Tuesday 5 July 2011

Slush and all that…

I’m just going through our submissions inbox – otherwise known in the industry as the slush pile – and before I get too overwhelmed by the swathes of submissions, I thought I would peek above the parapet for a few minutes, gulp down some fresh air (and a coffee) and post some thoughts on slush…
Now, while we will quite often (perhaps one in thirty) take an unsolicited submission for a non-fiction work to our editorial meetings to discuss (and from there contract), it really is very rare for us to do the same for fiction. It sounds tough, I know, but that’s the way it is. It is much easier to judge the merits of an unsolicited non-fiction work based on a proposal and some sample material; it is also easier to gauge what market there might be for non-fiction titles, based on the subject matter, previous success of other books in that area, on local interest and so on. Fiction is much harder to assess. And also, there is so much more of it that hits the slush pile. Everyone has at least one novel in them; unfortunately, that novel tends not to be very good. That’s a pretty harsh statement – believe me, I know, I have been there and experienced this all myself (which is why I attempt to be as constructive and as encouraging as I can when rejecting manuscripts) – but I have also waded my way through thousands of novels and I’m afraid that this is the inescapable conclusion. But struggling novelists (particularly ones that have received a rejection letter from me), please also know that the ideas behind many of the manuscripts that are rejected are genuinely good ones; its just in their execution that they fall down – or it might be a case of a manuscript not fitting our list style, or that our list is full for the next year or so. There are many factors.
So how does one advance from the slush pile to be discussed by the editorial board?
You have one page, maybe two, to reel us in; if you fail there, then I’m afraid the manuscript is going to be sent on its way. Novels are particularly tough, as I say, but your manuscript will have a much better chance of being read and considered seriously if it has come from an agent. So for aspiring novelists everywhere, the best advice that I can give you is this: find yourself an agent. Not only will they work hard to get you the very best deal possible, they will help polish your work, know the best publishing houses to send it to – and indeed the best people within the publishing houses to send it to – and will help you to formulate your cover letter, synopsis and the sample material you send in. Look at market trends and see if your work is the in thing – it doesn’t have to be, of course, but if it is, tell us. Be explicit.
But if you don’t want an agent, all hope is not lost. You just need to box clever. Do the above (polish your material and synopsis) and then do some research – proper research – into publishers (and indeed, if you want an agent, do some proper research on them too before sending in your stuff to them) and make sure that your material is the kind of thing that they might be looking for. Polygon, for example, does not want a JRR Tolkein-esque book about elves and wizards; nor does it want to see a how-to book on yoga. Birlinn doesn’t want to see a walking tour of Amsterdam, or a Sex in the City style romantic novel. Other houses are the same; if you have clearly just BCC’d a load of different publishing houses’ submission addresses into an email and sent it out at the same time, it is patently obvious and your lack of effort and attention to detail is instantly discouraging. You took the time to write the book, take the time to submit it properly.
Following up. This is a good thing to do… but can also be very irritating for the publisher/ agent. As I have said, we receive hundreds of submissions a week; it takes time to go through them all. We will get back to you. Sure, if you haven’t heard from us for several months, send a chaser (but only do this if you really think that your manuscript is perfect for that publisher or agent – again, Birlinn does not want an endless stream of chasing emails over a romantic novel that we would never publish), but always remain polite. Finally, and I know this is difficult, if you are rejected, don’t ask the publisher for a critique as to why it was rejected. They should give you certain pointers as to the reason why they didn’t want to take your manuscript any further and maybe offer advice on who you should try instead; but a critique or opinions on how to improve your manuscript is just not going to happen.
Also, do not send back a venomous reply to being rejected (and believe me, for all that I try to be positive in my rejections and offer advice, I have had some real poison sent back to me). That will just blacklist you should you try to submit again in the future.
It’s a tough job, the old slush pile; tough for everyone. But there are ways to get your stuff read, I promise. Go out and buy a copy of The Writers’ and Artists’ Yearbook (A & C Black). It’s a great book which offers decent advice on submissions and, crucially, lists pretty much every international and national publishing house and literary agent that there is, along with their specialities and contact details.
I hope that this has been a help (and not too disheartening). There is hope – over 300,000 new books are published a year (plus 2.9 million self-published titles – I’ll discuss this option another time). If you take your time, put in the graft and polish your work as well as you can, you will give your manuscript the very best possible chance of being picked up by an agent or a publishing house. Good luck!
Speak soon.

