Friday, February 27, 2009

To give up, or not to give up

Given that some people are saying we’re about to head into a major global depression (perhaps as early as next year), where does that leave the publishing industry in a small market like Australia where publishing opportunities have always been few and far between (unless you’re Tim Winton or Barry Maitland)?

I’ve laboured over my novel for 5 years with the aim of getting published. I love this book, it’s my original baby, and I finally feel like I understand what would make the novel attractive to the market, so I’m re-writing the whole thing from scratch. But should I bother? The book is already good in its own right (or at least the people at Varuna think so). I have 3 other novels in varying stages of completion. Should I aim for publishing, or simply complete my other books for my own sake because the dream of getting published is slipping ever further away with rapidly diminishing opportunities both here and overseas?

You haven't told me which genre your novel is - and the type of novel it is affects how I answer this question. So I'll do the best I can.

First things first: if you've been labouring for five years, it's time to put that novel in the bottom drawer for a while. If you haven't had any luck getting published, despite industry support (viz, Varuna) , then you should possibly see this as your 'practice' novel and take what you've learnt into the next three novels. A lot of first novels are practice novels. A lot of successful authors don't get their first novels published. In other words, and to be zen about it: let go of your attachment to your first novel. It will always be your first, it will always be your baby, but for whatever reason it hasn't been published and you should move on.

Second things second: yes, the state of the world economy is affecting publishing. Australia is doing okay, but the US publishers have laid people off and combined imprints and whatever else they feel they need to do, and so there will be less books published - mostly, I suspect, less novels in particular - and there will be some flow-on effect to the local subsidiaries of the large publishers. The Australian independents may well hold steady, as they don't tend to take the large risks that the bigger companies do and thus are less exposed to the vagaries of the market. Of course, it's possible that I don't know what I'm talking about.

Third things third: I expect there will be less literary fiction published in Australia, for the simple reason that less and less people buy it. It's the eternal problem: writers (usually writers) bemoan the lack of opportunities to publish literary fiction, but I often suspect they're not buying much of it themselves. If you want to see it published, you have to buy it. It's just like bemoaning the closure of your local bakery because you liked the idea of having it there 'just in case' but you never, ever bought anything from it. Surprise! It's gone out of business. Well, publishing is a business.

So: good genre fiction will continue to get published because people buy it and they'll want the escapism. There will be crime, romance, thriller, women's contemporary and so on. You'll probably see less chick lit - complaining about not having a boyfriend or only going to the Whitsundays instead of Greece is going to seem very 2005 when a lot of people have lost their homes and livelihoods. But there may be more 'racy' chick lit - sex is still free for most of us. Fantasy and sci fi probably won't change either, but there aren't many publishers for that in Australia anyway.

And to answer your last question, about whether you should aim for publishing or complete the books for their own sake: never write just to get published. If that's the only reason you're writing, then stop. Because then your heart isn't in it, only your brain, and you really need a lot of heart to run that particular marathon. If you love writing, keep writing; but if you're only writing because you just want to get published, it will show in your writing.

Friday, February 20, 2009

A short essay on how a book gets made and what an agent is for

I'm leaving these questions together because they're linked. They're also the first two questions from the reader who posed the question below, about gender balances in publishing.

You may wish to put on a pot of tea.

Late last year I was lucky enough to sign a contract to publish my first book. It's a novel, and it's a small publisher, but not I think a completely obscure one -- as in, I've see their books in bookshops and in the book review pages, and they're distributed by a bigger publisher.

First question: I was 'recruited' to this publishing house by their Publisher, who, from what she's said, spotted my short stories & poems in anthologies/journals. We emailed for quite a while before she signed me up -- I got the impression she was checking me out, and she certainly proved to me that she 'got' my writing. But almost as soon as I signed the contract, this Publisher handed me over to an Editor, who I hadn't dealt with before. The three of us had a meeting in January, and -- and I know this will sound patronising, but so be it -- I found that this Editor is at most maybe half my age (I'm 54. The Publisher, I'd guess, is 40 something).

