There are few things more satisfying than seeing your book published at last. Holding a hard copy in your hands, seeing it on the shelf of a bookshop, or listed with a thumbnail cover image at an online store – there’s no taking away the enormous achievement of creating, revising, and finishing your own book.
Almost as thrilling is seeing my clients’ books published. I’m so happy to see these three new books out in the world in 2017, because I know how hard each author worked to get to this point, and in different ways I helped each writer get there. In the case of Ashley Hay’s A Hundred Small Lessons, I copy-edited and trimmed the manuscript; for Fleur McDonald (pictured below with her novel The Missing Pieces of Us), I worked closely with her on structural and line editing; and for ABC television journalist Jane Hutcheon (bottom right, with her new book China Baby Love), I provided a manuscript assessment on an early draft of her manuscript that helped her develop the work before submitting a final draft to her publisher.
And while each of these writers is experienced, the same principles apply when I’m working with writers who are yet to land their first publishing contract. The same sorts of questions arise in drafts by inexperienced and professional writers alike.
While I do a lot of editing for publishers, I’m also a published author. And because of that, I know what it’s like to struggle to write a book. The editing process is both necessary and fraught, dredging up all sorts of questions – ones that you thought you’d already answered, and ones that you hadn’t even thought of.
See these testimonials for more information about what writers like about working with me.
Or if you’ve already submitted a manuscript to an agent or publisher and are not getting anywhere, consider my ten-page review service.
In my experience, if your manuscript has areas for improvement, they will be obvious to a publishing industry professional in the very first pages of your work, whether fiction or nonfiction.
To an unpublished writer this may sound harsh, but to people who read hundreds (if not thousands) of query letters and manuscripts each year, it’s the awful truth.
Often I’ll ask to see the first 30 pages of a manuscript, only to have the author reply, saying: ‘Oh, it doesn’t really get going until Chapter 5’, or ‘unless you read the first 100 pages, you won’t understand what’s going on.’
I’m sorry, but … no. Not good enough. Agents and publishers don’t need any excuse to say no to unsolicited work, and this kind of thinking makes it very easy for them to pass on yours. There’s a pile of unread manuscripts awaiting them, and they live in perpetual hope of finding the next bestseller among them.
What to do? If you’re not hearing back from agents or publishers, or if you’re frustrated at your progress using writing workshops and reading groups, I’m here to help.
I have observed that there’s a huge gulf between the short pieces or partial manuscripts writers work on as part of a group or workshop, and the quality of finished book-length manuscript that publishers are looking for.
I’ve decided to work in that gap, helping writers with good but undercooked projects get to the level that will interest publishers, and helping publishers to find quality projects that will interest readers (those ethical, beautiful, lovable creatures).
I’m in the very unusual position of having experience as a literary agent, as a book editor (both in-house and freelance), and as a published author. I know how authors think, I understand how agents and publishers think. I know what they’re looking for – and what it takes to get published.
Your first ten pages
To address the gap I identified between writers’ desires and publishers’ needs, I have recently started a service reviewing the first ten pages of works in progress.
Ten pages: that’s ten double-spaced pages in a standard font (eg Times New Roman, Palatino, Calibri, Verdana); up to 3,000 words.
If you’re not getting any answers to your questions about your manuscript and its value to publishers, why not have a book industry professional review the first ten pages of your manuscript?
Within seven days, I will edit and annotate my response to the first ten pages of your manuscript, providing constructive feedback on your writing style and storytelling, your characterisation and subject matter – and anything which strikes me as worth noting to a writer serious about getting published.
Because if you’re not serious about getting published, why are you still reading this?
There are loads of self-styled ‘manuscript assessors’ out there, who do not have the sort of experience I have, willing to take a mountain of your money to give you not very much in the way of publication-focused feedback in return. I can guarantee it because I regularly hear from people boasting of having had their manuscript ‘professionally assessed’ or ‘professionally edited’, whose work is nowhere near ready for submission to publishers.
Radio National recently lifted the lid on the Australian book publishing slush pile, that ‘unlovely place’ (according to Picador publisher Geordie Williamson) where unsolicited manuscripts go for assessment by an anonymous reader inside a publishing house.
