Monday, August 25, 2014

If a writer writes in a social media vacuum, are they really writing?

Trying to research possible agents, and finding numerous quotations about how they always google prospective clients, and almost certainly pass if there is no web presence. Googling my (fairly uncommon) name brings up a number of people, many of whom are apparently authors, and at least one is dead. Some time ago I tried to get myself interviewed (one success) and also wrote a short piece for an e-magazine, then painstakingly answered each person who commented, which took me an entire evening. Neither activity translated into any sales whatsoever.
I have read articles insisting that I should be out there blogging, twittering, building a "platform" (hope not to fall through it!) and generally jumping through hoops to connect with … somebody? I have read other articles saying that unless you really enjoy this activity for its own sake, have something to say that people will find useful, or have a lot of spare time, you're better off just continuing to write. All caution that you shouldn't actively try to "sell" your book(s).

I am feeling more and more dejected about this, especially as writing – the important stuff! - happens only  when I can snatch a few illicit moments (recipe for FRUSTRATION). And what on earth should I blog about anyway? As a writer of fantasy (often romantic), I feel people are not going to flock to buy books by someone who cannot comment on her working day (would get me the sack immediately); doesn't want to put her private life out there (every year the police give schoolchildren the serious warning which they possibly ignore but I take to heart); does write for a site about nervous horse riders (a huge attraction for every fantasy reader, I'm sure); and can't provide a useful service for readers (how to give intramuscular injections to livestock? where to buy beading supplies in a small country town?).

You see my problem (and at this point may be rolling your eyes and sighing). The nitty gritty: is this trend as widespread as it appears to be? Do writers now have to be accomplished  business people and publicists to get anywhere? I don't expect my mechanic to do plumbing as well, nor do I rush to read all about what my favourite authors are doing (OK, most of them are dead too), but am I just a dinosaur who should get real?

You've raised some important points - which is why I've published the entirety of what you sent - and these are points that trouble a lot of writers. 

From my point of view, whether or not I take on a writer always depends on whether or not they can write - and the writing I'm interested in is the manuscript they've submitted. If they have a web or social media presence, that's nice but not essential - social media profiles/presences can be built, but great writing is hard to find. There's also the fact that you can pay someone to build and manage a social media profile for you but you still need to be able to deliver a great manuscript, and it's harder to get paid help for that.

Managing a social media presence can also take up a lot of time, and it's disruptive of attention - you can flit in and out of Twitter but that doesn't help you sustain concentration as you try to write your novel. In fact, it can make it increasingly harder to concentrate as you 'lose the habit' of writing fiction in favour of developing the habit of tweeting. For that reason, too, I'm not that fussed about authors having a social media presence before I take them on.

We also have no data to prove that social media presence leads to increased book sales for any author who does not get a contract because of their social media presence - that is, if you're an author who has become famous for your blog, we can expect that your blog will play a large part in the promotion of your book, but if you're an author who has written a great novel, is having a blog going to help all that much? We just don't know. So I'm loath to tell authors to spend a lot of time blogging when it could be disruptive of their attention and consume a lot of their time without any discernible benefit to their writing career. 

Of course, we may get data soon - and if it's demonstrated that social media is important to some or all all types of writers, then those types of writers will need to engage with it. But if we do get that proof that social media is so important in the promotion of the book, that's actually something the publisher should provide a lot of assistance with - to the point of undertaking to do all the social media for authors who simply aren't great at it. And some aren't - their Twitter voice isn't engaging, or all they do is implore people to buy their books. Those authors should stay away from social media - but if they absolutely need to have a social media presence, the publisher should help them with it rather than let them hoist themselves on their own petard.

And here is where we start to look at the suite of services publishers can offer writers - and at whether or not 'new contracts' should start to accommodate them. If one author is great at social media and can handle everything themselves, should they receive the same royalty as someone who needs a publicist to do it all? It's entirely plausible that the social-media-adept author might start to think there should be some allowance made for what is, in effect, an extra skill that they're bringing to the publishing contract. And what happens if that particular author has to choose between publishers - one publisher offering them a slightly higher royalty rate in recognition of this skill, and the other not? Will this start to become a factor in the author's decision making? Perhaps not. But perhaps it will. 

