Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Ghosts in the machine

Is ghostwriting a good thing to do? How does one get into ghostwriting? Do agents ever represent ghostwriters?

Ghostwriting is a great thing to do, because it gives a writer experience in creating a long-form work and in meeting deadlines; often the writer has to shape a story out of material they wouldn't normally choose (thus forcing them to be even more creative); it introduces the writer to a publisher; the writer becomes familiar with the publishing process and people within the industry and is thus more likely to (a) get more ghostwriting work and (b) have their original work looked at by the publishers they have worked for as a ghostwriter.

The most direct route to ghostwriting is being a journalist. A ghostwriter is usually required for a non-fiction project that has a prominent subject (usually a person), so for a journalist it's a relatively familiar process (lots of interviewing and then shaping a story for a particular readership). If you're not a journalist, you'll need to have some relevant credits to present to a publisher, to prove that you can write something of book length and also that you are used to working with a subject who may have nothing in common with you. In other words: if you're not a journalist, it's hard.

Yes, agents can represent ghostwriters but they are usually writers who already have (non-fiction) books of their own, and we put them forward for ghostwriting gigs if a publisher says they're looking for someone.

Ghostwriting is not the easiest form of writing, because you have at least two masters (the subject of the book and the publisher) and the deadlines are often steep. But if you're not too attached to seeing your name on the cover of a book and you like a challenge, it's an effective way to make a living as a writer.

Friday, November 16, 2007

What's hot in non-fiction

What non-fiction topics do publishers and agents hunger for?

First, I'll apologise for using the word 'hot' in the header but I wanted to rhyme with 'what'. And now I'll get to the answer ... which should have appeared a few weeks ago, but I overlooked the question in my list! Apologies to the person who sent it in.

The non-fiction topics that publishers hunger for are often the ones agents can't get their hands on: specifically, autobiographies of sportsmen (and I used the 'men' bit on purpose). Sports agents tend to look after the book deals for their talent; it's rare that a cricketer or AFL footballer looks for a literary agent. The other non-fiction books that sell very well are cookbooks, but that can depend on whether or not the chef has a TV show, or whether there's a well-known brand attached to the book.

Each agent has their own interests and specialties with both non-fiction and fiction, but generally speaking memoir is a dominant genre (and covers a lot of ground - it could be a memoir about being a call girl or running a cattle station), as well as true crime, military history, medical and the odd motivational story. Science is also sought after, but it depends how it's written - if it's too academic, the audience will necessarily be small. Travel writing is a bit on the wane, unless it's done by Michael Palin. Business books can be tricky - again, a well-known face helps.

I suppose a basic rule for non-fiction is that if the author is famous (for doing something other than writing), publishers will want to talk to them. If the author isn't famous, then the topic needs to be something that would grab a journalist's attention, because the book will need publicity in order to clamber above the other 999 books published that month.

Thursday, November 15, 2007

Submitting illustrations with text

My husband and I have written a short children's book which my husband would also like to complete the illustrations for. How do you suggest we submit the book? Should we have the manuscript and illustrations separate from each other, or put the relevant text under each picture? Also, what percentage do publishers take?

What you should submit depends on what the agent or publisher asks for. If they say 'no illustrations', then don't include them. But if you're submitting the whole thing as a picture book, the best thing you can do - to show you're professional - is lay out the text with the pictures as if it were a book. This will require a bit of thought, to see how the text will fit on the page with the illustrations, and you may find it helps you rework the text if needed. Laying out the text with illustrations makes it easier for the publisher to envisage the final book. As for how much they take - that depends on the contract. A standard book royalty is 10% to the author, although with children's books it's often less.

When to bend submission guidelines

I am about to submit a query for an early-chapter text (aimed at6-8yo) to a local agency. They are currently accepting both adult and children's texts. As well as asking for a writing sample, they also ask for a synopsis. My question: as my story is only 1300 words, is a synopsis necessary? It seems a little ridiculous, as many synopses are about half as long as my manuscript! As part of the query I have obviously written a pitch (one paragraph), which is probably similar to what the synopsis would look like for such a short story anyway. I want to abide by their submission guidelines, but only if appropriate.

