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Posts Tagged agents
I’m slightly early with my post this week. On Saturday I’m an author in residence at Barton’s Bookshop as part of the national Books Are My Bag celebrations this week. After that, Morris HQ is on cyber-shutdown for the weekend as we celebrate a friend’s 40th. Just as I was wondering what (on earth!) to post about, this question popped into my inbox:
‘I have to give a presentation about my novel at college. Could you give me some tips on what to talk about? Thanks, Fahim’
Thank you, Fahim. Since I’m going to spend the day explaining my books to complete strangers (and hoping not to frighten them) I could do with thinking about this. So whether you’re wooing a class, an agent or just one interested book lover, here’s an express guide to pitching your book. It’s a brief post, but attention spans are short… ooh, tree mammal.
1 The novel in a nutshell
First, they want to know what it’s about. Orientate them with a polished one-liner that gives a clear idea of the kind of characters and the story – eg ‘it’s a novel about five friends at college who murder somebody and have to live with the consequences’.
2 Get the title in early
Make sure your one-liner explains the title, or makes the title intriguing. Your audience will probably remember no more than a couple of details. You want one of them to be the title and its tantalising promise.
3 Get personal
Tell them why it became your personal mission to write the book. If you have an anecdote about your initial inspiration, that helps pull the audience on board. Hint about where your research took you and why there’s much, much more than you could say here. Single out key characters with strong dilemmas; people are more memorable than themes. Weave in comparisons with other novels or films if they’ll help make your point more strongly, but they’re not essential.
4 Is there scope for a reading?
Obviously you won’t give a reading if you’re buttonholing an individual. But if you’ve got a bigger audience, it might be natural to round off your talk with an excerpt. If so, context is everything. It’s hard for listeners to plunge into the middle of action, or adjust their minds to a section of dialogue. Whatever you choose to read, make sure it continues the threads you’ve been tempting them with so far. Perhaps a tricky, cruel character, or the awesome difficulties of spending the night in the same house as a dead Mafia boss. You can find more tips here on choosing a passage to showcase your book.
It’s a national campaign to celebrate bookshops. If you’re in the UK, drop by your local bookseller and see if they’re breaking out in bunting, orange cake and sloganed T-shirts. Chances are, if you buy some books, they’ll give you a smart tote bag. If you don’t, they’ll probably set their pet authors on you…
Thanks, Fahim, for the inspiration. (And thanks Alexisnyal for the pic) Do you have any tips to add?
agents, attention spans, authors, Barton's Bookshop, book marketing, Books Are My Bag, express guide, Fix and Finish With Confidence, how to pitch your book, how to sell your book, how to write a novel, initial inspiration, marketing, My Memories of a Future Life, Nail Your Novel: Why Writers Abandon Books and How You Can Draft, personal mission, publishing, Roz Morris, self-publishing, what on earth, writing business, writing life
There will be changes
Always. Even if you’ve had beta readers. Even if you’re a seasoned pro. Of the 14 or 15 full manuscripts I’ve submitted, there was only one where the editors didn’t want to change anything, beyond tiny niggles. Only one.
There are two kinds of feedback. In traditional publishing, agents – and editors in the initial stages – will tend to give brief, sweeping notes about character arcs, pacing, credibility and relatability. Even though these won’t be as detailed as the work an editor will do, they might keep you busy for a couple of months.
Moreover, an editor who does a detailed critique may have a different vision from those who have looked at it before. (Should you edit to fit another person’s tastes? A million-dollar question, which I’ll come back to.)
Anyway, most of us swallow hard when the detailed report arrives. This is what I do.
Critique report survival tips
Expect a large document that tackles your book in close detail. Sometimes very large – I’ve written 50 pages for a novice author (but there I’m also taking a tutoring role, so my commentary includes discussion of craft).
1 – Read the report without doing anything. Satisfy your curiosity. Don’t make to-do lists or open the manuscript. Just read.
2 – Set it aside. Yell, scream etc. Wait as long as your deadlines allow. This also lets you digest. When you’re even-tempered about it, start work.
3 – Some suggestions will be easy to fix. Some will be harder. Some will be praise and encouragement, though you might not have recognised them. Read through and mark the easy stuff – either highlight on a printout, or colour in the Word document. Tackle these immediately if it makes sense, and feel satisfied that you’re getting this under control.
4 – Now you’re limbered up – and are familiar with your manuscript again – you’re ready for the trickier suggestions. Separate out the ones you don’t agree with.
Often editors make suggestions that skew the book in a way you don’t want. But they may have identified a significant problem. Disregard their solution and delve deeper for the source.
For instance, an editor who saw an early draft of Life Form Three told me it needed another viewpoint character and that one of my story devices was confusing. I didn’t want another viewpoint character, so I made the original one more relatable. The confusing story device was also important to me, so I reworked it. Result? He was happy because the problems were fixed.
Of course, if you have a traditional publisher, an editor might ask for changes to fit their list and readership. Use your judgement, but remember this: if you are named as the author (ie it’s not work for hire) a publisher can’t change anything without your agreement. Dig your heels in if there is something you really disagree with. In a worst-case scenario they might decline to publish, but this rarely happens. (They also can’t make you agree to a cover or title you don’t like, BTW.)
If you’re indie, you of course have complete freedom to decide what to change. But consider whether an unsuitable suggestion is pointing to a problem you should tackle in a different way.
What, another stage of feedback? I’m afraid so. Copy edits are done after main developmental feedback. But they can still throw up enough problems to make you gnaw the desk.
Copy editors notice the tiny details that slipped by when everyone had bigger problems in mind. They also catch the errors that crept in as you went over the manuscript again and again. The murder victim’s hair might have changed colour. The timeline is impossible.
