Thursday, March 25, 2010

June Caldwell's Notes from Publishing Day

The book publishing industry is changing rapidly and unless you’re directly involved, it's hard to gauge the impact of these changes on both the author and the reader. From interactive and illustrated Ebooks to the effect that social networking is having on our creativity, through to declining sales, a shifting business model and a slow economy. Some would say the industry is in turmoil, but one vital component remains deliciously static: the essence of books - the connection between author and reader.

The IWC Publishing Day was a great opportunity to scrutinise the links between the author, agent, publisher, publicist and reader. Author John Boyne (Boy in the Striped Pyjamas, etc.) spoke from the heart about the slow hard work of writing. “Make no mistake; it’s a difficult, slow process, requiring lots of deliberate effort,” he said. He also spoke about the importance of ‘intuition’ in the author’s life when it comes to “dreaming up ideas” and sticking by them if they demand to be written. “If you have that burning sensation that says ‘this is not going to let me go until I write it’...then just write it,” he urged.

A word of caution too about ‘large advances’ that can turn out to be a poisoned chalice of sorts for newbie novelists...if the book doesn’t sell, the author can be blacklisted. “Their careers are effectively over,” he said. John has had a prolific career with seven novels to date and over 70 short stories published. It was fascinating to hear how it all came about and the day to day continuation of his success story. “I write the first draft of a novel in six months,” he explained. “Then usually spend up to a year and a half re-writing as needs be.”

Why are agents so important nowadays and what exactly do they do? According to Jonathan Williams whose literary agency currently represents 160 authors, “An agent is someone who minds someone else’s business.” He received in excess of 2,800 manuscripts within Ireland last year. “Cascades of manuscripts and I’m afraid that the writing is getting worse!” he quipped. His main message was that authors should only submit a manuscript when it is “entirely ready”, meaning after it’s been worked on, re-written, edited, re-written again, etc. “Make it as near perfect as it can possibly get, then you are more likely to be taken seriously,” he said.

Jonathan was a joy to listen to and came loaded down with practical information. “Double space your text, for God's sake include page numbers! Also, get the manuscript flexi-bound so it stays in one piece when the agent is reading it." The industry is such a challenge these days that he works “day and night and weekends too, just to keep up with the lava flow.” For fiction; send two or three chapters to the agent. DO NOT submit by email as your beautifully carved novel will end its life in an electronic recycle bin. Keep the cover letter short. Don’t go overboard on a synopsis. “These can be terribly boring in fiction, but terribly necessary for non-fiction,” he said.

Two thirds of submissions he receives are from fiction writers, but Jonathan stressed that in the current market, non-fiction is easier to sell. “Out of 120,000 books sold in the UK and Ireland last year, around ten turned out to be successful novels,” he said. “With fiction writing there needs to be a unique texture to the prose...variety just isn’t there anymore as the mid-market writer gets squeezed out." A lot of publishers are choosing to concentrate on their biggest names now that the market in general is suffering. “Around 20% of books bought now are sold in supermarkets. If they sell, well and good, if they don’t, the leftovers get pulped which can mean your book is very quickly out of print.”

Thrillers are doing very well at the moment but the overall winner in the buying and selling stakes is the historical novel. “In the future there may not be any need for agents. The author and reader both work alone and increasingly the links in-between are blurring and changing. Self publishing is also on the increase as is online publication, so in future you may not have someone like me standing here telling you these marvellous facts!” he concluded.

Publisher Ciara Considine, Editor with Hachette Book Group Ireland, explained the editorial process and outlined the publishing opportunities for fiction and non-fiction writers. Like John Boyne, Ciara stressed the importance of hard work and 'strict routine' if you want to succeed as a writer. Writer’s groups are also good for ‘feedback’ and staying focussed on your goal. “The biggest mistake most writers make is sending a manuscript to a publisher in an embryonic state,” she warned. “This could ruin your one and only chance of being taken seriously”.

