Monday, December 14, 2009

What the ...?

I've been "read", considered, then turned down at Sourcebooks, then read (by two editors, because they thought it was worthy) through the Friday Pitch at Allen &Unwin.

I'm writing a P&P [Pride and Prejudice] sequel about the adventures of Lydia and George Wickham -I have [read?] several 'sequel' including the most famous, Jean Rhys' The Wide Sargossa Sea (Mrs Rochester), and believe there is a market for these from readers who while enjoying the original classic also would like to read more of their favourite (or not-so-favourite) heroes.

I have always enjoyed Cornwell's Sharpe and the Flashman series by Macdonald, and am trying to slot into that exotic-adventure genre, but with a more feminine, romantic touch. Sourcebooks in the US were quite interested first in my single title, then in a series of stand-alone Lydia adventures, but when the GFC but backed away [? not sure what is meant here].

My latest Lydia adventure 'A Skulk of Vixens' I think has considerable merit, but it seems to be a chicken and egg dilemma - if you don't have an agent, you don't have as much of a chance, etc. etc.

I have inserted my queries in square brackets and unbolded them because, frankly, if you sent me a query letter like that I wouldn't read any further. I know you weren't asking about query letters but I have to say it, because I was so distracted by the bits I didn't understand that I almost blanked out the actual content of the letter. And this could be a problem for you when you're submitting things to agents and publishers. Also, I changed your spelling of 'favorite' to 'favourite' because American spelling makes my eyes bleed.

I've never understood the whole 'sequel' biz but that Pride and Prejudice and Zombies and its brethren are doing well, so what do I know? I'm also not really sure what your question is - are you asking whether or not you should be looking for an agent? Are you asking me if your genre is the sort of things agents like? It's getting towards the end of the year and I'm really not capable of reading between the lines. I'm not even capable of remembering my clients' names, although I'm sure some of them will read this blog and remind me. See, look ... I got distracted again. Okay, back to you.

Write what you want to write. Make it the best it can be. Then send it to agents and/or publishers but check the submission guidelines first: if the agent/publisher only publishes military books, you will not have any success sending them your story. Alternatively, explore e-book publishers in the US or publish it yourself, in part or whole. Start a blog, post some parts of the novel, network your blog and see what responses you get. Sounds like a lot of work? Yeah, but the authors who are going to do well in the future are the ones who can do this stuff. Start now.

Niche books

I have a collation of (probably mostly new) entertaining wordplays/puns/neologisms. How would I go about finding an appropriate publisher to approach besides trying to find similar books in a bookstore?

Bad news: you'll have to look in a bookshop. And good luck finding other books like that unless they're written by folks who are already famous, or published in the US, where the market is big enough to accommodate quirky little tomes.

So hot right now

I mostly write fantasy / romance / adventure mixtures. I would describe some as mainly romance, but it's definitely not erotica. I have just read a review of what's hot in the market, and it seems to be nothing BUT erotica. I have read a few samples and frankly, I felt they often debased love, women, etc. I don't consider physical injury of the beloved by the "lover" to be a part of romance, for example. Should I just accept that I am an old-fashioned nerd and crawl back under my rock, or is there light at the end of the tunnel?

'I don't consider physical injury of the beloved by the "lover" to be a part of romance, for example' - then please don't read any of the Twilight books because you've just described the central tenet of all four of them.

Okay! Off my hobby horse now. Let's talk about you instead. You're not an old-fashioned nerd - I don't really believe that all the romance/erotica stories out there involve injuries. I am fairly sure Stephanie Laurens, for example, doesn't write romance stories that are violent or debase the female characters. I guess it depends exactly what 'market' you're talking about - it sounds like you are writing for a defined slice of the romance readership and within that slice you're concerned that the tide has turned towards sadomasochistic sex rather than romance - or, even, erotic sex. Perhaps it has. I'm not a specialist on the romance market. But trends are trends and they change. Write the romance and sex the way you want to write it - I can guarantee you will not be the only person in the world who wants romance and sex to read that way. Women are the majority of romance (and book) readers and they're a diverse bunch.

I could launch into a general discussion of why the culture may be skewing towards sexualised violence towards women and why women may actually want to read about it or watch it, but I'm fairly sure I'm meant to be blogging about books, not sex, regardless of how much fun the latter topic may be ...

Publishers and their closed doors

Noting that Penguin Australia was accepting unsolicited manuscripts for its Aussie Chomps series (books of 10,000 to 12,000 words, for readers 8-12), I began to write one some months ago. I set a deadline of February 21, 2010, and have 7800 words so far and the story fully realised in my mind.

Being paranoid, I sometimes check Penguin's website to see if they're still taking unsolicited stuff. Oh, calamity! Tonight I found out they had stopped, instead of saying they were NOW taking it, it now says, "As of the 11th December, 2009 the Books for Children and Young Adults department will NOT accept unsolicited manuscripts. This is likely to be reviewed at the end of February, 2010."

What happened? Had they been flooded with unsolicited manuscripts to the extent that they wished to stop taking them? Had they decided the series wasn't profitable or in demand and so no new stuff was needed?

I'm heartbroken having spent a lot of time and energy on crafting something just for them. I take it the solution now is on completion of the book to look for an agent. I'm keen on reading your opinion of what happened to make them change their minds and whether I still have a shot, any kind of shot.

Don't panic. Breathe. Repeat if necessary. Because here's what you just did: you overreacted. You say that you're 'heartbroken' but that's a fairly strong reaction to something that might or might not have been the real situation. And you just expended valuable energy that could have been better utilised in your writing.

Penguin will open their doors again, they just periodically close the submissions for their children's list. No doubt it's because they're overwhelmed and just need to catch up. It would be drawing a long bow to say that they'd decided to stop publishing the series - Chomps have been around for a while. However, even if they did cease to publish the series, that's nothing you can control.

The moral of the story is to not plan on anything being set in publishing world - Penguin didn't say they'd have submissions open indefinitely, you just presumed that that was the case. In this way publishing world is no different to non-publishing world. Nothing is for sure. Everything changes. That's life.

So I say again: Don't panic. Breathe. Repeat if necessary.

Monday, December 7, 2009

E-books into print books

I have one e-book published, and the editor spent a lot of time making suggestions, many of which were incorporated in the final manuscript. I feel an obligation towards her, as well as gratitude for taking me on board. Sales are very small: I gather it is mainly to do with self-promotion, and I seriously don't have spare time (I often don't even have time to write, hence am very frustrated!). I also don't have much expertise in this area, and even with the internet it takes a long time to research.

The other manuscripts I have floating around out there being 'considered' by other publishers/agents are ... just floating. The e-book I consider to be their equal or better, according to one's personal taste. Would it be really rude to send it out for consideration as a print publication, on the grounds that it has been a finalist for an e-book award, despite poor sales? (If perchance it was successful, I think the e-publisher should get some of the profits, whatever they turned out to be.) I'm sorry if this sounds like a weird question, I'm just trying to think laterally, but would hate to hurt anyone professionally or personally.

There are a few issues to consider here.

First is the fact that you no longer have e-book rights to sell along with your print book rights, and this may be a dealbreaker for some publishers (even if a lot of them aren't quite sure what to do with e-book rights yet). Some, not all. Just so you know.

Second, the question of 'gratitude'. It's nice to be grateful. Some of my authors make decisions out of gratitude and I always ask them to not do this, because publishing companies aren't charities. They don't publish your book because they feel sorry for you. They publish your book because they like it and think they can make money out of it - not necessarily in that order. While it's good to not burn bridges, don't let gratitude overly colour your business decisions. So, no, it wouldn't be rude. The e-book publisher is not offering you print publication. Why should you then not seek it out separately? And the e-book publisher will make money from the e-book sales that would probably increase if you have a print publication too.

Third, e-book sales will be small for most e-book titles for a while until everyone gets the hang of digital publishing. Don't worry about it, just do your best with the time you have for promotion/marketing, learn what you can when you can and that's all you can do. Writers very rarely have the luxury of just writing. Most of them have other jobs, children, husbands or wives, other family members to care for, friends, pets and sometimes farms. You do what you can. Don't give yourself guilt when it's not necessary. That's what major religions are for.

Friday, December 4, 2009

Submitting picture books

I have just finished a picture book aimed at 4 to 10 year olds and am now seeking publication.

I know you have said previously that it is incredibly difficult to find a publisher/ agent for a children's picture book but I wondered if you feel it's better to approach a publisher directly or go via an agent. If you believe the latter is better, could you please recommend some agents to approach? I have an illustrator attached to the project (albeit not a well-known one) so is it best to send the manuscript with or without the accompanying pictures? And finally what can I do to make the manuscript stand out from the rest of the slush pile?

