Posts Tagged publishers
I tweeted this piece yesterday by agent Jenny Bent : ‘Why reader taste differs from publisher taste’. I urge you to read the whole article, but briefly, she’s talking about what’s wrong with the way the industry tries to second guess what readers should be offered – whether literature or popular fiction. A friend on Twitter came back to me and said ‘come come, surely it can’t be that bad?’
Jenny’s in the US, and I’m on the other side of the Atlantic. But here, it is indeed that bad.
I know a few agents, and they’re tearing their hair out. An agent recently told me ‘editors in big publishers are basically readers for marketing departments’. Another said in the past year she’d got more than 10 excellent books to editorial board, with all the editors staunchly behind them, but marketing vetoed them. An editor I know – very senior in terms of job title and the publisher she works for – laments that she is no longer allowed to accept the rich fiction she loves to read and has to publish shallow sure-fire supermarket titles.
Jenny says books are that too quirky or defy comparison don’t get a chance. Again, that’s the same here.
The interesting and popular authors I like wouldn’t, I’m told, get published if they were starting today. Especially not with their most ambitious work. David Mitchell would be told to take Cloud Atlas away and keep it on his hard drive. Kingsley Amis wouldn’t be allowed to hop between genres. Michael Morpurgo wouldn’t be allowed to write a non-genre novel about horses. Holes by Louis Sachar? Forget it. And David Almond’s Skellig. Readers seem to like them, though. They still buy them.
It’s the big monolithic publishers I’m talking about here. They were a good model five years ago but they’re breaking down because they can’t take the interesting books. But the smaller boutique publishers are a different matter. They can – and are being – much more adventurous. The economist Tim Harford has in fact written an entire book on this subject (Adapt: Why Success Always Starts With Failure), about how you cannot prevail in today’s business environment without a willingness to experiment and take risks.
One of the things that’s so nice about Jenny Bent’s piece is that she pays tribute to the self-published writers who are getting out and finding their readers. That’s something we’re not hearing enough of. Some self-published authors I know who’ve been to conferences recently felt like they were about to be chased away with pitchforks.
Reviewers, who you’d think were less restricted, haven’t yet caught up with the fact that quality, competent, worthwhile authors are self-publishing. The theory goes that this is because journalism is funded by advertising and indies don’t buy expensive adverts. Whatever the reason, this industry needs to find a way to give good self-published writers a fair chance at creating a decent and widespread reputation.
But there’s no point in negativity, and ending on a whinge. The other thing I’d like to say is that the agents, editors, and publisher sales forces I’ve met are all book lovers too. It’s just their end of the business that’s broken. Thankfully, as Jenny points out, we’re all now building a new one.
(Thanks for the picture, Frankh)
Rant over. Do continue in the comments if you feel so inclined…
A crucial part of introducing your novel to agents or directly to readers is identifying your novel’s central theme. But that can be mighty hard to do. Here’s how I did it
Final tweaks are being twaught. Kindle hell beckons. Blurb hell too. But cover hell is over, at least the front.
And what theme is this pretty book scratching away at, you may ask? What questions are burning out of the red piano and the blue sky?
Answering that has caused me considerable grief. The journey in the book takes 100,000 words. How do I find one sentence – just one – that captures the heart of it?
It took me a while. Much pacing up and down.
My first thought was, it feels like it’s about the whole of life itself. Everything. The universe.
As a theme, ‘everything’ was a bit, well, vague. And it’s the very least you’d expect of a self-respecting well-rounded novel.
Then I made lists of common themes in fiction, as if I was doing an essay for A-level English. It was no help at all.
Everything seemed to fit. Love, loss, friendship, fate. Cheating, lying, haunting, being haunted. Nature, confinement, superstition, the weather. It was easier to find themes that weren’t in the book than themes that were.
I had to pull away from ‘subjects’, because every multi-layered novel will have plenty of them. So I asked myself: what are people doing in this book that gives it its distinctive flavour?
