Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Books after Amazon, and an Amazon alternative

This is a fascinating article from the Boston Review, written by Onnesha Roychoudhuri:

It is well worth your time if you are interested in a concise, cogent account of Amazon's role in and influence on the current and future publishing industries.

As a side note: for those of you who use Amazon and also like to engage in charitable giving, visit Better World Books at They donate a portion of sales to literacy causes, have free shipping in the US and reasonably priced shipping outside of the US. Well worth a look if you don't know about them already. I order books from them that are not available in Australia and never will be (mainly genre fiction).

Of course, there is Book Depository in the UK but I'm not linking to them for the simple reason that they appear to be inflicting more damage on independent booksellers in a year than Amazon has since they started. And we need our indies - they break all the good authors! (This Book Depository decision is a personal one, it is not a comment on their business or on anyone who buys from them.)

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Some truths about being an Australian agent part deux

While I'm here I thought I'd balance the previous post somewhat and say what I really love about my job: the authors and their stories.

This week, for example, I've had a picture book author email me in great excitement telling me about the new idea they (intentional use of gender-neutral pronoun) came up with on the train this morning and then send me the story treatment and then call to talk about it, and the conversation meandered from the story itself to the broader scope of their career to how they're fitting in creativity with working life and family.

An hour later I was sending off final editorial notes for new draft of a second novel and the draft was so much tighter and funnier than the first one I saw that I almost flushed with delight at reading it. Then I cheekily suggested a new title to the author - who was looking for one - and got the tick of approval. At least until they go home and think about it.

Half an hour after that a publisher called with an offer for a novelist who has slogged really hard - to effect - to promote their own work in a crowded market, and who has been waiting a long time to hear whether or not the publisher would take the next one. To hear the relief and happiness in their voice when I called with the news made my day.

I also have three new manuscripts queued from clients, just waiting for me to finish helping another author shape a manuscript that has finally found just the right publisher after years of trying.

Sometimes I am the very first reader these manuscripts have, and that thrill of being the 'first eyeballs' never goes away. The thrill of telling an author about an offer never goes away. The fact that I get to read stories in developmental stages, that I have brief windows of time when only the author and I know about these characters, is tremendous. It's all that a former library monitor could ever have dreamed about. And that is the fundamental truth about this Australian agent.

Some truths about being an Australian agent

One of the commenters on this post talked about why s/he had progressed through several Australian agents - the implication being that Australian agents are unprofessional - and now had a US agent.

S/he said, 'What I do want is my emails replied to, say, within a week. And my mss read within two months. I want my agent to have some kind of idea when he/she should be following things up with my publisher (option clauses etc.) and actually give a rats about selling my rights on elsewhere when they become available.' And then went on to say that her US agent could do all those things brilliantly.

So I thought I'd clear up a little something about why agents in one territory may be behaving differently than those in another. The reason is money. Advances in Australia are smaller than those in the US, as a rule, simply because the volume of books sold here is smaller. With fiction, not drastically smaller for first novels, but significantly smaller for the successful authors. And the same is true for non-fiction. Australian agents are therefore not working with the same amount of cash per author, on average. So we have to take on more authors than our US/UK counterparts in order to pay the bills. And that means less time for each client overall. We are also less likely to be able to afford to have assistants or admin help of some kind. Less likely to have a slick office with the latest computer and database.

Australian agents usually also don't have the luxury of being able to specialise. In the US it's not uncommon for agents to specialise even down to one genre of fiction (e.g. romance). If we tried that in Australia we'd need to have a trust fund. It means that Australian agents are probably better versed about the whole market - fiction, non-fiction and children's - but, again, it means that our attention is somewhat scattered.

There's also the simple fact that most of our day-to-day job is taken up by administration, when admin is usually not what we're good at. We're good at finding stories that publishers want to publish, we may be good at giving our authors editorial feedback, we're good at understanding how the publishing game works. I think it's safe to say we didn't go into agenting to do administration. Yet because of the aforementioned cash squeeze, admin is what we spend a lot of the day doing. And, unfortunately, it's what most authors notice most - the email answered days late, the manuscript read late because of the time taken up in admin. Any deal that's done, any support that's given, could vanish in the haze of why-didn't-you-answer-the-three-emails-I-sent-two-days-ago. [Note to commenter: yes, I'm being hyperbolic, but I'm trying to illustrate an extreme case, not the usual case. And it's Friday and I'm excessively tired, so I am barely restraining my snark.]

Agents also spend a lot of time talking to publishers - again, work that is invisible to authors - and these days many of us spend time trying to keep on top of what's changing in the industry, specifically in digital publishing. Two years ago we spent a fair bit of time on the Productivity Commission business. Again, this work is invisible to our clients - until such time as we can use it to help them, and that time is still coming in respect of digital publishing.

As far as I can tell, yes, US agents will do a better job of answering the emails quickly and following up the clauses, because even if they're working on their own they tend to have fewer clients, and if they have fewer clients and have admin help, they are freed up considerably. Even having someone to send out your post and write letters can help enormously.

Given that this sounds a bit like whinging, I shall anticipate the question, 'Why are you an agent then?' I'm an agent because I get up every day believing in stories and authors and publishers, and every day I hope that I'll be able to get through the admin more efficiently and read the client manuscripts I need to, and then maybe at the end of the week I'll get to submissions. It can be a frustrating game - and, as anyone in the industry can tell you, it's been a demoralising year - but I'm in it because I love reading, fundamentally, and I love what the act of reading brings to me and to the world. It just doesn't make me any faster at wading through my inbox. But it does help me find publishers for authors.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

No more query letters

I've now received more than enough query letters for the critique thingy - thank you to those who have sent and I'll post them soon (with critique). If you were planning to send one and had allowed yourself time to work on it before my initial 30 November deadline, please still send it in and I'll keep it in reserve for the next round. Which may take place over the Christmas break.

The future of publishing

This is a very interesting interview with John Thompson, author of Merchants of Culture: The Publishing Business in the Twenty-first Century. The link is also here:

I find his last answer interesting - Thompson talks about books not going away because people are 'love the ideas that are expressed in books; they love the stories that are told through books and all of it'.

Yes, well, ideas and stories aren't peculiar to the artefact that is books: they can exist in the digital and ebook space just as readily. So, again, there's a confounding of 'book' with 'story' or 'content' and they're actually different things. Stories/content aren't going anywhere, but books may well be. Not now; not in five years' time. But once today's ten-year-olds have hit their peak culture-absorbing age, we'll be seeing a lot more digital and a lot less print.

My earlier posts on this topic:

Monday, November 22, 2010

Breaking up is hard to do

Someone I know has an agent she is unhappy with but is reluctant to make the break in case she cannot find a replacement. She has been told it is not acceptable to look for another agent before she parts company with the present one. It made me wonder just what is the correct way to deal with this situation.

I've had an author fire me because - despite lots of attention and support - I hadn't realised their latest draft of a manuscript was the one ready to go out. This was after two years of drafting and me giving feedback and advice. So two weeks after the manuscript was sent in, I hadn't sent it out because I didn't think it was the final, and I was fired. Was I cross? Yes, mainly because there was no warning and no chance for me to fix it. I just got fired. But, truthfully, nothing would have been good enough for that author. Still, I would have liked a warning.

Authors tend to fire their agents without ever flagging that they're unhappy in the first place, which is not really fair on the agent, to be honest. It's a business relationship, but in the termination phase it becomes clear that the author often doesn't see it that way, so they break off the business relationship the way they would a personal relationship: the agent simply gets dumped with the whole 'It's not you, it's me' line.

Author/agent relationships can go wrong for all sorts of reasons. Often the personalities don't fit and you don't find out until you're already enmeshed. Sometimes the agent can't get the author published, feels bad about it and lets contact peter out, not wanting to fire the client but at a loss as to what else to do. Sometimes the author becomes successful and doesn't think they need an agent any more, forgetting the role the agent played in that success. Australian authors have been known to fire local agents in pursuit of overseas representation.

So my advice to your friend is this: let the agent know that there's a problem. A simple email saying, 'I have the feeling that perhaps this relationship isn't working out for us' or actually nominating what the problem is could result in a better relationship. The agent may be able to fix the problem and, with renewed vigour, improve things overall. Then your friend wouldn't have to find a new agent. Agenting is partly customer service - if the customer makes a complaint, then endeavours are usually made to remedy the problem.

If she has tried this and it's still not working out, she can of course leave without having another agent, but she's obviously taking the risk that she won't find one.