Am I unfair to be concerned? I've been writing away for decades. This girl can't have been editing for more than a couple of years. She was pleasant and likeable, but the Publisher did most of the talking. I just don't feel inclined to trust this younger girl like I do the publisher. Am I being unreasonable? And should I say anything? Age aside, should I take it personally that the publisher has palmed my book off to somebody else?

You've hit the jackpot: a publisher has followed your work and offered you a publishing contract. In these times of desperation for novelists, this is a big deal. But, sadly, you don't seem to think it's a big deal - but I don't think you're being completely unreasonable, mainly because you may not realise how the book production process works (and I'm surprised your agent hasn't told you).

Unless the publishing company is very small - small enough to only publish one or two books a year - the publisher is not going to be able to edit a book themselves (I'll use the incorrect plural for convenience). A publisher who edits is the exception, rather than the rule. Typically, the publisher's job is to commission or acquire books, and that's what your publisher has done. Once the book is acquired, the project is then passed to an editor who will hold its hand through to the print date. So what happened to you is normal. Your publisher will still be involved, but there's just no way they could project manage and edit the book as well as do the commissioning part of their job, unless they're prepared to never sleep. An editor's life is focused on the deadline; publishers have different work arcs.

So that addresses your concern about whether you've been palmed off: you have, but for the right reasons. Your publisher will still be involved in the project, but she has other things to do - like work with the designer, publicist, sales manager and marketing department - in order to support your book.

The second concern was that the editor isn't experienced enough. You're within your rights to ask the publisher - not the editor - about which books the editor has worked on in the past, so you can ascertain whether it's a good match. But it's wrong to presume that her youth means she's not experienced. Some editors I know started very young and were no less capable because of it - they just knew that they wanted that job and they got onto it right out of university. Editing is about 90% talent and 10% training anyway - you can't really teach the former, and just because your editor is young doesn't mean she's not talented.

Also, given the previous post post about money, you're unlikely to see many men - young or old - in in-house editorial jobs and you're also not likely to see many older women. The amount of money on offer to editors - and it's a union award - guarantees that it's going to be dominated by young women. Most of the editors who want to make more money end up going freelance once they've established themselves. So if, after you enquire about your editor's experience, you're not happy with the answer, ask for an older freelancer. It's still probably going to be a woman.

Second question: not long after I signed up with this Publisher, I found an agent. She wasn't involved at all in figuring out the contract for this book - we found each other afterwards. But some of my advance for this book will be paid later (when I hand in my final manuscript, and when it's finally published). Do I need to pay my agent a portion of these advances if she wasn't involved in this contract? And, if not, can I call on her for help with this book at all, if I need it? I haven't actually signed anything with this agent yet, but she has said, via email, that she's 'delighted to represent me'. Where does this mean I stand with her? Is there usually a contract with agents? How do I know when she's 'officially' my agent, and is that retrospective?

An agent should only earn commission on a contract he or she negotiates for you. So you shouldn't pay your agent any commission on this book - and that also means you can't ask her to help you with it, because it wouldn't really be fair to ask her to work for free. If you do want help on this book, you may want to come to an arrangement with her - a reduced commission rate, perhaps, or paying commission on just a portion of the advance.

However, if you haven't signed an agency agreement - most agents have them - then she's probably not officially representing you. I don't officially represent anyone until they've told me they're happy with the terms of the agency agreement and we've both signed it. If your agent doesn't have an agreement, though, you need to find out what the commission rate is before you agree to be represented by her.

I find it curious that you felt the need to get an agent after your contract with the publisher was all sewn up. No doubt you'd like representation for future books but the timing is unusual. Some authors look for representation once they have an offer from a publisher and before the contract stage, but not usually once the contract is done, when the agent can't do anything for them on that book.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Girls against boys

This is the third of a sequence of questions from the same person. I'm separating it because it's not related to the other questions, and also because it needs a separate entry. Also because it may take a while to answer the other two questions ...

