the quality of the writing and the story being told. None of the first novels I've placed have been part of a trend - they stood alone very nicely, and that's what's needed if you want them to be read for several years hence. So not only would I not reject something if it's not part of a current fad, I'm probably more likely to pay attention!

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Call your publicist

Beyond contract negotiations and the selling of international distribution deals and or rights, what does the literary agent do after the book has hit the shelves? In other words: after the marketing machine of the publishing company has shifted towards another writer’s book, how actively involved is the lit agent in maintaining some momentum in keeping the public’s interest in the work – as in readings, signings, panels at festivals, interviews and so forth.

What you're describing is a publicist's job more than an agent's - we don't tend to have expertise in organising signings and getting authors onto panels at festivals. We have expertise in giving you editorial advice, getting you published and keeping you writing; we provide advice on writing and other stuff, usually, that has nothing to do with writing but which may be stopping you writing; we're here to sort out any problems that may arise with you getting interviews etc, but we can't organise them. We may be able to rely on our contacts to get you a foot in the door but, again, we can't organise them.

There's a good reason for this, beyond the fact that it's not our core competency: it takes a lot of work to find you a publisher, to negotiate a contract and to handle foreign rights. In most cases, it takes many more hours than the commission actually covers. Once the book is out, we'll liaise with your publicist if the need arises (although in my experience most book publicists do just fine), and handle anything else that needs handling, but if we added publicity to our list of duties, we'd only be able to take on about two clients a year. As far as I know, there's only one agency in the US that provides those sorts of services - Folio - but the US is in a different stratosphere.

Common writing mistakes #1 – Who is the reader?

There are some common problems (or iss-ewes, if you watch Kath and Kim) that pop up in manuscripts – usually more in fiction but, as most aspiring writers are writing fiction, it could be relevant to some of you. The principles apply for fiction, non-fiction and children’s writing, though. So I thought I’d identify some of these problems/iss-ewes in the hope that it may help some of you with your writing.

The first one is: WHO IS YOUR READER? It becomes quite obvious early in a manuscript if a writer has addressed the story only to him or herself. This is a problem that usually arises with a first novel, but it’s a killer, because if you’re the designated reader of your own novel, who else is going to want to read it?

There is nothing wrong with writing a novel only for yourself; the difficulty arises when you send it off to agents and publishers and then become distressed when they don’t want to see your story published. But they’re just being pragmatic – if they can’t identify who your reader is, they’ll logically assume the reading public won’t be able to either and thus won’t buy the book. So if you’re hoping that a publisher will invest some money in publishing your pride and joy, you need to make it easy for them to identify who they’re going to sell it to. Quite early on in the writing process, identify your target readership and keep them in mind while writing. This is no different to a musician deciding whether they’ll write a pop song that lots of people will like, or whether they’ll record a three-hour chord progression that only they understand.

You may need to give your novel to trusted friends and readers, or investigate some professional development programs, in order to work out if you have this problem – let’s face it, if you’ve written the novel for yourself, you’re unlikely to truly see that it is a problem. Remember also that it’s only a problem if you want to get your book published – if you just want to read it to yourself, don’t worry!

Wednesday, September 5, 2007

Reading times and multiple submissions

I am wondering about at what point it is okay and not impatient to give up on an agent assessing your work if you haven't heard from them. I have had a submission (chapters 1-3, synopsis, etc) being assessed by an agent since October 2006. In January they asked for the full manuscript. It was sent to a reader, who really liked it but was not sure if it was right for the young adult market. Instead of sending it back to me, they sent it to a second reader, which I was happy about, but due to their backlog they still hadn't got back to me - and it had been almost 10 months - so I rang them and politely said if they haven't decided I would like to send it to other agents/publishers as well. They said it's still with the second reader who hasn't read it yet due to their backlog, but if I want an answer at this point, they'd have to say no. Did I do the wrong thing by getting impatient and indicating I was going to send it out more widely? I had thought that most people do send submissions out to lots of agents/publishers, but in my case, as my manuscript was being assessed by a well-respected agent, I had been advised by the ASA to hold off on sending it to other agencies, until I heard back from this first big-name agent. Did I wreck my chances or generally speaking if they haven't signed me up after 10 months it's unlikely they were going to?

Short answer: If the agency you send it to didn't ask for an exclusive, you didn't do the wrong thing by calling and saying you were sending it to others. Ten months is not necessarily a long time for a full manuscript, but it sounds like they have already said 'no' so hopefully you have already sent it to others ...

Long answer: Each agent seems to have a different policy about whether authors should submit to multiple agents/publishers at the same time. I always expect that authors will submit to more people than just me, precisely because it does take so long to read submissions and make decisions, particularly for first novels, particularly in a genre like YA, in which there are a lot of very good, published authors still writing great work. I'm not sure why the ASA has that policy - and that's just their policy, obviously: you should always check with the agents you send it to. Because I don't ask for exclusivity, I don't like being told by authors that I'm the only one who has it and I should therefore hurry up and make a decision - the reason I don't ask for exclusives is so I don't have those sorts of time pressures, and also because I don't think it's fair on writers.