And one last thing ... While the agent-author relationship is a business one, agents are people too. We succumb to normal stresses and the push and pull of working. I'd love to get to my to-do list in a timely fashion but I can be mid-task when the phone rings and it's a publisher who then talks for half an hour, then I may have to go to a meeting or I have to read something quickly and that task I was doing goes unfinished till tomorrow. Or the next day. Authors - clients and submitting authors - don't see all of that; they just see the unfinished task. And cranky authors
and unfinished tasks can build up to the point where the agent wants to just not talk to anyone or answer any emails.

Also, you'd be surprised how rarely we hear the words 'thank you' and, in an industry that's not highly paid and long hours are worked, those two words can mean a lot (when they're merited, of course). In the middle of a task-failing, phone-ringing, editorial-report-writing day, they mean a lot. It's a small courtesy but it greases the wheels of social - and business - exchange. Most business relationships that fall apart can be remedied by something that simple (seriously) if people can put aside their pride and sense of outrage or entitlement. So perhaps your friend should first check to see how the relationship has been run from her side, and then work out where it's going wrong before she pulls the plug. She should also give the agent a chance to say 'thank you' back - thank you for your writing, thank you for being my author. But if neither wants to say it, it's time to end it.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Query letter critique update

I've had a good response to the critique thingy so I'll have to revise the deadline and say it's 30 November unless I receive 20 before then, in which case I'll let y'all know.

I'll accept letters for all genres of novel, for non-fiction and for children's books.

Again, to submit it's call [dot] sydney [at] gmail [dot] com.

PS: I only just realised that I said '31 November' in the initial post. Hmmm. Shall amend now.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Send me your query letter

I have a few spare minutes each night at about 11.03 p.m. I've decided to use them to reviewing your query letters for publication on this blog, since in this past this appeared to go well.

A couple of readers sent me non-fiction query letters a little while ago and I haven't yet put them up, so they're automatically in. If you are not one of those two authors and would like to send me your query letter for any type of project - fiction, non-fiction, children's - and are prepared for me to give advice on the blog, then you can email the query letter to me at:

call [dot] sydney [at] gmail [dot] com

with the subject line 'Query letter'.

If you're not sure what goes into a query letter, I've written about the things plenty of times - examples here - and the internets are lousy with tips.

If I receive more than twenty, I'll probably have to cut it off at twenty. I actually have no idea how many I'll receive ...

Closing date: 30 November 2010

Monday, November 15, 2010

Querying across the world

I'm looking for advice - admittedly rather prematurely - on the best course of action to take as an aspiring published author . . . from New Zealand.

To say our market is on the small side would be an understatement and while we do have some practising literary agents in the country, I can't help but to wonder if I wouldn't be better served by querying (when the time is right) abroad. I've been unable to locate much information specific to those in my situation, other than to see some passing references to the fact that agents have seen queries from international sources. Whether there are additional difficulties that come from doing so, I don't know.

So my question for you is are there any difficulties in querying internationally? Even if not, is it a course you would recommend, or are there benefits I'm equally unaware of in keeping myself limited to agents within the country? Beyond the obvious of shared time zones to facilitate easier communication, I suppose.

As mentioned at the beginning though; this isn't a pressing matter in the sense that I'm ready to GO GO GO query right now. It's moreso that simply not knowing in advance has been weighing on my mind somewhat. I've been doing the research on the agent/publishing domains and the right and wrong (insofar as they exist) means of communicating with them and going about the more business orientated aspects for a little while now and feel reasonably comfortable with it all except this one niggle. I still have a little more to do on my MS for the content editing phase, then who knows how long it's going to take to get through the line edits; but the end is at least in sight.

New Zealand does indeed have a small number of agents - very small. And from what I understand they are regularly closed to submissions. So, yes, you should submit overseas (does Australia still count as 'overseas'? I believe we're due to annex you lot any day now - we just need a really big winch to draw you a bit closer). The Internets make relationships overseas easier to maintain, and unless your work is really NZ-centric there's no reason why an overseas agent or publisher would dismiss it simply because you're in NZ. There are Australian authors who have a UK or US agent and no Australian agent, because we're a small market too and we don't cater for everything well.

Time zones aren't that much of an obstacle. Quite often writers in my own time zone aren't that accessible all the time because they have office jobs and school pick-ups and shiftwork. A shared time zone is no guarantee of easy access. But you don't need to talk to each other every hour of every day, so you'll work it out.

Monday, November 8, 2010

Guidelines from the Paseolithic period

I’m an editor and my friend is a writer. She believes that the rules of this: are necessary for submitting manuscripts.

Apart from when I volunteered at a small press, everything I’ve seen as an editor was first cleared by an agent, but almost none of the manuscripts followed these exact rules. Do all these rules really matter in an electronic world? Is it more important when sending to an agent?

Of course, I’m NOT advocating the use of extravagant fonts that aren’t default, but I haven’t seen anything in Courier. Of course, publishers and agents need an idea of the word count, but they don’t need some special formula of ‘the amount of space a story will take up when typeset’ because the MS will go through many changes and the total word count will be totally different. And using spaces or tabs instead of alignment will most likely irk the layout people, but does it have to be exactly double spaced when first submitting?

What’s all this mean in the world of the agent?

Your friend has, perhaps, not seen the little copyright notice on that web page - it reads '1997'. A lot has changed since then, mainly the fact that a lot of submissions happen electronically - if not by author to agent, then by agent to publisher.

Personally, the only font I can't stand is Courier, and if a manuscript comes in with Courier then I usually change it - because I don't expect the author to intuit that I hate Courier, and also because Microsoft Word lets me. That's the wonder of the new-fangled age: we have options. When submitting manuscripts to publishers I will usually send them in the font they came in - unless it's Courier - and I'll only reformat the line spacing if it's single (1.5 or 2 line space is nicer on the eye when reading electronically). Not a single publisher has ever protested that they didn't like the formatting or font because they probably do what I do and change it if they don't like it.

The only formatting guidelines that matter are the ones set by the agent or publisher to whom the author submits a manuscript. If there are no guidelines that you can find, presume that there are no guidelines and do what you want. The agent cannot then say 'but I wanted it in Courier'. If there are guidelines, they should be followed. It's annoying that we all don't have uniform guidelines, but there's nothing to be done about it - everyone has different tastes (such as 'I hate Courier'). And if you want to know why I really believe that authors get hung up on formatting, read this post.

Concern from a reader plus an actual question

Are you ok? I’ve come back to reading your blog after a few years and immediately noticed how much angrier you’ve become. Your posts have gone from telling non-fiction writers their chances are “excellent” to ranting about capitals in query letters (although, admittedly, the Winnie the Pooh-style use of caps did make me wince). Is being an agent wearing you down?

That aside, I could use your advice on my situation. I’m setting aside a few months from full-time copywriting to start researching and writing a non-fiction book. The book will be about our the current fascination with turning mega-popular novels into blockbuster movies, and how audiences feel about seeing their treasured tomes represented onscreen. It’s something I covered in undergrad studies and I’ve already started researching and writing. However, because I can only really spare a few months of full-time writing, would you suggest I focus on getting an intro and a few chapters polished, or should I try to get the whole thing written before submitting to an agent or publisher? Have you any other tips for when I hit the pitching stage?

I had to take a deep breath before answering this one - then I used that breath to let out a little scream. Not because I'm angry, as my correspondent suggests - just because I felt like it. Similarly, I occasionally use a snarky tone in this blog because I feel like it. 'Agent Sydney' is a persona - there's a reason why I don't use my real name - and accordingly it frees me up to have a bit of fun. Agent Sydney isn't the 'real me' - especially as some of you think AS is male - but she's an aspect of me, for sure. It's the aspect that would like to be blunt each time I give talks to writers or give feedback to writers who have sent submissions. I'm not blunt in real life because my mother brought me up to be a polite young lady; also because there's no point being blunt in an industry that primarily deals in dreams. Dreamers will just keep dreaming, and gods know we need them to, even if it means they don't usually listen to concrete advice.

That aside, I'm confident most agents feel worn down from time to time, and we're especially worn down at the moment. After spending many months on parallel imports, the real elephant in the room - digital publishing - is throwing everyone into a loop, and that's off the back of an uncertain economy. (Every time the RBA blinks, bookshops stand empty.) So it's probably the toughest time any of us has known. I saw with interest that blogging US agent and author Nathan Bransford has decamped for the online world; most likely several will follow. For all I know, I'll be one of them. We just don't know what's going to happen over the next year or so, and uncertainty is hard to work with; it's not a powerful motivator either.

Now, to your question. I don't know if you're in the US or Australia. If the latter, publishers are increasingly wanting full manuscripts for non-fiction, particularly if you're a first-time author. But you're doing this on your own time and your own dime, so just do as much as you can as well as you can in the time. It would be better to have five fantastic chapters than twelve that really aren't ready and that you'll have to fix in your spare time. If you do submit a partial manuscript, though, be ready to indicate how much longer you'll need to finish it, and also be aware that if you find a publisher you'll have a deadline. That's the trouble with getting a contract on a partial manuscript - you have to finish writing it on the publisher's terms.

