Publishing

The Contract

There’s not a great deal I can say about contracts … save that I’m glad I have someone else to negotiate them on my behalf! If you’ve been offered a contract then I advise you strongly to use a lawyer or agent, or at least to get their advice, during negotiations. I also want to emphasise that contracts are negotiable. Don’t think that you have to accept the first document the publisher puts before you; on the other hand, if this is your first book, then you may not have much power to drive the bargain you want. Nevertheless, you can negotiate, so do it.

A publishing contract covers many areas:

  • Who the contract is between, typically yourself and a publishing house, but if you use an agent then the agent’s name will be inserted in there as the person who gets all the monies initially (the agent then extracts his or her commission, and sends the rest on to you).
  • The title(s) that the contract covers
  • When publication of the title(s) is expected (this often changes during the editorial process).
  • When delivery of the title(s) is expected.
  • How much, and in what form, the advance covers.
    – What is an advance? When a publisher accepts a title for publication they work out how many copies they are likely to sell. They then decide how much of your royalty (see below) they decide to pay you up front (anywhere from about 30% to 100%). For instance, if the publisher estimates they can sell 10,000 of the title for $10 a copy, and the author will receive a 10% royalty on each of those books ($1 per book), and, being generous, the publisher decides to give you $10,000 as an advance. This $10,000 is unlikely to be paid in one lump sum; rather, there will be a percentage of that $10,000 paid on signing the contract (perhaps one half: $5,000), another 25% on delivery of the manuscript ($2,500) and the final 25% on publication. Thus the payment of an advance is generally paid out over at least a year. If an author sells a series of books as one title (a trilogy, for example) they will receive an advance covering all the books of the series, but this advance will be paid out over the number of years it takes to publish the series. Thus you sometimes hear of authors who get a magnificent advance for a 10 book series … what most people don’t realise that the advance will be spread out over at least 10 years, and in fact only represents a fairly modest income p.a.
  • The royalty you receive. Royalty rates are, unfortunately, slipping. Once you could confidently assume that an author received an average royalty rate of 10%. Now that can be as low as 6%. On the other hand, the contract will also generally specify something called rising royalties (and if it doesn’t, then it should). Rising royalties basically give you a higher royalty once a certain number of books have been sold. For instance, you might start out on 10% royalty, but once 25,000 books have been sold, you might then go onto a royalty rate of 12.5%
  • The territories the contract covers. VERY few authors sell world rights to their titles. Generally, you sign country by country. Thus there will be separate contracts for US rights, UK rights, German translation rights, French translation rights etc. etc. etc. These other countries don’t automatically fall in line – you must sell your work to publishers in every country. Getting your book published in one country is no guarantee that it will be published anywhere else.
  • The rights the contract covers. If you are selling to a book publisher you should sell (or lease, because these contracts cover the lease of rights rather than the actual sale of them) the print rights only. Publishers sometimes try to take the electronic rights, film rights, radio rights, graphic novel rights (and whatever other rights they can think of) as well. Don’t. Sell off your various rights one by one, don’t give one organisation exclusive control.
  • Sundry incidentals … are you using quotes or photographs in your book that are copyrighted to someone else? If so, it will probably be up to you to gain permission to use the material, as also to pay whatever fees that permission includes. You must vow faithfully and cross your heart that all the material in your book is of your own authorship (unless otherwise stated and paid for). The cover art of the book is sometimes mentioned … generally along the lines that the author has no say in cover art at all (although, in practice, you generally do have a say). You will also have to agree to make yourself available (as your work commitments allow) for publicity purposes on the release of the book.

There are a number of other things that crop up in contracts – how many free copies of the book you are entitled to, for instance – but the above lists the main clauses.

Either the publisher or the author can extract themselves from a contract, but it takes a serious breach of contract to do that … although sometimes there is a ‘gentleman’s agreement’ and both parties mutually agree that they have no interest in doing business with each other and all rights are handed back to the author.

©2000 Sara Douglass Enterprises

Who’s Who in the Publishing House

Who might you meet in the publishing house? Here’s an abbreviated list (with my sincerest apologies to everyone I’ve left out!) of the kinds of people an author can work with during the long and arduous process of getting the book out.

The Publisher:

The top dog who keeps everything running smoothly and who decides on the direction the publishing house is going to go in (“What the heck, let’s abandon genre literature and concentrate on cookery books for the next ten years.”). He or she probably won’t have much to do with the actual editing and production of an author’s book, but undoubtedly will be heavily involved with negotiating the contracts.