It’s better to be pre-emptive about this. Keep tight control of these details as you edit – especially the timeline. Although you can probably correct physical details such as characters’ ages and hair colour with a few inventive text searches, you can’t fix the timeline so easily and the whole plot might unravel if it’s wrong. (I map out the timeline when I make my beat sheet.)
The beat sheet is one of the tools described in my book Nail Your Novel … more about it here
Thanks for the pic Brainedge
Do you have any tips for tackling critique reports? Did you ever disagree with an editor’s suggestions and what was the outcome? Let’s share in the comments!
agents, authors, beginners, beta readers, blogging, copy editing, critique reports, critiques, deepen your story, developmental edit, developmental editing, editorial feedback, editors, entertainment, feedback, fiction, Fix and Finish With Confidence, hiring an editor, how to write a book, how to write a novel, literature, My Memories of a Future Life, Nail Your Novel: Why Writers Abandon Books and How You Can Draft, publishers, publishing, Rewriting, Roz Morris, self-publishing, traditional publishing, using an editor, working with an editor, writing, writing a novel - Nail Your Novel, writing business
All the scribbling world is going indie. New, unpublished writers are, to establish themselves – even if they’re agented. And experienced, well-regarded authors are leaving their imprints – either being dropped or deciding to seek a better way to release their work.
While publishers are probably not short of new material, we know they watch the indie scene to see who does well. At the moment they pounce on the Hocking and Howey high fliers, but in a few years’ time they’ll have a different breed of writer to consider: the well established indie with a clutch of books and a growing audience. The kind of author who used to make up the midlist. I’m wondering, what deals would they offer?
For most of us it’s unlikely to be bidding wars. But one thing’s sure. It’s really going to test the industry because it can’t be a standard midlist deal. Most indie authors will have outgrown that.
Help with production
How much production help will a competent self-publishing author need? Of course, some writers loathe production and will be glad to hand it over. Others, though, relish the control (like yours truly) or will have it so smoothly managed that they’d rather hire the help themselves than hand over a bigger share to have it arranged.
A publisher might be able to offer an economy of scale – although they have often cut staff so much they are using the same freelances who are hired by indies.
Here’s an added complication. The book needs to look professional. How would a deal legislate for a situation where a writer’s production values look like a home haircut? Spin it the other way: what would stop a publisher vetoing an outside editor to keep the work themselves and accrue extra percentage points?
I’ve already made this more complex than I imagined. Suffice it to say: production costs will become a negotiation point.
Help with promotion and marketing
I’m guessing that one of the prime reasons for partnering with a publisher is to gain kudos, exposure and credibility in places we can’t reach by ourselves.
We all know that if a publisher pulls out all the stops they can make a huge difference to a book’s fortunes. But most of the time (ie if they haven’t paid big bucks for the author), they can’t afford to.
What most non-starry authors get is a few mentions in the national press. That can certainly send an indie author reeling with delight. But does it sell copies? The evidence is that it doesn’t. Most books don’t sell unless you keep them constantly on readers’ radar. A splash in the press is short term. Indie authors know they have to keep a sustained campaign of advertising and promoting. The midlist author launch package is little more substantial than a token cork-pop at the book’s birth. It won’t keep the book alive, month in, month out.
There’s worse. At the moment, when you sign a deal, publishers are often secretive or vague about what marketing they will do. They’re used to the writers being so overawed that they never have to explain what exactly will happen or how brief the publicity flare will be.
Indeed, it’s shocking how meagre a publisher’s marketing plan might be. One writer I know was asked for a list of blogs the publisher could contact to run posts about the books. Up until then, the writer had believed the publisher would use their own special contacts, not people the writer already knew about. Another author friend, after two successful books, was sent on a social media course. He learned nothing he couldn’t have gleaned from reading a few blogs.
However, many of my writer friends are excited about the Amazon imprints – even authors who feel they’re finished with traditional publishing. Why? Because Amazon have developed and honed an amazing machine for finding readers. What’s more, the algorithms can work long term with emails and targeted deals. That’s the kind of help we would all take seriously.
I haven’t even mentioned ebooks. As ebook formatting is one of the simplest things for an author to do or source, few of us will need help to make them. Where will a publisher add value? Publicity? The trouble is, their publicity machine is still wedded to print territories, whereas indies are already marketing on the, ahem, wordwide web. Perhaps publishers will start to think globally. Or perhaps ebooks will be left out of publishing deals with indies, as those markets may already be well served.
Getting copies into bookshops is one area where indies struggle – and traditional publishers are acknowledged masters. However, go into your local Waterstones or B&N and you’ll be bewildered by the acres of book spines. What’s the likelihood of someone finding your book by chance, even if it’s there? Except for prominent displays (which aren’t given to every author), publicity is what makes readers pick up a book or ask for it to be ordered – and indies can already get onto the wholesale lists at very little cost. We don’t even need to buy the ISBN. So it is my contention that well targeted, long-term publicity is more significant to an author than distribution to a lot of shops. Do feel free to disagree.
Help with development
It probably seems cockeyed to consider this last. We can’t deny that editors can add a vital nurturing influence. Although successful indie authors will already have their infrastructure for making a book good, few of us would dismiss the chance to do it better. Or am I dreaming?
At the moment a publishing deal is like a fixed-price menu. But the authors of the future will be savvy about publishing. They’ll look for equitable arrangements and publishers will have to be flexible for each situation. A la carte.
Publishers will also need to be more transparent. Right now the culture is to keep the author in the dark. A business relationship can’t be vague like that.
Ultimately a fair deal will take account of what each side puts in. Who, in a publisher, is equipped to strike a fair deal with the entrepreneurial author or their agent? The editors? They know about nurturing content, being its shepherd and handling production. But they aren’t skilled in converting this into workable contract terms and profit shares. And why should they be? That’s like expecting your plumber to be able to fix your computer. The other option is the contracts department. But they’re in a legal ivory tower, away from authors and the realities of book production or selling. It’s as if we need a new kind of job in publishers – a professional who can grapple with all of this.
