Saturday 6 September 2014

Worldcon: The Business of Writing

One of the deciding factors in my going to Worldcon (beyond the whole actually being able to get there thing), was my decision a few months back that I needed to get serious about my writing. With 150,000 words written in the last three months, a first draft novel sitting maturing on the shelf and several other projects underway, it was clearly more than time to start getting professional advice. So when it came to picking panels to attend, the choice was almost universally related to my writing needs, and fell into three groups: Young Adult Fiction, as one of my projects is clearly YA, but it's not an area I've been extensively exposed to recently; Diversity, as I'm clearly a diverse author writing diverse fiction (I'm disabled, and my writing tends to reflect that); and the pure Business of Writing.

I took a bunch of notes, though choosing to use my tablet without its keyboard wasn't ideal - it insisted on trying to spellcheck anything it didn't recognise as it was entered, which it doesn't do when used with the keyboard, and that drastically reduced my notetaking - particularly as my lousy coordination combined with needing a new pair of glasses meant I was hitting the wrong key on the screen more often than not. I'd have taken a whole lot more notes given the option, and next time I know to use the keyboard. This piece expands on those notes I did manage to take and hopefully it will be helpful to people who couldn't be there as well as being a vehicle for organising my own thoughts. As I was primarily focused on logging ideas, and fighting a word-processor that barfed over any name not in spellcheck, a lot of this is unfortunately going to be unattributed points, and quotes shouldn't be assumed to be verbatim. I wish I'd been able to get people's names tagged to points, it feels slightly disrespectful not to have them identified, but I'm stuck with my notes and my memory, so apologies to anyone whose points I'm using without appropriate attribution, and especially to anyone whose points I've mangled.

Finding An Agent

A great query letter is all you need! Write a great manuscript and the rest doesn't matter! Network at conventions and you're in good shape! These nuggets of advice and dozens like them float around the writersphere as gospel. How many of these have a ring of truth? What is the secret to finding an agent? And what does an agent do once you have one? Our agents will decrypt the process.

The Finding an Agent panel featured a stellar line-up of editors, and when asked the question whether people in the room were looking for an agent, pretty much everyone in the room held up their hand, which made for a very focused session.

When it comes to genre publishing, John Jarrold has pretty much done it all, and listening to him speak you could understand why. If he is remotely as forceful in his opinions of why a book should be published as he is in saying what he expects from a prospective writer, then I want him in my corner! Joshua Bilmes of JABberwocky was more soft-spoken, but made a whole bunch of interesting points. Ian Drury seemed the quintessential agent's agent, everything about him confirming that his agency has been doing this for over a century, and knows the business inside out. Betsy Mitchell kept everyone in order as moderator, while Jacey Bedford was stuck with being the token writer on a panel of agents.

JJ: told us he wants a submission to "Wow me." And that when you're done with that first draft, put it away for at least a month before you even think of editing it.

JB: said he wants writers to 'Be interesting as a person'. As agents are effectively choosing workmates, I guess that makes an awful lot of sense.

It was emphasised that you need to be willing to work with the agent and chop entire characters and chapters if that is what they think the work needs. (And if you aren't willing to work with the agent, why do you really want one?)

The Absolute Write Water Cooler forum was flagged up as a useful resource - it's an online community of writers, editors and agents.

Research, research, research was emphasised in selecting agents to make a pitch to - there's little point in pitching a YA fantasy to someone who only handles factual books. Make appropriate choices.

A particularly interesting suggestion (from John Jarrold if memory serves) was to go and check the Acknowledgements in recent works. Not only does this identify agents working in the field, but it lets you see who they're handling and areas where they work.

Building on that last point, referencing what you found in Acknowledgements in your query letter will then help establish that you have done the research and have the genre background - but that doesn't mean you can make it longer than a single page!

It was heavily emphasized that you should individualise queries, and the need to get the agents name right was equally heavily emphasised - which suggests a lot of people are falling at this most basic of hurdles. A less obvious point was to tell the agent how many other agents the pitch is going to in this round. John Jarrold suggested half a dozen agents at a time is an appropriate number.

If an agent asks for exclusive submission then it was agreed that the writer should expect, and if need be demand, quicker turnaround.

There was pretty much unanimous agreement that agents should reply to a pitch, even if just to say 'no thanks', though it was clear that there are agents out there who don't.

Don't resubmit a reworked manuscript to an agent unless they explicitly say they want you to resubmit it given certain changes.

It was emphasised by several people that the industry is very subjective, agents will reject stuff others are desperate to represent, and rejection doesn't necessarily mean the story doesn't work.

Even if you're trying to market a book, you should always keep writing something new, though one suggestion was that you probably shouldn't write a sequel until the first volume is sold.

JJ: It took Iain Banks 14 years and six novels to sell his first novel.

JB: Younger/junior agents may be more willing to take a chance on an author, but eventually become more selective as they learn what will sell.

JJ:  70 per cent of the market is still print, and while epublishing is growing, self-publishing is a turn-off to agents.

