What do publishers do, 2? From book launch to beyond

I love book launches, my own and other people’s, and didn’t discover until my second novel that you can have as many of them as you like!

It’s a good while since publishers would lay on a big bash for a first-time author at their expense, inviting every respected critic for miles, but you never know. Mostly we authors arrange and pay for our own. What do you do?

  • Find a location. Galleries and libraries work well. Any space will do where all your friends can gather, drink your wine, hear you talk about and read a bit of your book to whet appetites, and thank everybody who helped. Loud applause.
  • Who do you invite? Everybody you know – in my experience your friends will love it, especially the ones who think they are in it. They will also be more than happy to take away a copy without paying for it as if their friendship entitles them to this. (Maybe it’s just my friends but I doubt it.) Explain to them gently that they are to buy your book, as many copies as they can carry. In exchange you will sign their copies mentioning their names, with the place and date to make it unique.
  • Invite local media too, distribute flyers and put up posters. Not many strangers will come if they haven’t heard of you but you never know.
  • Make sure your books arrive on time. You’d be amazed how often this doesn’t happen, even for well-established authors!
  • If you’re like me, choose something a bit extra so that people will remember your launch in particular. Friends of mine who were trumpeters used to come and play a short fanfare before my readings. Gallery 4At the launch of my poetry collection Orion, professional actor Alice Barclay read the poems. It transfixed everybody far more than if I’d read them.
  • I like to keep the momentum up by moving on to a cheap meal close by but that’s up to you.
  • Spread happy photos around social media afterwards with pictures of your books in stock in shops. Done and dusted!

Back to what publishers do. Here are four more things following from Friday’s post to make a round dozen:

9/ ‘Brand building’

Time and again I’ve heard it said that publishers make very little money out of fiction until an author’s third book. That’s right, 3rd. Until readers get a feel for your name and style, for your regularity of output, for your ‘brand’, sales are unpredictable. Your publisher will try to find out about you and your life to depict you as a unique writer worth watching, to enhance their publicity efforts.

You remember how JK Rowling was a single mum writing in cafes with her buggy beside her? Cafes are excellent places to write and most of us do it some time or another. What her marketers were doing was painting a picture in our minds and hearts to lift Harry Potter beyond the book itself.

10/ Protection of your legal rights

Both your agent and publisher will do this – your legal rights are (usually) their legal rights and they want your work to make as much money for everyone as possible. They will ensure that nobody else passes off your ideas/style/concept as their own. Fan fiction is only a compliment as long as it does not steal your thunder and income.

Where your rights conflict with those of your agent and/or publisher, you can have a word with the Society of Authors or consult a media lawyer.

11/ Sales

Aha! Now we’re talking. Publishers have access to networks of great big warehouses and lorries that should carry your books to places you have never thought of. They have lunch and drinks with bookshop owners in other continents. They do their utmost to make sure the boxes of your books will actually be opened in book shops and your books displayed, sometimes even paying for the privilege. (Some boxes of books lie unopened in the back store for months, such is the busyness of life.) They do deals to get your books into prominent places on tables and shelves and sometimes onto recommended lists.

Many bookshops will not take self-published books. Yes, lots of us read happily on a variety of electronic gadgets but the paper book trade is still the majority of sales. A traditional publisher gets you onto all the gadgets and into the bookshops too.

12/ Publicity copies

You will probably be allocated some publicity copies. These are not freebies for your grandparents. (Those are the ‘author copies’ described in your contract.) You will be expected to circulate your publicity copies among your contacts to spread the word and this includes pounding the streets looking for lovely bookshop managers who have time to listen to you. Waterstones are remarkably helpful and at the time of writing still have discretion to stock something they like, or which has local interest. Independent book shops are invaluable too. They will not all have time to read your book, even if they said they would. Bookshop staff are heavily overworked and underpaid. While your publisher is cultivating your brand, we authors do well to cultivate as many of these lovely people as possible.

The day might come when you’re sitting on public transport and see someone reading your book. Or someone crosses a room to say how much they liked it and when can they buy your next one. Until then, it is your publisher more than anyone who makes you feel that your writing, your hours of work, all your effort are worthwhile. Agents are invaluable but they can only hope to sell your book. All being well, your publisher will publish it and what a thrill that is.

