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 I’m 29 and unpublished, and my book takes the form of a prose-y, personal memoir-ish, travelogue in which I challenge the conventions of modern marital restrictions, and question my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.