Thoughts on the Penguin Ireland Publishing Workshop

As some of you know, I won this year’s Penguin Ireland/RTÉ Short Story Competition and, in addition to having my story published in the RTÉ Guide, I was invited (along with the top runners-up) to a publishing workshop held last month in the excellent facilities of Dublin’s Pearse St. Library.

The workshop was designed to give potential authors a sense of the marketplace and the publication process. It was attended by editors from Penguin, by the Books Purchasing Manager of Eason’s, by Agents, Editors, and published authors. Naturally, everyone there had useful things to say and so I’ve condensed the most relevant into this report, taking the liberty of including some of my own thoughts and also bits of wisdom picked up elsewhere. Hopefully it will be of use to some of you, though of course some of the information is blindingly obvious but most of it – even things people have figured out for themselves – is material that still ought to be said to anyone hoping to make it in the scribbling business. In any event, it’s probably useful to have it all laid out like this in one spot.

Overview:

That publishers and their editors are hungry for new material couldn’t have been clearer from the workshop day, however publishers and editors are interested in material they can sell. Almost all the speakers from both the editorial and agent sides of things said they were looking for ‘High Concept’ material, though I felt very strongly throughout that they misunderstood the meaning of the term. For instance, when I say ‘High Concept’, I’m talking about a literature of ideas, Haruki Murakami or Philip K. Dick or Kim Stanley Robinson; the speakers at this workshop seemed to mean Ross O’Carroll Kelly when they used the phrase. Moreover, pretty much every agent and editor began with a variation on “I don’t accept science-fiction…’. Disappointing, but I guess that’s Ireland.

In terms of the marketplace, everybody wants the novel. ‘Vaguely contemporary stuff’ and strong, gripping stories are what’s being sought. One of the quotes from the day that struck me the most was, ‘Nice stories by nice people aren’t selling’. That’s not to say that everyone has to be Chuck Palahniuk, but it does mean that your lovely little novel about making cookies with Grandma is probably not going to find a publisher.

Humour is good, quirky voices still seem to have cachet, but ‘frothy, superficial humour is dead in the water’. We were advised to do ‘something similar and something new at the same time’, a statement so vague that I’m inclined to revert to the good old-fashioned ‘Be yourself’ instead. I think they’re both pretty valid pieces of advice.

Agents, providing you’re lucky enough to find one, must fit your personality as much as your work. This was mentioned by more than one of the participants as something of greater importance than first time authors realize. for the record, it’s also  something which came up in discussion when I attended the Clarion Writers’ Workshop at UCSD. An agent, we determined there, had to combine at least three different guises: a ‘friend hat’, an ‘editor hat’, and a ‘therapist hat’. In all, of course, the purpose of your agent is to be your representative; to find you a publisher, to negotiate your contract, and to fight on your behalf. A lot of agents will also help you edit your work, especially that – given the state of the industry at the moment – work publishers receive from agents has to be perfect. On the publisher side, many houses are looking for a two book deal, meaning two books in a broadly similar genre, the purpose being to try and establish an identity or a brand.

As such, writers need to be honest with themselves, which I think is tremendous advice. The question was asked: ‘What do you want to write?’ and I agree that it’s important for authors to follow where their ideas take them and to really embrace that honesty, particularly in the case of voice and genre. One also needs to ask: What do you want from your writing? Do you want:

  • To get published regardless of money, outlet and/or audience?
  • To make a living?
  • To write the best work you can possibly write?

While the workshop day offered these as absolutes in their own right, I reckon it’s more of a spectrum. I think you can want to get published and want write the best work you can (or, for that matter, the genre you’re most interested in). It’s pretty much how I feel about it, but it’s easy to have these ideas when one is outside looking in, huh?

Certainly I don’t expect to immediately make a living from writing, which is good, because this was presented as very much a long term project. No one at the workshop wanted anyone to have illusions about that, throwing around figures like ten to twenty years for a writing career to get off the ground. It was said that an author really needed nine or ten books in print and selling at any one time in order to make a living from their work. ‘In other words, keep the day job’. That said, ‘once you have a book on the shelves it opens doors’. Everyone was clear that patience and hard work pay off in this business just like any other, though let’s cross our fingers for a bit of luck along the way as well, yes? Thanks.

How much money can a first time author in Ireland or the UK expect to earn though? The figures mentioned were generally in the €2,000 – €8,000 range, with contract-stipulated royalties of about 7-10%. Your agent will take something like 10% too, so keep that in mind.

In terms of the writing itself, there was some discussion of structure early on in the day. ‘Feel your way through a short story; structure a novel’, was the advice. Though for best results I’d be inclined to structure both without ever being wedded absolutely to said structure. Naturally, the benefit of this is that you can see very quickly where the flaws are. Within your overall structure, the advice was to plan three to five chapters ahead in great detail while having a rougher idea of everything else. ‘Writers write from the back of their heads,’ someone said. True enough, though again I come down somewhere in the middle; somewhere between having a rough and a detailed plan of the whole thing. Many of the participants also wrote in depth character sketches at the outline/structure section. Indeed, some did this to the extent that they outlined the whole story from the POV of each character. A lot of work, but an interesting one and surely a productive notion.