The Commissioning Editor:

This is the person who makes the decision (generally in concert with an editorial board) about which manuscripts to take and which to reject. While the commissioning editor is generally far too busy to take a hands on interest in the editing process of the accepted manuscripts, he or she will take a fair amount of interest in the overall inhouse progress of the manuscript, and whether or not the author is happy.

The (Senior) Editor:

This is the person who works one on one with the author in the editing process, and comprises that one person the author has most contact with. Occasionally the editor may be freelance – more publishing houses are sending their editorial work ‘out’ to freelance editors now. I don’t like it, it is always better to have someone at the other end of the phone.

The Copy Editor:

Although usually the editor does all the editorial work on a manuscript, sometimes a separate copy editor goes through the manuscript as well. This person is very often freelance. The copy editor does all the minutely detailed editorial work.

The Proof Reader:

Once a manuscript has been through several editorial stages, it goes off (or out) to a proof reader who checks for inconsistencies or mistakes.

The Designer:

The person who designs, or gives an artist the commission to design, the front cover of your book. Usually the author is consulted on this process, but it depends on the publishing house as to how much say the author will have in the final appearance of the book.

A slightly new group in publishing houses these days is the web design team: more and more publishing houses now have a significant presence on the web. Depending on what ‘web presence’ the publisher decides to give the author, the web designer can often be an important person in the production of a book.

The Cover Artist:

Rarely does the cover artist work within the publishing house. They’re usually freelance. They are paid to produce cover art work for the book – these pieces might be oil paintings measuring 8 foot by 4, or computer generated peices of art work. (If the art work is a ‘real’ piece of art work, the artist is usually happy to sell it to the author.) how much say the author gets in this art work varies from publishing house to publishing house.

The Publicist:

The publicity department is responsible for letting the world know the book is out there. Weeks, if not months, before the launch or a book they’ll be discussing with the author and with their colleagues how best to promote it. Should they advertise in print or on television? Should the book have its own dump bin? Should the author’s photograph be disseminated as widely as possible or diplomatically and silently consigned to the nearest wastepaper basket? Once the book is launched they’ll arrange media interviews for the author, and perhaps also a publicity tour.

I love travelling about with my publicist – it is the only time in my life where I feel totally looked after and someone else worries over the details of how to get from A to Z. Touring is very tiring (ah, those touring days starting at 7 am as the star of a “Meet the Author” breakfast, progressing through interview after interview and book signing after book signing through the day …), but it is one of the only chances an author gets to actually meet his or her readership.

And now for the people who generally get forgotten, but who often are almost entirely responsible for whether or not your book is a success …

The Book Reps:

Every large publishing house has book representatives in every state. These reps have their own ‘patch’ of book stores that they visit every month. Their job is to convince the book sellers to stock their particular house’s books … in the end your book is not going to sell if it is not in the shops, and if the book reps can’t convince the book sellers to take a book … well …

I absolutely adore HarperCollin’s book reps here in Australia – they do a fabulous job, and the feedback I received from book sellers has convinced me that if the reps hadn’t done such a brilliant job of pushing BattleAxe when I was a totally unknown author, then neither that book, nor I, would have done well at all. I owe them a tremendous amount, so … thanks, guys.

And many  more…

There are a thousand different people who I haven’t mentioned. Sorry! I am always amazed by the numbers and variety of people who turn up – there are the warehouse staff, the legal people, the web people, sundry other ‘techies’, the gofers, the marketing managers, the general ‘fixer-uppers’ … the list just goes on and on.

The Editorial Process

Writing the book and finding someone to publish it sometimes seems like the easy part. Just when you think it’s time to sit back and take a big deep breath … you find yourself submerged in ‘The Editorial Process’.

Publishers rarely (ever?) let a book go to the presses without it undergoing some form of editorial revision. What form that revision takes, and how extensive it is, depends on the publisher, the type of book, the personal preferences of the editor and the quality of the manuscript delivered to the publisher in the first place. The following description of the editorial process has been written from the twin perspective of an author (both of academic books and popular fiction) and an editor (of academic essays, articles and books), slanted more towards the popular fiction process.

First, the publisher generally likes to have the manuscript in their hands about eight months before publication – it will easily take some six months of going through various publishing processes before it emerges in print form. Having accepted the manuscript, an editor within the publishing house will read it and decide what work needs to be done on it. Often this process itself is shared by several editors, perhaps one or two freelance editors outside the publishing house. Whatever, once all the ideas and suggestions have been collated from the various readers, then one editor will sit down and begin the serious work of editing the manuscript.