If you're in the US, from what I understand you can still submit on a partial for non-fiction.

Other tips: make sure you can clearly identify who your potential reader is, and also think of some ways to reach them. You're writing a book for a film audience, not a book audience, and you can't assume that the film audience frequents bookshops (especially not these days).

Saturday, November 6, 2010

The price of e-books

For those of you wondering why e-books aren't a dollar each, this is a post worth reading:

Friday, November 5, 2010

The author, the book and the new frontier

(This is not really 'part two', but does flow from yesterday's post about digital publishing.)

I've recently started giving authors some advice about how they may use their stories/content in future to best effect. The advice is pretty simple, and goes like this:

1. What are you prepared to give away for free?
2. What do you want to make available digitally for a small price?
3. What do you want to make available digitally for a less-small price?
4. What are you want to keep for a book?

Many authors are writing blogs, tweeting and so on, and this is all giving away content for free. This is a good idea, but only if it's content that you're prepared to give away for free. As tempting as it is to give away parts of your novel for free - or for feedback - think first about whether or not you want someone to eventually give you money for that story. If you've already trained readers to expect to get that particular story for free, they may not pay money for it later on. This has been the great folly of newspapers around the world - they started giving it away for free years ago and now no one wants to pay for it, and they're acting surprised.

(Actually, I think people would pay for it - they just don't want to have to login or feel that there's some sort of impediment to accessing the content they want. If someone can work out a way to charge everything back to our ISPs each time we click, we'd probably be prepared to pay 1 or 2 cents a page - and that would add up over time.)

It's also important for authors who may make short stories, novellas, novels and non-fiction fragments or stories available exclusively for sale digitally to still keep the book in mind. Books aren't going to disappear. If anything, they're going to become more valuable - but only if authors and publishers treat them as such.

Those of us who work in publishing all love books. They are quasi-fetishised objects for a lot of us. We collect them, we drool over them, we stroke their covers. I believe that books will become even more objects-of-adoration than they are now. If we start to value the book more highly - if we treat a book like a precious object - then it will be worth having. And that depends on us learning to classify content differently, and the author - as the originator of the content - making that differentiation first.

The same reader can behave very differently towards literary novels, non-fiction and genre fiction. That one reader may be happy to dispose of her romance novels - and thus happy to buy them for $2.99 a pop as e-books - but wants to keep her illustrated cookbooks forever. So those forever books need to be gorgeous, but the disposable stories don't even need to (and won't) look like books. She'll happily buy an elaborate enhanced e-book of a children's picture book but would rather pay per chapter or page or even paragraph to access non-fiction content. These are classifications that publishers need to get their heads around, and authors too. In fact, it's the authors who probably have to drive this change on the publishing side, because it's change that has already happened on the reader side.

So, as with yesterday's post, I have identified that there is increasing control and influence for authors. And isn't that as it should be?

Thursday, November 4, 2010

The emperor has no clothes

I've been thinking about writing this post for a while. It's not going to contain anything I don't say to other people in the industry but quite often I'm shy about saying 'yes, this is the way things are' because, well, who am I to say? But, emboldened by Mike Shatzkin, Richard Nash and others, I'm just going to say what I've been thinking about digital publishing - what's happening now, what I think may happen. These are theories and observations - I'm not saying I'm right. And I'm interested in your thoughts on the matter.

First, let me say that I believe that what's changing in the industry is going to be very good for authors, as a whole, and obviously better for some authors than others. It will be great for authors who understand that they need to connect to their readers, whether they do it through social media, live readings, open dialogue. This is, in a way, a return to the original forms of storytelling: in a cave, perhaps, or around a fire, with your audience right there in front of you. It's going to suit some authors very well, and others not so much. But it was ever thus.

Second, a lot of the intra-industry thinking (and I'm only talking about the Australian industry, because that's what I know best) about how to wrestle with the changing digital landscape is, I believe, wrongly framed. Publishers are still focusing on books, but we're so far past that now. Books contain stories and content. Stories and content are what we all work in, not books. Yet the production processes and supply chain are all about books. So I can understand why there's a reluctance to think differently - once we're no longer talking about books, all those processes have to change. But it's better to make the change than have the change forced upon you, which is what's happening right now.

When all we focus on is books-as-objects, a very important element of the whole process is overlooked: the author. If sales reps are selling books, they mainly need to focus on the book. If they have no book to sell - if you take away that object - they're left with stories/content created by the author. An author is quite a different sales proposition to a book. An author is a person, for one thing, and comes loaded with all the person complications - like a personality. A book is easier. A book is less messy. Sometimes it's easy to forget that the book came from an author originally. But it did. The author is not a necessary evil; the author is the reason the story exists.

We also need to realise that bookshops as we know them are disappearing and will continue to disappear, particularly if the independents can't get access to e-books (this is a separate and involved issue that I'm not qualified to properly explicate). So there will no longer be the same number of channels for books to be distributed to consumers, and publishers will be forced to become business-to-consumer operations, not business-to-business operations. That also requires a big adjustment in their thinking. So that makes two fundamental changes for publishers.

The other fundamental change is the adjustment to producing content for screens. Screens have been around for a while - the first e-books were read on computers - but until recently no one's really had to think about how you make a novel look pretty - or even functional - on a screen. We don't do screens, see - we do books. The music industry didn't have to make such a radical adjustment - an iPod is an outgrowth of a Walkman, and buying single songs on iTunes is not a radically different concept to buying a 45" single. The movie and TV industry have always been in the business of screens, and that won't change. But those of us who are in the 'book business' don't know about screens. Well, now we have to.

There are several people in the local industry who have already thought about these things, and there are some who have wanted to think about them but have been hamstrung by having to wait for the trickle-down from the head offices overseas. But there's really no time left, now. This is cultural change of an extraordinary kind, and it has to happen or there's going to be a mess. Correction: there already is a mess. Booksellers are increasingly concerned about what's going on and wondering how they can simply maintain their businesses, let alone thrive. For some publishing companies the change will come too late. So I do think times will be gloomy for some.

But not for authors. I do not think many authors need to make the same changes in their thinking because I've found that many of them are highly adaptable. The driver for many of them is getting their stories out into the great beyond, and if that takes the form of a no-advance, profit-sharing, digital-only publisher who can provide editorial and marketing/publicity support, they'll seriously consider it. I've actually been surprised by how many authors I've spoken to who have not really batted even one eyelash at the prospect of one day not having a book with their name on it printed. The story is everything, you see - the story is what they want to see released into the wild. And, really, that's the position we all need to come to if this publishing thing is going to survive.

Monday, November 1, 2010

Dude, where's your punctuation?

I have written 12 novels of fiction and have around six still to be put into manuscript form I have bought the writer and artist year book 2004 throuhg to 2010 and been through every agent and publisher from A to Z and never had a good result from any of them the list must be by now 600 to 700 maybe more.

I have sent comedy, romance, crime, and never had one good answer from any of them.
so i thought maybe my books are rubbish so gave them to friends workmates gave them to women and men and got back a great rapport from every one of them.

I nearly had two novels published in 2003 but just before printing he had to close down, I had two novels critiqued by a company on the US with rave results.

The question is do I give up or keep trying, I once sent a letters asking if they were taking on any new clients and the email came back we dont think your project is suitable for our company, can they see a project from asking them if they are taking on any new clients or is it just that being unknown gives us no chace of every publishing or getting an agent.

I have been through web pages, book companies, and many differant avenues to get some one to read just one of my novels and I dont know how they can tell from 3 pages or a synopsis, I have read many books all the way through and never really got the story yet read the first page of some book and it really grabbed me.

I have published this email almost entirely as it was sent to me, except I took out the name of a publishing company and the person who sent me the email, and I also inserted some paragraph breaks. And I'm making this point because the email gives a clue as to why my correspondent is not having any luck with his query letters and submissions. The letter lacks punctuation - commas, capital letters and full stops - in some critical locations and it was hard for me to follow it, especially when it came through in one block. If the query letters were the same, it would be hard for an agent or publisher to follow them too.

So, dear correspondent, presuming that your manuscripts are not suffering the same punctuation omissions - that you have polished them and redrafted them and checked them for spelling and punctuation errors - why not take the same care with your letters? The query letter is the first thing the agent/publisher sees. If the letter seems sloppy, then we make the same presumption about the manuscript, and we start reading it in that frame of mind - if we get to read it at all.