The conundrum for agents is this: we read and assess prospective clients' manuscripts on our own time, because we don't charge a fee for this (and nor should we). The agency to whom you sent your manuscript bore the cost of the first reader and the second, if it's gone that far, and they may then decide they can't take it on - but they've still paid for that reading time. Because the cost of reading new manuscripts may or may not ultimately bear fruit, it has to be rationed and considered carefully. This agency has obviously taken a while to consider your manuscript, and it's probably because it's been in a queue - most agents in this country have more reading than they can handle, and that's just from their existing clients. It could also be because sometimes manuscripts get mislaid - most of us would have huge stacks of paper around our desks, and things do get lost. And then, sometimes, the agent may end up weeping atop one of those stacks of paper because she has no idea how she's ever going to get through her reading ... At this point, I'm glad this blog is anonymous :)

Thursday, August 30, 2007

Independent publishers

I was wondering if agents ever approach independent publishers with manuscripts, or whether it's solely a big-business domain?

Yes, we absolutely do approach them, but it depends on whether we know they exist and whether we have a relationship with them. I've tried to make contact with more than one small independent I've discovered in a magazine or newsletter, but received no response - I'd love to send things to them, but am not going to do it if I think the approach is unwelcome.

I submit to independents at the same time as large houses, and quite often independents are a better option for the writer, because they'll get more attention on a smaller list (first novelists, in particular, can get lost on large lists - UQP does well with fiction, for example, because it's a relatively small list and they can give individualised attention to the writers). Most of the independents use the larger publishers' distribution channels, and they effectively use in-house or freelance publicists so there's no deficit in terms of publicity for the book. Where they can't really compete is in shelf space within chain bookshops, but sometimes that doesn't matter. It all depends on what the book is. If I think an independent would be a better publisher for it, I'll tell the author that.

Finding an overseas agent

As an Australian fiction writer living in Australia, what factors might I consider when deciding whether to try to land a London or New York agent over an Australian one? You can assume I'd be keen to sell my work into other markets.

The most important thing to consider is whether you've written a story that will actually work in an overseas market - and to be completely honest and commercially realistic when you make the assessment. Think about which Australian novelists have been successful overseas (not forgetting Max Barry, who's doing it better than most) and what they're writing. You'll probably discover that the most successful Australian writers being published overseas are working in genre fiction - specifically, romance and fantasy - because genre fiction travels more easily.

Then bear in mind that an Australian novelist living in Australia is going to find it much more difficult to be published overseas than here, largely because it's hard for overseas publishers to find a publicity hook for this kind of work, and also because they are always going to favour writers from their home turf. It is possibly the case that you would not only have to be as good as the best writers in those countries but probably better in order to get publishers' attention.

All this sounds quite harsh, I realise, but I see it over and over again: Australian writers are usually much more eager to be published overseas than they are here, and it is exponentially harder to be published in other territories, where you're a much smaller fish in a much bigger pond. By all means approach agents overseas, if you believe your story is right for them, but don't be surprised if they reject you purely because you're Australian. If you want to be published as an international writer, certainly, approaching overseas agents is a good idea. But if you're living in Australia and it's your first novel, trust that it will take some time to build your reputation and it will be easier to start locally and find out what Australian agents can offer you in terms of overseas representation - several of them have agent and publisher contacts overseas that can be just as effective as having an independent agent there. In addition, most Australian trade publishers have their own contacts, and some of the novels that have been published overseas have come through Australian publishers, not agents.

Monday, August 13, 2007

The agent's track record

I have just been offered a contract with an Australian agent. Is it appropriate to ask this agent for their track record and a list of their clients before signing anything. How would you recommend that this be worded to prevent causing offence?

If the agent doesn't have a website which contains a client list (even a slightly out-of-date one) then he or she should have provided you with one when s/he started talking to you about representation. As that hasn't occurred, the best thing would be to remember that you're about to make a business decision - to have an agent - and be businesslike in your approach, but you can still word it carefully. Something along the lines of, 'Would you mind sending me a client list so I can see who else you represent?' Or call and honestly say, 'Oops - I should have asked you which other clients you have - would you mind sending me a list?' If the agent is new and without many clients (or a track record), they should at least be Google-able. If you can't find anything at all on them, call the Australian Literary Agents' Association (link is at right) and ask them if they know about this agent. Don't feel bad or awkward about asking for this information - your business as a writer is about to be in this person's hands. It's an important decision.

Comical agents

I was wondering if you think there are agents interested representing generic and right-wing comics? Conservatives have a sense of humour too. I'd like to publish two compendiums of comics similar to Gary Larson's Farside Galleries - one generic and the other, just to stir the pot, right-wing political.

I don't believe Australian agents are interested in representing comics at all, no matter what politics are contained therein. I wouldn't even contemplate taking on comics or cartoons because I'd have no idea how to get them published. Perhaps there are agents in the US who deal with this sort of thing, but I can't think of anyone here who does.

