Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Now you've had time to digest the query letter tips ...

Let's play a game! Or something.

In the past I have invited readers to submit their query letters so I can delicately pick through them to give feedback. This feedback is published on the blog, along with the query letter. So, in a way, it's advance advertising for your manuscript (unless your query letter is no good, in which case you may wish to hang your head in shame).

Now, even though the last two weeks before Christmas are by no means slow in agent land - what with the frantic reading of all the submissions that have banked up over the past few months weeks - I have decided to throw myself into this query letter fray again and invite readers of the blog to submit query letters.

I'll take the first ten letters by email. There is no prize other than me giving you feedback.

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Query letter tips redux

After wading through hundreds of query letters/submissions/cover letters (and that's just in the past few weeks) I have realised that my attempts at providing helpful hints to writers have either:

(a) been ignored
(b) not been read at all
(c) been misinterpreted as suggestions only, when in fact they are dicta.

So, writers, I'm trying again, to save myself and agents everywhere from the task of having to penetrate several paragraphs of a letter that don't, unfortunately, tell us much about the manuscript it's attached to nor give us reasons why we should read it. And we want to want to read it - we really do. We are reading submissions because we are trying to find  great writers and great stories. We just find that when you send us unclear letters, we are more likely to reject you than request your full manuscript, simply because we're seeing hundreds - thousands - of these letters each year and it all gets a bit overwhelming. Make it easy for us. Make it easy on yourself, because the process of writing the letter should also help you work out if you can describe your story clearly - and if you can't, that tells you something about the story.

Your query/cover letter should clearly state, in the opening paragraph, without too much ancillary text:

1. The title of your work.
2. The genre - or, if you can't define the genre, just say that, but then clearly describe the storyline so that the agent or publisher can attempt to guess a genre.
3. The word count.
4. Ideally, the reasons why an agent or publisher would want to read it - but we don't expect you to have a 'perfect pitch', we just expect you to be able to state clearly what's good/different/appealing about your manuscript, and to do it in under 1000 words.

In the following paragraphs, give a short description of the story - not the whole synopsis - and provide any other information that is relevant (e.g. if you are a journalist writing about a subject you've covered for years; if you have had short stories published; if you're a member of a writers' centre or association).

Your query/cover letter should not state, especially in the first paragraph:

i) That being a published author is your dream - this is assumed.
ii) That it's taken you X number of years to write this manuscript and you hope it's ready now. The amount of years it takes to write is not a badge of honour, it's just a fact.
iii) What you think having an agent will do for you and how it fits into your dream of winning an Oscar and the Booker Prize (you'd be surprised how often there are variations on this theme).
iv) That you are the world's greatest undiscovered/unpublished writer and I'll be sorry if I don't take you on (this one also turns up a surprising number of times).

If you are still in doubt about your letter, try this helpful game.

Monday, October 22, 2012

What's in the middle of young adult?

That last post of yours wrt "middle grade young adult" - you advised deciding on one or the other.  So, four questions if I may?

1) Define what is one and the other, please?
2) What about if a) your characters' ages are 13 and 15 (brother and sister) and the two supporting characters are 14 and 17 (actually not specified but it's clear that around these ages) and b) the target group is from 11 years and up?
3) Where does the novel sit?
4) What's the word count range that would be appropriate for a novel with characters in these age groups - 80K acceptable?

1) 'Middle grade' is a term we borrow from the Americans - as Australians have 'primary school' and 'high school' and no shades in between. Generally it denotes books between 'readers' - when children are learning to read - and 'young adult'. It is difficult to exactly pinpoint ages for these categories as children all read differently: a mature, experienced ten-year-old reader is likely to read YA; a thirteen-year-old reader who has dyslexia may be more comfortable with middle grade books. So they are loose categories. Young adult is probably the easiest to define, in that we all think it starts around the age of twelve. But we also have to assume that a lot of children 'read up' - if you think back to your own childhood, at a certain point you were probably keen to find out what life beyond your age might be like.

2)  and 3) That's young adult. So write a story for young adults and let the readers work out what age they need to be to read it.

4) Nothing less than 40 000 words. Theories about upper limits of word counts have been largely dismantled by the success of the Harry Potter books. 

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

This bubble will burst

For all I know I've written about this before but I simply can't be bothered going back through the archives - so no doubt you can't either. Which means I can write about something I've possibly written about before and no one will notice, right?

These days I'm only adding to this blog if (a) there's a question sent to me or (b) I have the time, and there's been less and less of that lately. Keeping up with what's going on takes a lot more time than it used to, and meanwhile there seem to be more and more submissions to read despite being told more and more people are self-publishing ebooks. And there's a reason for this.

We - you, me, the industry, readers - are aware that there are a lot more self-published books around now than ever before, as there are increasing numbers of writers who (can sometimes) believe that evil publishers/agents are the only thing preventing them from being The Next JKRowling release their creations into the wild. This is worrying, for several reasons:

1) Readers are already overwhelmed by choice.

2) There is no solid way for these readers to choose between this plethora of titles.

3) Publishers are possibly going to lose established big-name authors to the world of self-publishing, even for a short period of time, and if certain authors do that then a big hole will appear in the publisher's revenue, and into this hole will fall several years' worth of unpublished debut novelists (yes, Matthew Reilly, Di Morrissey et al are, to an extent, subsidising emerging authors on established lists - so if you are an aspiring-to-be-published Australian author, the next time you're tempted to say, 'Ew, I would never read that', please think twice).

However, the fact that we're all seeing a lot of submissions - even from writers who have self-published ebooks - suggests that writers still yearn for a 'traditional' publishing experience, or at least a publishing experience that means they don't have to do everything for themselves. This is a clue that what we're in now is a big bubble that will eventually burst, because this level of self-publishing can't be sustained, for the following reasons:

i) Readers will eventually turn away from self-published ebooks, even in the high-churn genres like romance, because if you read ten books a week, you don't want to spend that amount of time again trying to work out which ten books you should read - you want to choose quickly and get reading. This applies even if you're reading one book a week or less.

ii) Those authors who have self-published the novel they've been working on for ten years will soon realise how much work goes into getting people's attention so that they buy it/read it, and also - if they've followed proper processes - how important editing is* and how much it costs. They'll also realise that, in order to sustain any readership they have created, they need to write another novel fairly quickly - they can't take ten years, or even three years, as they'll lose the attention of the readers they've worked so hard to gain. And if they don't actually build much of a readership with that first self-published release, they'll be tempted to not try it again but, instead, to attempt to find a publisher who can do that work for them despite the fact that they haven't sold in large numbers and haven't investigated why.

iii) Most ebook vendors will draw the line at a certain point - if only because they'll have to buy a lot more servers to store the gazillions of ebooks - so they'll cap the number of titles they're prepared to sell. At that point they'll start to curate their selection, like any good bookseller does.

iv) Publishers will go to certain lengths to stop certain key authors from abandoning them and self-publishing - these lengths may not necessarily involve paying them more money but may involve thinking differently about the publisher-author relationship.

Of course, you may say that, as an agent, I have a vested interest in authors not self-publishing. Perhaps - although I believe that traditional (or legacy) publishing is going to continue to exist, for the reasons mentioned above. But my main interest in all of this is as a reader. I am overwhelmed by choice. I would like someone to tell me what to read, which is why I take my local bookseller's recommendations even for ebooks. But I'm lucky: I have a local bookseller. Many, many people do not. They don't even have a local library. And for those people, this giant ebook wading pool is going to get too crowded - it may already be too crowded.