Editing literally means going through the manuscript word by word, working out what works and what doesn’t. Usually the author is the last person to be aware of this as they are so submerged in their work they can’t view it objectively. An editor can ask an author to revise a character, even cut a character, or change names (I’ve lost count of the number of names I’ve changed and characters I’ve reformatted). They can ask the author to rewrite scenes, cut scenes, add new scenes (generally the day before you’ve got to send the damn thing back!) or write a scene from the perspective of a different character. The editor will generally cut the manuscript back, but can sometimes ask that the text be ‘plumped out’.

Once the editor has finished his or her work, the author receives the manuscript back for revision. Depending on the editor, you may receive a manuscript that is covered in thick pencilled suggestions, notations, and (almost always in my case) heavy lines scored through unwanted text, or the pages may be almost free of pencilled marks and covered only by a brief letter asking that a few minor points be addressed (and thankfully I’ve received manuscripts back like that, too). In this age of electronic communication and the wonders of the Internet, all of this may be accomplished via email. Two of the books I’ve authored have been edited largely via email – one with a Dutch publishing house (think of the time and postage we saved), the other with Hodder Headline here in Australia.

One of the hardest things I find as an author is to sit down and read what someone else thinks of my work. When you’ve spent months and a great deal of emotional investment in a book, staring at someone else’s vision of what works and what doesn’t can be devastating … especially when you see all those cut bits of text! But editors generally do a great job. They have a keen and, more importantly, an outsider’s eye, and they can spot far easier than you what works and what doesn’t. All my books have come out the better for the editorial process.

So, the author then has to sit down and revise. You don’t always agree with what the editor has suggested, and generally no editor is going to force you to change something if you violently disagree (unless you’re being utterly unreasonable … and in that case you’ll probably never publish with that firm again). In my experience, it’s a question of give and take … of negotiation. I’ll generally accede to editorial wishes (generally because the editor is completely right in his or her suggestions), but occasionally I’ll dig my toes in over something and win my case. What percentage of changes do I agree with and change? Probably between 70 – 80%. If I disagree with something, then I can always make added changes elsewhere. With Enchanter, where one third of the book had to be cut (always be suspicious of the editor who rings up and says cheerfully, “there’s not much we’ll have to do”), there were large portions of the text towards the end of the book I wanted to keep but that the editor wanted to lose simply to make up the required number of words we had to cut. So I cut portions elsewhere and kept the sections I wanted.

Having made the editorial changes (and they can sometimes take weeks), you print out the manuscript (or leave it on disk) and send it back to the editor. Depending on the editor, book or publishing house, it may then go through a further editorial revision (sometimes with a different editor) that will come back to the author for the okay.

Once everyone’s agreed that the manuscript has been finished, and hoping that no lives have been lost in the process, the manuscript is then typeset. That shouldn’t take too long, and then the author (who is often so heartily sick of the book by this stage they wish it would just go away and leave them in peace) gets the proofs back to read and correct. But at about this time the author finally realise that the book is nearing reality and a little germ of excitement can flower again.

During the entire editorial process the editor will have been consulting with you about the cover, and marketing strategies and so forth. Authors are generally listened to about the cover, but contracts will often state that it is the publishing house who’ll have the final word. Marketing departments and book reps (those unsung heroes who actually sell the book to the bookshops) have been busy and have, hopefully, managed to get advance sales that will make everyone smile.

The author will get copies of the book well before it’s released. You sit and admire it for ten breathless minutes … then open it at random and find a mistake on the first page you read!

The Great Day. Release Day. Believe me, if it’s a first book you’ll be rushing from book store to book store admiring the displays. There’s almost nothing as exciting as seeing your first novel in the stands (I’ve hung around book stores like you would not believe, but I’ve never actually seen anyone buy one!). Then you can go back day after day and watch the piles diminish. I’ve never quite got so low I’ve counted the books remaining in displays from day to day … not quite …

Waiting for the first royalties statement can also be nervewracking. Royalties are only divvied out every six months, ending in June and December, and it’s generally around September and April before the author actually sees them.

©2000 Sara Douglass Enterprises

A Book’s Life

One of the first and strangest things I learned as an author is that a book does not usually have a very long life. I’d always assumed that a book sat there on the shelves for countless years continuing to earn an author income over those years.