Structuring the synopsis

I have a novel which I am submitting to an agent. It is ready to go except for one thing - the dreaded synopsis. I am having a lot of trouble with the specifics of it. Is is an outline of the plot or an examination of the themes in the novel? Do you have to explain who all the characters are? I've been told to keep it one page and am struggling. Please help. Thank you so much.

The synopsis is a very important document, so it's worth working away till you get it right (or right enough). The synopsis will form the basis for the publisher's proposal to their Acquisitions meeting and also, later, for the blurb on the back on the book. It will also, in the first instance, tell an agent whether they want to read the rest of your manuscript. However, the synopsis is different to the pitch - the pitch is the one- or two-paragraph outline that tells the agent/publisher why they should snap up your novel. The synopsis is the the follow-up document to the pitch, giving detail about plot and characters.

The most effective synopsis I have seen told the story of the novel (through to the end) in one page, and gave minimal character explanation. The characters were mentioned as needed, when they popped up in the story, and this worked well. Themes were touched on in the context of the storyline, not as a separate note. I've never decided to read a full manuscript based on character explanations or descriptions of themes, but I have decided to read on based on a synopsis that told me where the story was going.

Tuesday, July 31, 2007

What gets mentioned in the query letter

Over the last few months I've sent my novel to several publishers that accept unsolicited mss, and have received positive replies along the lines of 'Our readers enjoyed it, and we seriously considered publishing it, but it's not quite right for us.' One publisher got as far as requesting to see a second draft, then rejected it because I hadn't made all the changes they wanted. I'm now planning to approach agents in the hope of getting my work in front of other publishers. In my cover letter, should I tell the agent of the responses I've had so far?

You don't have to mention all of this in your cover letter, because ideally the agent should read the manuscript on its merits, not influenced by the thought that it's been rejected. However, you will absolutely need to tell them if they offer to represent you, because it affects their ability to place your manuscript. The agent won't be able to send the manuscript to the publishers who have already rejected it, and that restricts their ability to help you get published.

The importance of patience

I finished my first novel about a month or so ago, and have a couple of published authors in the same genre reading it for me. So far the feedback has been all very positive, however I am still waiting on one author... But I'm getting impatient, more from the excitement of having finished than with her. Would it be rude or unwise of me to start submitting to agents before she gives me her feedback?

However long the author is taking to read your manuscript, you'll probably be waiting ten times as long for an agent to read it, and then twenty times as long for a publisher - so think of it as good practice! One month is really not a very long time, even though I know it seems an eternity when you are busting to send out your manuscript. But I can't overestimate the value of patience if you wish to be a successful writer.

It is worth waiting a little bit longer because if she comes back and says, 'This is great overall but this particular sub storyline is completely implausible', you'll be regretting that you sent it out before having a chance to fix any problems. You only have one shot at agents reading your manuscript - if we read your manuscript and you then call and ask if you can submit a revised version, the answer will be 'no'. Not because we don't necessarily like your manuscript, but because we don't have time to read manuscripts more than once for anyone other than our clients. (The mathematics of manuscript reading is: 1 full ms = approx. 8 hours of reading; time to read during average working week = 2 hours; ergo, time to read 1 ms = 4 weeks, if we're lucky. The figures are much more bloated for publishers). And all that was a slight digression but it leads me back to where I started: it's worth waiting a little bit longer.

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

After my first novel, do I need an agent?

After much research and a carefully worded query letter, I sold my first novel to my dream publisher myself. I also negotiated the contract myself with the aid of the Australian Society of Authors contract advice service. I have lots of experience in this type of negotiation from my pre-writing career and I don’t believe it impedes my creative work. So far (post-editing, pre-publication), I couldn’t be happier. However recently a very successful novelist told me that if I do this for my second novel I am ‘naïve’. She said it was acceptable to attempt the sale of your first novel yourself, because with no contacts or profile, finding an agent can be just as difficult as finding a publisher. For a second novel, she said, there was no excuse. To avoid being ‘ripped off’ and for help in building a career, it’s essential to use an agent. She also said that if my first novel is successful, it won’t be difficult to find one.

First up: congratulations on your first novel! That is a fantastic accomplishment. Now to the question.

There are some 'ifs' here. If your previous career was as a lawyer or something like that (you mentioned negotiating), you probably don't need an agent. If you're happy with your publishing company (not necessarily your publisher/commissioning editor, as they may leave), you probably don't need an agent. If you feel comfortable handling the negotiation side of things and you think it won't get in the way of your writing, you probably don't need an agent. This country is different to the US, where every writer needs an agent and most publishers want them to have one. Often publishers here want authors to have agents, too, but that doesn't mean they won't deal with you without one.