It's very difficult to tell an author to not self-publish an ebook when they feel that they've been thwarted by the publishing system. Just as it's very difficult for me to tell authors, when I reject them, that they're not going to make it. But as someone who reads a lot of submissions, I can assure you that there's a reason why many writers aren't going to make it: they shouldn't. What happens when those people who really shouldn't be published choose to self-publish is that a whole lot of not-so-good ebooks swim around with all of the other, very good, ebooks and then a reader wades in and chooses one, thinking that all the ebooks in this wading pool are the same, and then wants to throw it back straightaway. That reader may or may not decide to pick up another ebook - if they do, and the second one isn't that wonderful either, how long do you think they'll actually stay in that wading pool before they decide that the water is stagnant?

At that point some readers may abandon books altogether - or they may start to seek out more distinct avenues of discoverability. This is where online booksellers with distinct identities and curated stock, and libraries who can reach out to readers beyond their local area, should come to the fore. Publishers also need to do their bit - agents too. If we can find the time, obviously. Because right at the moment we're busy propping up the falling sky.

I'll go out on a limb and put a time limit on how long this self-publishing bubble is going to last and say between another year and two years. Those authors who are in the first flush of doing it now - the ones realising how much time, work and sometimes expense it takes for not many readers - will make their decision as to whether or not they'll take another tilt at it within that time frame. My guess is that most of them will not go again. Because writing is hard enough - and publishing is hard too. Put them together and that may be too much hard work for most self-published writers to sustain.

There will be exceptions - some spectacular. Some of those exceptions will be authors who then switch to traditional publishing as it will be more appealing. Out of this whole bubble we will, hopefully, bring a lot more talented writers to the fore - and that's where ebook self-publishing will prove to be most valuable: the fittest will survive, and therefore be given the best chance to thrive. If we can just keep readers with us for long enough, they will be the ultimate beneficiaries.

*I was lucky that an editor volunteered to look over this post before it was published. She made some small, but incredibly valuable, changes. Never, ever underestimate the value a good editor can bring to your work.

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Location, location, location

I'm writing a middle grade young adult novel. The setting is Australia and mentions suburbs familiar to many in Australia. I'm wondering if I should make it more generic so that larger markets might pick it up. Do you think that would be a good idea?

Before we get to that, I need to call you on 'middle grade young adult' - for the publishing industry (and for parents, teachers and librarians - just not, often, for kids), 'middle grade' is distinct from 'young adult', so before you do anything else you should work out which age group you're writing for.

Now, to your setting. You could make it more generic for that reason, but does that detract from the story itself? It's nice for stories to have settings, and they have to be set somewhere, so why not make it Australia? Of course, if what you really want is an overseas publisher more than an Australian publisher, you may wish to make it setting-neutral but, again, this shouldn't be to the detriment of the story.

Something that may influence your decision: children generally aren't as finicky about story settings as adults, which is why Australian children's authors tend to 'travel' more easily than authors for grown-ups. So your Australian story won't necessarily count against you if you're submitting in the US, for example. (It may in the UK, because they may be surprised to learn that your characters aren't convicts riding kangaroos instead of horses ... I'm joking! I'm joking!) And the Europeans certainly don't care that our stories are set here - in fact, it can be a plus.

Fundamentally, though, you should give the story what it wants and then work it out from there.

Well, if that isn't the $64 000 question ...

I have written my first YA novel and have tried to get it published. I have received quite a few rejection letters. I have also tried to get an agent, which I have read is much harder than getting a publisher. I thought I did the hard part writing the novel ... lol. My question is how do I know if my book is any good? I've read that the agents and publishers get such a volume of work sent to them that the slightest thing can make them not read it. I really enjoyed writing this story but I would like to know if it is worth pursuing other publishers or agents.

In short: you don't know. The reason for this is that everything to do with art - books, music, paintings, whatevs - is highly subjective. One woman's trash is another woman's treasure etc etc. 

Here's what I tell my clients when we're looking for a publisher: 'You only need one. It's nice if there's more than one, but you only need one.' Of course, the trick is finding that one publisher, or agent, who will love your work. And maybe, just maybe, this isn't the novel that's going to make that happen. Or maybe it is and you just need to keep looking.

You don't mention whether or not you are writing other things. If you're not, I advise that you do. You shouldn't pin your hopes on just the one manuscript - first, because that's a lot of pressure on one li'l manuscript, and second, because it's rarely the case that it's a novelist's first ever manuscript that gets published. For every published 'debut novel', that novelist has a few in a drawer somewhere. 

What you do mention is that you've worked out that the hard part is not just writing the novel, and that is correct, because it is not the novel's job to sit in the dark with no friends. Stories need an audience, and finding an audience is always the hardest of the parts. It takes patience and perseverance, guts and determination. This endeavour you've embarked on is not for the faint of heart. Your decision as to whether or not to continue depends strongly on how much you feel that your story should find that audience. 

Monday, July 9, 2012

And another thing: serve your customers

Not unrelated to the previous post is a little rant that I've scattered throughout some other posts, but here it is in a different form.

Basically, all of us in the publishing industry need to remember who our ultimate customers are: readers. Where the industry is hamstrung at the moment is the point where we're holding on to the old supply chain and how that has affected our ability to meet readers' demands. Between the author and the reader there has existed a number of organisations who have all been each other's customers: agents to publishers, publishers to printers and then to booksellers, and a few other people in the middle there somewhere. None of those folks, apart from the booksellers, deal with the readers. And even then the booksellers can only give the readers what the publishers give them. The result has been difficulty in giving many readers what they really want to read.

What's been going on thus far can be analogously described this way: Say I run a pub - an ordinary, suburban pub with a bar, a bistro, pokies, a beer garden. Say I decide that I no longer want to serve white wine at the pub because I just don't like it and think that people who drink it don't really appreciate proper wine. They can drink red wine or nothing. And don't even get me started on beer - I may just take that away too. I'm then mystified - nay, shocked - that the white wine drinkers either stop coming to the pub altogether or go to the little bar around the corner that serves white wine. In withdrawing the white wine from sale I attempted to manipulate demand by restricting supply - but it didn't work. The white wine drinkers still wanted white wine, and they just found somewhere else to get it.

In this analogy white wine could stand in for genre fiction; for ebooks; for a first-novel imprint for Australian writers. It stands in for anything that a reader wants and can't get, not because it doesn't exist, but because no one wants to supply it. It would be very difficult for an industry in a capitalist economy to survive by ignoring what the market demands, or attempting to manipulate that demand by manipulating supply. And, love it or hate it, a capitalist economy is what we have.

The publishing industries here, and elsewhere, have largely tried to do that with fiction, in particular. It probably hasn't even been conscious, but it's happened, and now readers are getting their white wine from other suppliers. Some of it's not even good white wine, but they want the white wine and they're prepared to put up with lower-standard white wine if necessary. What I don't understand is why we aren't all just honest about it and say, 'You know what? We made a mistake withdrawing the white wine from sale. We are going to reinstate it immediately and we would like your feedback on our selection.' The only thing anyone has to lose by doing that is pride. Maybe some money as they readjust - but I bet the white wine drinkers will be happy to have a new selection to choose from.

And lest I sound like I'm beating up on the industry I'm very happy to be working in: in my youth I was one of the worst anti-white-wine snobs. I sneered at anything that wasn't literary fiction, until I realised that was just ego - I wanted to be thought of as smart, when in truth I read a wide range of books and some of them were 'trashy'. Once I was in a position to place books with publishers, I also started to pay more attention to what people want to read and I realised that there are sectors of the market we're just not catering to very well. All it takes is a shift in attitude and then some follow-through. If I were running that pub and seeing my margins getting thinner simply by not serving white wine, I'd be doing whatever I could to get it back on the wine list - and then I'd tell everyone about it.