It had to come down to the MC. Her relationships. Her central problem. The patterns that repeat again and again with everyone she meets. The things she reacts to that show what she’s searching for. Her peculiar situation and what she needs to understand.
After quarrying down that seam, I had it. This is what My Memories of a Future Life is about.
How do you find where you belong?
You can follow My Memories of a Future Life on Twitter – @ByRozMorris. Not only did the story take 100k words to unroll, its title busts the Twitter name limit
Red piano: Bonnie Schupp Photography at iStockPhoto
Have you found your novel’s theme yet? If so, how did you do it? And if you have, share it in the comments
You might have heard this week that the Ed Victor Literary Agency has started its own ebook and print-on-demand venture, initially to republish clients’ books that have fallen out of circulation.
I said in a comment on my recent post Should You Hit Self-Publish that this was disappointing. Because what I’d really like to see is agents using a model like this to showcase the work of original new writers.
As I said in my post, publishers were once allowed to acquire books purely because they were good, but now they have to worry about selling sure-fire winners to book chains and supermarkets. This means the original, the unusual, the unknown, the pesky cross-genre novelists are not getting publication deals. And yet these books were considered brilliant enough for agents to take them on.
There can’t be an agent in the world who doesn’t have a few titles they’re 100% passionate about but can’t sell.
This is bad for our art form. It’s bad for authors. It’s bad for everyone who likes a good read. It’s ghettoising our next generation of original authors, who ten years ago would have had a chance to build a career.
So what I’d really like to see is this. Agents should start their own ‘discovery’ imprints on POD and ebook. They should showcase, say, six titles every few months that they passionately believe deserve to be read.
The major reviewers would take notice, because the titles would have been stringently picked with the seal of approval of a legitimate agent. It would be another way to encourage publishers to have confidence in these new authors. And even if the showcased titles were too kooky for the mainstream, the publishers might want to know about the author’s other work.
It used to be that if you self-published a book, you’d scuppered all chances of it appearing in print conventionally. Even that’s changing. Kindle Direct Publishing’s latest newsletter features the story of Nancy Johnson, who published her novel on Kindle and has had offers of representation and publishers wanting to buy foreign rights.
All in favour, say aye
I had this very interesting comment from Paul Gresty about my interview with John Rakestraw at BlogTalkRadio, and it’s typical of questions I’ve been seeing a lot of authors wrestling with. What follows is just my opinion as an author and freelance editor, and may be typical only of the UK publishing market, but here goes.
Paul: You talked in the interview about writers who have had near misses with agents. A few times now, the agents who’ve read my novel have said: ‘This is really good, but we can’t see a major publisher going for it. Try finding a smaller publisher of literary fiction for it, and send us whatever you write next.’ At the same time, smaller publishers, with whom I’ve published bits and pieces before, are saying, ‘We don’t have the means to publish a new book right now’.
I know a number of writers who have excellent, interesting novels that are not getting published. Perhaps they cross genres, or they’re too edgy to be literary and too intelligent to be genre. In all likelihood if those writers were submitting those same novels to the market 5 or 10 years ago they would have landed a publishing deal. But publishers don’t want them any more.
My agent says he’s had plenty of situations in the last few years when editors have adored a novel by one of his clients, have recommended it for publication and had it rejected by the marketing department. So these novels were definitely good enough. But the marketers didn’t want them.
Publishers don’t sell to ordinary readers
The major publishers sell to book stores, and they want to make bulk sales to chains. They want titles that will sell in quantity. Not something ‘interesting’ that will sell one or two copies per store.
Meanwhile, smaller publishers are inundated with submissions and can only afford to publish a few titles a year. This is because there’s a lot of work in bringing a manuscript up to standard and it is simply impossible for a shoestring staff to handle more than a small number.
Paul: Perhaps the solution is to publish an ebook?
That seems to make perfect sense. While you may not shift very many copies in your town or even your county, worldwide you might find 15,000 people who want to read what you write. Providing you can reach them – and the internet is the place to do it. Some small publishers are testing the water by epublishing titles first, and then if sales go well they produce a print version. But again, you have to land on their desk before they hit their quota for the year. How lucky do you feel?