Less obvious advantages of agents are that they know the business, and can cover you versus business errors, because they know the mistakes publishers make. Ian Drury noted he will sit down with a calculator and check what sales should translate to in royalties, and that in doing this he has caught errors being made by publishers in payments to his authors. Agents also provide access to foreign markets , which can add up to be multiples of the original deal, and can save you rights to sell elsewhere that you might not get if you try to deal directly with a publisher. John Jarrold noted that while publishers have standard contracts that will be offered by default, they will often have customised contracts with individual agents.

Some agents don't get heavily involved in the editing process, others do and are better for it.

JJ: sees 30 books a week, but only takes on 4 authors a year

If an agent wants exclusivity on a manuscript then three weeks is about appropriate.

Even if an agent wants to take on your work, it was suggested that you need to be sure that you want to work with them. The Writer's Market has a list of questions for agents, take a look at it and pick the ones that are most appropriate to your needs - but don't demand the agent answer all 20 of them.

We were reminded that agents are facing the same issues in dealing with publishers that writers can face in getting and dealing with agents. It can be 18 months for an agent to get a reply to a pitch from a publisher, and that reply can be a sale.

It's about a career, think about your long term strategy. In trying to develop our careers we can write all over different genres, but only until we're dealing with agent and publishers, at that point we will be locked in by the market.

Asked how many authors they represented, John Jarrold said 40, Ian Drury 34, while Joshua Bilmes said JABberwocky represents about 50 spread over four staff.

You can look for an agent and send publishers submissions in parallels.

In answer to a question I asked - how can we tell where the market is going, for instance the comment that Urban Fantasy is oversubscribed and contracting, when we're only seeing decisions 18 months to two years after the publishers have made them when the books appear on the shelves - John Jarrold suggested analysing publishers' release listings specifically for books by new authors in order to determine market directions.

Many publishers no longer have slush piles and will only take agented manuscripts. This is pretty much across the board for the major UK houses, though some US publishers will still buy from the slush pile.

Master of Dark Arts: an insight into editing for writers

Stephen Jones is interviewed by Lynda E. Rucker about editing short dark fiction, providing insight for new and current writers. Pointers and pitfalls will both be covered, as well as how the writer/editor relationship works, and what professional writers and editors should expect from each other.

Unlike the other sessions this was set up as a one on one interview, with Stephen Jones being interviewed by fellow writer Lynda Rucker. As a result all comments below are by Stephen Jones. The discussion opened with SJ discussing his career before moving on to talk about the details of publishing and being an author and an anthology editor.

You're not published until someone else publishes you!

It may no longer be possible to have a career as a writer, or at least as only a writer - so don't give up the day job when you make your first sale!

Think of your long term career goals. SJ noted in the opening discussion of his career that his initial goals had been to be published author, to be a published cover artist, and to be an award winner, all within his twenties - which he achieved.

Publishers no longer build author careers in the way they once did.

There's not a lot of money in writing.

Authors used to get a percentage of the cover price, they now get a percentage of what the publishers receive from the bookseller.

The lead time for a book is at least 7 months, mostly you're selling projects two years ahead

In constructing a story:
  • What do you want to achieve with the story?
  • Have an ending in mind.
  • Always a compromise (unfortunately I didn't note down what it is a compromise between, apologies)
  • Need subtext - Horror (and other genres) should reflect society around us. SJ says he isn't seeing a societal subtext in recent stories. Your aims should be 1. Entertainment, 2. subtext.
  • Your target audience is a 13yo who doesn't read books and who you want to change to an active reader

Always have a professional goal

You need to read in the genre.

You also need to read outside the genre, we're not a ghetto.

When you're starting out, you don't need an agent - it isn't a difficult job to get one if you have a deal.

Short stories are a great calling card.

If you have a chance, don't be afraid to pitch in the bar, but buy them a drink!

Follow Locus Online.

Make it as easy as possible for editors and agents - get spellings and punctuation right.

Always have an interesting title

Always have a hook in the opening, and then another hook...

Get the best cover you can.

What Does an Editor Do?

Publishing is like Rubik's Cube, only with more words and less logic. What exactly goes on in one of these publishing houses? Do editors do more than edit? How do sales and marketing interact with editorial? This panel will take a look into the hallways of publishing, pulling back the curtain to reveal the mysterious Oz that controls all the books. Is it a grand mysterious wizard behind there or just a bunch of word gerbils spinning their hamster wheels like the rest of us?

My notes for the editors' session somehow ended up split into two sections, with other stuff in between, I think I've gotten everything put back together as should be, but it's just possible something may have slipped in from another session. On the other hand everything seems relevant.

The session was helmed by Ginjer Buchanan, fresh from winning the Hugo for Best Editor - Long Form. Alongside her were Jane Johnson Publishing Director at Harper Collins, Lee Harris, who heads the new novella imprint at Tor.Com and is the former Senior Editor for Angry Robot (and was a 2014 Hugo nominee for Best Editor - Long Form), Abigail Nathan, who is a British freelance editor now operating out of Australia, and Steve Staffel, senior acquiring editor with Titan Books.

There was a discussion of the decisions in buying a book, estimating sales, involving production and sales staff, etc. Unfortunately my notes here are unintelligible, so I'm stuck with just the broadest brush of memory and no detail. Mea culpa!

