Originally for SYP Scotland | We kicked off our 2016 events with How To Get Published, an evening of insight from an author, agent and editor, through the process of taking a manuscript and getting it to print. With it being both invaluable and frank in advice, we’ve got a comprehensive recap for those who wouldn’t make it.
The panel featured agent Jenny Brown, author and Saltire First Book of the Year winner Helen McClory, and James Crawford, publisher at Historic Environment Scotland. While they do fit into the ‘author, agent, and editor’ spec, they also have experience in each other’s fields, making it a mix of advice for each step of the process.
A few take-aways:
- There’s not enough new non-fiction coming through, so seriously consider it.
- Use interest from an agent as leverage with others you’ve submitted to – agents hate to feel they’re missing out.
- Understand that publishing is a business and know the market you’re aiming for.
- Be professional, always.
- Never do without an editor.
- It can be hard, but it isn’t impossible.
“The most sustained relationship you’ll have will be with your agent.”
We tackle the book in chronological fashion, so let’s begin with the writing process: “My first book, I set myself the goal of writing a story a day,” begins Helen. “In April 2014, I started typing.” She writes flash fiction, stories under 1000 words, and in a month and a half she had a collection. It explored monstrousness, what makes a person a person. She started submitting it as she knew at the very least her self-imposed theme gave it cohesiveness.
She looked online, researching publishers that took flash fiction and slightly more experimental work. The first she liked replied “tsking because I put Scots words in the story”. You’ve got to be aware about things about grammar and dialect when looking to international markets: no one outside of Scotland will accept outwith as a word.
Helen recently asked Queen’s Ferry Press, who did publish her, why: she established a connection to their work by listing an author they published that she liked, it was a short submission, she’d been published in US journals, Monstirs (original title) was interesting. “She didn’t mention here, she was also born in Scotland!”
But how about submitting to agents? Is it an idea, a completed manuscript, or in little bits? “All of those parts,” says Jenny. There are so many writers. 95% of them are submitting fiction, but if you look at UK publishing, it’s 40% non-fiction, and 60% fiction. “There’s not enough new non-fiction.”
Fiction, she says, needs to be consistent from the first to last page so should be complete on submission; non-fiction doesn’t have to be finished. You need to say why you’re best to do the project, and “if that’s compelling enough, it’s enough to get you a book deal.”
She prefers email submissions, although she gets 1-2,000 per month. In deciding what you’re going to do, do research about who to send it to. It can take months just to research this properly. “We’ve all got our own individual preferences. Find the agents who love the work you’re writing.” Look at the acknowledgements of books and you’ll often find the agents and editors. Approach perhaps five agents initially. If you get a nibble of interest, use it as leverage to nudge others. They hate thinking they’re losing out. Interest = your work at the top of the pile.
“They need the same vision and same ambition as you,” says Jenny, noting to try read the agents for that. “There’s so much movement in publishing, the most sustained relationship you’ll have will be with your agent.”
“Ultimately, agents are just looking for talent.”
So how do you know when your work is fit for publishing, and when to approach people? For James, he says that before submitting to a publisher, “I would say get an agent. Agents know what they’re doing and what people are looking for. A lot of it is lunching editors, getting to know them and what they like.” An agent who can recommend your book as something ideal opens more doors than just being on the slush pile and hoping to be found. “Ultimately, agents are just looking for talent.”
“One of the toughest aspects of being an agent is that I expected of a lot of submissions to be technically fine but the story, message, voice wasn’t quite there.” Actually, that’s 1-5%, the other 95% couldn’t write.
“You become better by reading,” he adds, but admits that how to do it ‘correctly’ is, “the toughest thing to answer. If talent is there, it will get discovered. Help by putting it under the nose of the right people. Lots of manuscripts I read were discarded after the first paragraph as they were so bad.”
That is one issue, in that many people finish a first draft and start sending it out there. There are, as Jenny notes, lots of steps you can take before heading out to agents and publishers. There’s the Scottish Book Trust New Writer’s Award, Moniack Mhor Writer Centre whose courses are very, very helpful. There’s Emergents, who recently ran a day of Twitter pitches. People who do manuscript appraisal – quite a few resources that make Scotland the envy of other countries.