Here's an idea, publishers: a first-novel imprint

The publishing industry is having an interesting time - and I am purposely saying 'interesting', not 'challenging' because we can all put forward our own interpretation of things. What's clear, though, is that we can't do things the way we used to, not even how we used to do them three years ago. We are in  the Customs queue for a brave new country; some of us have visas for it and some of us don't. Some of us will be granted asylum there but will still have to prove that we have the credentials to be there.

What's needed in this brave new country is, well, bravery. New ideas. Old ideas reworked. A willingness to try something different. What's not needed is a whimpering poor-me look back to the past. The past is past, appropriately enough. We can't change what happened then to make what's happening now different. We can, however, change the future.

In my private time - mostly spent on public transport each day in the company of hundreds of strangers - I occasionally come up with ideas. Sometimes I tell people these ideas and they don't like them or say they can't work. And that's fine. But in this instance I have an idea that I've been mentioning now and again for about seven years and no one has yet taken it up despite the inherent merit I'm convinced it has (bien sûr). It's not an idea I can do anything about without a big business loan that I probably will  never be able to pay back. So maybe if I put it on this blog, someone else can use it.

In the past I've written about why people, perhaps, don't read Australian novels as much as the industry would like them to. One of the reasons is, no doubt, the cost of those novels. Most people I know in the publishing industry won't pay $30 for a debut novel - let alone $35 - so I can't imagine why they want other people to do just that. Part of the cost of putting any book together is paying an advance to the author, getting the cover design  and so on. There's also the challenge of letting people know that the novel exists - how do you promote a debut novelist when there are so many other writers competing for that publicity attention.

I believe that the solution is a first-novel imprint that is visually branded and marketed as such, with a price point between $15 and $20 for physical books and $10 to $12 for ebooks (but it should be the same price each time, not changing with each book). The cover design could be templated, to cut down on the costs - each cover would look subtly different to the others but not enough to require a new design each time. The advances could be modest and maybe offer the author a reward if they sell a lot (a royalty riser at 5000 copies sold, for example). In my experience a lot of novelists would happily take no advance if they thought it meant their book would get out into the world with support from a publisher who will edit it and promote it effectively. The novel is already written - it's not like the advance pays for their writing time, as it can do with non-fiction books.

Having an imprint that is identified as being for first novels only enables booksellers to consistently sell books on that imprint. The price of the books also makes it easier for them to convince people to try a new author. Most of us would take a risk at $15; we're not going to take it at $30.

And if the figures don't work for print books, at least do it for ebooks. There are plenty of debut novels out there as ebooks, yes, but there is still value in a publisher saying, 'This is what we've chosen to publish, and we've edited it and given it lots of attention, and we believe it's great.' That sends a signal to booksellers and readers that the book can be trusted, to an extent. And we do need to win back readers' trust where Australian novels are concerned. Wouldn't this be something we could try, to do just that?

The Australian market cannot be treated like the American or UK market. Our closest comparison is Canada, in terms of size. A first-novel imprint wouldn't work in a huge market but it can work in a small one where it would be different and new (for a while) and get attention for being so. It can also work in a small market where you're not dealing with hundreds of thousands of potential debut novels - just thousands of thousands. So maybe some publisher will see this post and think it's a good idea, and do something about it, and bring more Australian storytellers to public attention. Then they can have second novels and get published on the standard old imprints - and make way for still more new voices to be heard, and new stories told.

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Follow-up to post on shipping costs

To everyone who has yelled at me about the shipping costs post, saying I'm an idiot, lying etc etc, please read this post by Elly Keating from the Fancy Goods blog. Postage and shipping in Australia is between 80% and 90% more expensive than it is overseas. So before you presume that I'm an idiot, please presume that I'm not just plucking these ideas from the ether. Also, please remember that I'm a human being who writes this blog due to a (it now seems) misguided sense of duty to writers, in my spare time and without putting Google Ads on the side - I'm not a robot and I don't appreciate being yelled at, even over email. Please also remember that I'm an agent who reads submissions and when you use your real name, I can easily check if you've submitted something to me ... *evil cackle*

Let's pick a scenario

I have written an epic fantasy novel (in the 6th-7th draft stage, I lost track...) and was extremely lucky to establish contact with the sci-fi &fantasy editor at a major Australian publisher. They were happy for me to send them my manuscript which I did, however they resigned shortly after. Before leaving they gave me some good feedback, asked me to trim from 240,000 words to 180,000-200,000 words, and then resubmit to their replacement. Two days ago I resubmitted and am now wondering about agents and what the best next step is for me. Should I start looking for an agent using the feedback I have so far received and the fact my manuscript is currently with a publisher? Or should I wait and see the response (I know it is highly unlikely I will be offered a contract but I will at least have a great deal more feedback) then ask the editor if they have a preferred agent they have a good working relationship with and get an introduction from there?

There is absolutely no harm in looking for an agent now, and there's also no harm in waiting until you hear from the publisher. Let's look at the different scenarios, though, just to make sure ...

A. If you get an agent and then the publisher doesn't want to publish it, you will have someone already in place to support your writing and help you find the right publisher for you. 

B. If you get an agent and then the publisher does want to publish it, you will have someone already in place to negotiate the deal for you and, hopefully, provide editorial support (depending on the agent - not everyone does this) and give advice.

C. If you don't get an agent and then the publisher doesn't want to publish it, well, you're in the same position you're in now.

D. If you don't get an agent and then the publisher does want to publish it, you have about a week in which to find an agent (if you want one at that stage) before the publisher starts pressing you for a response to their offer.

If you ask the publisher if they have a preferred agent they are likely to tell you that they don't, as it's unwise for publishers to play favourites lest they incur the wrath of the well-known harridan agent cabal. They may unofficially suggest someone but this does not usually happen. Your best bet for finding the right agent for you is to query agents who represent authors in your genre or authors who are on this publisher's list. Sci fi/fantasy is not represented by a lot of Australian agents so you probably won't have to send a lot of queries.

Good luck! And good on you for doing that many drafts - many people fall well before that hurdle.

Friday, June 29, 2012

There's a reason why books in Australia cost more

It's called Perth. Also Darwin, Broome, Far North Queensland and Hobart.

Australia is a big country - as large in land mass as the continental USA. Our eastern seaboard is heavily populated and also the location of our major publishers and their warehouses. There are no warehouses in Western Australia, the Northern Territory, Tasmania or Far North Queensland. Yet books that are released in Sydney and Melbourne on, say, 1 August still need to be available in these other places - and rural and regional centres - on that same publication day. Usually the only way to get the books to those places on time is by aeroplane. Aeroplanes, obviously, cost more than the trucks that are taking the books from the warehouses to Sydney, Melbourne, Adelaide and Brisbane. The cost of those aeroplanes is factored into the recommended retail price of each book you buy.

When I mentioned this to someone recently she asked why people in Perth couldn't just pay more for their books - and it wasn't because this person presumed that everyone in Perth has Mining Money. It was her reaction to living in Sydney and having to pay what she considered to be too high a price for books. Well, yes, they do seem expensive. And it's not just because they have to get to Perth.

While we have the land mass of the USA we have, of course, a far smaller population than the USA. Therefore we don't enjoy the economies of scale that arise from shipping books to ten times as many people over the same area. We have a small population for such a big place. If we were shipping 10 000 copies of each book to Perth instead of 1000, economies of scale dictate that we'd be paying less for each copy of that book. But we're not.