UPDATE: To be fair, many editors do recognise the need for change. But they don’t necessarily have the skills, systems or company culture to reinvent their relationships with authors. They’ve usually got enough to do keeping up with their publishing schedule – having managed an editorial department I know the realities of getting books out, and how diktats often come from lofty management levels that are impossible to fulfil while making the daily deadlines. So this kind of change is going to take time.
One thing’s for sure. The current standard publishing deal isn’t going to cut it.
Thanks for the dream team pic Permanently Scatterbrained
Let’s discuss this brave new world. Do you self-publish? If a publisher came calling, what would you appreciate help with? What do you want to handle yourself? What do you think would make you attractive to a publisher in return for their help?
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Book marketing, self-publishing – and should you seek a publisher? All the fun of the London Book Fair 2013
Last week I was one of Kobo’s writers in residence at the London Book Fair. Several of the questions I was asked reminded me that every day, writers are trying to grasp this new publishing world. I thought it might be helpful to post their FAQs.
Should I post samples of my book on my blog to tempt people to buy?
You could, but you don’t need to. The ebook stores offer a sample of the beginning before readers buy. Here are two other things I do.
- I use the eye-catching animated widget from Bookbuzzr (here’s Nail Your Novel).
- I also have an audio file of the first 4 chapters of my novel – 35 minutes of listening, perfect for a commute. It’s either downloadable (hosted as a file in Google Docs) or there’s an immediate-play version on Soundcloud.
Should I make a print edition?
If you’re going to meet readers in real life, yes. For my talk, I’d brought along print copies. When I pulled them out of my bag, the reaction was immediate and adoring, as if they were fluffy kittens. Even from the Kobo staff. People picked the books up, flicked through the pages, stroked the spine, read the back (spine and back covers are as important as front). I was amazed, actually, at how much impact a print edition makes.
I have a post here about interior formatting, but it’s quite a faff if you’re not used to it. Which leads me to…
If your book is traditionally published, the publisher does a lot of jobs you’re probably not aware of. Developmental editing, copy editing, proofing, design of cover and interior, typesetting and ebook formatting. It’s a growing business to offer these services to indie authors, so The Alliance of Independent Authors has released Choosing a Self-Publishing Service 2013, with testimonials and warnings where necessary. Before you part with any money, get this book.
What can I do to market my book?
The guys at the KDP stand reported that this year’s number one question was ‘why isn’t my book selling’? (Some writers were ruder than that. I saw a furious lady collar an Amazonian and growl: ‘I have five books on KDP, what are you going to do about selling them?’. If Amazon starts offering marketing services, don’t wail that they’re evil. They get asked about it day in, day out. And it’s very unfair to blame them for it. They just give you the space to use.)
Amazon had some sensible replies: get a stand-out cover, choose categories wisely, write a cracking blurb, get honest reviews, generate curiosity about your work. And (the representative said this with an embarrassed cough): make sure the book is good.
More on marketing
Kobo’s Mark Lefebvre (on Twitter as @MarkLeslie) gave a rousing presentation on writers connecting with readers. One method was ‘street teams’. Remember The Tufty Club? These days, post-Tufty writers are inviting fans to join dedicated sites and giving away special editions, tie-in jewellery, bags and temporary tattoos. If it fits your genre (I can’t quite imagine a red piano tattoo myself) you could make up a few as competition giveaways.
Another tactic Mark described was authors who band together as a bigger presence. Group blogs in a genre such as Crime Fiction Collective, author collectives (such as Triskele Books and Authors Electric) curated collections such as the League of Extraordinary Authors). And of course there are themed blogs like my Undercover Soundtrack.
One of the takeaways is that marketing isn’t one-shot. It’s about staying visible, steadily and sustainably. As with the editorial and production services, there are a lot of marketing companies who’ll take authors’ money for campaigns, but you don’t have to do that. You don’t need a big budget to keep your work on the radar, you just need imagination and likeminded souls. Paid advertising and publicity has its place but there’s a lot you can do yourself.
Let readers pre-order your book
Did you know Kobo lets you create a page for pre-orders? I didn’t. Why would you do this? Because when the book launches, you then get a big spike of sales because they all process on the same day. This pushes you further up the charts and makes you more visible in the Kobo store. Now, if I can just get my blurb written for Nail Your Novel: Bring Characters to Life…
BTW I changed my Twitter name
If you follow my writing advice stream you might have noticed I changed my handle from @DirtyWhiteCandy to @NailYourNovel. @DirtyWhiteCandy was the original name of my blog. I kept it as my Twitter name because I liked its bossy vibe, but as the years go on, fewer people would know (or care) where it came from and if people are looking for writing advice they’d be more likely to follow a tweep called @NailYourNovel. These days, indie author-publishers are looking smart and slick, rather than roguishly maverick. So, much as I liked the @DirtyWhiteCandy story and sass, it has to go.
FAQ: Should I submit to publishers and agents or should I self-publish?
Hmm. Sound of teeth being sucked. Look back over this post and you’ll see the amount of work involved in publishing. You don’t just write a book, upload and hope the fairies tell the world. You need expert help to create it and you need partners to spread the word. Publishers and agents can be your allies if the deal is right.
One of the highlights for many was the heaving turnout at the Author Lounge in the digital quarter. Every author event was swarming with eager listeners. Authors report overhearing agents muttering about tumbleweed blowing through the foreign rights section, while on the upstart digital stands, all was abuzz.
But don’t be misled. In our own corner authors were calling the shots, but the rest of the conference told a different story.