Margin: Publishers used to aim for 53%. That's a dream nowadays.

You can have a massive ad campaign and associated reviews in the press all ready to roll for a book you're convinced will be massively successful and then the Queen Mum dies and your publicity campaign crashes and burns.

Editors/Publishers are thinking a year and a half ahead, they are already setting their 2016 releases, 2017 for series.

Bestsellers: the numbers required to make a bestseller list are very variable and depend on factors such whether the latest Pratchett is in the list. There is a big fall off in numbers between the Sunday Times number 3 and number 10.

The best-selling fantasy book last year was George RR Martin's latest Game of Thrones and sold 166k copies, the bestselling non-genre book sold 600k copies. The best-selling SF book sold 51k copies. ISTR it was noted in one panel, probably here, that Amazon (and other e-publishers?) won't release their sales figures, so these figures are print only, without e-publishing.

Epic fantasy is 43% of the market

For British publishers, the Commonwealth market is important, Australia and New Zealand represent up to a third of sales.

A lot of authors have day jobs....

E-books are now 40% of market, probably more for SF/F

Of books bought from Amazon for under a pound, 82% are never read further than page 10.

Lee Harris talked a little about Tor's new novella line, which he had literally just taken charge of, they are looking for work in the 17.5 to 45k word range and seriously looking at serialization.

It was noted (admitted!) that not all editors are good copy-editors

Editing was defined as a three pass process.
  • Global edit pass - the acquiring editor will talk about the plot and characterization, so looking at structural changes rather than grammatical ones.
  • Line edit - this looks at consistency, overuse of particular words, and may make minor textual adjustments
  • Copy-editors - this is a detailed pass looking at grammar, spelling, continuity
In addition to Acquiring and Copy Editors, big houses may also have a Managing Editor who oversees and passes stuff around between the staff.

Abigail Nathan noted that copy-editors can end up doing a lot of fact checking, including physically going to places. Google Streetview was mentioned as something very useful for checking landscape/environment facts, which made me smile as I've been using it in my own writing for a while.

When we say 'Editors' we generally mean acquiring editors

We were pointed at Stephen King's Misery as a masterclass in characterization

Junior editorial staff are building a rep, so possibly a more accessible target. At the bigger US publishers they often have to look at the slush while senior staff often only take agented manuscripts.

The agent relationship is very intimate, the agent needs to be the right person for you. Editors can also be focused on being the right person with respect to the author.

Lee Harris commented that Angry Robot have an annual 30 day submission window for unagented manuscripts, last time they got 991 novel submissions

Editors need passion, they frequently spend all day project managing and often only get to work on manuscripts after hours.

End Notes

There were other business of writing panels, but there were times I had solid arguments as to why I should be in eight different panels at once (I'm not exaggerating, though mostly it was only three or four) and it was just impossible to get to more than a fraction of the panels I wanted to attend, particularly when I was trying to satisfy three different strands of interest. I found the three panels I did get to tremendously valuable and I hope these notes will be similarly useful for people who couldn't be there. I've linked each participant to their bio page on the LonCon3 website and if you're at all interested in becoming a writer then I'd strongly suggest taking a run through their websites and following those of them who are on Twitter.

1 comment:

  1. I'm so behind on my blog reading! I don't know how I missed this.

    I've worked on the production/managing editorial side of publishing in the US from an independent production company (which also could do managing editorial, typesetting, and design). It's the sort of thing that meant I was in contact at some point with pretty much everyone in the process from the head of the company to marketing to the printer so you have to have a strong familiarity with the entire process . The largest client I had was actually part of Tor's print paperback books although the size of the clients I worked with ranged down to a start-up with only 1 or 2 full time employees. So if you'd ever like another perspective/have any questions that I might be able to answer, feel free to poke me on Facebook or email (if you have mine). I also know of at least one free online source for info that's more detailed that your notes about some of the "how to present" a manuscript things. While my knowledge is all US-based, from what I can tell, the process isn't really different in the UK.

    I happen to also be a SF/F reader and when I can, I go to cons. I've never been to something as large as WorldCon, but I've been to one of the big cons of the world-con ilk (rather than the for profit things like ComiCon) in the northwestern US as well as several small ones. When you can manage things like that, they are great for networking. One thing that I was told in the US, at least, is that if you're at a con and happen to be chatting with a relevant editor at the bar or wherever, if they say they'd be interested in seeing your manuscript, it all of a sudden becomes at solicited manuscript even if you don't have an agent. They're also just plain good for meeting authors who are already successful in your area who can turn into readers for manuscripts before you actually start even looking for an agent (I know someone who pretty much did that with a YA fantasy novel). Also, feeling like you want to be in 8-panels at once is fairly common ;-) The only con where I didn't generally have that problem was one that's tiny and very local to where I grew up that didn't always even have multiple panels happening. (Also, very, very repetitive panels from year to year). I don't know if there are cons that are near you at other times, but I'm also happy to share my con-going tips from a fellow bendy.

    Sorry, this comment ended up about 5x as long as long as I meant it to. I'm assuming that I'm the only one of your FB friends who has my first name & is a bendy so that you can ID who I am.