Yes, the GST is a factor in the price of books. These freight costs are also a factor. And no doubt you're going to say, 'Well, then, ebooks can be so much cheaper!' Yes, they can be cheaper but publishers are still trying to work out how they can stomach dropping a book's price from $35 for a paper copy to something drastically less for an electronic copy and still keep their shareholders happy. It's a process. We're in the middle of it. Publishers shouldn't be shouted at, because from what I can tell they're genuinely trying to work out a way forwards. And we'll get there in the end - the market will force a solution if the industry can't come up with one on its own.

Thursday, June 14, 2012

You're not all going to make it

At one point in 'The Gift', episode 100 of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Buffy turns to Spike and says, 'We're not all going to make it.' What she means by that is that some of her friends may die that night as they try to fend off an apocalypse. While those circumstances are dramatic, the line sometimes seems appropriate when I think about the legions of hopeful writers out there in the world.

So here's the blunt truth: you're not all going to make it. (And by 'make it' I mean 'get published', but you knew that.) The numbers alone suggest that, because there are arguably more writers than there are book-buyers in every single market around the world. And most book-buyers don't buy lots of books each year.

Does that mean you shouldn't try? Of course not. The trying is the thing. The trying is what makes you a better writer. In the great ever-shifting ratio of talent:application that is the difference between getting published and not, application is the more influential component. There are lots of talented writers out there. The ones who 'make it' are usually the ones who keep trying and learning as they go. But not everyone will. And nor should everyone expect to.

My example, for comparative purposes, is this: not all musicians expect to get a record deal, so why do all writers expect to get a publishing deal? I am yet to come across a writer who says they're doing it for their own enjoyment - they all seem to want to get published - but there are lots of musicians who do it just for the love of music (I'm speaking from personal experience). It could just be the circles I run in. But those circles are crowded with people who are constantly disappointed because they haven't been published. Some of those people - many, perhaps - will now self-publish a digital book. What's going to happen if they don't turn out to be self-publishing superstars? Statistically, most won't. So then there will be more disappointment. And this disappointment is completely preventable, because the sole cause of disappointment is expectation.

So here’s what I’d tell you if you were my friend and I was your bossy agenty friend:

Write without expectations.
Write because you love it.
Write because you have a story to tell.
Write because it makes you feel alive.
Write because that's where you're most present, in the moment, in the flow.
Don't write because you want to get published.
Don't write and then focus all of your energies on getting published. Just use some of your energies, if that’s what you want to do, and keep writing with the rest of your energies.

Getting published is a separate enterprise - it's a different undertaking altogether to writing. There are some authors who will get published because that's just where their writing falls: in the publishable stream. It doesn't make it better or worse than the writing that doesn't get published. Quite often it's just about the planets aligning for that writer at that time. When I take on an author, I have to love the writing, yes, but I also have to think hard about whether or not I can get the author published. I've rejected a lot of manuscripts that I loved, just because I didn't think I could get them published. In my ideal World of Me, where all the writing I love gets published, things would be different. But they're not. I have to live in this world. And, as Buffy also once said, this world is 'hard, and bright, and violent'.

Now, in the words of Dan Savage, 'I'm gonna get so many caaaallllls ...'

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Agents here, agents there, agents not exactly everywhere

Contrary to the literary scene in the US, many Australian writers still approach publishers directly. Why do you think this happens? Is there a paucity of literary agencies in Australia, or is it that this vocation still remains unexploited here?

I've kinda covered this territory already but what the hey, I'm looking for a distraction. So here's an answer.

Yes, there's a paucity of literary agencies, and that's because the business model of agenting makes it hard for people to start an agency and, these days, to stay in business. Agents work on commission, so unless an agent is independently wealthy, it's hard to start an agency from nothing knowing income won't flow, possibly, for several months, and even then it won't be much. Advances aren't that big, and agents only get a fraction of those advances. In Australia we need to take on quite a lot of clients just to break even. Moreover, those advances are getting smaller or disappearing altogether, but publishers still want agents to exist, because we do serve a role in the publishing food chain - we act as consultants, of a sort, to publishers in that we do a lot of the submission-filtering for them, and we often handle authors' concerns and queries, which means they're not calling their publishers and asking. 

Agents are also, often, the ones staying abreast of what's changing in the industry and we're able to disseminate information to authors and publishers alike (and, yes, this blog is one of the ways I do that). One of the reasons this blog hasn't been updated in a while is that I'm flat out trying to keep on top of everything - all agents now have to spend a proportion of their time each day reading about the latest developments on the industry. This isn't something that was in the job description five years ago. 

I can't actually imagine how we're going to get more agents in this country, although it would be great if we could. The difficulty of the business model is one reason; the fact that it requires a certain amount of experience to be an effective agent is another. It would be hard to parachute a university graduate into an agenting job if they had no prior experience of the industry.

One of the things that would be helpful is that publishers could realise that we'll all disappear if they keep squeezing the money the way they are. Yes, things are really, really difficult at the moment - more difficult than any of us can remember - but we should actually be trying to work out a way to fix it, not just all running to the corners of the ring and waiting to see who comes out fighting first. If publishers gave agents the benefit of the doubt - if their default answer to us wasn't always 'no', even if we have a lot of books with them - that would help. They want our expertise but then don't trust it enough to not make us jump through the same hoops every time (and by 'publishers' I mean the companies, not the individuals who are called publishers - the individuals usually trust us but their acquisitions meetings don't).

So that turned into a bit of a rant; it's been coming for a while (and I have more to come). And, no, it won't get more agents into the industry but right now we just need to focus on keeping the ones we have. 

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Let's split the difference

There are publishers now who don't give advances or royalties but share the book's profits equally with the author. Do you think this would be a better deal for authors?

It's a different deal for authors, and possibly a better one, but it's really too early to tell. I think what's good about some of these contracts is that the profit-sharing arrangement indicates more of a partnership between publisher and author than the previous overlord-underling situation (as authors have perceived it - in truth authors have always had the power, because there is no publishing industry without them and if authors collectively decided to not be published by publishers the whole industry would collapse).

What's also good is that a lot of these new contracts are for limited terms - three years, five years, nine years - not life of copyright. A limited licence puts the onus on the publisher to 'perform' within that time frame, knowing that their performance will be reviewed at the end of the licence. It also means that either or both sides have a way of extracting themselves from the relationship if it's not working, and that way is bloodless - the licence comes to an end and off you go.

From my unofficial surveying of authors it seems that novelists (for any age) are the writers least likely to be upset about not receiving an advance. They've already committed time, energy, brain space and love to their novel - now they just want it out in the world. If they get a cash money advance for it, great. If they don't, well, they'll get royalties once it starts selling. What's more likely to interest them is editorial and marketing/publicity/sales support - these are the things publishers can do for authors, often very well, that authors struggle to do for themselves, whether because of financial or time constraints.

We're likely to have the traditional publishing models for a while, and they will peacefully coexist with the new models; some authors will be able to choose between them and some won't. Sometimes the author will decide that it's better to not be published at all than to take an arrangement that isn't right for them - and it may be that it's the traditional publishing deal that ends up being the arrangement that isn't right. We'll just have to wait and see.

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Does anyone love books for boys? Anyone? Anyone?

I have written a YA book which is targeted at older teenage boys. It's been well-received by (allegedly) grown-up blokes as well, and I believe it fits into that "crossover" area that stretches into both YA and adult markets. Nonetheless, it was conceived and written for 15-17 year old boys. It's a military science fiction story. As you would guess, it's heavily skewed to action, but also has strong characters and explores themes that go somewhat beyond military hardware. I'm now out in the world seeking an agent, two of whom have asked to review the full manuscript, so – without getting too far ahead of myself – I'm comforted there's at least a level of interest, and that my writing is of an acceptable standard.