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With the Arcadia Books team 2009

Next week, who is your ideal publisher or agent?

Happy writing!

 

 

What do publishers do, 1? Before your book launch, 8 things to expect

When a publisher finally says they love your novel, it usually means they love it so much they’ll ask you to revise it another half dozen times under their supervision.

1/ Editorial input

This is editorial input, sometimes called ‘content curation’. It means more rewriting and can involve major changes like cutting out characters, changing from 1st to 3rd person or vice versa, or changing the way your plot unfolds. If you’re the sort of writer whose hackles rise at such interference with your genius, traditional publishing is not for you. If you find it inordinately exciting to have professionals take an interest and can’t wait to let them help you make your book the very best it can be, you’re a natural for it.

When my first novel was being edited, builders were in the throes of replacing just about everything on the ground floor of my home. Having heard nothing from the publisher for months, suddenly I was in the headlights of the editor’s total attention so, with my wi-fi blinking on and off throughout the day as electrics were replaced, I would rewrite each chapter and email the result. With mayhem going on around me, my story kept getting tighter and better and I loved every minute.

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Robert Graves’ desk at home in Mallorca

2/ Cover

That’s the most exhausting bit over. There might be a lull before the publisher’s choice of cover arrives for your approval. Sometimes an in-house designer has produced it, sometimes it comes from a picture library. You should get a veto or at least a chance to point out if something is inappropriate. That first novel of mine was set in a Gothic abbey and the first cover offered by the publisher showed something more like a nineteenth century factory, a square brick box with chimneys. They’re all juggling a number of different books and nobody knows your book as well as you do, so speak up. Mine agreed to get rid of the chimneys.

3/ Blurb, acknowledgements

They will ask you provide the few words that go on the back. Those brief summaries – 10, 20 and 50 words – that kept your through-line on track come in handy here.

4/ Acknowledgements

You will also be asked who you would like to thank in your acknowledgements. Here is the usual pecking order of thanks:

  • Everyone who read and critiqued your book at draft stage, expert or otherwise, while accepting any errors as your own.
  • Any other sources of research such as helpful librarians.
  • Members of your writing group or MA course whose critique has helped.
  • By this time, you and your editor are friends for life so it’s usual to give her/him a glowing mention.
  • Everyone else in the publisher’s offices who has helped you. With luck they are all your friends for life now, even if individuals move on from this publisher to another one.
  • Your agent.
  • Undying love to your other half. My favourite is PG Wodehouse’s thanks in The Heart of a Goof for his daughter Leonora’s tireless sympathy and encouragement without which ‘this book would have been finished in half the time’.
  • Absolutely no need to mention your cat, therapist, masseuse or accountant unless relevant to the content of your book.

5/ Final edit

Edits always produce funny little blips or words in the wrong place. The final read through, for story and proofing, is down to you alone. Everybody will be in a tearing rush by then, but do your utmost to insist on peace for a few days to make sure it’s all finally OK. Otherwise you will open your lovely author copy and see a horror on page 2.

6/ Consents

Have you any extracts from other people’s work in your story? Your chapter headings, for example, are lines from poetry or songs by living writers? Publishing contracts usually make you, the author, responsible for getting and paying for copyright consents for any extracts you have used. It is easy to blink past this in the dizzying joy of signing your contract but it can cost you time and money if you’re not careful. A good publisher may well guide you past the most difficult and expensive options. In my first novel I was set on using extracts from WB Yeats’s poetry. How on earth was I going to get consent to use them? Luckily the publisher knew how and arranged free consent for me in-house.

7/ Make the book available in every possible form

Your traditional publisher will want to spread your marvellous story as thoroughly as possible around the world. You should get paper books and presence in the kindle world and equivalents. What about radio readings, audio books, film deals, telly deals, serialisation in newspapers, translations in a hundred different countries? Well, the budget for a first novel by an unknown writer may well include some of these but be patient. The more books they publish of yours, the more budget the publisher will be prepared to invest.