Generally speaking, not true. When you think about it, most bookshops have limited space … and they can’t, firstly, take every title published every month (thousands of titles) and, secondly, they can’t keep books on their shelves unless there’s a demand for them (i.e., unless more than three people a month buy one!). So a newly published book faces two challenges: first, to be stocked initially; second, to remain on the bookshop shelf longer than three months. In fact, most book’s lives last forabout six months … and then they basically can’t be found on bookshop shelves and they’re not earning for their author. While you may walk into a book store and see many of the same books as were there the last time you visited, and even the same books that were there last year, these books are the exceptions: for every book that lasts on the shelves, at least another hundred have faded away and died the inevitable death – they’ve been pulped.

Thus if you write, don’t write one book and expect it to feed you the rest of your life … you’ve got to keep writing books. One a year at least.

I’ve been incredibly lucky – something that took me a while to realise. All of my books are still on the shelves and still selling very well, and most of them are into their ninth or tenth reprint. That’s very unusual, and I feel very honoured that they’ve managed to hold their own … they’re good little children!

A book’s life can be extended by managing to make it onto a ‘Best-Seller List’ … but these lists are very strange creatures. Newspapers and magazines who publish best-selling lists generally only survey a very few bookshops … and what if those one or two or three shops don’t stock (or only stock a very few) of a book that might sell in its thousands in Target or Coles? In more cynical moments some people (heaven forbid that you think that I am one of them!!!) claim that the editors of the book pages in newspapers have a vested interest in seeing that their favoured books make it high on the lists … and thus ensure they survey the bookshops that stock large quantities of their favoured books. Best-selling lists can also be skewed by authors who, knowing which shops are due to be surveyed, then go out and buy up every single copy of their title, ensuring they make it to number one and then onto the talk-show fest (I don’t think this happens in Australia yet, but it is surely only a matter of time).

Bookshops, in Australia, at least, are able to return books to the publisher whenever they wish and not have to pay for them (returns are the bane of the author’s life). So what does the canny author do? Make sure they sign as many of the books in a shop as they can because then the book seller can’t send them back as returns because the book is ‘damaged property’. If you see an author at a book signing diligently sitting down and signing their way through scores if not hundreds of books, that’s why they’re doing it … those books are guaranteed ‘sales’ (if only sales because the book seller can’t return them and thus must pay for them). Some authors also trudge around to every bookshop they can make it to and sign every book of theirs in that shop – and occasionally they’re turfed out by annoyed booksellers.

©2000 Sara Douglass Enterprises

To Agent or Not?

Some authors have agents, some don’t; some people succeed with agents, some without. Whether or not you decide to go it alone or to try to get published via an agent will be entirely up to you.

It basically comes down to what you want.

First, however, what will a literary agent do for you?

A literary agent negotiates rights on your behalf (whether they be book, film, radio … whatever). He or she also scouts opportunities for you (in whatever form they may take) and often helps to organise publicity for you (although that is not normally part of his or her role). An agent, basically, acts as an adviser to you, and acts as a buffer between you and the torrid outside world of publishing. For this, the agent will take a percentage of your income (which generally ranges somewhere between 10% to 20%). You need to understand that if an agent negotiates rights on your behalf, for a percentage of all income from the sale or leasing of those rights, then the agent will continue to receive that percentage whether you are still his or her client or not. You can leave an agent whenever you wish … but that agent will continue to collect a percentage on all deals he or she has negotiated for you.

There are two alternatives to agent: yourself, or an entertainment lawyer. If you do all the negotiations yourself then you get all monies resulting from the deal; if you use a lawyer then the lawyer will generally charge a flat fee for the negotiations and you then keep all royalties that roll in.

On the face of it, it seems the better alternative is to do all the negotiations yourself (if you’re confident that you know what you are doing!), or to hire a lawyer for a flat fee. However … using a literary agent has some real positives.

Frankly, I wouldn’t be without one. I prefer to sit in my own private world of Ashcotte and let my agent (Lyn Tranter, of Australian Literary Management) do all the fretting for me. She’s always there at the end of the phone for advice, or for someone to grumble to (when, post-negotiations, a lawyer would not be). Yes, I lose a percentage of my income but a) I probably wouldn’t be where I am now without her, and b) she’s a great tax deduction! If I did the calculations comparing losing a portion of my income to paying a flat fee to an entertainment lawyer then money-wise I’d come out the same: what I would gain on using a lawyer for a flat fee I would lose in taxation. But, personally, the biggest incentive for me is not money – it is the sheer comfort I receive from having Lyn act as that all important buffer. It is also important to realise that agents can get your foot in the door far more easily than you could: an agent can get the ear of a publisher faster than anyone else.

