Friday, July 3, 2015

Secret Agent Tales 2. Negotiating the Labyrinth of Publishing 3.

The Other Side
If you read my last blog you'd know that, I've dealt with authors and publishers as an agent and I'm doing that right now. But I've also been on the other end – the author trying to get published. A lot of what I have learnt over the years has been through doing that.  

The first thing you have to do, of course, is build your skills to a professional level. Not many people do that but some of us do and I certainly did. As I keep telling people, that takes time. My first really publishable book for adults, I believe, was my third novel, Devil Dog Dreaming. Having written it, though, I started to learn the other important part of getting published – studying the market. I have no doubt the book is good. But it’s horror, and the Australian market is almost phobic when it comes to horror (yeah, there’s another blog there, but we’ll keep moving...). And it’s Australian, and the Brits are frequently contemptuous about all things colonial, and as for the US:
‘Who wants to read about guys in lederhosen, and anyway, wasn’t that where Hitler came from?’
‘ No, you’re thinking of Austria.’

So I soon realised that I’d written the wrong book (maybe I ‘realised’ that too soon but we’re saving that question for the blog on personal qualities of the successful writer, right?) By the time I had gone through the process of failing to place Devil Dog Dreaming I’d written my second horror novel The Time of the Wolves which was to become The Twilight Age (published by Black House Comics. Yes! Quick victory dance before going back to long tale of failure). The 460 page ms of that was on a lap top that was stolen (arrrgh!). 

I then went on to write my magnus opus Real Magic a 1000 page fantasy set in Australia in the Victorian era. This was the book I wanted to write – because at this time I was still following the idea that you don’t follow the market because it is always changing, so you may as well write what you want bzzzzzzzzt. I loved that book. I still love it. Full of pride I sent it to Rose Creswell of Cameron Creswell. Rose had great taste. She was among the four agents who saw Scheherazade, the other 3 passed. One said, ‘I can’t see this being published in Australia.’  Rose said, ‘I’ll take that!’ She repped the book and got a bidding war happening. She got it a record-breaking advance, the reviews were rapturous and it’s been published in many languages. Rose also picked up the next ms I wrote a recommendation for, William Tevelein’s The Visitants. She got Penguin to publish it. So Rose was my girl, if only she’d have me. Well, she was kind enough to take a look because she knew me through my ‘recommendations’.  So I sat with bated breath.

Rose sent me a nice note. I quote from memory, ‘Thanks for sending me your beautifully written and fascinating novel, however, I will not take it on because I am leaving the industry and also, I think it will be a hard sell. I suggest you try Lyn Tranter.’

I thought, that would be right, my timing, as always is impeccable. Sigh, okay I call Lyn Tranter another big, big agent. ‘Rose Creswell suggested I give you a bell.’ (Yep, this is my, ‘Rose and I go waaaay back’ voice). So she gives me the time of day. Until I tell her it’s fantasy set in Australia. ‘Oh no no no no, Penguin just published a book like that and it bombed terribly.’

Yeah, I was only too aware. The book was William Tevelein’s The Visitants. Penguin had published it with one of the worst covers I’ve ever seen. No wonder it bombed, despite good reviews. You see the irony here. I help this ms get published and it helps put people off my magnus opus. I still think Bill’s book is brilliant and I’m proud to have helped him to some degree but ... it’s ironic. So I suck it up and forge on.
Lyn Tranter: ‘It’s how long.’
Me: ‘A thousand pages, the same length as Lord of the Rings.’
Lyn Tranter: ‘Well when you’re JRR Tolkein give me another call.’
Actually, she didn’t say that last line but it would have been a good come back and apposite. Who is going to publish a debut novel of that length? Who is going to invest the time in reading it? What if it falls apart in the last fifty page?

Yeah, you have to study the market. Real Magic doesn’t feature elves and fairies or brawny barbarians either. It’s a new kind of fantasy, a daring new blend of fantasy, horror and bzzzzt bzzzzt bzzzzzt. YOU IDIOT! PUBLISHERS HATE CROSS-GENRE BOOKS. PUBLISHERS HATE NEW, DIFFERENT, GROUND BREAKING! Where’s your precedent? It’s like the Van Morrison song, ‘Give us another one, and another one, and another one ... just like the last one.’