8/ Marketing

A publisher will do its best to market your book:

  • A bona fide review in a main stream newspaper or magazine is gold dust these days and happens very rarely for a first novel. The days of gathering a sheaf of print reviews are gone. Mention in a blog or online magazine is less rare but well worth celebrating. A goodish review is as good as a great one – it’s the mention that matters – and a bad one can do sales a power of good if it’s amusing or by someone high profile.
  • Social media: your publisher will have goblins spreading the word through all the social media outlets. It’s good manners to help along.
  • Events, book groups, book festivals etc. You will be expected to clear your diary for anything your publisher suggests as well as rustling up your own, if you can. Again, try to dredge up all your contacts to get yourself interviewed or otherwise noticed.
  • Your own website. Now is the time if you haven’t done it already. Expect to pay for it yourself.
  • Word of mouth is still the most powerful marketing tool of all. Over to you and your friends!

On Sunday: to your book launch and beyond! 

Happy writing.

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The Most Intimate Place launch 2009

 

Self-publish – yes or no? #getpublished

Next week we’ll look at what publishers do. First, let’s think about whether trad or self-publishing is the right route for you. It’s my experience that your choice about self-publishing is as much about your temperament as logic. I have known people succeed and do not so well via both routes, so here goes.

Self-publishing – advantages

  • You are in control, of everything.
  • The self-publishing service you use (CreateSpace, Lulu etc.) pay your royalties direct within days to your nominated bank account, at rates much higher than a traditional publisher’s royalties.
  • No miserable rejection years. That haggard look you find among writers who have taken the traditional route isn’t there.
  • If you are happy with your text, you could set it up today and have a book in your hand or on kindle in a matter of days.
  • It’s a great way to publish something of local appeal or about your life or family history where usually traditional publishers are not interested.
  • You get reader feedback fast.
  • Yes, it can lead to fame and fortune if you work really hard at your marketing.
  • Self-publishing has a distinguished history dated from William Blake and Beatrix Potter to Roddy Doyle‘s The Commitments. In fact, the first book published in English was William Caxton‘s own translation of a version of Homer’s Iliad: IMG_2651

Self-publishing – any disadvantages?

It depends what your abilities and ambitions are:

  • You have to do all the set-up yourself: writing, editing, formatting, introduction pages, cover, back of cover and on it goes. Some writers who succeed with self-publishing set up a cottage industry involving their family, friends and neighbours. If someone in your street knows about book cover design, they’re hired!
  • All the marketing is down to you. The most successful self-publishers are honest about spending more hours on that every day than on writing the next book. If that sort of work is not your style, it can wear you down.
  • You are unlikely to be reviewed in the usual high profile places though there are many bloggers who are happy to help. You might get a few words in a local paper, magazine or blog if you push for it – and that might be as much coverage as you’ll get with your first traditionally published first book anyway.
  • You are less likely to get film, television, radio deals without the help of a traditional publisher. There are so many millions of self-published works of variable quality, they don’t have time to sift.
  • Bookshop chains will rarely take self-published books, for the same reason. If you’re prepared to pound the streets, you might well persuade a few local independent bookshops and your local branch of a chain to take a few.
  • Most of all, you miss out on the crucial editing that a good publisher offers. Too many self-published books reveal the lack of this pretty quickly. Proof-reading is essential, again and again.

Trad publishing – advantages

  • You have the considerable thrill of being among professionals who value your work.
  • Agents take care of your legal position, translations and general writing welfare (for a percentage of course).
  • Content curation. Good agents and publishers help you shape your book, turn it to its very best advantage so that you don’t waste energy on something that won’t sell (though they’re not always right).
  • The process of content curation and rewriting among those professional story makers will teach you more about your craft than any course, writing group, mentor or book.
  • Traditional publishers are set up to distribute your book to shops around the world, deal with the cost of amazon and book shops tables, all those things you’ve not thought about before and that cost money. Proper, ‘hard copy’ books still command a considerable share of the market.
  • Your publisher should connect you with book festivals and libraries.
  • As a matter of course, all UK publishers ensure that your book is in the British Library. For poetry it’s the Poetry Library on the Southbank in London too.
  • A good traditional publisher will make you eligible for review in the top magazines, newspapers and blogs. Thousands of good books are published every month so while making you no promises, they will do their best for you.
  • The book prizes most people have heard of are open only to traditionally published books. The indie sector has its own prizes too.
  • That kudos thing. Actually most people will not ask you who your publisher or agent are. Kindle doesn’t make a big deal of it either. But people who are temperamentally in favour of traditional publishing know what I mean.
  • Traditional publishers and agents love to do ‘brand building’, which means supporting you through the writing of your next book and, if you’re lucky, through the whole of your writing career. This should have gone first in this list; there’s no beating it.

