Thursday, 26 April 2012

Getting Published Today

No, I'm not actually getting published today - that's the title of an interesting event I went to a few weekends ago as part of Cambridge Wordfest.

Three experts were lined up to speak on the challenges facing aspiring authors:

Jill Dawson, acclaimed author of seven novels, and founder of Gold Dust, a mentoring scheme pairing new writers with established ones.

Nicola Morgan, author of many fiction books and the blog ‘Help I Need a Publisher’, which is crammed full of useful information, plus the odd bit of ‘crabbit’ advice.

Rebecca Swift, a former editor at Virago, now director of Arts Council-funded leading manuscript assessment service, The Literary Consultancy.

The three speakers knew their stuff, and the audience befitted from ten minute slots by each of them, followed by a question and answer session.

Much as you would expect, there were no miracle answers provided. Publishers will only takes books if they think they will sell. They are, after all, businesses and about making money. That’s not to say they don’t love books. They do, but sometimes they will take on the ‘right’ book, as opposed to a ‘good’ book, which is how all those celebs get their ghost written books out there. For more on that read this article by Danuta Kean about why those not so good books can become best-sellers (with some interesting comments).

Publishers dream of a book coming along which is both right for the market and good writing. We all know that great books do get published and the message from the three experts was to make your writing the best it can be, with the hook to convince the sales and marketing team at an acquisitions meeting that your sales will top the charts, or least make their advance back. Nicola Morgan has lots of this in her book 'Write to be Published'. Buy it, it makes enlightening reading for someone new to the game, as does this article on howpublishers make decisions.

I found it heartening that they all maintained that good writing is always going to be important and Jill Dawson said that rewriting is an essential part of getting there and should be looked forward to. Rebecca Swift advised writing from the heart, but all three speakers said that if you engage your head at the same time, there are things writers can do to improve their chances of finding an agent and getting published.

Knowing your genre was seen as vital. Knowing who is writing what for your target audience will make sure you don’t try to pitch your novel only to be met with publishers telling you they have exactly that out there already. It will also help you find the focussed insight that makes your book different from all the others in the genre, while walking along the fine tight rope of keeping it similar enough, since publishers apparently want same but different.

Linked to knowing your genre, was the advice to research who and what agents are representing before sending your manuscript to them. Nicola Morgan warned the assembled audience to ‘beware crappy agents’ and to find out about what clients they have, how successful they are and what experience they have of the publishing industry.

There was a great deal of advice about pitching, and since Wordfest I have spent time working on how to pitch my novel in 25 words, in a short paragraph and in a 2 page synopsis. Indeed, immediately after the event I purchased Nicola Morgan’s book and downloaded her ebook - 'Write a Great Synopsis'. Trying to showcase your writing in this way in not easy and needs to be given as much care as writing your novel. The aim is to achieve something functional enough to show what happens in the story, but with just the right amount about your characters, their flaws, motivations and goals, to make someone want to read about them.

A few words of warning were given to those tempted to self-publish via digital means. While no-one said ‘don’t do it’, they did say that careful preparation and sound editing were required. It was suggested that the time might come when publishers would look for an author having an ebook platform before they would consider them for mainstream publishing. Having the ‘right’ book out there in a digitally self-published form could improve your chances with mainstream publishers, but having something poorly produced, with lots of mistakes, could harm your potential success. Rebecca Swift, will be running a conference in early June about Writing in a Digital Age, which will cover the pitfalls of self-publishing ebooks.

All three speakers mentioned the dreaded rejection letters, saying it is going to happen and you just have to develop thicker skins to that and after, if you do strike gold and get published, to critical reviews.

So a big pat on the back to Cambridge Wordfest for organising such an interesting event. It’s proving to be a joy moving to an area of the country with so much going on for writers. All I need to do now is find the perfect writing group and the perfect critical partner. I’m sure they are out there somewhere round here.