In the meantime, though, my advice would be to focus on your writing. I'm sure I'm not the only agent in the world who is more interested in how an author writes their manuscript than how they write their tweets. 

Thursday, August 21, 2014

Honesty is such a lonely word

I recently had a rejection which stated they thought my story would find a home somewhere, but that I should not have said in my query that a previously published e-book had not sold many copies (I gave a few reasons, including my lack of time promoting plus maybe people just didn't like it) though it was a finalist for an award. I thought it was better to be honest up-front: after all, can't they easily check that it had a poor sales record? I had read somewhere that lack of sales could be off-putting for future publishers, but I didn't want to pretend that it had sold well. What is your advice? 

There is currently no way - for Australian publishers, at least - to know how many copies of an ebook have been sold. BookScan is the technology used to track print book sales, but as yet ebooks are not part of BookScan. And it may take some time for there to be accurate reporting of ebook sales anyway, as the retailers who currently have to report ebook sales - e.g. Apple and Google - are mostly not booksellers at their core, so they aren't as attuned to the rhythms of publishing as a bookseller would be. 

However, you're under no obligation to say how many copies of any of your books have sold, in print or digital. While it's admirable that you want to be honest about your sales record, almost every author starts her or his career with small sales and no publisher is going to expect that you've sold a tonne - otherwise they'd have heard about it already. And if they really want to know how many books you've sold, they can ask you. 

The other point in your question is that you mentioned in the query that you hadn't had much time to promote the book, as well as giving other reasons. Well, don't do that again - you have no way of knowing why your books do and don't sell, and neither does the publishing industry (if we knew, we'd patent it). So don't make excuses, don't give reasons which may or may not be true. The salient points are that you have written and you have published, so you already have experience. State your experience; state what your current project is. Be proud of the fact that you have both. That's it.

Friday, August 15, 2014

Arbitrary word counts and the end of Western civilisation*

I have completed a novel manuscript that is on the shorter side at 66 000 words. Initially I contemplated approaching agents and publishers who work with Young Adult titles, as it does have a teenage protagonist, but after sending it to a few writerly friends and colleagues (I'm an English teacher) for feedback, I was told what I think I already knew deep down: it's not really a YA novel. This leaves me in a bit of a dilemma when it comes to the length. From all that I have read online, agents are reluctant to take on books this short, especially if they aren't literary fiction and are coming from a first-time author. But I've also read that nobody wants to read filler scenes and you shouldn't bulk out a work more than is necessary to tell the story. Do you think it would be wise to try to add 10-15 000 words, to start sending queries about the manuscript at its current length, or is there something else I should consider? Or should I put this one away to gather dust with my first few (terrible) novels and focus on the next one?

Sixty-six thousand words isn't short for grown-ups' fiction; it's just fine. (At least, for Australia - I don't know which country you're in.) I don't know which websites you've been reading that say it isn't, but it wasn't this website ... 

'Ideal' word counts exist largely because of the costing of the book: the publisher has to buy a certain amount of paper to produce a book that will turn out to be X pages in length; they want to charge $Y for that book and the cost of paper therefore affects their margin on the book, which is likely to be very slim, because most of them are. Your word count is within the range of what's acceptable for 'general fiction' - a publisher could make their costing work on that. (It's slightly larger than most YA titles, though, in case you're curious.) The only genre where it might be problematic is fantasy, where readers expect the books to be about double that length.

Ultimately, though, you have to write the story and just let the word count sort itself out. If the story feels like it's too fat, trim it; if it could use more scenes, add them. But just let the story determine what it needs and work from there. 

*This last bit was added for dramatic effect.

Just because you're paranoid doesn't mean they're after you

I'm a Melbourne writer. I'm lucky enough to have a literary agent, and I have two completed mss to sell. My agent has been submitting them and both of us are learning just how tight the fiction market is at the moment. Where the first one almost got across the line with a couple of the conventional large publishers, the second one (which she thought would be a dead cert) also is struggling. My agent says my work is of a very high standard, she is an experienced reader and editor, and is selling her other clients' work, so I'm wondering if something else might be sabotaging the submissions.

