For what it’s worth, I’m giving a few opinions on SF and Fantasy publishing, and Solaris, over at Speculative Horizons blog…
writing & publishing
So, yesterday I took the train down to the Big Smoke to see my agent and visit the offices of Macmillan. It was one of those really, really cool moments. I met up with John for a coffee before hand, and had the usual chat about the world with him. Then, we meandered to the offices of Macmillan in North London, not too far from King’s Cross Station. Very plush reception, with fancy LCD screens of book covers, and for the more traditional folk, actual books themselves in smart, sleek display cases.
Then Peter Lavery popped open the door full of handshakes and smiles, and I instantly liked him. Well, I did before really, but you know what I mean. This was the guy who published China Miéville, Peter F. Hamilton, Hal Duncan. Stunningly talented writers. So I was rather in editorial awe of the man. He took us on a brief tour of the building. We passed a chorus of spectacularly charming publishing ladies on their way out to lunch—where did they come from and where did they go? (This made even more bitter-sweet, by the fact I must face Christian and George at Solaris on my return to work.)
Then I met the rights people, the digital chap, the cover design chap—all people who I’d be involved with in one way or another, because it’s a big, big operation there—Rebecca and Steph who flank Peter’s main office and handle their own list of authors, and who used to work with him on the Tor list, and of course, the hub of Tor itself, Peter’s office. Plenty of books on them shelves. Unsurprisingly, a couple went home with me. Alan Campbell’s Scar Night, and a signed Vellum, by Hal Duncan. A moment later, one of the ladies announced she had porn on her desk; an eyebrow raised, I glanced over to investigate, only to find one of those new trendy-sex-romp-style fiction books, and I’m still not sure what I was expecting to see there.
I’m not sure I could ever bore of being referred to as “our new author”. Nope. Felt like a star of sorts.
I signed the contracts, and John, being a super-agent, brought along the invoice! That’s efficiency for you. Then, off for a very long lunch, the way they used to do ’em, with plenty of red wine. John and Peter go way back, so there was much gossip and banter of publishing through the ages, all of which kept me very entertained. Peter has a great sense of humour, and a frightening ability to put back the wine without seeming to change mood at all.
Well, I’m delighted to be part of their list. Certainly a day I’ll remember fondly. I’d better get to writing the next one now…
This section should really start off with the sub-heading: “Dodgy Agents”.
Well, firstly, I want to state that you should never part with any cash. There are some
scumbags people in this industry that want to prey on aspiring writers. They say, “Yeah, I’ll represent you. Oh, there’s just this processing fee” and away they go, conning you out of your cash. Or even stating that they charge a reading fee. You should never part with any money up front.
A literary agent hopes to take a percentage of your earnings from novel advances and royalties, around 10-20%. That way, there’s faith in your ability to sell. They’re experienced and knowledgeable. And friendly! They have to feel that you will succeed for them to want to represent you. You become a team. Anything else, well, they’re just exploiting your desires to get published.
Do a bit of research on the matter. See what books the agent represents. See what sales they’ve made recently. Look at their client list. Hit Google. Or check out links like this forum.
Okay, so if you find a good agent who wants to represent you, what happens next? It’s pretty simple. You sign a contract that says, quite clearly, they take the 10-20% cut of any earnings you make through them. Nowhere should it say that you’re parting with cash up-front. Once that’s all signed—and it really is that simple—then the agent will begin to approach publishers on your behalf. (Again, the vast majority of publishers only accept submissions via agents.) Sometimes, your agent will submit to several publishers at the same time, if they’ve got something very commercial. Even so, they may think specific books are more appropriate for certain publishers, and submit to just the one.
If it’s a no, then at least through the agent you should get a fairly decent reason why your book wasn’t taken on. If a yes, then hurrah, the agent begins to negotiate the advance*, royalties etc. If submitted to many publishers, and more than one wants the book, the agent will then phone around to try and get an auction going for it, in order to drive up the advance.