Also, here's a tip: never, ever say 'novels of fiction' or 'fiction novel' or 'non-fiction novel' (I've seen all three, as I'm sure all agents have). A novel is fiction.

Authonomy me, Authonomy you

How much value is there in websites such as HarperCollins’ Authonomy, where authors post their work for critiquing by other amateurs? Works are promoted by the number of comments and recommendations they receive and HarperCollins promise to review the top five each month with a view to publication. Sounds good, but in practice it degenerates into a kind of black market, where authors trade kudos without even bothering to read the work in some cases.

WHAT?!? The internets degenerating into a rogue trading arena with scant regard for ethics and high regard for devalued content? Colour me shocked. (For those non-Australian, non-Canadian readers, that was sarcasm. Yes, it's the lowest form of wit. I've never claimed to aspire to higher forms of wit, because I'm incapable of producing them.)

Authonomy has had its doubters from the start, so I suggest you regard it as you would regard any other online community: engage in it if you want the experience, but don't expect that it will change your life. And then add this on top: it's a marketing exercise for HarperCollins, and a perfectly legitimate one that was kinda smart at the time it was launched. It's also a fabulous way for them to get free content (as it would be for any publisher who had this kind of website).

I don't know how successful Authonomy has been for the authors who have taken part i.e. if it's really translated into book publication and books that have reached a wider audience. I don't know because, actually, I haven't been interested. I'm too busy trying to keep up with my own submissions. I recall wondering what HarperCollins' publishing department would have thought of it, though - it just meant more work for them, reading yet more submissions when they didn't have time to read the submissions they receive via old-fashioned methods. And, probably, Authonomy's effectiveness is limited by this lack of time/resources to properly service it. Still, it gets a lot of eyeballs on a HarperCollins website (and in the future eyeballs will probably be a legitimate unit of measurement) so, from a commercial point of view, the site is there to benefit HarperCollins - they own the domain name. It's nice if it benefits authors as well, but there are plenty of online communities for writers. I'm not sure how this one would more beneficial than another, even if it is run by a publisher.

Of course, the publishing, bookselling and book-reading industry is changing so rapidly - more than many people who are working in it realise - that this is all going to be moot shortly. It's entirely possible that we are watching the dying days of empires, waiting to see which phoenix emerges. Somehow I don't think Authonomy has wings.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Maybe we are quietly judging you

Having not sent off any novel WIP for years, after request for partials, in my excitement I sent them off without title pages and no paper clip. This only just dawned on me this morning when I was reading something that reminded me what an author does when being professional and not trying to irritate said agents.

I can imagine said agents opening up my parcel and the WIP falling out everywhere and them snatching up the pages and using them as basketball practice with their bins.

I know you can’t predict the future, but how high do you think I have just raised the possibility of rejection?

From a writer who is feeling very stupid and irritated with themself that they may have just ruined the only opportunity they had to get an Australian agent to read their work.

True or false: It is a well-known fact that agents often use hapless authors' submissions for purposes other than the intended e.g. for making paper aeroplanes, in lieu of notepaper - and for basketball practice.

Well, hapless author, if you answered 'true', you're out of luck. We tend to take submissions as they are and, actually, treat them quite nicely. So you can allay your fears on that score.

On the score of sending them off without title pages and paperclips, I'd only say this is bad if you also sent them off without an accompanying letter that included your name and contact details. To be honest, I probably wouldn't notice if a submission didn't include a title page so long as the letter had the title of the work in it. And if I want to clip the pages together - lo! There are paperclips on my desk! Sometimes it's mildly annoying if the pages aren't clipped together but, really, that's my own annoyance, it comes up rarely, and I don't think worse of the author for it. Ultimately, it's your writing that matters. If you've written a great manuscript then your eventual agent is not going to remember the lack of title page and binding device. They're just going to be mightily pleased to have found you.

However, if you're still feeling really bad about it, send them an email saying, 'I just realised I didn't send a title page with my submission, nor did I clip the pages together. Please forgive the oversight.' But whatever you do, don't also include a question about how long it will take them to respond ...

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

A short question!

Do you need a word count for non-fiction query letters?

Sadly the question is so short that I'm not sure whether you mean 'Do I need to include a word count for my manuscript in the query letter?' or 'Should the query letter itself conform to a word count?' So my excitement at your brevity has now paled in the halogen glare of my confusion.

Just in case it's behind-door-number-two: ideally all query letters are about four or five paragraphs long - or about a normal A4 page in 1.5 line spacing for the obsessives amongst you.

If it's about the word count for the potentially unwritten non-fiction manuscript: yes, give an estimate, lest the publisher thinks they may be contracting something that's either 400 000 words long or 15 000 words short. You won't necessarily be held to the estimate, but contracts tend to contain a word limit so there needs to be something.

Friday, October 8, 2010

A gig in publishing

I am a business student and aspiring YA writer. For a while now, I’ve been thinking, if the whole getting published thing doesn’t work out - or even if it does - I would love to work in the publishing industry, especially for children’s books.

So how does one go about pursuing a career in the publishing industry? I’ve researched a lot about the publishing industry during the course of submitting past novels. For example, I know that interns don’t get paid very much (if at all), and I realise that the Australian publishing industry is very small, and publishing as a whole is experiencing a downturn at the moment. I also know in April, some Australian companies invite job applications for internships. I’ve looked at all the available publisher websites, but there is next to nothing on job opportunities.

I’ve considered emailing various editors in the children’s department and asking about any internship opportunities, but there are a few issues I’m concerned about. Firstly, is this even a good idea? Secondly, should I mention that I am an aspiring writer who is actively pursuing publication? I know there’s some conflict of interest there, so maybe it might be better to not mention it all. However, there’s only a few major fiction publishers based in Sydney, and I’ve already submitted to (and got form rejected on a full request) by one of the biggest companies. I know they receive staggering amounts of submissions. Is it reasonable to assume they don’t remember my name?

I should add here that I definitely don’t intend to use an internship opportunity to further my aspirations to get published. If anything, on the ‘getting published’ side of things, I’m more focused on the US market, because I don’t write ‘Australian fiction’ as such (though I love reading it) and the Australian publishing industry is very snail-mail based. Querying US agents is a lot faster!

Lastly, I mentioned before I’m a business student. Would I have to take an English degree before any company will consider my application seriously? I’ve been an avid reader my whole life, and I’m passionate about books, but my ‘official’ education in literature only extends to HSC Extension 1 and Extension 2 English.

I'll start at the end first: no, you don't need a degree in English. I have degrees in all sorts of things, but not in English. What I do have, though, is a spotty history of doing all sorts of jobs within the publishing industry.

The publishing industry is like other industries: you usually have to start at the bottom and work your way up. I certainly did, and so did lots of others. For the publishing department, that often means starting as an editorial or publishing assistant. Once you're in the door, you're then more aware of other opportunities as they arise. One way to get a foot in the door is to do an internship or work experience; another way is to work as a bookseller. Bookselling is often overlooked but booksellers are also in the publshing industry. And you may find you really love bookselling and want to go into the sales side of publishing (which is generally better remunerated than the editorial side).

If you want to get into a publishing company, though, don't email anyone asking for an opportunity - it's easy to ignore an email, and we all receive so many of them. Try writing a snail-mail letter, even if it goes against your grain. Not because the industry is old fashioned, but because a snail-mail letter stands out, particularly if it's well written. Don't initially mention that you're a writer, because it will be assumed that you're wanting a job purely to get your book published and you won't get a look-in then (we're all alert to various tactics!).

And if you're really serious you could subscribe to the Weekly Book Newsletter, because that's where all the job advertisements hang out. Mind you, they're probably all on etc as well - I've just never looked. So if you find ads for editorial assistants or jobs like that, apply for them. But it will help if you have something behind you, like bookselling - which, conveniently, is a job you can fit in around uni hours.

Australia, a post-colony

I am contacting you to see whether you can point me in the right direction. I have an (almost complete) manuscript of approximately 110,000 words which charts a year we spent living and working in Sydney as part of a decision-making process on whether to emigrate permanently.

The book offers an honest, thought-provoking and humorous insight into the trials of a British family trying to adjust to Australian life (don't all poms think Australia will be more-or-less like the UK?). It's presented in diary form and leads ultimately to the decision to go home, via periods of poignant reflection, deep joy and utter frustration (a large part of which is supplied by the staff of Australia Post). I feel this book has a wide potential audience in both Britain and Australia and would greatly appreciate any advice you feel able to give with regards to Australian agents or publishers who might be interested in receiving it.

I have bad news for you: Australians are no longer interested in what the British think of them. This can possibly be attributed to one or all of the following:

(a) That 1915 slaughter on a Turkish beach ordered by some English higher-ups.