The traditional route – any disadvantages?

  • Royalties tend not to appear for maybe a year.
  • The rejection years before you find an agent or publisher. One of the main objects of this blog is to help you see the rejection years as your time of learning. There is no denying though that rejections hit us all hard.
  • You will still have to market yourself through events, your website, social media, journalism and so on. It’s a combination of whatever the publisher and agent ask you to do and your own ideas.
  • Not all agents and publishers are as good as they think they are. My first agent was a sole practitioner who sent my first novel script around various publishers in a big sheaf with lots of others. Each time it came back to her, she’d send out the same typescript again, in the same tatty sheaf, not sharing the feedback with me until much later. Whenever publishers give you feedback, it’s worth thinking about. When eventually I got to see the pile of constructive comments about my work, I settled down to more rewriting and sold the book myself, direct to a publisher. If you do not feel comfortable with your agent’s approach, find another way.

The most important element in your success is to make sure your product – that script you’re rewriting until your eyes and fingers bleed – is the very best it can be.

You are hoping to be read by strangers and they deserve no less.

Happy writing!

What do agents do? #getpublished

You have enjoyed your feedback stage, seen a feedbacker friend in a new light but never mind, got stuck in to your final re-write and now that it is ready, you are heartily sick of the whole thing in mind, body and spirit. Congratulations, all this is as it should be.

What next?

Some writers send their draft off too early, are appalled to receive a couple of prompt rejections and decide that self-publishing will form the right bridge between them and their adoring public. Other writers know from the outset, having researched the self-publishing world and the complexities involved, that it is the right route for them. The website of the Alliance of Independent Authors is here.

‘Traditional’ publishing was always a colossal mountain to climb, it still is, and has many advantages if you have the patience to climb it. While self-published writers have the advantage of control and royalties that arrive quickly, they cope with their own editing, formatting, cover design, promotion, distribution etc. or pay others for those skills. There is plenty of help out there but it’s a lot to take on. Traditional publishers demand more promotion than they used to, but generally they give you more time to write and sometimes engage in nurturing your writing career.

But nothing is ever simple in this life. Let’s look first at what agents, editors and publishers do.

AGENTS FIRST – what do they do?

A good agent is a many-splendored thing. A great one could be your friend for life. Scott Fitzgerald’s agent Harold Ober managed the Fitzgerald finances for them, supported the family in all sorts of ways through their troubles and even gave their daughter Scottie away at her wedding. This is probably more than you can expect from an agent these days but you never know.

Agents vary in what they offer but the basic menu is this:

  • Knowing the publishing market is their job. We writers study the book shop shelves to see what’s doing well and what shape it takes but agents are experts in what different publishers specialise in and what they are looking for now. Who is after a new Tudor novel with elves? Who wants a Goth crime writer who has travelled solo by sled to the North Pole? It’s the agent’s job to be in the middle of this maelstrom, right up to the minute.
  • Agents form links with particular publishers, usually because they like each other and are excited by the same sort of reading. You can find out which agents like your sort of novel by looking at your favourite recent novels in that genre and seeing who the author acknowledges as inspiration and help: you’ll usually find their agent’s name there.
  • With all this in mind, an agent can help you reshape your novel to fit. Sorry to break it to you but the rewriting is not over yet. The difference this time is that you’re among professionals and whatever I said before about picking and choosing your feedback, forget it. Professionals know best. Some agents decided some time ago they have no time for new writers or slush piles. I can see their point and respect it. (About twenty years ago I was shown a slush pile in a theatre. Piles of uninvited drafts for only the previous two or three months covered a whole wall up to the ceiling. The temptation to dump the lot must have been overwhelming.) Some agents recognise the need to bring on new talent but prefer to let university courses do the polishing for them. Other agents, and these are our fairy godmothers (usually female), do offer to coach us in improving our drafts before sale, sometimes at a price. (Below: Zaporozh’e Cossacks writing a letter to the Sultan, 1880, by IE Repin)IMG_2599At this stage, it can begin to feel as if everybody including the bus driver is writing your book instead of you. The final decision about changes will always be yours, yes. But you will learn an enormous amount from an experienced agent who is prepared to coach you, even if she does not in the end manage to sell your book.

