I was having a conversation with a friend the other day who has a manuscript which is about to shopped around for a publisher, and I found myself offering (no doubt patronising) wisdom about this process, and thinking that in almost every signing/meeting-readers session after I do a talk someone will ask ‘so how did you get published?’ and that this is a subject a lot of people are interested in. And that, though from an utterly personal and amateur perspective, I actually do know a bit about the whole thing and how to handle it, so here is what I know (the brief version).
First, the story of how In My Skin got published. It is not the typical way, and I hasten to say I was very, very lucky in my circumstances. First, when I was still a sex worker, I was already thinking and saying aloud that I’d like to write a book about the experience. It so happened that around this time my father, who knew this, met a woman through his work who asked about his children, and my dad said Well my daughter is currently a sex worker, but I think she really wanted to be a writer. And the woman said Oh, my husband is a publisher, he might be interested in a story about that if she’s writing something. And (now I think: how bizarre! and what nerve I had!) so in the dawn hours after one shift I wrote up a few proposals of how I might write that something (I was so naive, I did it in fancy font and fancy language, oh my god how embarrassing) and sent it to him, and he actually rang me and said, I like the ideas, send me something when you write it and I’ll have a look. But I was too tired and too busy trying to survive, and I never did anything more except start writing fragments and think that there was definitely something in them.
A few years later I was clean, doing my writing course at RMIT and working on the manuscript of In My Skin. A commissioning editor from a big publisher came to meet us and expressed interest in the book, and my lecturer encouraged me to send it out to other publishers; of course I thought of Michael Heyward, now impresario at Text Publishing, and how he really had first dibs as all those years ago he’d been so kind and interested. So, sure it was a shot in the dark, I sent the first chapters to him, and he rang me and said Oh my god! You! We wondered what happened to you, we were waiting for you to write something for us! So I showed him the rest of the what I had and he offered to sign the book. I say that rather calmly but I can say it was one of the more joltingly marvellous moments in my life. I ran down the street going EEEEEEE! EEEEEE! and then had to lie down and do yoga breathing.
Then I had a thrilling but totally nervewracking time with two publishers wanting to do a deal. But I wanted to go with Text and so I did. A happy day indeed. And Michael said, See, we kept this the whole time: and handed me the ridiculous sheets with my fancy font and smart arse proposals that I wrote up so tiredly back at the start with my hooker makeup still on and all the world asleep at 5am.
So, that’s my fortunate and not-typical way of getting published. But though I had the lucky contact with Michael early on, I basically did what is recommended, and made him a proper official proposal of a book, which is a well established protocol. Here’s how that works (and there are many websites and books which detail hints on how to do this):
The Agent I don’t have an agent and it is a much-debated issue in writerly circles, whether to have one or not. Many writers swear by them, the better deals an agent can obtain, the fact that agents form the main access corridor to publishers’ desks (especially when most publishing houses in Australia do not accept unsolicited manuscripts) and that it makes it easier for a writer to concentrate on creativity and avoid the awkwardness and ineptness of negotiating a contract directly. Myself, I jumped in the deep end on my own, frantically learned as much as I could about contracts, braved the meetings, and saved the agents’ fee with both my books. That’s not to say that I wouldn’t seek an agent in the future, but independence has paid off for me so far.
The Proposal This is the main wedge of your strategy, whether submitting it to an agent or directly to a publisher. (As I say, most publishers in this country don’t take unsoliciteds, so check their website to see if they do, and don’t waste your paper and postage if they say they don’t; also look for any guidelines they might provide.) The proposal is made of three parts: a cover letter, a synopsis and/or brief outline of characters or chapters, and a sample of the writing, usually the first three chapters or 10,000 words–NOT the ‘best’ bits but the opening which is, of course, well worked and already structured to seize a reader’s interest.