(b) Those slaughters (1914-1918) on the farm fields of France, Belgium and Luxembourg ordered by some English higher-ups.

(c) That whole blaming-the-fall-of-Singapore-on-us thing (1942) ordered by some English higher-ups, specifically one W Churchill.

(d) Robert Menzies.

(e) The particular class of tourist/immigrant known as the 'whingeing Pom'.

We now look to a new master, as outlined in Harold Holt's 1966/67 foreign policy, officially titled 'All the way with LBJ'. Our commitment to be slaughtered, Agent Oranged and generally destroyed on the farm fields of Vietnam may have looked like a purely political stunt, but in truth it marked a turning in Australian culture as well.

Yes, I'm being (partly) serious. Australia no longer has the ties to the Mother Country it once had, to the point that many people probably forget - or never knew in the first place - that Queen Elizabeth II is still technically in charge. Still, as a nascent post-colonial organisation we need someone to trot after, and we've chosen the USA for the time being. Consequently, there aren't many folks in Australia who will necessarily want to read about British impressions of our land girt by sea, especially as the likely readers for such a book have probably already spent time in the UK and heard the impressions first hand. In other words: your manuscript would be a tough sell in Australia. I think the last non-Australian who successfully published a book of impressions about Australia was Bill Bryson.

The other reason why it would be a tough sell is that Australians are generally quite aware of their shortcomings (Kath and Kim, anyone? Muriel's Wedding?), and of the good stuff too. We're still struggling to get out from underneath our cultural cringe and if anyone points out bad stuff, we're likely to sink back down rather than argue; and, perversely, if anyone points out good stuff, the same thing may happen. We'd rather examine ourselves than have someone else examine us. (And I'm a fourth-generation Sydneysider so I'm feeling rather qualified to make the statement, but feel free to disagree with me.)

Still, that's no reason not to try. But I suggest you test your content on a blog first and see what happens. My instinct is that it will have readers from everywhere but Australia.

PS: Your comment about Australia Post marks you out as a member of the class identified in (e). Even if I agree with you. So there!

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Couldn't have said it better myself

A post from US agent Rachelle Gardner about why agents don't give personalised feedback with each rejection letter:

Once you've read it, what I'm about to say can be taken in context ... Agents (and publishers/editors) make decisions about submissions very quickly. Probably more quickly than you would like. Just as Rachelle suggested, it's analogous to deciding whether or not you like a piece of clothing in a shop. I've seen enough queries in my life to know very quickly if something's going to be right for me. I'm not going to read every last word before coming to this conclusion, so I couldn't give a personalised rejection even if I want to. I give them to some people, but not everyone. In truth, I'd love to be able to give constructive feedback but I simply can't. The day is but twenty-four hours long. And there's another reason why we can't spend the time to give personalised rejections: our existing clients are subsidising the time we spend reviewing submissions. So they have to come first.

Thus, we've established that agents simply can't give detailed feedback on everything we read, yet you'd be surprised how many submissions I receive which are actually demands - not requests - for feedback. (Unsurprisingly, these receive a 'no thanks' fairly quickly.) Sometimes I suspect that the individuals involved simply don't understand what agents do, but there's so much information available these days that there's no excuse to not know. There are, as Rachelle says, editors and manuscripts assessors and writers groups and writers centres out there to help you assess your manuscript. The agent is who you come to after that point. Unless you'd like to think up a way for us to get a nifty amount of funding in order to employ ten more people each to read all the submissions and give feedback on every single one of them.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Why would anyone have an agent?

When I launched myself onto the writing world 50 yeas ago in England I had no problem finding an agent. Now with nearly 30 books published, 14 novels and about the same number non-fiction under two different names I find it difficult o get an agent to show sufficient interest (or courtesy) to even answer an email. I am left wondering what exactly agents require and who has perpetrated the myth that without an agent a writer cannot hope to sell their work? Un-agented I am selling more than I ever have and other writers I know are also doing well on their own. Our only regret the precious writing time wasted Emailing agents who don't want to know about us.

Well, I'm not sure that I care for your tone ...

But I'll answer anyway. I've said before - more than once - that not all authors need agents, so it's certainly not me who's perpetrating that myth. One could presume that it's likely agents who say that all authors need agents, the same way lawyers say that everyone needs to sue (and before you protest, law is my background so I know whatof I speak). It's better for business if everyone thinks you're indispensable. Some authors need agents because they want to have someone manage their career/give creative support/generally chat to them about 'stuff'. And, in truth, it's often publishers who prefer that authors have agents - or, rather, that authors submit to them via agents - as they'd rather agents read the slushpile and find the Next Big Thing.

I find it curious that you have been trying to interest an agent in your work considering the success you've had without one. What would an agent offer you at this point? I'm not saying an agent couldn't offer you anything, but as you haven't mentioned why you're now looking for an agent, I'm curious. If I were an agent receiving a query from you (and for all you know, I have), that's what I'd be wondering too. But the main reason why I may not think I'm the right agent for you is that you may not be writing books that are right for me. Agents have their individual tastes the same as any other readers, and if your books aren't to my taste I'm not going to take you on, no matter how many books you've had published, because I wouldn't be able to represent you properly. In the past I've cynically taken on the odd project thinking it would be a winner, even if the material didn't appeal to me - I'd think that I could identify a large readership for that story and thus I should just put aside my own tastes. It's never worked. I've never once been able to get those projects over the line because my heart wasn't in it. And most agents who've been agents for a while have worked that out too.

Somewhere out there, there's an agent who'll love your writing - if, indeed, you still want an agent. The trick is - just as it is for unpublished writers - finding that agent. Being published is not necessarily a guarantee of finding an agent. I've turned down published authors several times, for various reasons. Sometimes one of the reasons is that I don't think they need an agent.

Finally, though: if you really, really don't need an agent ... why are you writing to me?

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

I have no witty title for this question about a short story

The writers' centre in my city last year shortlisted and highly commended a short story I submitted. Delighted, I sent it to a magazine hoping for publication.

They sent back a polite rejection explaining why they didn't want it. I was flattered they sent back such a lengthy rejection, but, still, I wasn't so happy at the time.

Now, the writers' centre has emailed asking for permission to print the story in their monthly publication that is in essence a newsletter.

Should I do it? Would this even be considered a publishing credit? Would it make it impossible to sell the story anywhere else?

I take rejection hard and wasn't really rushing to try to place the story elsewhere anyway. Should I take this for the compliment it is and just say yes, or should I try harder to place it somewhere potentially more prominent?

If this is the only short story you're ever going to write, then by all means hold out for placement in the publication you're dreaming of. If not, let them publish it - yes, it's a writing credit, and it's also a good experience to have. And it will only make the story impossible to publish elsewhere if you give them exclusive world rights - which you wouldn't do.

But I have to break it to you: short stories don't have that many publication outlets, and they have not many more readers. (I'm talking about the 'vanilla' world here - what I say doesn't apply to SF/fantasy/romance.) Short stories are, in business terms, a means to an end. They give you writing practice, they may get you some attention, perhaps a little bit of money. But they shouldn't be your sole focus, unless you want to spend your life being disappointed that book publishers tend to not be interested in them any more (with some exceptions, like Scribe and Black Inc). So see this as a chance to have an experience and get yourself out there, and kvetch about it no more.

Imprints in a vacuum

I’m thinking of working on a mini-thesis on the role that imprints play in publishing and was just curious as to your opinion as an agent. I’ve queried some publishers as to how they use (or don’t use) imprints, and it seems all over the place – some have imprints that are run completely separately in house, some focus on one imprint for a genre or have many, or use them very rarely (personally, I’m coming from a fantasy/sf/horror reader perspective).

As a reviewer and wanting to one day work in the publishing industry, I pay a lot of attention to imprints, how they are marketed (again, very differently!) and the kinds of works each one publishes, but the general public seem to vary a lot on whether they care a little or not at all. What do imprints do for industry, for authors and do you think consumers actually care?

Before I answer, I'll quickly explicate 'imprints' - because, as you point out, many folks don't know or don't care about them. An imprint can be compared to a line of clothing or accessories. Let's say our publishing company is Tom Ford. Tom Ford Perfumes would be the literary 'imprint'; Tom Ford Lipsticks may be the more commercial imprint. And then there's Tom Ford Sunglasses, which is the non-fiction sports-focused imprint. And Tom Ford When-on-Earth-Will-He-Do-More-Women's-Clothes, which is the aspirational imprint.