An agent would be useful to you if you ever find yourself disagreeing with your publisher and think you can't make your case strongly enough, or if you want to explore your options with other publishers and aren't sure how to do this. Agents are of great use to authors who don't wish to deal with the business side of things, but you seem very comfortable with that. However, it can't hurt you to talk to a few agents if you're curious - having a chat doesn't commit you to anything! Ask them what they can offer you that you're not already doing for yourself. If you meet one you really like, you might think, 'Great, I don't have to worry about all that business stuff any more and I completely trust them to take care of it', and there's your answer about whether you need one. And if instead you think, 'I can do all of this myself', you know that answer too.

As for whether a successful first novel makes it easier to find an agent: yes. Particularly if we've read it and liked it! But you'd need to have a manuscript to take to the agent - they won't sign you up with nothing to send to publishers, unless you wanted to talk to them about handling your foreign rights. And that's a different topic ...

If my genre has limited local appeal, should I go overseas?

I write fanatasy humour because, as we all know, this is a licence to print money, particularly for Australian authors. Given the limited market for this genre, should I consider chasing local and international agents at the same time?

You should always query as many agents as you want to. Check out agents' submission guidelines to see whether they have a policy about simultaneous submissions, but generally speaking you should query your little heart out. It's a numbers game - the more people you submit to, the more responses you will get, and the faster you'll work out whether your novel is any good or not. Agents in the UK and US would not be surprised to receive a submission from an Australian. Good luck!

PhDs and publishing

Is it advisable to admit in cover letters to publishers/agents that one is completing postgraduate studies in writing (in my case, a PhD in Philosophy, writing a novel and exegesis)? Does this suggest a degree of dedication to the craft, or scream 'run for the hills'? Published and highly successful Australian writers have said (at least, privately) that a PhD is strongly advisable to ensure continuity of income from teaching — to supplement the money coming in from publishing. Yet I’ve heard from the publishing industry in the past that academia tends to produce uncommercial/unsellable writing. With more and more post-grad writing pupils winning big literary prizes, is this still the general feeling?

I can't imagine why anyone would think that postgraduate study is a bad thing - whether we like your novel or not is, of course, a different matter. But it would be a pretty bad state of affairs if you were to spend all that time working on your PhD and then feel you have to hide it! There are two separate issues here, though: the PhD and what is produced from it. The PhD will teach you patience and discipline to write a novel (as it takes years), and you shouldn't leave it off your CV. If, however, what you produce from it is uncommercial and unsellable, that's not the fault of your higher education. Certainly, PhDs don't usually produce cracker crime novels, but why shouldn't they? I don't know enough about PhDs in writing, but surely the idea of one (or part of the idea of one) is to produce writing that people - even just your supervisor - want to read.

As research is involved in completing the PhD, perhaps some of that research should look at bookbuyers. Lots of readers shy away from literary fiction because it's not telling them a story they want to read or they feel it's too much hard work. Lots of them flock towards 'commercial' fiction because it's entertaining, and they don't mind being made to think about serious stuff so long as it's easy to read. And creating writing that 'easy to read' is actually extremely difficult - just like writing a catchy pop song is harder than it looks. A PhD that produces a novel that can be entertaining while simultaneously addressing the issues the writer wants to address would take some skill but probably be a great read. Jodi Picoult does this sort of thing on an annual basis.

The non-fiction-to-fiction trajectory

How much easier is it to get agented for a work of fiction once you have a couple of published non-fiction titles to your name?

I won't lie - it certainly helps. Because it shows that you can write enough words to finish a book; because you've been through the publishing process before and will be more understanding of it; because you can, in all probability, write; because you'll already have a readership. However, some agents believe you should just pick one form of writing - either fiction or non-fiction or children's - and stick to it, so not every agent may agree with me on this one. But I'd certainly always read a submission, at least, from this sort of author and I'd usually make it a priority.

Non-fiction writers - no sales experience necessary

Is there a particular number of expected sales that an agent would have in mind before agenting a non-fiction writer?

Non-fiction writers don't need any sales at all to get an agent - in fact, they don't even need a manuscript. The hunger for good non-fiction is so great amongst publishers and, thus, agents that all you need is a good idea, a good proposal and some proof that you can write. It helps if you're a journalist - because you can point to a body of work, an ability to meet deadlines and an acceptance of the editing process - but it's not essential. It's also helpful if you're an expert in something if you're writing about health or science or gardening. If you're a previously published writer, that's nice too - but none of it guarantees you'll be considered by an agent or guarantees that you won't. It all comes down to what you're writing about and how you write it.

Regional writers

Do you need to be based in Sydney or Melbourne to get and keep an agent? Does it disadvantage your chances of publication if you are a regional writer and can’t get to major writers festivals or meet industry professionals in metropolitan areas?

Due to the wondrous Internets, I don't (personally) believe it makes a fig of difference where writers live in this country. Meeting clients in person is lovely, but I - and, no doubt, all other agents - maintain relationships with writers who live all over the place, many of whom we have never met.

