Thursday, December 18, 2008

Closed for business?

I'm finally ready to start shopping around my YA manuscript, but in the last few weeks I've noticed the publishers and a couple of agents I think are a good fit for me have all put notices on their websites saying they won't be considering unsolicited manuscripts at all, until a few months into 2009.

Is this just due to Christmas breaks and towering slush piles, or is it a sign of things to come -- will the economic downturn see publishers reducing the amount they're publishing? (Thus reducing the already slim chance for a young enthusiastic writer to wedge her foot in the door?)

Both presumptions are correct. And there's something else to consider: it's Christmas time. Everything slows down.

I regularly shut down submissions because I have a large amount to read and I don't think it's fair to keep taking submissions when I know I won't be able to read them. I reopen submissions not when I have nothing left to read - because that has never happened - but when I think I can be reasonably efficient at processing submissions.

It's also true that publishers are wary - for the time being, at least. No one knows whether books will do well this Christmas or not. A lot of us are also very concerned about the looming enquiry into parallel importation of books - if parallel importation is allowed, you can forever kiss goodbye your hopes of being published in this country because there will be very little Australian publishing - we will go back to being an outpost of empire, although this time it will be both the US and the UK who are our imperial masters. Everyone in the industry - except certain booksellers - are worried. On top of the 'global financial crisis' it's created a world of caution and constraint. So things are definitely slower and, in some places, on hold and the first victims are going to be fiction lists. For you, though, the news is a bit brighter: children's books usually do well in a recession, so children's lists aren't under as much threat as other lists. There will be some circumspection, but not as much as you might fear.

The best thing any of us can do is to support the industry and buy Australian books. If you're a writer wanting to get published, I certainly hope you're buying Australian writers. If not, how can you hope for other Australians to buy your book? And if you'd like to understand more about parallel importation, you can read about it here.

Fantasy word counts

I am currently working a young adult fantasy novel that I would like to have published one day. I'm only on the second draft, so it's nowhere near ready to start sending into agents etc but of late I've found myself interested in word counts. What I want to know is if there is a standard range in the amount of words that agents/publishers look for in novels? Or will a book be looked at negatively if it's too long or short?

It's just that I have no idea what sort of range I should be looking at. My ms is currently a touch over 170 000 words and I don't know if that is way too long or just right? If it is the former then I can look to culling sections of the book whilst I'm working on my second draft. Or perhaps it doesn't matter?

Your word length reminds me of why I'm wary of taking on fantasy authors: too many words! That's a lot of words for a young adult book. Possibly not for grown-ups' fantasy novels, because fantasy readers are thinly disguised literary masochists, but I suspect you can only get away with 170 00 words for teens if (a) your story has a character called Edward Cullen or (b) it's set in a place called Hogwarts.

Consider making it a trilogy instead - trilogies are acceptable in fantasy land although strangely not in other genres. Even at half the length, it's still a tad too long for most publishers to consider.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Patience, grasshopper

I have published five books and been on the editorial board of two more. My most recent book is a textbook. Over the last ten years I have written a memoir and in the last two years have been seeking representation. As a scholar, this is an entirely new world to me even though publishing and writing are not. I feel like I'm working in an alien landscape :-).

Here's what's happened. A friend of mine who is a prof wrote a book and it went popular. A major publishing company bought the rights. As a result, she began working with an editor there. When she heard about my book, she thought it could go popular, too. So, she very generously put me in touch with that editor. I met with her, she read some of my chapters, liked them, gave me suggestions for revision, even edited my query letter and book proposal, and offered to query agents for me. All of these were very kind gestures.

Of those agents contacted, one has stuck with me over the last year as I have revised the manuscript. She has been tremendously helpful with ideas for revisions and making the book marketable to a popular audience. She has not signed with me-- I want to make that clear but she has expressed interest throughout our communications. She's a top-flight agent, too, and represents a lot of people who I totally admire. I'm both thrilled at her interest and, well, completely freaked by how novice I am in this new world.

Early last month I sent her a full, revised manuscript of plus 400 pages in which I tackled all of her suggestions as well as I could. Several weeks have now passed. I have sent her three follow-up emails, mainly just politely asking how she is, what her time frame might be, etc. I've heard nothing. Does this mean she is no longer interested? Or, am I being an idiot? Should I be sending this finished ms and/or query letters elsewhere? Or, should I sit tight and just be patient? I don't want to do anything to compromise this agent's potential support of my work or our ability to work together in the future, of course. But I also don't want to waste my time if she's just sending me a signal I'm too thick to get.

She's had just over a month to read it, and she's a 'top-flight' agent, which means she probably has a lot of authors and a lot of things to read. If she gave you a set time in which she'd read it, that's one thing - but if someone only gave me six to eight weeks to read a 400-page manuscript, I wouldn't have any clients ... and I particularly wouldn't like being emailed three times by the author! Being chased up tends to make us go even slower. We already know that we haven't read the manuscript, and being asked about it makes us feel guilty and then, possibly, not want to read it at all. No one in the publishing industry reads at their desk - they all read in their private time. The manuscripts we read in that time thus take on a bit more weight than if we were reading them at our desks, and it doesn't take much to decide you'd rather read one and not another.