Tom Ford diversifies and differentiates his brand by releasing assorted lines of product (PS: he's very good at it). Hypothetically, publishing companies do the same, with imprints - except they don't. Almost universally, publishing companies deny that they're building brands (and we could say that imprints are also brands), while at the same time envying Penguin for having one. 'No one cares about our brand' they say, casting green eyes at Harlequin. I have no idea why they do this, except possibly that they're nervous about booksellers criticising them for building their own brands at the expense of the booksellers'. But any publisher who is not currently thinking about building their brand - whether or not they use imprints to do it - is not going to survive in the digital space, when brand will possibly be the only way they can cut through to the reader/consumer. Certainly, the author's brand does this already - to the point where most readers probably think the author is their own imprint.

To date imprints have been useful mainly to booksellers, so they know where to shelve things and, hopefully, how to sell them - Picador means one thing, Pocket Books means another. Quite often this is not passed on to the consumer, so that usefulness stops with the bookseller, rendering the brand an intra-industry tool. Some imprints have made an impression on readers, but not many - and this is something the publishers have done either on purpose or accidentally on purpose. I don't really understand why you'd create a brand and then not do anything with it. So maybe it's just because they don't know what to do with them. Where's Don Draper when you need him?

In the years ahead we may see the disappearance of many imprints and concentration on the publisher's brand, hand in hand with the disappearance of bricks-and-mortar booksellers and concentration on online purchasing. Publishers are very well placed to deliver e-books, in particular, to consumers. Once they realise they can do good business that way, they'll no doubt spend more time building their brands. At that point imprints will either be properly developed brands or they won't exist at all.

I'm sure some of you think 'Oh, nasty marketing talk! Books - literature! THE ARTS! - are above this!' Sorry, they're not. If someone writes a magnificent book and someone else publishes it, and neither one of them tells anyone about it, that's just stupid. In a world where there are increasing amounts of information vying for everyone's brain cells - when there are more and more wonderful stories around to read - readers need help navigating their way to the stories that they're going to most like. That comes from trusting a brand, particularly when the authors are new. Once you trust an author's brand, fine, you'll keep reading their stories. But before the author has a brand, you need to trust either the publisher's or the bookseller's brand. The imprint should be a brand that you can trust, except they're not treated like brands - just silos. We'll see how long that lasts.

Friday, August 20, 2010

Taboo or not taboo

I'm your typical wannabe-writer. I'm 25 and have dabbled a lot but am working on my first novel (it is up to 50,000 words so far). I still have a long way to go. My question is this: are gay characters too taboo to publish here? I'm painfully aware that lesbians in general are under-represented in popular culture and this is even more true in Australia. Is there even a chance that an Australian could get something that is gay (dare I say?) literary fiction published? As a second question, how short is too short? Things I've read say not to even bother with less than 70,000 words, others suggest 60,000.

The question is not whether or not the subject matter is taboo - it's not. The question is whether or not there's a large enough market for it for a publisher to take on gay-themed fiction in this country - and there's not. It's nothing to do with anyone's social sensibilities or lifestyle choices (after all, we work in The Yarts); it's purely about the amount of units they can shift.

The majority of book buyers, and readers, in this country are women: straight or straight-identifying women - that's just statistical, I'm not at all implying anything better/worse by that. The straight sheilas tend to want to read about men who want to have sex with them (or fictional versions of them - heroines). The gay blokes don't want to have sex with them, ergo they make bad heroes for straight-sheila stories. Just look at romance fiction: arguably the biggest-selling genre around the world, absolutely killing it on the e-book front, and no gay heroes in sight. So publishers go where the money is. A gay hero would necessarily be in a story largely written for gay men, and that's a smaller audience. James Baldwin's Giovanni's Room is one of the most sublime pieces of fiction ever, but you'll never hear it - or him - being whispered of in the same breath as, say, Norman Mailer, and it's probably just because not as many people were aware of the novel at the time it was released. (And if you've never read any Baldwin, you simply must - Another Country is almost unbearably beautiful.)

As for lesbian stories - well, same thing. The audience for lesbian stories is mainly lesbians, and that's a statistically small group. Straight women don't mind a bit of a lesbian storyline in their otherwise straight saga - the same way straight women like The L Word because it's about girl world, not just lesbian world - but they're not likely to buy a story that's written purely for a lesbian audience. First, because there's no straight-male hero who may want to have sex with them. Second, because escapism is a powerful motivator for reading stories and it's hard to escape into a world that is so different to your own in terms of how relationships work. There's a reason why Rita Mae Brown isn't as well known as Barbara Taylor Bradford, and it's not because BTB is a better writer.

The good news is that the United States market is big enough for everyone. So query agents there. I'm not saying it would never happen in Australia, just that it's statistically unlikely.

As for your word count: your story is as long as it is. There is so much talk about word count but, really, the story is what it is. Write it first, revise it, revise it again, then see how many words you have. Less than 50 000 isn't a good idea; over 120 000 probably makes it look like a fantasy novel. But please don't let word count dictate what your story is going to be.

Category me, category you

I have written a book which is a similar structure to Kathryn Eisman's books - 'How to tell a man by his shoes' and 'How to tell a woman by her handbag'. My question is what category or genre is this? Does it fit into the category of gift books? And if so, do you know any literary agents offhand who represent these type of books?

I don't think these would be gift books so much as lifestyle/humour. When discussing categories one has to remember that they are invented purely for the 18-year-old casual bookshop employee who is not going to look at the cover or read the blurb - they're just going to shelve according to the category (hopefully). So the publisher's marketing department will sometimes kvetch about how they categorise books if the category is not immediately obvious - and even then the pesky teenagers will sometimes wilfully ignore the category anyway. So don't worry about it too much. Let the publisher worry about it for you. As to whether or not agents represent these types of books: it depends very much on the book. If they accept non-fiction submissions of any kind, send it in.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

The first cut is the deepest

It's coming. My first rejection, that is. I can feel it. It feels like doom and despair. I'll soon be rushing about wailing and gnashing my teeth. In a mere few days it will be four months since a big publishing house received my manuscript. Apparently they take about that much time to give a yay or nay to a submission. And the odds, I'm told, of having a manuscript accepted are so slim I might as well hope to get struck by lightning while winning the lottery during a terrorist attack.

Yes, I know. Rejections, hey? Part of life. Won't kill me, will make me stronger. People keep saying, "Oh yes, but [insert name of famous author] was rejected [insert large number] times and now look he/she [grand statement of success]."

But, Agent Sydney, I'm scared. Scared of rejection, that is. I feel like a geek who walked up to a beautiful supermodel at a party and asked her out. She said she would answer me after four months. I am anticipating the pain of her rejection: owwwwwwwieeeeeeeeeeee!

What should I do? Am I acting like a crazy person? Need I not fear rejection until it's staring me in the face? And, once rejected, what should I do? Send to another publisher/drink myself into a stupor/something else?

You're scared of rejection? Why the hell are you submitting manuscripts to publishers, then? Rejection is part and parcel of success. Can you point to any single successful creative person who has not been rejected at least once? Even George Clooney spent years in the wilderness (I KNOW - unbelievable, non?) and he is definitively the single most attractive set of XY chromosomes ever known to humankind, with the exception of the young Paul Newman. And how do you think poor old Vincent Van-G was feeling when he took to his own ear with a bladed instrument?

Granted, you don't want to wait for posthumous success - that's understandable. But if you want to put yourself out there in the creative realm, you have to take the inevitable rejections. And you also need to understand this: 9.75 out of 10 times, the rejection has nothing - NOTHING - to do with you. Many is the time I've had to reject something I love simply because I don't think I can get it published - and that's nothing to do with the author, it's because there's not a publisher in the land who'll be interested in the book. Fast forward five years, go back eight years, who knows? There could be/could have been.

Of course, you haven't even been rejected yet. You're just anticipating being rejected. Don't you think you could spend your energy doing something more constructive, like writing a new story? And don't you know anything about quantum mechanics? Planning for rejection is only going to get you rejection. (Yes, this sounds a bit woo-woo but quantum mechanics is a valid string of physics.)

Also, four months? FOUR MONTHS? Publishing operates on reverse dog years - i.e. if a dog lives 7 years for every 1 human year, the publishing industry experiences 7 human years as 1 publishing year. Four months isn't enough time for us to even get out the lead and take you for a walk in the park.

Thursday, August 5, 2010

The curse of reviews - for the author, that is

How much do reviews matter? I am a published novelist (Aus and UK) and I AGONISE over them. Good ones make my heart soar; bad ones depress me for days. So far I’ve had my fair share of both ... Should I get myself so worked up over them? Do they significantly affect sales? Is a bad review better than no review at all? And as an agent do you watch for and similarly exult/agonise over your clients’ reviews??

