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Posts Tagged literary agents
The sales problem
This time last year a main concern was how indies were feeling the pinch with dwindling sales. Did we think it could get worse?
Oh but it has. There are even more books for sale. Subscription services like Kindle Unlimited are changing the way readers perceive value. Authors who don’t enrol their books seem to get less exposure in the magic Amazon algorithms.
Does that mean it might be better to hold out for a book deal? Well, there are pros and cons, and the points I wrote last year still stand.
So what of traditional publishing?
Were we hoping that traditional publishing might enter a new era of enlightenment, with transparent, fair deals and true author-publisher partnership? Well it hasn’t happened yet. Publishers are feeling the squeeze too much to be generous and forward looking, or to embrace new methods of working. Authors still have to scrabble hard to avoid the contract traps of rights grabs, reversion clauses that never revert and discount sales that don’t qualify for a proper royalty.
A traditional deal might get you kudos or help with marketing, but this is often shortlived. Unless you strike lucky, it may not be as good as you could drum up yourself. I have a traditionally published author friend whose first book series won awards. His second series launched recently, and the only publicity was a tiny mention in the Sunday Times.
With a traditional deal, you’ll get editorial services (of course). But a lot of corners are being cut. Publishers are slimming their departments and farming the work out to freelances. Or maybe they’re not even doing that. Over Christmas I was talking to an editor friend who this year proof-read a batch of books for paperback release. They were already out in hardback, so this was supposed to be a just-in-case read. In book after book, she found appalling errors – inane grammar, impenetrable sentences, stupid inaccuracies and plot improbabilities. These weren’t unpublished manuscripts, remember; they were books that had been through the process.
I do, of course, know several authors who are happy with their publishers. All of them have one thing in common; without exception, they never tried self-publishing.
I’ve only just realised this as I write and it’s quite startling.
Let’s examine the comparison from other angles. I also know several authors who self-published first, then got book deals – and felt they were much better off as indies. Some of them halted the process, gave back the advance, and reassembled their indie publishing team. That’s still not looking good for traditional publishing. Let’s try to give it a better crack: I know several traditionally published authors who ventured into self-publishing … and decided they were happier without the extra burden.
Let’s examine that.
Ultimately: what do you want?
‘I want an old-style publishing deal because I just want to write…’
It’s probably unfashionable to say this, but many authors still hope for the old-style deal. There is undeniable satisfaction in having a book accepted. Also, you don’t have to learn the mysterious processes necessary to produce a book. And as for marketing…..
Hold it there. Whether you get a book deal or not, you will have to be your book’s ambassador. Always. Indeed, if your book is a serious contender for a publisher’s list, one of the things you’ll be judged on is your online reach. If you haven’t built one, you’ll be urged to start. The publishing deal will not let you ‘just write in peace’. You have to be a marketer as well as a writer, no matter which path you choose. The part that you can offload, if you wish, is the book production. Does this illuminate where the traditional publisher’s guaranteed contribution is?
‘I want top production values, with as much or as little control as I choose…’
It’s never been so easy to hire top production skills. And if you haven’t gathered your own team of professionals, assisted self-publishing is now a good option. In the past, many operators have been rogues, taking advantage of the inexperienced and starry eyed with overpriced and substandard services, sneaky rights grabs and unsuitable marketing efforts. (See here for a post about spotting unscrupulous publishing ‘deal’s and other scams. ) Some of them are still stinkers. But in 2015 I began to notice genuine contenders. These are like plugging your book into a well-run production department, with sales teams who’ll give you a fair crack in the bookshops. Some of them have a quality bar, so they’re halfway between a curated imprint and a self-publishing service. Qualifying for their list means you get that stamp of approval. (I’m building a list of assisted self-publishers I’d recommend, so contact me and I’ll introduce you to some good folks.)