Once that’s all done, the agent then begins the process of combing through the contracts to make sure everything is wonderful, that the percentages of foreign rights are good, for example, or that certain things are or aren’t included—such as media rights. They then pass the contract on to you, you sign, return to publisher, and the publisher pays the agent, who then takes their cut, and then pays you. Voila.
Simple, isn’t it?
*A note on novel advances: this is quite simply, an advance against royalties. It can vary greatly from a few hundred notes, to thousands. So your book has to sell x-thousand copies, earning out the advance, before it makes money for you again. Some deals are royalty only, so you begin making a percentage of the book’s price from the first sale.
- Awful dialogue – read it out loud, does it sound natural, coming from your mouth?
- Hackneyed plots. No discernable focus to the book or sense of continuity.
- No Clichés.
- A complete lack of wit or humor.
- “Characters” who are only talking heads.
- A lack of background and foreground.
- No idea of the commercial market
- Lots of telling from the outside, rather then seeing the story from specific characters’ point-of-view
- Only use one character throughout a scene, don’t jump around. ‘Show, don’t tell’
- And, of course: don’t use huge expository lumps. The dreaded info-dump.
These are excellent things to avoid in order to increase your chances or publication. For those who want to know about better control of point-of-view (a common area of confusion), I’d point you right towards George R. R. Martin’s Game of Thrones. Here he shifts POV with excellent skill.
But that’s all I’m going to mention about technicalities. Why? Because there are too many people giving their opinion, telling people how to write. All I’ve said is what not to do. You have your own voice, so let it out.
What makes a good synopsis? Well, these are just my opinions, but worth thinking about.
Be concise as you can for the length of the work. Three or four pages should be the limit, although it’s useful to include a general one paragraph summary at the start. Unless you’re doing a chapter by chapter breakdown, which can go on, but it’s useful to have the concise summary. This is all general—if you can, make sure you find out from the agent or publisher you’re sending it to. Everyone has a preference.
In this first paragraph, compare your book to others which are selling well—this will help the editors (more importantly the marketing department) understand how to sell it. That’s the most important decision at the back of their mind. Make it clear what it is you’ve written. Think of this as a brief sales pitch. Don’t compare it to something too obscure, or something that has bombed recently. This comes back to market awareness. Just write about what happens in the book, what the characters go through. Keep it simple. After you write everything that happens, take out all useless commentary. Be brutal. Make sure all that you describe is key to the story, nothing more.
Like writing, it’s not an exact science, but it’s useful to bear this in mind. And it’s no guarantee this is absolutely correct!
Continuing the path to publication discussion, here’s the follow up from having an idea of the types of books that sell.
Now you’ve written something. You’ve chucked out your TV, trimmed your social life so you can get things down on paper. It’s a full novel now, not a patchwork of ideas. It’s all the way through. Written to the best of your ability. You’ve put it away and come back to it with fresh eyes to rewrite the damn thing. Hopefully, it’ll be a good way to being what publishers want to buy. So what the hell do you do?
Well firstly, there are some final things. Make sure it’s formatted well—double spacing, in a decent font. Run a spell check over it. Get a synopsis together. Some might say that’s as hard as the actual writing. Have some points in mind about what (current) books you can compare yours to. Think in terms of marketing.
Next: find a list of agents. Literary agents are essential. Most publishers won’t even look at submissions that don’t come from agents. It wouldn’t be possible to operate otherwise. Get a copy of The Writers’ And Artists’ Yearbook. In there you should find a listing of agents by the genre they represent. Not every one will represent SF and Fantasy. Find those that do. Write to them, with a covering letter, with a brief outline of your work and if they’d like to see it. Keep it polite and simple. Remember, it’s a business, so act professionally.
Maybe they’ll ask to see your work—great, send it on as required. You should know your market, know the kind of readers your book will appeal to. Now, prepare to be rejected. It’ll happen. Get used to it. Don’t be so arrogant to believe your work is genius, because there are many that do! If you’re not like this, then you’ll be able to modify your book, work on your writing.