My first question is this: is there an easier way for me to identify agents who are actively seeking works for the male YA market? In all my research, I have only found one agent who claims this area as a particular interest. Invariably, even for those agencies that are open to YA sci-fi, I find I am writing to female agents, a number of whom make no bones about the fact that they're looking for books that are primarily written for girls. Many also say that they want books with strong female protagonists. One agent went so far as to invite me to rewrite the manuscript and turn the hero into a heroine… (Sorry, no.)

I assume this is not just a display of industry-wide sexism (!), so I'm guessing it's market-driven. I haven't seen any stats on this, but maybe teenage girls just buy more books than teenage boys? If that's the case, it brings me to my second question: would I be better off submitting my work direct to some of the more obvious sci-fi publishing houses?

I'd appreciate any insights you can offer.

I love young adult fiction written for boys and look after quite a bit of it, but I can't tell you my secret identity so there goes that opportunity to submit ... unless you already have. Let me go and check ...

Yes, it's true that literary agents in Australia tend to be women. That's probably because there's not enough money in the job to tempt men, and also because the publishing industry has a lot of women on the editorial/publishing side of things, which is where agenting sits (sales and marketing is more evenly matched, if not weighted towards those in possession of XY chromosomes). As to whether or not there's a way to more easily identify the agents' tastes in books: peruse their client lists and if that doesn't provide illumination, ask them. As I've said before, if agents don't make their submission guidelines clear enough to enable you to send in a submission (or not) you should ask them to clarify (which, in turn, may make them have clearer guidelines).

It is believed that women and girls read and buy books more than men and boys. Women often buy books for the men in their lives, and they often reach for books that seem 'likely' - books on war and Ben Cousins, for example. Publishers are thus trying to publish books that the women-who-buy-for-men can easily identify as being books for men. The same probably goes for books for children and teenagers, which are primarily purchased by parents and schools.

It is a truism of publishing and bookselling that women and girls have more eclectic taste in books - they'll give most books a go - but men and boys don't, usually. Part of the conversation around 'men's writing' and 'women's writing' is that women will read books written by both women and men, but men don't return the favour.

There are very few books published that are explicitly for male readers of any age; usually we're trying to appeal to both men and women (boys and girls) but we know, deep down in our ex-library-monitor hearts, that we're more likely to have female readers than male. I suspect this is true of all countries that have a publishing industry and there's probably a PhD that's been written about it somewhere examining the reasons why.

Hopefully that answers your first question. The answer to your second question is: yes. But that 'yes' has more to do with the fact that many agents and publishers don't touch science fiction and/or don't understand it, not with the fact that your manuscript is written for boys.

Sunday, April 1, 2012

Cutting out or cutting through?

Over the past year or two I've noticed calls for submissions from major publishers such as this one:

being passed around the social networking sphere. In your opinion, might this be an attempt to cut agents out of the picture or is it perhaps a knee-jerk reaction to the changing state of legacy publishing? Or something else?

I'm going with your answer (c) - 'something else'. And that something else is 'trying to find good manuscripts'. Publishers know that agents can't possibly find all the good stuff - although they do like us to do that, as it helps cut down on their own slushpile reading. We all get sent far more submissions than we can handle, and agents tend not to have the resources to read absolutely every submission in the country. So if the publishers have the resources to put towards reading submissions, they will. Not all of them do; some of them do some of the time. Some publishers always have submissions open and some will never have them open. It's nothing new, it's just that it's easier for word to spread when they announce online that submissions are open. In the olden days you had to phone their switchboards to find that out.

Publishers and agents aren't enemies, by the way - we're all working towards the same goal, of seeing great books by great writers out in the world - so it's unlikely any agent would see this sort of news as an aggressive gesture by a publishing company. And if they did, well, that's their business. Ya can't please all of the people all of the time.

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Does self-pub mean no other pub?

Quite a few of the writing apps now support ePub export for eBooks. If a writer self-publishes an eBook on Amazon or the iBookstore, does it hurt their chances of finding an agent?

Generally speaking, I believe per se that it does not - given how many authors are either doing or thinking of doing this, it may soon become the norm that agents get submissions that have already been published as ebooks. What hurts a writer's chances of finding an agent, as ever, is if their manuscript/ebook ain't that great.

If an author approached me with a book they've self-published as an ebook, I'd certainly ask them questions about why they want an agent now and what they think an agent can do for them. It's also worth bearing in mind that while agents may not have a problem with self-published ebooks, publishers may. Agents may take on these sorts of books and then discover that publishers don't want them, and that's the sort of thing you could only find out by doing. If enough publishers say they don't want these sorts of submissions, then I guess authors who want to find a publisher will stop self-publishing ... for a while.

Friday, March 23, 2012

Greatest hits: The fiction submission rant

I just rediscovered this post, and it all still holds true three years later. Plus there are points involved, so it's kind of like a game!


There is no question for this post - I'm writing it because I want to whinge. For there are many days when I just want to never, ever, ever look at fiction submissions again. And it's not because I don't find clients that way - I do - but it's because so much of my time is wasted doing it that I find it hard to justify reading the subs. And why is my time wasted? Because 99% of fiction submissions aren't ready to be seen. (That percentage is an approximation, and possibly influenced by my snarky mood.)

So let's play a game. Let's say I grant every submission 100 points to start with. I'm going to list some common things I see in submissions. Certain things will take off points; certain things will add. If the submission still ends up with around 100 points, then I'll ask for a full manuscript. (In reality it's not that scientific, but maybe I'll change my ways.)

1. Sending in your first draft. LOSE 50 POINTS
1. (a) It's your first novel. LOSE ANOTHER 25 POINTS

2. Asking your best friend or mother to read your novel and then believing what they say and THEN telling me that I should read your novel because your mother loved it. LOSE 20 POINTS

3. Putting your novel away for a while - weeks, if not months - and then revisiting it and doing some more work. ADD 20 POINTS

4. Telling me that if I don't take you on I'll be missing out on the greatest novelist who ever lived. LOSE 10 POINTS

5. Taking the time to understand that to write a novel is to tell a story and that means you can't write 50 000 words of beautiful prose with no plot and no character development. ADD 20 POINTS

6. Being completely unrealistic about your abilities as a writer - everyone may have a novel in them but that doesn't mean everyone should write that novel. If you failed to read any novels in high school, there's a good chance you're not cut out to be a novelist. LOSE 20 POINTS

7. Reading lots of novels, particularly in your genre. ADD 15 POINTS
7. (a) Comparing yourself to those novelists when you submit your manuscript. LOSE 10 POINTS

8. Sending in a half-baked submission 'so you can give me some advice on where my writing should go from here'. LOSE 40 POINTS

And, at the suggestion of one of my authors (some of them know I write this blog - well, only the handsome ones):
9. Mentioning it's a literary novel. LOSE 15 POINTS (he suggested 1000 and used swear words - I'm not going to be that forceful - and please bear in mind that he actually writes literary fiction)
9. (a) Mentioning it's a literary novel set in Melbourne, and you're from Melbourne, and all the characters are from Melbourne too. LOSE ANOTHER 15 POINTS (and before you take umbrage, remember that my name is Agent SYDNEY - that gives me licence for a little fun,non?)

I've just run out of ideas, but there's every chance I'll add to this list in future. And you can probably tell there are more 'lose' than 'add' items. Believe me, I WANT to love every submission I read. I want there to be so many brilliant novels of all stripes out there that Australians only ever want to read Australian novels and forget about overseas authors. But the bitter truth is that I despair. I read the submissions and I see novelists who could turn out to be great but who will get rejected by me - and probably everyone else - because they were impatient. I read other submissions that are truly awful. I read a lot that are just tepid. All of this wastes my time, and when my time is wasted I grow cranky and I'm more and more tempted to never read fiction submissions again.

