Tuesday, July 07, 2015

Let's go retro!

I was giving some advice today on submissions and current publisher guidelines for Australia and it suddenly struck me how much really has changed in the past ten years. Everyone talks about e-books and digital downloads, but that's the end product. What about getting your work to a publisher - into that dreaded slush pile?

I remember ten or so years ago, teaching fiction writing and children's book writing subjects, that when we set an assignment which entailed an examination of a publisher, the hoops students had to go through to find their information. For example:
*  They had to write to the publisher and include a stamped addressed envelope, and hope somebody there had time to send them back a photocopied sheet of submission guidelines
* If they wanted to know what a publisher published (vital knowledge so you didn't send a manuscript to the wrong place), they had to find a way to get a publisher's catalogue. Sometimes these could be requested by mail, sometimes they had to beg bookshop owners!
* Often publishers just would not respond and the student was stumped. So we did a lot of sharing of information in the classes.
* We also did a lot of work with students on how to submit professionally - cover letter, clean manuscript (printed in hard copy of course), and stick to the guidelines - if they only want 3 chapters, only send 3.

Then came a period where most publishers closed their doors. Children's publishing wasn't quite so bad, but most publishers of adult fiction stopped taking unsolicited manuscripts. The job of filtering manuscripts fell more and more onto the few agents operating in Australia, and there were very few who represented children's writers. (It was similar in the USA, but the number of agents there was growing week by week, and they already had a system whereby your key goal was to write a great query letter - well, not much has changed there!)

However, the internet had arrived and it grew and grew, and publishers realised that if they put their submission guidelines on their website (even if those guidelines said NO, we are not accepting), then that might stem the tide. They also put their catalogues of books on their websites, so our students found it easier to work out who was publishing what (and the guidelines helped, too). This sounds idyllic, by the way, but it's not. Many, many new writers don't know any of this information and continue, even now, to submit with a scattergun approach.

So where are we up to now? Again, big changes.

* Once self-publishing began to take off and lots of disgruntled writers started publishing their books as e-books (cheap and no boxes of books in your garden shed), and some of those SP books started becoming best sellers and making big money, well ... publishers decided to open their doors again, unwilling to miss out. And technology made this simpler because instead of spending a pile of money paying someone to open parcels of manuscripts and then post them back again ... it all went electronic. Now many publishers open their doors to full electronic manuscripts, when it suits them. So we have the Monday and the Wednesday and the Friday pitch thing going on - but you can easily find out when to send just by Googling (and you're truly an idiot if you don't do this simple research).

* But in children's publishing, picture books still cost a lot of money to produce, so things are tight there and it's hard to break in. In the chapter book area, the obsession is with series. Even novel-length works are infected with the series/trilogy thing, which is daunting and makes it harder to get published (because stand-alone novels fade in the shade).

* We still don't have a lot of agents operating in Australia, and the ones we do have are full to the brim already. That doesn't mean you give up. It just means it's still hard. On the other hand, there is absolutely nothing to stop you trying to get an American agent - IF you have a manuscript that has global appeal. Despite everyone repeating ad nauseum "Australia is the flavour of the month", that month is long past. But first you have to master that query letter.

* When it comes to the market, not much has changed. Publishing is a business. A debut novel that might only sell 500 or 1000 copies is unlikely to get a first go in print, but you could get a deal to publish first as an e-book (going to print after a certain number of sales). The trend, though, is no advance. Is that really fair? I've seen complaints recently about Australian publishers offering pretty bad deals on e-book royalties compared with overseas publishers. Are we in a global market or not? As long as copyright territories continue to exist, the real answer I think is NO.

Any Australian publisher sure hopes to sell OS in rights deals, but truthfully I think it is rare. The books that do sell OS are actually global in nature. Think Hannah Kent's 'Burial Rites'. Set in Iceland. Ten years ago a new novel that did OK here would sell 2000 copies (they hoped). Now you're lucky to sell 1000. That's how the market itself has changed. The big sellers keep selling more. The little sellers are selling less, and that's really, really sad (and does bad things to our literature generally at all levels).

There are always exceptions. There are writers doing great on Amazon. We hear about the successes. But I started looking at what our students (and other prospective authors) have at their fingertips for researching publishers, and that is really where the huge change has come. Google can find you any information you want or need about a publisher - their books, their guidelines for submission, how global are they, who their best selling writers are ... it's all there via your keyboard instead of the envelope and stamp process. So no more scattergun approaches needed, right?