I suggest you now just wait to hear back from her - if you haven't heard by early next year, write a letter (not email) and say thanks for all the support she's shown but as you haven't heard back from her you're going to query other agents. I don't recommend you send queries elsewhere right at the moment, because this agent has given you a lot of hands-on support already - and the start of next year is not that far away (in publishing terms).

A book for the new age

i am an established awarded environmental activist and an ex-international new age teacher. my online environmental writings are well supported. for many years i have been pushed to write some of my new age knowledge - now, i have put together a 36 page book of short conversations with a 21st century prophet - with another in draft. there is enough material to construct one on environmental conversations as well - it is written in a similar format to gibrans the prophet - now how do i find a publisher with the gumption to promote the ideas for change that i have constructed over many years of contemplation?

First, the bad news: if you're unable to use capital letters to start your sentences then it's unlikely any publisher will take you seriously. Also, 36 pages is way too short for most publishers to consider - there may be the odd small publisher in the US for whom it's not.

Second, the practical news: research the market. Visit a bookshop that specialises in New Age texts or go to Amazon and check for New Age titles - then note who publishes them. Then go to the publishers' websites and check their submission guidelines. If they only take submissions from agents, try to find an agent who has New Age writers on their books. But I think you'll find most New Age publishers don't require you to have an agent. There is no substitute for research, and no one can do it for you.

Third: consider self-publishing. You have a blog, so you have access to a direct marketing tool. It's possible that you could put out this book yourself and do it just the way you want to. Call the Australian Society of Authors or the writers centre in your state for information on self-publishing.

I wanna be an agent

I am an editor/contributing writer at a small website that launched this past summer. In my day job, I'm a legal recruiter. By training, I'm a lawyer. As a college student, I ran two businesses. I'm on track to read about 50 books this year. I'm spouting off these semi-narcissistic tidbits because I'd love to mix all of these skills together to become 'an agent'.I write 'agent' in quotations because, to me, it's some sort of fantasy occupation. I don't know any agents personally and I also don't know much about what an agent does on a day-to-day basis. Would you be able to provide me with any insight? How did you find your profession? What motivates you every day when you go to work? How does one go about seeking a position as an agent? What are the key skills to bring? What can one expect in terms of compensation? Is it a percentage/commission-driven occupation? What are your supervisors/office mates like? Do agents work closely with other members of a writers' entourage (publicists and the like)? Do writers have entourages?

Hmmm ... I needed a lie-down after reading this. If I were to answer all of these questions comprehensively I'd probably need to write a thesis. So I'll try to give some information but not so much that my top-secret identity would be revealed.

How did you find your profession? - It found me - I was approached by the agency I work for. The best possible preparation for being an agent is to work in some part of the publishing industry - bookselling or a publishing company - for a while so you understand how it all works. It's also very important to have relationships - if you want to become an agent and you know no one in the industry, it could take you two to five years to build up relationships to the point where publishers trust you enough to look at your submissions. Thus, it's easier to make these relationships before you become an agent, through a job in some sector of the industry. The publishing pond is small. A lot of the publishers (and publicists and editors and sales managers) I deal with are people I've worked with in the past.

What motivates you every day when you go to work? - At the moment, panic. Panic at the amount of work I have to do every day. Panic at the amount of reading I have. But, sometimes, there are the sweet spots. Recently one of my authors who has been writing for years, and is successful and well known and all those lovely things, sent me their next manuscript and after I'd read it told me I was the first person on the whole planet to read it. I felt incredibly privileged - especially because it was wonderful.

How does one go about seeking a position as an agent? - See the answer to the first question. Also, agent jobs don't come up very often and if they do the applicants are usually sourced from within the industry. If you want to have any job in publishing, you really have to start at the bottom and work your way up. I have never applied for a job in publishing since the very first job I applied for years ago - once you're in, people know you and you know them and you just find out when jobs are available.

What are the key skills to bring? - Obviously, a passion for books. You also need to be able to manage people, quite often when they're in a fractious state. You need to be able to negotiate and to understand contracts. Editorial skills help. Overall, though, you need to be able to juggle ten balls at once, while standing on a tightrope, and not let any of the balls drop.

What can one expect in terms of compensation? - Not much. Authors don't make much money and we take a small percentage of that. You don't become an agent to become rich. It may happen if you hit the jackpot, but generally it doesn't.

Do agents work closely with other members of a writers' entourage (publicists and the like)? Do writers have entourages? - To the latter question: no. Writing is a solitary occupation. Even legendary socialisers like Truman Capote and Norman Mailer eventually crawled back to the garret alone. Most writers are introverts who are forced to become extroverts on the publicity trail and the trauma usually drives them back to their computers quick smart. The people I work mostly closely with are the publishers, but I also have contact with editors and publicists where necessary.

The publisher doesn't like my illustrations!

I have a musuem-quality picture book published in Russian and English and available only in Russia. Am looking to sell the rights to US, UK, AU, etc. The problem is that everyone says it's gorgeous, well written, but publishers don't want a package...they want their own illustrator. This seems strange, since I own the artwork, etc. and it will take far less to simply reprint and sell than to do it from scratch. What's your advice?

These publishers don't want to use your artwork, either because they don't like it or they don't think it suits their market (and styles of picture book illustration do differ from one country to the next). And that's the bottom line: these publishers don't want to use your artwork. There's no getting around that. So if you want to get the book published, it seems as though you'll have to agree to let them find their own illustrator. If you really, truly want to keep the package as it is, though, you should keep sending out submissions until you find a publisher who does want it just the way you intended.