I'm curious about your picture book for 4 to 10 year olds, as that's not an age range any publisher would recognise ... Picture books are typically for children aged one to about five or six. There is a huge difference between the stories a four-year-old likes and those that appeal to ten-year-olds, so I'm not sure how you will have bridged that gap in your own story.

As to the submission question: submit to anyone you can. If publishers are accepting submissions, go for it. If there are agents looking for picture books, submit to them too. Unfortunately I can't recommend any, as it says in my little 'About Me' thingy on the right-hand side.

Send the manuscript with a couple of illustrations but not the whole lot - mainly because it's expensive for you to keep reproducing colour illustrations. Also take care not to send in anything unless it's been requested - that's a waste of your time and money.

To make your manuscript stand out, you only have to do one thing: make sure it's excellent. There are no visual tricks that agents and publishers respond to. We work our way through the pile and what always stands out is talent. The other thing that always stands out is rudeness in a letter, so maybe avoid that ...


Do you think the role of the literary agent is set to change in a major way? I was reading Mike Shatzkin’s blog article about literary agents and the changing world of trade publishing:

He explores some really interesting issues about new business models and the digital revolution, and offered some views on how literary agents will need to respond to this ‘brave new world’.

Do you see big changes ahead for agents – in particular as the way authors earn their money (click per view, profit splits, self-publishing, etc) shifts? And on the flip side, what does it all mean in terms of what an author might expect from their agent – and in turn, their publisher?

Yes, I think the role of the agent will change, the same way I think the role of the author and the publisher will change. I think everything is going to change - most importantly, the way we tell stories is changing and will change, and that will affect everything else. We just don't know exactly how, which makes it hard for me to predict how my own job will change. The frustrating thing for me, at the moment, is that the Australian publishing industry is mostly lagging on the digital front. There's the odd publisher who's on top of it but the rest are way, way, way behind the US. I am trying to force some change now, when I do new deals. I ask questions about e-books, I try to get e-book publication dates. But digital publishing is still not being treated as important by any save that handful I mentioned. My biggest fear is that the sticking-head-in-sand-ness of it all is going to mean the demise of the Australian publishing industry just as much as the PIR changes would have.

So what's my changing role? Right now, it's to try to effect the change that is already under way overseas. In the future, yes, quite possibly, it's advising authors on self-publishing in the digital realm - but under the current agenting rules I'm not allowed to take commission for that, so it's not really worth my while to do it. Profit-sharing models aren't being taken up in the US and they're not even a glimmer in anyone's eyes at the moment. And, frankly, I'm so exhausted at this point of the year - after a year that has felt like a constant banging of my head against brick walls - that the prospect of keeping on top of all this change makes me want to revert to the job I'm actually qualified for, which involved five years of university study that I have not, to date, used. In order for me to properly be on top of these changes I need to hire someone to do the job I do now, so that I can spend time managing change. But there's no money for that. And that will be the challenge for Australian agencies in particular - we simply don't have the same income as UK and US agencies so we actually can't spare the time. I guess we will have to, though. I know we will have to. I just wonder when we will sleep.

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Contract, no agent and questions

I have a contract with a publishing house and no agent. I’m very happy with the publishers and should they offer another contract after this one, I’d say yes without hesitation. But publishers are extremely busy and spread very thinly indeed and so I’d like an agent to help me sort through various issues that arise – some of them pretty trivial, but important to me. I am floundering around in the dark sometimes.

As far as I can make out, the best way to find an agent would be to wait until this contract is fulfilled, see if they want more, submit any manuscript that the publishers are interested in to an agent, who, if they like the manuscript, would take me on and then deal with the publishers for me. I would not be interested in shopping it around, as I like the publishing people I work with.

Would this be the best way to go about it?

Your instincts are correct ... it would be difficult to find an agent for the contract you have now. This is for straight-up business reasons - there's no commission to be made on a contract that's already done, and none of us can afford to work for nothing.

If you're a published author with a second contract being offered, you will probably be able to find an agent without much trouble, but I don't think that's really the issue: what you're looking for is advice, not necessarily someone to negotiate for you. Which brings me to a small soliloquy on the nature of agenting.

Agents manage the business of writing so writers can get on with writing i.e. being creative. Sometimes agents are involved in the creative side - when writers ask us for input on ideas and manuscripts - but generally it's the business that we take care of. We give career advice, we sort out problems, we do contracts, we negotiate deals. You may not need any of these things - not all authors do. You may just need someone to answer your questions. You may wish to pay someone commission to answer your questions, and that's legitimate too. I suspect some authors have agents just so they have someone to talk to about their writing who is not a friend or family member; again, that's a perfectly legitimate reason to have an agent. But you may also find someone else who can answer them - a fellow writer who's been through the publishing process, or your local writers' centre. Of course if neither of these is available to you, an agent can certainly answer your questions and would, one hopes, be happy to do so. Getting published can be a confusing process the first, third, tenth time.

Here's another idea: ask your publisher, editor and publicist. Yes, they're busy, but it's their job to give you information, amongst other things. Sometimes those of us 'on the inside' can forget that people who are new to the publishing world don't know the same things we know. Sometimes we just need them to ask us and we'll be eager to spill. Go on, give it a try. If you don't ask, you don't get.

Monday, November 23, 2009

It's all in the timing

Is there a bad time to submit to an agent or publisher? eg. when it's only a few weeks before Christmas are agents and publishers extra busy?

If an agency or publishing company knows what they're doing, they'll have a log of what manuscripts come in when, so Christmas downtime won't mean that your manuscript will get lost. It will, however, mean that you should probably allow more time for it to be read - say, four extra weeks. This is not because everything slows down - I always go full-tilt towards Christmas and I'm waiting for the year when I can lazily read submissions in the Yuletide season, but I doubt it will happen. No, it's more because we all shut down for a week or so, collapse in a heap and then spend half of January trying to get back to full speed.

However, the timing of my submissions to publishers is affected. I'm about to send maybe one last submission for the year and I'll probably put it on ice anyway, because the Acquisitions meetings are about to stop for a month or so. If I send out something now and it doesn't get looked at, there's a chance it will get lost on someone's desk amongst all the covers to be signed off and pages going to the printer before the printers close for the year. I'd be better off waiting until the new year. This can be frustrating for my clients, obviously, but people start taking holidays soon and those meetings don't happen without key people being present.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Don't worry about a contract when there is no contract

I’ve heard that the publication process can allow for the author to promote his/her own work—I’m curious where ‘promotion’ ends and ‘potential contract violation’ begins. Specifically, what are the limitations for an unpublished author who is ready to start submitting to agents, but has had no contact with an agent yet?

Can an unpublished author submit his/her stuff (following the agent’s guidelines precisely, of course) and additionally refer the agent to a website/blog to see more about that submission if they wish, during the review period?

I’m worried that a referral like this: ‘…Please visit, where I have provided you with samples of other material/artwork/resources relevant to the completion of this manuscript…’ would actually be read as this: ‘…Please visit, where I will single-handedly void any claim to have never-been-published, by posting my entire manuscript!’

Are such sites/blogs irrelevant, and avoided by agents? Or are they helpful?

I think this question refers to what is commonly known as 'putting the cart before the horse'. Where there is no contract, the author cannot be in violation of one. Thus, an author who promotes his or her own work on a website when submitting to agents or publishers cannot be in violation of any contract and, in fact, is more likely to be looked on favourably because he or she already has a web presence.

What that author shouldn't do is direct the agent or publisher to the web for the submission itself. I.e. do not say, 'Dear agent, instead of sending you a proper submission I'd like you to go to my website.' That just looks lazy. And you know what I think about lazy authors? PASS.

Doin' time

I have a student who is currently doing time with Her Majesty. This student wants to write his life story. What are the laws regarding writing a book of true crime when criminals are not supposed to profit from the proceeds of crime. If the student writes about his life and part of the book focuses on the crime, does this make a difference?

It's just as well I have an LLB (Hons) after my name otherwise I wouldn't really feel qualified to answer this ...

The key part of your question is 'profiting from the proceeds of crime' - so long as your student receives no profit, there's no problem. Which means that any monies he may receive from a hypothetical publishing deal would have to go to someone else and, I believe, could not be held in trust for him to receive at a later stage. He would never be able to access the proceeds. There is no law stopping him writing about his experiences - hello, representative democracy - it's just the profiting part.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Victory is so, so sweet

Craig Emerson, the Minister for Small Business, Independent Contractors and the Service Economy; the Minister for Competition Policy and Consumer Affairs, and the Minister Assisting the Finance Minister on Deregulation, has just issued a press release stating that parallel importation regulations will not be changed. That's correct: NOT be changed. Which means Australian copyright still exists and Australian authors have the same fair shot at getting published that they had a couple of years ago (the industry has been understandably nervous the last year and a bit).