1: Neil Gaiman
On the Sunday before the main fair, there was the Digital Minds Conference. The keynote speech was given by Neil Gaiman. I have to wonder what the delegates were meant to learn from him about digital media.
LBF’s press releases made much of the fact that he blogs and has a lot of Twitter followers. But, my friends, that’s because he was traditionally published. The publishers may have lauded themselves for inviting an author to tell them the way ahead, but they chose one who reinforces their faith in the old model. Even in his struggling years, Gaiman wasn’t like most new authors, writing books on spec while having another job. He was a contractor at DC Comics, getting paid while he made the work that made his name. In fact, why didn’t they ask JK Rowling, who famously lived hand to mouth while writing?
Better still, their figurehead could have been a bestselling indie author who made their success purely from publishing’s new digital tools. Hugh Howey, anybody? Instead they had Gaiman comparing publishing with a dandelion, throwing seeds out haphazardly and seeing what works.
2: Ahem – monstrous storytelling
Elsewhere at the Fair, the authors weren’t getting much credit. I went to the session on digital storytelling. This featured a panel of publishers and developers, but no actual storytellers – the authors.
One of the panel members, Henry Volans of Faber Digital, wrote an accompanying piece for the Bookseller, in which he mentioned Dave’s Frankenstein app. He credited it to the publisher, Profile Books, and the developer, Inkle. He never mentioned Dave, the author. Now, forgive the personal bias but I hope you’ll see it illustrates a wider point. Dave had the entire idea. He pitched it to Profile, figured out how to make it work, reenvisioned and expanded the entire novel to the tune of 150,000 words. (Here are his posts in case you’re curious: part 1, 2 and 3.) The developer (Inkle) was hired by the publisher to add software and graphics. The reader’s experience comes mainly from the writing, not the pictures or the machinery.
After yet another pundit wrote about Frankenstein and gave all the credit to Profile and the developer, Dave quipped on Twitter: ‘I very much enjoy Amazon’s Wool and Bloomsbury’s Harry Potter.’
Back to the Book Fair
Just two examples, but they betray a general attitude. In an era of revolutions, who gives publishers hope? Somebody who’s conquered the new world? No, a lovable demi-god of the old one. Who might tell them what new products the book might evolve into? The people who understand readers so well they can push the artform onwards? No, the middle men.
Authors still aren’t seen as significant contributors to the industry. And this is reflected in the deals publishers offer. They know you’re far more heavily invested in your book than they are and they’ll take unforgivable advantage. They’ll word the contract with woolly clauses that say ‘at our discretion’ and ‘in our opinion’, which mean they can do whatever they like with your rights and your manuscript. They’ll help you with the launch for a couple of weeks, after which you’ll be as alone as if you’d self-published, only you’ll make even less money. Leaving aside the emotional attachment, they have no idea that the work you put in on the average book probably amounts to two man years, and their contribution is a few man months.
Just tell me, should I seek a publisher?
I still think if you’re new to the industry you should query, because you never know what opportunities you might find. You might get feedback that helps you make the book better, or confirms you’re ready to reach out to the market in whatever way suits you.
An agent is probably more help to you at the moment than a publisher. Even if they don’t get you a deal, it’s a contact in the industry, should you need it. But also consider the agent’s motivation. They’re not risk-takers or talent-nurturers. They want you to make a deal, otherwise they don’t get paid. You might get an offer that looks like quite a lot of money, but it might be all you see and the terms might be punitive.
Publishers at the moment don’t seem to be worth the bother. Smart authors can do better for themselves, but this can’t continue. For a while, publishers will bluster on, trying to keep things the way they are. But in a few years’ time, they might be offering true partnerships and fair, transparent deals.
Bottom line? Explore all your options. Treat publishers like any other partnership or service you might use. Evaluate what they will do for you and what you will give them. Self-publishing offers you a powerful walk-away point, which you can use as a bargaining chip even if you want a traditional deal.
Thanks to everyone who dropped in to see me at LBF! If this post hasn’t bludgeoned you with options and confusion, is there anything else you’d like to ask about publishing?
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I’ve just finished my first novel. A most enjoyable experience only tainted by the reaction from the literary agents I have approached so far! Any and all advice and direction will be gratefully received and much appreciated.
Although we’re now used to writers who publish themselves, there is still a sizeable crowd who are set on finding an agent and a traditional publishing deal. Most of my critique clients, for instance. Why?
1 – Kudos and confidence
If you have an agent or a publisher, you have validation. You’re not just a spare-time scribbler, which you have probably been for countless years before. If you get an agent, your friends, family, total strangers – and you yourself – have proof that you made the grade.
This cannot be underestimated. Getting an agent took me years. By the time I did, I’d already got ghosted bestsellers and a track record coaching writers. But I felt I was sneaking under the wire, using the title ‘writer’ on false pretences until an agent signed me for My Memories of a Future Life.
2 – Developmental input
We all need developmental help. If you’re a good fit for an agent, they can give you perceptive, priceless notes on how your book works and guide your revisions.
3 – Long-term career-building
Obviously, an agent helps you find a publisher, usually with a better deal than you could get on your own.
But agents can’t always sell your first book, and often the only choice is to self-publish. Some agents are giving writers a leg-up with showcase imprints of their own – Jason Allen Ashlock at Movable Type Management set up The Rogue Reader to launch outsider suspense writers. As publishers increasingly opt for ‘safe’ books, we’ll see more agents devising ways to build audiences for their exciting new authors.
So I still think it’s worth looking for an agent. Markets change and new opportunities are opening for writers all the time. If you can, it makes sense to get the support of professionals with more legal and commercial clout than you can muster on your own.
But every silver lining has a cloud. Here are two.