While Hachette accept unsolicited manuscripts, as do other publishers like Penguin Ireland, for instance, it is becoming rarer. “A lot of publishers only have time to filter through an agent due to the sheer volumes out there.” Graduates of MA’s in Creative Writing are at an advantage. “This already shows commitment and can be a good foot up on the ladder,” she explained. “You have to stick at it regardless and the people who do so, generally get there. I also believe a good novel WILL find its publisher, no matter how long it takes. It is a regular occurrence that authors don’t publish their first novel or sometimes the first one penned is not published but subsequent ones are. Keep going and you will hit the Zeitgeist.”
Ciara explained that ‘two book deals’ are now the norm. “A publisher usually commits to a second book if they are excited enough to go with a first,” she said. “But like everything in life, there are no sure-fire equations. It’s important to write what you want to write, not to try out a particular genre just because you think it will sell. If it’s good enough, it will get published. Cream always rises.”

Eoin Purcell gave a fascinating talk on digital publishing and how he feels it will impact in the near future. He believes the digital world is “utterly transforming the models that business is based on, particularly in Ireland where buying and selling is so insulated.” He cited how various blogs and online projects led to publishing deals and impressive book sales. “The phenomena of Overheard in Dublin, which started out as a type of ‘send in snippets you overhear when you’re out and about’ on the internet, ended up as a series of books and other merchandise.” The wry and often comedic blogger Twenty Major also had his blogosphere transformed into a novel, as did – an online beauty tips site.

“Booksellers are finding it increasingly difficult to make ends meet,” he explained. “Hughes and Hughes Bookstore cited the revolutionary wave of competition from the digital world as part of the reason for closure recently.” The linear model of author to agent to publisher to distributor to book seller is now being challenged by the internet. “Amazon for instance is already selling a range of Ebooks from well-known authors that they approached directly,” he said. “This often means bigger profit for the author and seller...anyone in-between is getting squeezed out.”

So how should aspiring writers use the internet to increase their author advantage? “It’s vital that you start a blog and at the very least follow other writers in the same genre you’re interested in. Chart your journey so prospective readers can get a feel for what makes you tick,” he said. Wordpress or BlogSpot are both good for this, as is Twitter for getting your message across and probably less so, is Facebook. “The latter is a kind of AOL for the modern world,” he said. “Virtual book tours are now starting to take place on the internet as a more efficient way of meeting up with a larger audience.”

Purcell believes that writers are not ‘exploiting’ the internet for profit as much as they could. “Even incorporating a PayPal button on your blog or website to sell chapters or extracts of your book is a real option and many US writers are taking the bull by the horns and selling direct to their readers,” he said. "This can even be done with books already published conventionally via a publisher, by buying off remaining copies at a discount and selling them on."

Sites such as; a portal for Ebooks from independent authors and publishers, is huge in the US with 250,000 books on sale but it has barely said "hi" in Ireland as yet. “Irish authors Sheila O’Kelly and Mary Malone are both selling their work this way." To emphasise fully how much the electronic world is impacting on reading markets in other jurisdictions, Purcell finished up with an astonishing fact: the top four novels in Japan last year were all ‘text novels’ reaching vast numbers of readers that the traditional book selling world couldn't muster.

Finally, what happens when a writer’s work is done and the publicist steps in? Literary Publicist, Cormac Kinsella discussed ‘Marketing a Book from Manuscript to Paperback’ using his work on Brooklyn by Colm Tóibín as a case study. While Tóibín is already a core ingredient in the Irish literary diet, Kinsella nonetheless stressed the importance of timing. “It is a vital component and can often mean the difference between success and failure,” he said. Into this ‘timing’ mix he organised TV and radio slots that would complement one another while allowing print media various ‘exclusive' snippets and interviews with the author that didn't clash with other forms of publicity. “A writer’s work is never done, but the publicist's work is endless,” he said.


  1. [...]June Caldwell presents a thorough summary of last weekend's Publishing Day at the Irish Writers Centre which was hosted by author John Boyne.[...]

  2. Mick, thank you for posting June's summary on your blog.
    The Publishing Day was so successful, that we are organising another one for the 8th of May.