When you get to this stage, resist temptation to self publish. In my opinion, this is sinful. I think it’s terrible the way self-publishing imprints rip-off people, play on their emotions, so that anyone can publish their book. Anyone! The main issue I have is that as a writer you have no one to edit, no one to give feedback. Why’s this important? Because you improve as a writer, and you improve as a person. (Although self-publishing can be good for obscure types of books, especially local ones that aren’t going to be commercial at all.)
If an agent gets back to you negatively, move on. Learn from your mistakes. Maybe your writing isn’t quite right—work on it. Listen to advice. Study other authors. Look at how they piece a novel together. Read. Look at their style. Look at how the plot is formulated. There are a billion things you can learn from reading with a keen eye. It isn’t easy. Some people might never get there, but you don’t know unless you try, do you?
And if the agent gets back with a positive—listen to them. They know what they’re talking about. (Note: never pay an agent upfront. I’d be asking some serious questions if they wanted cash.)
I felt lucky when I signed with John Jarrold. I sent him some material when he was starting out as an agent. He got back to me immediately with praise and acceptance. I felt like a fraud at the time, knowing next to nothing about the publishing world, but what the heck, I had a great agent. I went with it. And I didn’t get published right away. I had the heart-breaking journey navigating around ‘marketing departments’ and their requirements. It took a couple of years to get things right, but I couldn’t have done it without listening to John’s advice. So in my case, after one unpublished novel (that has remained so), one that has been sold to a small press, and the third attempt to Macmillan, I finally got there.
I guess the advice I’d have is to work really hard at it, remain professional, and find out as much as you can about the industry. Don’t assume you know too much. I’ve only been in the trade for a few years, and I’m frequently suprised by things…
Oh, and if you find it hard, join a writing group. They’re great for moral and support. Plus you realise you’re not alone!
If anyone wants to chat some more, drop me a line on here or on one of the social networks to the right. I’m more than happy to keep a debate going.
Darren, master of UKSF Book News, mentioned that I ought to blog about the process of my path to publication and what happens when the book is bought. To shed light on things in the industry. I’m all for this.
One of the things I’ve learned from writing, as well as being an editor at Solaris, and working in the book trade for Ottakar’s, is that very few new writers know how to go from “Oh, I’ve got this idea…” to it being, well, anything more than that. Many people I’ve spoken to don’t know where to start. So this is the first part of an ongoing blog post, a kind of how-to-get-published-in-many-difficult-steps. There are few shortcuts, so bear with me. And if there are any questions, feel free to comment. Ideally, I’ll cover everything. I’d love to make the industry more transparent.
Before you put pen to paper with a novel project, I’d say one of the essential things is to get thee in a bookshop.
Look around. Look at what are the titles on offer for 3 for 2. Look at what is selling and working. I was lucky enough to work in a store. You get an idea, then, of what commercial editors are looking for. Not explicitly the Next Big Thing, but just their tastes, an idea of trends. You are not writing a fantasy or SF novel from 1963. Sorry. Conan’s out, baby. Writing something so obviously retro is not likely to get you a book deal in 2008. Things change. None of this means you need to “sell out”, you just need to know the market you want to write in. (This goes for any genre.) You can always innovate, but unless you know what the building blocks are, you might not stand much of a chance of your book seeing bookshelves.
Whether anyone likes it or not, publishing is a business.
Money is made and lost. Editors will buy your book thinking that a) it’s very good b) they love the writing and c) they think they can sell it. Marketing departments have a major say in what books get commissioned. “So and so has sold x-thousand copies—we want more like that.” It’s a fact of the publishing world. So look around on those shelves. Read the backs of books. Better yet, read the insides. Know what is new, because that’s an indicator of what companies are looking for. You can easily tell those submissions from passionate readers of a genre, from those who don’t really pay much attention to it.
My experience with this was when I was writing New Weird novels. Essentially, I couldn’t get them published. No editor in London wanted to touch that kind of fiction. It didn’t sell. Few bought it. I had to realise that the New Weird was dead. It was barely alive to begin with. So I faced facts (half way through one of these novels), and took my writing into more commercial settings. At some point, you have to face reality. Luckily, I could rescue one of the major plot strands, so all was not quite lost. And importantly, I had a decent amount of writing practice behind me to take into new projects. Psychologically, it was tough, but essential.