Helen wrote a novel for her PhD which was “quite validating”, but by the 8th draft her supervisor disliked it. That 9th draft was where it clicked, on hearing rejection “you have that resolve or you don’t.” She got an agent off the back of the novel, but she points out you need a good agent. They fit and seem nice, but “are they going to take your book to where it needs to go?” Her agent was lovely, but got overwhelmed. Get a good agent, see that they have a proven track record – you need that.
“Show that you’re serious about your writing.”
Helen moved to New York and worked as an intern at a literary agency, where she learned one key skill: how to write a query letter. A good one shows professionalism – there’s often a naive point of view that it’s a creative work of art and should be presented in a flowery, friendly way. “Write it like a job application, make sure you get the person’s name right.” Often she’d find rude query letters, with undertones of sexism or racism in flippant comments.
Jenny recounts the worst she’s had, where the last paragraph stated: “I am told I have the sort of voice that would give the angels multiple orgasms.” She notes that this letter is the start of your professional relationship, so view whatever you say through that lens.
So what really works? “Good writing, no mistakes,” says James. “It’s the hardest thing because there’s no trick, no gimmick. It arrests you as a reader, it’s a gut feeling.”
“You should show that you’re serious about your writing,” adds Jenny. “That you see a career in front of you as a writer. Mention competitions and anthologies you’ve won or been part of – that helps.”
“Your voice is so important.”
As questions open to the floor, it’s queried if there’s a correct order to do it? Could you get an agent once a publisher expresses interest? Agents can help with contracts, and you can also join the Society of Authors once you have a contract. That publisher interest is also more attractive to an agent, so there’s nothing wrong with doing it that way around.
When it comes to anthologies, are there any that would stand out above others? Gutter is mentioned as one that much emergent talent can be found in, but James adds, “We’re always on the lookout for good writers. Loads of Scottish published authors don’t have an agent. When I have time I look and I start reading things like University-compiled short stories.” The problem is they’re often too busy to keep this search up constantly.
“Emergents day of pitching,” says Jenny. No CV required. You come to them, tell them your idea, get direct feedback. It’s good not to always rely on the office and find different ways to hear ideas and source work.
One concern is that publishing can seem impenetrable, with more and more people winning prizes coming through academia. James is quick to note a recent example of publishing noting this and trying to act on it: Penguin Random House recently scrapped their requirement for applicants to have a degree. He points out that if everyone comes from the same background, that starts to reflect on what’s being published. “Publishing just now comes from a certain demographic,” he adds. “It’s being slowly addressed. The London hub is not helpful either, or not coming from an affluent background.” But the consensus is publishing is starting to react to address this.
When the idea of changing her voice to become more accepted is raised, like ditching the Scots, Helen says she wouldn’t. “In literary fiction, your voice is so important. You do have this weird sense you’re throwing yourself at a wall that’s there that’s never going to turn into a door.” But she advocates Twitter as a way of finding events and contests that allow you to test our your voice and see what’s out there.
“Ultimately, publishing is a business.”
But are you limited to your home region in terms of interest? “Think about what your career is and where it’s going to go,” says Helen. “Certain styles suit the UK or US more. That understanding of what you’re writing into, understanding the market you’re trying to write into, is important.”
“Ask ‘Who? Why? Where?’ of your work,” adds James. “It can cross oceans and work.”
Understanding what you’re writing is also applicable to genre – how important is it that you can define where you fit before approaching people? “I write in an odd field, and the biggest criticism I received was always, ‘Where would we put this on the shelf?’,” explains Helen. “Have a really good idea of what it is, how someone would explain it. It’s really important – you’ll get rejected a lot without that.”
“Ultimately, publishing is a business,” notes James. While it may be a labour of love for the author to begin with, it must make sense economically for both agents and publishers to continue to make money. “You need to run it like a business. Authors need to come in understanding that and not be precious about categories.”
Author payment is a particularly hot topic at the moment, as book festivals have been criticised for having authors perform for free. Jenny notes that Scotland did come out of that well, as with Creative Scotland funding, they’re required to pay authors, and most of our festivals do have that. More so, Edinburgh Book Festival, for example, pays all authors £200 regardless of who they are.