1. My age? (I'm over 45 and it's a first novel situation. I've been published in lit journals etc but no book-length works published and no high profile/celebrity/'amazing personal story' for PR).
2. I wrote a couple of reviews on my blog in which I said I didn't love certain Australian books; have I been *blacklisted*. Does such a thing happen? 

I've asked my agent and she said she doesn't believe either of these things are relevant, that it would all be about the work in the view of publishers, that's all they look for. But really, can that be true? Don't publishers want as many positives as possible to try to sell more books, market etc.
Perhaps it really is just such a bad time.

I'll forgive you for being from Melbourne. Now let's move on ...

1. Your age is irrelevant. There appears to be a belief held amongst some unpublished writers that publishers (and agents) are madly judging all writers based on their age, but they're not. And if they were, that would be silly because most readers - especially those who actually buy books - are not twenty-five, ifyouknowwhatImean. There is no 'right age' to start out and if younger novelists were preferred, why do we need a whole literary award dedicated to them (the Vogel's)? 

2. If there is a blacklist, let me know where it is. Because I'm probably on it and so is everyone else in the industry - we all have books we don't like and most of us aren't shy about our opinions. If everyone only liked the same few books, we wouldn't have so many books published each year.

You haven't said what type of fiction you write - and that detail is important. Chick lit is, apparently, 'dead' - that is the term one publisher used when speaking to me recently. So times are tough for chick lit writers. Crime fiction is always hard, mainly because publishers believe it is - but that's a much bigger topic ... And 'literary fiction' (definition still elusive) is always hard.

In general, though, sometimes you just don't find the right publisher at the time when your novel is being submitted. Timing is so important: the right publisher needs to be in the right publishing house at the right time with the right sales and marketing support. And, yes, it really all does come down to the work. The bells and whistles are great but they're no substitute for the work. Bells and whistles we can help with; the wriiting, we can't.

So your time may not be now; it may be next year or it may be several years off yet. If your work is good (and your agent thinks it is, so that's a clue), have faith in yourself - and, most importantly, keep writing, because maybe it's your next manuscript that will break through. Then you'll have the current manuscript available just in case the publisher wants another one ...

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

It's not you, it's me. Okay, it's you

I do actually have an agent, who took me on nearly five years ago based on producer interest in a film project of mine. Nothing came of it, or other projects that followed, so the agent prepared a lot of contracts for no income. True, they were riddled with typos and missing clauses, but I didn’t feel like I was in any position to complain.

I’m not sure the agent is the biggest fan of my writing, either, based on the fact that some of my scripts elicited no response at all when I submitted them for feedback, and I think they only sent one to any producers (who did end up optioning it).

Then, last year, I was commissioned (not as a result of any agent involvement) to develop a TV series, generating enough commission to compensate (I think) for that earlier unpaid work. Karmic balance and all that.

Relations were cordial. Until the agent forwarded me a contract to sign, saying it looked “fine”, even though it was 18 pages long and the agent had received it literally 10 minutes earlier. I found some unfavourable terms in there that had to be renegotiated.

So. Is switching agents frowned upon in Australia? Would I be assumed to be a high-maintenance client, best ignored? Am I expecting too much?

Switching agents isn't exactly applauded (in any country) but it's not verboten either - it's a business decision, and you have to do what's right for your business. There are a handful of things which suggest that your existing agent perhaps isn't right for your business:

1. The contracts riddled with typos and missing clauses. Typos are one thing - I've seen contracts from publishing companies and film studios with typos, and I've also made typos in my own contracts - they happen to everyone. But missing clauses are another - the intent of a contract can still be clear if there typos but that's harder to say if there are missing clauses. As for preparing contracts for no return - well, that's the risk film agents take. Literary agents do a lot of work on manuscripts and that's the risk we take.

2. Not appropriately reviewing the latest contract. It may not take the agent long to look at contracts - those of us who have seen a lot of them tend to hone in on particular clauses and, therefore, don't give the same scrutiny to all clauses (e.g. the 'governing law' clause doesn't get reviewed as closely as the 'subsidiary rights' clause). But in light of your earlier experience with missing clauses, it's not great - especially as you picked up on those unfavourable clauses. 