Pottering around…

I tweeted (@Publisher_Pete, please feel free to follow!) yesterday about JK Rowling and her new Pottermore venture. More specifically I tweeted about her split from long-time agent Christopher Little. She has now defected to work with Neil Blair, a former employee at the agency. Why? Well, no one is really giving anything away; but the split is acrimonious, with Little claiming that he knew nothing about it until it was announced in the press.

My tweet went as follows: ‘With JK Rowling splitting from Christopher Little, one has to question the price of loyalty – particularly when you’re worth £530 million.’
Looking back on that dazzling little insight (sorry, I'm still honing my Twitter skills), it is obvious that my comment was fairly opaque (and perhaps also inaccurate, as the Telegraph believes that she is actually a billionaire:  http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/harry-potter/8592280/Pottermore-JK-Rowling-facts-and-figures.html )
The split was a surprise to read about. We have long been charmed by the story of how Rowling chose to submit her work to the agency – that she looked up a list of literary agents in an Edinburgh library and selected the Christopher Little Agency because his name sounded like a character from a children's book – and over the last 16 years they have shared both open admiration for one another and stratospheric success.
And this is where the whole thing starts to get to me a little. Yes, I'm disappointed that an author who I admire and who has long championed the merits, and indeed the power, of loyalty in her work, should seemingly just up sticks and leave her old confidante and collaborator high and dry (although perhaps high and dry is pushing it – he has made 15 per cent from the gross earnings of Harry Potter in the British market and 20 per cent for merchandising rights, for film, for the American market and for translation deals, so he is a very wealthy man). But in fairness to both parties I am not privy to the ins and outs of what has really happened, so should neither judge nor cast aspersions as to why the split has happened.
However, what has riled me somewhat is Pottermore and what it intends to do: the site plans to publish straight eBook versions of Rowling’s books this year, then publish updated versions with new notes and material that she cut from the original novels next year. I have tried to place myself in Rowling’s shoes. She wants complete control of her creation and direct access to her fan base. Absolutely fair enough. The phenomenal success of her creation has granted her a strong position with which to protect her intellectual copyright. She has spent years vehemently opposing the conversion of her books to digital formats. Now that she has accepted that there is room for further creativity within that sphere, she has set up Pottermore. A move that, by and large, I agree with. She has the right to exploit her material directly to her audience. But it is the next step with which I have issue. With the launch of Pottermore (and the implication of the site’s name), we learn that she has tens of thousands of words that she cut from the original books, which she will include in new eBook editions next year. So, she wants her loyal fans to buy the eBooks this year… and then buy them again next year. Does that not seem a little greedy? Perhaps an announcement will come that all proceeds are going to charity and I’ll have to eat my words. But I doubt it.
When you have made over £530 million (or a billion) from something you have created, you surely have no need to squeeze every last commercial drop out of that creation. Surely the most important things to her at this stage are the characters of Harry et al and the world she has created. Why drip the sales in this way? Yes, Pottermore has a few little interactive bits and pieces – the sorting hat assigning visitors to a Hogwarts house, the wand chooser and so on. But it is nothing groundbreaking (despite what some in the industry have heralded the site as being). If I were her agent, I would tell her that the digital world offers completely new ways for her unleash the power of her imagination. She can bring her books to life in so many different ways – pages and words could come to life; an interactive map of Diagon or Knockturn Alley could flutter from the margin whenever Harry visits the secret streets; the Marauder’s Map could do the same and there could be an interactive map for Hogsmeade too; reproductions of The Daily Prophet, moving images and all, could be accessed when mentioned; or illustrations of the Burrow, Grimmauld Place, the Shrieking Shack, the Ministry of Magic, Hagrid’s hut, the Quidditch stadium, or Hogwarts as a whole could spring from the pages and be explored at will if the reader wanted to, or could remain hidden should they not. The possibilities are almost endless… which is why I am so disappointed with the products that Pottermore are touting. After the ingenious launch (a treasure hunt around London that gradually revealed the letters ‘Pottermore’) it was such an anticlimax to learn what they have planned for the site. Maybe (hopefully) this is all part of the master plan and they will launch new editions with all these features. Surely they will; it would be such a disappointment if they don't...
Speak soon.