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.