There's an old chestnut that says 'Any publicity is good publicity' and I adhere to that belief. Having been a bookseller at one stage, I can attest to the fact that most people remember that a book was in the book section of the paper, and beyond that they don't remember details - including what it's called and who the author is. For publicists the important thing is getting a picture of the cover in - because they know, as the rest of us should, that people will remember what the cover looks like more than any other detail.

I've seen authors - wonderful writers - so distressed about a bad review and they probably don't understand my usual response ('Meh'). But that response is borne of several years witnessing that reviews really don't make a dent one way or the other because most people can't remember the content of a review when they go to a bookshop. Think about how many people would actually read the books section of a newspaper and then how many of them are going to read the review for your book - they aren't big numbers. I can't remember someone ever telling me that I shouldn't buy a certain book because they read a bad review of it (and if they did, I wouldn't let that influence my purchasing decision) but I can remember lots of people telling me that they loved a certain book and I've then bought it as a result. Word of mouth is far more powerful than a review will ever be. If you wrote a great story - if you believe you wrote a great story - then what do you think the word of mouth will be?

You say that you've had both good and bad reviews, but I wonder if you've stopped to consider that the book you wrote has been both positively and negatively appraised, and from the sounds of it you set the same store by both types of appraisal. In goddess' name, WHY? Surely the fact that there are differences of opinion about your work tell you that no response to your book is 'good' or 'bad' - just as your book isn't 'good' or 'bad'. Each reader has a different experience of the story, and that's what the reviews reflect.

You may also have noticed that reviews of fiction tend to be on the emotional side, compared with reviews of non-fiction and children's books. That's because novelists - often unpublished - review fiction, and they tend to review the author as well as the book. Non-fiction reviews usually stick to the subject matter and the way it's delivered. You'll rarely see a non-fiction review saying that the author is God's gift to writing (or the opposite) yet statements about the author often appear in fiction reviews.

My opinion about some fiction reviewers - and this is probably a controversial statement to make, but my magic shield of anonymity protects me (although I've said it in person to other people, without the shield) - is that they're jealous. Particularly if they're reviewing first or second novels and they're unpublished themselves. Reviewing a first novel - 'well, why should that mug have been given a contract when I can't get one' - is fraught with green-tinged possibilities, as is reviewing a second: 'it could still be a fluke for aforementioned untalented mug'. By novel number three it's harder to pretend that the mug is simply getting away with it, and the tone of the reviewing may shift accordingly. This is, obviously, an unscientific analysis and you'll note I said SOME not ALL fiction reviewers.

So, to answer your questions in a concise fashion:
- It's understandable that you get yourself worked up over them but I believe your energies would be better directed towards your writing. After all, 9.75 out of 10 times, someone else's response/reaction to you has nothing to do with you. Who are these people whose opinions are affecting you so strongly?
- No, they don't affect sales in any great - or measurable - way. No doubt at the local indie bookshop there's some tergiversating about one new Australian novel over another, and a review may swing that decision. I suppose that could happen a handful of times for each book. But word of mouth is far more powerful.
- Yes, a bad review is better than no review at all, because it's hard enough to get a review - if they're going to put your name and your book's name and, possibly, its cover in a publication for people to see and perhaps remember, then yay!
- I watch for reviews but the agonising/exulting within me happens out of empathy - I don't actually feel it myself, I feel it for my authors. Because I know that they'll feel the way you do, even though I try to talk them out of it.

Use it, work it, own it

Advice I have received on queries includes listing your writing credentials. As an unpublished author, I was told that I should list my journalism studies and experience as part of my personal bio. Recently my YA speculative fiction was voted as a "Top Pick" for June out of more than 25,000 pieces of submitted work on a large publishing company's international YA writing community site. As a result my manuscript is being reviewed by an editor and they will also consider it for publication, though I realise being an Australian writer with a story set in Australia my chances are pretty slim.

There has been some debate between my writing friends as to whether having a piece making "Top Pick" status is something that should be included in a query letter. On one hand my work had hundreds of extremely positive comments and votes from readers who are in my target demographic, many of whom say they would like to be able to buy my story. On the other hand I have been told agents would not view this news favourably as it is theoretically possible for writers to make that status by clever promotion over amazing writing.

Should I mention in my letters my success of the site and the fact that this company is currently reviewing my manuscript?

Yes, you should mention it, for no other reason than it tells the agent/publisher that someone else is looking at your manuscript.

As for the favourable comments on a blog or posting of a piece of writing - I suspect these will shortly become the online equivalent of 'my mum and my best friend think it's great' (or variants thereof), which is a line that turns up in submissions with surprising regularity and always makes me want to write back and say, 'OH REALLY? Are your mother and best friend going to buy 10 000 copies of your book?' So if you include that information, do it with the knowledge that not much weight may be given to it.

When writing your query letter you should include any writing credentials that you think are relevant, even if it's a short story published in an obscure journal, and so long as the credits don't take up most of the letter - if you have a lot of credits, pick out the highlights. The credits show that you've been writing for a while, that you're trying to find an audience, that you may have succeeded in finding audiences.

However, those of you who don't have writing credits, don't fret - the decision about whether or not to take on an author and their manuscript always comes down to the writing and the story in the end. You may have no writing credits and an amazing manuscript - the absence of credits is not going to make the manuscript any less amazing.

Monday, July 12, 2010

And in the blue corner

I have written a thesis on (social) innovation systems using an engineer's toolset. It has policy implications, but also (potentially) fills a lot of gaps left between sociology and economics.

I'd think those interested in freakonomics and 'the origin of wealth' would like this. Basically big thinkers that like to have all the answers :)

Can you recommend a way I should go about searching for an agent to get published?

Darling, I'll break this to you gently: don't go searching for an agent. I can't think of a single one who would take that on, because I can't think of a publisher who would take that on. A thesis does not make a popular non-fiction science/engineering text without a lot of work. Do the work, road test it on a blog, then get back to me.

Self-publishing for novelists in the digital age

I have recently been reading a lot of discussion about the pros and cons of self-publishing, especially for fiction. There is heated debate about whether it is worth trying for frustrated writers, or whether they are frustrated because their writing simply isn't any good.

Although I am well aware that I am no great writer, with all due humility my job, my background and my life experience tell me that my "stuff" is better than quite a lot that is in print.

Nevertheless, apart from one e-book publisher ( plus a now-dead Australian author, a couple of shonks, and one publisher who went out of business for some reason) no-one else agrees. (Yes, I know, it could be that I'm a total idiot!)

In your opinion, are any of the DIY publishing outfits worth considering, or it is better just to keep plugging along sending them out (and waiting for the rejections)?

I'm going to answer your question by telling you the story of an Australian author called Vicki Tyley. Vicki has written a novel called THIN BLOOD. She has an American agent, who couldn't get it published largely because it was hard to get past the hurdle of the story being set in Australia. So she and her agent decided to conduct an experiment: they published the novel on Smashwords. The novel was available for free for one month, then it received a mention in Suspense magazine. That was the sum total of the publicity it received. The agent then did a deal with Amazon so that the book was released as a Kindle publication. It's also still available on Smashwords for USD2.99.

THIN BLOOD has sold 20 000 copies in Kindle; I don't know how many it's sold in Smashwords. Obviously Vicki wrote a great book, but her story also illustrates that there are now different paths to publication, and they don't all involve a publisher. In this case Amazon acted as the publisher, but as the Smashwords edition is still available, Vicki is also a self-publisher.

So if you're a novelist contemplating self-publication, I advise you to look at the digital route first. You still need to have a manuscript that's in good shape, and you obviously need to write a great story. But if you do, and you also know even an elementary amount about how to promote yourself online, who knows what's possible? I don't; publishers don't. There's a hypothetically infinite appetite for new stories out there, and digital publishing will give us access to those stories.

However, a lot of authors are still hung up on print publication - quite often it's because they want the imprimatur of a publishing company. To which I say this: publishers curate the selection of stories available according to what they think booksellers (not the reading public) will take on. Booksellers curate the selection further. Fiction is the category of book that is currently suffering the most from this tradition, which limits the variety of stories available to people (unless they shop online). I find it very hard to get very good novelists published. I'm starting to think that the only reason I would encourage them to pursue print publication through a publisher is if they desperately want that tick of approval - because, let's face it, the money ain't that amazing. Novelists are the writers who are most likely to benefit from the digital age, because the most rapacious readers are fiction readers. So think carefully about why you want to get published and what you want to achieve, then realise that you have choices as to how you bring that about.

What's in a label?

I have written a humorous novel but as this genre is a very wide term I have queried with "comedic misadventure". I have also called it "character driven situation comedy". The novel is in the vein of P.G. Wodehouse - ie. the plot thickens as the stakes become higher. What would be the best description for my query letter in regard to "Agent jargon".

