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.