3. Lack of engagement with your writing. Even if your agent is primarily a deal-making type of agent - and each agent is different - writers still want to feel as though their work is appreciated by their agent or, at the very least, that the agent is paying attention. I don't always give my clients a gold star - sometimes they're asked (nicely, of course) to do an amount of work or even to start again. And when I say 'asked', I mean I make a suggestion, not give a directive. So they may not like what I have to say, but they do know that I'm paying attention. Most agents pay attention to the work - the work, after all, is the reason for the agent-client relationship to exist. If your agent was doing everything else right apart from paying closer attention to your work, perhaps you'd be prepared to overlook that omission. But in light of everything else, it all seems to add up to a situation where you don't feel as though you have an agent who is as supportive of you as she or he could be. 

In short: you're not expecting too much to want to have your contracts scrutinised or to have attention paid to your work. These are standard services to expect from your agent. But I would suggest that you give the agent a chance to either redeem or explain him- or herself, just because you do have a relationship and it's good to end things nicely, if they're going to end. Ask a direct question: 'It's been good to work with you but I have the feeling that you're not wild about my writing - is that the case? I haven't ever received feedback from you when I've sent scripts to you.' The agent may say that they do love your writing but don't personally feel qualified to give feedback - they just might not have wanted to admit that to you. You may still think that they're not properly supportive anyway, in which case you need to leave. If, however, you think there's hope there, perhaps you want to try to work out the contract-reviewing issues. If you don't, though, it's quite okay to change. Just make it clear it's a business decision - you're not the right client-agent fit. Wish them well, if only because you want them to wish you well. Also because they may turn up at the next agency you go to ... 

Monday, July 28, 2014

Appraise to appease?

I have written a fantasy, and I want it to be a series. I had sent it for appraisal and the response has been rather good, regarding plot structure, conflict, description and character. Negatives were punctuation, alignment and grammar at some places, along with suggestions to 'plump up and explore' the events. I am working on incorporating the suggestions. I have two questions here.

 1) I have heard that sending the appraisal along with the manuscript helps. However, my appraisal has the negatives. So should I send this appraisal while sending the draft to the agent? Should I get a re-appraisal done after corrections? Or should I just mention that it has been reviewed by a professional agency? I am afraid that the negatives in the appraisal, however minimum, will create a bad impression.

2) Since the negatives are mostly about punctuation, I reckon it can addressed by help of a copy editor. But most people suggest copy editing after appraisal. If you suggest re-appraisal, should I copy-edit it before sending it the second time?

Well, I can save you the trouble of sending your appraisal (also known as a 'manuscript assessment' in these here parts) as part of your submission: the agents and publishers I know don't pay any attention to them.

Appraisals/assessments are meant to be a useful tool to help a writer work out what needs to be done to their manuscript before it's sent to an agent or publisher. It's not a tool for the agent or publisher, though, and consequently they won't pay much, or any, attention to it. We've also all been burnt by the number of appraisals we've seen that say, 'This book should be published!!!!!!' even though it's clear that the accompanying manuscript is nowhere near publishable standard. But the fundamental reason why we don't need to read the appraisal is this: we do our own appraising. I don't care what someone else's opinion of your manuscript is - I want to establish my own opinion. Sending someone else's opinion just makes it look as though you're worried about what my opinion will be - and that means at some subterranean level of your consciousness you're worried your work isn't up to scratch. So get it up to scratch and then send it to an agent or publisher who will make up their own mind.

In this case: it sounds as though the appraisal you had done has actually been beneficial in pointing out some work you need to do. Unless the punctuation errors are egregious, don't worry too much about them. We all make errors. If your writing is otherwise great, we can overlook them. But if those errors are sufficient to make me not be able to read your writing the way you intend, you should fix them. 

Regarding freelance editors: they are an increasingly popular option for writers and for good reason, as they look only at whether or not your manuscript is working and they won't offer an assessment of whether or not it's publishable. They're not affordable for everyone, though, in which case a manuscript assessment service could be useful. 

As I'm often asked to recommend editors, this is as far as I'll go: - the editors I know in this network are excellent but I'm not going to single out just one! 

