Saturday, September 08, 2007

Determination, willpower...and loving what you do

The key ingredients for publishing success

This article was first published in the South Australian Writers' Centre newsletter in 2001 and was written in response to writers complaining (as they do regularly) about publishing success statisticss One of the issues discussed is why the publishing industry has to be selective about what they publish (and why I agree).

I know how crap it is getting rejected, I have a pile of rejection letters and still receive them, as well as long, comprehensive and frigheningly rigorous (and accurate), reports on my novels for publication by both my publishers.

I wrote a couple of novel manuscripts before I had figured out exactly what I wanted to write (and what I was okay at writing) and if any of those manuscripts say the sharp sting of daylight I'd be sobbing myself clean with humiliation (not a rare expereince in this industry but still, good to reduce the numbers if I can).

I see over a hundred manuscripts a year through Driftwood and the various mentoring and editing jobs I do, not including the work I see through TAFE and ARTS SA and only a couple would be at a stage where the work can be developed into a publishable manuscript in a short time. Most manuscripts I see require lengthy rewriting based on reports designed to direct the author's eye and to assist them to be as objective as possible about their own work (and how it stands up against other, similar books in the marketplace). Many are in need of a great deal more work than this, (The ones who want it badly enough generally succeed).

It never gets easier, but it's always a great job.

Love what you do and you'll find it a whole hell of a lot easier to be good at it...


Obviously there are no rules to getting published, or writing a best-seller, but I have found one of the greatest ways of improving my work, and understanding the industry I have chosen, is to research. Just as it would with any other industry, your work will always improve by exposure to the people who know the industry best and the work that succeeds within it (NB This means you can read a lot, one of the best perks of the job). The SAWC have a huge amount of material and activities, the content of which really changed the course of my career.

Only about 5% of the membership attend the fantastic seminars held every year featuring top agents, authors and editors. Anyone who wants to see their work in print should take the opportunity to listen to discussions about the publishing industry as often as possible. It was a revelation to me to hear sales reps talk about books as products and realise that agents read through hundreds of manuscripts a year, looking for a best-seller.

Every magazine like Australian Bookseller and Publisher and Good Reading helps you understand what is competing against your work. Every visit to the bookshop should involve finding the exact spot where your book should be on the shelves, and then finding out what else is there, and then reading those books. Who is publishing them? When were the authors signed? Who represents those authors? How long are the books and how many characters do they involve? Find out whatever is relevant to you and use it.

It is a very competitive industry, as much so for the editors as the authors. Editors want to publish your work as much as you do, as long as they are confident it will be an great read for at least a couple of thousand others – hopefully tens of thousands. At the Adelaide Writers' Week in 2000, Gary Fisketjon, at Knopf, said, 'Sales reps and editors and authors and publishers all want the same thing - good books that sell'.

But it seems he's wrong. They don't have to be good; they have to be great. Editors want an author they can keep publishing and I think it's easier to do that by making sure you know what they want. It is often not your first or even second manuscript that will be published, and during this process you will hopefully be finding out why they are not selling and what you can do to change it. There are many ways to do this. As agent and publisher, Derek Johns, said, 'I think you'll find this (producing a publishable manuscript) is much more of a process than a war.'

When a member of the panel audience at Writers Week said, 'In an ideal world all books would be published,' Johns replied that that it sounded like his idea of hell. This only emphasised the distance that exists between emerging writers and the industry, but it's up to each writer to close it for him or herself.

Knowledge breeds confidence and I really recommend this sort of research to anyone unsure of where to go next with their work. Sit down for a day in the SAWC, as I did, and read all the interstate Writers' Centre newsletters, and all the writing related magazines and journals. Getting a feel for what is going on around Australia helped me understand what was out there and what I could do to improve my writing. It really did work.

Jane Palfreyman, from Random House, once said that, 'trying to predict the next big thing is hard and there is no point in copying the successes of other books. Always try to do something for the first time. The punt is not on the book, but on whether the book will reach the appropriate market.' Cate Paterson, from PanMacMillan, agreed, telling me that 'if we knew what was going to make a Harry Potter we’d just bottle it…There is a huge degree of luck involved in publishing, some indefinable thing'.

I think sometimes you can make your own luck, and the best ingredients are probably determination, and willpower. Oh, and you have to love it more than almost anything else. I really believe it's the difficult things in life that are worth doing, and it seems to me that the more I understood the industry, the less difficult it appeared.

Listening to:A freakish bird song/ambient CD that has my parrots in thrall (listening to the soundtrack ot The Talented Mr. Ripley on my headphones)
Eating: Porridge. I'm both lazy and undernourished...
Thinking about: All the mother ducks trying to get their ducklings across Adelaide roads. Please drive slowly or help them out by getting out to guide traffic (it's not so much embarrassing as really cool)
Watching: The local news like it's porn. Chas got arrested again... Oh, and Chris Lilley on 'Summer Heights High'. We are very lucky to have him on our TVs (Wednesdays is the only night there's anything good on and of course, everything's on that one damn night...)
Wearing: A huge vintage fake diamond bracelet that I F#%?*g can't get off without smashing and therfore I've been going to the Post Office and pub like I think I'm Ivana Trump.
Reading: 'Guide to a Well-Behaved Parrot' by Mattie Sue Athan ( I'm starting to think, however, that Ms. Athan is a little too big for her britches because when I picked it up yesterday to read I noticed the cover and first couple pages have been half eaten off by one of my parrots)