Friday, January 29, 2010

Snail mail

Some agents say if they don't see a reply-paid envelope right away they reject the query immediately. This is a big problem when querying American agents since many won't deal with IRCs and insist on US stamps. I spent hours trying to buy US stamps online only to discover the US Postal Service is 'not at this time accepting overseas orders'.

As for IRCs, Australia Post is not issuing any more. There's some new system planned, I'm told, but no-one seems to know what it is.

In my queries I mention these facts and ask if they'd mind replying by email. Of course, if they don't get that far into the query they might reject it first.

I'll start by clarifying that 'IRCs' mean 'International Response Coupons' for those who - like me - didn't immediately twig. And now I'm going to state that I wasn't asked a question, so I'm not really sure what I'm meant to say. I'll take a guess at a question, though:

'So what do I do when I can't send an IRC or American stamps?'

Well, you've already stated your problem in your query letter and asked the agents to respond by email. Whether they do or not is something you obviously can't control, so you're probably just going to have to risk it. There are also agencies who take electronic queries so you would have no problems there.

I anticipate that the day will come - soon - when agencies around the world will have to move beyond snail mail queries and embrace the digital age, ready or not. I personally find it a waste of time to send things back by post, SSAE or not. I'd love it if everyone queried electronically. It's much easier to organise queries when I can file them in folders in my email programme, and it's more environmentally friendly.

As for you, querying author, it's your decision as to whether or not you send queries to the luddites, and you'll just have to accept the consequences. The US and Australian postal services have obviously realised there's no money to be made in IRCs or foreign purchase of stamps because - guess what? - people use email.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Advice from James Patterson

There is an extremely interesting article about James Patterson in the current New York Times magazine - you can find it here or go to Funnily enough, it mentions Jacqueline Susann too ...

I have never read a James Patterson book but I am, obviously, aware of him. This article is fascinating from a writing and publishing point of view - it will take you a while, but it's worth it. I especially liked this piece of advice that he regularly dispenses:

'If you want to write for yourself, get a diary. If you want to write for a few friends, get a blog. But if you want to write for a lot of people, think about them a little bit. What do they like? What are their needs? A lot of people in this country go through their days numb. They need to be entertained. They need to feel something.'

It's excellent advice. As I'm fond of telling writers who sometimes go too far down the rabbit hole: don't forget that your job is storytelling, not book writing. Fundamentally writers have to tell stories. If there's beautiful writing attached, fantastic, but the story has to come first. Humans are primal creatures - stories are what call us; stories are what move us. It's in our lizard brain. Our first storytellers were oral and they had to captivate audiences or they didn't have a job. It's no different when you're writing a book. It's your job to cajole, seduce, entice and enthrall your reader. It's your decision as to how you do that.

Selling foreign rights - or, I love a sunburnt country

I have an agent and have sold AU/NZ rights to a well-known company who will be publishing my book (of fiction) in Australia this year. While my agent has said that it’s reasonable to try to sell the book overseas, as far as I can tell he hasn't tried to yet. I've asked why, but he won't give me a straight answer – which could well be because he doesn't actually think it is possible but would prefer not to say. So, how bad would it be for me to try and solicit some foreign interest in the ms myself (I am considering sending it to a couple of overseas publishers)? If anyone was interested, I’d be delighted for my agent to handle the contract. Or is this just silly and/or poor form? Is there some protocol I don't understand about the way these things work, a reason 'we' are treading water (e.g. perhaps it's customary to wait until after Australian publication before exploring overseas interest)?

Overseas publishers often want to wait until there are Australian sales figures before they consider books for publication in their own territories. It's usually a matter of which publisher/agent and how they usually work.

Have you asked your agent about his foreign rights contacts? Does he usually sell foreign rights? If so, does he use co-agents or subagents? These are all valid questions to ask. As far as you sending the ms yourself to overseas publishers - good luck. Unless you have good contacts in the publishing houses you're planning to contact, without an agent (especially in the US and UK) you will go on the slush pile with everyone else. But if you want to try, you must tell your agent what you're doing - it's bad form to submit overseas at the same time as your agent may be trying to do the same thing.

