Friday, March 4, 2011

The A to Z of Getting Published in Australia

The Perth Writers Festival is currently on, and it's brilliant. There are so many great workshops and so many concurrent free sessions that I hardly know which way to turn. It's going to be such a busy weekend! I'm learning so much that I have to share a couple of extra blog posts with you.

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.
Some writing is not going to be publishable at all. It's just a fact. But as to the rest, the panelists wanted to make it clear that sometimes, rejection just means that publisher was not the right one for you, not that the book itself is no good. Keep looking, and you just might find your perfect match elsewhere.

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.


  1. Great post! I think that those tips will work just as well in other countries too.

    Some are a little disheartening, but all I can do is to write the best book I can...


  2. Thank you for this, I was hoping you'd write something up :D

  3. Thanks, Claire. I can't wait to see what else you have to tell us. FWIW,it's much like what you hear in the States, too. For the moment, I'm just trying to keep putting pen to paper and write. The rest will come later.

  4. @Misha- disheartened was definitely the mood in the room for many :) But I like to think of it as an ongoing challenge to keep getting better and better. You don't get to hang out in the 5% unless you've really earned it- and writing the best book you can is the perfect starting point.

    @Trisha- ha, look at that, Misha and Trisha. Ahem. I need sleep. Anyway! You're welcome- that barely scrapes the surface of the first of the three sessions. More to come later. Epic day!

  5. Thanks for taking the time to type up and share your notes. Interesting stuff here.

    Have a lovely weekend,

  6. Oh wow. Only 919 in Australia? By head of population that must mean that a NZ book would sell less than 200.
    That is more depressing than that 5% figure by a long way. Definitely going to be looking at UK or US publishers when I get there then.

  7. As I said in another comment: Never tell me the odd, Kid. (g)

    I never let the odds scare me. I agree that it's good to know as much as you can about the business. But you've got the right attitude -let the other guy worry about failing. >;-D

  8. Thanks for sharing all this with us, Claire. 919? Half of that would be family and friends!
    "shelve your impatience" - I'm taking that one to heart!

  9. This is fascinating. I like the 95%/5% statistics, and it's good that three quarters of the room sigh and go home and put their manuscripts away - storytelling is a fundamental biological drive and part of our social brain (the nice bit on top of the lizard brain!), but that doesn't mean that every person is a writer. It's the 5% who know they have a story worth telling who keep plugging away and get published. I like to think that having beaten my way through the psychology department to finish with a post-graduate degree (we start off at 400+ students in first year, and there are only 21 places in the post grad course I did) that if I ever decide to really put the focus into a novel I will have that practice in honing my focus on my side..... :-)

  10. Great write-up! Thanks for coming :)

  11. I picked up the programme for the Perth Writers' Festival the other week... basically so that I could torture myself by reading about all the cool stuff I knew I would miss :/ (What can I say? I'm a masochist at heart!!)

    Thank you so much for posting your thoughts. I guess the 5% stat didn't surprise me as much as the 919 books sold - unbelievable! Do we really read so little here? A bit of a shame, really.

    I've been flat out with children stuff in the past weeks so haven't been following your blog or the forum much - hopefully things will settle down soon and I'll be able to catch up on everything again. I look forward to hearing more about the festival :)


  12. very interesting post - I had heard most before but you know somehow I thought Australia would have better odds than UK or US - don't know why- everything they said makes sense tho'

  13. Really useful -- thanks. The whole "do it because you love it" thing is such a condundrum for me when I think that I need to do it to make some to look on such a creative job that way. Sucks that it's a "job" at all.

  14. Hi, new to your blog thanks to Literary Minded's link. Interesting write up, thanks. Sobering figures, but I'm still doggedly determined - for now. Cheers.

  15. Lots of good advice here, Claire. I think what stands out for me is the bit about voice. For some reason, that's very encouraging.

  16. This is a great post. There is a lot of good information in it. I really appreciate you posting it. Thank you.

  17. @Lola- no worries! It was such a great seminar, I had to share. I'll be writing up more shortly.