I hope this isn't insulting, but -- do you have any thoughts about how many women there are at the top of the publishing industry? Does it affect what gets published? Why aren't there more men involved? I don't mean that their shouldn't be women involved -- but the mix of men and women seems unusual. Is there a reason for it, and do you think it matters?

The simple answer to all these questions is: money. The salaries in many publishing jobs are low - editorial assistants are on below-poverty level (seriously), editors and publicists earn under the national average, and most publishers don't earn nearly as much as most people think. So there are more women than men in the publisher, editor and publicist roles but more men than women in the sales, marketing and executive roles. No surprises there - those jobs pay better.

The perception of gender imbalance arises because most authors deal with the publisher/editor/publicist sector of the company and never meet people from the other departments. In truth, most acquisitions meetings are probably almost evenly matched, with a skew towards more women in some companies and more men in others.

I used to think that there weren't more Alistair Maclean-type novels being published because there weren't enough men making publishing decisions. Now I just think it's because hardly anyone is writing those sorts of novels. 'Entertainment' doesn't seem to be a motivation for many writers. Where are the new Frederick Forsyths, the Judith Krantzes, the Wilbur Smiths? If we could find some of those, they'd (probably, hopefully) get published. But they don't come through my submissions pile. Was that a massive digression? Probably. But I just felt like making the point.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Author in a hurry - part deux

This author has also written with more information - and it turns out her two different publishers are quite specialised. So I've somewhat wrongly accused her of being in a hurry - although I don't know her personally, so I really can't say for sure. She has also written that she 'certainly didn’t mean to sound like I was whinging about not being able to enter competitions! The "big break" is definitely being published, but for me it’s also about being able to establish a career of sorts ... It’s not about being published by as many publishers as possible or being in a ridiculous hurry, but about being proactive and knowing the limitations of my current relationships with publishers.'

Given what she's told me about her existing publishers - both with no presence 'in the trade', as we like to say - she is right to send submissions to other (trade) publishers. But here's my big warning: now is a really bad time to be submitting children's picture books. Or illustrated books for adults. Those books are expensive to produce, both in terms of paper and production, and the amount of time involved, so they're not the sorts of books publishers are rushing to take on in 'uncertain' times. Australian publishing is doing okay at the moment, but our northern hemisphere colleagues are cutting people and projects all over the place. Some of those colleagues work in the head offices of large multinational publishers who may soon turn their gaze south. And as the illustrated books usually come from the larger houses - as they have the bigger budgets - now is really not a good time. So if this author wants to make relationships with other publishers, she should ideally do it with non-fiction that doesn't need thick paper ...

How old is young adult? - redux

The author of this post has written to clarify that she meant to say 'is it true that it is easier (and more profitable) to break in to the 8- to 12-year-old market?' rather than 12 to 15s.

And the short answer is: no. I reckon it's harder. Harder because there are so many different levels of reading and subject interest in that age group. Publishers are certainly looking for books for that age but they really can't say what they want - they just know if they like something or not.

I've found it easier to place new writers in YA, because the market's a little more defined by then - teens are either going to read or they're not, so there's not the same element of trying to find a story that will persuade a kid to read (almost like forcing them to take vitamins). By the time they're teens you can presume that they're reading a book (mainly) because they want to. That extra bit of licence means you're more likely to find really interesting, challenging stories and some really cool writing in YA books.

Fundamentally - and this is true for every writer - you have to write the story they way you want to write it. If you really think your characters are 15, don't make them 8 because you'll have to change everything about your story. By all means write a different story for the 8s - just don't try to remake an existing one. It's not the same as changing a chick lit age group from 35 to 25 ...

Don't worry so much!

Over a year ago, I booked a pitch session with a highly respected agent at a writer’s conference. My aim was really to see if my then-incomplete YA fantasy was on the right track. I was surprised when she requested the complete manuscript. It took me over 12 months (working around my demanding job, getting a professional manuscript assessment and editing) to send the manuscript. It has been with the agent for about 6 weeks. I know it will take a few months for her to look at it, but do you think she is likely to think I’m unreliable and not worth considering because I took so long? Would it be appropriate to follow up with her after 12 weeks?