And I'm going to take this opportunity to make a point: most Australian writers seem to think that Australia is a semi-worthless market, that they haven't 'made it' unless they're published overseas. I suspect this has to do with some sort of belief that overseas publication - especially in the US - means big bucks. Well, it doesn't. An advance for a first novel in the US is not much higher than it is here. Total sales figures for literary fiction in the UK - with a much bigger population - are usually the same as here: that's right, 5000 copies sold here for a literary novel, 5000 copies sold in the UK. Fiction is tough. How many Australian novelists have hit the jackpot overseas? How many big Australian novelists sell successfully into other territories? Bryce Courtenay has no overseas profile. Nor does Di Morrissey. They're two of our currently most successful novelists.

So while it's fine to want overseas publication, don't hang your hopes on it, don't despair if you don't get it, and above all don't disparage or downgrade the territory that you are being published in. Australians love books. We read a lot; we buy a lot of books. You have a better shot at being a success if you put lots of energy into your Australian publication and let the foreign rights sales flow from that. A big hit here is usually the best way to get someone's attention overseas, and even then it may not work. It breaks my heart every time an author gets an Australian publishing deal and their next question is, 'What about the UK?' It makes me want to check that Robert Menzies isn't still running the country and that ABC newsreaders aren't using cut-glass English accents. It's 2010. Surely we're not still cultural-cringing?


I have a mystery manuscript at first draft stage which, with a lot more work, I hope to submit to an agent and have it published.

My problem is I have a very unique name (as in there is only one of me in Australia) which would make it very easy for someone to find me inappropriately. I’d like to publish under an alias, but I understand that’s normally a decision taken with an agent, with an alias agreed between agent and client. However, I want to start a new internet presence around my writing. I might add this wouldn't be a chore for me and I enjoy my internet interactions.

Should I go ahead and start a website for an alias, or should I wait until the magical day when I have a complete manuscript and an agent?

I've never heard that there's any rule about an alias/pseudonym/nom de plume being agreed between agent and client - that could be one of those apocryphal Internet Tales that get writers all upset thinking they're doing the wrong thing. A handful of my authors use aliases - occasionally I've suggested that they do so, but I've never suggested the nom de plume itself. That would be like telling them what to name their first-born child.

The pseudonym has to be a name that the author is comfortable using and can respond to when addressed by people in the publishing company, journalists and readers. Thus, it's appropriate that the author decides what that is. So you can absolutely create your own pseudonym, start blogging or whatever you plan to do. You're the one who's going to carry that name into copyright and publicity and everything else, hopefully for a long time. Just make sure it's not a name that's already commonly in use - like, say, 'Bill Clinton'. Then your agent may have something to say about it.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Some free advice about publicity for novels

Authors - particularly novelists - often fret about publicity, and recently one asked me if he should hire his own publicist, because his writer friends were telling him that the publisher wasn't really going to do that much for publicity.

Novels are hard to publicise, it's true - but they're going to be as hard to publicise for a freelance publicist you hire as for your publishing company's publicist. Having a personal publicist won't necessarily make the difficulty go away. In my experience Australian book publicists, working in publishing houses, are highly competent. They know what they're doing. Yes, they have a lot of books to publicise but they do the best they can. There are so many books competing for publicity and review space each month that I can consider it a small miracle any time one of my authors gets anything.

Publicists need 'hooks' in order to get decent publicity, and most of the time novels just don't have the hooks, unless the author is already famous or has an interesting personal story. So what's a novelist - especially a first-timer - to do? The answer is to not try to do the job that your publicist - who is a professional in their field - is trying to do. And it's not to hire a personal publicist either.

Your personal campaign needs to start early - well before publication. These days you should have an online presence, probably a blog. My own feeling is that Twitter has probably jumped the shark so you could possibly forget about that, but it's also possible that I'm an idiot. What you want is a Google-able result. When someone searches on your name, it needs to come up prominently. How do you do that? Well, having a Blogger/blogspot blog helps, because it's owned by Google. Or you can namecheck famous writers in your blog - review their books, refer to them in your posts - so that whenever someone searches on them, your blog comes up.

Then there's the in-person stuff. If you have a day job, take as much leave as you can around your publication date. Tell your publisher that you'd like to meet with some booksellers in your area, and do they mind if you do that? Can they help with that? Even better, can you travel to rural and regional areas? Many country bookshops never see an author. If you go and visit them, don't you think they're going to remember that and perhaps mention you to their customers? It's all about building goodwill. And if you want to know how it's really done, read a biography of Jacqueline Susann, author of Valley of the Dolls.