Paul: On the writing courses I’ve done over the last few years, I’ve been advised against self-publishing – ‘vanity’ publishing, with all the negative connotations. ‘It shows that you haven’t looked hard enough to find a ‘real’ publisher,’ I’ve been told. But maybe that’s changing. Maybe self-publishing is becoming more legitimate. Is it?
Ooh, this is interesting.
Vanity publishing is not the same as self-publishing. With vanity publishing you pay – usually a lot of money – for someone to print thousands of shoddy copies of your book and then you discover they’re not going to sell or distribute them for you. It’s usually verging on a scam. With self-publishing no money changes hands until a copy is sold (of course you may spend money on covers, editing etc, but that doesn’t usually have anything to do with the self-publishing company).
As for the assertion that if you can’t get a ‘proper’ publisher you haven’t earned your spurs…
Many of the people saying that either wouldn’t get published now or have never tried at all. I still encounter people who imagine they only have to slip their magnum opus through a publisher’s letterbox and they’ll be Rowling all the way to the bank.
Take no notice of the stuffy gits at those writing courses. They’re well out of date. I bet most of them don’t even know what an online platform is, or assume we’re all writing undisciplined noodlings about what we had for breakfast.
I couldn’t get a ‘proper publisher’ for Nail Your Novel. I was told it was far too short and there were far too many how-to-write books. It was not needed in the market, apparently. So I self-published. Far from being a flop it’s been getting great reviews and sales that have surprised me. I regularly get emails and tweets from people who are genuinely grateful I put it out there.
Catherine Ryan Howard, of the blog Catherine, Caffeinated, self-published her travel memoir Mousetrapped after agents told her it was a good read but hard to place. It’s doing very nicely for her – especially in ebook form. (She’s got a book coming soon all about how she self-published. I just read an ARC. If you’re interested in self-publishing it’s called Self-Printed and I urge you to get it.)
Which brings me back to…
Conventional publishers have narrower tastes than the book-buying public. Much narrower.
My agent also says that the pendulum is bound to swing the other way in favour of these maverick, original writers. That’s lovely of him, but who knows if it will? Self-publishing makes sense if you’ve exhausted normal channels and don’t want to wait for ever.
The trouble is, as I said on the radio show, anyone can now hit ‘publish’. There isn’t yet a reliable way for readers to find out which the good self-published books are, especially with fiction. How do you even get noticed?
I haven’t got an answer for this. Except…
Let’s show those stuffy gits
Self-publishers are now more credible than we have ever been. We must keep that credibility. We must aim for the highest possible quality. That means getting professional help with the editing, proofing and design, so that the book can hold its own against the best of conventionally published titles. (In fact, I’m just revamping the interior design of the print version of Nail Your Novel so that it looks as crisp as possible. Not the content, just the layout and typestyles. When I first formatted it I didn’t think I’d be getting it on Amazon alongside the top-selling books in its field. Now it needs to look the part.)
To sum up: Paul, if you’re really sure you’ve done all you can to make your book as good as you can, hit publish.
(Thank you, Oldonliner, for the picture)
What would you tell Paul? Are you another ‘near miss’ author? Discuss in the comments!
First of all, apologies for this post being so late. We’ve had massive internet blackout chez Morris and no joy from the online help people. This post is being brought to you from a thin-walled internet cafe under a gurgly bathroom in which a gentleman appears to be having a very productive cough. But, like him, I feel so good to get it out at last.
Anyway, on with the post. I’ve had a great question from Tara Benwell: How do you know when to stop editing your novel, especially when you hear different advice from different editors and readers?
Novel-writing must be the ultimate artform for editors and perfectionists. Unlike painting, where too much tinkering might turn a strong piece to mush, most books – fiction or non-fiction – only get better with repeated attention.
Indeed, getting a novel right is such a complex job you could edit for ever and some writers would if the writing universe would let them. So how do we tell when it’s safe to stop tweaking?
Is it your first?