This is extraordinary news, and I can't begin to describe my relief. I've had more to do with this issue in the last few weeks than I thought I would, and from close up it wasn't looking too hopeful.

To the booksellers who will be disappointed, I can only say that Amazon has precisely the share of the Australian market that it should have - books are not cheaper from Amazon when you're paying to fly them here, and people seem to order from Amazon when there's a book they just can't get here, not when there's a book that's delayed by a month (because flying the book here takes almost as long unless you want to pay huge courier fees). I know all of this because I order books from Amazon and it is always books that I just can't get here, for whatever reason (usually because they're out of print).

To the large chains who think they're hard done by: count your discount blessings while you have them and stop to think that there is absolutely nothing to prevent publishers selling direct from their websites. The internet means that a book can be sourced from many different places - there is no reason that one of those places shouldn't be the publishing company, with its big warehouse and courier contracts.

Big thanks to all of you who wrote to your MPs, who wrote on your own blogs and generally provided support - a special shout-out to Theresa L.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

E-books, iPhones and the great digital unknown

The whole eBook thing is in itself exciting (love my iPhone & would love room on the bookshelf), but it’d be nice to know that it’s being introduced in a way that doesn’t completely disembowel our local industry. Risks & opportunities.... Maybe writers’ remuneration needs to be calculated in a different way, like pay per view/click through, or as an extra licence fee through something akin to APRA for the music industry. That would be collected from the distributors like Barnes & Noble rather than from the consumers direct, if B&N is offering consumers the opportunity to share their books with friends for “free”.

If the electronic revolution does bring down the publishers’ production & distribution costs (although remembering most people will stay on paper), maybe there’s some argument that there could be more in it for those at the bottom of the food chain? I wonder why they haven’t fitted these eBook readers with earplugs & an audiobook option for those who’d prefer to listen than read during a long commute, or for kids, or the vision-impaired. Maybe they have, but they haven’t marketed this. Then I could see that this technology could actually bring in more ‘readers’/consumers than currently purchase hard books. Maybe writers will have to be more business minded & consider Merch opportunities when writing and film/tv spin offs. Just putting words on paper isn’t going to pay the bills if the push for ‘cheaper’ continues.

Whoa ... there's a thesis worth of answers for all of this. I'm not sure I can do your query justice, but I'll try.

1. The cost of things -
The creation of the book involves more than the cost of paper and distribution. A lot of the cost goes into paying the salaries of the publisher, editor, publicist and sales reps, not to mention the higher-ups. Yes, it's a factor, but it's not enough of a factor for a publisher to slash their prices by, say, half. If you want to test this theory, try self-publishing an e-book and then try editing, distributing, promoting and selling it yourself.

2. More moolah to the creator - The idea of profit-sharing between writer and publisher is afloat but, unsurprisingly, is not being taken up by publishers. That's because it's a new idea and changing the publishing industry is like turning around a rusting Soviet tanker when it's heading for Stalingrad. It may catch on in time. But it will mean that the writers concerned have to be willing to be businesspeople, because it will be quite a different relationship to the current co-dependent, mutually fractious creative liaison.

3. E-books into audiobooks: Digital (e-book) rights are different to audio rights. Amazon stepped into a world of woe when they tried to use software to convert their Kindle books to audio, because the publishers (rightly) said that they didn't have the audio rights and thus weren't allowed to do what they planned. No doubt in the near future there will be cases when these rights go together, specifically so the e-book can convert into an audiobook or vice versa, but it's not really happening now. And trying to explain rights would take me a few hours. (It's taken me several years to get my head around it.)

My own nebulous theory about e-books and the digital future is that e-books may well attract a completely new readership - people who didn't read print books, for whatever reason, who are at home in the digital environment and prefer to read their content that way. Cultural artefacts are consumed or not consumed for a variety of reasons: 'I want to look smart'/'I don't want people to think I'm dumb' are high on the list. I think a lot of young - and older - men don't buy books because they're not sure what they want to read and they don't want to walk into a bookshop (or library) and say that, because it's never been made easy for them to do so. The internet makes it easy. The internet does not say, 'Dummy, why can't you spell?' The internet understands that you can be unable to spell perfectly or read for two hours without a break and still want to read books. Someone very dear to me fits into this category. I hope that access to digital copies of books will mean that he doesn't ever feel like he's 'too dumb' to read again.

Line spacing and synopses

Having reviewed every 'submission guidelines' page of every Australian agency--even the ones currently 'closed due to backlog'--I can't find any line-spacing specifications for the synopsis. Is there an unwritten standard that I missed regarding the spacing in a synopsis?

The query letter, I assume, is to be set in the standard single, and the chapters are to be double, of course. The synopsis, however, which the agencies request as being anywhere from 1-3 pages in length ... well, they ain't specified line-spacin' nowheres.

I'm concerned because one page of double-spaced plot-extract doesn't seem adequate to recount a day in the life of a brick, let alone an entire novel.

Do I need to cinch the proverbial belt again, or can I single-space my synopsis?

I'm going to start by referring you to this post in which I state that I kinda don't care what the formatting is because if the submsision is electronic I can change it, and in which I also state that many writers get far too caught up in the formatting and not caught up enough in the actual writing (or words to that effect).

So you can read that post in conjunction with what I'm about to say: use 1.5 line spacing if in doubt. It's not windy enough to suggest that you believe the agent or publisher has problems with their sight; it's not close enough to be annoying (as I personally find single spacing annoying if the paragraphs are long).

I'll also let you in on a little secret: a lot of people in publishing don't put a lot of weight on the synopsis, but it's useful to have it so you can see that the story is going somewhere. A synopsis is a tool, not an opportunity to display your writing skill. The query letter or hello letter or just-read-my-damn-manuscript letter is, however, a place where you can play. In short: don't kvetch, just write. Keep the synopsis as concise as possible and spend most of your energy on the manuscript. If your manuscript is brilliant and your synopsis is not, which do you think I'll pay more attention to? I'll happily overlook a dodgy synopsis to get my hands on a great piece of writing.

Monday, October 12, 2009

Beaucoup de questions

I've targeted certain agents, mainly from information on, and checked out all I can find about their tastes before I approach them. Some of the sample query letters they display are puzzling - some want "personal", some want "professionally objective" and some don't tell you! Many of them, however, seem to have a fairly long response time, e.g. 3-6 weeks for responding to an e-mail query of maximum 250 words (and it was difficult to be informative in such a short query, believe me!). Is it considered reasonable to query multiple agents at the same time, or perhaps send to two, wait a couple of weeks, try a couple more etc.? I know my chances of attracting interest are slim, so I don't want inadvertently to annoy anyone. Also, if I have been rejected by a certain agent, can I query someone else in the same office? AND (sorry to be so profuse!) for the ones who say they will only respond if interested, how long should I wait generally before assuming that they were indeed not interested?

My current other question concerns a publisher whose advertised response time is 9-12 months (and yes, they have been around a long time and are no doubt very popular). If I haven't heard from them at all (apart from receipt of submission) and 12 months have passed, how long should I wait before asking politely what the current status of the submission is? (In the past, I've assumed about a month more, but this could be bad form, for all I know.) And is it generally true that silence indicates they haven't yet chucked it, or should I read no meaning into this at all?

On the question of multiple submissions, please see this post. Also, since you're querying in the US, multiple submissions are completely acceptable there.

If an agent in one office has said no, take it as a 'no' for the whole office. Multiple-agent offices are a rarity in Australia so we don't tend to face this issue too often, however in an agency with several agents an individual agent may well pass on queries to other agents in the office if they think it's a better fit for them. If you've had a 'no', you can presume that either hasn't happened or happened and it was a no there too.

If you haven't heard from them within eight weeks - if it's only a 250-word query (geee, wonder if I can get away with asking for that ...) - then move on.

As to the publishing company: you're right, give them a month over the time limit and then make contact. Do not read anything into the silence other than the fact that they haven't responded to you yet. I go silent on submissions for weeks - months - at a time and it's because I haven't read it yet. Everyone gets a lot of submissions. We all make promises about time frames but can only keep them if we have minions to help us. Agencies and publishers aren't that flush with cash, ergo, no minions and no timely response.

Agents and editing

Once a writer has feedback from the Editorial Department of a publishing house, to what extent do literary agents involve themselves, or make themselves available during the editing/rewriting process?