You don't need to go to writers' festivals to meet industry professionals - in fact, you're unlikely to meet them there as they're usually working and wary of being approached by hopeful writers. In fact, you don't really need to meet them at all to succeed as a writer, provided you have Internet access and a phone. Most agents do not want to meet writers before they decide to sign them up; the submission process is the same from anywhere in the country, so it doesn't matter where you live when you send something in. I've never discounted anyone because they don't live in Sydney or Melbourne - if anything, I'm more interested in their stories because they're likely to be different to what I usually see.

However, I do know that a lot of regional writers feel that there is a barrier of some sort between them and the prospect of publication. I wonder whether some of this isn't an entrenched belief that their stories are 'less than' - they're certainly not. If anything, living outside of metropolitan areas, in parts of the country where two hours a day aren't lost in getting to and from work, means that regional writers often have more time to give to their writing and can be more thoughtful about the whole process.

If you're a regional writer and feeling a bit disconnected, the first thing to do would be to make contact with your closest writers' centre, or the one in the capital city. You can even choose a writers' centre interstate if you like the look of their services better. The next thing - or maybe equal first thing - is to look into the LongLines program at Varuna (http://www.varuna.com.au/) as this is specifically tailored for regional writers. Peter Bishop and his team at Varuna are longtime champions of regional writing, and he regularly goes around the country meeting writers.

There is a lot of help out there for regional writers - the first step is to believe that people want to read your writing, and then be confident as you send it out into the world.

Can a new agent do the best job for me?

I just finished reading your answer to 'So many manuscripts, so few agents' - about the shortage of agents in Australia. I recently had the good fortune to sign with an agent. Her agency is new, so I was just wondering what effect that has to whether publishers will take work recommended by her, or will they be less inclined as she is yet to establish a reputation as an agent? I was hoping the fact that she was new would work in my favour, as she would be hungry to succeed.

Having a new agent isn't necessarily a concern (after all, we were all new agents once). It depends on the background of the agent in question. If she's been working in publishing for a while, then she should have the necessary contacts to do the best job for you, because a large part of being an agent is having the relationships with publishers that make the agent better able to place books. This is the major hurdle to succeeding as an agent - if you don't have the relationships, you have to make them from scratch, and that can take a considerable amount of time. If the agent has never worked in publishing before, it may be almost impossible to succeed as he or she will probably not understand the cultural quirks that make the book industry so different to other types of publishing. But I'm going to presume that your agent has worked in the industry, so none of this may apply.

As for being 'hungry to succeed' - this comes back to the aforementioned cultural quirks. Australian publishing is quite genteel - aggression is not welcome. In fact, it's not even welcome in the US. Everything takes time with books, and patience tends to pay off. People who push (whether it's prospective authors calling me to check on their submissions, or me pushing a publisher to make a decision) tend to find themselves on the end of a 'no'. So while I'm sure your agent will do her very best for you, give her some time to do it. By all means ask questions about the process and what's happening, but don't be surprised if it takes a while for her to answer - we spend most of our day doing stuff to place manuscripts, and it takes more time than most people think.

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

When do I need an agent?

At what stage should a new writer think about using an agent? If, hypothetically, a new writer has a paperback coming out in 2008 with a major publisher, and a YA novel contracted for 2009 with another major publisher, and several things about to be released by the Educational press, and two already published items in the US Chicken Soup for the Soul Series, should he/she have an agent? What if he/she currently has two other manuscripts being considered by said two publishers? Still speaking hypothetically, what can an agent give a beginner who has worked really hard on his/her own behalf so far, that he/she has not been able to achieve?

The first thing to deal with here is the term 'new writer', because it affects how the question is answered. The hypothetical author mentioned above isn't really a 'new' writer because s/he already has books heading for publication. But a really new writer - one who has had no contact or contract with publishers - is a different case, so I'll straight to the questions at the end: what can an agent give a beginner who has worked really hard on his/her own behalf so far, that he/she has not been able to achieve?

If the beginner is not the hypothetical author with the contracts - if s/he has been working hard on their own behalf but hasn't yet found a publisher - then an agent can offer them access to publishers, and to the right publisher (who is not necessarily the publisher with the biggest advance). About half of an agent's work is with publishers and half with authors. The half that is to do with publishers is often just staying in touch, finding out what they're up to and what they're looking for, so that when one of the authors has a manuscript to send out, it goes to the publishers most likely to consider it seriously. Each agent could send out a manuscript willy-nilly, but that's wasting everyone's time. The other aspects are the deal, the contract and the ongoing relationship with the publisher. An unagented author may not know what to ask for when they're made an offer by a publisher - which rights should they keep, for example? And they need to look carefully at the contract - sometimes I will look over contracts for authors who aren't clients but need another eye on the contract, and I'm always amazed by what's in those contracts. As to the relationship with the publisher - usually things go well, because publishers are well behaved in general, but when something goes wrong you may need a third party to help sort it out.