Many other authors I know, however, prefer to do all their own negotiations (or to use a lawyer for negotiations and do all the other leg work themselves). I guess it depends on what kind of personality you have, if you enjoy the constant phoning, the constant keeping in touch yourself, or of you’d prefer someone else to do it for you.

If you do decide to try for an agent (I did not suceed until I got myself an agent), then the bad news is that agents are as overworked and overwhelmed with hopeful authors as publishers are. It is hard work to get an agent, so when approaching one remember the same golden rule that applies to approaching a publisher: BE PROFESSIONAL. Don’t be despondent if at first you don’t succeed; as with publishers, one may reject you, but the next may take you on.

In all the wonders of the past six or seven years of my publishing success, the most marvellous moment came when, out of the blue, I got a phone call from Lyn at 4.45 one Friday afternoon (I remember it so well!) saying, “Welcome aboard!”.

Suddenly, after all the lonely, silent years of effort, I was home.

©2000 Sara Douglass Enterprises

More about Agents

Editors note: This is an updated/expanded version of To Agent or Not, both are relevant and have been included for that reason.


Some authors have agents, some don’t; some people succeed with agents, some without. Whether or not you decide to go it alone or to try to get published via an agent will be entirely up to you.
It basically comes down to what you want.

First, however, what will a literary agent do for you?

A literary agent negotiates rights on your behalf (whether they be book, film, radio … whatever). He or she also scouts opportunities for you (in whatever form they may take) and often helps to organise publicity for you (although that is not normally part of his or her role). An agent, basically, acts as an adviser to you, and acts as a buffer between you and the torrid outside world of publishing. For this, the agent will take a percentage of your income (which generally ranges somewhere between 10% to 25%). You need to understand that if an agent negotiates rights on your behalf, for a percentage of all income from the sale or leasing of those rights, then the agent will continue to receive that percentage whether you are still his or her client or not. You can leave an agent whenever you wish … but that agent will continue to collect a percentage on all deals he or she has negotiated for you. Some parts of the traditional agenting system are cumbersome. For instance, if you have as your primary agent an Australian agent, then that agent will then subcontract agents in other countries to handle your work there. That means more fees (thus the 25% rate, some goes to your primary agent, other percentages of it go to various subagents), and more distance between you and the publisher. Rather than contracting with a primary agent who then subcontracts in other countries you might like to think about contracting agents in different countries each at a reasonably low commission. This can be difficult to do, however, and most authors seem to go with the primary agent and (cumbersome) subagent system. There are two alternatives to using an agent: do it yourself, or use a contract lawyer. If you do all the negotiations yourself then you get all monies resulting from the deal; if you use a lawyer then the lawyer will generally charge a flat fee for the negotiations and you then keep all royalties that roll in.

Traditionally authors have used agents. Today, however, once authors have established themselves some do move to managing themselves without an agent. If you’ve got a well-known name, and you’re saleable, then you might very well be better off without one (if you’re not well known, and don’t already have a foot, an arm and a leg in the door, then you’re better of with than without!). Agents’ commissions range from between 10% to 25% … and if there is little work involved in selling a good name … then some authors reason they can do without losing that percentage of their income. Another potential problem with agents in today’s rapidly changing publishing world (especially with etexts) is that a traditional contract might really tie your hands in your ability to make free use of some of the new media opportunities. If you’re contracting with an agent make sure the contract doesn’t tie you down so much you can’t take advantage of electronic opportunities.

You could also choose to have an agent in one territory, but not in another. For example, you might like to look after your own affairs within your own home territory (your own home country), but have agents for overseas territories with which you are not familiar. Typically, for instance, authors in Australia might look after their Australian affairs, but contract an agent to work for them within the USA. The publishing world is currently changing at a very rapid rate – do your homework, see what’s on offer, work out what will be best for you. Again, I add the proviso that if you’re just starting out you may have little choice in what kind of agent or agenting agreement you are offered.

©2002 Sara Douglass Enterprises

Tips on Getting Published

One of the things that I’m constantly asked, whether individually or in interviews, is what advice I can give to aspiring authors. So I decided to put the sum of my disappointments and triumphs here on the web. Below I outline a number of mistakes … and believe me, I’ve made most of them (qualifier: most, but not all. I’ve never, never rung up an author or agent or reviewer and abused them or sent vicious death threats via snail or voice mail … and unfortunately both those are mistakes and abuses suffered on a daily basis by Australian editors and agents).

