Thursday, November 26, 2009

Contract, no agent and questions

I have a contract with a publishing house and no agent. I’m very happy with the publishers and should they offer another contract after this one, I’d say yes without hesitation. But publishers are extremely busy and spread very thinly indeed and so I’d like an agent to help me sort through various issues that arise – some of them pretty trivial, but important to me. I am floundering around in the dark sometimes.

As far as I can make out, the best way to find an agent would be to wait until this contract is fulfilled, see if they want more, submit any manuscript that the publishers are interested in to an agent, who, if they like the manuscript, would take me on and then deal with the publishers for me. I would not be interested in shopping it around, as I like the publishing people I work with.

Would this be the best way to go about it?

Your instincts are correct ... it would be difficult to find an agent for the contract you have now. This is for straight-up business reasons - there's no commission to be made on a contract that's already done, and none of us can afford to work for nothing.

If you're a published author with a second contract being offered, you will probably be able to find an agent without much trouble, but I don't think that's really the issue: what you're looking for is advice, not necessarily someone to negotiate for you. Which brings me to a small soliloquy on the nature of agenting.

Agents manage the business of writing so writers can get on with writing i.e. being creative. Sometimes agents are involved in the creative side - when writers ask us for input on ideas and manuscripts - but generally it's the business that we take care of. We give career advice, we sort out problems, we do contracts, we negotiate deals. You may not need any of these things - not all authors do. You may just need someone to answer your questions. You may wish to pay someone commission to answer your questions, and that's legitimate too. I suspect some authors have agents just so they have someone to talk to about their writing who is not a friend or family member; again, that's a perfectly legitimate reason to have an agent. But you may also find someone else who can answer them - a fellow writer who's been through the publishing process, or your local writers' centre. Of course if neither of these is available to you, an agent can certainly answer your questions and would, one hopes, be happy to do so. Getting published can be a confusing process the first, third, tenth time.

Here's another idea: ask your publisher, editor and publicist. Yes, they're busy, but it's their job to give you information, amongst other things. Sometimes those of us 'on the inside' can forget that people who are new to the publishing world don't know the same things we know. Sometimes we just need them to ask us and we'll be eager to spill. Go on, give it a try. If you don't ask, you don't get.

Monday, November 23, 2009

It's all in the timing

Is there a bad time to submit to an agent or publisher? eg. when it's only a few weeks before Christmas are agents and publishers extra busy?

If an agency or publishing company knows what they're doing, they'll have a log of what manuscripts come in when, so Christmas downtime won't mean that your manuscript will get lost. It will, however, mean that you should probably allow more time for it to be read - say, four extra weeks. This is not because everything slows down - I always go full-tilt towards Christmas and I'm waiting for the year when I can lazily read submissions in the Yuletide season, but I doubt it will happen. No, it's more because we all shut down for a week or so, collapse in a heap and then spend half of January trying to get back to full speed.

However, the timing of my submissions to publishers is affected. I'm about to send maybe one last submission for the year and I'll probably put it on ice anyway, because the Acquisitions meetings are about to stop for a month or so. If I send out something now and it doesn't get looked at, there's a chance it will get lost on someone's desk amongst all the covers to be signed off and pages going to the printer before the printers close for the year. I'd be better off waiting until the new year. This can be frustrating for my clients, obviously, but people start taking holidays soon and those meetings don't happen without key people being present.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Don't worry about a contract when there is no contract

I’ve heard that the publication process can allow for the author to promote his/her own work—I’m curious where ‘promotion’ ends and ‘potential contract violation’ begins. Specifically, what are the limitations for an unpublished author who is ready to start submitting to agents, but has had no contact with an agent yet?

Can an unpublished author submit his/her stuff (following the agent’s guidelines precisely, of course) and additionally refer the agent to a website/blog to see more about that submission if they wish, during the review period?

I’m worried that a referral like this: ‘…Please visit, where I have provided you with samples of other material/artwork/resources relevant to the completion of this manuscript…’ would actually be read as this: ‘…Please visit, where I will single-handedly void any claim to have never-been-published, by posting my entire manuscript!’