The biggest problem is that novels are submitted well before they're ready. If this blog achieves nothing else than to make novelists think hard before they submit to anyone, I'll be happy. Because while people like me spend too much time reading submissions that will never get published, we are not spending time on developing and supporting Australian talent.

In the past I have received several emails whinging - yes, whinging, how dare you! - about agents closing submissions and asking why. Well, now you know. We're not a public service - we run businesses. We can't work for nothing. So if we detect that something is wasting our time - and our money-making capabilities - we'll stop doing it. The one thing writers can do to ensure that doesn't happen is to make sure their submissions are up to scratch. Agents do not exist to give you advice unless you're a client. We are looking for writers we can get published. If you can free us up by not sending us your undercooked novel, we'll be more able to look at it when it IS cooked.

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Can I pay you, say, no commission?

Recently I've become aware of a mini-spate of authors asking agents to drop their commission rates before the authors will sign with an agency. The rates were completely within the normal range for Australian agents, so it's not as though there was anything untoward going on.

I have to be blunt (all right, when am I not?) and say that asking for a reduced commission rate is not a great way to start a relationship with an agent and is possibly going to mean you have no relationship with the agent concerned.

(The following may sound like a whinge but I've been moved to write it because this sort of thing can lead to misunderstandings and upsets, and we genteel folks in the publishing industry like to avoid those sorts of things.)

Agents, perhaps more than most people in the publishing industry, understand how little money is involved in most advances - we see offers for books; we also look at royalty statements. We get it - authors are not well compensated for their work. We try to get them the best compensation we can, but there's simply not that much money goin' around and there are a lot of people trying to share it. So we can also understand, in principle, why an author may want their agent to take less of a share.

However, the author is asking the agent to do work for them. The usual understanding of work in a capitalist economy is that you get paid to do it, unless it is specifically termed 'volunteer'. Agents are not volunteers. We have to pay rent, electricity etc, and that's just in the workplace. No agents I know of are jetting off to Monte Carlo to play in high-stakes games and hobnob with Their Serene Highnesses. No, no - we are paying our bills and getting by and mostly doing this job because we love books, not because we expect to make huge profits (because we don't).

So when an author asks an agent to drop their commission rate, what they're basically asking is for us to work for less in an already thin-margin environment. How would that author feel if their agent was offered, say, $10 000 for the author's book and said to the publisher, 'No, that's okay - we'll take $8000'. Author probably wouldn't be happy, right? Well, that's how agents feel when authors ask them to take a pay cut.

There is also this: taking on a new author is a big financial risk. Agents can invest a lot of time and skill in a new author and if we don't end up placing the book there is nothing to remunerate us for the time and skill. When we think about taking on a new client we weigh up that risk, but it doesn't take much to tip it into too-risky territory. If we're asked to drop the commission rate the risk often becomes too great, and then it's no longer viable for us to take on that author, with the consequence that we don't take them on.

Of course, the author may be bringing a backlist with them, or they may have a certain amount of bargaining power, and in those circumstances there can be room to move. But with first-time authors there is usually very little room to move on that commission rate. I would love it to be the case that advances are so high that we could take a minute amount of commission and still be able to keep the lights on, but there isn't a country in the world where that is the case - not for books, where the amounts of money in each territory are fairly small relative to other intellectual properties like screenplays or acting. And actors agents don't take 5% commission either.

In summary: the reality is that if you want to have an agent, you're going to have to pay them commission because they are doing work, not volunteering. What you're paying them is the most reasonable rate they can charge you and still make taking on your manuscript viable. If you tell them that you want to pay less than that reasonable rate, don't be surprised if they don't embrace you with open arms, just as you wouldn't like someone trying to pay you less for your professional services. If you think that an agent isn't worth the money then the solution is easy: don't have one.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Women's literary fiction - qu'est-ce que c'est?

How would you define women's literary fiction? Is it considered a genre? In your opinion, what would you consider roughly the appropriate word count? Would 70,000 words be considered too small?

The rapid-fire nature of your questions makes me feel slightly beaten-about-the-head-with-a-blunt-instrument, so I need a few seconds to recover ...



Okay, let's continue.

I define women's literary fiction as genre-less fiction written for women (and we can identify that it's written for women mainly because there is a heroine rather than a hero, or a group of protagonists who are women). That's mainly because I don't really know what 'literary fiction' is so I tend to like to call it 'genre-less' fiction, mainly because the label 'literary fiction' is often applied to stories that can't be slotted into another genre. But please note that this is my definition and it may not be used against another other literary agent in a court of law. And let's not confound 'literary fiction' with 'literature'.

To answer your second question: given the above definition, it's a kind of non-genre (IMO only!).

Word count is as word count does, but to make the production of the physical book viable for a publisher (i.e. how much it costs to buy the paper, pay the printer etc due to economies of scale), anything less than 50 000 words won't really cut it. Anything over 90 000 words may make people nervous for similar reasons. So 70 000 words is just about right. NB: All this is moot in e-book land, where you have no trees to fell and ink to dry.

Monday, March 12, 2012

Who's afraid of Australian novels?

Following last week's post and the response to it - by far the most instantly popular post in this blog's history, and some of you were kind enough to give feedback on email and Twitter - I thought I'd jot down a few thoughts as to why Australian fiction is not as loved as fiction from elsewhere. I am concentrating on fiction because local non-fiction does verywellthanksverymuch. Also because it's not non-fiction writers who are complaining about how hard it is to get published. I'm also focusing on genre fiction, as it's genre fiction that we buy in quantity from non-Australian authors.

These are my opinions and observations only; I have not done a research paper and, having already spent far too many years accumulating letters after my name, am unlikely to ever do one. They're opinions and observations that come from several years spent working in various facets of the publishing industry and what I've seen of 'consumer behaviour' in that time. I should also note that I was not in the publishing industry for some of the years I write about below, so I am assuming (yes, yes, I'm aware that 'assume' makes an 'ass' out of 'u' and 'me') certain things based on the information I have.

1. The cultural cringe
In the not-so-distant past, the Australian publishing industry didn't really exist except as a distribution arm for British publishers, probably because the Australian culture didn't really exist except as a distribution arm for British cultural artefacts. That's what you get for being a colony (or collection thereof). New Zealand and Canada no doubt know how that feels, but Canada, at least, seems to have been spurred into strongly supporting its local arts because of the cultural gigantosaur sitting on its shoulder, whereas Australia - drifting along in the South Pacific and kind of left to its own devices - hasn't had the same kind of pressure to develop a strong cultural identity, let alone proactively support an 'Australian culture'. What we did have, however, was a slight simmering resentment of our colonial overlords and a desire to prove that we're smart too. Result: a lot of literary fiction, much of it worthy and trying to create or prove a cultural identity, from the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s; not a lot of genre fiction. Thus, 'Australian literature' became synonymous with 'Australian literary fiction that is trying to tell us something about the Australian national character'. Not many people read literary fiction compared to those who read genre fiction, especially when that literary fiction is a tad didactic. Further result: not a lot of people bought Australian novels and publishers kept their expectations for Australian fiction modest.

2. The habit
In those three decades, fiction readers who didn't want to read literary fiction but actually wanted to read romance, thrillers, crime, sci fi et al had to look to authors from elsewhere. And look they did, as Australians cheerfully chomped down on commercial fiction from the US and UK, in particular. In that time Australian readers developed a habit of buying these books from overseas authors. The small number who have always bought literary fiction did buy Australian literary fiction, but it's always been a small number - apart from the odd breakout - and the big numbers for fiction were seen in sales for foreign authors. This habit of buying foreign fiction has gone on for years.