First rule – don’t give up. It generally takes time and disappointment to get published. But if you keep at it, and are prepared to learn … then the chances that you will succeed are good.

Second rule – be prepared to wait. Publication, fame and fortune almost never happen overnight, and some of us are still waiting. Well, one out of three ain’t bad.

Okay, down to the tips.

So, what do you do first? Well, if you want to write, then, dammit, write! Start with something achievable, perhaps a short story, and start with a genre and a subject that you’re familiar with. Don’t write science fiction if you’ve only ever read one science fiction story in your life. Don’t write romance because you somewhat depreciatingly think it’s easy. Pick a genre and a subject you:

  • admire;
  • know something (preferably a great deal of something) about;
  • feel a real enthusiasm for.

Perhaps five or six years ago I stupidly thought I’d make a killing writing light romance. Easy, I thought. No matter that I thought light romance was stuff for fools. No matter that I hadn’t read a light romance since I was fourteen. What happened? I failed miserably. It was bloody hard. I wrote some three novels in the light romance vein, and they are all laughable. That’s not the genre’s fault, it’s mine. Light romance is as difficult or as easy to write as adventure or science fiction; what makes the difference is the author’s attitude and experience, and I failed on both counts.
So don’t pick something because you think it will be easy. Pick something because you like it and are familiar with it.

You must realise that most of what you first write won’t be any good. Perhaps most of what you write for months or even years won’t be much good. That’s okay. The important thing is that you are writing, and you are learning as you go. You will become more familiar and more comfortable with the pacing of plots, with the intricacies of dialogue and with the development of characters the more you do it. I wrote close to six or seven novels, all of which are unpublishable, before I had learned enough to write something that was publishable (although I also completely changed the genre I was writing in as well, and that helped). Maybe I’m a slow learner, but I needed the experience of those failures … no, not failures at all, because I learned from them … I needed the experience of those novels behind me to eventually write something that worked … and that I could sell.

Short stories I can give no advice on at all, because I’ve only just begun to write short stories. I cut my teeth on novel writing, so that’s what I’ll concentrate on here.

The First Novel

The hardest lesson to learn is that your first novel will undoubtedly be dreadful. You must be prepared to let your first novel go. Face the fact that one day you’re going to have to turn off the life support systems.
This is hard. Planning, writing and completing a novel is an achievement in itself, and the first-time novelist is generally so emotionally attached to his or her creation they are incapable of seeing it with objective eyes. It took me some five years to realise that my first novel was so bad it would never be published. Its worth lay not in whether it would or would not be published, but in what it taught me. Once I accepted the fact that it would be easier (and better) to start a new project than continue to try to resuscitate the First Novel, I took the first great big step towards success.

(Some 98% of manuscripts are rejected by Australian publishers. My guess is that the majority of those are first-time novels whose authors have no idea how bad they are. Hey, I know, I’ve been there.)

The second attempt at a novel was easier to let go – and that made it easier for me to view it objectively and learn from its mistakes.

By the third novel I knew what I was doing, and I think by that stage I’d accepted that I was in a learning mode rather than in a ‘get-rich-and-famous-quick’ mode. I think I typed in the final fullstop, then closed the file without a single emotional twinge, and instantly began work on the fourth novel.

I was on a roll. I’d managed to remove myself enough from my writing to be able to view it objectively, to recognise instantly when something wasn’t working, and by this stage I had enough experience to know what to do to correct it.

I was still writing romance, but I knew that this genre was not for me. The excitement was building, because I knew I was close to a breakthrough.

The Breakthrough

The breakthrough for me was finding the perfect genre for my style of writing and for the peculiar and often dark shape of my mind. Fantasy. I’ve read a fair bit of it over the years, but it’s certainly not my favourite genre (what is my favourite? Military adventure fantasy – Tom Clancy, for example. Man, I can read about dogfights and sub hunts for hours on end). The day I thought, “Why not try fantasy?” it felt so right that I instinctively knew this was going to be my best chance at success.

From the moment I wrote the first chapter of BattleAxe I thought it had a really good chance … I had so many failures behind me and so much experience I could recognise saleable worth when I wrote it.

But there was something else about BattleAxe that made it different. This one I wrote almost exclusively for myself, whereas all the other novels I did with an ‘audience’ in mind. BattleAxe I LOVED writing. I lived that book, and it lived for me. Consequently it lives for most (not all, she grins, remembering the odd review) of my readers. So if it works for you, then it may well work for others … but again, you’ve got to balance involvement with objectivity.