Are such sites/blogs irrelevant, and avoided by agents? Or are they helpful?

I think this question refers to what is commonly known as 'putting the cart before the horse'. Where there is no contract, the author cannot be in violation of one. Thus, an author who promotes his or her own work on a website when submitting to agents or publishers cannot be in violation of any contract and, in fact, is more likely to be looked on favourably because he or she already has a web presence.

What that author shouldn't do is direct the agent or publisher to the web for the submission itself. I.e. do not say, 'Dear agent, instead of sending you a proper submission I'd like you to go to my website.' That just looks lazy. And you know what I think about lazy authors? PASS.

Doin' time

I have a student who is currently doing time with Her Majesty. This student wants to write his life story. What are the laws regarding writing a book of true crime when criminals are not supposed to profit from the proceeds of crime. If the student writes about his life and part of the book focuses on the crime, does this make a difference?

It's just as well I have an LLB (Hons) after my name otherwise I wouldn't really feel qualified to answer this ...

The key part of your question is 'profiting from the proceeds of crime' - so long as your student receives no profit, there's no problem. Which means that any monies he may receive from a hypothetical publishing deal would have to go to someone else and, I believe, could not be held in trust for him to receive at a later stage. He would never be able to access the proceeds. There is no law stopping him writing about his experiences - hello, representative democracy - it's just the profiting part.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Victory is so, so sweet

Craig Emerson, the Minister for Small Business, Independent Contractors and the Service Economy; the Minister for Competition Policy and Consumer Affairs, and the Minister Assisting the Finance Minister on Deregulation, has just issued a press release stating that parallel importation regulations will not be changed. That's correct: NOT be changed. Which means Australian copyright still exists and Australian authors have the same fair shot at getting published that they had a couple of years ago (the industry has been understandably nervous the last year and a bit).

This is extraordinary news, and I can't begin to describe my relief. I've had more to do with this issue in the last few weeks than I thought I would, and from close up it wasn't looking too hopeful.

To the booksellers who will be disappointed, I can only say that Amazon has precisely the share of the Australian market that it should have - books are not cheaper from Amazon when you're paying to fly them here, and people seem to order from Amazon when there's a book they just can't get here, not when there's a book that's delayed by a month (because flying the book here takes almost as long unless you want to pay huge courier fees). I know all of this because I order books from Amazon and it is always books that I just can't get here, for whatever reason (usually because they're out of print).

To the large chains who think they're hard done by: count your discount blessings while you have them and stop to think that there is absolutely nothing to prevent publishers selling direct from their websites. The internet means that a book can be sourced from many different places - there is no reason that one of those places shouldn't be the publishing company, with its big warehouse and courier contracts.

Big thanks to all of you who wrote to your MPs, who wrote on your own blogs and generally provided support - a special shout-out to Theresa L.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

E-books, iPhones and the great digital unknown

The whole eBook thing is in itself exciting (love my iPhone & would love room on the bookshelf), but it’d be nice to know that it’s being introduced in a way that doesn’t completely disembowel our local industry. Risks & opportunities.... Maybe writers’ remuneration needs to be calculated in a different way, like pay per view/click through, or as an extra licence fee through something akin to APRA for the music industry. That would be collected from the distributors like Barnes & Noble rather than from the consumers direct, if B&N is offering consumers the opportunity to share their books with friends for “free”.

If the electronic revolution does bring down the publishers’ production & distribution costs (although remembering most people will stay on paper), maybe there’s some argument that there could be more in it for those at the bottom of the food chain? I wonder why they haven’t fitted these eBook readers with earplugs & an audiobook option for those who’d prefer to listen than read during a long commute, or for kids, or the vision-impaired. Maybe they have, but they haven’t marketed this. Then I could see that this technology could actually bring in more ‘readers’/consumers than currently purchase hard books. Maybe writers will have to be more business minded & consider Merch opportunities when writing and film/tv spin offs. Just putting words on paper isn’t going to pay the bills if the push for ‘cheaper’ continues.