THE THREE GOLDEN RULES 

It’s time for a refresher.

  1. If the writing is coming to you hot and fast, at all costs catch it. It may not be perfect – you can refine later.
  2. Come hell or high water, always finish your first draft.
  3. Golden Rule 3 – ta- dah! – is this. Successful professionals are a joy to be among and they know their job. Listen carefully to them. (I used to say publishers are always right – this is the redraft.)

The publishing world is always uncertain. No-one knows for sure what will be a success; they are all working on calculated guesses, with first books more than any other. What else do agents do for us?

  • Agents circulate your book. They do want to make money from it for you both, otherwise they don’t eat. So when the draft is right, they will send it out. That can either be a process of sending it to one to three publishers at a time or by auction, depending on the book. This is the agent’s call, not ours, though (s)he may discuss it with you. Finding a publisher may happen in a flash but it is more likely to take time. It does not always end in success either – it came as a great surprise to me that agents get rejections too. I will discuss the many reasons for rejections that are nothing to do with the quality of your draft in a later post. But many publishers will only take submissions from an agent, not from you direct, however charmingly you ask. Even if they do, a submission via your agent stands a much greater chance of being read. If an agent keeps peddling the same rejected draft without discussing modifications and tactics with you, find someone else. Your agent should field rejections for you and break them to you gently, spotting what is an invitation for further negotiations and what is not. The most wonderful thing is that with a good agent, you are not alone in this minefield. Your agent is your champion.
  • Agents help you make contacts. Each time your draft makes a targeted landing on a publisher’s desk, it leaves a calling card about you and your writing. Always be polite, hard-working, committed to a long writing career, easy to deal with. Staff in agents and publishers move from one job to another, and sometimes they live with each other and chat about their work. You want them to remember you positively for next time.
  • Agents negotiate and agree your publishing contract. It’s all gone well! You have met your agent, an interested publisher has been found and there is talk of a contract. Agents and publishers do like to meet writers face to face if possible. It’s like any job interview: they want to see if there’s enough in common for this important relationship. It’s about more than what’s on the page. An exception was my first novel (a ghost story for the 10 – 14 year age group published in Dublin, 2005) where I sent off the draft, heard nothing for a year and a half and then a contract arrived in the post out of the blue. I sat on the stairs in shock, convinced it was a mistake. Surely there was some poor darling in Galway opening my rejection. (I was well used to rejections by then: all my thoughts here are hard-earned.) So I rang them up and heard the good news that the contract was valid. There was no agent involved then but I learned later how wonderful it is to have someone on my side who can crack a deal. In the UK, you can also check things yourself with the excellent Society of Authors, through their website or on the phone.
  • A warning about contracts. An agent’s contract is likely to come by email pretty soon after you’re being taken on, and can consist of just one clear page. Publishers can take a lot longer to get on with the paperwork, if they get round to it at all. It’s not unusual to be scrabbling around with sub-clauses at the same time as you’re approving your book cover and planning a launch. The reason, as a publisher said to me once, is that a contract for an unknown author’s first book may ‘not be worth the paper it’s written on’. What if the author does not manage to finish the book as wanted? What if the publisher decides not to publish after all, or is taken over by a company with a different agenda? What is anyone going to do about it? The publisher can’t write the book and a first author cannot force publication. Neither party can prove any quantifiable loss as first books rarely make a profit of more than a thousand quid, sometimes less. There, I’ve said it. Your first book is very unlikely to make you rich. It’s the third book your publisher and agent are gambling on.
  • Agents know about foreign and translation rights and that is where the money is. Think way beyond where you live to how your book might work in India, China, Africa, Europe and the Americas.
  • Advances. I haven’t mentioned these yet because they’re not what they were and for a first-time author, they will probably be negligible. Do you go for the biggest advance anyway? However hungry you are, an independent publisher might serve your book better, give it a longer life and more attention.