What To Do With It Now?

So you’ve finished the piece that you think may see you through into book signings and pleasant conversations with your bank manager. (Oh yeah, dream on. I am here to tell you that the more you earn, the more you fall into debt.) What to do with it now?

First, take a deep breath, put it in a drawer, and forget about it for about two months. Then take it out, view it with a fresh eye, and revise it ferociously. Make yourself see all the bits that don’t work, and force yourself to change them. Authors always find it hard to change a single word of their masterpiece, but, believe me, masterpieces can always be improved (if you can’t find much wrong with your manuscript, then it’s probably so awful it should be burnt). The more improved your manuscript is, and the more professional (and professionally presented) it is, the greater chance you will have of being published. It’s a hectic world out there, peopled by agents and editors who are overworked and underpaid, and the first thing that catches their eyes is professionalism. They don’t have time for anything but.

How to Give a Decent Impression of Professionalism

Whatever you do, do not send your entire manuscript off to a publisher (or, shudder, five or six of them at once) without first sending a letter of inquiry. Getting accepted takes time, and you’re not going to do it in one month, or even three. Think six to eight months … if you’re lucky. I’d finished BattleAxe in April of one year at the latest … and it took until Octoberish to be accepted, contracts not signed until December, no cash until January of the following year … and I was fairly zoomed through the system.

Be patient.

There are two ways to approach a publisher. By yourself, or through an agent.

Approaching Publishers Personally

I’ll talk you through the personal approach first.

Do some research. Find out which publishers are publishing in your field. It’s bloody useless to send a letter or the ms off blind to a publisher only because you vaguely know their name.
So you’ve found a publisher, or two or three, who are currently publishing in your genre (if you can find a publisher who is actively searching for manuscripts, i.e., they’ve just started a line up, then you’ll have a better chance). Send in a letter of inquiry to the editor (please, please type it … see below re presentation). Briefly tell them something about yourself (editors are going to be as interested in you as your manuscript; if they accept your manuscript they are, after all, going to have to work with you), what experience you have in writing and publishing (if you’ve not had anything published yet, that’s okay), and give them a brief synopsis of your book. A page, maybe two. No more. No one has time to read a twenty-page synopsis. Your letter and synopsis has got to catch an editor’s eye in under two minutes, so don’t waste this chance in waffle.

It’s fine to send letters and synopses to several publishers at once, but if more than one writes back and says they’d like to see several chapters, then send the chapters to one publisher only (again, see below for presentation). These people share gossip, phone calls, lunches … they’re going to find out if you send it to two or more … and you will be dropped so fast by all of them it will take you ten years to recover the lost ground. So if more than one wants to see a sample of the book, then send it to whoever you think will be your best bet, and send the others letters telling them what’s going on. It won’t damage your chances at all; in fact, it will increase your aura of professionalism. If the first doesn’t want it, then you’re still going to have a good chance with the others. (The first Australian publisher to read BattleAxe rejected it as unpublishable …. so editors do make misjudgements, and if one rejects it, it doesn’t mean that the next won’t welcome you with open arms, an unstoppered bottle of sherry, and a fat cheque.)

Okay, several chapters have gone off to an editor, it looks promising. Now you wait. And wait. Sometimes several months. Give the publisher two months … then write a friendly letter asking what’s happening (don’t think to be clever and say there’s someone else who wants it … the editor is just as likely to respond with, “Oh? Well, let them have it, then”). After three months you’re perfectly within your rights to send the ms somewhere else.

Above all, and I’ll keep saying this until I’m blue in the face … be patient. I have a theory that editors sometimes linger over reading not only because they’re busy (which they are), but because they’re also testing you. If you bother them with constant calls and letters asking when they’re going to make up their mind, then chances are you won’t be accepted. Editors like to know that the authors they’ll be working closely with are sane. Believe me here. If you irritate them, or insult them, you’ve blown your chance. Not only with the one publisher, but if you’ve acted badly enough, with the entire national industry. Be patient. Take to drink, eat chocolate bars until you’re twice the size you used to be, but leave the editors alone for a decent period.

And don’t get despondent at the first rejection. In fact, get used to them. Everyone gets rejected more often than they get accepted. Deal with it. Learn from it. Listen to any constructive criticism that comes your way. If you’re really serious about writing, then rejection is going to become a way of life for you.