Whoa ... there's a thesis worth of answers for all of this. I'm not sure I can do your query justice, but I'll try.

1. The cost of things -
The creation of the book involves more than the cost of paper and distribution. A lot of the cost goes into paying the salaries of the publisher, editor, publicist and sales reps, not to mention the higher-ups. Yes, it's a factor, but it's not enough of a factor for a publisher to slash their prices by, say, half. If you want to test this theory, try self-publishing an e-book and then try editing, distributing, promoting and selling it yourself.

2. More moolah to the creator - The idea of profit-sharing between writer and publisher is afloat but, unsurprisingly, is not being taken up by publishers. That's because it's a new idea and changing the publishing industry is like turning around a rusting Soviet tanker when it's heading for Stalingrad. It may catch on in time. But it will mean that the writers concerned have to be willing to be businesspeople, because it will be quite a different relationship to the current co-dependent, mutually fractious creative liaison.

3. E-books into audiobooks: Digital (e-book) rights are different to audio rights. Amazon stepped into a world of woe when they tried to use software to convert their Kindle books to audio, because the publishers (rightly) said that they didn't have the audio rights and thus weren't allowed to do what they planned. No doubt in the near future there will be cases when these rights go together, specifically so the e-book can convert into an audiobook or vice versa, but it's not really happening now. And trying to explain rights would take me a few hours. (It's taken me several years to get my head around it.)

My own nebulous theory about e-books and the digital future is that e-books may well attract a completely new readership - people who didn't read print books, for whatever reason, who are at home in the digital environment and prefer to read their content that way. Cultural artefacts are consumed or not consumed for a variety of reasons: 'I want to look smart'/'I don't want people to think I'm dumb' are high on the list. I think a lot of young - and older - men don't buy books because they're not sure what they want to read and they don't want to walk into a bookshop (or library) and say that, because it's never been made easy for them to do so. The internet makes it easy. The internet does not say, 'Dummy, why can't you spell?' The internet understands that you can be unable to spell perfectly or read for two hours without a break and still want to read books. Someone very dear to me fits into this category. I hope that access to digital copies of books will mean that he doesn't ever feel like he's 'too dumb' to read again.

Line spacing and synopses

Having reviewed every 'submission guidelines' page of every Australian agency--even the ones currently 'closed due to backlog'--I can't find any line-spacing specifications for the synopsis. Is there an unwritten standard that I missed regarding the spacing in a synopsis?

The query letter, I assume, is to be set in the standard single, and the chapters are to be double, of course. The synopsis, however, which the agencies request as being anywhere from 1-3 pages in length ... well, they ain't specified line-spacin' nowheres.

I'm concerned because one page of double-spaced plot-extract doesn't seem adequate to recount a day in the life of a brick, let alone an entire novel.

Do I need to cinch the proverbial belt again, or can I single-space my synopsis?

I'm going to start by referring you to this post in which I state that I kinda don't care what the formatting is because if the submsision is electronic I can change it, and in which I also state that many writers get far too caught up in the formatting and not caught up enough in the actual writing (or words to that effect).

So you can read that post in conjunction with what I'm about to say: use 1.5 line spacing if in doubt. It's not windy enough to suggest that you believe the agent or publisher has problems with their sight; it's not close enough to be annoying (as I personally find single spacing annoying if the paragraphs are long).

I'll also let you in on a little secret: a lot of people in publishing don't put a lot of weight on the synopsis, but it's useful to have it so you can see that the story is going somewhere. A synopsis is a tool, not an opportunity to display your writing skill. The query letter or hello letter or just-read-my-damn-manuscript letter is, however, a place where you can play. In short: don't kvetch, just write. Keep the synopsis as concise as possible and spend most of your energy on the manuscript. If your manuscript is brilliant and your synopsis is not, which do you think I'll pay more attention to? I'll happily overlook a dodgy synopsis to get my hands on a great piece of writing.