SESSION 3, THE COMPETITIVE EDGE
This was a session with a panel as follows: Rose Michael, commissioning editor at Hardie-Grant; Robert Watkins, commissioning editor at Hachette Australia; Penny Hueston, senior editor at Text Publishing and Inga Simpson, author of Mr Wigg and Hachette/QWC Manuscript Development Program alumna.)
The questions to spark this session’s conversations were: What are today’s publishing houses looking for when commissioning new books? Can competitions and development programs lead to publication?
To my notes:
Rose started by saying she usually goes and finds an author and works on a project with that person from the beginning. Doesn’t do much fiction publishing. Writers who can edit and rewrite are key – ‘great writing needs time.’
Robert said that the most important thing, when you’re pitching a book, while it’s great to think about making comparisons, you need to be clear about, and clearly able to articulate, why your book is the one people will take off the shelf.
Inga said it was 10 years of work before her Mr Wigg was a book.
(This makes me feel better; I have some quick calculations I’ve done on my notebook, where I worked out it was 5 full years before I had my first MS ready enough to submit to an agent; my second MS: 4 years. Of course, some overlap with those years, but that’s going absolute gangbusters my friends.)
Penny said that she works on a wide range of genres, including YA and children’s more recently. Usually it’s NF/bios that are commissioned, not fiction. Penny spoke about Kate Grenville, her book about writing The Secret River (called Searching for the Secret River) it’s a memoir of the process and a wonderful book about writing.
We’re looking for voice. It’s always voice for me
– Penny Hueston, Text Publishing
Text Publishing has 8 or 9 editors, ‘we are editorially top-heavy.’
Hundreds and hundreds come through the slush pile and also from agents.
Inga sold a short story for $800 but then it took another 8 years before she made a single other cent.
You need a sense of perspective, and an alternative income stream – Inga Simpson, author of Mr Wigg
Inga’s advice: Have faith in your work/voice and what you want to say. The story you want to tell. Make it the most ‘you’ you can make it, rather than second-guess what everyone might want. Don’t worry if it’s ‘too weird, too quirky or too quiet.’
Don’t worry if it’s too weird, too quirky or too quiet
– Inga Simpson, author of Mr Wigg
Sometimes the editors will receive MS referrals from other authors. All pre-signing work/accolades/prize wins etc go towards ‘starting a publicity story’ for the author.
Publishers are taking a close interest in prizes and shortlistings, MS development prizes etc. One of the eds said to take a really good look at what publishers are publishing. Does it match with your work? (Which kind of contradicts what Inga says above, but hey. That’s the biz I guess.)
Rose: ‘Literary creative non-fiction’ – this is like a biography, eg, written like Rushdie, so you’d buy it and read the book for how it’s written, not to read (primarily) about that person’s life.
Penny: We publish these (unclear what, sorry, I didn’t write down) books because they have ‘totally original voices’, sometimes it’s hard to pigeonhole into a genre.
AND HERE’S THE SCANDALOUS, MINDBLOWING PART OF THE SESSION:
Penny H: ‘send the whole thing’
My note: Ie ignore the guidelines on websites??
[The audience asked clarifying questions]
Yes, the eds agreed. Send the whole ms but in one document (then there was some conversation about why they wanted it in one document, not separate chapters etc)
And I’ve written this: ‘All agree that if a writer only sends 3 chapters and the publisher is ‘kind of interested’ they WON’T ask for more because it will ‘get your hopes up.’
So send the whole thing
– Rose Michael, Hardie-Grant
Now a final note from me: ‘But then eds/pubs bitch about people not following the guidelines’ and I’ve underlined ‘guidelines’ with three strong lines. So it turns out that not only does following the guidelines not impress them with your ability to follow guidelines; YOU MIGHT BE SABOTAGING YOUR OWN CHANCES, BECAUSE IF THEY LIKE YOUR STUFF, AND YOU ONLY SEND 3 CHAPTERS, THEY WON’T ASK FOR THE REST BECAUSE THEY DON’T WANT TO GET YOUR HOPES UP.*
Turns out the competitive edge in this instance belongs to people who don’t do what they are told, aren’t terrified of annoying publishers and go ahead and break the rules.
So when I got home, I looked up the submissions pages for each of the publishing companies:
Text Publishing – FIRST THREE CHAPTERS
Hachette – FIRST CHAPTER OR FIRST 50 PAGES
Hardie-Grant – UNSOLICITED SUBMISSIONS CLOSED
[Here’s a blog post from someone else in the audience that day. They heard the same as me.)
SESSION 4, FIND ME ON FACEBOOK
The kick-start questions for this session were: How important is taking publicity and marketing matters into your own hands? How do publishers
work with authors on social media strategy?
And my notes:
Jane N started her career as a bookseller. On the question of how important is it for the author to self-market, she said it depends on the book. If she’s working with a writer, and they aren’t very comfortable with it (publicity), she wouldn’t insist. The author has to be comfortable. Also, the reader has certain expectations of particular genres, so some it might be more essential than others, for the author to be connected with audience, out there on the hustings etc. (That is all my embellishment. Did you like the word ‘hustings’?)