The habit might also have formed because for many, many years Australian schoolchildren were given a literary diet more rich in Enid Blyton than Ruth Park. As the Jesuits say, 'Give me the boy 'til he's seven and I'll show you the man' - many of us who are now in our disposable-income prime were exposed to a lot of books written by non-Australians when we were young. That cultural programming worked - we now probably don't even realise that we reflexively reach for non-Australian authors, simply because we're programmed to do so. This is another habit that has gone on for years. Result: not a lot of Australian fiction bought by Australian readers.

3. The signal to authors
Because literary fiction seemed to be all that was getting published in Australia for many years, prospective authors - turning a pragmatic eye to what would give them the best chance of publication - would have written literary fiction. Those who wanted to write in genres in large part seemed to try their luck overseas (as we have seen, especially, with romance novels). Consequently the manuscripts that were submitted to publishers and agents were, in the main, literary novels. Result: people in the publishing industry thinking that all they were ever going to see was literary fiction, so there was little incentive to think about how Australian genre fiction might be published successfully.

4. The catch-22
So now we arrive at a time when there are more stories available than ever before, most of them in genre fiction - and it's harder than ever to get genre fiction published in Australia. If we look at the patterns of the past - not much genre fiction published here, which encouraged genre fiction readers to look at overseas, and the literary fiction that was published appealed only to a small number of people - then what we have is very little Australian fiction being bought by Australian readers compared to what could be bought if genre fiction were more actively published here. So, not much genre fiction bought gives a signal to publishers that there is little incentive to publish it - which means they don't publish it, which means readers keep buying books from non-Australian authors. I am concentrating on the 'buying' rather than the 'reading' because publishing companies are businesses and if people are only 'reading' and not 'buying' then they stop 'publishing'.

Result: the loop-de-loop, in short, looks like this - no genre fiction published = no genre fiction bought = no incentive to publishers to publish it = no genre fiction published.

5. Difficulty of access
As if all this weren't difficult enough, it seems that it's hard for fiction readers to actually find out what's new or even what's not new from Australian authors. A reader of the blog says that she buys YA books through Australian bookstores 'but they simply don't carry the types of books I like to read'. She reads a lot of romance novels and says 'when you know there are new releases out for Australian authors ... and you can't find them at the local bookstore, you tend to save yourself time and automatically look elsewhere'. This problem isn't likely to be solved any time soon, because we're likely to lose more bookshops and book outlets. But we do have the internet and its access to Australian ebooks - the problem with that, though, is discoverability. As more and more ebooks are available, how is anyone going to know which ones to read, let alone being able to find Australian authors?

Price is another factor in 'difficulty of access' but the book prices are the same for Australian authors as overseas authors, unless the overseas books are imported directly by booksellers. I'm not going into the pricing argument here - I understand that price is a barrier to access for many people but part of me also feels like saying indignantly, 'What price can you put on someone's creative brain, huh?' I also know how complex some of the pricing arguments can be for Australian publishers, and it's not just GST on the cover price - it's GST on several steps along the production path.

In conclusion
We have a national habit of buying certain types of books - the popular types - from non-Australian authors and this has created a market signal to publishers that we don't want those types of books from Australian authors. Sometimes it's not that we don't want them - rather, it's because we can't find them or they're too expensive compared to books we can order from overseas. Regardless, publishers do publish non-literary fiction written by Australians and they would want to do more of it if they thought there was a market for it.

You are the ones who can show them that there is. If you make a decision to more proactively seek out Australian authors in the genres you love - and I'm seeing what I can do about disseminating more information about what's available - you can develop a new habit and send a big signal to Australian publishers that you want to read Australian authors. As I wrote last week, if you an Australian writer who wants to be published one day, it is important to understand this particular reason for why it's so hard to get published. I am not, as one person suggested, asking you to rescue the Australian publishing industry. I'm simply asking you to stop and think about what you read and why, and then to also realise how the readers 'out there' think. If you're all thinking that you don't want to read Australian novels - or if you simply can't be bothered to change a habit - then don't be surprised if you see less of them around.

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Fessing up to your day job

Do agents take notice of profession when they consider manuscripts? Are the works of writers – say journalists or subs – considered with more weight against those who don't have a job in the writing world?

If a journalist sends a submission I'm more likely to read it faster, but not necessarily give it more weight. I'll read it faster not because I think the journalist is going to be a better writer than someone who isn't a journalist, but because journalists usually make good authors and clients - they're deadline driven and used to being edited, and they tend to be more practical about the sales/marketing/publicity side of things. So I like journalists. But if a journalist's submission isn't any good, I won't give her or him the benefit of the doubt just because he or she writes for a living. The submission stands or falls on the basis of the writing that's in it, not what the writer does for a living.

Of course, there are some professions and occupations that intrigue me more than others. I'll leave you to imagine what they may be.

Monday, March 5, 2012

The real reason why it's so hard to get your Australian novel published

Whenever I'm amongst a group of writers who aren't clients - admittedly not that often, as such gatherings can end in tears (mine) - or even when I encounter individual writers in the wild, there are usually complaints about why it's so hard to get their novel published or to find an agent. 'Why don't agents take on debut novelists?' comes the plaintive cry, often followed by a variation on the theme of 'Evil publishers just don't support Australian writing'.

The question I always want to ask, but tend not to, is: 'When was the last time you bought an Australian novel*?' Because I know that the answer will most likely either be 'Five years ago' or 'Never', or they'll blink and look at me like I've asked if they think Tony Abbott looks good in his Lycra bike pants.**

Well, kids, wake up and smell the Vegemite toast: this is the reason why it's so hard to get your Australian novel published.

If every person who is writing an Australian novel (regardless of genre) would simply buy one Australian novel a year (regardless of genre), the sales figures would look a lot healthier, and publishers would think that there's a more robust market for it. (This being a capitalist economy, they're quite interested in the whole supply-and-demand caper.)

For example, if you're writing a crime novel, consider buying an Australian crime novel instead of Patricia Cornwell next time you're in a bookshop. Don't write an Australian crime novel, buy only US and UK crime novels and then complain that you can't get your Australian crime novel published. Why should the Australian publishing industry support you when you don't support it?

I am the first to admit that the Australian publishing industry (which includes agents) has perhaps let down the novel-reading Australian public in the past. There were a lot of heavy literary novels published as we tried to pin down a literary identity independent of our colonial overlords. We got children's fiction incredibly right, but a lot of the grown-ups' fiction suffered in comparison to what was coming in from overseas. These were the faltering missteps of a toddler culture. No longer.

I can tell you from the fiction submissions I see - most of which I have to reject, because the publishers are reluctant to take risks on new novels because they think no one will read them - that there is some terrific, robust storytelling happening out there, much of it in genre fiction. A lot of it is written by my very own talented clients (who, obviously, didn't get rejected). There are so many great Australian novels available. So I'm sure that there's one - at least one - that you, an Australian novelist who wants to get published, would like. And the best thing you could do for the industry that you would like to part of is buy that one book.

If you're one of those writers who regularly reads Australian novels, fantastic - we love you, you help keep our local fiction publishing alive. If you're not, please first consider why that is, and if it's simply that you don't have the habit of reading Australian novels - that you reflexively choose novels from elsewhere - try to change that habit one book at a time. You'll be glad you did when publishers realise that there is a bigger market for Australian fiction than they thought, and then they're more likely to look for new novelists, and then I and my agent colleagues will have more incentive not to reject so many of these submissions we receive.

Yes, I realise that many novels are very expensive. Believe me, it's not because some of us aren't trying to get the prices adjusted, especially for first novels. We know that the cost is prohibitive for some people. Which is why I'm only suggesting you buy one per year. It's an investment worth making - in your own publishing potential, if nothing else.