Presently, I’m an unsigned writer, with a dozen pages of detailed chapter by chapter comments and an invitation to rewrite and return, from a Senior Editor at one of the big houses. I’ve started the rewrite, but wonder whether I ought to seek out an agent to oversee the process of getting the best book possible out of this pile of pages before resubmitting (and hopefully, negotiating a contract). I realise that there are plenty of reasons for working with an agent, but I’d particularly like to know how the editing stage is managed. Many thanks.

I can't speak for all agents on this issue, as I don't know what they all do. So I'll just speak for myself, and I have as little or as much editorial involvement as the author wants me to have. Sometimes I'll read part of a first draft and give feedback on that; sometimes I'll read the full first draft; other authors don't want to show me until draft three or six or whatever number it is when they feel ready.

Once the authors have received editorial notes from their editor/publisher, again, it depends how much they want me to be involved, but usually they'll send me the notes and ask me for my opinion, especially on contentious points. And it's just that: an opinion. As is everything with editing. One thing I never want to do is come between them and their editor - that is a very intense relationship that should not have a third party inserted into it, unless there is a fundamental problem with communciation between author and editor. Happily, that doesn't happen very often.

Foreign etiquette

I've discovered that once I've had a story published in an Australian magazine I can try to sell it to overseas publishers. I know I need to specify what rights I'm selling (eg. First British serial rights), but is it necessary to mention it has been published here in Australia?

First you need to check which rights you've sold in Australia - if you gave them world rights, then you have nothing to sell. I'm presuming you've done that, so if you're submitting overseas you should mention that it's been published in Australia, because it's a good thing - someone else thought the story worthy of publication. But, given that we're a former colony partly populated by former Britons - a fact they conveniently forget, damn overlords, just because the aforementioned former Britons were criminals - don't expect anyone in the UK to actually care. I could spend two hours ranting about British publishers and their cavalier behaviour in respect of Australian rights, but I'm already en couleur and I should really calm down before trying to eat my lunch.

In an existential black hole

I was wondering if you might be able to offer some advice. I have recently completed my first work - a short work of fiction of about 80 000 words. I took the step of approaching someone who is the director of a small publishing house. This is what I received by way of feedback:

'I've had a quick look at the ms and, while it's very fluent and has some very interesting things to say, its fictional form would, I think, make sales too difficult to find for someone with as few marketing resources as I have. It would need the muscle of a better-resourced publisher.'

As I am new to 'the game', and understanding that without a personal contact with an appropriate (well-resourced) publisher, the ms is likely to sit on a 'slush pile' for years, my question is: where to from here?

Are you sure you realised what sort of blog this is? That an agent writes it? The question where to from here? suggests that you didn't, so now I'm in some kind of post-structuralist existential black hole - do I exist? Does my job exist? Arrrrghhhh. This is why I'm so slow at answering questions - I can't take the angst.

So I'll make it simple:

1. Personal contacts only get you so far, and most published writers don't have them. If the manuscript isn't any good, the contacts certainly won't help you get published and, in fact, may be wishing they didn't know you.

2. Agents help you avoid the slush pile - try submitting your manuscript to a few of them. (Of course, if I don't really exist - if agents aren't real - then my head just exploded while writing that.) And just so you know, agents don't count as 'personal contacts'.

3. If you don't want to try agents, there are several novel competitions around - your local writers centre would be able to advise you.

FYI: 80 000 words is not a short work of fiction. That's a slightly-longer-than-average work of fiction.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

The dead end

I’m an author and I’ve written what I think is a really good book. I’ve passed it around to colleagues and friends, and friends of friends who tell me (hopefully with honesty) that it’s full of all of the good things a great book should be full of.

Yet, I’m having terrible trouble finding a literary agent, and I think that it’s because my book (as great as it may be) is hard to market. I’m 29 and unpublished, and my book takes the form of a prose-y, personal memoir-ish, travelogue in which I challenge the conventions of modern marital restrictions, and question my own relationship and existence.

I’m getting decline letters left and right despite the fact that I know I have a good book! What on earth do I do?

Honey, every writer thinks they've written a good book, otherwise they would never submit their manuscript to agents and publishers. I've not yet come across an author who says 'I think my manuscript is crap, but I'm sending it to you anyway'. Funnily enough, though, a lot of my published authors - wonderful, talented people - are convinced that everything they write is crap. I find this simultaneously hilarious - It's brilliant! How could they doubt it! - and disturbing - If they think it's awful, how can I convince them otherwise? Why can't they see it's good? (AL, I'm talking to you). Maybe there's some kind of logarithm for that ... Author self-belief (X) is in inverse proportion to literary merit of novel (Y) where Z is variable. I'll leave you to work out what Z is.

Anyway, back to you. Here are a few tips:

1. Friends and friends of friends are not good judges of literary quality. They are always going to tell you what you want to hear, especially if they tell you that that's exactly what they're not doing. Unless all those friends work in the publishing industry, their opinions won't matter. And please don't put them in your query letter.

2. Saying that you think your manuscript hasn't been picked up because it's hard to market is equivalent to blaming the formatting of the ms ('I should never have used Courier New!!!'). If something's good enough, being hard to market doesn't matter.

3. ' I challenge the conventions of modern marital restrictions, and question my own relationship and existence' - at this point I thought your email may have been a joke, but I proceeded in good faith. Don't you think this subject matter has been done before? What makes your manuscript different? How are you going to do it differently to, say, Jay McInerney in The Good Life, even if that was a novel and you have written a memoir? Or Julie Benz in Perfection? [Ed note: after writing this I realised I was confusing Julie Benz - 'Darla' in Angel - with Julie Metz, the real author of this book. D'oh! So it's Perfection by Julie Metz.]

4. If you're convinced you have written a brilliant, if misunderstood, manuscript, publish it online. You'll find out soon enough.

I'm probably sounding snarky. I know I should be encouraging you to hang in there et cetera. But I'm reluctant to, for these reasons: first, because I don't understand why everyone who writes thinks publication is the sine qua non of their endeavour, when there are plenty of musicians who never want to put out a record or dancers who never want to appear on So You Think You Can Dance; second, there is a lot of complaining about why agents and publishers close submissions, and the reason is that we get far too many manuscripts that are simply not up to scratch, and we then make a decision to miss the potentially brilliant one because we're not up to wading through the other stuff.

It's possible you have written a brilliant manuscript, and that it's just not the time for it to find a publisher. Or it's possible that it's just not ready yet. Or that it will never be ready. So I'll go back to a common piece of advice: put it aside for six months and then read it again. If you find absolutely nothing to change, put it aside for another few weeks or months. Repeat. Good writers - great writers - will always be drafting, realising that the story is continually in motion. If you think your manuscript cannot be improved, well ...

Competitions and world rights

A writing competition (for novels) that I'm thinking of entering offers a cash prize plus publication. I notice in the small print however that the publishers reserve all world-wide publishing rights to the winning manuscript and all shortlisted manuscripts. Is this good or bad? Would the winner still get royalties on such things as foreign, movie or electronic rights?

There's a growing number of competitions in our island's publishing industry, so your question is timely and important.

It is customary for publishers to take worldwide rights for competition winners - okay, yeah, they have the writers over a barrel, so what can you do? But I have real problems with shortlisted writers (a) being told they can't submit elsewhere until the publishing company has decided whether they want to publish the novel or not and (b) being made to give up these rights while their status is in limbo, and even if it's not.

Foreign rights is a specialised area of the industry. I don't always advise my authors to hold onto their foreign rights so I can do something with them - sometimes the publisher will have a much better chance of placing the book overseas, and I'll tell the author that. It all depends on who we know and who publishes what, and it's important to do what's best for the book. So I'm not saying that publishers who take world rights in these competitions are inherently bad, because it may be good for the author if the publisher handles those rights. For example, if the author doesn't have an agent who can manage those rights for them, how are they going to exploit them otherwise? And for the winning manuscript, I can see why the publisher wants them: they've invested time in the competition, they've chosen a winner and now they're going to invest time and money in them. Thus, they want to have the opportunity to make back some of that money by selling foreign rights.

However, for the shortlisted writers this is not the case. The competition has served to bring their manuscripts to the publisher's attention, nothing more. They have not won; they will not automatically get an advance. The publisher is using the competition to find new talent, and that's fair enough, but the shortlisted writers should not then be subject to the same conditions as the winning manuscript. They should also be free to submit elsewhere. The Vogel Award, for example, is not an award for One Really Good Novel and Four Close Calls. It's an award for one novel alone. Once the winner is announced, the others should either be set free immediately or given a (short) time frame within which the publisher has exclusivity.