Getting published

I have written a children’s book. I don’t quite know how to go about getting it published ... I can’t seem to find the finances to even get it illustrated ... could you perhaps offer me some advice?

Yes: call the Australian Society of Authors or join the writers centre in your state; send submissions to agents; check the websites of publishers who publish picture books and see if they're taking submissions. And before all of that, make sure that your manuscript is as good as it can be - children's picture books are pretty much the hardest type of book to get published for a new writer (for the reasons giving here).

Friday, September 5, 2008

Representation for poetry

I'm a 46-year-old poet living in hobart. I have had poems published since 1980 in numerous Australian, English and US literary magazines. I would like to find a lit agent covering this area (poetry) - do they exist and if so do they deal with emerging rather than established writers?

The bad news first: no agents accept poetry, that I know of. Mainly because very few publishers still publish poetry, so it's not a good business decision for an agent to take on a poet. Some agents' novel/non-fiction clients will write poetry and the agent will look after that, but I don't know of any who are looking for submissions of poetry.

The good news: the University of Queensland Press publishes poetry and, I believe, takes submissions. And if you see any other published volumes of Australian poetry, check who the publisher is and contact them.

The dead end

I'm trying to aquire a Literary Agent, but its just not happening. I'm following all the rules, reading up on their Websites, my Query Letter and Synopsis is of standard. My question is what happens when you have already contacted all the Agents that accept your Genre of Novel.

My blunt answer is that you have nowhere to go apart from self-publishing, either in print or online. But you should also have a close look at your manuscript and try to work out what's going on. Simply following the rules does not get an agent or publisher - you need to have an outstanding manuscript. Are you submitting a first draft? What is the standard of your manuscript like compared to published books in that genre? If you're writing crime, for example, you face a lot of competition. Have you ever tried entering a competition, or applied for a mentorship? Published writers have usually put quite a lot of time into the process of creating their novel - especially their first novel - and there is a lot of help available. Try the Australian Society of Authors and the Australian Writers Marketplace.

Submitting an incomplete manuscript

On Friday, after a lot of intense internet research regarding Oz lit agencies and publishing a first-time novel, I read a post on the ALAA website that the agency I am very interested in working with is open to unsolicited MS being sent in. I am a published journalist, have 12 000 words of copy for a novel, I have a clear direction of where my novel is going, who my audience is and indeed its marketing capabilities.

So here is the question: is it completely naive, immature, unprofessional and downright primitive of me to send off a submission with only 12 000 words currently sitting in my laptop? My reasoning is I am working 7 days a week, unhindered, on this ms and figure if I receive a response from the agency in the 10 weeks to 3 months it may take for them to go through my query/submission, I will nearly have finished the full ms. What do you think? Am I showing my complete lack of knowledge of how this business works or indeed ''showing a bit of dash'', as an editor of mine once commented.

There are a few things I'd like to address in this answer ...

First, I am always intrigued by authors who say they have only picked one agency they want to submit to - presumably based on the client list, as there's not much else to go on, although the size of the agency is often a determinant ('the bigger, the better' seems to be the most common mantra). But the personality of the agent/s at the agency should actually be the determinant - and you can't know that unless you actually get to the stage of talking to them. One agency may have a client list you want to join, but what if you don't get on with the agent/s there? It's always worth submitting to more than one agency just in case.

Second, from a writing/editorial point of view: it is unwise to submit a novel before you've even finished your first draft. The first draft is never, ever the final - never even close - and there is a real chance that it will do yourself a disservice - I've never taken on a novel based on a first draft, and I wouldn't mind betting your 'dream agency' hasn't either. Even if you know where the novel is going, you will need to redraft.

Third, if you decide to proceed with the submission: you say you have published a book, so that means you're not approaching them as a first-time author - this gives you an advantage over other authors who are submitting. Also, you can send a query and just be honest, say you haven't finished it and ask if they mind that - they'll let you know.

Does this writer need an agent?

I am a newish writer of children’s books and I live in Sydney. I’ve had 3 trade titles published and a picture book contracted but I don’t have an agent. Could you please tell me the benefits of having an agent (other than negotiating contracts), and the likelihood of me being able to secure one. I ’d probably have 2 or 3 new manuscripts per year.

This ground has been covered a bit before on the blog (see this post) so I won't go into too much detail ...

Basically, if you've never felt the need for an agent, don't go looking for one. You do seem to be managing just fine on your own. However, if you feel that someone else should manage the business of your writing - dealing with publishers, negotiating contracts - then you should explore the idea of getting an agent. There's also the issue of 'creative support' - a lot of my time is spent just talking to my authors (on the phone or by email), sometimes about writing, often not; I think some authors have an agent more for this function than anything else. The agent understands what the writer is doing creatively but is not (hopefully!) competitive with them; they can offer advice and the writer can discuss things with them that they may not be able or wish to talk about with family and friends. But it's very much a personal decision - there is no absolute 'yes' or 'no' here.

I will say, though, that with your publishing record you would have no problem getting an agent if you wanted one.

Multiple authors for one novel

What would be your advice as an agent in regards to having novels authored by multiple writers? What would be the limit to the number of people involved? Would having more than two effect the chances of representation and publication?

