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.

A break in transmission

Dear readers,

My brain needed a little break so I took some time off. Some of you have sent questions and I also want to blog about some e-book stuff so I hope to catch up this week. Thanks to the question-senders and apologies for my tardiness.