Today I attended a full-day workshop on the A to Z of Getting Published in Australia.
While obviously this is going to be more relevant to Australian writers, the advice given on many fronts will certainly translate across borders, so read on to hear about such topics as the state of the industry, the breakdown of a book's earnings, and the roles of people like editors and publicists.
The session today was held in a tent on the gorgeous grounds of my old alma mater, the University of Western Australia. The whole thing was compered by the lovely Angela Meyer of Literary Minded, a book review blog we've been reading for a while. Angela is an up-and-coming author as well as a reader, and did a truly stellar job of holding it all together in what turned out to be occasionally adverse conditions- warm, bright and noisy (due to a giant air-conditioning unit) on the stage, by all accounts.
Me, I was quite comfortable sitting in the audience, writing notes so furiously that I had to go out at lunchtime and buy a second notebook. I think I broke records for note-taking. This is a very good thing, because you get the benefit.
The panelists were universally awesome- knowledgeable, concise, funny and positive, which was very necessary in a day full of dire news. You can read more about them all here, on the Festival website.
I won't go through it all- I'll cover some of the details in future Thursday blog posts, and I'll also write up a full set of notes and post them over at the CompuServe Books and Writers Forum (and I'll add a link here when I've done that). For now, though, I'll tell you about the points that kept coming up over and over again throughout today, and not by coincidence. These points are the most important things you can know about getting published today.
1. Maintain realistic expectations
Do you know the average number of copies sold of each new book on the market in your country? I didn't, and the answer was quite the bucket of cold water. I think I gasped out loud when it was spoken. The person sitting next to me certainly gave me a sharp sideways look, but then again, that could have been an involuntary spasm in his neck from the shock.
Nine hundred and nineteen. Yes, 919.
That's the average number of copies sold of each new book released in Australia. Total. A great run is 3000 copies. This means that the publisher, at the moment, is not often making money back on you. You have to be worth their time. Absolutely, unequivocally, perfectly worth the risk they take in printing your book. If you don't demonstrate that with your writing from the very first page, you won't make it past the gate. But even if you do, the path probably won't take you far.
2. Get your work in perfect order before you send it
As per the above, to get attention in a supremely competitive market, you can't just show your potential. You can't hope to be good enough. You have to be the best, and your work has to be finished. Complete. Not in need of one last spit and polish- really done.
A common thread that came up again and again from the presenters was that the primary fault they see in rejected manuscripts is they're sent in before they're ready. One of the presenters suggested that you view your manuscript submission as a job interview. You only get one crack at it, so make sure your shoes are clean and there's no lipstick on your teeth.
So, shelve your impatience and keep revising. When you're done with that? Do it again. Repeat until it's really ready. Oh, and spell check it. In a market like this, everything needs to be just right.
3. Expect a long, hard road even if you are one of the 5% who make it
That's right, I said 5%. More than once today, it was pointed out that only 5% of the people sitting in the audience would ever come close to publication. In an audience of 200ish people, that generated some significant despair.
Not for me, though. Because I'm already familiar with everything I heard today- I've spent five years immersing myself in the writing world, learning about the publishing industry, following the news and the blogs, and I know what the vibe is like.
And I'm prepared to do whatever it takes to be in that 5%. When they talk about the 95% who'll miss out, I already know I'm not one of them. Sounds a little cocky, hey? I guess only time will tell whether I'm actually right or not. But I bet you none of the 5% who got published last year or the year before that thought about giving up when they were told it was going to take years more hard work and rejection before success came along. I bet they always saw themselves winning, and eventually they did. Failure is, for me, not an option. The fastest way to find yourself in that 95% is to start wondering if you're already in it.
Speaking of a long hard road- if your manuscript is accepted, you're looking at up to 2.5 years between the signing of that contract, and the day you hold your printed baby in your hands. An exceptionally polished manuscript that needs little further work can get there in less than a year, but the majority take longer.
4. Do it because you love it, not because you want to write a best-seller
With all this doom and gloom, it'd be a completely uninformed or perhaps just crazy person who sat down to write a book because they expected it was going to be the next best seller. It could well be- but the reason for that, if it happens, will be down to one of two things- one, flat-out luck. And two, because the passion you felt for your work shone through to the publisher and subsequently the reader.
Do it because you love it, first and foremost. Get your passion on the page, and your chances are on the up and up.
5. Rejection doesn't mean you suck
Another thing we heard repeatedly is that agents and publishers are surprisingly compassionate about rejection. They know how much it hurts, and they hate to do it. But sadly, they just can't take on everyone. They have to be selective, and in the end it's a business choice. Here are a few of the rough figures we heard today regarding submissions versus acquisitions from a few publishers last year:
- Fremantle Arts Centre Press, a small local outfit, had 645 submissions and published 25 books.
- TEXT Publishing generally receives 3-400 unsolicited manuscripts a year, and usually signs none of those. Not one. Of those submitted through agents and other avenues, they publish around 40 to 50 books per year, and 10 to 12 of those are usually by first time authors.
- Random House Australia puts out around 15 new books per year per publisher (the publishers are sort of like the heads of department in-house). Meredith Curnow, who was speaking today, said that she currently has quite a lot of first time authors on her list, but she's trying to reduce that, and will aim for around three this year, with four or five second books, and the rest established authors. They do occasionally find new authors in the unsolicited slushpile, but most of their successful submissions come through agents and editors.
6. It's all about the voice
When asked what the standout element of any good manuscript was, most of the publishers said the same thing- above all else, particularly when it comes to literary fiction, voice is what catches their attention.
More than plot, character, anything else, they're looking for striking, original voice- that unique turn of phrase that is characteristic of your work, and yours alone. It's something you can gain only through a combination of natural talent, and oodles and oodles of practice. So, keep writing. Every word takes you closer to being an accomplished master of voice.
7. Trends are worth bugger all
All agreed that trends don't mean much, because they pass so fast and it takes so long to get a book published. Don't write about something because you think it's going to be popular.
One interesting thing that these publishers noted was that children's books of many varieties are on the rise. It seems to be the most rapidly growing area of fiction at the moment, which is good news for those of you who write in that genre.
8. It's not all doom and gloom
I sensed reasonable positivity from the panelists about the state of books at the moment. Sure, the industry is in decline. That doesn't mean it's dying- it's just changing. A couple of the publishers mentioned that last year, they held steady on their profits. This is a good thing- it means no going backwards. And they expect this year to be better again. All are talking up e-books, but none are talking down traditional publishing.
9. One thing and one thing only will get you over the line...
... and that's a damn good book.
Write one of those, and you've got a chance.
More next week! This really only covers the first of three sessions today- the others were about getting an agent, and about what happens after you sign a deal.