These webpages are worth a look in The Writers & Artists Yearbook  and Writers’ Digest

Many agents’ websites offer helpful pages of advice too. They really do want to help you soar.

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Next week, what are publishers for? Happy writing and good luck

How to avoid painful feedback– losing track of time

Times are bad,’ he said, ‘children don’t obey their parents any more and everyone is writing a book.’ That was Cicero in 43BC. Everyone’s life is full of majestic stories but crafting them into a novel takes skill, perseverance and several rewrites that can tax the brain. That’s why writers need this feedback stage so much.

Feedbackers who give you clear, itemised lists of where you can improve your draft might make your teeth grind but at least they’re useful. It can be hard to know how to react when they are vague, unsure. They say they got lost, couldn’t finish it or, worst of all, they got bored. Bored?!! You think, how can they be bored, you’ve sweated blood over that draft …

Generalised dissatisfaction is often down to plot problems. In other words, does your story arc slacken and need a tweak or two? If you’re sure it’s not that, then it may be your use of time that’s confusing them. Let’s think about how you’re using memory and flashback.

MEMORY EXERCISES: 5 minutes each

  • Your main character is telling you in the 1st person about an important memory from early childhood, many years ago.
  • Your character is alone, quietly remembering the same event only 5 or 10 years after it happened. This can be in 1st or 3rd person, it’s up to you.
  • The day after this event happened, your character is telling someone else in your story about it.

This is about how memory alters with age and distance from the thing remembered. It also shows us that while we remember, however vividly, we stay in the present, aware of who and how we are now, while remembering.

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Manet, The Railway: 1873

Flashbacks are different.

First, let’s distinguish psychological flashbacks, where involuntary memories of traumatic experiences can invade a person’s present so vividly that it feels as if they are almost happening afresh, there and then.

Story-telling flashbacks are devices conjured by you, the writer, to bring the story from one of the story’s time zones to another for the reader’s benefit. They are like that bit of old movies where the screen goes wiggly and the characters are twenty years younger, until the screen goes wiggly again and they are back in the harsh, unhappy (or otherwise) present.

Those old films can teach us a thing or two, namely:

  • It’s important that readers are clear when you’re going into flashback and coming out again. They often read to relax with a mind full of work stress, children playing close by or with a busload of distracting people around them. If we are going to do something unrealistic like fiddle about in our use of time, we should guide them confidently.
  • The shorter your flashbacks, the more easily your reader will keep track of what’s going on. If a flashback goes on too long, you risk losing people. (Unless your whole book is in flashback and your reader knows that.)

FLASHBACK EXERCISES

  1. Your character is doing something mundane: cooking, driving, maybe daydreaming at work. What triggers the flashback? Hover there and concentrate on that moment. Then describe to yourself your character’s sensual awareness. Go through the five main senses (sight, sound, taste, smell, touch) and heat and cold, tension and relaxation, readiness or sleepiness and so on. Find one or two predominant ones – if your character is washing up, has he paused to feel the water swoosh around the hands? Noticed an aroma or something out of a window? Now take your character into the flashback and write it. Using that sensual experience, the swoosh of water again, come back out of the flashback and write the character’s reflections on it. Bring the reader securely back to the book’s present world.
  2. Now, what did you want that flashback to do? Explore this free writing, for yourself.

Lastly today, let’s try a version of our first memory exercise:

  • Your character, many years after the incident in a flashback, is telling you (the writer) about it for the first time, in the first person.
  • Explore on your page or screen how these exercises have shown you how memory and flashback differ. Both can be exciting, heart-breaking, immediate in their different ways – what do they have to offer in their different ways?

Next week we will start looking at how to send your novel out and get it published. Exciting!

Happy writing.