I have another question ... As soon as I sent the agent my first YA fantasy manuscript, I started on the sequel. I feel very passionate about the story and the characters and want to continue with them on their journey. Then I wondered if there was any point. If my first manuscript turns out not to be publishable, then the sequel doesn’t have any hope! Maybe I would be better off working on one of my other manuscript ideas? I guess this is a personal choice really, but I would appreciate your advice.

I seriously doubt that an agent will think you're unreliable because you took 12 months to finish your draft - some people take 12 years. What's more likely is that she has put it in the reading pile and will get to it in time. Are you wanting to make contact because you're worried about whether it's arrived or not? If so, I would advise against calling - it is really a super-annoying thing for agents when authors call to see if their submission arrived - but if you really must, sent a simple email (just an enquiry, not an essay) to check. You can presume that your manuscript is not in a priority spot in the queue just because it was requested - only client manuscripts take priority - so it will take a while to be read, but if you haven't already had a letter back saying 'Why are you sending this? Go away!' - because we're quick at sending those letters - you can presume you'll hear in due course.

As to the second question: you can really only write what you want to write - right? You can't force the muse. If it's the sequel that's calling you, then write it - don't worry about whether the first manuscript is published or not. This may not be the right agent or it may not be the right time - and timing is a huge factor in whether books get published - but that doesn't mean you'll never have the right agent or that it will never be the right time.

Monday, February 16, 2009

How old is young adult?

I'm a YA writer (currently unpublished) but I was recently told, by someone who knows these things, that I'd be better pitching at a slightly younger market - is it true that it is easier (and more profitable) to break in to the 12- to 15-year-old market?

The second part of that question, of course, is: other than lowering the age of my protagonists and reducing word count, what else makes the market really THAT different from the more 'PG' YA that's out there at the moment?

I'm confused: if you're not writing for 12- to 15-year-olds, what sort of young adult fiction are you writing? Because that is the bulk of the YA market, which kind of wraps up at 17 if you're lucky. Usually, though, the 17-year-olds are probably reading Candace Bushnell when they're not panting over Edward Cullen. I was reading Judith Krantz in my early teens - I couldn't wait to get my hands on all that glamorous jetsetting storytelling. Luckily I had parents who didn't believe in censoring my reading material ...

So it sounds as though you may have written a novel with an unclear readership, and that's probably what your friend is gently trying to tell you.

I don't really understand the second question (could be that a caffeine deficit is to blame - oooooh, someone has just presented me with a Diet Coke - mind reader!), so you're the second person in a row that I'm going to invite to email me with more information ... namely, exactly what market you think you're writing for. Then I'll try to answer this question more fully.

Author in a hurry

I started taking my writing seriously in April ’08 after years of ‘dabbling’. To my utter joy and disbelief, the first manuscript I sent off was accepted. I am primarily a children’s author with a passion for picture books and have just signed two contracts with an overseas publisher. I am also awaiting a contract from a niche market Australian publisher which should arrive any day soon. I am actively submitting picture book manuscripts high and low and make sure I include my successes in my cover letter. I also include names of some of the magazines I’ve been published in recently.

My question is, how much does that count when a publisher receives my latest manuscript? I understand that a good manuscript will sell itself – and I’m only as good as my current submission – but do they look more closely because I’m beginning to establish myself in the market? Or am I just another ‘wanna-be’ in the slush pile?

Also, I have discovered one nasty little down side to my publishing success: I am no longer eligible to enter many of the competitions around the place. So now I feel like I’m in limbo. I’m not published enough to avoid going through the unsolicited submissions pile, but I’m too published to enter competitions where I could get my ‘big break’. I haven’t ‘made it’ by any stretch of the imagination. Any suggestions on where to from here? Just keep doing what I’m doing and do it well?? Try and build my freelance profile? Try and nab one of those will-o-wisps a.k.a. literary agents??