So, once you’ve got a familiarity with the market and the genre, you can maybe seriously start writing your book. You ought to be able to know what you want to write about, and where it will fit in on the shelves. I’ll talk a bit more next time about good approaches to the next stages. Obviously, I can’t help much with the actual words on the page, but once they are down, there are many more steps to take, even before you think about sending it to a publisher.
Here are some summary notes which I made to a creative writing group recently:
- Read ferociously, various types of fiction, especially what’s selling at the moment. Understand what makes a story work at the commercial level. Read out of the genre, read in the genre.
- Be savvy as to what’s going on in bookstores. It’s the business end of things, where trends occur. Look at books, what’s being published. Look at the backs of books and see what they’re about. Get a feeling for what publishers are looking for.
- Understand your genre. Links in to the above, but more specific. When you know what you want to write—sf/fantasy/horror/crime—take a detailed look. Spend some time in big stores. Look at the promotions. This is useful so you don’t end up copying what’s been published completely. It’ll also act as a guide as to what you think you can write. It shows you what is expected, also. Follow what each publisher is taking on. Moreover, follow this up online. There are a list of great genre review and news sites that give constant information.
- Be aware that sometimes similar books will sell. Look at chick lit, for example. Some clichés are useful, when given a unique spin. Many fantasy novels at the moment are very similar. Understand what it is that they have in common; and how they differ.
- So, when you sit down to write a project, you should have some awareness of where it’s going to fit in the market. This is crucial, because publishing is a business. Publishers exist to make money.
- Know what is selling well (and what’s selling too well). These are the things that, in your synopsis, you want to compare things to (unless in the selling too well category, then don’t compare to this—Pratchett and Rowling are industries in their own right).
- Many new novel decisions are made not just by editorial, but by marketing departments. Their job is to make money. They too have pressures for results, and the bigger the company, the more commercial decisions they will make.
I’ve had quite a few questions about this, so in case anyone’s wondering what the book is about, here’s a summary (and to be read in a deep Hollywood voice, please):
An ice age comes to a chain of islands.
Villjamur: a city of ancient spires and bridges, where banshees declare the dead. You can see dodgy magic from hidden alleyways where cultists use ancient technology for their own spurious gain. Refugees seeking sanctuary from the weather find the gates closed, and the city’s councilors are the last people you should listen too about the matter. Sometimes you might hear a little jazz from certain quarters. A little further out, the dead are seen shambling across the tundra. Into the city comes a young woman to claim the throne of the Jamur Empire after her father commits suicide. Around her, politicians hover. There are garudas. There are hominid species, the rumel, a tough-skin cousin of man that can live for hundreds of years.
Meanwhile an officer in the city inquisition must solve a high-profile and savage murder of a city politician, whilst battling within his own private and work life. A cocky womanizer cheats his way into the Imperial Residence with a hidden agenda. A once-immortal man, preoccupied with the notion of death, sets a chain of events to unsettle the fabric of this world.
A group of elite soldiers are sent to investigate a bizarre genocide on the northern fringe of the Empire. And in this land under a red sun, it seems the bad weather and ice sheets are bringing more than just snow…
Everyone’s stories are linked, and they all have secrets.
Trust no one in Villjamur.
Oh, and important to credit the artist: Benjamin Carre.
It’s a a dying earth fantasy, which is an excellent vehicle to play with the concepts of death and decay, something which fascinates me. Maybe even a noir fantasy, deeply in the sense of crime noir and film noir, not merely ‘dark’, which I think can be a misleading use of the word in fiction. Although it is certainly dark. I wanted to bend genres around each other, fantasy, crime, horror, even tools and elements of mainstream fiction. Noir in the sense of the dense characters, the subtleness, the erotic, and the strange. There’s someone who’s paranoid about death; a major character is a gay man in a world that forbids homosexual acts; people who are fuck-ups.
There are references to Gene Wolfe, Jack Vance, M John Harrison to name a few; let me know if you can spot them.