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.