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imagine that they'll do it every year - but it's good customer- and brand-building for both Amazon and Penguin (we help unpublished writers!).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!