At all times, inform your publisher of what's going on. They probably can't send a sales rep with you on each visit, but the rep may be able to give some advice about who to visit. And getting in touch with a sales rep will also help you understand how the sales side of things works.

The most important thing to remember is to act professionally. You are a published novelist - you don't need to feel insecure and you don't need to beg. Respect the role that each person you meet may play in your success. Don't feel that it's wrong to want to sell lots of books. Don't feel that it's not 'artistic' to want to make lots of money. Money buys you freedom. An earned-out advance buys you the ability to determine your career.

The publisher needs to take a lot of the responsibility for selling your books but you can certainly kick it along - if you want to. So the real question you need to ask yourself is: How successful do I want to be? And then you'll probably work out what you need to do. Jacqueline Susann was not a great writer but she sold a hell of a lot of books, because she wanted to. She wanted it - fame, money, adoration. She got it. And you can get it to, if you want it. Just be professional, be respectful of others, keep your eyes on the prize and don't ever lose faith in yourself. But, again, it keeps coming back to that question: How successful do I want to be?

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Submission black marks

There's no question for this - just me, on my lonesome, wanting to make a point.

Often writers want to know how to get their submission noticed. They ask questions about content, formatting and so on. But the content and the formatting aren't usually the things that earn black marks if they're not done correctly. Nay, what really annoys me is any of the following. Of course, if you do any of the following in combination, I (and, I dare suggest, other agents) will be even more annoyed.

1. Misspelling the name of the agency in your letter. This tells me that either you can't read, which means you're a bad candidate for the job of author, or that you lack attention to detail, with the same effect.

2. Misspelling my name in your letter. See above.

3. Addressing your letter to 'Dear Sir' or 'Dear Sirs' when a nanosecond of research would lead you to discover that the overwhelming majority of literary agents are female and, thus, the probability of you reaching a 'sir' with your generic letter is small - but perhaps I shouldn't castigate you for your lack of actuarial abilities.

4. Calling the agency to discuss the submission guidelines that are clearly laid out on our website. What is there to discuss? Send in the bloody submission! Quite often these phone calls are people wanting to talk through their submission so they don't have to actually send it. Sorry, but there are no exceptions.

5. Calling the agency to check that the submission has arrived. Again, perhaps it's a lack of mathematical ability that causes this behaviour but if any of these individuals stopped to think they'd realise that if the five minutes of my time that they take, checking on that submission, is multiplied by the number of submissions we receive - if all submitters call to check - then I'm spending a large part of the day on the phone reassuring people that their submission arrived. And how much time does that leave for reading submissions, hmm? Which will then prompt the next phone call, namely ...

6. Calling to check that we've read the submission after mere days have elapsed. Even if we have given you a time frame for the reading of submissions, if you call to check within that time frame you can add that five minutes on to the five minutes you've already taken of my time (see point 5), multiply that by all the submissions and then try to wrap your head around the reason it takes so long to read submissions.

If I sound cranky, it's because I am, because I have to deal with these people - these guideline-flouting people - and they are stealing time from the guideline-following people whose submissions I'm more inclined to read. Because, yes, it's true: if you do any one of these things, I'm going to think of it when I'm reading your submission, which means you're starting from behind. I wish I could slough it off and be objective, but I can't. Because if you misspell names and call when you're not supposed to, there's a good chance I won't want to have you as my client regardless of how well you write. Little things leave little clues.

Agents have submission guidelines in an attempt to bring order to chaos. It's not because we're inherently dictatorial, although perhaps some of us secretly are. If you ignore the guidelines then we feel like a little bit of chaos creeps in, and that's not a comfortable feeling. Most of our working days can't be organised - we have to react to things as they happen, to phone calls, to emails, to contracts that arrive. Submissions are one thing we can organise. Just let us have this one bit of peace, okay?

Friday, January 8, 2010

What's cooking?

I have a brief query regarding submission of my cookbook manuscript to potential agents in Australia, as having read through the archives of your blog (and read various other online sources and agency submission guidelines), I'm a bit unsure of something.

Being that my (partially complete) manuscript is non-fiction, and a large portion of the text is made up of recipes, would it be wise to submit just the general premise of the book and a few sample recipes? Or is it best with this genre to still submit a portion of the manuscript including the non-recipe text? The non-recipe text is reasonably descriptive/lengthy in cookbook terms and also forms the introductions to the various chapters, which do not run in traditional 'entree, main, dessert' format but rather are grouped by how they relate to the points I make in the preceding text.