The cover letter is in many ways the most important part, even more than the book itself. I TOILED over my cover letter even to Michael whom I’d met; it has to be no more than one page in which to introduce yourself, the project, and cover some crucial issues: what the book is, why you are the person to write it, why it’s unique, how it fits in contemporary publishing and if it is similar to/different from any bestseller in the same frame, why it will be attractive to readers, which readers you envisage buying it, and why this publisher (do your homework) should particularly want to read it. This is your moment to grab the attention of a busy, jaded and judicious publisher or agent, or their paid manuscript assessor. Don’t be too arrogant, don’t be too humble, be confident, direct and take your chance as well as you can.
If this does its work (but remember that it might not; you can send your ms to several publishers/agents at once, but you must do them the courtesy of mentioning that you’ve done this) then you meet the publisher/agent and negotiate a contract. If like me you go straight into this with a publisher then there are some things to learn before that meeting.
The Contract. I nearly had a nervous breakdown doing my first contract negotiation. A lot rides on it but of course it is in the context of quite understandable emotional feelings. Massive, humble and unctuous gratitude to the publisher can make it hard to be a brass-nosed, steel-nerved negotiator; you don’t want to push too hard in case they change their mind; you think, Why quibble over film rights when I’ll be lucky to sell three copies of the book; and of course you don’t have any idea of what is reasonable and what is robbery. Educate yourself. Read books (the Victorian Writers Centre publishes an excellent one) about publishing contracts. Consider using a contact assessment service (again, VWC does this for a fee) or a lawyer to go over it. Get the Australian Society of Author‘s model of an ideal contract and compare it. Ask writer friends about their contracts. Learn the terminology. Take it seriously. You don’t know what will happen with the book; it’s better to peer at every clause and believe that one day the audio book rights will be applied, than ignore all of that and regret it later. You won’t look a fool, you’ll look like a serious author.
That said, there is give and take in contracts and compromises must be made. You might be offered a small advance but better royalty terms, or the other way around. Find out about rising royalty rates (where the rate goes up after a certain number of books is sold) and look carefully at the other clauses such as indemnity for the publisher (where you are responsible if there are any legal issues after publication, such as defamation suits), or delivery date clauses. Much of a publishing contract is ‘just how it is’ and you have to accept that you are somewhat at the mercy of a commercial proposition devised over a long time by the industry which itself, let’s remember, doesn’t make a huge profit. Authors have a rough time with contracts in general, but at least you can defend your right to be paid and respected as a significant part of the industry, not a humble serf who’s lucky to work basically for nothing.
You may be shocked by how little authors are paid (standard royalties are around 10% of RRP minus GST, and only after the advance is paid off; plus reserve-against-return means that for the first year or so 30% of your royalties are held back to be paid later). Get used to that. It’s a fact of writing that hardly anyone in the business makes much off a single copy of a book: not the writer, nor the publisher, the distributor, nor the bookseller. It’s possible to make good money from writing (despite what you hear) but it takes a combination of many sales and good contract terms. All the more reason to put a lot of effort and thought into doing the contract, and not just leap in crying gratefully ‘Thank you! thank you!’
And there you are, you have a publishing contract (I don’t know if all this applies to agent contracts as well, never having seen one). It’s a bruising but thrilling process, and at the end hopefully you’re happy and ready to go back to the writing part. It’s important though to remember that being a writer is not all about sitting, quill to pensive brow, in a shaft of sunshine cogitating profundities. A lot of it is about business, and authors seem generally to err on the humble side in this respect. We shouldn’t be humble, we shouldn’t be afraid to talk about money, and we should do ourselves the favour of getting ourselves the best deal we can as well as getting our work published. And by gum, it’s an educational revelation!
Then after all that, you commence the editing process and moving towards having a book on the shelves. But that’s another story.
PS All this is absolutely my own personal experience and opinion, I’m not a qualified agent or lawyer and some might disagree with what I’ve written, but it’s what I’ve found to be true. The more you ask around, learn from others’ experience (which I certainly did before I did the second book contract) and try to be savvy, the better–even if, as I found, you end up with conflicting advice and more headache. Getting published is thrilling, getting smart about the business aspect is essential.