If you listen closely to the 10-minute piece (online for another week or so), you’ll hear the lottery-level chances an author has of his or her manuscript being plucked from slush-pile obscurity. Two examples from the report:
Scribe Publications opens to unsolicited manuscripts twice per year for limited periods; asks to see complete manuscripts for about 25% of submissions (which surprised me at being so high) … but has published only 3-4 books from the slush pile in the past five years.
Text Publishing receives 100 hard-copy manuscripts every week, and reviews them each Friday in a team meeting at which each manuscript* gets read twice. It finds ‘a couple of things per year’ to publish. (*It is neither possible nor necessary for this number of manuscripts to be read in full – a manuscript that isn’t at a publishable standard will reveal itself in the opening pages.)
Allen & Unwin’s Friday Pitch, which accepts a synopsis and first chapter every week, is a relatively good bet for any Australian author attempting to submit an unsolicited manuscript. A&U publisher Louise Thurtell, who established the system ten years ago, reported that up to 75% of her list has come from Friday Pitch manuscripts, including well-known novelist Fleur McDonald.
So, should you submit your manuscript to an electronic slush pile? My views on this topic have changed little since I wrote this post several years ago, which remains one of my most popular. The main problem with submitting your work this way is that
Rejection is a deafening silence – you receive no feedback from the publisher. (Unfortunately, this is also the case when submitting to many literary agents.)
Once rejected, you can’t submit your manuscript to that publisher again.
Your work may well be good enough, but is easily lost in the size of a particular publisher’s slush pile. As Geordie Williamson of Picador says, ‘You have to be lucky to get a good reader of the slush pile.’ Which means that it’s kind of luck of the draw, to an extent, as to who’s reading on the day it’s your turn.
Fed up with the silent treatment from agents too?
If you’ve been submitting to agents or publishers and not hearing back, may I make a few suggestions:
Try submitting to competitions – just make sure you check the fine print and don’t sign all your rights away
Take classes or workshops with industry professionals – you’ll get to meet folks working in publishing, and ask them all the questions you want
Join your state writers’ centre – they are a great resource for classes, competitions, literary industry events and other opportunities
Twitter is a fabulous resource for writers – if you can resist disappearing down the internet black hole
Get a professional manuscript assessment or consultation with an experienced publishing professional to see how you can improve your access to decision-makers, and your manuscript or project.
What has your been your experience of the slush pile? Have you had success with any of the suggested tactics above? I’d love to hear from you.
(And thanks to Jenny Ackland and her Seraglio blog for alerting me to the RN report.)
How do I work with the writers I choose to represent? I’ve heard from a few Australian writers recently who wanted to know a bit more about how I work with the authors I represent. In response I thought it might be useful to hear from one of my freshly published authors, Brad Hutchins, whose GAME SET CASH has just been released in Australia and online.
The author took a gamble
When Brad queried me, the manuscript was a long way from ready to show a publisher, though he had approached publishers through the slush pile of unsolicited submissions, and had been rejected. As you’ll see in the Q&A below, by the time he approached me, Brad knew he needed editorial development but wanted to see if a publishing professional thought his book might interest a publisher. So it was a bit back-to-front and not what I recommend, but the publishing path is never straight.
This was a gamble, because:
if a writer has already approached and been rejected by publishers, it can be impossible to go back to them; and
most agents will only consider completed manuscripts at a high degree of polish.
But then, gambling is largely what GAME SET CASH is all about.
The agent took a gamble Agreeing to represent an author is also a gamble. Well, let’s call it a calculated risk. The agent’s work is speculative – all the editorial/pitching work up front to pay off (relatively speaking) with commission from the author’s advance and (hopefully) subsequent royalty and foreign rights income.
So why did I choose to work with Brad?
lads’ stories from young Australian men are in high demand but short supply
it was a memoir incorporating an unusual angle – tennis trading/betting – as well as the combination of sport and travel
crucially, Brad knew he needed to do more work, and was prepared to do it.
My willingness to mentor Brad through further editorial development makes me either a romantic or a fool, depending on who you ask. Admittedly it’s sometimes a poor decision from a profitability point of view, which is why I have to be so selective. (And which is why I do writing and editing work for companies and other authors who are not my agency clients.) But the satisfaction of helping a unique Australian story take its final shape, and then finding that manuscript a home with a publisher, is enormous.
Agent’s Q&A with Brad Hutchins
Why did you want to write GAME, SET, CASH! ?