But producing the book is just the start. The problem is getting noticed and building a readership. This is why it’s such a gamble to make a business out of an art, because no one can predict what will be successful. Thought of like that, it’s not surprising that traditional publishers try to keep so much and spend so little. It’s not evil; it’s survival. Perhaps the new, sustainable way to publish will be assisted self-publishing outfits who are choosy about the books they accept, who will build a reputation for their taste and let the writer take the financial risk. Endorsement may prove to be the magic dust that money can’t buy – even if authors foot the bill. Agent-assisted self-publishing looks attractive for that reason too, even though it makes industry purists blanch. (Just so I can say ‘I told you so’, here’s a post I wrote about agent-assisted self-publishing in 2011 )
As ever, I throw the floor open to you. What are your publishing plans for 2016? Have your views changed from last year? Are you a self-publisher who’s had a traditional deal and what are your experiences comparing the two? If it’s not too late for resolutions, dare I ask if there are any you’d like to share?
advice on self-publishing, agent-publishers, assisted self-publishing, authors, how to become an author, literary agents, publishers, publishing, rogue self-publishing services, self-publishing services, should you seek a book deal, vanity press, vanity publishing, writers, writing
If you’ve hung around here for a while, you might have spotted that I’m writing my third novel and it’s called Ever Rest. Assuming you give two hoots about it, or even just one, you’ll have noticed that’s about all I give away.
I’ve mentioned Ever Rest in posts where I talk about a writing challenge that taught me a new trick. I’ve occasionally asked for help on tiny points of research (glory be to Facebook and Twitter). I’ve revealed occasional pieces of music that I’m using in its Undercover Soundtrack. If you subscribe to my newsletter, you’ll get updates when I discover a particularly breathtaking piece – but I won’t tell you what it’s telling me. Aside from that, the most tangible thing I’ve ever revealed was when I whipped away its working title (I first introduced it as The Mountains Novel). Even in craft posts, I have not explained the slightest thing about the story or characters.
A time of sharing (no, not Christmas)
Am I the only author to feel so inhibited? It’s quite normal to post about characters in progress, or significant locations, or to pin pictures, or publish snippets or early chapters. It’s the ethic of contact, involvement, engagement. It keeps the fans topped up. Certainly I revel in our connected lives and I’m a confirmed social media junkie. But I can’t work with an open door. Or perhaps, because my books need a long gestation period, such sharing would usually be premature for me.
Ah, no, I must confess to one lapse. On Facebook I was nominated in a round-robin to share seven lines from the seventh page of a work in progress. I suddenly imagined the fun of instant feedback so I threw caution aside and contributed a paragraph. I may have bent the rules. The excerpt probably wasn’t on page seven unless you squeezed the point size, and it definitely isn’t on page seven now. What’s more, it didn’t give much away about the novel, because without a context, it was just pretty lines. I enjoyed the fact that people seemed to like it – and thank you, commenters – but I felt even that had revealed too much. I felt I’d invited readers in too soon.
Also, as I edit, I realise I’m more protective of those lines, because people responded so warmly. What if, when it comes out, they were looking forward to that passage or the thing it promised? Chances are, they won’t remember it, but it’s skewing my judgement. Good writing needs a ruthless mindset; you include only what’s good for the book, not the pieces you like or the crowd-pleasers.
So this vow of silence is important to my writing method.
But we might need to pitch…
But sometimes we might have to talk about our WIPs. Won’t we? Suppose we’re at an event and get a chance to talk to an agent or publisher? Well, if the book isn’t likely to be finished for a good few months, you can probably sketch it vaguely and talk about your influences and experience. Agents won’t judge you until they can read you, and they might be grateful not to be pitched a book that’s a way off the finish line. (They’re certainly frustrated by the hordes of authors who send them three chapters of something that isn’t fully written.)
And what should you do if you tweak an agent’s interest? For heaven’s sake, don’t rush to finish. You don’t have to lose the opportunity – get connected on social media and chat with them occasionally to keep the contact warm. Send the book when you’re ready.
Even unto the husband
I don’t even tell Dave (Mr Roz) about Ever Rest. He knows the basic concept, because I brainstormed it with him in the early days. Correction: the early years. This book has been creeping through my mind for decades. When Dave asks how I’m getting on, he gets vague pronouncements like: ‘I thought this character wasn’t going anywhere, but I suddenly discovered what I needed.’ I think he’s learned there’s nothing more irritating than a spouse with a policy of Not Talking About Her Book.