Claire agreed. She wouldn’t insist. It’s important for a publicist to make sure she’s not pushing authors into somewhere outside of their comfort zone.
Annabel said that in terms of social media, she’s not on it all day, and you don’t have to be. ‘It’s more about checking in, say 5 minutes, 3 times a day.’ Annabel said that Facebook is less effective, with only 12% of ‘fans’ seeing all your posts. (There was some discussion about algorithms here, I didn’t write any details other than ‘it’s the algorithms’, but Annabel said it was a Fbook strategy to try to force ad-buys.)
Jane said ‘launches are a bit outdated now.’ I could feel our hearts sink in the room. All us hopefuls. They call it the L-word in their office. Launches cost money, and they don’t want to spend money on a launch, where ‘all the people who come to your launch are going to buy your book anyway’ (can’t argue with that logic) and so it’s money better spent on sending an author to a lit festival, or on another form of marketing.
Launches are a bit outdated now
– Jane Novak, Text Publishing
Claire said the expectation of the launch for Fremantle, there’s a ‘couple of rules’ – if there’ll be minimum of 110 people and it’s a new author, then they will do.
Annabel said even if the publisher doesn’t pay for a launch, it’s good to have one anyway. That it’s important to celebrate those milestones.
As an emerging author, you need to work out who you are and what your story is. How are you different from other authors all clamouring to get noticed? (I start making some notes on the page opposite: Hell, um…)
Jane: If you’re a literary writer, it doesn’t feel so important.
Then I’ve got a little sucky note to myself: I would say it’s important to be yourself.
Jane: It’s really hard to get media, less space is given to books, there’s a saturation of celebrities so an author has to have something really important to say. Often the most interesting thing about you, you may not be aware of.
Annabel: Literary authors, ‘don’t have an angle’ but maybe can blog about their process etc. It’s a good way to get started if you don’t have an angle. (It’s very meta that this is what I’m doing write now. I don’t have an angle.)
Claire: just as you prepare and prepare your MS for submission, you can have a store of prepared anecdotes/stories to tell to people. Can practise with a publicist.
Jane (to the question of whether she would jump in and direct an author in their social media potterings): as long as they’re not making dreadful mistakes eg on twitter, really annoying people, she tends to leave people to it. Just be themselves, is what she suggests (see? Not sucky, I was right. It’s always the answer to many many things.) Sometimes she sees something on a blog or website and might suggest a small change. Say it doesn’t show an author in the right light…
Question: How much does marketing drive sales?
Answer: We don’t know. Anecdotally we can see/hear connections, but it isn’t quantifiable. It’s easier to measure with an author who’s had a succession of books. Otherwise it’s difficult.
Claire: staying positive online is important. Acknowledge people who are being helpful. It’s really important.
Jane: Connection is the key; relationships are the key. People who are willing to go out and meet booksellers, that’s a bit plus.
Claire: It might not happen on first or even second book.**
Chris (I’m sure Chris spoke before now, I just didn’t write it down!): There’s a danger in going too far, eg going into an environment that might not suit your ‘product’ or personality.
Claire: had two people refuse TV interviews last year. ‘Didn’t agree with the angle of the program.’ ‘Sacrilegious.’
Annabel: you don’t want to spread yourself too thin between platforms (social media) but find a few you enjoy and you will meet different parts of your audience. Different people have their preferred platforms. Annabel suggested picking three things to tweet about, for example. If you tweet about everything, people won’t be able to focus. She tweets about books, things of general interest to literature.
Jane: doesn’t agree with the adage that ‘any publicity is good publicity.’ You’ve got to keep your integrity.
Question: Do you ever create controversy to increase publicity?
Jane: [without hesitation] Yes. Eg the Text Classics, they engaged with schools and universities about great Australian books going out of print and not being taught.
NF books especially will sell if the topic/subject is known to be controversial.
Annabel – talked about ‘social proof’, ie if you have 25K likes on your business Facebook page, it’s considered relevant. Then there was conversation with the audience about ‘like farms’ where Fbook pages can buy likes, and that’s where I stopped writing my notes.
NEXT: THE PITCH.
* I tweeted about this from the festival and it got people into a bit of a flurry. It’s not just me that knows it’s always been emphasised how important it it to follow publisher guidelines.
** While I was away I had several conversations with a publisher about the second-book thing. While we authors might know of something called the second-book syndrome which pertains to the difficulty an author might have WRITING their second novel, at the moment it seems publishers are very reluctant to take on a second book from an author whose first book hasn’t sold very well, like really well. There’s no room any more, it seems, for authors to build momentum and name and reputation and career over the course of two, three or four books. In the ‘old days’ authors were given time for this to happen; not so now it seems. This idea is showing up in my interactions with others in the game too; an agent has said similar; two authors I know who each had first novels published mid last decade, and found it very difficult to get their second books up. It’s also showing up in articles around the traps, not just current ones but older ones too. Maybe it’s nothing new, I don’t know. But it’s a worry for those of us looking to get a first book across the line.