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

From the deepest recesses of the bottom drawer

When querying, should I mention the three other never-to-see-the-light-of-day manuscripts I've written or not? I feel their existence shows I've been working hard on my writing for some time, but they're not published (nor should they ever be). Also, if I do mention them, what should I call them? Unpublished novels? Blackmail material?

First of all: well done on completing three full-length manuscripts before writing the one you intend to submit. Consider them your apprenticeship. Also evidence of your patience. So, yes, for those reasons you should mention them - and you can do it in a humorous way (as your suggestion of 'blackmail material' indicates that you have a sense of humour) or any way you like. I personally like a touch of humour in a submission letter, done appropriately.

However, you can also just say that you have three manuscripts tucked away in a bottom drawer (hint: this is what you can call then - 'bottom drawer' being a phrase that publishing types like to use) that you never intend to submit to anyone - just to allay an agent/publisher's fear that you're about to send him or her three extra manuscripts - and that you feel that the one you're submitting is the beneficiary of everything you've learned on the previous three. Because that will probably be the truth. And agents/publishers do like to see evidence that a writer hasn't just finished the first draft of a first novel and sent it off that very same day.

Having said all that, if you don't mention them it's not going to affect your chances of being taken seriously. We always read the submission that's before it on its merits, regardless of what's come before. So go forth, submit and good luck.

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Stuck in the middle

I haven't had much luck with Australian agents -- apparently Aussie consumers and agents aren't keen on middle grade fiction -- but I have an American agent who is interested.

The contract says she'll have my manuscripts for two years. Is this a fair time frame, or should I be asking her to work on a manuscript by manuscript basis? Are there different ways agents work?

It isn't surprising that you have struggled to find an agent for middle grade fiction: children's books are a tough proposition for most agents to take on. The advances are usually very small compared with grown-ups' books but the amount of work is the same, so a lot of agents - especially those who don't have a particular passion for children's books - won't take on children's authors. And middle grade fiction is actually the toughest kind of children's book to represent - publishers want it but often can't say exactly what they want, as everyone is trying to guess what kids will like next, so for an agent submitting a middle grade novel or series, the risk of not finding a publisher and simultaneously disappointing the author is high. And like all forms of gambling, in publishing we have to spread our risk.

So: congratulations to you on finding an American agent. The USA is a far bigger market - many more children, for one thing, and therefore many more types of books they like to read and which can, therefore, be published. You say that she'll have your manuscripts for two years but don't say what this actually means - that she will represent you for two years only? That she'll give two years to the one manuscript she takes you on for but in that time you can't send her anything else?

It sounds as though this agent is saying she'll work with you for two years but if she hasn't found you a publisher in the meantime, then you'll part ways - and that doesn't sound unreasonable. She's managing your expectations upfront and she is also giving you both an 'out' clause if it doesn't work. And if it does work, she'll probably want to keep working with you, as will you with her.

Two years is a reasonable amount of time for her to have in order to find you a publisher. There are so many publishers in the US that it can take some time to submit to them all, especially if some expect an exclusive. If she is an experienced agent, then she would believe that two years is what she needs to give the manuscript the best shot - bearing in mind that it can take a long time, and sometimes it's the last publisher, the one you least expect, who makes an offer.

Most agents don't like to work on a manuscript-by-manuscript basis as if we love an author's writing and want to work with them, we just want to work with them - we don't want them to think that they'll have to start over for the next book, and nor do we want to do that. It would be inefficient to go on a per-manuscript basis.

But, still, I come back to the fact that I'm not quite sure what the terms of this agreement you mention might be ... so hopefully I've answered your question. If not, please be in touch.

Contracts and nothing but contracts

Do literary agents look at just one book contract without the author having to sign up with them, a one-off deal? I'm asking because an author may have a contract but want someone to look over it, etc? Do you know if literary agents do this?

Yes, they do - at least, Australian agents do. I can't/won't/don't enough to speak for agents from other lands.