If an agent gives you editorial input, they might be steering you to fit a commercially viable genre. That might completely suit you. But it may not if your aim is to pursue a more individual and creative path. You still don’t have to abandon dreams of traditional publication; many small presses will take submissions directly from authors.
Almost every writer will probably now self-publish at some stage, but not all agents have adjusted to this. I know successful indie authors who have been offered agency deals that claim a percentage of all book earnings – which of course includes royalties from books they published themselves. This was appropriate when all the author’s work came through the agent, but now is plainly unfair. Happily, many agency agreements demand commission only on deals that they have made. If you’re offered a deal that takes a percentage of everything, query it. They might adjust the wording. If not, think hard about whether you want to work with them.
3 The disreputable
Not all agents are reputable. Some ask for money up front to read your manuscript. Even with all the boundaries shifting, an agent should never charge to read your work. Agents earn commission on the back end.
So what do we make of our correspondent here, whose quest for an agent is proving a challenge? Why might you have trouble finding an agent?
1 – Your book may not yet be strong enough. It’s so easy to send off our lovely novel too early. If you nearly made the cut, most agents will try to let you know. But if they dismiss you with the equivalent of a compliments slip, you may need to hone your craft.
2 – You might have pitched the wrong agents – either their lists are full, or they don’t take your genre. Check websites before you hit ‘send’ (although agents are often quite bad at updating their requirements).
3 – You might have a great book but a dull pitch. Pitching is an art and you need to know how to make an agent curious.
4 – Your book may not be commercially viable. You might get feedback about genre mixing, undesirable subjects or unfashionable style choices. Your book might still be a good read in spite of this – and if so, agents are usually genuine enough to let you know.
5 – You might need to kiss more frogs. There are thousands of agents, all very oversubscribed, all with different wishlists. With such pressures, rejection is far more likely than acceptance, even for awesome books. Don’t do anything different until you see a reliable pattern emerge.
Anyway, I’m hoping this will kick off a discussion. What’s your feeling about agents? What would you advise our friend here?
agents, amwriting, authors, entertainment, fiction, Fix and Finish With Confidence, getting a literary agent, how to get an agent, how to write a novel, Jason Allen Ashlock, literary agent-publishers, literary agents, literature, My Memories of a Future Life, Nail Your Novel: Why Writers Abandon Books and How You Can Draft, novels, publishing, Roz Morris, self-publishing, suspense, The Rogue Reader, writer collectives, writers, writing, writing a novel - Nail Your Novel, writing business, writing life
Apologies to those on New Year diets. Early commenters at my Authors Electric post have already let me know they are distressed at my excessive use of pictures of pies. But they are artistically necessary.
I’m venting about publishers’ porkies. (In case that doesn’t translate outside the UK; it’s rhyming slang. Porky pies. Now you see.) As more authors choose to self-publish for career and artistic reasons, the publishing industry is maintaining the fiction that all those with talent shall be welcomed with open arms, and that writers can’t do without their nurturing support. If self-publishers are ever to be considered as equals by the literary community, this has got to stop.
More pie (much more) at Authors Electric. Do come over and say your piece.
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A publisher was interested so we had a meeting. In a creative, convivial afternoon, we brainstormed ideas. I took reams of notes. But in the end I did nothing they suggested. Not one thing.
They were right
At home I made a beat sheet (one of my all-time lifesaving revision tools, explained in Nail Your Novel). It had been a while since I’d read the manuscript. The beat sheet showed that too much of the first half was atmosphere instead of story. My esteemed colleagues were right that it was slow.
They were wrong
But they were disastrously wrong about how to pep it up. ‘Let’s have a character on the run, a threatening political movement in the wider world of the book, another sub-plot to keep characters busier’… All sorts of plot fireworks, all out of kilter and unnecessary. I knew the central character had a compelling major problem and that the action must come from that, not from a carnival of chaos around the edges.
So how did I fix the book?
As always, the best insight came from examining why I wrote the story the way I did – made possible by the beat sheet (left, with fortifying accessories). I included those slow scenes for a good reason – to introduce ideas and threats that would emerge later. I’d made them strange and intriguing, but I now saw they didn’t have enough momentum in themselves. They didn’t immediately generate interesting situations.
I’d known I was in trouble
I had even suspected they were weak, so I’d tried to solve it with false jeopardy. I confess I made the main character worry that nasty things could happen. I now clutch my head in shame – these extended periods of worrying were not jeopardy, they were nothing darn well happening.
I even realised this, and tried to atone by making the main threat bigger. In hindsight it creaked with desperation.
Agent and publisher were nice enough not to say any of this. Perhaps they didn’t notice or mind. Perhaps only I knew how bad it was, because I knew my desperate motivations.
Unpleasant as it was to examine my writerly conscience, the answers helped me decide what to keep, what to add and what to adjust.
Better. Stronger. Faster.
I returned with a leaner, stronger Life Form 3. A really compelling read, said my agent – not noticing it was actually longer. He didn’t give a hoot that I’d ignored his suggestions. He didn’t even remember them. Unfortunately the publisher’s imprint closed that month – so Life Form 3 was out in the cold again. But that’s another story.
Some writers hate it when editors, beta readers et al make suggestions. I don’t – I welcome them as oblique illuminations from the surface to the murky deep. And if you’re new to the writing game, or need to fit an unfamiliar genre, there’s much that a savvy editor can do to guide you.
But you mature as a novelist by understanding your own style and your individual ways – which includes how you handle your material and second-guess your own process. In a talk given at BAFTA, screenwriter, playwright and novelist William Nicholson said it’s the editor/producer’s job to tell you something’s wrong, and the writer’s job to find out what that is.
Before you act on revision notes, reread your manuscript and examine why you wrote what you did. This is how you stay true to your novel – and how you come into your own as a writer.