A handful of things about your email trouble me.

First, you have signed two contracts with overseas publishers and about to sign one with a small Australian publisher, yet you also say you haven't had your 'big break'. Um ... is getting published not the big break?

Second, you obviously have one (or two) overseas publishers and one Australian publisher and you're sending off what sounds like a lot of submissions to other publishers. Why? Why aren't you trying to consolidate your relationships with your existing publishers?

Third: you have three publishing contracts and yet you're bemoaning the fact you can't enter competitions any more. Well, uh, yeah ... they're usually for unpublished authors.

So I think there's information I'm missing here, and I have a suspicion that what you're not saying is that the 'overseas publishers' are some kind of co-publisher, which means you're putting up some of the money; or, if not that, then they're no-advance publishers, of the sort who usually have a not-so-hot contract. (If you'd like to email me again and give me some more information about your publishers, I'll try to answer this question more comprehensively.)

If this isn't the case, then you're just really, really in a hurry to get published by as many publishers possible, in as short a time as possible, and I have to tell ya, honey: that's a bad career strategy.

The big ignore

I have an agent. He is a big shot and has a list of bestsellers. I am a first-time author. I can write well (that's one of the reasons he took me on), but I don't have a complete manuscript yet, merely 20 000 words or so of proposal. It's good, but not complete. He shopped me around about a year and a half ago, got no takers, and asked me to go back to the drawing board. Now I have, and have e-mailed him several times for guidance. He doesn't write back. The last time I wrote him was about a month ago.

I know he's still active because a widely read service for publishing news reported a big deal he landed about a week ago.

What do I do?
A. Figure my time will come with him, and wait. No one likes a desperate person.
B. Call him on the phone.
C. Find another agent.

You say your agent has repped some bestselling books in the past, so he clearly knows what he's doing. Thus, he took you on because he thought he had a good shot at making you a bestseller too. This hasn't happened, for whatever reason - sometimes we misread the mood; more often than not it's just the timing that's out. Whenever I take on an author I always believe I can get them published, but the publishing landscape can change in between the time I take them on and the time I send out the submission, and suddenly the prospects aren't so good. Still, we try.

This agent has tried. He may have decided that he can't try again - and it is always difficult to resubmit a novel (particularly a novel) that has been rejected on first submission. Or he may just be doing what a lot of us do, which is prioritise our projects. An agency is a business; we have to bring in money. Our bestselling authors will always get faster attention than the uncertain prospect of a first-time novelist. So he may have a lot of demands on his time at the moment - doing a big deal can take more energy and attention than you would think - and he'll get back to you.

However, you should call. You're not a 'desperate person' - you're a client. And if no longer has time to rep you - which can happen, because he may have taken on some other clients in the meantime - then you need to be released to find representation elsewhere. So, yeah, you should call - he's your agent, not your school principal. And if he won't take your call and you still haven't received an email in a month's time, send him a respectful, unemotional email saying that you believe that he and you are no longer a good match and you're leaving to find representation elsewhere.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

More multiple questions!

After many years of writing bits and pieces for my own amusement I can no longer silence the voices in my head, their stories simply must be told. At this stage I have a handful of stories sketched out in very rough form and no idea how to get from point A to published author. So my questions are:

1) Where the hell do I start? Should I quit my job and devote the next year of my life to writing my first novel or do I need to start smaller i.e. writing short stories, entering local competitions, taking courses etc. before I attempt to write a full-length manuscript?

2) Is there any point in trying? Based on your previous blog entries it seems that getting a first novel published is next to impossible so what hope does an unpublished, 26 year old, public servant with a young family and no experience have? Am I just setting myself up for an epic failure?