So I was over it. I had given it my best shot and I was not going to play anymore. For about a week. Then, some time later, I heard that Lothian Books, an Australian institution, were going to publish a line of horror novels. Woohoo. So I gave Devil Dog Dreaming another polish and sent it in. I got an email from them. ‘You’re in the shortlist of 16 novels we’re considering. We’re going to publish 4.’
They didn’t pick me! Boo hoo! I’m not playing. For another week. But I called Teresa Pitt who was the main editor. I had some other mss I wanted to discuss and I got a meeting with her. She told me she loved my book and had wanted to publish it but it was the usual committee-style thing and one of the other editors strongly objected to my book on political grounds – the protagonist is not PC. I wouldn’t say he’s a misogynist (Teresa Pitt is a woman for Pete’s sake!) but he’s no Prince Charming, and he’s not meant to be. It’s not just a horror story but a tale of a guy struggling with his chance at redemption. It has very strong female characters as well and if anything, one of them is ‘the hero’ but, the end result is, I miss out again. And that’s fine, people. This is how the world works and we have to get used to it and keep on going which is why I was talking to Teresa. She wanted me to write something new and was keen to publish, so I went home very much encouraged, and set to work.

This time I’m like, screw writing from the heart, this time I’m a calm cool calculating writing machine who’s going to write his breakthrough novel. And I wrote Profile of Evil for Teresa Pitt. My protagonist was a strong female cop. It was a thriller (not a mainstream horror novel, so still a bit of a cross-over book, but I could sell it as a thriller). It was set in Australia but I had an editor at an Australian publishing house hot to trot, so it was worth that, or so I thought. By the time I finished (about 3 months later) Teresa was gone, among the casualties of the takeover of that Australian institution Lothian by multinational Hachette Livre. Hachette really only wanted Lothian’s children’s section and a lot of other stuff was cut. I hear (from an author who was accepted in the final four) that the horror line I was so keen to be part of was pretty much abandoned and, like most books left to sink or swim, they sunk.

Never mind. I liked this new book I’d written, Profile of Evil. I was pretty sure I’d hit all the right notes (okay, there was one section I thought might be a little off key but I hoped I’d get away with it ­– I’d leave it up to the critics to confirm it). So, the search for a new publisher was about to begin again. But first, an agent. Because all of my research had convinced me that a good agent is worth every penny they get. You cannot rave about you own book – you just sound like a twat. Unless you’re published already most publishers won’t give you the time of day, and I respect that. Most new authors are time wasters, and these people are running a business, guys. Your agent will open door for you.

This is where a good assessment agency will also help you. Because if you get a good review from someone with cred, agents and publishers may give you the time of day. I had enough cred to get people to read my ms. I’d been working for years to build that. I can’t remember who I sent it to. A lot of agents had stopped looking at fiction from unknown authors (meaning anyone who hadn’t had a successful book published by a big publisher), it was just getting too hard to sell. Sophie Hamley, however, had taken over from Rose Creswell at Cameron Creswell. Sophie had just come from HarperCollins where she’d been editing Tara Moss, so she knew thrillers. She got her reader to read my manuscript and called me to say, ‘she loves it, can’t put it down.’ Awesome! Sophie read it. She also loved it. And she offered to rep it (victory dance! I am so awesome! I am so great!). Six months of agony followed. My second marriage broke down, my middle son, Jaspar, was struggling with bi-polar psychosis, I sold Lynk Manuscript Assessment Service (which I’d run for 2 and a half years), I moved to Europe once Jaspar settled down, and I waited for my book to sell. Actually, first I waited for the bidding war. Then I waited for my book to sell. Then I waited for some encouraging news.

I waited in vain. ‘Don’t worry,’ Sophie said. ‘No one is buying anything. You should write another one though, we got close with this one.’ Okaaaay. No one is buying but I should write another one? I don’t think so. Not set in Australia, anyway. I was grateful to Sophie though. I was told by one editor (I’m pretty sure it was Louis Thurtell at Allen&Unwin), ‘She really believed in your book. She fought hard for it.’ You can’t ask for more. And that was it. The market for new authors was dead (then, is it better now, you tell me). Waddayagonnado? In Australia you have 6 chances, if editors are actually looking for stuff, and if you choose a popular genre. JKRowling would have been dead in the water on those figures – how many times was she rejected? Huge bestseller Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, reputedly was rejected 127 times – that’s how many publishers there are in the US. My next book would be set in the States. I’m yet to write it, because you go where the money is and since then I’ve been writing and illustrating The Twilight Age, illustrating Sixsmiths, writing short stories for Chris Sequiera anthologies, and working on the Secret since it has been generating interest from a film and TV director and I’ve been doing other stuff to pay the bills.

But I still look for opportunities to place my old stuff when they arise, which is why I’ve put Profile of Evil in Amazon’s Amazon Scout programme. If you want to support it in this latest stage of its journey, follow this link.

Wednesday, July 1, 2015

Secret Agent Tales: Negotiating the Labyrinth of Publishing 2

A New Record
Wow! This is a new record for me. I've started a blog twice before but this is the first time I've written a follow up blog. I'm not going to be distracted by going into the reasons why. That'll be  future blog in itself on the personal qualities of the successful writer (persistence being one of them).
And I'm not ducking the topic of why I wrote Profile of Evil (for those of you who read my last blog and are even minutely interested in the answer to that question), because that's part of my secret agent tales (well secret until now).