Submission guidelines are created by agents to try to give guidance to authors without them needing to contact the agency (if everyone who submitted to the agency I worked for called us to enquire about submitting, we would never get anything else done). Guidelines are necessarily strict in tone, but agents are humans too (really!) and respond well to plain speaking. So I'd suggest that, in your query letter - after the pitch - you say something like, 'As this is a very short story, I haven't written a lengthy synopsis for my story - hopefully this description will suffice.' Simply not including a synopsis without explaining would be potentially annoying, because the agent will think you've just decided not to include one. But if you state your reason why there isn't one, I'm sure that will be okay. Guidelines aren't laws!

Friday, November 2, 2007

Are some publishing credits more equal than others?

How impressive are anthologies, small magazines or e-zines and small press credits of writers to agents? Are e-zine credits of less worth than the others (with the notoriety of the internet and all)? Or since they are mostly done with small print runs are they all not particularly interesting credits unless you have a full book published and sold?

Other agents may be different, but I don't mind much about the specifics of where authors have had small pieces published - those credits indicate that they've been writing for a little while and sending things out, and that's more important than where they are. Of course, if one of them is The New Yorker then you will get extra credit ...

Also, no matter how many credits you have, it will mean nought if your manuscript isn't any good. If I don't like the manuscript I won't hang onto it just in case the credits make me change my mind - because, six months later, it still won't be publishable. So don't fret too much about where you're getting things published - just get out there!

More about submissions

I am wanting to find an agent in Australia (like winning Lotto). I have had my first novel published (assisted) by Athena Press in UK and it is just now released in that country and on My dilemma is whether to send my novel in its published form to a publisher or agent, or both, or whether in fact they would rather have it in manuscript form. In fact, do I tell them it is already published overseas?

Most publishers - and certainly most agents - won't want a full-length anything when you first submit. Why, just this morning someone sent us a self-published novel accompanied by a letter saying that he knew that agents normally want three chapters and a synopsis but he'd decided that he'd send this book anyway, to prove that he's serious about his writing and so we could get an idea of how he'd like the finished cover to look. After much mirth while reading the letter aloud so everyone could enjoy being told how to do their job, we wrote to him to say that, as he'd completely ignored our submission guidelines, we won't be reading it. So the important thing for you is to abide by the submission guidelines of whomever you're sending the novel to - if they want to see the whole thing, you can certainly send the book (they're easier to carry around than manuscripts) but feel free to ask the agent or publisher which they prefer. You must definitely tell the agents/publishers that it's published overseas, and by whom.

How publishers can tie authors up in knots

Is it reasonable for an anthology to expect first publication rights when a) 'all rights remain with the author' is specified in the submission guidelines and b) they are not paying you anything? It seems from what I read that first publication rights are something you specifically sell in a contract. A short story of mine was recently withdrawn from an anthology at the last minute because it appeared in another publication (I wasn't aware of the latter until after I okayed the former). Neither of these publications asked me to sign anything. I understand the courtesy, but isn't the onus on the publisher to specify what 'previously unpublished' means?

It does sound as if you've ended up in a tangle entirely not of your own making. (And for clarity let's call the first publisher you mention - the one who ended up saying no - Publisher A, and the other is Publisher B.) It's hard to know exactly what to say without knowing the specifics of each publication, but it does seem a bit draconian of Publisher A to withdraw your story. The idea of 'first publication' rights would be for the first publisher, whoever that is, to have the commercial advantage - but unless your story's presence in Publisher B's anthology was going to mean that no one would buy Publisher A's anthology, there was no commercial reason to pull your story. Especially when, as you point out, they're not paying you and you haven't assigned any rights in a contract. And I'm presuming Publisher A didn't say 'you cannot submit your story to anyone else while you wait for our decision'. So they're being churlish. And there's not much you can do about it.