3) Can an author publish works in different genres? Most of my work would be best describe as ‘chick-lit’ ranging anywhere from romantic fantasy which some might call bodice-ripping trash (although there’s nothing wrong with a bit of trash now and then) to more serious, dramatic, occasionally darker stuff based loosely on personal experience including the odd bit of poetry. Should I be concentrating my efforts on writing in one particular style or is it possible to get work published in more the one style/ genre? And if so should use a pseudonym? I’m torn between wanting to be the next Jodi Picoult and my secret desire to write for Mills & Boon.

And finally 4) If by some miracle I actually manage to produce something worthy of sending to an agent/ publisher should I focus my energies on getting it published here in Oz or is it worth having a crack at submitting it to an overseas publisher/ agent i.e. UK or US? Is it even possible?

I broke up the last lot of multiple questions into three posts but I think I'll keep these together ... just because I feel like it.

1) Under no circumstances quit your job unless you are independently wealthy. But all those other things you suggest are okay. You don't need to enter competitions and whatnot before you write a full-length manuscript - you can do them in tandem. Basically, if the stories are pressing on the inside of your skull then you have to write them the way they come to you, whether they're novel length or not. And as to 'where you start': you start where you are. You sit down, turn on the computer or whatever you're using, and write. No amount of thinking about it or trying to plan it is going to make a difference. Just start.

2) Is there any point in trying? I really can't answer that for you. I wouldn't - couldn't - write a novel if my life depended on it; that's why I'm not a writer. So I don't feel that same urge to tell stories that you have described. And if that urge is as strong as you say, of course there's a point in trying. (Okay, I think I did answer that for you.) If you're terrified of failure, that's fair enough, but - at the risk of sounding like Ol' Horsey Teeth, Anthony Robbins - it's really not a good reason to not try. Sorry.

3) An author can publish in different genres - and with different names - but I'd recommend you just pick one novel to submit at a time. You'll exhaust yourself if you submit a lot of things at once, and agents/publishers will usually only read one submission per author.

4) If you live in Australia, it makes sense to submit it here. I am always bemused by authors who constantly hanker after the US and UK - it seems like residual cultural cringe: 'Australia isn't good enough - to be a real writer I need to be published overseas.' There are many Australian authors who get published overseas - being published here first won't hinder that. And it's really nice to be able to talk to your agent, publisher, editor or publicist in the same time zone.

How many drafts?

I am sure you must get plenty of questions about editing - I am wondering how many suggested drafts before approaching an agent might be? Three seems to be a popular number. Do you think there is much benefit to get a manuscript appraised or professionally edited? I am concerned about that as a professional edit might change the sound of my book.

Saying 'three drafts is popular' suggests that publishing runs on the same mathematical principles as the rest of the universe, but the truth is that the industry exists in a temporal fold somewhere between Jupiter and Chiron. If we could reduce everything to equations it would make life so much easier, but we can't. So, no, three is not the right number. The right number of drafts is the right number of drafts - it could be two or ten.

The only thing that I believe is close to a hard-and-fast rule about drafts is that you should give the manuscript time to marinate between each draft - as long as possible, in fact. Weeks and weeks, if not months. You need to come back to it with new eyes each time, and once you think it's cooked, hand it to someone you trust to read it. And by 'someone you trust' I mean someone who's not going to tell you it's wonderful when it's not. The auditions for Australian Idol are littered with people whose friends and family told them that they were wonderful singers when they plainly weren't. As in Idol, so in publishing: you don't want to end up in the gag reel - you want to be in the final twelve.

As for manuscript appraisals: if you can get a recommendation for an appraiser who will give you good editorial feedback, use them. If not, an editor can be useful but it's a considerable investment. It would be good to enter competitions - the writers' centres in each state know what's on - and you may get some feedback from judges.

The whole process of preparing your manuscript will take time; that is all I can guarantee. But the things you learn during that process only need to be learnt once, if you're paying attention, so it's a worthwhile process. Especially if the time you take helps you get published.