And indeed, it is a policy. No matter what the provocation, I don’t discharge about my novel before it’s fit to be read. I believe in keeping the pressure bottled up, so I give the best of it on the page. The title of Ever Rest might, if you can be bothered, lead you to assumptions; but those, my friend, are merely the tip and I probably couldn’t explain it all anyway. To do that, I must finish the story.
Let’s discuss! Do you have limits on what you’ll share about a work in progress? What do you happily talk about? What do you keep under wraps?
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Translated editions can be a great way to reach a wider audience. But they’re expensive and risky to fund yourself. A translator has to reinterpret and rewrite your book, and that level of expertise isn’t cheap.
Sharks and scammers abound, especially as it’s hard to evaluate the results. Then how do you get the translated edition proof read? How do you market in a language you don’t speak?
For years I’ve been exploring options to get my books translated but so far I’ve had false starts. I’ll share a few cautionary tales below. But the reason I’m writing this post is because Amazon Publishing has opened up an important new opportunity. Its imprint AmazonCrossing, which publishes works in translation, has announced it’s seeking submissions from rightsholders, including indie authors (apply here).
This would be a publishing deal, of course, so much depends on whether you’re a good fit for their market as they would be making a substantial investment. But I feel it’s a significant opportunity. Here’s why.
Indie translation options
Paying a translator
A quick question on Twitter produced the following figures. London literary agent Charlotte Seymour
@Roz_Morris The standard rate is about £90 per 1000 words, if that helps!
— Charlotte Seymour (@ce_seymour) October 18, 2015
Harvill Secker senior editor Alison Hennessey concurred
— Alison Hennessey (@crime_queen) October 18, 2015
Those are hefty sums. There are no guarantees of sales afterwards. And how do you recognise whether the translation is worth the price? I googled ‘bad translations’ and found no shortage of horror stories and warnings, such as this site.
Several authors I know have formed partnerships to produce books. This requires trust and a long-term view, but can work if you know the right person. Joanna Penn is one pioneer here, with several experiences to share.
If you are signed with a literary agent, it’s worth having a conversation about your self-published titles to see if there are any markets worth approaching.
Here’s a beware, though. A few years ago, an author friend made a translation deal, through an agent who specialised in representing indie work to foreign markets. Hurrah, I thought, and contacted her. I received an offer – only it wasn’t. It was an invitation to pay for a spot in one of her ‘catalogues’ of indie books, which she would take around the trade fairs. There were several price tiers as well, with bronze, silver and gold service, according to how much effort she would put into sales. No thanks.
Babelcube is a community where authors can meet translators. You complete a profile describing your book, including a sample for translators to use as an audition, and wait to see who’s interested – like a dating site. What’s more, they provide the author-translator agreement and distribute to online retailers.
It seems like a smart answer to the problem, although you still have to find the foreign-language proofreading professionals. But some indie authors have been very happy with their Babelcube experience.
So I tried offering Nail Your Novel. Plenty of translators had a go at the sample, and I amassed a group of Facebook friends with good enough language skills to evaluate the results. Their responses were an eye opener.
Some of the applicants had made the kind of mistakes that commonly happened with Google Translate. Was that, indeed, what they were doing, running my book through an algorithm? Others had made accurate translations, but were too literal, or muddled up their tenses, or lacked the flair and positive spirit of the original book. Many of them had solid CVs, but were probably most competent in technical translation – not the kind of work where much of the message was in the writing voice. I withdrew Nail Your Novel from Babelcube.
And here I am
So you can probably see why I’m excited about AmazonCrossing (if you’re still unconvinced, here’s a post by Porter Anderson at Writer Unboxed ). At the moment they’re seeking fiction, so I’ve sent my two novels . Here’s the submissions link again . I’m guessing they will have a hurricane of entries, and many of us won’t be a good fit. So I’m sending my novels – with everything crossed.