Whether multiple writers can create one novel, and the number of writers involved, depends entirely on the writers. If you're a member of a five-person writing group and you all get along fantastically well and are on the same creative wavelength, then it could be fantastic. But from my experiences working with writers, they're not typically creatures who play well with others once they're in front of a keyboard. Also, there's the issue of consistency of narrative voice - it's very difficult to have a cohesive narrative voice if there are multiple writers - and if you're about to say 'But we'll all write in different voices', please don't ever send me that novel ... too many narrative voices just confuse most readers, including me. A novel is often a slow seduction - the reader is lured into the story, usually by the voice. If there are multiple suitors, we just give up.

On a practical note, it's rare, it seems, to see multiple authors listed on covers if the books aren't sci fi or fantasy. Unless all or some of the authors involved have a successful publishing history, it would be best to use a pseudonym - one name only - to represent all of you.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Assessors and agents: a reply

A little while ago, in this post, I addressed the issue of manuscript assessors and agents existing within the same body. Full disclosure: the agency I work for is a member of the Australian Literary Agents Association and bound by codes of conduct. Therefore, we can never accept a fee payment to assess a manuscript in addition to performing our agent duties. However, more than once I have wondered at the economic wisdom of that in a market the size of Australia. It is extremely difficult to make an agency business work here because there's just not that much money in it, and it would certainly make life economically easier if we could charge for editorial advice. But there is some murky water there.

In response to the post I received the following from Sally Bird, which I'm publishing in the interests of a balanced view. Thanks to Sally for her permission to do so.

Dear Agent,

Not having read your blog for some time I've just had a squiz and feel compelled to comment on the issue of agents and manuscript assessors 'in the same body'. I have thought long and hard about even contacting you because you have the luxury of anonymity and I am 'exposing' myself here but I have also thought long and hard about this issue and I do not believe it is one about which you can generalise.

I was invited to join ALAA when it was first formed and I was still living in Sydney. At that stage my agency business was very much a part-time operation while I was a salaried employee in the book trade, which is the way I understand quite a few agents began. You may recall at the time ALAA was set up that there were murmurings about the conditions for membership from manuscript assessors?

While I do understand that reputable literary agents do not charge any upfront fees I do not feel that agenting and assessing need to be mutually exclusive. In my own case, the decision to take on manuscript appraisal came partly out of financial need. More importantly though, having seen a number of so-called assessments sent to me by potential clients, I felt that I could provide a more professional service - one that would at least give the client an honest opinion and not be a financial rip-off. Some of these 'assessments' were merely a synopsis, many were semi-literate and/or littered with typos and at least one was done by someone listed on the AALA website under 'Literary Contacts', so there is no quality control there either.

I do many assessments myself but I also have two Sydney-based senior editors I can and do call on for assistance or to do the entire report. If I liked a manuscript enough to think that I could find a publisher for the author I would offer representation and, on securing a contract with a publisher, refund the fee the author had paid for the assessment. I have a note (under Submission Guidelines) on my website stating the reason I am no longer a member of ALAA and that as an agent I do not charge a fee. I decided against stating that manuscripts considered outstanding would be offered representation as I didn't want to open the floodgates! I don't know whether you have thought of this 'scenario' - it would seem not because you appear to assume that anyone asking for a fee is a charlatan and I object to this and would like to see your comment/reply to my email on your blog.

Sally Bird

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

The reality of picture books

I have created a children's picture book with watercolour paintings, colour pencil sketches, digital media and hand-stitching. The language is intentionally simple and direct, so as to be read by children. However there is great symbolism behind the story, as I desired the book to educate both adults and children, like how Saint Exupéry's acclaimed children's book The Little Prince, could educate adults about life and human nature.

I followed the links to Australian literary agents on your site. However after reading through the conditions provided by individual agents, it appears that there is very little interest in children's books. I honestly believe my story holds potential due to my detailed illustrations and subtle, but powerful messages to adults.

Do you believe I have a good chance of getting published? If so, I would greatly appreciate it if you could recommend certain steps I should take, so as to interest agents and publishers.

There are two parts to this question and, thus, its answer.

Part one: the agent thing
It's not true that there's no interest in children's books amongst agents. We love children's books, but it's hard to sustain a business doing too many of them - particularly picture books (see part two for more information). I'm one of those agents who adores children's books but it's unlikely I'll ever look at picture book submissions again, unless they come through a recommendation. It's not all gloom though: a lot of publishers will take submissions directly from the public so you don't necessarily need an agent for children's books, not the way you do for adults' books.

Part two: the picture book thing
Picture books for children are arguably the most competitive category of publishing at the moment. Every second writer I hear from is doing a picture book. But hardly any picture books are published in this country (relatively speaking) so there are a lot of disappointed people out there. Even major publishing companies won't put out more than six picture books a year, and for some it's more like two. And, even then, it's safe to say that a lot of those books are by previously published authors. So the chances of becoming a debut picture book author/illustrator are very slim. You need to have an exceptional book.

