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What Australian publishers want

I’ve just returned from a too-brief trip to Sydney where, in addition to catching up with family, a couple of old friends and a few clients, I enjoyed a number of meetings with publishers from the major trade publishing houses based there.*

Would you like to know what I learned from these meetings about the state of Australian publishing? Read on as I attempt to summarize the main points.

The general mood
I’d have to say it was a mixed bag. Everyone seemed relieved to be at the tail end of a difficult year, but some publishers had enjoyed less difficult years than others. Ebooks and all things digital seem to have settled in publishers’ minds as both a reality of the business and a real opportunity, with some publishers willing actively to experiment with new models (such as Macmillan’s digital-only imprint Momentum). Rather than being some kind of comet shooting uncontrollably across the publishing sky, “e” has become part of the ongoing challenge for all publishers to find readers and to sell books to them. Sales of fiction generally did not meet publishers’ expectations, let alone their hopes, in 2012.

What publishers are looking for

  • In a word, nonfiction! Please. The truth: nonfiction sells more books, and publishers want to keep their jobs. Stories of “tree-change” and aspects of relationships that haven’t been done to death seem particularly welcome.
  • They want intelligent commercial fiction for women that has a darker edge to it. What does that mean? Great story-telling that takes on social issues without moralising or speechifying, which doesn’t necessarily tie up every strand of plot in a pretty bow, and which may or may  not include an element of suspense. Take a look at the two best-selling examples of this genre from 2012: Hannah Richell’s Secrets of the Tides and Fiona Higgins’s The Mothers’ Group. (Needless to say I am thrilled to represent Fiona.)
  • Historical fiction seems to be having a moment at the moment.
  • They seem rather taken with “farm-lit”, aka the girl-meets-man-on-the-land or agri-romance. Or even the agri- sans romance, such as Mary Groves’s An Outback Life. This genre can work in fiction or nonfiction.
  • They still want memoir … IF it has a strong hook. Surprise recent hits of this nature include Cleo, about a cat who helped a grieving family; and The Happiest Refugee, Anh Do’s true tale of his Vietnamese family’s struggle to reach Australia and build a life here.
  • With the death of Bryce Courtenay, the door is wide open for a new teller of large-canvas Australian tales.

What that means for you as a writer

  • I suppose literary agents must sound like broken records, but I’ll say it again: it is really difficult to sell fiction. It has to be outstanding. It’s as simple and as difficult as that.
  • If you’re writing memoir, you need to frame your story in a surprising and fresh way. A story of overcoming trauma, in and of itself, is no longer enough.
  • If you have a subject you’re passionate about and an existing/growing platform of some kind (blog, radio spot, speaking circuit), you potentially have what it takes to publish a book on your subject.

What that means for me as an Australian literary agent considering your work

  • I have to be tough about what I choose to take on. I can only say yes to your manuscript if I think I can sell it. Agenting is a business, not a charity, just as publishing is. By definition I will have to say no to most manuscripts I consider.
  • I need to work with authors who are willing to do more work on their manuscripts. Almost every manuscript I see is at least one serious draft away from publishable standard, which is a lot further away than its author believes it to be. Having worked as an in-house editor, as a literary agent, and having been a published author myself, I know what I’m talking about. (In this area of life, at least …)
  • I want to hear from a journalist with a subject he or she is passionate about. I’d love to discuss possible book ideas with you.

Your thoughts?
So, what do you make of this list? Are you encouraged, infuriated, inspired, depressed? I really want to hear from my readers. I know you’re out there because of all the emails I get thanking me for the valuable material you find on this blog, but I’d love it if you would leave me a comment. Thanks!

 

* I am disappointed that I could not extend my visit to spend a couple of days in Melbourne, where there is much fine publishing happening and several people I am keen to meet in person. (Let alone friends, restaurants, the fabulous Bennetts Lane jazz club … ) It’s always much better to chat face to face than via Skype or in chains of email, where one spends too much time trying to read between the lines.

** I will be opening my books again to new queries in January. Take the time to get a tough reader to give you honest feedback on your current draft – please.

{ 105 comments… add one }

  • If I have a manuscript of my book that fits your criteria, where do I send it to get considered to be taken on for publication? I was going to self-publish, and you are right that I do think it should be pretty right to go in its current format and I do not want to do loads more work on it (in that way I am your typical author) but the feedback I’ve had so far is that it is very enjoyable and very readable. It’s not fiction, it is set in Sydney and the content is very current.