Monday, February 9, 2009

YA fantasy and Australian agents

My next question might seem a little stupid … I have tried researching the answer to no luck. I am writing a young adult fantasy novel that will be around 120 000 words. I am certain I want an agent and wondering if perhaps I should be looking overseas? I understand from little information I could find that the publishing markets vary hugely in different countries and I am wondering if perhaps I am better off looking in USA or the UK? Like any person I would like to be able to give my book the best chance of survival and I am not positive where my novel would best be situated.

I'm going to be blunt about YA fantasy: LOTS of people are writing it, LOTS of people are putting boy wizards in it (sometimes with glasses! But, sorrowfully, not all resembling the delicious Dan Radcliffe), and you'd have to be very, very, VERY talented to try to beat Jo Rowling at her own game.

I'm also going to be blunt about fantasy in general: those manuscripts are huge. If someone wants to send me something that's 120 000 words long they would have to be very, very, VERY talented to get me to donate that much of my time to reading their manuscript. Especially when there aren't a lot of YA fantasy books being published here.

So your query about the US and UK is valid. The markets are much bigger there, and there's more likelihood of finding the right agent. But those markets are crowded with YA fantasy, and as vampires are so hot right now, it's hard for other stories to get a look-in. Which doesn't mean you shouldn't try. But just be prepared to try hard, and for a while.

Is youth wasted on the young?

I have a couple of questions I am hopeful you might be able to answer. The first is age: is age really a factor in publishing or is it just a myth? I am 23, have had articles published, plays performed and written a book that I can say will never be published … so I am working on a new manuscript with publishing on my mind. I am not an inexperienced writer, having spent the last eight years of my life writing. Will this factor in when approaching agents? I am slightly concerned that I will have to lie or be elusive about questions regarding my age as I have seen some young writers have done and I was hopeful to find out if that’s as pointless as it looks?

(Sharp-eyed readers will note that this questioner said she had more than one question and there's only one in this post. That's because she actually had three which all deserved separate answers. So keep reading ...)

I've never had a bias towards any particular decade when it comes to taking on writers. If your manuscript is good, it's good - it doesn't matter how young or old you are. Of course, it's great if an author has an interesting personal story (for publicity purposes). Sometimes that story is that they're young - so I'd never say that youth is a disadvantage per se. Where it can trip you up, though, if if you're writing a novel that purports to reveal the secrets of life - no one is going to buy that from an eighteen-year-old. Your narrative voice always needs to be convincing, and if you're a young'un who has never left their bedroom writing about a grandfather hiking in the Andes, that may not ring true either.

It's possible that the authors you know who lied about their age were doing it because their writing simply wasn't up to scratch and they were desperately trying every trick they could think of. I don't know a single publisher who would refuse to consider something just because the author was young. In fact, there's a whole award for you guys: the Vogel.

Monday, February 2, 2009

To market, to market

I understand that books need to have a market or they wouldn’t be published. What I don’t understand is exactly how I’m supposed to gauge that market? I think I’ve finished my first novel. An earlier draft was assessed 'critically and favourably'. I fixed the problems they pointed out, I think, and I would have it assessed again but I don’t see the value in it unless I can find out more information on the potential market.

I’ve checked publishing trade magazines and checked bestseller lists but none of the numbers look unless it is genre fiction. So amongst this thinking-onscreen my question is: Is there a more accurate way to check marketability other than finding the novels closest to yours that made it on a bestseller list or through professional assessments?

I assume publishers do market research, so why can’t I find it? Sorry if my question is less than romantic. I’ve pretty much accepted that this novel won’t be published because apart from Ben Elton I can’t find much that resembles it.

'The market' is an enormously tricky and often frustrating issue for writers. And for agents. And publishers. If we could all guess 'the market' we could all just look for exactly the right books for it and spend the rest of the year in Bora Bora. Which is my way of saying that 'the market' is still elusive and mutable and highly subjective.

The main question to ask yourself is whether your novel has a potential readership of more than one or one hundred or even one thousand. Do you think ten thousand people would read it? If so, why? If you can answer these last two questions, you'll know not only whether you have a marketable book on your hands but also how to convince an agent and publisher that you do.