Now, not having seen your book, I can't say if it's exceptional or not. But I will say that it sounds hard to produce - 'hand-stitching' and 'digital media' are the red flags. Picture book production is labour intensive compared to that for other books - the illustrations have to be scanned on appropriate machines, the pages have to be colour matched and proofed, the books need expensive paper and they have to be printed offshore. They also can't be given to any old editor to look after - because they're so different to other books, they need a specialist, if possible. In other words: a picture book is a not inconsiderable undertaking for a publisher. So they're very judicious about what they take on and if you give them any reason to think twice - hand-stitching would be one reason - then they will. They'll expect that you want your final book to be hand-stitched too, and have digital media included, and that will just sound like a nightmare in the making. Their default answer is 'no'. You need to give them a reason to say 'yes'. And the overwhelming reason is if you have a fantastic story and beautiful illustrations. Again, not having seen your book, I don't know if it has either of those things so I can't comment on your chances of publication. Your next best step would be to research your market - go to a library and look at all the picture books; find out who publishes what. Then approach the publishers you think may be a good match. You could also get involved in programs like CYA (Brisbane) which give you direct access to publishers. Your local writers' centre would be the best place to find out what's available.

Fantasy author overseas

I'm an author of young adult fiction about time travel, adventures in prehistory and lost civilizations. The first book in the series has been published twice. Since I currently live in South Africa (tiny market, no agents, small publishers), I'm looking for a capable literary agency and an international publisher. My current publisher is willing to license the publishing rights. A major publisher in London are currently assessing the material as well as agents in London and Sydney. I'm showered with praise, but one publisher in Frankfurt said that they are too small on the fantasy side and one agent in Sydney is too ill to represent me.

I just need more options. What do I do? Can you recommend a good agency that can represent me or advice me on how to approach this?

The only advice I can give it to keep querying agents, especially in the US. Fantasy (for adults and young adults) is not a big genre in Australian publishing - only Voyager (HarperCollins) and Orbit (Hachette Livre) have any kind of commitment to it. Accordingly, not many agents look at it - we have to run a business, and it doesn't make sense to specialise in a genre that not many publishers will publish. The agency I work for has recently made a decision to no longer look at fantasy (for adults or children) for this reason and also because, frankly, most of the books are too long - staring down a 200 000 word manuscript makes my spine go cold. I just simply don't have the time to read enough fantasy books to become an expert or enough fantasy manuscripts to be able to tell what's good and what's not. It's not because I don't believe in fantasy novels - they make a lot of people happy, and that's always a good thing. I just simply don't have the time.

So the answer is: go to a bigger market, and that means the US. Try to work out which agents you should approach, and tell them that you're a published author. It will take persistence and application, but I'm sure you'll get some interested parties.

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Querying publishers and agents at the same time

I understand it’s not necessarily bad form to query more than one agent simultaneously, but if an agent, having read a submission, decides to represent someone, how might s/he then react to the news that the submission currently sits on the slush pile of one or more publishing houses?

Most Australian agents would probably expect that authors are sending things to publishers at the same time as they send them to us, since some publishers do accept submissions from the public. The kosher thing to do is mention in your query letter - to all parties - that you are submitting the manuscript to other agents and publishers, just so there are no surprises. If the agent doesn't like that, then they don't, but it doesn't really make sense for authors not to take advantage of publishers' open submissions if they're offered. Having said that, if all the publishers have said no, it makes it less likely that I'll offer to represent the author because I won't have as many options for submission.

Monday, May 26, 2008

Jonathan Lyons Q&A

I missed posting this in time to encourage any of you to submit a question (I blame the Sydney Writers Festival) but here 'tis anyway ...

US agent Jonathan Lyons just had a marathon Q&A session on his blog, and all the goodies can be found here:


Monday, May 12, 2008

Rules for submitting to awards

A question that comes up amongst writers (after an honest dose of vino), is whether or not they should enter competitions, such as the Australian/Vogel, and still submit the same work to either other competitions or publishers at the same time. With the Australian/Vogel, for example, it says,'It cannot be under consideration to any other publisher or award.' Whilst it is pretty clear what publishers would prefer, is it realistic to tie your work up for so long with only a snowflake’s chance in hell of actually winning that competition or otherwise being taken up commercially? In my case, it’s my last shot at the Vogel before I turn the dreaded 35. I did have a big publishing house editor ask for my novel when it was finished, but I get the gist from other posts on your blog that this isn’t necessarily a ticket to ride either (and it could take some time to find that out). If, at the time of submission, the entry isn’t under [serious] consideration (under offer, as opposed to sitting on a slush pile) anywhere else, is that sufficient? After all, if it looks like it might win a comp, one could withdraw the submission from other places, surely? The goody-goody in me says don’t do it, but the aging realist would like a second opinion.

Entry requirements like that are very restrictive for writers. My inclination would be to say that you should submit it to an award even if it's under consideration elsewhere, and if it makes the shortlist then you should withdraw it from the other place/s. Of course, there's a conundrum there too: if you don't win the award then you miss out on it being considered at the other place/s, with no chance of resubmission unless someone in-house really wants to champion it.

Award rules favour the ruling body - whether that's an award committee or a publishing company - so you should really use your conscience about what serves you best. If you're about to turn 35 then enter the Vogel, leave it at the other publisher for the time being and just see what happens. If you make the shortlist and whisk it away from the other publisher, it's unlikely that anyone at Vogel headquarters will ever find out it had been there all that time. Of course, if you get an offer from the other publishing house, you can withdraw it from the Vogel - and you don't have to say why.