Being an Agent is Sooooo Easy

When I worked for Lynk Manuscript Assessment Service one of the first books I assessed was Anthony O' Neill's Scheherazade. It blew me away. Not only was the book brilliant but it was highly polished. I didn't think it needed critiquing so much as a Recommendation to Publish. I rang Liat Kirby who started Lynk and said, 'I want to write a recommendation to publish.' Liat said, 'We don't really do that.' I said, 'Well can we?' And she agreed. So I did. And it was published. The same thing happened with William Tevelein's The Visitants. This is too easy, I thought. I find the book, do the hard work of reading and writing the recommendation, and some agent swoops in and gets the agents cut. So when I took over Lynk I added the services of agent to the business. And I started to look for more publishable mss. This was going to be soooooo easy.

Bzzzzzzt: not so. For a start it was seven years since I'd assessed Scheherazade. The contraction of the publishing industry had continued and well established publishers were becoming less and less likely to publish new authors. Many agents had ceased representing new fiction authors. The amount of work that went into representing them compared to the likelihood of placing them had become such that it was no longer worthwhile. I had 8 manuscripts I thought were publishable. I tried very hard to get them published. I succeeded with one, Nansi Kunze's, Mishaps. I don't think it was better than the others, excellent as it was, it just happened to be junior fiction which was one of the few genres that was still moving.

Christopher Ride

Another ms I agented was Christopher Ride's, The Schumann Frequency after developing it with him for a year or more. It went to everyone. Everyone said no, not for us, this isn't good enough, that isn't good enough, it's just not a Random House, Penguin, HarperCollins etc. book. I wrote emails, I made phone calls, I noodged, I schmoozed. Maybe I should have tried begging and pleading. Threats? Then finally, the last of the big six to look at it, Hachette Livre said yes! Well, Vanessa Radnidge, their acquisitions editor said yes. God bless her. We were all set to go. Bzzzzzzzt. When she took it to her acquisitions meeting the staff were divided on its merits and it was nixed. Arrrgh! But Chris is a man of means, he published it himself, spent a lot of money on promoting it and it was a bestseller. Then one of Australia's best established agents Selwa Anthony swooped in and Random house decided that it was very much a Random House book and have gone on to publish a couple more of Chris's excellent thrillers.

What does an Agent Do? Nansi Kunze
Most big agents don't work with new writers and they certainly don't help to develop the manuscript. As mentioned, I may. With Nansi Kunze, however, I didn't have to do anything on Mishaps. Nansi was already a very accomplished and polished author. All I had to do was send it out. Then the rejections started coming in.
Publisher one, ‘The characters are great but the plot is stupid, she can certainly write though.’
Publisher two, ‘The plot is great but the characters aren’t convincing, she can certainly write though.’
Publisher three, ‘This plot and characters are great, pity she can’t write better.’
Publisher, ‘This just isn’t a Penguin, Hachette Livre, Pan MacMillan, HarperCollins, Allen and Unwin book...’

This was pretty much the same situation as what I’d had with The Schumann Frequency, and after the third rejection Nansi started to lose faith and thought maybe she should go back to the drawing board. Here's where I proved my worth to her: I said, 'Nansi, there's nothing wrong with your book, the problem is with the publishers. You know your stuff, I know my stuff, we keep on going until we find someone who recognises gold when they see it.' So we kept on going and the rejections kept on coming in. It was the very last publisher to respond, Random House, who finally said yes. Nansi and I were vindicated. Hooray! Mishaps did very well and Random House have published a couple more of her books too.

The other thing an agent can do is open doors for you. Publishers prefer agented manuscripts. Some will only look at agented manuscripts. Which is only sensible. If you've impressed an agent they know they're not wasting their time with you. They may still not want your book but at least they'll look at it. I'm not the top of the tree as an agent but I do have a good track record with spotting and developing talent and that means people in the industry will look at an ms if I recommend it. 
I haven't focused on that side of the business for quite some time but I am now. I am not opening myself up to submissions. If you want an assessment that may lead to an offer from me to represent you. Reputable, full time agents do not charge to look at your book. If you can find one willing to look at your ms you should go to them if you are sure you don't need to develop your ms any further. If they are willing to read your ms they are unlikely to read it in its entirety unless they think it is brilliant. If they read a substantial chunk of it but think it's not quite ready they may give you some feedback.

If you want me to act as your agent then you will need an assessment from me. Go to my website and check it out.

Okay, this is getting kinda long. And one of the first lessons of show biz is 'keeping wanting more' right. So I'll leave the story of my dealings with agents as an author and, among other things, how I came to write Profile of Evil and get it repped by a big agent and what happened after that, for part 2.