The state of book publishing (in Australia)

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Publishing in Australia

The novel I’m trying to get published now is an Australian story, with universal themes and appeal of course, but there’s much in the subject matter that Australians will relate to. This means I’m touting it in Australia first before looking elsewhere.

But getting anything new published in Australia can be challenging. It has been for a long time, but with foreign competition, it’s even more difficult.

Some publishing facts (and some opinion too):

  • Big W is reportedly the single biggest book retailer in Australia, so if you don’t write commercial fiction of 70-90,000 words that Big W wants to sell, you may be at a disadvantage
  • The price of books has gone down with overseas competition, putting greater commercial pressure on publishers
  • If you write literary fiction (my novel is literary-commercial crossover) places reserved for new voices are very limited, as in maybe 5 novels per year one publisher claimed. Yes – 5!!
  • Fulfilling publishers’ commercial requirements seems more front of house than ever with increased competition
  • Character and plot rule, so if you’re attempting to push the boundaries and break some rules, your first novel may be considered too risky, but then again maybe not if you’re brilliant
  • All this competition has in my view pushed the Australian mainstream publishing industry towards conservatism. I find a lot of new Australian formulaic and disappointing
  • That said, small, independent publishers are taking risks that are paying off. These are the books I tend to find inspiring. Perhaps this is where the future lies for Australian writers whose work may not satisfy mainstream commercial criteria?
  • The pool of book readers isn’t growing in Australia
  • Bricks and mortar booksellers are the key to sales for debut novels by Australian authors
  • Around a third of trade (commercial) books published in Australia are fiction
  • Print books remain the most popular, with e-book sales decreasing before plateauing
  • How many times have I heard publishers say they’re looking for the next Bryce Courtenay or Andy Griffiths or Fleur McDonald? Interestingly, I’ve only ever once  heard them say they’re looking for the next Patrick White or Geraldine Brooks.

So what can you do to get published?

Should you tailor your fiction to what you think publishers want? Should you cut your text back to fit the word length, make your characters more mainstream, latch on to the latest trend and write in that genre?

Not unless that’s where your passion lies or it will improve your work. Your writing must be the best you can make it, which demands authenticity and tenacity. Writing is testing at the best of times, let alone if you’re not working on something that fires you up, even during the dark times. First and foremost, love what you’re doing.

Don’t compromise, improve your work

Instead focus on making your manuscript the best it can be. Then continue to seek a publisher until you find someone who believes in your work. There are alternative publishing routes you might consider too, which I discuss here.

Publishing is a business, but never forget that writing is an art.

 

Waiting: What should you do after submitting your manuscript to an agent or publisher?

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I submitted my manuscript to two new publishers this week, dutifully complying with all their requirements before I sent it off as well as checking and rechecking my letter, author bio, synopsis, book comparison, marketing appraisal and so on.

But what to do, or not do, now?

  1. Tread the fine line between hope and lowered expectations
    Rejections can be gutting. I’ve written about this before. You need to prepare yourself in case that’s what happens. On the other hand, you want to believe in your work and be open to success. It can be torturous when you’ve invested so much time, effort and even money.  But aim for zen like detachment, understanding that you’ll be rejected until you aren’t.

  2. Start something else immediately
    If you’ve written fiction, perhaps you have an idea for a non-fiction book. If you’ve written long form, maybe it’s time to try short stories, which if published can help build your author biography. Alternatively, your short stories might make great novels. 

    When starting a new project remember two things. First, you learned how to write your last story, not necessarily others. A new story might demand other skills. Second, first drafts are often terrible. Don’t judge yourself. Just get something down and redraft, redraft, redraft…

  3. Take a break
    Is it time you did something else for a while? Doing nothing can be anything but doing nothing. You might actually be creating a masterpiece in the background. More on that here

  4. Have a Plan B
    I like to have a back up plan. Perhaps there are other publishers you haven’t tried such as overseas or independent ones. If you’ve exhausted all channels, consider other publishing options, as I’ve discussed here. For me with this manuscript my Plan B is joint publishing. But perhaps you want to consider self publishing. Then again, after some reflection, you might conclude this was your learner novel. There’s no rush.

  5. Learn patience
    Patience is not an inherited trait, it’s a learned and practiced skill. Get on with the next thing in your life, quarantining a place of hope inside you in case that positive outcome arrives. 

What not to do

  1. Don’t reread your work
    Unless you’re prepared to endlessly rewrite your manuscript, don’t reread it while you wait. You can do that later if your submissions is rejected. 

  2. Don’t make changes and resubmit to the same publisher
    Once you’ve submitted that’s it, so make sure your manuscript is ready. Some people put their work away for weeks or months before deciding whether their piece is ready. I wish I’d done that in the past. Still, everything is a process, including mistakes, or rather learning experiences

  3. Don’t harass publishers or agents
    It’s a test of patience, but if your potential agent or publisher said they usually reply in 3 or 6 months, then wait the allotted time. If they’re considerably late, inquire politely. Harassing won’t earn you a favourable reputation. 


Remember, publishers want commercially viable books.
If you don’t succeed, it doesn’t mean you can’t write
or that your work is rubbish. 