Thanks for the camel pic Loufi
In my next post I’ll discuss in detail how to add jeopardy to a story. In the meantime, let’s discuss -
Have you had detailed editorial advice on revisions, and how did you approach it? Do you appreciate it when editors chip in with changes they think would improve a book?
You can find my beat sheet in my book Nail Your Novel: Why Writers Abandon books and How You Can Draft, Fix and Finish With Confidence. A second Nail Your Novel is under construction – if you’d like information, sign up for my newsletter.
And – spoon tapping on glass – this week I had an email from CreateSpace telling me that demand for the print edition has been so high that Amazon placed a bulk order so they have enough stocks for Christmas. Who says indies are killing print?
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Savoury chocolate, bad reviews, finding an agent and writer’s block – interview at Lorna Suzuki’s blog
If you come to my house for dinner, I will cook the most bizarre recipe I can find and it will be a dish I’ve never tried before – so an adventure for us all. That’s probably how I approach my fiction too, although I didn’t realise until Lorna Suzuki asked me a bunch of questions at her blog All Kinds of Writing. (Lorna’s pretty cool, BTW – she’s a fifth-dan instructor of Bujinkan Budo Taijutsu which she draws on for her kick-ass fantasy series Imago.)
Once we’ve dispensed with the chocolate porcini risotto, we settle down to more useful matters – how to handle bad reviews, what to do if you’re struggling to find an agent, tips for self-publishers, how to handle writer’s block… Come on over (and bring a good supply of Lindt 99%)…
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From last resort to new career – how I self-published and how it’s changed my outlook as a writer: speech for the Society of Young Publishers, Oxford
This week I was invited to give a talk on my self-publishing adventures to the Society of Young Publishers in Oxford. Inevitably they also got a few opinions (at the end) on how I now see my role as a writer
I’ve since had requests to publish it here, so…. here goes.
I wasn’t new to publishing when I self-published. More than two decades ago my first job was in the editorial office of a small publisher where I handled every kind of non-fiction title – books, directories, partworks, magazines, a newspaper – and even, once, a novel. From there I moved to magazine editing. In parallel I developed a career as a writer – I’ve ghosted 11 novels and 8 of them have been bestsellers. I also mentor other writers – originally for a literary consultancy and now freelance.
I’m fully armed with literary agents – two of them, actually. In spite of this, I ended up self-publishing. Here’s the story.
I self-publish a writing book
Nail Your Novel: Why Writers Abandon Books And How You Can Draft, Fix and Finish With Confidence was the book I published first. I wrote it as a natural extension of the writing blog I’d just started. It’s my writing process distilled into 10 steps – how to take an idea, flesh it out, draft it and revise it thoroughly. It’s 40,000 words, which proved too dinky for the market. But that was deliberate. I knew from the online community that writers wanted a book that wouldn’t snaffle their precious writing time but told them only what they needed.
No one would publish it, so I thought it had better not sit around. I set it up on Lulu – the most straightforward print platform at the time – and told my blog and Twitter followers. I also gave away free PDFs. This was three years ago, so the giveaway packed a punch. NYN got good reviews, sold about 20 print copies a month and became quite widely known – at any rate, strangers would email me telling me how useful it was.
So NYN ticked over on Lulu as a nice accessory to my blog, but I still wanted a deal for my fiction. It wasn’t respectable to self-publish fiction – especially if you’d secured an agent.
Most people self-pub with ebooks first, especially now. I didn’t. Three years ago when I brought out NYN I’d never seen an ebook. I had a house full of print. I’d worked with print and I wasn’t convinced that making an ebook was worth the fuss.
No doubt this reasoning has been repeated in publishers up and down the land.
I was even getting requests for a Kindle NYN but it took a catastrophe to boot me over. One day Lulu deleted a bunch of Amazon listings and then bickered with Amazon – and its authors – about whose fault this was. My book, which was generating a buzz, vanished from sale for several weeks – and so did my reviews. The links from bloggers who’d written about it went to dead ends.
Clearly I had to find out about sales avenues, instead of just being a writer. I read my most trusted bloggers, filled a few information gaps, formatted NYN and wrote a how-I-did-it post for my readers.
Woot, I’d launched an ebook. I say launch, but that ‘how-to’ post, a Facebook event and a few tweets was the only launch I did.
Again, I was thinking with my writer head. I had no idea how books should be introduced to the market. When I worked for the small publisher, the marketing manager handled it. When ghostwriting, I was never the focus – the celebrity authors had an army organising bus stop posters and appearances on Breakfast TV.
But, probably only by the grace of bloggers, my tiny launch sold five times as many copies in one month as I’d sold in print. There must have been quite a few people waiting for a Kindle NYN because it spent a long time in the Kindle top 10 for books on writing and it’s still in the top 50.
I revamped the print edition and put it on Amazon’s CreateSpace (because I’d got fed up of middlemen). NYN immediately got offered on a 4 for the price of 3 deal and is always on a bundle deal of some sort. Now it’s catching up with e-sales.
Does blogging and social media sell books? Yes, but I did it by accident
So, I had a book out but my goodness I needed to learn more about promotion. Off to my bloggers again. It turned out my blog got top marks for being a good platform -
- I stuck to a subject I could blog about until the end of the world
- I could demonstrate with my background that I knew what I was talking about
- my posts were useful and accessible
- I was happy to answer commenters and develop posts into a conversation.
All of this I did entirely by accident. The tight focus on writing came from my background in magazines – where you give readers useful advice and don’t dilute your value with off-topic material. The rest happened because I was having fun.
I was relieved to find I didn’t have to do a hard sell – because I’d seen some pretty grotesque campaigns around Twitter and Facebook.