Regardless of what genre/label you give yourself, ease up on the 'quotation marks'. They're akin to Capital Letters on Proper Nouns - that is, they make your query letter look like a real estate agent's ad for a 'Renovator's Delight'.

A lot of writers, when querying, tie themselves in knots over the genre of their book. Here are three labels I like: fiction; non-fiction; children's. Beyond saying it's one of those, you don't have to give it a label or genre if you don't want to know. Genres are for booksellers, so they can shelve the book more easily. I apply a genre/label to a manuscript when I send it to a publisher so that they know what they would call it when they sell it in to booksellers. Sometimes they'll change the genre; sometimes the bookseller will. So there's not a lot of point in you worrying about it at this stage. Tell me if it's fiction or not, then give me a short description of it. I'll be able to work it out from that.

I should add that genres are useful when you're querying US agents, because they specialise (a luxury we can't afford here on the large, mostly desert island). So it's good for you to identify that your novel is comic, so that you don't send it to an agent who only wants romance novels. But if you've got that part right, I can't imagine any agent is going to reject you just because you don't drill down to the most detailed level of labelling. A well-written letter and an accompanying well-written story are what's important when we're considering your submission.

The secret science of pub months

I am curious as to which months Australian publishers prefer to publish fiction in, especially debut fiction, and which months they like to avoid. From what I've found, Australian publishers tend to avoid December. Why is that? And October appears to be the most popular, for reasons unknown to me. Are there months that are a "no go", months that are considered "average" and months that are considered "popular" for debut fiction, established fiction and so on? This is a "publishing mystery" to me and any light shed on this would be ... well, enlightening.

When an author receives an offer for their first book I usually spend some time explaining why the book is not going to be published in certain months of the year, and why that means their novel is being published, say, 18 months hence. It can sound all very confusing, but the science of publication schedules is not that difficult to explicate.

The cardinal rules are:

Christmas books come out in October and November - no earlier, no later;
Mothers' Day books come out in April, and May at a push;
Fathers' Day books come out in August, and September at a push.

These are the big book retail selling periods.

My question back to you is: why would anyone publish anything in December? What do you think is happening in December? People are rushing around getting ready for Christmas. Are they going to stop and buy a first novel? No. They want to buy the sport and cooking books, the Bryce Courtenay, Di Morrissey and Matthew Reilly novels, that have been appearing in stacks since October. They may well have spent October and November doing their gift research and now they're purchasing. What they're not doing is buying a novel from someone who is not Bryce, Di or Matt. And if you're a novelist, why would you want to compete with that troika? You'll get obliterated. And you certainly won't get any publicity, because the pre-Christmas book publicity is taken up by the 'gift books'. Ergo, December is a bad idea. So are October and November, unless you are an already established author. I don't know of many publishers who would publish debut fiction in those months, unless it's written by Adam Gilchrist.

Debut fiction usually comes out in January, February or March, and occasionally September. Obviously there are exceptions according to the author's public profile - if you already have a profile then the novel could come out in May (for Sydney Writers Festival) or August (for Melbourne WF). June and July used to be a possibility but there are so many writers festival now that the middle of the year is crowded, publicity wise. Debut fiction is incredibly hard to publicise, even if the author has a great personal story, so publishers will choose months that are otherwise quiet. The beginning of the year is good because it's summer holidays and they can sometimes score interviews for their new novelists, plus there's less competition for review space.

So it's not that mysterious, really. And perhaps some of it is just habit, but those sales cycles are well established and everything revolves around them.

The rules and whether or not to bend them

I recently submitted my first novel to a writing competition. The competition rules specify that the novel should not currently be under consideration by other publishers, or sent to other publishers pending the outcome of the competition. They do not mention agents. Should I wait for the outcome of the competition before approaching an agent about the manuscript, or would it be okay to begin approaching agents now?

I was convinced I'd answered this question, but apparently not ... Apologies to the person who sent it in as it's taken exactly a month for me to answer!

You could, technically, send the manuscript to agents but then what will an agent do if she wants to take it on? She can't send it anywhere until the competition outcome is announced. And if you win the competition, then she can't send your manuscript anywhere anyway, nor can she do much for you, as the conditions of your entry into the competition were no doubt set in stone and there's no room to negotiate them. Conclusion: wait until you find out what happens.

Monday, July 5, 2010

The intricacies of the author-agent relationship

I live in New Zealand but have a London agent who is trying to place my first novel. (She tried to do so unsuccessfully about five years ago but as the market has changed is now sending it out again.) My agent has been extremely helpful in making suggestions to improve the ms, which has involved quite an investment of her time which I'm very grateful for. The one problem I have with her, exacerbated by the fact that we only have an email relationship, is that she isn't very communicative. I believe from author friends that this isn't unusual. There's no question of finding another agent: beside the fact that she's invested a lot of time already and I so wouldn't want to deprive her of giving her the opportunity to sell my novel, I write in a genre which has a limited number of agents interested in representing it and she was the only one who was interested!

Could I therefore ask you the question I should really be asking my agent but can't: what kind of response time is to be expected when an agent sends a ms out to publishers? It would be really helpful to know, as currently I'm writing the second of the series, but if the first one doesn't sell I need to start writing something else.

I also have another question. The first time my agent tried to sell the novel, she sent it out to mainstream publishers in the UK, the US and Australia. After that I asked her if small presses were an option, and in her usual cryptic way she intimated that that would be a good idea but that she wouldn't be doing it herself. I tried a few, with the intention of bringing her in at the contract stage if I could raise some interest, but couldn't sell it. I left things there and started working on something else.

Earlier this year, I had the manuscript assessed by a leading writer in my genre, with the intention of figuring out what had gone wrong with it so I could avoid those errors in the future. To my surprise, the writer really liked the manuscript and couldn't see why it hadn't got a publisher. I did some rewrites at her recommendation and after that she suggested I go back to my agent and see if she would send it out again. My agent suggested further rewrites, I did them, and it's now gone out again to mainstream publishers. However, if she can't place it, the question of small presses comes up again. The writer who critted the manuscript says she would really like to see the novel in print and has offered to make personal introductions at small presses, which of course is fantastic. My question is one of etiquette: when I approach the small presses, do I say at that stage that the novel is represented? Or is that just weird given that I'm making the approach myself? Alternatively, do I produce my agent, as if out of a hat, if we get to the contract stage? As my agent has done a lot of work, I don't want to cheat her out of a commission even if she doesn't do the work of hunting down the small presses herself.

1. I'm guilty of being not-so-communicative; I suspect most agents and publishers are. It's not because we don't want like our authors; we just have a lot of them and we're also running a business and trying to keep the lights on. Being an agent means answering to many masters and sometimes the best way to manage it all is to just not write back to every email. However, when authors ask questions that need answers, we're usually there. It's just the day-to-day fuzzy-warm stuff we're not able to do (unless we have very few authors). And then there's the fact that the email inbox can be simply overwhelming sometimes. So you're right to not slough off your agent on that score.

2. You haven't said what genre you're writing in but I'm going to guess it's spec fiction/fantasy or possibly a subgenre of romance. Given that you mentioned a series, I'm leaning towards the former. The reason why I'm trying to identify a genre is that it helps me answer the question about how long the reading takes. If it's spec fiction or fantasy - particularly fantasy - it's probably big (well over 100 000 words). And if your ms is big, so is everyone else's. This slows down the reading time. Children's publishers are often quicker to respond than grown-ups' publishers because the manuscripts are shorter. Publishers of large books take longer. And if it's your first novel, it will take longer still. We do prioritise reading: my clients' manuscripts always take precedence, especially if they're on deadline. A publisher will always read the contracted manuscripts and the new manuscripts by authors on their lists before they read first novels submitted by agents.

3. Regarding the small presses: if your agent doesn't want to submit the book to small presses, she should explain why, particularly if she hasn't been able to place the book with a large publishing company. It's an unusual attitude, but perhaps the small presses in the UK aren't as good as the ones here - I'm no expert on that market. And you shouldn't bring her in at the contract stage if you find a publisher yourself - not only will you have done the work in that instance, but it can put the publisher's back up if an agent suddenly materialises to look at the contract. Moreover, it's difficult for an agent to come in at contract stage when they haven't done the deal. So I guess you could ask for contract advice and pay commission if you want to do that, but only if you want to. You're not cheating her out of commission if it's a deal she didn't do.

The crux of it is that if she hasn't been able to place you with a large publishing company and declines to send the ms to small companies, she's effectively saying she's no longer representing you. You can then do whatever you wish - represent yourself or find another agent to send it to small presses. But your relationship with her sounds like it's over if she can't find a large publisher.