Why assessors and agents should never live in the same body

I recently received my fiction MS back from an assessor. The assessment was favourable, and the assessor has offered to act as agent for my MS. I'm elated in one sense, but cautious in the other. Should I be wary of a 'part-time' agent, who, as far as I can tell, makes most of their living from MS assessments? A part of me wants to accept the offer, because I know that if I begin submitting to agents now, it might take up to 6 months to have my MS accepted - at least this person has read my MS and is enthusiastic about it.

You are right to be cautious - the agents who appear on Writer Beware's 'worst agents' are usually trying some combination of assessing, editing and agenting. These functions should never be contained in the one person or company - in your case, the assessor has taken money from you and is now offering to agent your book, which is tantamount to taking a fee for their agenting services. This is in violation of the ALAA guidelines. As tempting as it may be for agents to take money for manuscript assessment - it would help us cover the costs of the hours spent reading - we just don't do it, because it's too ethically tricky. How do you know if the assessor really loves your writing or is only offering to agent the book because you've paid them for the assessment? And are they a member of the ALAA? How many published authors are on their list? If they have none or only one published author, plus they're not known as an agent, it's unlikely they can do much for you anyway. You could spend the next six months - time you would spend waiting to hear from proper agents - believing that this assessor can help you, only to find out that they can't.

Certainly, it takes a long time to hear from agents - that's because we have clients, which means we're bona fide. Although I can understand that you're impatient to get things going, six months is really not much in the scheme of publishing cycles. But if you do want to go with this assessor, ask for their credentials - which publishers they deal with, which other authors they look after. If they're legitimate, you'll be given this information. You're about to make an important business decision, so treat it accordingly.

Friday, May 2, 2008

Do I or don't I?

I have been absent from the blog due to an eye-watering amount of reading - which I'm still trying to get through - but this question came in so I felt duty bound to answer it ...

Q: While I was finishing Version Two of My Tome, I was fortunate enough to attend a pitching panel where a senior editor at a prominent publisher said she would read it when it was finished. Fortunately she acknowledged that it might take me a while to get back to her. It did. I engaged a professional editor to do a structural report and consequently wrote Version Three. The editor reread My Tome and declared it ready. Okay, so it's now one the desk of an editor at a prominent publisher. They've had it for about two and a half months. I am waiting patiently. Yeah okay, not so patiently, though I don't even want to imagine what their workload looks like. So my question is this: should I be looking for an agent? No offence, but I considered that if a publisher said 'Yes!' that they would have a standard contract and therefore there wouldn't be much for an agent to do. Reading your blog, however, alerted me to the fact that perhaps this is not the case and give the time frames involved in these endeavours that perhaps I should begin my agent search sooner rather than later.

First things first: you did the right thing in finding an editor for your manuscript, as it increased your chances of a publisher paying attention - you'd be surprised how many authors do not take such a step and it usually means they don't ever get published.

Now to the agent thing. There are a few little issues here ...
1. In my experience the contracts offered to agented authors are substantially different to those offered to unagented authors at most (not all) publishing companies. You could ask an intellectual property lawyer to look over your contract if you're concerned, although that may end up costing more than an agent's commission. You may also feel that you're really happy to manage the business side of writing as well as the creative - some authors love doing it. Those who don't usually have agents.

2. If your novel is fantastic, maybe more than one publisher would be interested in it. Just because this particular publisher is keen, are they necessarily the right publisher for your book? The right publisher is not always the first publisher who says, 'I love it!' or the publisher who offers you the most money. If you've written historical romance, say, and the editor you've been dealing with personally loves it enough to persuade everyone else at the Acquisitions meeting to publish it but the company has never done historical romance before - they specialise in thrillers and crime novels - are they really going to do the right thing by you? What happens if the editor leaves and your champion is gone? (This does happen and can have a huge effect on some authors.) There may be another publisher who is better for you.

3. For me, at least, taking on a new client means managing their career, not just one book. If you're a first-time novelist, it's crucial to get things right - or as right as possible - for that first book or your career can be over before it begins. (If you don't intend to write more than one book, though, you can ignore this bit ...) You may be able to get advice from someone you trust and that person can play the same sort of role I do for my authors - which is, truthfully, more about giving advice on career/writing/life than negotiating contracts - so you wouldn't need an agent. It is important, though, to have someone to talk to about the business of writing and things that come up in the creative process, regardless of whether that person is an agent or not.

Fundamentally, it can't hurt you to submit to agents at this stage - and in your cover letter you should mention that your manuscript is being seriously considered at a publishing company (name the company). If an agent wants to take you on then you can still say 'no' if you ultimately decide you don't need one. The one thing I will stress is that you need to put aside the excitement of thinking you may get published and look down the long road of your potential writing career. Think about what you need to do to have a career - what will be required to keep you happily productive for years to come. If handling the business side of things seems like it would be too much work and would distract you from your writing, you need an agent. If not, you don't.

Wednesday, March 5, 2008

The tyranny of distance

I'm a Tasmanian novelist and short-story writer. A few years ago, the Tasmanian Writers' Centre brought an agent down and asked for submissions from authors for her to consider. As I had already had a book published I was not surprised to be shortlisted. Unfortunately, it turned out that the agent was unable to offer any of us representation due to factors beyond our control. Thus, the whole thing turned out to be a disappointment and a waste of time. It is really difficult for us in Tassie, as we do not have the networks available to other people. Do you have any suggestions re agents who might actually follow through with forming relationships with Tasmanian writers?