As for the royalties you mention, the author gets those - well, any money earned on sales of foreign rights or movie rights etc go against the advance, so you see royalties if you've earned out your advance. Any publishing contract that tells you that you're not entitled to a royalty on subsidiary rights (translation, movie and so on) is a contract you shouldn't sign.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Formats, fonts and attachments

I write young adult medical science fiction. Two of my stories have been published in Analog. I have dreams of having novels published, but realise that YA SF does not sell books right now. I am, however, looking at agents for the three books I have in various stages of polished, from basically-finished-and-re-edited several times to still-a-mess. Maybe I can set a new trend or pull up the one established by James White.

To my delight, I found three agents who like young adult science fiction. But one of the Guidelines confused me. One wanted snail mail. Easy. I submitted there first -- yesterday. The second wanted email and would accept attachments. Good. I can do that if the first comes back. The third wanted email, no attachments. Now I'm totally confused. Won't my five-to-ten pages, of beautifully formatted novel, arrive in the agent's office in a mess?

I've asked tech people and got some really strange responses but no answers. I really do not want to send junk.

I'll answer your questions in a second but for now I can't get past the sentence 'I can do that if the first comes back.' Why are you waiting to submit elsewhere? Have the agents you're submitting to told you that they want exclusivity? If they haven't, don't give it to them. That's a waste of your time. If they have, what are they going to do in exchange for the exclusivity? Are they going to get back to you in a fortnight? They should.

Okay, now I'm over that. Let's look at what you actually asked about: submission guidelines. Many, many authors get hung up on formatting, and I don't know why, unless they're trying to hide behind the formatting as a reason for why they get rejected - 'It wasn't that my novel was awful, I just didn't use the Helvetica font they wanted'. But I have heard enough talk about it to realise that some authors spend a lot of time and use up vast amounts of creative energy formatting their text. I find it curious, and occasionally disturbing.

I may be an island on this issue, but I don't care about formatting. My clients and the authors who submit to me can use whatever font and font size they like, because I'm probably going to change it all to Garamond with 1.5 line spacing. I can do that, you see - that's the beauty of Microsoft Word: I get to have the font I want. So when people submit in a body of an email, I can either read it as is or I can copy and paste it into a Word document and change the font. The only thing that drives me crazy is when they've used a soft return (using Shift + Enter instead of Enter) because then paragraphs disappear when you paste the text.

I wouldn't mind betting that the agent who's asked for the text to go into the body of the email feels the same as I do - they wouldn't ask for a submission like that if they were worried about an author getting formatting right, because email always does wacky things to text. So just make sure there are no soft returns and you'll be right.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

The Productivity Commission - part XXVI

It feels like part XXVI, even though I haven't made that many posts on the subject.

I believe there is some rallying of the pro-Productivity Commission troops going on. 'Cheaper books' is the cry. Yawn. YAWN. Since when did a public company give cheaper anything? Since when did you all start believing that Coles, Woolworths and Dymocks are going to do something that benefits their customers? How are those petrol prices working for ya? How's your toilet paper? How's your 'home brand' product range - about the same price as everything else, right? That's how they roll.

And since when have we forgotten that tried-and-true chestnut, that there is no such thing as a free lunch? Well, folks, those so-called cheaper books are the free lunch. Which means there's a price somewhere ... oh, wait, here it is: you can have cheaper books, sure, but just don't expect them to be Australian. Don't expect to get your Donna Hay cookbook or your Michael Clarke Captain's Diary or your Lote Tuqiri tell-all, because there won't be anyone around to produce them. Why not? Nope, not because publishers won't exist - because writers won't.

There is bugger-all money for writers as it is; if retailers like Dymocks pound the publishers for more and more discounts - they already pay less than half the recommended retail price for a book, which means that anything they charge above the discount is money straight to them - then the publishers have to squeeze it at the other end. The other end is the writer. If Dymocks will only pay $5 for a book that used to cost them $15, how much money do you think there is for the writer after the publisher has paid for production, distribution, sales, marketing and publicity?

Of course, I've heard that writers are all members of an 'elite' - thus, they must all be trustafarians who don't need the money. Yeah, right. The writers I know come from all sorts of backgrounds and live all sorts of lives. Some were cops; some were actors; some were journos; some work in bookshops. Most of them don't have anything approaching a Masters degree. Most of them work bloody hard for a living and then do their writing at 3 a.m. with a crying child, or late at night after a shift, or they sneak it into a lunch hour. They're not elite in anything other than talent. And since when did having talent make someone 'elite'? It just makes them talented.

So let's turn to those other so-called 'elites': people who work in publishing. Hmmm, let me see ... public high school, public high school, private school on a scholarship, public high school. I personally started working the day after I finished my HSC and kept working throughout university. Guess I wasn't elite enough to get by without the money. Maybe I should leave the industry. Except you know what I spent a lot of my money on back then? Books. I bought books because I couldn't breathe without them. I bought books because they were my whole world. They fired my imagination and made me laugh and cry and dream.

Writers wrote those books. It sounds facile to say it, but let's go over it again: writers wrote those books. Without writers, there are no books. There are no stories. So how dare anyone - ANYONE - imply that they are not worth every cent they are paid, and more. How dare anyone say that they should be paid less. How dare anyone - let alone the CEO of Dymocks, who makes his money off the products of writers - call Australian writers incompetent. I'd like to see him write a book. But, no, he can't - he's not elite enough. He's just the CEO.

There's a lot of misinformation going on in this debate, and it's centred on this mantra: 'cheaper books'. Australian books are not expensive compared to books in the rest of the world. And anyone crowing about the cost of books overseas and the price they'd fetch here under this new world order has failed to factor in the enormous cost of actually getting those books here. Who do you think is going to pay for that? Do you imagine that Dymocks will absorb the cost of freight so they can bring their customers cheaper books? If so, let me resurrect a phrase from the 1980s: that, my friends, is Voodoo Economics.

The Coalition for Cheaper Books has also managed to divert attention away from another truth about writers. agents and publishers: we are all book buyers too. But we are 'super-user' book buyers. We understand the economics behind the price of a book. Don't you think that, as folks with a heightened interest in buying books, we'd be the first to support the idea of 'cheaper books' if we actually believed they weren't as cheap as they could be? The Coalition members have not seen costings for books; I have. I can assure you that the profit margins aren't big. I can also assure you that most books never earn out their advance. Publishers take the risk that they won't. They take that risk on some books that they're fairly certain will never earn out - like first novels - because they believe in what they're doing. They believe in books. Yes, they're mostly public companies but there is this weird thing in the publishing industry: we believe we're all involved in something bigger than ourselves. We believe in the mission. And to quote Buffy the Vampire Slayer, 'the mission is what matters'. Why else would we put up with these woeful salaries?

The members of the Coalition for Cheaper Books do not believe in books. For them, books are a SKU like cat food and Wettex. They believe in maximising their profit. There is a price for this. You pay that price already - it's called a lack of competition in the marketplace. The Grocery Choice website didn't even get off the ground because the major retailers stopped it. This is not a different fight we have here, for books. We want book choice. Currently we have it. And isn't it nice? This is not a fight of 'elites and elitists' versus everyone else. No one is more elite than a member of a board. What's going on now is pure greed. Dymocks et al can charge less for books any time they want - they pay less than half the RRP of the book, so they can just charge that if they want. But they don't want. They want to pay even less than they already do, and then charge the same. It's called making a profit. Making a profit is something most publishing companies hope to do and often don't. It's something most writers will never have the luxury of doing. And they're the elite? Pah. There are about five authors in this country who earn an hourly rate commensurate with their skill.

I could go on and on about this. I already have. But if you're sitting on the fence, let me break it down in non-book, cold economic terms. Whenever you pay less for something than it is worth, someone loses. The loser is NOT going to be the public company that sells you the product; it is going to be the primary producer. This is the lesson our farmers have learnt. This is the lesson Australian writers are about to learn. If you value your Australian stories and the films and TV shows that are made from them - such as Underbelly - you will value the writers who created those stories. They are irreplaceable.

Friday, July 17, 2009

Turning water into wine

For the past four years I've been writing my own humour column for a street magazine with a monthly readership of around 70,000. I've also contributed similar writing to other magazines with a weekly readership of around 90,000. Within those numbers, the readership of the column has to be worth taking notice of.

The column was said by one of my editors to be 'like a less gay version of David Sedaris', which sparked the idea of compiling the columns into book form.

I put together some samples and a proposal which outlined prospective, established readership, my previous writing achievements in both short fiction and national magazines. Promotional editorial would be dead easy to organise given my contacts.

I felt the proposal was solid and I have received much feedback from readers over the years, so I know the writing is popular with a specific audience and could be popular with a wider one, given the chance.

In spite of this the first two standard rejections have come in, and it's a little disheartening. I understand that humour is subjective and I accept that the David Sedaris comment could have been misguided, but I also can't help thinking that publishers and agents might be simply going to dismiss this idea because it doen't fit easily into the norm. It's non-fiction, it's humour, it's a collection of short pieces.