*I define 'Australian novel' as 'novel written by an Australian' not 'novel about Australia'.
**I know this because when I have asked the question, these have been the responses, although I added the Tony Abbott bit for embellishment.

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Your book will probably never be made into a movie

Most authors harbour secret or not-so-secret dreams of their book or manuscript being made into a movie. Usually it's novelists who dream this more frequently than non-fiction writers, who tend to be a little less attached to the idea, unless they're memoirists or write narrative non-fiction or true crime.

The blunt, unadorned truth is that your story is unlikely to be made into a movie, and not because it's not fantastic, just because movies are very different beasts and what goes into making a good movie isn't often what makes a good book. I am telling you this blunt, unadorned truth to help you manage your own expectations.

It's tempting to finish there and just say, 'Good luck with that!' but I feel an explanation - or even just some information - may be in order. So here are the Things to Know About Turning Books into Movies.

1. Adapting novels into screenplays is very difficult. If you work off the principle that each page of a screenplay is one minute of screen time, and that a film will average 90 minutes, that's a 90-page screenplay. And screenplays are not like books: there is lots of white space on each page. So your 300-page novel has to be turned into a 90-page screenplay that contains very little description and mostly dialogue, which means a lot of the story has to go. And it has to be a certain type of story to withstand that kind of stripping down. Usually a story with a good, clear dramatic arc and strong protagonists. No arc? Fahgeddaboutit.

2. It's important to remember that, as the author of the 300-page novel, you are not likely to be the person best qualified to write the 90-page screenplay adaptation of your novel, unless you have screenwriting experience. And, at any rate, seeing your novel turned into a screenplay is a bit like watching sausages get made: not advisable, especially for vegetarians.

3. One of the major factors - if not the major factor - that goes into deciding whether or not a book is suitable for adaptation to screen is how much it would cost to make as a movie. If your book is set in the past or the future, that complicates matters. Vintage cars, clothes and locations cost money; so do spaceships. Any producer who is thinking about adapting your novel is going to primarily ponder the cost of making the movie or series that results.

4. It helps if your book has sold well, if only to get it to the attention of producers. There are so many books out there - the producers need to have a reason to read yours, and a built-in readership-cum-audience is a persuasive reason. Of course, having a great story helps too ...

5. You thought the publishing industry was slow? We are sprinters compared to the cross-country game of the film industry. So even if your story is getting some attention amongst film types, prepare to wait, and wait, and wait, for anything to happen. First you'll wait for the option to be done. Then you'll wait for a screenwriter to be attached. Then you'll wait for the screenplay to go through development, while the producer drums up funds. And on it goes.

6. This last point is an important one for those of you who don't have access to an agent or lawyer: do not straightaway sell your film or TV rights. Not to the first person who asks, nor to the last. If someone wants to turn your book into a movie, they have to option the material. And that is an option to purchase. They get to buy the rights when they plug in the lights on the first day of filming.

So while I don't like to encourage writers to give up on their dreams, in this particular area it is advisable to keep the dreams at a manageable level. But, then again, I'm not of the school of telling people to just 'dream big!!!' anyway, mainly because I have seen what disappointment looks like and I'd rather spare you all that experience. As the sole cause of disappointment is expectation, better to manage your expectations.

Friday, January 27, 2012

Sometimes it takes a really long time to get published

A few years ago I took on an author - let's code-name her AG. AG had written a manuscript that was in a genre that didn't usually appeal to me, and it needed at least another draft. But it was clear that she was hugely talented and I loved the story. She has a natural gift for storytelling and a great facility with language. So I sent out the novel to the publishers whom I thought would like it. One of them was very keen. This publisher asked for some rewrites, which AG cheerfully did in her ninth month of her first pregnancy, when she probably had other things on her mind. That publisher wasn't able to get the novel through acquisitions but later suggested that AG write another type of novel, which she did. (I should point out that AG is the sort of writer who is in love with the process of writing and drafting - not all writers are, and if you aren't that sort of writer it doesn't mean you're a better or worse writer than someone like AG.) That novel didn't get through the acquisitions process either.

More time passed. I kept an eye open for opportunities for AG, and she was very patient about it all. AG now has two children - and one publisher. Yes, at last, someone else loved the novel as much as I did and was able to convince their colleagues about it too.

I'm passing on this story to illustrate, mainly, the point that it can take a long time to find a publisher, even when there are plenty of people who love what you do. Also to afford the chance to talk about why I think AG ultimately did find a publisher. Firstly, there is (obviously) her skill as a writer. But she has some qualities apart from that which have helped. Both of us could have walked away from our professional relationship at the point at which the second novel didn't get up. I wouldn't have blamed her if she'd wanted to go, and I wouldn't have blamed myself if she went. But the simple fact is that she's a great client. She is professional and realistic. Not once has she fallen into the 'poor me' trap which can defeat many a talented writer - purely because, I reckon, it starts draining their energy towards a dangerous downwards spiral. She kept her chin up and she retained her love of writing. Some of this has to do with her personality; a lot of it has to do, I suspect, with decisions she has made along the way.

Now AG has a publisher who thinks she's fantastic. I think she's fantastic. I just wish I could tell you her name so that you'll find out how fantastic she is too. But that would give away my top-secret identity ...

Click on this link

A fairy godsister (as she's not old enough to be a fairy godmother) sent me the following link:

I recommend you click on it as it's to a post entitled '25 Things Writers Should Know About Agents'. While the post contains some information that is similar to things I've posted in the past, it's going to save you having to trawl through this blog to find it!

Friday, January 20, 2012

Settle, petal

You mention in one of your responses 'publishing people value manners,' and you often urge politeness, but surely it cuts both ways. I submitted a query to an agent a couple of months ago but, receiving no reply after six weeks, I queried another agent and am still waiting for a response. Yes, their websites said they were open for submissions and, yes, I did follow the submission guidelines conscientiously.

If they are not interested it surely takes only a couple of minutes to hit the 'reply' button, type 'no thanks' and hit the send button. Getting no answer at all is worse than getting a knock-back. Incidentally, I have also queried agents in the USA and UK and usually get an answer within a day or two, albeit sometimes automated. Should I contact agents who fail to respond and ask (politely) whether their email or mine has gone astray?

Yes, it cuts both ways. I've never said that it hasn't. But if you have read other entries on this website you will also have read about the restrictions on time and resources for agents, particularly in Australia. Most of us don't have assistants. Most of us are trying to fit in the submission-reading and submission-replying in our private time. The agents in the US and the UK usually have administrative help, so they can turn around submissions faster.

You'd also have read that a couple of months is really not a long time in publishing. We do the best we can - honestly, we do. But you probably would not believe how many submissions we receive if I told you. If I spent my time only reading submissions, I still wouldn't get through them at a pace that would satisfy the authors who sent them. Because the other side of this is that many authors take ten years to write a novel and then want a response to a submission within ten days. Our reading takes time, just as your writing did.

Is this slow-response situation ideal? No. I would love to be able to get back to submissions faster than I do - I would love to spend a lot of my time reading submissions. But my clients come first. And I also have to be mindful of my relationships with publishers. They take time too. I do always have it in the back of my mind, though, that the people who sent in submissions need an answer. So if you send an email after a few weeks reminding me about your submission, that is completely understandable. Check the submission guidelines first, though. Some agents say how long they're likely to take to respond. If they don't, then eight weeks is a reasonable amount of time after which you can remind an Australian agent that you exist. If they do, then wait however much time they've said and then another week or so, and then make contact. Just don't call unless they specifically say you can. Just as you wouldn't believe how many submissions I get, you wouldn't believe how many people call, and it all takes time away from getting our work done - and getting to your submission faster.