As for payment on a book, it’s not as luxurious as many may feel. A good offer nowadays would be a £10,000 advance, where in the past it would be perhaps six times that. You’ve to think how long that has to last: you get a quarter on signing the contract, a quarter on delivering the manuscript and having it accepted, a quarter on the publication of hardback if it goes that way, and the final quarter on the paperback publication. That could take years, and suddenly doesn’t look so great.
There are ways to boost that: for non-fiction you’d hope to get Radio 4 book of the week, which would bring in another £2-3,000. Foreign deals help too. The first publication will unlock funding to you. Being a published author unlocks the Society of Authors, scholarships, bursaries, the Live Lit scheme with Scottish Book Trust – the first advance is hardly enough, but opens many doors. Helen also recommends things like the Banff mountain residency in Canada that she took part in – 5 weeks, fully funded – and you didn’t have to be published. Only 40 people applied. There’s the Robert Louis Stevenson fellowship too. Good boost for the CV and brings in some money prior to getting signed.
“Never ever do without an editor.”
The next hot topic is self-publishing. Is it a good thing to pursue? “It’s fantastic,” says Jenny. “At last, authors can take it into their own hands.” There are genres that excel in e-format like crime and women’s fiction, so why not go for it? “You can do without an agent, you can do without a publisher, but never ever do without an editor. Make sure it’s as tight as can be.”
When it comes to self-publishing, James thinks, “Why not? It depends what you’re looking for. You could want to get published, if you want to write just to get your voice out there and have a great story to tell, then do it!”
With that comes the need for self-promotion, and Helen is a strong advocate of Twitter. “Writers, from the beginning of time, have found reasons to procrastinate,” she says. “These things can fit into your way of writing. It’s much more productive to spot something and chat on Twitter. With a small press, there’s zero publicity for my book. The whole thing was on my shoulders.”
What came of that pressure is an interesting precedent for others to consider: she turned to Kickstarter and raised $1,000 to fund a book tour in the US. She was on podcasts, she was added to the subscription list of a small independent publisher just by meeting the owner and choosing his bookshop from her home in Scotland. “You are not powerless if you don’t have an agent, or are just beginning.”
As for opportunities book prizes “give oxygen to books that might have been missed,” notes Jenny, where Helen recommends people putting themselves forward for Edinburgh Book Festival’s Story Shop, where they get local writers to speak, acknowledging you as a writer. She also recommends City of Lit as a great thing to be part of.
Relationships in your career have already been touched on, but what if an editor isn’t aiding your voice, but hindering it? “You can get people who are not the right fit,” says James. “Often they like it and get it. Ultimately, it’s subjective. There is a level of ability and then it becomes a subjective back and forth to get the right thing.”
Jenny tells of an author who had two books picked up by an editor who retired mid-process – they had been fantastic, but once gone no one championed those books through the whole journey. “What you’re looking for is a series of champions for your book”, from editorial through marketing, and so on.
“It’s an important point to make that the editors are going out on a limb,” adds James. They often say “I think this’ll be brilliant” and are challenged to impress the rest of the company who have their own books to push. They have to believe in it and fight for it. “Everyone is taking chances, but a lot of it is down to gut instinct.”
“It is hard but not impossible.”
It’s been an evening that delves into many areas of the publishing world, but we close with some top tips from each panelist:
Helen: Have a reader in mind. Do your research. Do your research again. Do it some more. Resources are out there. Be professional always. Don’t take rejections personally. There is nothing personal in rejections. Keep your spirits up.
James: Echo the research. Understand the market, understand the industry. Try to get an agent but there are many routes to go down. Find a useful sounding board. Don’t tell agents that your voice will make them orgasm.
Jenny: Develop your pitch appropriate to the situation. In public situations have a 2-3 sentence, interesting, engaging summary of what you’re doing. Have a couple of paragraphs more that’s useful for a follow up situation. “What are you writing?” You’ve got an answer. “There have been some dismal stories – it is hard but not impossible. Serendipity happens, luck happens, you don’t know until you’ve tried. Serendipity could happen.”