My question is: do I knuckle down and keep trying agents and publishers or do I look into self-publishing and books on demand? I'm not sure how to go about these last two but I have been hearing more and more mention of them.

It's pretty clear to me why you haven't been picked up by agents or publishers.

1. Everyone who knows who you are has already read your columns.

2. You have no means of establishing a readership outside of this without a publicity hook - or, as the Americans call it, 'platform'.

3. A collection of columns is difficult to publish even when you have a public profile - can you think of any Australian writers who have successfully published books of columns in the last few years? And by 'successfully' I mean 'sold more than 2000 copies'.

Before you consider self-publishing or books on demand - before you submit your manuscript to anyone else - ask yourself this one, very important, question which all writers (whether they're on book one or book ten) should ask themselves: who is my reader? You say the manuscript could be popular with a wider readership - why? What's it got that is going to catch the eye of the radio and print journos/producers who will need to notice it in order to give it the publicity it will require to get some new readers? True, some books succeed through word of mouth - but you still need some publicity. What's your hook? Funny writing alone won't cut it. Being 'less gay than David Sedaris' won't cut it either - women are the biggest book buyers in this country and, as un-PC as it is to say it, they don't tend to buy stories about the gays, or the less-gays. They want stories - and columns are little stories - that relate to them somehow or are so out-of-the-box unrelatable - like fantasy - that they can escape.

So, yeah, maybe self-publishing is for you - but again, who is your reader? Who's going to buy it? And, in this age of blogs, why do you want a book so badly? Sometimes I ask authors what they want: do they fundamentally want their writing 'out there' or are they really attached to the book? Neither answer is incorrect; it just helps me work out how they see themselves. If what you want is to get your writing 'out there', there's this great new-fangled invention called Teh Internets that can help you. If, however, you're attached to the artefact of the book, that's fine too - but it may not be the right medium for this particular project.

Travel all over the countryside, ask the ...

I have a travel book currently under contract with a publisher, due out at the end of 2009. It was a contract I negotiated myself, but I would now like an agent in order to grow my career.

I have booked my next adventure and started researching, and could pitch the idea of it, but obviously I cannot start on the manuscript until I've done the travel. Should I wait until I have written the manuscript before submitting to an agent, or can I pitch my idea based on the fact that I have a book in the same genre?

You can pitch the idea, but don't get your hopes up for representation based on your pitch and your past book alone. It's not impossible - not many things are impossible - but your first book would need to have sold fairly well in order for an agent to take you on for the second without seeing a manuscript.

I say it's not impossible because I've taken on authors on the strength of their first book and their ideas for a second. But travel writing is a tricky genre (in Australia, at least - and I'm presuming you're Australian). I don't take it on because I've found it too hard to place in the past. Of course, if the writing were amazing, I would reconsider. But it would need to be amazing. You'd also need to have a great idea for the second book - something that's sufficiently different to other books on the market to make the agent (and, then, publisher) think it's worth taking on.

The sky is probably falling

Well, the Productivity Commission, in its wisdom, has decided to kill the Australian publishing industry. Okay, that's being dramatic - they've decided to cut off its legs and not cauterise the wounds.

A publisher I spoke to yesterday remarked that, between the changes to publishing due to the digital world and the PC's recommendations, we'll all be lucky to have jobs within five years. My attempt at putting a positive spin on it all is to say that at least I've been given three years' notice to find a new career.

This may all sound a bit Chicken Little-y to those who are on the outside of the industry, but the potential consequences of the PC's recommendations - that parallel importation restrictions (PIRs) are removed and that Australian territorial copyright be worthless - are far reaching and devastating. The PC may feel that PIRs are restrictionist and anti-free market (Yay, free market! Free market that allowed subprime mortgages to flourish!) but the fact remains that their removal will benefit only UK and US publishers and will probably mark the end of the Australian publishing industry as any real force. The threat is THAT real and THAT upsetting.

The federal government can do one very simple thing to make books 'cheaper', if that is the real intention of the PC: Mr Rudd could remove the GST on books and anything to do with books. No GST on the book designer's fee; no GST on the printing company's fee; no GST on the freight charges; no GST on the purchase price. That would immediately bring about a drastic reduction in the price of books. But it's not really about that, is it? I wouldn't be the first person to point out that it's a bit iffy that ALP stalwart Bob Carr, the former premier of NSW (that gloriously functioning free-market economy), is on the board of Dymocks. Dymocks were the main driver behind the PC conducting this review, a review which was also pushed for under the previous government but which was mysteriously left alone by those renowned free marketeers John Howard and Peter Costello.

Some people I know are suggesting that the recommendations are actually a form of 'anti-elitist' strike - a 'let's take down those snobby publishing people a peg' thing. Maybe. Human motives are always complex, but I know this for sure: no company (private or public) with shareholders - such as Dymocks, Coles or Woolworths - is going to do anything that saves their customers money. They are businesses. They want to make money for themselves. And that's fine - that's what they are charged to do under the Corporations Act. However, they have been allowed to get away with the argument that evil publishers and greedy authors are just taking customers' money and only they - publically listed companies - are putting the customers' interests first. What I find even more remarkable is that the real media story has not been this landmark event - public companies as charities.

It's been good spin. It's worked - on the Productivity Commission. But don't let it work on you. If the PIRs are lifted, the members of the Coalition for Cheaper Books (Dymocks et al) will pay less for the books they sell, but they'd be in defiance of their duties under the Corporations Act if they didn't try to maximise returns for their shareholders - and that means charging customers whatever they think they can get away with. By that time, it will be too late for anyone to protest that this is not what was supposed to happen. By that time, our industry will be on its knees and the number of Australian stories finding their way into the world will be greatly reduced. And that affects our film and TV industries - who often draw material from books; it affects our radio, TV and print media who rely on authors for stories; it affects our culture, quite apart from the economic ramifications.

There has been some hand-wringing in the industry about digital publishing and the wave of imminent change that faces us. I'm not worried about that - I think it's exciting, and if we could all get on board and embrace the change, there's no telling what innovation may be found. No, digital publishing is not the enemy. Frighteningly - heart-sickeningly - the enemy has come from within. We are all now holding our breath to see whether our federal government - our arts-loving, job-saving government - is going to ensure that we are all out of jobs within five years; whether they are willing to see the immense talent and passion in the publishing industry just bleed into the ground.

I'm not being dramatic, I promise - my mother beat it out of me (not literally) quite young. I was even, initially, trying to be pragmatic about this whole thing. We'll be right etc etc. But we won't be right. We will be far from right. And we will certainly not have cheaper books.

If you feel like you want to do something but aren't sure what, now is the time to write to your local federal MP - particularly if they are in the ALP - and lobby them to not allow these recommendations to go ahead. And if you want to engage in mindful protest, you can join me - and others in the industry - in personally boycotting Dymocks. I'm also boycotting Coles and Woolworths, because of this and their petrol shenanigans. If we all think 'one person can't make a difference' there will be no difference. I'm also going to ask the Empire Gods to give us Barack Obama. Since the PC wants to send the industry back into the arms of empire - they want things to work they way they used to in the 1950s - at least let us get Barack. Because the UK sure as hell doesn't care about us any more. And there's no way Barack would let anyone do parallel imports in his country: he knows it's bad for business.

In closing, I am publishing, with permission, a letter that one of this blog's readers sent to the ABC:

RE: Cheaper Books, Don't Count on it.

Promising something that can't be proven is an old trick.

On the other hand, in government-speak, what can be examined is "demonstrated ability" to deliver. Pray, what precisely is Bob Carr's demonstrated ability? After what he did to NSW, who in their right mind, would let him even preside over a chook raffle?

The Australian Publishing Industry is only asking to keep the same protections that its US and UK counterparts enjoy. Nothing more. New Zealand's abolition of territorial copyright protections and opening up to parallel importation has done nothing good for its industry. Their people are now here, or anywhere, but in NZ.

Mr Rudd, knowing that the Productivity Commission Recommendations will cost many jobs, proposes simply to put more people on the public purse with "subsidies". Why not just leave them alone to keep earning a living and contributing to general revenue instead of drawing from it?

Anyone who believes the Coalition for Cheaper Books really intends books to be cheaper for consumers (particularly after their competition is decimated) is in for a double-take. Cheap, de-regulated milk? Cheaper fuel? Cheaper groceries? Surely, this trick has been done to death.

Theresa Lauf, Brisbane Fri 17 July 09

Friday, July 3, 2009

Courses, credits and colons

I have been a 'closet writer' and have only stepped out recently and began the journey. Having read most the answers to my question on your blog, a few still elude me.