Meanwhile, have you had any adventures, good or bad, with translations? Any tips or advice? Share them here
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‘Can I ask you about ghostwriting….?’ As you may know, this is how I first got published, writing novels that were released under the names of other people. I was the secret hand that wrote these (and others…)
I get asked about ghostwriting all the time, from people curious about it as a career path, or thinking about hiring a ghostwriter, or the plain curious. So here’s the dirt. Or as much as I can safely reveal.
Which books are ghostwritten?
Celebrity biographies and novels If someone has an interesting life story or is popular, a ghostwriter might be engaged to help them write a memoir. If that sells they might be asked if they fancy doing novels.
Megabrand genre novels It’s well known that James Patterson uses ghosts, outsourcing early draft work to keep up with demand. And that publishers hire writers to keep popular authors feeding the market after they die – eg Robert Ludlum. There are also plenty of other big-name authors in commercial fiction who are still alive and use ghostwriters, unacknowledged. (Knowing wink. You would be scandalised.)
So there’s plenty of work.
It’s all about who you know.
Editors and agents If you have a literary agent, let them know you’re up for ghosting. Also it’s worth mentioning to book editors you’ve worked with.
Journalism Journalism is another way to break in, especially for non-fiction. You might meet someone who wants help writing their life story or a book on their patch of expertise (but see below).
Author services companies I get frequent approaches from author services companies, who want reliable ghostwriters they can recommend to clients. I don’t know what the terms are, but, in general, I worry about working for services companies. Judging by other areas of publishing, one party gets a bad deal – either the client pays over the odds, or the freelance gets a lot less than market rate.
Pros and cons Cons first. You’re caught between two masters – which you realise when the ‘author’ wants one thing and the editor wants another. You will be amazed at the issues that blow up into diplomatic incidents and you’re left trying to please both. (Knowing wink. You’ll earn every dime.) Commercial ghostwriting is satisfying because the book will be published, and because of the cost of hiring you, it will probably be well marketed. Depending on your deal, should be a worthwhile addition to your CV and earnings stream. If you ghostwrite for an author services company, you may find there’s no long tail because the book is far less likely to earn in money or reputation.
What will you be paid? Deals vary, obviously. But to generalise, you get much better terms if you have representation. My agent is horrified at the contracts I have from my ghosting days.
My personal beware list
Don’t do any ghosting work for individuals unless you’re very sure they’ll get a publishing deal. Even if they’re a celebrity you know personally.
Don’t do any work on spec for agents. In more naive days I spent four months rewriting a thriller for a phenomenally well-connected gentleman, persuaded by an agent to do it for a future profits share. The book never sold and I never saw any payment.
Be even more careful of the situation that might land you in court – or worse. I get a lot of approaches from people who want me to help them write a book about their murder trial. Such a book couldn’t be published without cast-iron legal backing, which only a major publisher has the chops for. And as for the chap who wanted me to write the book about how he was manipulated into assassinating … No I can’t tell you. (Knowing wink with a nervous twitch. You might be dead.)
Can I hire a ghostwriter myself?
Question. Can you afford to pay six to nine months’ salary for a writer to do a proper job of your book? This is why, in commercial publishing, ghostwriters are generally funded by the publisher, not the writer (although they don’t always get a fair fee – see above). But if you have a strong concept for a book and a writer who is a good match, you could seek a deal together.
What about royalty-split deals? See the caveats above, but these are frontier-busting times. Indies are leading the way with new ways to fund books, as we’re seeing with ACX for audiobooks and translation deals.
How can I break in?
Aside from personal contacts, there are opportunities for beginners if you know where to look. Book packagers are companies that dream up commercial ideas for novels, which they pitch to publishers. Some of these become phenomenally successful. They need writers.
They give you the plot in painstaking detail, so your job is to flesh out the story into scenes. Sounds a doddle? There are two downsides. One – the pay is rubbish. Two –they demand rewrite after rewrite because they design the story by committee and change their minds. But it is a way to get experience, and you might make useful friends. Find them in Writers’ and Artists’ Yearbook, or the US equivalent. Contact them and ask if they’re looking for writers. If you send them a sample and it’s good enough, they might ask you to try out for a live project.