I explored the issue of regional writers in this post so I won't go over too much of that ground, except to reiterate that I really don't think it matters where you live - if you find the right agent, then your relationship will work regardless of where you're placed. I have writers in Tasmania, as well as several other states; most agents would. Agents in the US certainly have writers from all over the country - most writers do not live in New York City, which is where the bulk of the agents are.

In the case you mention above I suspect it was more to do with what was happening with that particular agent than with the fact that you were in Tasmania. We really don't discriminate if you're not from Sydney or Melbourne. The greatest difficulty I find is the perception of writers outside the two largest cities - there is an idea that Sydney and Melbourne writers are hooked into some kind of publishing grid. They're not. The networks available to them are also available to writers elsewhere. Twenty years ago, this wasn't the case. The Internets have changed everything.

I've probably mentioned this before too but, if not, Varuna's LongLines program can provide opportunities for writers who are feeling geographically isolated.

The short and short of it

I teach writing and I have a student who is in a South-east Asian jail for life. He writes short stories and they are the most beautifully written, thought-provoking stories. He has given me permission to try to get them published. I’d really like to help him, to give him something to live for. Do you know if any publishers in Aus would be interested in something like that? I couldn’t help thinking that if some of the Bali Nine contributed to an anthology it would be more marketable and an important thing for young people to read. I must stress I’m personally not interested in making money out of this, but I feel these are important voice to be heard.

Here's the bad news: short story collections are the orphan children of Australian publishing. They have a couple of foster parents (Scribe and the University of Western Australia Press) and 'Aunties' (the Girls' Night In collections) but have largely been abandoned by the tribe. It's hard to know why - short stories are great for bus trips and the like. Many great writers of recent times cut their teeth on short stories; I fell in love with Truman Capote's writing through his short stories, which I discovered in the local library while I was researching a school essay on Plato and Son of Plato. And I just completely digressed ...

If you're looking for an Australian publisher, try submitting to one of the two I mentioned. Americans love short stories more than we do, though, so if you're serious about getting this collection published, try submitting the stories to American agents.

Here's the other news: Australians may want to read about the Bali Nine but I suspect they wouldn't want to read anything written by them. Schapelle Corby was the only Kerobokan prisoner whose own story was going to sell books, and it did, but she also had a co-writer. Schapelle was also famous enough for her publisher not to have to worry about the fact that she couldn't do publicity for the book, which is a concern with your student. This will sound quite cold and businesslike, but publishing is a business.

If what you really, really want is to get these stories out into the world - if money is irrelevant - then set up a website to publish the stories and then look into ways of getting publicity for them, starting with telling your other students.

Thursday, February 21, 2008

Things that make you go hmmm ...

This afternoon I sent aside some time to go through submissions, because they've been neglected for a while. Generally this is a 'nice' job because I can read different types of manuscripts and sometimes I'll find something I want to read more of. Every now and again I'll come across a submission that violates one of my What Not to Do When Submitting rules. Today is was No 2 that was flagrantly flouted - specifically, the writer in question not only declined to follow the submission rules but decided to tell me that I was an idiot for imposing them because they were clearly in existence just to make life difficult for him and easy for me. So what do you think happened to his submission? If you guessed 'auto-reject', you would be correct.

I understand that submission rules can be frustrating but they are there to help give agents and publishers points of comparison between writers. They are also there to gauge the professionalism of the writer - if you cannot write a cogent letter in support of your manuscript, how are you going to be able to survive the editing process, when you may be required to explain or defend your writing choices so that someone other than you can understand them? Instead of using his cover letter to tell me what I needed to know about his manuscript, this writer used the space to lambast me for having submission rules. So my initial impression wasn't good, and it would have cast a pall over his manuscript if I had had the inclination to read it - which, strangely, I didn't.

So in case you're tempted to not follow submission rules and then tell the agent that you're not following them just because they make the agent's job easier, please remember this: being an agent is not easy. The hours are long, the personalities involved often challenging - and that's just our clients. On top of that there are thousands of people a year wanting to be new clients and all asking why we haven't read their submission in two days. We do this job because we believe in books, we believe in writers, we believe in writing and, usually, we get to work with lovely people, and that's what keeps us going on the days when we want to hide in a cupboard because it seems like we'll never, ever get through our manuscript pile. So when someone has a go at me for trying to make life easier by imposing submission rules - well, I guess I write a rant. It's one of the many uses of the Internets.

Reasonable expenses

If dealing with an overseas-based literary agency is it normal to be charged for expenses incurred directly on the writer's behalf such as long-distance telephone calls, postage and handling, messengers, copying and approved legal expenses? And if so, how is it possible to gauge how many of these expenses are actually legitimate?

Agencies usually absorb the phone calls and postage & handling within the country; if they're incurring expenses such as messengers, overseas postage and legal reading on your behalf, they should be asking you first if you're happy to bear that cost. Most agencies will charge for photocopying but it should be clear in your agency agreement that this will happen. In fact, every possible charge to you should be contained in your agency agreement. If it's not, the agency really shouldn't be sending you a bill for anything you haven't requested or approved. And that's how you work out whether the expenses are legitimate or not.

There's a good checklist of what agents should and shouldn't be doing, plus a list of the top 20 dodgy US agents, on this website: You may also want to check out Preditors & Editors.