Question One and Two: To be a writer (or published writer) would it be benefical to undertake some sort of study in this area? E.g. Bachelor Degree or other writing course? Also, by doing these course/qualifications, does it add more credit to you as a new writer? I have completed a few writers' workshops and online courses. The advantages of participating in a writer's camps etc are geographically difficult. Though not an impossibility.

I know that I need to improve on my grammar and puncuation (however, I can only assume that, to a certain point, that this is what editors do well and get paid for). Which brings me to my third question: I am wondering if I should hone these skills, before I continue my writing or just continue with the flow of words?

Answer One: Courses are beneficial for some writers because the writers then have enforced deadlines and structures, and that can help them get into a writing rhythm or finish a manuscript that they've otherwise left alone for too long. I do not believe that courses can 'make' a writer if they don't inherently have a talent for it, much the same way I do not believe that taking singing lessons every weekend for the rest of my life will make me Ella Fitzgerald Mark II. I also don't believe that courses/diplomas can give you the storytelling spark if you don't naturally have it. It's a bit like trying to be a professional ballet dancer with short hamstrings - it ain't gonna happen. That should not stop anyone from doing a course, though, if the experience gives them pleasure. And you won't know if you have that storytelling spark unless you give the writing thing a go - if you choose to do that within the structure of a course, then that's great. However, a lot of writers I represent have never been within sight of professional writing credentials.

Answer Two: No, it doesn't add credit - at least, not for me. Your writing has to speak for itself. If you've done ten years of courses and your writing is still no good, that's going to make me (a) think the courses don't work and (b) wonder why ten years of adult education didn't help you, personally, improve.

Answer Three: Anyone who has read Lynne Truss's Eats Shoots & Leaves will know that she believes that punctuation is simply good manners, and I agree. Punctuation provides a road map for your reader and if it's absent or misused then the reader is likely to get lost. Grammar, on the other hand, is a murkier subject. A lot of modern English usage is not grammatically correct. That's probably because a lot of us weren't taught grammar in school - I had an English teacher who wistfully told us that she'd love to teach us grammar but she wasn't allowed. In fact, the first real experience I had with the rules of grammar was when I learnt foreign languages. Thus, the Queen's English has been on a slippery slope to Bedlam. And that's quite all right, because while grammar is like punctuation in its road-map qualities, it's also there to say, 'Psst - there's a short cut.' Colloquial grammar is quite acceptable and accepted. BUT if your grammar AND your punctuation aren't all correct and present, that's a problem, because then how do you keep your reader on the road and heading for the right destination? Can your writing really flow if it is, in fact, off-road racing? Don't you hit trees and rocks?

Monday, June 22, 2009

Picture book presentation

I'm a writer/illustrator working on a picture book. I paint digitally and it would be much easier for me to present the book digitally, say on DVD. Is that an acceptable format?

Yes, but you should also submit high-res printouts of the manuscript - most publishing companies or agents will not want to print out colour copies of your digital files ... If in doubt, check the relevant submission guidelines or call/email to find out if you can submit that way.

Navigating the submissions waters

I know the chances of getting published in print are very slim (I do have an e-book out there, though it's not exactly being grabbed by lots of people) but I would like to maximise my chances. I research what I can on the internet, but sometimes get confused. Could I ask you a few questions?

Firstly, simultaneous submissions. I understand why publishers wouldn't like them, but in my circumstances I feel almost impelled to have manuscripts at more than one publisher at the same time. Naturally I let them know this situation, and that I will inform them at once if anyone else accepts a piece of writing (unlikely, hence one of the reasons why I want to do it). Briefly, I am in my sixties, a recent survivor of cancer and healthy now, the sole income earner with lots of debt still and nearly 100 animals directly dependent on me to pay for their feed (this is no fault of my husband's); I drive four hours a day to and from work, have no real job security, work after hours as well, don't really have a life (including time to do any more writing). There are certainly people worse off than this, but I hope people would understand why I don't want to wait several months before trying the next publisher on the list. What is your view on this?

Secondly, I find a lot of publishers are demanding a detailed marketing plan. As someone who doesn't expect the plumber to fix my car too, I am a bit disheartened by this, especially as I live on a small farm, don't know anyone important and don't have time or money to get this sort of contact. I also have no experience of marketing whatsoever. Are they being reasonable? Do they really expect me to come up with a plan, and if so, how? (Sorry, this all sounds terribly negative!)

Lastly (and thanks for your patience), opinions seem to be many and varied as to whether one should have an agent. If you think it is generally a good idea, is it ethical or sensible to approach a would-be agent with samples from manuscripts already waiting at publishers, or should one choose a manuscript that is currently nowhere else?

First question: simultaneous submissions are completely acceptable, so long as you let publishers and agents know that that's what you're doing. If a publisher (or agent) doesn't want you to submit anywhere else at the same time, it's up to you whether you want to submit to them at all, but in my experience they all expect that authors send manuscripts to more than one publisher at the same time.

Second question: I can only presume you're talking about American publishers, as I don't know any Australian publishers who ask me for a detailed marketing plan, let alone an author. But I don't think American publishers expect marketing plans either. Without knowing more detail about who you're submitting to, I can only give a general response, which is that this requirement surprises me.

Third question: the previous two questions lead me to think that you DO need an agent, if only to navigate all these submissions and to give you advice about what you should or shouldn't be doing. As I've said in the past, not all authors need agents but it sounds like an agent could help manage things for you. When you're submitting to agents, you can submit manuscripts that are already at publishers but you need to disclose all information to the agent - i.e. say that it's on submission. The best manuscript to submit, though, is the one you're happiest with - and only submit one at a time. Most of us can only handle one at a time.

Friday, June 5, 2009

The age of innocence

I am a young writer, 19 at the time of writing this, and I just cannot achieve any progress with any of my work. I have written two novels. The first one, I know, is a fairly trashy effort and was just to see whether I could achieve a full length novel with a plot that made sense. I did not seek publication. However, I loved doing it so much I decided to try a second one. I did the next one by the book, making sure I read the genre and understood the conventions, putting it away for several months and then reworking it with fresh eyes, and making sure it was the best I could make it. Now, when submitting for consideration by an agent, I can't even get past a query letter.

Sure, perhaps my query is letter is trash, but I think it's fairly consistent with successful ones yourself and Miss Snark etc have posted.I know I'm not the next Dan Brown or Stephen King, and neither do I want to be, but I would like the chance to try to be a writer. So I guess my question comes down to how I might attract attention from an agent/publisher without any qualifications or credentials and a lack of "adult" world experience? (that last one I have been told by a rejecting agent). Should I draw attention to school and university based achievements, such as being part of an International Honour Society for Academic Excellence, or does that just sound trivial and make it seem like I'm bignoting myself?

Your age is a problem. Not because you're not necessarily a good writer - I don't know if you are or not - but because it sounds as though you're writing for adults, not teenagers, and no adult wants to read a teenager's take on the world unless they have a specific interest in young adult fiction. You as a teenaged writer would be almost an impossible sell for a publisher to booksellers and for booksellers to customers.

Here's the good part: you're going to turn 20 soon. And then 21. Both of these ages are probably more palatable to an agent and publisher. So just wait, and while you wait, work at your craft. Most published first novels are not first novels - they're third, fourth or fifth novels. You have time on your side - what a gift! Make the most of it.

The hold-up

I completed my first novel (a 2-year journey) early this year. I sent in a query letter/submission to a few agents (not many were accepting unsolicited childrens' fantasy submissions) in February, and had no luck. Given the much-advertised 'economic crisis' I decided to hold off sending it directly to publishers, thinking they would be unlikely to take on new unknown writers this year with a presumably reduced childrens' list, and I shouldn't waste my one chance with them.

My intention was to send it to publishers early next year, but now, 4 months later and given I'm a new (impatient) writer, I am itching to try as soon as I can. I know you can't predict the future but nevertheless my question (or questions) involve it:

1.Would it be best to wait till next year, or until this 'economic crisis' blows over, before sending my manuscript to publishers?

2. Will I be blowing my 'only' chance if I send it around now or a little later this year?

3. If I do send it round now and have no luck due to reduced capacity for publishing books in this current economic downturn, would it be acceptable for me to resubmit later (in 1 or 2 years' time)?

I'll do the short answers first:


2. YES

3. NO

Now here are the long answers:

1. It's not just the economy that's making us all nervous - the Productivity Commission has put everyone distinctly on edge, as none of us knows if we'll have jobs next year. However, children's publishing is resilient in times of economic downturn. I think your problem is not so much the economy as it is the genre you've chosen. You wouldn't believe how many children's fantasy manuscripts are floating around out there ... It is, by far, the largest single genre (out of adults' and children's books) that I see. So you really need to have an outstanding manuscript that is not at all derivative of anything else out there - especially the boy wizard - in order to rise above the pack.