 

How to know when your book is cooked

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Is your book cooked when:

  • You’ve put it aside for a while, and when you return to it you’re satisfied
  • The story works well, including the ending
  • You’ve found an agent or publisher
  • You know you’ve done your absolute best
  • You don’t care anymore, you just want to get it out there
  • You’ve rewritten it 12 times and that’s enough
  • Your beta readers, editor or writing group tell you so
  • You’ve reached the standard required for your genre
  • You’ve simply got nothing left
  • Another book beckons
  • You just know this is it
  • The world can’t wait to hear your story any longer
  • Never?

I’m coming to the end of my final edit for my MS, unless a publisher tells me otherwise. The problem is, every time I look back I see new ways to improve my book. I believe this is because with every edit, my skills improve. But if I begin yet again, there’s a real risk of getting caught in an endless rewriting loop.

Set your work aside if you can, or seek an outside (objective) opinion to help you determine if your work is sufficiently cooked. If you’re a perfectionist, remember there’s no such thing as perfect because EVERYTHING is subjective.

With my manuscript, it’s definitely near ready to eat, which my writing group has confirmed. I hear the call of another story.

Should you join a writing group?

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I’ve been a member of my current writing group for 4 1/2 years now. I say current because I tried another couple of groups that didn’t work out. I’ve almost pulled out of this group too, but now I believe that sticking with it is one of the best things I’ve done for my writing.

Which group is right for you?

There are many kinds of writing groups and you’ll need to consider which one suits you best. Are you looking for a group:

  • that critiques, providing constructive feedback for existing work
  • that takes you through writing exercises aimed at improving your craft
  • that cheers you on, offering mutual encouragement
  • is in-person, online or offers both options
  • where you share a space with other writers and work on your own pieces simultaneously
  • that’s casual or requires consistent attendance?

I’ve joined the first kind of group through my local writers’ centre because I wanted to improve my manuscript. Members are serious about getting published—and some of us have been. We meet weekly with each person reading out 2k words for which we receive feedback. Many of us find the act of reading out loud a good starting point because we often hear our own mistakes first. People seem to have their strengths and together we make a formidable team even though our genres are diverse, including historical fiction, chick lit, crime and science fiction. One person tends to comment on structure, another grammar and voice, another character development or story line and so on.

What are the benefits of joining a writing group?

  1. Critique and/or support – When you find a good group you get free critiquing or support that would otherwise cost 3 cents per word and upwards. It’s not quite like having your own editor, but it’s the next best thing. In some ways it’s better because of the diversity of opinion you receive.
  2. Motivation – Some members in my group find the weekly commitment of 2k words a strong motivator, saying they might otherwise struggle to commit writing time.
  3. Support – A couple of times I’ve reached out to members when I’ve hit lows. They’ve reminded me that my story is strong, important and worth the effort. Recently they told me enough finessing, it’s time to finish my manuscript and put it out there. In short, they’ve bolstered me and given me perspective when I’ve most needed it.
  4. Being with fellow writers – As much as your friends or family might think it’s great (or not) that you write, no one can understand your writing glories and struggles like fellow writers. Writing is an otherwise solitary act so it’s great to share.
  5. Brainstorming – Sometimes members get stuck and we brainstorm ideas. The ending of my book wasn’t quite right, but now it’s formidable thanks to one member’s suggestion. Others have changed point of view or added in magical realism elements to overcome challenges. More heads can be better than one.

What are any negatives of joining a writing group?

  1. Lack of safety – In one group I joined, a member turned vicious if she didn’t like your work. Unfortunately, others copied her negative tone. I was once lampooned an entire season for having a prologue. This kind of experience is destructive. Avoid. Writing is exposition of your deepest self. The critiquing environment must be safe and encourage constructive, dissuading destructive participation. There are always positives.
  2. Poor organisation and leadership – There must be agreed and enforced rules for writing groups to be effective and rewarding. For example, for long prose groups, a quorum who attend regularly is critical. Other questions to ask are does your organiser take into account others’ views on potential new members? Are they a good time manager keeping members within their allotment? And are they willing to reign people in if they step out of bounds or remove members who don’t fit in?
  3. Wrong genre – Are you a short story writer but you’re in a long story group? Do you need a group of fellow biographers but you’re in a fiction group? Do you write science fiction but you’re in a romance group and they don’t get concepts such as world building? Make sure you know what you need and search for the appropriate group or you’ll risk feeling alienated and disheartened.
  4. Group mentality – Even in the best of groups, people can get carried away. I recall my group telling me they didn’t care about my main character. Whoa! I got the point, which was valid and important, but I didn’t need to have it repeated for half an hour. You may need to firmly but gently steer your fellow writers back towards their more diplomatic, positive selves.

How to find the right group for you

There are many options, including:

  • Online groups where you trade feedback. These can be genre specific
  • Writer’s centres in your area or state that offer many kinds of groups
  • MeetUp
  • Start your own group, perhaps finding members through your local library, your existing network, at writers’ festivals or even Gumtree.

Trust your judgement. If a group doesn’t feel right, then it’s not for you.

Above all, be open, but also listen to yourself.