As with blogging, social media marketing seems to work by a gentlemanly process of relationships – people get to know you, enjoy your company in an interview or a blog post. It’s the way books have always sold on in traditional publishing – by generating curiosity so that one day the reader stops and picks up the book. It is, to quote one of my guru bloggers Joanna Penn, hand-selling on a global scale.
By mid-2011, NYN was doing well. My agent had given up trying to sell my own novel. The typical feedback was: ‘we really enjoyed it but it’s too unconventional’.
Meanwhile, in traditional publishing, a number of novelists were daring the unthinkable – they were going indie. They were writing articles explaining why, many describing exactly my predicament – too unusual for the market.
I decided it was time to publish My Memories of a Future Life. I put it through a rigorous round of edits and got an editor friend to scourge it as well, and it was ready to go.
The promotion problem
Publishing my novel was very liberating, but how would I launch it? People who wanted writing advice wouldn’t necessarily like my fiction. I couldn’t change my blog into a hybrid of writing advice and marketing for my novel – that would annoy the readership I’d built up.
That took care of its online home, but where should I promote it? So far I’d learned how to sell a book that was helpful to people – which was easy and unembarrassing. But a novel isn’t helpful and nobody needs it. All I could do was try to drum up curiosity. But where?
All the advice I’d found was about marketing genre fiction – where you create a buzz on forums, Goodreads groups and books blogs. But my novel is contemporary fiction with literary sensibilities. Its tag line is ‘what if your life was somebody’s past’, so it seems to be a reincarnation story, but is no more about reincarnation than We Need To Talk About Kevin is about a crime. Publishers said it was too much like a thriller for literary readers and too psychological and poetic for thriller readers. And the narrator isn’t regressing to a past life, but looking to an incarnation in the future – so that might add a label of speculative fiction – or not, depending on your take on the story.
I began to see why publishers passed in favour of something easier.
(You might be wondering if such a duck-billed platypus of a novel would ever work, but it’s got a respectable clutch of high-starred reviews, none of them paid for and none of them calling in favours.)
Some writers hire publicists but that wasn’t an option for me:
- I wouldn’t know how to assess whether a publicist was any good
- I didn’t know anyone else who’d marketed an equivalent book so couldn’t use them as a template or find suitable publicists through them
- I didn’t have any budget anyway.
I weighed up my novel’s biggest asset – a thought-provoking distinctive idea – split the book into four parts and released it as a Kindle serial over four weeks. Then I followed with the complete novel on Kindle and in print.
I called each instalment an ‘episode’ to echo the freshness of serials like Lost and also to suggest how to approach it – as a modern, multi-level thought-provoking story.
This meant I was handling an exhausting 4 launches instead of one – but it created an event, and people around Twitter, blogs and Facebook helped to build the anticipation – and even wrote reviews for the individual episodes.
My lovely readers
Here I found I’d underestimated my lovely followers – they were curious to see, at long last, the kind of novel I’d written. Also, subscriptions to my blog doubled – suggesting I’d passed some kind of test. Perhaps I’d proved, after all this talk, that I also walked the walk.
I was careful never to abuse this generosity. I wrote posts about the novel on my main blog only if they were useful to writers. For instance, I discovered that splitting the novel in four was an excellent way to test the story structure. I also wrote about how to produce a print edition and another post about how to write back cover copy – with examples of my laughably rotten versions.
Another accident – the novel’s blog gets a new life
Once the releases were out, I was going to leave the novel’s blog as a static site. Then I wrote a post called The Undercover Soundtrack – about how I used music as inspiration to create characters and crucial story developments. It fitted nicely as the novel is about a musician.
I suddenly thought I’d like other authors to tackle this, rather like Desert Island Discs, so I turned it into a series. It’s building a following from readers who like the concept and it also allows me to showcase other authors – karmic payback for all the advice and support they’ve given me.
I now get emails from publishers and publicists asking if their authors can take part – which is nice for a site that started as a way to launch a self-published novel (and by the way, you’re welcome to email me too). The boundaries are blurring.
My changed outlook
So I became a self-publisher by necessity. It wasn’t initially as a positive choice, just the only way to get my work to an audience who were increasingly curious about it. But my experiences and the recent shifts in the industry have changed the way I think about my role as a writer.
In my conventional publishing experiences, the author is a cog and a lot of decisions are left to others: blurbs, covers, style questions – sometimes even editorial direction. The book becomes the ‘property’ of the publishing team. Now, though, I’m used to being in charge.
The genie’s out of the bottle. Authors are learning what’s possible and that they can have far more control. And that’s before we even think about royalties, especially with ebooks.
But before you worry this will become a strident call to arms, let me say this – the ‘empowerment’ of writers works both ways. Level-headed, professional authors are also learning what we want help with.
To take me as an example: I’m writing NYN 2 and I’ll self-publish because I have the resources to do a good job and to find readers. (Indeed I’ve had 5 small-press offers to republish book 1, but I didn’t need editorial services and they didn’t have a wider reach into relevant markets.) So I can write, produce and sell books on writing.
But that’s non-fiction.
With my fiction, I can take editorial charge, I can find a compatible developmental editor – but I’d be just as happy to build a relationship with an editor in a publishing house. Also, I need help to find an audience. My novel does pick up new fans, but I have to work non-stop to get it to new readers and I’m doing it very inefficiently because I’m guessing. And I certainly can’t get the notice of influential reviewers.
Writers will weigh up these options, and savvy publishers could too. Some writers can lead the process and produce top-notch books. Others will gladly leave many jobs to the publisher. For every writer that equation will be different. Probably for every book it will be different.
To take an example – my husband, Dave Morris, recently had a critically acclaimed hit with an interactive app of Frankenstein. He’s a game designer as well as a writer and could have programmed the app himself and put it in the app store, but he preferred to partner with a publisher. He found a home for it with Profile Books – which gave Frankenstein a prestigious launch.