2. and 3. Yes, you're blowing your only chance because you do only get one shot at submitting to agents and publishers. We only ever look at something twice if we've asked to see it again after a rewrite. Most of us - probably all of us - keep records of submissions and will be able to tell if you've resubmitted after a rejection. People try it, but my answer to them is still 'no'.

I've written a few posts about patience and impatience - there's even a label for it at right. It's really worth being patient - not necessarily because of the economy, but for the sake of your own writing. Before you send it out again, make sure your manuscript is as good as it can be. That usually means being patient and not looking at it for a while.

Who needs short stories?

My question is about 'writing experience' and how that helps you in the game of getting published.

I understand that for an unknown writer to be picked up by a publisher their work would have to be brilliant, or they would just have to send their manuscript to the right place at the right time (i.e. they're lucky). But there are thousands of submissions each year that are just 'very good' which means, although they may be publishing worthy, they may not necessarily be picked up. Some suggestions to help writers in the 'very good' range are to get short stories or articles published, win writing competitions etc.

My passion is in writing novels where I have the time and word count to develop a character and present their journey to my heart's content. I struggle to write a good short story and I don't believe this is where my talent lies. However, I would be more than happy to pursue this if it does indeed help in the long run. Therefore my question is this: in your opinion, are agents or publishers really likely to give an unknown writer more of a chance if their query letter shows they have published some short stories or won one of the many random competitions?

In short: no. At least, I don't discount writers if they haven't had short stories published or had short stories win competitions. Short stories can be a very good discipline if they appeal to you - the same way that writing poetry can be a very good discipline for writing novels if poetry is your thang - but I'm struggling to think of the last writer I took on who had written any short stories at all ... Word search ... Search fail.

If novels are what you love writing, then stick to what you love. You may never get published - statistically, most novelists won't - but I can guarantee this: you will never ever get published if you don't love the form you're writing in. If you start writing short stories because you think they'll be helpful and your heart's not really in it, it will show in your writing. If you write a screenplay because you think it'd be cool but the screenplay form is something you really struggle with, it will show in your writing.

So stick to the novels. Maybe enter them in some comps; maybe apply for the odd development program or mentorship. That stuff does look good in your bio simply because it shows that you enjoy the writing process. And don't forget to have fun.

Thursday, June 4, 2009

Writing for credit

In the query letters you’ve reviewed you talk about including credits and the need to assert yourself as a ‘bona fide’. So my question is what if you don’t have any writing credits? Would you consider a first time author who had nothing else to hang their hat on but a passion for their craft? Is being a good writer enough? Also I write romance/ contemporary chick lit – so how do I prove I’m qualified to write in this genre? It’s not like you can do a PhD in broken hearts, there’s no Romance 101 taught in any legitimate learning facility that I’m aware of. To some simply being a woman whose experienced her fair share of love and heart break might be enough to make me a ‘bona fide’ for this style of writing but I more interested in what the industry standard is. If you’re a first time writer, other then writing a good novel what else can one do to improve their chances of getting published?

This is a very good point and, again, makes me examine my own query letter–reading mindset.

In JJ Cooper's letter he says that his novel is a thriller about a military interrogator - this is quite a specialised area, so it's great if he has some knowledge about it, which he says he does - that is, he's established his credentials in this specialised field of knowledge. Likewise, if someone's writing non-fiction about, say, the life cycle of the bee, it's best if the writer is an apiarist or bee scientist. So the 'bona fides' really matters when you're writing the sort of book that people will notice a lack of real detail: novels about the military or the police, for example, even about championship tennis - it's hard to write about a culture if you're completely outside of it. The Devil Wears Prada wouldn't have worked if the author knew nothing about the fashion industry.

If you write chick lit, you're correct: you don't need the same kind of background knowledge.

However, regardless of what you're writing, the manuscript needs to be excellent. And most manuscripts don't get to be excellent if the author has not put a lot of work into them. So when I'm looking for writing 'credits' I'm not necessarily looking for a degree in creative writing - in fact, that qualification can sometimes make me run screaming away from the submission - but I am looking for some evidence that you haven't sent me your first draft. That may mean that you say 'I've been writing for five years and have started two novels, but this is the first I've seen to fruition. I've spent a fair bit of time with it, and this is the third draft.' And that, as far as I'm concerned (I can't speak for others), is writing credit. You've done time in the trenches. You haven't just dashed off something in five days and decided to submit it just to see how it goes. A lot of writers won't mention previous (unpublished) novels or stories but I think they should - it's part of their own story. And your own story is what makes you different from the twenty other chick lit writers whose submissions I may be reading on the same day.

Query letters - the main points

Reviewing the query letters has been helpful for me - yes, it's all about my needs, not yours - as it's forced me to examine how I make decisions when I'm reading letters. And the main points I've gleaned are these:

1. If I like the sound of the story, I'm prepared to overlook missing information in the query letter - therefore, the story needs to be described well.

2. If I like the sound of the author, I'm prepares to overlook a query letter that is otherwise lacking. Liking the author doesn't mean liking their biographical information - it means liking their tone. A lot of query letters read the same - with a flat tone - and that's probably because writers are taking them seriously, which is fair and reasonable. But an author who shows me a bit of personality - an 'I love' or 'I'm passionate about' or 'I came up with the idea for this novel while standing on my head' - is going to make me want to read what they've written.

3. I often work on instinct and there's some stuff I just can't empirically break down about why I like some letters and not others. The authors I've found in the slush pile have all - without exception - had fantastic letters. I got a feeling when I read the letter and then it was borne out when I read the manuscript. Wonderful writers always write wonderfully, regardless of whether it's a query letter or a novel or an email.

So I guess what I'm trying to say is: don't be too rigid in your letters. The basic structure is: describe the story, tell me why I should read it and tell me a bit about you, and write the letter as if you're writing to someone you want to start a relationship with. The agent-author relationship ideally endures for years, and we're all human - we all respond to emotional cues, even in business (perhaps especially in business) - so when someone sends a query letter that makes me laugh or makes me feel like they have a wildly beating heart, it makes me want to work with them. It makes me want to work on their manuscript to get it ready for submission. It doesn't matter so much if their novel isn't 'perfect'.

In the US query letters are often the only thing an agent will look at first up; in Australia we tend to ask for chapters as well. So the query letter in Australia probably isn't as critical, but it's still important. It's my first introduction to an author I may well end up working with - and it's always a thrill when I get that feeling - you know, that feeling - when I read a letter and suspect that it may just have been written by an author whose work I'm going to LOVE.

Query letter #10: Lin W

Dear Agent ,

MYSTICA is a completed 90,000 word YA fantasy tale where the strong heroine in A GREAT AND TERRIBLE BEAUTY meets the suspense and conflict in THE CITY OF BONES.
[Avoid mentioning other people's novels completely or, if you have to do it, wait until the end of the query. If you mention them this early, I will think your work is derivative - and that's if I recognise the novels you mention. If I don't recognise them, I just won't understand what you're telling me. However, agents in Australia have to work across the whole gamut of titles - we usually can't afford to specialise - so we won't know all the big novels in any given genre. Agents in the US can and do specialise, so my advice would probably be different if you're querying in the US, as those agents may expect these sorts of references.]

Anastasia never believed in ghosts, though they have always haunted her glamorous city. But then she encounters Duncan Fae – a charming druid ordered to suicide for treason years ago. [Rock and roll! I like this story already.] When Duncan declares himself her birth father, a deep anger resurfaces from within Anastasia’s memory, enabling her to unlock a power that is more of a curse than a blessing. [I'm still interested.]

Commoners and nobles alike fear her unique ability to summon flames – as well as her inability to tame them – especially when nobles are murdered and orphans vanish without a trace. Unsure of whom to trust, yet desperate to save her city, Anastasia must venture into a labyrinth of class war and forbidden love, a world of haunted vaults, abandoned ruins, and extravagant palaces. Duncan Fae is willing to do anything for revenge, and murder is just the beginning of his plans. [It's still rock and roll - nice work.]

My magical realism story [which story?] captured 1st place in the 2009 Joshua Weinzweig National Postcard Fiction Contest, while my speculative prose poem placed 3rd the 2009 OddCon Speculative Fiction contest. For more information, please visit my writing blog: [It's good to mention the URL but please also tell me a bit about you - why do you write in this genre, when did you start writing - and don't forget to tell me why I should read your novel.]

Thank you for considering my query.

Lin W

Status: provisionally APPROVED - I need more information about the author but the lack of it wouldn't stop me wanting to read the manuscript.