I’ve always loved reading and writing. I’d been writing fiction as a hobby for a few years before I realised non-fiction had a much better chance of being published. When I finished court-siding on the tennis tour, life suddenly became a whole lot quieter and I needed a passion project to sink my teeth into. It hit me that I had lived a story many people found intriguing and seemed very interested in. So I started looking for an agent.
Besides that, there is a lot of confusion and misconception from the general public in regards to court-siding. So it is nice to be able to set the record straight and share the fun of the road with people while dispelling any sinister myths surrounding the practice.
How long did it take you to write it?
Because it was all there in my head I managed to punch the first draft out in less than three months. Editing then took another six months, working with both you and the publishers.
When you approached me, did you think your manuscript was finished?
Negative. I’d barely started because I knew I’d need guidance toward a winning formula and I didn’t want to invest too much time in what could likely be the wrong direction.
[Editor’s note: this is not entirely true. I read a complete manuscript, but it was a rather rough draft. Which would be why Australian publishers did not take any interest in it as an unsolicited submission. See quote in bold below, and my post on unsolicited submissions.]
How did I help you to strengthen your manuscript?
You gave me an idea of how to shape the whole book and helped me solidify ideas to focus on for each chapter. Once I’d written my draft you then gave it a thorough cut and polish. Cutting out all those lame clichés, adverbs and unnecessary bits made the manuscript much more concise and engaging.
You were very frank and non-judgmental with your feedback and helped me realise the general public might not be as interested in certain sections I’d written. I agree with your approach of editing before heading to publishers because it makes their job easier and gives us a better chance of getting the tick of approval.
What surprised you about the process of finding an agent, a publisher, and the process of getting a book published?
I had no expectations as the whole process was new. I think most people are unacquainted with the publishing industry and are a little daunted by the task. I knew it wouldn’t be a quick or easy goal to achieve but I figured I’d only find out if I had a real crack at it.
Do you have any advice for unpublished writers?
Don’t be afraid to put yourself out there. I was knocked back a number of times by other agents and publishers. From the outset I wanted to be realistic so I expected that to happen. However, I stayed optimistic regardless and in the end it all paid off.
How does it feel to see your book in bookstores and online?
It’s a trip! It’s very fulfilling and exciting. You may want to edit this cliché, but it is a bit of a life-long dream come true! I’m incredibly stoked and want to thank everyone who helped make it a reality.
What else would you like to know? Okay, keep your questions coming because they help me understand what you’d like to know more about. I plan to do more of these Q&A-style posts if readers like them. So I need to know if this one’s helpful!
When final copies of a book arrive from the warehouse, it’s not only the author who smiles with pride and relief.
To get from a draft manuscript to a printed book, ready for distribution to the booksellers who have ordered copies from the publisher’s sales reps, requires a lot of time and many pairs of eyes and hands. The chief stewards, respectively, of the production process and the author, are the publisher (Jeanne Ryckmans of Nero, an imprint of Black Inc) and the literary agent (moi). We are almost as excited as the author, Brad Hutchins, to see the fruit of that months-long labour in this vivid standout cover.
Brad and I will be doing a Q&A here soon on the development work we did to bring his unsolicited manuscript to a standard that attracted a book deal. But for now, it’s more than enough to celebrate the fact that Game, Set, Cash! his terrific memoir about the secret world of international tennis trading, will be in bookstores in June. Click the link for ways to buy or order a copy.
This past weekend the Australian Financial Review Magazine ran Andrew Cornell’s ‘Brave new world of book publishing’. It’s essential reading for any serious writer aspiring to publication in Australia.
I would have loved to reproduce the text here in full, but the AFR’s online permissions-calculator told me I’d be up for more than $700.
Cornell breaks down the component parts of the Australian book industry, which, for those who’ve been hibernating for a few years, is undergoing multiple transformations. It’s one of the most lucid summaries I’ve read of the ways in which technology and corporatisation have affected the mechanics of how books are acquired and distributed in this country.
Through interviews with Hannah Kent (Burial Rites) and Christos Tsiolkas (Barracuda, The Slap) the article also describes the increased promotional demands on authors, the cult of writerly ‘celebrity’, and the mixed blessings of the new publishing landscape for Australian authors in particular.
Sharp as ever, Tsolkias makes what for me is the main point:
There is a danger for Australian writing in that some of our best writers are never going to have that big blockbuster the international market needs. Today you have to prove yourself in the market but the market is not the only determinant of value.