Which brings me to our hypothetical author with lots of contracts. This person is doing pretty well for themselves - they're obviously good at getting to the right people in a publishing company and at promoting their own work. That's fantastic - but atypical. Most authors, particularly when they are starting out, aren't sure how to do any of this. But if you're the author who does, then you may not need an agent. You'll probably only need an agent if you'd prefer to have someone else handling your contracts and making sure your subsidiary rights are being looked after, or - because there are multiple publishers - if you'd rather have someone else do all the talking for you. Ideally the agent frees up the author to concentrate on the creative work while we take care of the business (and also advise on the creative). If our hypothetical author likes the business side, though, and they're happy with their publisher/s, they don't really need an agent.

Unconservative YA publishers

I have written a YA novel about teenage male body-image issues. I think this is a unique and relevant theme, and I also think that the construction of my protagonist differs from those most prevalent in YA novels. That is, he's not morally upright like the New Age Boy, but cynical, occasionally neurotic, and self-obsessed. He undergoes some change (and realisation of his flaws, like in most novels), but he doesn't achieve perfection, or, for that matter, an overt desire to do so. I think he is realistic and he deals with issues common to male teenagers today. My supervisor (it's a Master of Arts project) believes it could have a market. Before I submit, I'd like some advice on which Australian publishers (if any) are most likely to go for a YA novel that willingly faces current issues and isn't too conservative.

Unfortunately I can't point you to particular publishers (see 'About Me' at right) but it would probably be unhelpful to do so anyway, as the personnel of publishing houses can change, and what one house favours today may not be to its taste next year. The best thing to do is spend some time at your local library and bookshop, going through the YA section and finding titles that you think are loosely in your subgenre (current issues/not conservative), then see who has published them. Publishers with YA lists are generally cognisant of the fact that their readership is changing all the time and don't want to be patronised - in my experienced children's publishers in general are passionate about what they publish and very well read in their field, so they're abreast of trends and they know what's working and what's not. Even if they may seem conservative, if the story and writing are good enough, they're going to be interested, because decisions about which books to publish are made largely by committee these days, and there's probably the odd forward-thinking individual in the bunch. For fiction, regardless of the age of reader, it always comes down to how you've executed your story.

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Ahhh query letters - a favourite topic!

What are the elements of a good query or cover letter? How long should it be? What does an agent want to know from a query letter, and what information is superfluous? Do Australian agents expect a query first, or is it sufficient to send a sample with a cover letter?

Query letters are one of my favourite things to blather about, because they're so often the difference between an author getting read - by an agent or a publisher - or not. When I submit a manuscript to a publisher, I do my own 'query letter' of sorts, to pitch it to the publisher; if the author has helped me by sending a great one of their own, I'll immediately want to read their manuscript.

Query letters are de rigueur in the US but haven't really made much of here by agents and publishers, but they should be. Query letters show us how you can pitch your own work. And before you say, 'But I wrote a novel - why do I have to do anything else?' consider this: you're a writer - ergo, you should be able to write a query letter that reflects the standard of your manuscript. And if you can't, that's a concern and will immediately raise a red flag to an agent.

So I was delighted to get these questions and the chance to talk about query letters; I'll answer them one by one (and there are some useful links at the bottom of the post).

1. What are the elements of a good query or cover letter? The query/cover letter should tell an agent (or anyone who reads it, for that matter) who you are and why you are writing to them; what your manuscript is about and why the agent would want to read it above all other manuscripts (but don't use the phrase 'I'm the greatest unpublished writer in the world' because you'd be surprised how many people try that one), and any information you think might 'sell' the manuscript or you as an author (e.g. 'I recently completed a LongLines program at Varuna'; 'this story is very topical because of XYZ').

2. How long should it be? Ideally no longer than one A4 page single-spaced. As most agents receive a lot of queries, they want to scan things quickly and sometimes turning the page doesn't make things quick ...

3. What does an agent want to know from a query letter, and what information is superfluous? We want to know, in plain language, why you have sent us your manuscript and why you think people should read it. Superfluous information is any biographical information that is not pertinent to your writing - if it's a memoir about Tibet, it's helpful to mention that you lived in Tibet for 20 years, but don't tell us where you went to school. Most importantly, be honest but don't puff yourself up with unnecessary adjectives. Other superfluous information (at query stage, at least) is a list of which magazines you think might want to interview you.

4. Do Australian agents expect a query first, or is it sufficient to send a sample with a cover letter? Each agency has its own submission guidelines, so it's best to check their website first or, if they don't have a website, call or email. If their guidelines are unclear, it certainly can't hurt to send a query first and mention that you weren't sure what their procedures were, so you didn't send a sample of the manuscript. And remember that agents aren't scary - they just have too much reading. It's not school, either - no one is going to yell at you if you get it wrong. So it's best to be honest and say 'I don't know what you need to see but I'd like to submit a manuscript to you please' and remember that it's not a combative situation. Agents aren't waiting to reject you - they want to find great writing. So make it easy for them.

Some handy tips on writing query letters can be found here: http://misssnark.blogspot.com/search/label/query%20letters
And here:
Also here:
http://www.jennybent.com/letter/index.html – good sample query letter

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

When is a new author not new?