    @Jill- interesting question, whether it's the same in NZ or not. I didn't mention the interesting comments that were made about the publishability of Aussie writers overseas- if you're an Aussie writing about another country, they reckon you have slim chances of getting published in that country. If you're writing about your own country, likewise slim chances. But if you're not writing about Australia, you've got virtually no chance of being published here. End conclusion: If you're writing about Australia, aim to get published in Australia. If they can find a market for your book overseas, they can sell the rights on.

  18. @Kristen- exactly! The seminar I did yesterday said the same thing. If you expect to fail- well, what's going to happen? Expect to succeed.

    @Deniz- lol, I thought the exact same thing to myself. Actually, I thought, "I bet I know enough people I can con into buying a copy that I'd go straight past that 919 in the first week." ;)

    @Dani- all so, so true. Likewise in my archaeology degree, we dropped from more than 100 to just six by the time we got to honours. We were the ones who planned to make a career out of it, and we did. Everyone else did it for interest, but didn't care enough about it to do the hardest parts. Every single person in the room who let out a "why bother" sigh- yep, I reckon that was at least 75% right there, and you can discount most of them. Oh, and one of the speakers likewise said the same thing you did- *everyone* has a story in them. Not all of those are publishable.

  19. @Angela- thanks again for all your hard work! It was a brilliant day :)

    @Bec- so nice to see you again :) Don't worry, I'll be posting more about the festival- you can live vicariously through me for a week or two. I agree, the 5% didn't surprise me at all, but the 919 books absolutely floored me. Everyone I've told about it has said the same thing- do we really read so little? And do we really undervalue our local authors so awfully? It made me want to run out to the nearest bookstore and buy up Australian fiction.

    @Mooderino- no worries!

    @Alberta- for some reason I thought the same, but nope. Another thing I didn't mention was that we learned there are just TWENTY accredited literary agents in Australia. As the gatekeepers for the publishers, trying to get through them first when they are just swamped with submissions seems even harder than it is in the US.

  20. @Lucy- I know what you mean :) But the seminar I did yesterday was essentially all about tricking yourself into writing like it's not a job. I'll post my notes on that soon- they might help ease the pain.

    @Fiona- welcome! Nice to "meet" you :) I'm just the same- even more determined than before, I think. Repeat after me: "I AM in that five percent!"

    @Susan- YES! That was first said very early in the day, and I think that's why I felt relief when everyone else felt despair. If there's one thing I'm confident about, it's the individuality of my writing voice.

    @Regina- you're most welcome :)

  21. Well, that's depressing ;)
    Great write up. I love your positive take.

  22. Wow, didn't realize things were quite that bad in terms of copies sold! Many would do better to e-publish it seems!

    This definitely vindicates my decision to try and publish overseas instead of here, that's for sure...

  23. @Lynda- chin up! Those who persist will make it through the pack and out the other side. My instructor from the next day assured us that was true ;)

    @Adina- not sure if you saw my comment to Jill a few back up the list, but actually, that's a tricky point. My take is the opposite- I'm now thinking I've got a better chance of success starting here, purely because the story is set locally. I've been thinking about Tim Winton, who's a strong inspiration in my work, and whose style I fall quite close to. He's a national treasure, an *incredible* writer, and yet he hasn't broken through into international markets in any major way. Why? Because his stories are so locally focussed that the connection between the words/ settings/ characters and the Australian reader is part of the brilliance of the work. Without the reader context, it's harder for people to understand how wonderful the writing is. And yet he's so successful here that in a year when he releases a new book, all the statistics get knocked out of whack because he steamrolls the charts.

    I've decided I want to be Tim Winton, not Peter Carey- for now :)

  24. HI Claire, I think you said it all the important thing is "that's is a damn good book"! Even a good attitude isn't going to get you anywhere if you aren't ready to put in the work (although you won't keep after it if you despair and give up!) I keep working on my book because I love to write and I keep rewriting my book because I am not going to write anything that isn't damn good. It isn't going to be seen by a publisher until I am sure it's ready to be seen! Then *fingers crossed* the pieces fall into place. But I won't quit writing just because I am not one of the 5% either... it's just too important.

    Good stuff! And pretty much what I saw at BnN as a bookseller, I think.

  25. Claire -- OMG...919 books?!? That's crazy. And yeah, I'm with you and Susan. The voice thing is very encouraging because be it for good or bad, I think I have something going for me in that department. Hopefully it's not grating to readers. (g)