Most agents receive the occasional request to look over a contract and, if we have the time, we will do it. Some agents will want to take on the author as a client but some - including me - don't do that even if the author asks. If an author already has a contract then I tend to believe they're past the point of me being able to do much for them - the existence of a contract signifies that the negotiation of advances and so on is over, so my usefulness extends to reading and negotiating the contract. I also don't like to take on clients unless I believe in their writing - the fact that they have a contract is not enough. But that's me. 

The only way to find out if an agent will look at the contract as a discrete action is to ask them - just don't ask all of them at once. Pick one and ask; it's a quick answer for an agent to give so you should hear back within a couple of days at most. If you don't hear back, move on to the next agent.

When agents give contract feedback as a one-off activity, they usually do not also negotiate that contract with the publisher - that responsibility falls to the author. But if you'd rather have the agent also negotiate the contract, you should raise that at the same time as you ask them to look at the contract.

Monday, February 10, 2014

Doubling up

Whilst searching today for unsolicited manuscript opportunities for this year, I found a children’s picture book that has many similarities to mine!  [NB: the author sent examples of the similarities between the two books but because question-askers are anonymous here, I've removed them.]

I wrote and reviewed and rewrote and re-reviewed my book throughout 2012, and submitted it to a publisher January 2013 (not lucky, obviously – possibly due to that very same query letter that lacked finesse). Apparently the other author was working on this book for four years prior to her publication. 

My question is… is my book now dead on the vine – did I get pipped at the post?  The books are of course different, but outstandingly share those close similarities of wording and essence. Can I even submit my book to publishers now or could it become a copyright or plagiarism issue? I wrote my book independently for over a year before the other book was published (and the only way I could in any way really prove this - your blog with my query letter competition submission)  

I guess this would be a situation of ‘great minds thinking alike’ rather than thieving. Or, on the other hand, if I were to pursue the publishing of my book could I then use the other book as an example of similar books already published, since publishers seem to like a writer to mention these in their submission? Perhaps I just have to do a whole rewrite so we’re not using those same phrases – ouch!

I feel really devastated right now that I put so much work into my story, and my query letter, finally ready to make my second attempt at the publisher juggernaut and it might all be for naught. Do I still have a chance? And if I do have a chance how would I, or do I have to, explain this situation to potential publishers?  Where can I go from here?  In your own words “…you might find you are wasting your time if there is a similar book out there”.  Also, even by putting ‘Copyright (year date)’’ on work, how can a writer protect their unpublished writing ideas from others if we enter competitions and make submissions when we need people to read them? 

In the world of picture books for children, the similarities you mentioned between your manuscript and the published book are not unprecedented. I've seen many a picture book in my time and there are definitely themes that emerge, and limited ways to explore those themes. If you believe the popular maxim that there are 'only seven stories in fiction' and then apply it children's picture books, you start to see where the doubling up - or quadrupling etc - can happen. Especially when books involve counting, as yours does, there is a risk that someone else will get there first. 

If you submit your project now, you won't be considered a plagiarist, for the reason mentioned above, but it could be that picture book editors and publishers think that your project is too similar - at least, for now. Because in the nature of there being not a lot of originality in themes and subject matters, everything 'comes around' (or everything old is new again - you get the picture) and the time for your project may be in a year's time. 

You also shouldn't suspect any dodgy behaviour from the other writer, again for the reason mentioned in my first paragraph.You don't know at what point that book was contracted - the author said she was working on it for four years, and they could have been four contracted years, which means she had a publisher well before you sent out your submission.

So: dust yourself off, accept that these things happen (and they really do, with all sorts of books - sometimes books with the exact same title are published very close together, and it's a complete fluke) and make your own submission the very best it can be so that your project is irresistible. Once you send it out or submit it to competitions, copyright law is your only protection - but, honestly, instances of ideas and/or text being 'borrowed' are so rare. People in the publishing industry are generally very much in favour of copyright, and they're also in favour of keeping their reputations intact, so they're not likely to do anything that jeopardises that. There is always a risk, whenever you write anything and release it to anyone other than yourself - for example. how do I know the content of this blog isn't being replicated wholesale by someone else? You can choose whether or not to accept that risk, but in your case it sounds as though the other publication was a coincidence - and you should definitely try to submit again. Just leave it a little while.