I now have 13 previous publications under my belt, from short stories to poems, and a novel published online. Yet I still find myself submitting as a 'new' author or 'first-time writer' to most agencies and publishing houses. Even after seeing my credentials I am still considered to be so. At what stage does one cease to be a 'new' author, is there a magical number?

A 'new' writer - in terms of how the publishing industry might define it - is someone without 'credentials'. Credentials can include winning short story competitions and having book reviews published in The Australian (for example) - there are many fledgling novelists who start out publishing journalism in order to build up their credentials. I guess the unspoken rule is that someone else needs to have adjudged your work worthy of publication, which is why publishing online often doesn't count as a credential (if you've published it yourself). And the biggest credential of all is having a book published - so you're technically new until that has happened.

The other aspect of being a 'new' writer is genre: if you're submitting a fantasy manuscript, for example, but the short stories you've had published were all chick lit, you're definitely a new writer in the fantasy genre; your short stories will give you some runs on the board, but not as much as if they were fantasy.

Categorising literature - a specific case

I have a finished manuscript which is a biography of my son's life. I have written part of it in my voice, and the other half in his voice. The story is about his conversations with family, and friends, and how he lived his life. He died of cancer at seven! I have now been told by agents, and editors, that I can't write a biography in someone else's voice. If I do the book is just classed as 'fiction' - therefore, not credible as 'non-fiction'. So, after a 'scathing' report on my manuscript from an agent, I am now wondering if I should change the entire book to my point of view? I have been advised that my book could also be classed as 'Literary Non-Fiction'. So, the question is - what do I do next? Also, is there such a 'category' as Creative Non-Fiction?

As you are imagining what your son would be thinking and saying, strictly speaking what you're writing in relation to him is fiction. Autobiographies can be written by others - that's what ghost writers are for - but what you're talking about here is an amalgamation of non-fiction (your voice) and fiction (what you're writing about your son). This is certainly not the first time someone has combined the two, but in the end the category doesn't matter as much as whether the writing is any good: agents and publishers look at the writing first and worry about the category later (that's the marketing department's domain, anyway). So in answer to the question 'what do I do next?' - keep drafting your manuscript until you find someone who responds positively. That might take you eight drafts, but it will be worth the work if you get it published. Writing is work, and getting published is work, and some of it is hard work but hopefully it's rewarding, and that's why you're doing it.

Specialist agents - religious books

As a writer, and a dedicated Christian, I have had three overtly Christian books published and one republished by two publishers which is still in print. I would really love to have an agent to do all the negotiating and initial 'business' side of getting published. Most agents ask for non-religious manuscripts. So do you know of anyone who handles these things? (I mainly write biographies and fiction.)

Agents don't always state what specialties they might be interested in as it could end up being a long list so it's worth, first, researching agents and finding one or more you think you might like to work with, and then sending an enquiry (or calling, if they give a contact number). You're a published author, so tell them that up front - it doesn't matter what 'genre' you write in. The agent-writer relationship is fundamentally a personal one - you have to like each other - so if you find someone you like and who likes you, I doubt that they'll worry too much about what your writing specialty is.

Friday, July 6, 2007

So many manuscripts, so few agents

You have said previously that the US has hundreds of agents just in New York whereas 'Australia has a mere handful of agents' - why is this? Is it only because the small market and our dispersed population? (Australia has a population of 21 million and NY 19 million). If this is so, then I assume there is no hope of having a significant increase in the number of Australian agents in the future?

This is an issue I was going to raise in a general post, but I'm glad to have a question to answer ...

The agents in NYC serve the whole of the US - the US publishing industry is centred in New York City, with only a handful of satellites elsewhere. So, while there are agents in other places, the bulk of them is in NYC, because they need to be. Australian agents are in Sydney and Melbourne for similar reasons, but obviously catering to much smaller numbers.

As to why there aren't more Australian agents ... The brutal truth about agenting is that it's a lot of work for generally not a huge financial gain. We all have to do it because we love it, and sometimes we have jobs on the side so we can keep doing it. The other brutal truth is that you pretty much have to come from within the book industry - from publishing or bookselling - if you're going to hang out your shingle and become an agent (unless you're going into an established agency), because you need to have the network of contacts amongst publishers in order to make a go of it. So for new agents to appear would mean that people have to emerge from the publishing industry and be willing to work on commission - knowing that they won't see income for quite a while, because getting books published takes a long time, especially when you're just starting your own list. In order to take this sort of risk, they'll need an independent income - but they've been working in publishing for years, and that's not a lucrative industry, so they're probably not in a great position to take a risk on becoming an agent. A salary usually looks more appealing than working on commission!

Additionally, being an agent requires lots of different skills, and a whole lot of ball-juggling, that requires a certain personality type - mainly extroverts, who are not normally found in captivity in publishing. You also need a high tolerance for disappointment and an ability to deliver bad news in a way that doesn't leave us sobbing in the bathroom at lunch.