What Happens Next:

In terms of traditional publishing, first time authors probably won’t land a contact based on a proposal or on a part-written work; they’re really going to need the whole thing. Once they have a manuscript, what’s required is a proposal in which, essentially, they’re selling an idea rather than a book. Their submission to an agent or publisher ought to include this in addition to:

  • A very well written, interesting cover letter (if it’s an unexpected story, maybe explain why you wrote the book).
  • A synopsis of the whole book (500 words was mentioned, though I have heard two-pages suggested before and have been sending off the latter).
  • A solid, intriguing one-line hook (often in the form of a question).
  • A sample of the book itself, usually somewhere from one to three early chapters.
  • An email address and instructions to dispose of your manuscript when they’re done with it. SAEs were discouraged. Welcome to the Twenty-First century, I guess.

If a publisher is interested in one’s work – and believe me I look forward to that day – the process then proceeds along these lines:

  • A discussion with the Commissioning Editor; what is their vision of the project, what is your vision?
  • Internal discussion within the publishing house.
  • Hopefully a letter of offer.
  • Then a contract… one with deadlines. It also goes without saying that this document should be read carefully.
  • Following this, you will work with your editor on polishing/rewriting the manuscript.
  • Once your manuscript is in the system it gets copy-edited.
  • Proofs arrive, meaning the time for anything other than minor changes (such as correcting typos) has passed.

Contracts, as I mention them, were also discussed. Generally the contracts on offer here and in the UK seem to be a kind of tripartite arrangement:

  • One-third of the money as an advance
  • One-third on delivery of the final draft
  • One-third when the book is published

at which point you might think you’re done but you’re not. When the book is published, its journey – let alone the author’s – is only just beginning…

Publicity:

The whole issue of publicity is one that’s very tightly controlled, with a detailed promotion plan put together by your publisher soon after they acquire your book. The media ‘do not attend book launches any more’ we were told, which probably is a general trend alright. Still doesn’t mean you’re off the hook though, especially when it comes to interviews, profiles, etc. There is an emphasis on the unique selling point of each author (something which, as you can imagine, is getting more and more difficult). Media and Features editors are looking for a complete picture of the author in question, which is interesting sure, but I think is something of a failure or a limited vision on the part of those editors. Certainly I would always be more interested in insightful criticism/analysis of a book rather than an interview about how the writer likes kittens, or what have you, but that’s hardly the first issue I have with the media in this country.

Anyway, the crucial thing is to work with one’s publisher. Follow their advice, don’t take off on any ‘solo runs’, etc. Every campaign is different and standing out from the crowd is difficult. The RTÉ Guide, for example, receives 50-60 books for review every week but only has room to run two reviews. Debut authors in particular need to work closely with their publisher’s publicist in order to exploit small publicity options.

For first time authors, a lot of that publicity energy will be directed towards local media outlets. No, you probably won’t make the literary pages of the Irish Times with your first book (and I saw some faces drop in the room when this was said) but it’s a reality and we need to accept it. As is usual in these kinds of workshops, authors were encouraged to develop their online activities with the rule-of-thumb that Facebook is great for direct contact with readers and Twitter is very much media dominated. We were also told that editors do look at blogs (here’s hoping!). The importance of the internet was also mentioned with regard to becoming more aware of the market…

The Market:

Eason’s, the biggest bookseller in the country, orders its books and organises their publicity three months ahead of schedule. Some figures from their Book Purchasing Manager:

  • The 2010 Market was 13.6 million books sold for a total of €147.7.
  • The 2011 Market (thus far) was 6.64 million books sold for €68.05. Though these, of course, were only figures from the first half of the year. Numbers will go up towards Christmas, though on average the market is down 7% in 2011.

Over in the UK, the 2009 figures could be broken down as follows:

  • 57% of customers bought a book that year.
  • 60% of these were women.
  • Largely they were middle and upper middle class.
  • On average, £83 (€93) was spent per person on books.
  • On average, consumers bought one book every six weeks.

In terms of finding out which books to buy, the breakdown was as follows:

  • Personal recommendation/word-of-mouth: 20%
  • Display in Bookshop: 17%
  • Media Reviews: 17%
  • Internet: 13%

The missing 33% wasn’t accounted for in the presentation (which was moving so fast no one thought to ask!) and the discussion soon moved on to the value of getting to know one’s bookseller, keeping them informed, offering to sign stock, etc. Again, excellent advice… Though no going into shops and rearranging the stock so your book is more prominent. That got a chuckle from the audience… then a number of guilty faces.

Conclusion:

So, a very informative, very useful day in all. Food for thought for all the participants and it has already informed a lot of discussion in the creative writing classes I teach, let alone the way I’ve been going about trying to find an agent/publisher for my novel. The gist of the day was that this is a very tough time to be trying to break into a very tough business (and so, counting academia, I suppose I’m two for two in that department). Nonetheless the tone was upbeat and encouraging: keep writing, keep submitting, and don’t give up! It may be more difficult than ever to begin a career as a novelist, sure, but somehow hearing that so many times only made me more determined to succeed at it.  Here’s hoping stubbornness alone will see me through!

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4 Responses to Thoughts on the Penguin Ireland Publishing Workshop

  1. I’m printing this off Val – thanks for sharing this useful info.

  2. Pingback: Irish Times Flash Fiction – ‘Chairs’ « illusory promise

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