Unfortunately many would-be authors are unable to accept criticism or rejection. Please do not become one of those who resort to abuse, or even death threats, to overcome their disappointment. Accept it. Shrug your shoulders. Learn from it. Try again.

Using an Agent

According to the Australian Society of Authors, more and more Australian publishers (as publishers around the world) are refusing to accept manuscripts, or even consider them, unless they come via an agent. This is almost entirely due to the fact that editors are increasingly unable to deal with the thousands of manuscripts that are sent to them each year. Literary agents act as a buffer for the publishing industry. If something is submitted via an agent then the editor can be reasonably sure that both it and the author been vetted and are not completely unworkable. Publishers trust agents in a manner they will never trust the general public.

I tried for years to have a novel accepted by a publisher. Granted, most of them were appalling (the novels, not the publishers!). But with BattleAxe I was so determined to give it every possible chance I thought I’d try a literary agent. Bingo.

I love agents. Agents are good. Agents are the buffer between you and the publisher. Agents are someone you can ring up and cry on their shoulder about the sick cat, the comma that won’t go where it should, and the boyfriend who won’t stay where he should. Agents know what’s going on and will do their very best for you because, in the end, they don’t earn until you do. But agents are almost as impossible to obtain as publishers.

Part of the reason is because, as stated above, in the past two to three years more and more publishers around the world are refusing to read unagented manuscripts … and that means literary agents are now being inundated with the manuscripts that once ended up in the publishers’ slush piles. (What’s a slush pile? The massive pile of unsolicited manuscripts that end up on tables and in cabinets and on the floors of publishing firms. Never read. Sent back at the end of each month.) So now agents are feeling the pressure that until recently publishers had to deal with.

Add to this the fact that an agent or an agency can only handle so many clients (authors). More and more agencies simply don’t want any more clients. Their books are full …

But don’t be despondent. Try them. If you can find an agent then you’ve got a really good chance. My most exciting moment over the past few years was when an agent rang me up and said, “Darling … welcome aboard.” I knew then I was going to make it … no agent will take you on unless they think they have a damn good chance of selling your work.

My advice on approaching an agent runs along much the same lines as approaching a publisher. First of all, find out what literary agents there are, and what type of genres they prefer to handle (it’s no use sending a popular fiction ms to an agent who deals only in literary works). Writers’ organizations in each state are a good place to start for information on literary agents/agencies, or write to the Australian Society of Authors who should be able, for a minimal price, give you some idea of what agents there are, who has their books closed, and who takes what. The address is:
98 Pitt Street,
Redfern, NSW, 2016.
Phone (02) 318 0877
email: asauthors@peg.pegasus.oz.au

Send a letter of inquiry and synopsis first, enclosing a stamped, self-addressed envelope. If the agent wants to read your work then they’ll discuss prices etc. at that point. But an agent shouldn’t charge the earth to read your work unless they’re going to offer a written criticism of it. Agents will take some time to read your manuscript. They’ll read it first, then they may well send it out to someone else to read and comment on. This may take months. So, be patient. Remember what I said above about not annoying or abusing editors … the same applies to agents. Agents will be as interested in you (and your reactions) as your manuscripts. They will never take on someone they don’t like or don’t trust. Remember, they’ve got prospective authors (almost literally) camping on their doorsteps. They can pick and choose.

If an agent does take you on, then you’ve got a real chance, and your agent is going to be in a good position to get you the best possible terms on your contract. I don’t begrudge the slice of my income that goes to my agent. Without her, there would be no income at all.

Presentation

The best way to create an instantly favourable impression with either publisher or agent is with a professionally presented manuscript. Typed, or preferably word processed. Never handwritten. The minimum of hand-written corrections (if there’s a large number of them, then print it again). The manuscript should be presented on A4 paper, one side only, with 4 cm margins (at least). The text should be double-spaced, and the font and ink should be sharp and clear. Each page should be numbered, and it’s a good idea to put your name at the top right-hand corner of each page. Pages should be loose, not bound. Keep a copy yourself, or at least make sure that you have it on disk (on several disks, all stored in different places!).

Well, I’ve run out of helpful hints. I wish you luck. But remember, patience and professionalism will always give your work the best possible chance.

Oh, one last thing … I’m not the best person to read your work. If you need someone to read your work and comment professionally on it, then approach a literary agency. But if you want hints on writing, then (she grins) read my alter ego’s hints on how to write the perfect History Essay … what’s there goes as much for fiction as it does for history.

©1998 Sara Douglass


Editors note: this article was written in 1998 by Sara and information stated may not be current.