    • Hi Donna,
      Sorry to be slow in responding to your question. What you describe above is the work of literary agents, who assess manuscripts to see if they feel they could sell it to a publisher. Alternatively you can approach publishers directly, having done your research into which publishes publish books similar to the one you have written. But it’s often a long and difficult path, and I regularly find that many authors simply can’t wait and go ahead with self-publishing.
      Good luck with your writing — Virginia

  • Hi Virginia, I recently discovered your very informative website (Love it!), and was interested in submitting my Contemporary Women’s Fiction MS to you, but I’ve just read on your submission page – “As of December 2015 I am no longer accepting manuscript queries from unpublished authors.”
    Looks like I’ve missed the boat by about 8 days.
    As it’s my first Novel, I’ve been developing it for quite some time now. I’ve done a number of writing courses with AWC and I had a professional assessment done over a year ago, which was really helpful and it’s now reached draft number Seven. I’m not in such a hurry that I’ll go the self-published or slush pile routes in the next twelve months as I’d rather put out the best quality work I can do. I’m also working on the first draft of another Novel that ties in with the first, so I’m happy to wait until both are ready before I consider self-publishing, although traditional would be my preference. I’ve also been working on building an online platform, (Which publishers all seem to want you to have established – published or not).
    My work also fits your second bullet point in the ‘What Publishers want” section of this article (They want intelligent commercial fiction for women that has a darker edge to it. What does that mean? Great story-telling that takes on social issues without moralising or speechifying, which doesn’t necessarily tie up every strand of plot in a pretty bow, and which may or may not include an element of suspense.)
    I’ve submitted to two Australian Agents in the past eight months and only have tumbleweeds in my inbox. Not even an email saying they’ll pass. I also submitted to a competition for unpublished authors where the organisers raved about how they were passionate about helping unpublished Australian writers, before quickly adding that if you don’t make the shortlist, don’t ask for feedback, as you will not receive it. (900+ entries and a shortlist of less than 10, my work didn’t make it). I can understand not making the shortlist, but to not provide ANY feedback to those who don’t make the shortlist (surely those who need it most) I found frustrating. I have had around ten people read my Novel now and all of them love it, and although their feedback was extremely helpful in developing my MS, none of them are in the publishing industry.
    I admit that since submitting to the agents who never replied, I have completed a course titled: Pitch Your Novel: How to Attract Agents and Publishers, which I learned A LOT from.
    What I’m wondering before I submit again is- Is there anything I’m missing? I’m aware that a one chance policy applies and I really don’t want to lose all my chances. I’m also wondering if there might be someone to whom you will be passing the submissions torch?
    Thank you again for your website. It’s great reading!

    • Hi Kirsty, and thanks for taking the time to write such a lengthy comment. Unfortunately I don’t represent fiction any more, so while my books are closed to submissions at the moment, they would open again for works of nonfiction only. It’s disappointing that you’ve had no luck so far with agents, but in Australia there are other ways to get publishers’ attention. There are several awards, prizes and opportunities for unpublished manuscripts; join your state’s writers centre for regular news of this kind. In terms of feedback, it would be impossible to pay any judge enough money to make reading notes on every work assessed for a competition. It’s just not economically viable. So it’s best not to expect getting feedback from competitions, and to look for it elsewhere. Taking the course was a good idea and I suggest you take more of them, because the good ones are full of useful information and they are run by people who have some level of involvement in the publishing industry. You can’t rely on feedback from friends, it’s just not the kind of feedback that will help you get published. Best of luck and keep persevering. –Virginia

  • Lorraine Cobcroft

    I recently self-published a women’s fiction novel that I’d certainly class as ”intelligent commercial fiction for women that has a darker edge to it”. It has had minimal exposure, though I entered it in an international novel contest in which it won 5th place. I am wondering if having self-published completely eliminates any hope of finding a traditional publisher. Is it worth trying to find an agent/publisher at this point. I’m happy to withdraw it from sale now if it’s likely to be considered by anyone reputable, but I didn’t want it to languish in my bottom drawer forever and a day.

    • Hi Lorraine,
      Thanks for visiting my website and leaving this question. Self-publishing your work does not eliminate the hope of a traditional publisher altogether, but in my experience it is only those self-published novels that have sold tens of thousands of copies which are likely to be picked up for a traditional book deal. Australian thriller writer Matthew Reilly is a good example of this, as is of course 50 Shades of Grey author E. L. James. An increasing number of self-published writers with smaller but enthusiastic audiences are attracting more readers and seeing income directly in their pocket from their efforts, though the work of self-promotion and marketing is constant. –Virginia

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