Have you any questions about ghostwriting? Or wisdom to add? Your turn!
Interested in learning more? Professional course in ghostwriting
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I’d love a traditional publishing deal. I’ve submitted my manuscript to two agents, and while waiting to hear from them I have been offered three ebook contracts – but I’m not sure which way to go. Also, could you quote me a price for professional editing?
I answered the email at length in private, but some interesting issues emerged that I feel might make a useful post.
Wow, three offers!
Three ebook contracts already. Way to go! Some publishers are offering ebook-only deals to authors, and considering print if sales are good. But in the nicest possible way, I was worried about my friend here – because in this market, it seemed unlikely to get that many serious offers and not have secured an agent.
My correspondent sent me the details of the publishers and I checked their sites. I’m not going to reveal their names here as I haven’t contacted them or asked for statements, as you should do in a proper investigative piece. Also, they weren’t attempting to scam or con anyone. They certainly could publish her book. But she didn’t realise they weren’t publishers of the kind she was hoping to get offers from.
One site had several pages about selling tuition and support to authors. There was a mission statement page that included a point about ‘fees’. The others stated they offered services to authors. Publishers – of the kind that my friend here was seeking – don’t use those terms. These people are pitching for business, not offering a publishing contract.
If I were her, I’d wait to hear what the agents say!
But if you do want to use self-publishing services, here are a few pointers.
Some publishing services providers can try to tie up your rights so that you can’t publish the book elsewhere. Others will make you pay for formatting and then not release the files for you to use yourself unless you pay a further fee. (I know regular readers of this blog who’ve been caught in these situations.) Some charge way over the market rate as well.
To get acquainted with the kinds of scams and horrors that are perpetrated on unsuspecting authors, make a regular appointment with Victoria Strauss’s blog Writer Beware.
Check the quality
Assuming no nasty clauses, you also need to know if the services are good enough. I’ve seen some pretty dreadful print books from self-publishing services companies. Before committing, buy one of their titles and check it out, or send it to a publishing-savvy friend who can help you make a sensible judgement.
Your best defence? The Alliance of Independent Authors Choosing a Self-Publishing Service will tell you the ins and outs.
Readers and communities
Obviously traditional imprints score here because they have kudos and reputation.
And the publishing services companies on my friend’s list were attempting to address this. They emphasised that they were attached to reader communities, or wrote persuasively about how they were in the process of building them.
This sounds good, and let’s assume they are genuinely putting resources in. But communities take years to establish, plus a number of these publishers seemed to be relying on their writers to spread the word. We all learn pretty quickly that we need to reach readers, not other bunches of writers. And if a community is in its infancy, you might be better buying advert spots on email lists such as Bookbub or The Fussy Librarian, depending on your genre.
Some of these companies may give you no advantage over doing it yourself. You might be in exactly the same position as if you put your book on Createspace and KDP and write a description that will take best advantage of Amazon search algorithms.
As a novice author, you might not realise how unmysterious these basics are. So don’t make any decisions without reading this post of mine – before you spend money on self-publishing services…. And try this from author collective Triskele Books: The Triskele Trail.
Wait for the agent… part 2
Basically, if you get a proper publishing offer, you don’t pay for any of the book preparation – that includes editing, formatting, cover etc. Which leads me to my correspondent’s final question about editing. This is one of the things a publisher should do! You only need the likes of me if a) an agent says you need to work with an editor to hone your manuscript or craft or b) if you intend to self-publish!