Monday, February 18, 2008

Asking questions

As I'm not moderating the comments on this blog, I won't notice if you post a question there - so please, dear readers, if you have a question, send it to me at

Merci beaucoup :)

Monday, February 4, 2008

YA genre fiction - or maybe not

I have written a YA romance which features a love quadrangle, and was wondering if this kind of book would have much of a market in Australia, or world-wide. To be honest, I have seen many books which have boy-girl relationships, but never any triangles or quadrangles (maybe I haven't looked far enough). Content-wise, the novel doesn't feature any sex, as I feel that under-aged sex had been done to death, and wanted to avoid this. It does, though, have some moments of eroticism, but, on the whole, the book is more pyschological in tone, with light humour interspersed.

A love quadrangle doesn't, I suspect, mean that this novel would be cast as 'genre fiction' - and, if it were, that kind of genre really only has clear markets in the US ('love quadrangle' would see it classified as 'romance novel') - so the story has to succeed or not based on the usual factors: plot, characters, quality of the writing. YA fiction in general is being published widely in Australia and elsewhere, and publishers who used to ignore it are now realising its potential (lots of grown-ups read YA too). So if the manuscript is good, regardless of the quadrangle, an agent and/or publisher will want to read it. The quadrangle wouldn't mean anyone is more likely to buy it, and probably that no one is less likely to buy it, although one can never tell. It's all just down to how you've written the story.

The name of the rose

I am preparing to send my novel manuscript to an agent. I have decided that the original title for my story does not really suit and have been thinking through another title that reflects the story and is evocative. I've noticed that many writers seem to like the paradoxical effect, often drawing on oxymorons in their title. My question is whether or not the title is a 'make or break' issue when an agent is considering a submission. I have read your comments regarding the synopsis and found that helpful. On one hand I don't want to agonise unnecessarily over the title but don't want to ruin my chances by overlooking this aspect of preparation. I found a title for my first novel that I loved and still love, so am probably approaching this task with high expectations!

Each agent and publisher has their own 'thing' that's important for them, but I don't think any of them would reject a submission based on the title, unless the author said, 'I ABSOLUTELY WILL NOT CHANGE THIS TITLE' (yes, probably in capital letters). Most authors are fairly flexible about their titles - particularly if a prospective publisher wants to change it and the author has not been published before - so agents and publishers won't assume a title is fixed unless they're told otherwise. Accordingly, the title won't really factor into a yes-or-no decision. Which is a roundabout way of saying: don't worry too much, just go with the title you like. And you can also say in your submission, if you wish, that you're not sure about the title and it may change. Anyone who rejects you simply because you haven't decided on a title is not really wanting to read submissions.

I'll let you in on a secret, though: there is something far more important than the title or the synopsis, and that is the first sentence of the manuscript. When someone like me is reading thousands of submissions a year, certain things become clear: a writer with a great first line and paragraph is likely to have a great manuscript, because they either have raw talent or they have crafted their text carefully or both. A dud first line usually always means a dud manuscript. So that lets you know how quickly we make up our minds about submissions, even if we do go on to read the rest of it. In the US there seem to be whole workshops on first lines and you don't really need one of those - you just need to be a reader, so you have lots of reference points.

Monday, January 21, 2008


I have just wrapped my head around the 'labels' function on this blog - okay, all right, I knew it was there but I only just remembered to use it. So there is now a list of labels available from the right-hand navigation -->

Considering how long it took me to add labels to previous posts, I hope they're useful. Now I just have to remember to use them in future ...

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Crunching the numbers

Recently some of the blogging US literary agents have posted their stats for 2007 - Kristin Nelson's are here. I was fascinated to read that out of 30 000 queries read last year, she requested only 74 full manuscripts from which she signed 8 clients. Which kind of made me feel better about the amount of full manuscripts I don't request, and also made me wonder whether I'm taking on too many clients ...

Obviously there are less submissions to Australian agents but they still number in the four figures annually and, while trying to manage all the other business of an agency, hopefully prospective writers can understand why we often take a long time to read their manuscripts. For Kristin, reading those 30 000 queries no doubt took a LOT of time, and then she had 74 manuscripts to read at an average of 8 hours per manuscript - not counting the manuscripts her existing clients were sending her. Frankly, her figures made me feel a little ill because I sometimes become paralysed by fear looking at all the manuscripts I have to read and realising that I'm never going to get them read unless I sleep only three hours a night for the next three years - and such a lifestyle choice may, in turn, make me an ineffective judge of literary merit. I guess this is may way of saying to any of you who are sending out submissions - please be patient! And please don't yell at us if we're slow!

The other reason I mention Kristin's stats is to give prospective authors an idea of how much competition there is for agents and, ultimately, publishers. Each one of the 30 000 writers who queried Kristin would have believed that they had written something worth publishing. She felt only 74 had something maybe worth publishing, and it turned out that 66 of them didn't. This is even more reason to remember that, when you are preparing your own submission, it has to be the absolute best it can be - take your time to draft and draft again; do your research on the market (Has someone already published a book like yours? Is anyone reading books like yours?); think about the sales, marketing and publicity aspects of being an author because they are also important.

In other words: be professional. I may post more about this some other time. But for now ... I need to have a nap in order to get by on only three hours of sleep tonight.