I have a small amount of published food journalism and styling work, and write a regular blog dedicated to food. I am also currently taking on more journalism and food styling work, however I am not 'famous' by any stretch and have no illusions that my related line of work will necessarily help me get agented/published.

Regardless of the best way to submit, I will still aim for completion and some rewriting before submitting to anyone, so am just trying to figure out the 'usual' for food book submission (if there is a usual!).

Most of the cookery publishing in this country is done by famous folks - chefs, in the main. And they often don't write a word before they get a publishing contract, because the book will be sold on their name rather than their content (up to a point).

So you're wading into some difficult waters: how, amongst a sea of Donna Hays and Bill Grangers, will you make yourself stand out? The decision about what to put in your submission to agents, or publishers, needs to flow from that. Whatever your point of difference is, choose your submission material accordingly. If you don't have a point of difference, find one. Your point of difference may be that you're young and beautiful - in an image-driven world, that's not insignificant. Maybe you grew up on the Nullarbor Plain - that's an interesting personal story that a publicist could make something of. Find something.

And don't undersell your food journalism and styling work. Donna Hay started out as a food stylist. Just make sure you're confident of your material before you send anything to anyone.

Even if you're published, it can still feel like the first time

I'm a fairly newish (in terms of publication) Australian writer, with one non-fiction book and one novel to my credit, both published by a large and well respected Australian publisher - the novel has also been sold to a major US publisher. I also have a wonderful and very effective agent from one of the biggest agencies. What I'm interested to know, having worked so damn long and hard to get to this stage, is what do I now need to do to *keep* my wonderful agent and publisher? Write good books that sell well, sure - but what sort of actual sales figures are publishers (and agents) looking at in this regard - 5000 copies? 10,000? (We're talking commercial/popular fiction.) Are sales figures all they're concerned with? Will the fact my novel sold to a big o/s publisher work in my favour at all? (My Aus publisher had nothing to do with this sale, which came about when my Aus agent got me a US agent who subsequently made the sale. My Aus publisher only bought Aus/NZ rights.)

If that question sounds a little paranoid, it is. I'm going a bit nutty waiting to hear what my publisher thinks of my second novel, and wondering how getting a foot in the door publishing-wise translates into getting and keeping the rest of me there too.

Well, Paranoid Pup, let's try to put your mind at ease.

1. What sort of actual sales figures are publishers (and agents) looking at in this regard - 5000 copies? 10,000? (We're talking commercial/popular fiction.)
For your first novel the sales figures they want are the ones that earn out your advance. That's the first thing to keep in mind. If you took a $5000 advance and earned $10 000 worth of royalties, everyone's happy, regardless of how many copies that means. But if you're talking about building a career, then over the course of novels 2, 3 and 4, yes, for commercial fiction we're talking about 10 000 copies. It's your publisher's job to sell that many copies; it's your job to give them a novel that can sell that many copies. If you can do anything else to help sell books - blogging, being friendly to booksellers, doing a sterling job at public appearances - that's great. And that will help your sales grow. But only take as much responsibility as is yours. It's your agent's job to make sure you're with a publisher who can reasonably sell that many copies.

2. Are sales figures all they're concerned with?
In a large multinational, generally, yes. Some publishing companies are a bit easier on first novels - if you have a commissioning editor or publisher who is willing to champion you, there can be a grace period for novels one and two, but the party's over after that. They're businesses. They need to make money or they disappear. And don't forget that you're a business too.

3. Will the fact my novel sold to a big o/s publisher work in my favour at all?
It will work in your favour if the novel sells well once it's published overseas. The sale to a US publisher, in and of itself, won't usually make a difference.

All of that aside, take some time to pat yourself on the back. Two published books, a novel that's sold into a foreign territory - this is the stuff of dreams for most writers. You obviously have something that people like. Trust that it's still there when you write your next novel, and don't overthink it. Overthinking is bad, especially if you try to work out what it was that worked so well the first time ... Just trust yourself - trust in a higher power if you prefer - but don't spend much more time being paranoid.

One last note: if your publisher has spent too long getting back to you about novel number two, talk to your agent about a strategy for getting it published elsewhere. There's a contractual limit on that first look at a new project - publishers need to honour it.