Publishers don't do a lot of market research other than looking at their sales figures every week. They can't pick the market with any certainty (see: Bora Bora above) so you can't be expected to either. And every single 'rule' about genre is abandoned when a novel is simply fantastic. So go back to those points: who is your readership and why are they your readership?

Hopefully that's answered your question. But it's late in the day and Mercury has just come out of retrograde so there's a chance I've stuffed it up - ask me again if so!

Territorial copyrights/parallel imports

You have commented briefly and provided a link on the topic of Parallel Imports and why they worry the Australian publishing and associated industries. I was wondering whether you could provide any further information about it, and contextualise Bob Carr’s recent essay in the Weekend Australian Review? From my very vague recollection, he was supporting the idea because it would provide Australians with access to cheaper books which is important for literacy in society, and also, because New Zealand was doing well with parallel importation. At the time, I didn’t take much notice of the article because I didn’t know anything about the issue’s significance and frankly, I don’t have a lot of time for Bob Carr.

As an adult fiction writer with something just about ready to start sending out, the thought of narrowing the chances for new and existing Australian authors worries me, but also because it would be dreadful if Australians weren’t able to read about Australians (written by Australians) again. The film industry has been devastated by the sheer volume of overseas content permitted on our television services and movies. What can we, as individuals, do to protest/object/resist before it’s too late? Or is it already too late? (I already support Australian writing by buying it).

I'm sorry I didn't answer this question in a more timely fashion - the dread Reading Pile again - because I could have pointed you to the submission guidelines for the Productivity Commission. Encouragingly, though, many people - including me - wrote submissions setting out the case against changes to the legislation and you can read those here: I could attempt my own explanation of the issues, but then you'd probably be able to pick which submission is mine and there goes the whole Secret Agent thing.

Unleashing the inner editor

Over the past year or so I have undertaken a number of writing courses in what I thought was an attempt to fulfil a life-long dream to write … well, something (I hadn't quite worked out what my genre / product would be!). However it is becoming increasing clear, as I procrastinate over writing, that my love of writing is more about my love of reading (and words, I guess). I simply 'inhale' books, reading between 5 - 7 each week, depending what I can get my hands on.

I currently work in government and spend my days editing bureaucratic correspondence, briefing materials etc. I have no formal qualifications in this area (I have a BA (Psychology) and a MBA, hard-earned but completely useless in my current areas of interest!). I would appreciate any advice you may have about careers in editing /publishing, in the event I am able to garner some guts (!!) to pursue this.

I belong to the Writers’ Centre in my state but it doesn’t seem to have any relevant courses and I am loath to undertake formal study in this area. Are formal qualifications necessary? Is it about being /getting known or networking?

Well, this is a bit of a fix: you would like to change careers but don't want to undertake any kind of training ... Which is understandable, considering you have already been to university quite a bit. I spent a few years there myself and wouldn't hurry back to tertiary education.

Not all editors have formal training, but most of those sorts of editors were trained in-house and they started at the very bottom rung in order to get that training - that is, they were editorial assistants. Editorial assistants are on below-poverty salaries so I wouldn't recommend you do that. However, if you're not going to travel that road, you do need to make your contacts in the industry. It wouldn't be enough just to send a CV to a publisher and hope to make it onto their freelance roster - they don't know you and they don't know your work, so they're not going to rush to pay you money to edit something for them. Of course, the question then is how you make the right contacts.

It's no surprise that your local writers' centre doesn't offer courses on editing, as that's not their focus - they're probably flat out trying to accommodate the requests for writing courses and workshops. But they may be able to point you in the right direction - have you made an enquiry? You should also contact the Society of Editors in your state and ask them for help. As a rule editors are shy, retiring types - my own pet collective noun for them is an 'introvert' of editors. So they may not effusively welcome your enquiry, but I'm sure they'll be helpful. That tends to come with the shy retiringness.