Do you have any advice to add about assessing offers from publishers or publishing service providers? Or cautionary tales? Please don’t name any names or give identifiable details as it may get legally tricky …
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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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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, fiction, 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, novels, publishing, Roz Morris, self-publishing, suspense, The Rogue Reader, writer collectives, writers, writing, writing a novel - Nail Your Novel, writing business, Writing Characters Who'll Keep Readers Captivated: Nail Your Novel, writing life, Writing Plots With Drama, Depth & Heart
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%)…
99% cocoa Lindt, agents, authors, bad reviews, budo taijutsu, chocolate, cooking, fantasy series, finding an agent, food, ghostwriting, how to handle a bad review, how to write a novel, Imago Chronicles, Lindt, literary agents, literary fiction, Lorna Suzuki, My Memories of a Future Life, novels, porcini, publishing, Roz Morris, self publishers, self-publishing, should you respond to a bad review, writer's block, writing, writing a novel - Nail Your Novel, Writing Characters Who'll Keep Readers Captivated: Nail Your Novel, writing life, Writing Plots With Drama, Depth & Heart, writing routine
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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Sorry, but that’s the wrong way round.
Except in a very few cases, it doesn’t work.
You can build a platform with a non-fiction book. If you’re offering expertise, it’s easy to find the people who need it. If you write about a life experience, you can connect with readers who seek similar support. And there are far fewer of you – and more room to be heard.
Before you use your novel to launch your platform, go and look at Facebook. Goodreads. Twitter. Everyone is waving a novel.
The number of people you will reach by starting this way is negligible.
There are many examples, of course, of successful self-published fiction authors. Everyone has their favourites to brandish. I’m going to talk about Joanna Penn. She didn’t start with a novel. She started with a blog – The Creative Penn – and built a loyal following while she taught herself about the writing and publishing world. By the time she launched her first novel, Pentecost, she had a great relationship with a lot of people.
Relationships are what sell books, both fiction and non-fiction. That’s what a platform is.
So to build your platform, get out there and blog, tweet, Facebook or whatever. Be natural, be yourself and build relationships. It’s also much less of a strain if you’re not trying to sell something.
And since you’re not using your novel to build your platform, what are you going to do with it?
You might as well, um, query with it.
Stop grinding your teeth at the back there. We’re agreed that relationships sell books? Agents have relationships with publishers. Publishers have relationships with distributors, the press, the places you cannot get reviewed if you do it all yourself. Yes, agents and publishers take their cut, but that’s because they have a much bigger reach than one little writer on their own.
If you don’t like the way a deal adds up, you can always refuse it. Or negotiate. But if you never try, you don’t know what might have happened. If you want to have a publishing career (and why otherwise would you build a platform) it make sense to explore all the options.
‘But every agent has different taste…’
Good writing is good writing. All agents are able to spot it. If you target enough agents who are a good fit for you, you will find out whether you are ready to go into print (or pixels) – or whether you should develop more. It is worth knowing that, isn’t it?
‘But it takes time…’
You’re going to have to spend that time building your network anyway. And what’s the hurry? You can’t – or didn’t – learn to write overnight.
‘But everyone’s publishing…’
I understand you’re impatient to get out into the big publishing party. Really I do. When I first held a book that was filled with my words I felt the earth quiver.
But I’m now seeing a lot of people who have whizzed onto Kindle, are finding their novel doesn’t sell, and are getting dispirited. That’s a shame. That’s the sound of dreams shattering.
Please don’t mutter the name of Amanda, the lady my friend Porter Anderson dubbed Amanda Hocking [example of everything]. That’s exactly what she is – an example of anything you like, including holy amounts of luck (and I wish her plenty more luck, BTW). But will the law of probabilities allow that to happen to you?
Build the relationship first
Relationships sell books. Build the relationship first, in whatever way you like, partnering with whoever seems right. That may be conventional industry routes; it may be creative collectives. Then you will have a platform, and you will have readers.
Thanks for the pic, Scottnj
While we’re on the subject of being grown-up about platforms, I’m planning a newsletter! Add your name to the mailing list here.
So, agree? Disagree? Sending the lynch mob…? I’m sure you’ll have plenty to say in the comments
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- In disguise: from ghostwriting to a voice of my own – interview at Slack podcast December 22, 2016
- Repost: A writer’s guide to Christmas letters December 16, 2016
- Finishing your draft? Don’t open it again until after Christmas December 4, 2016
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