Message 2 for publishers – don’t throw away your competitive advantage
One of the problems is that marketing strategies are steering editorial decisions. I know Big Six editors who don’t read submissions from unknowns and instead trawl the indie bestsellers on Amazon. My own agent tells me he’s had plenty of phenomenal novels from first-time writers that reached the editorial board and were rejected because they didn’t fit with what sells.
Obviously there’s no simple answer, but this pressure is squeezing out the original, unusual books written by people who dared to be different, the game-changing novels that will be the classics of the future.
This is bad for our art form. It’s bad for everyone who likes a good read. It’s ghettoising our next generation of original writers, who 10 years ago would have had a chance to build a career.
It’s especially worrying when you consider that a lot of self-publishing bestsellers are not the most original work but derived from what’s already successful. So if publishers copy the copies, where does everyone end up?
Publishers need to take a longer-term view. They need to have confidence in innovation.
Innovation is where the big hits arise. Harry Potter and Twilight weren’t like anything that was already successful. The competitive advantage of publishers is their experienced editors who can take a nurturing view.
There can’t be a publisher – or indeed an agent – who doesn’t have a stack of outstanding manuscripts they couldn’t get commercial backing for. I’ve suggested before that agents should help them self-publish under a special imprint, but it’s not what they’re geared up for. But publishers are.
Publishers should start ‘Discovery’ imprints on print-on-demand and ebook, perhaps produced as a flexible partnership with the author but released under the publisher’s banner. They should showcase a handful of titles every few months that they passionately believe in. The major reviewers would take notice, because the titles would come with the seal of approval of an editorial department. Those authors are going to self-publish anyway, so why not get involved?
This partnership approach is where the real publishing industry of the future will be formed.
The session ended with Q&A … so who wants to start…?
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‘One person has been forgotten in this unholy publishing maelstrom: the author.’ That’s London literary agent Jonny Geller, from Curtis Brown, writing today in The Bookseller.
In a piece he titles ‘An agent’s manifesto’ he says: ‘The author is not an object a publisher has to step over in order to achieve a successful publication.’ Someone needed to say this and thank goodness he has.
Any author who has knocked around the publishing industry has hair-raising stories of bad treatment. Everything is usually fine if we keep their heads down and do as we’re told. But if we get out of our boxes, we suddenly meet unreasonable amounts of disrespect.
Typically this happens if we want changes to a cover or a blurb. Or we object to a title change. Or we make suggestions about the ebook release or the marketing plan. Suddenly we are treated dismissively, told we’re ‘only the author’, told to put up and shut up.
Publishers cannot change anything without the author’s say-so, but they don’t want us to know this. (Even though it’s probably in the contract.) And if we raise it, the standard tactic is not to discuss, but to bully the writer into agreeing by telling them publication will be delayed by a year or two, possibly indefinitely.
Now, having worked in publishers I know how important deadlines are. I know everything needs to run like clockwork. I know that publishers have not just one book to deal with, but twenty at least, plus all the other stuff that comes with working in a company. But they wouldn’t treat any other supplier or professional that way. Just authors.
Jonny Geller again: ‘If an author has a problem with the cover, blurb, copy or format, then something isn’t right.’
It is common, behind the scenes, to hear editors talk about authors with undisguised loathing – not just individual ones who may be difficult, but all of them, authors as a breed. There is a culture that authors must not be listened to.
The real work
They seem to think that because they do some editing and proofing they’ve done all the proper work, and the author was a slapdash child who spewed up a half-baked mess. That’s because the author had just spent months or even years locked in a silo with the book. We had to invent it, from nothing but ideas. The manuscript the publisher sees has another nine-tenths of work and tears below the waterline. If we put it aside and saw it with fresh eyes, we’d see a lot of those problems too (not all of them, but a lot). So no, the publisher didn’t do all the work.
Is it because they think they could write too, if only they had the time? Everybody says that. We’re used to it.
All the glory
Is it because writers seem to get all the glory? Most of us don’t get within a light year of glory. And if we do, we’ve earned it. Publishers get paid a salary, reliably every month. Writers work for several years on an idea and all we can guarantee from it is a lottery ticket that probably won’t pay back. In almost any other business environment, the one who puts in most risk gets the most reward. Try asking a venture capitalist for seed capital and see how much of your company they want for it.
Is it because we’re uncontrollable creatives? That’s what brings publishers new, wonderful things to sell. Jonny Geller again: ‘Remember, we don’t have a job without authors … Authors who are valued, understood, appreciated, included, nurtured and spoken to like adults will experience a phenomenon called Trust. Trust breeds loyalty; loyalty means longevity; longevity means sales.’
Heavens, we want our books to be a success. We want to work with professionals who will help that to happen. We are grateful for good guidance and support. But we want to work in an atmosphere of mutual respect.
Thanks for the pic, Lydiashiningbrightly
Agree, disagree, add your experiences? The floor is yours…
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As @NailYourNovel I post 4 to 5 useful writing links per dayMy Tweets
Off duty I tweet as @ByRozMorrisMy Tweets
- ‘Music to make a creative space’ – The Undercover Soundtrack, Kirsty Greenwood December 4, 2013
- How to write down story ideas so you can remember why they were brilliant December 1, 2013
- Could The Undercover Soundtrack help you reach readers? Post at the Alliance of Independent Authors November 30, 2013
- ‘Sex, drugs, metaphysics and rock’n’roll’ – The Undercover Soundtrack, David Biddle November 27, 2013
- How do I develop something special in my writing? November 24, 2013
- 2 Tone Records and two cities riven by conflict – The Undercover Soundtrack, Catriona Troth November 20, 2013
- Social media: a message in a bottle November 18, 2013
See what I did there…