So, in short: you're right, there's not much prospect of a significant increase in the number of agents in this country, although there's an increasing reliance on them by publishers and thus, necessarily, by authors. We just have to ask you all to bear with us while we try to get through our reading and manage our lists, because we so much want to see you published - we just need more help!

To trilogy or not to trilogy

Is it true that stand-alone fantasy novels are more likely to be picked up than the first of a trilogy/series if you have never been published before (or only as short stories)? I know a lot of people say that publishers will not take trilogies/series if you have never been published, but in Australia I see a lot of new fantasy authors getting their series published without any previous experience (e.g. Fiona Mcintosh, Jennifer Fallon). Is this an old myth or is it still relevant?

The quality of the writing and the story are always going to matter more than whether the novel is the first of a trilogy or not. If you want to write a trilogy, write it - just don't submit all three novels to an agent or publisher! Send the first one and tell them that it's the first of a trilogy. I can assure you that, if they love the first one, they will be excited that there are two more after that.

The main point to bear in mind when aspiring to have your fantasy novel published is that you'll need to be more patient than other novelists. Not only does the average size of fantasy manuscripts mean that they can't be read as quickly as other novels, but there aren't as many publishers specialising in fantasy. Stephanie Smith, who publishes Voyager at HarperCollins, has been at the vanguard of fantasy publishing in Australia (but don't send her manuscripts without checking first!) and now Hachette Livre has its Orbit imprint, and Arena (Allen & Unwin) is also looking for some. But there are lots of people writing fantasy, and it's all funnelling into this tiny stream. So that gives you lots of time to write the trilogy :) I should also say that publishers who are committed to fantasy are usually knowledgeable and they love the genre - they're just short on reading time ... Given the growing popularity of fantasy, though, you'll probably see more publishers getting on board.

Wednesday, June 27, 2007

First-time authors and following up on interest

Are agents interested in first-time authors with a good product or generally speaking do they prefer published authors only? 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? I don’t know whether to send my completed MS to the editor who requested to see it 3 years ago (she read an incomplete version & followed me up twice by email soon after the birth of my 2nd baby with an open invitation to send it again when completed—but I’m embarrassed at how much time has elapsed—the novel only took an aggregate of 2 weeks to finish but with 2 young babies, 2 businesses & 2 house moves I wasn’t able to commit to the writing life at the time).

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.

Agents and non-fiction writers

What are the chances of a non-fiction writer being agented as opposed to a fiction writer?

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

Publicity for the self-published

I have a fabulous 'how to' book which (through my own sweaty efforts) is now in five small bookshops on consignment, and (through my own sweaty efforts) has been reviewed in a major newspaper and a major national magazine. How do I make the next big jump to be on television? It seems that the morning shows and current affairs shows are only interested in shock and controversy, not helping the public with a 'how to' book. (I was interviewed by Channel 7 but the story never went to air.) What will get my book onto TV and still maintain my integrity and dignity?

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

Are some agents created more equal than others?

As you know all major and most small publishers do not accept unsolicited manuscripts, especially from first time authors. OK so I emailed many publishers and asked them to send me details of their preferred agent(s). The invariable response was that they would not supply such information.


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.

The legal issue of using real humans' names

I am writing the life story of my late maternal grandmother. I've received a lot of enthusiastically given info from her children and their spouses. They feature in the story quite a lot. My question is, to give these people identity privacy, is it alright to change their names? They're not fussy but I feel it might be better for them in the long run. Being a stickler for detail accuracy, name change goes against the grain. In this case though I think their privacy is important.

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

Many issues, one post about self-publishing

I am planning to self-publish a book, and the idea of marketing myself, my work, and asking for favours of any sort makes me break out in a sweat. I will, one day, need people to do things for me. Like put my book in a prominent stand in a bookstore. Interview me. Make me sound like I'm someone worth reading. So when you ask us for questions, it's hard to know where to start.So here's my first few:
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.

Finding a criminally inclined agent

Finding an agent seems just as difficult as finding a publisher. I have written a crime novel set in Queensland and went through the Australian Literary Agents Association list and none of them appear to be accepting new work in the crime writing genre. Any suggestions about how to find a suitable agent.

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!

A rose by any other name

After a number of books published,I've recently been offered a new contract. The one proviso is that I use a pseudonym. Of course everyone is being nice about it and calling it a 're-launch', but it's pretty obvious it's because my previous sales haven't exactly been stellar. I'm a bit worried that if the publisher doesn't really get behind this book that I'll end up writing under hundreds of different names. What do you think about this pseudonym business? Pros? Cons?

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

Haiku - a digression

In thinking about good writing, I recalled the Blue Screen of Death haiku which were all over the Internets a few years ago. Ahhhh - good times. For those of you who don't know what these are, go here:

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.
Lazy programmers.
-- Charlie Gibbs
- - - - - - - - - - - -

Server's poor response
Not quick enough for browser.
Timed out, plum blossom.
-- Rik Jespersen

The slush pile and how to emerge from it

Reader kaz posted the following question in a comment, and I thought it was worth pulling into the main site:

"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.