If it’s your first novel, it’s particularly hard to know when to stop. Your first novel is the book that teaches you to write. Baby steps turn to giant leaps and by the time you have a polished draft you’re eager to see if it’s a contender. But many first-time writers query before the manuscript is really ready.
If you have edited until you can’t think of anything more to do, and you feel the story is sharp and sparkling, don’t send it to an agent or publisher. Give it to a trusted reader. It doesn’t have to be an industry professional, but it does have to be someone whose literary judgement you trust and who will give you an honest opinion. Then digest their commentary, be surprised at their insights and your blind spots, dust yourself off and edit again.
Time to stop being solitary
Writing is primarily a solitary activity – at least while we’re doing it. But all the writers I know reach a point where they need feedback from their trusted readers. Finishing is something we all have trouble with and no writer I know can do it without help.
Tara’s obviously gone through these stages and has discovered a new joy in critical feedback – conflicting suggestions. Make it a thriller, no, make it a romantic suspense. Make chapter seven the prologue; no, get rid of all that material in chapter 7. Put the parrot centre stage; no, get rid of the infernal parrot. There’s clearly something wrong in the manuscript, but which advice do you follow?
To make sense of conflicting advice, you have to delve a little deeper into your critics’ expectations. What kind of book did they think they were reading? Is it what they usually like to read? Were they comparing it to one that is already on the market? If you know that, you can see why they made their suggestions – and can decide if that is the way you want your book to go.
Conflicting advice from agents and publishers
Sometimes this kind of feedback comes from agents or publishers. As above, this might indicate there is a flaw that needs fixing – in which case, work out which advice fits best with the kind of book you want to write. But wildly conflicting advice might also be an indication that the publisher wants to slot it into a spot in the market that it doesn’t yet fit. Your book may be perfectly good as it is, but these days a quality book doesn’t automatically earn a deal.
So should you make those changes? It’s worth considering if there is a guarantee that they will publish – but there isn’t always and you could do all that work for nothing. Should you carry on looking for a home where your book fits better? After all, fashions change. Every case is different and it’s a tough call.
Great novels aren’t finished, they’re pushed out of the nest
I’m going to let you in on a secret. None of us published writers ever think we’ve finished our novels. Allow any of us to pick up our work again six months after finishing and we’ll find things to change, think of better ways to skin the cat or save it. We’ll read favourite passages and suck our teeth. Editing is kind of anxiety habit for not doing it all perfectly the first time. We all have a feeling that we could do this novel just a teensy bit better with one more pass.
But at some stage the sand runs out of the hourglass, the imperfections we notice get smaller and smaller, our inner circle of readers are happy and we push it nervously out of the nest.
Finished is a relative term
And then there are degrees of finished. When the manuscript reaches an agent or publishing house, it comes back with queries and notes. Just like your beta readers, your agent or editor will raise questions you’d never dreamed could be asked about your plot, make inferences about your characters that you hadn’t a clue were possible – and you’ll feel like you’re back to square one.
In reality, a book is finished when everybody is reasonably happy.
If you don’t have a deadline, how do you know when to stop?
There are people who refine the same book for ever, but maybe they’re not doing any good. Perhaps they’re polishing so far it’s down to the bare metal. Or they’re constantly reinventing their style by redoing the same story when they should start a new one.
As writers we’re learning and changing all the time. If I’d started my current WIP five years ago I wouldn’t do it the way I’m doing it now. We write our books according to the writer we are at the moment. Some tricks and devices I thought were smart five years ago I wouldn’t use now. To me they’re obvious, although readers may not mind them at all. They only matter to me as I develop my art. I’m not interested in the same themes, problems and types of character as I was half a decade ago. So I do the book as well as I can at the moment, make sure it works on its own terms and for the people who will read it, and move onto a new phase of my writing life.
Is the book finished?
In the end, all we can do is build our trust in the book and let it go.
Thank you, Pinkmoose on Flickr, for the photo.
How do you know when your book is finished? Share in the comments – I may not get to them immediately, but I love a good discussion and I’ll reply as quickly as possible