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Monday, November 27, 2006


Advice week is open

National Novel Writing Month approaches its last week. Hope all of you who have been doing it are happy with your results. However, this might be a good time to give you a warning (Miss Snark's website has already talked about this in recent weeks, so try http://misssnark.blogspot.com/ if you want more on the subject), but in any case: this is something you should think about.

If you're looking to publish your novel, be careful who you try. Situations like these are a golden opportunity for scammers, who are always out there to take advantage of inexperienced writers, and I suspect that in the wake of Nanowrimo they'll be stepping up their self-promotions. Some publishers and agencies are legitimate, and others are con operations that are out to get money from hopeful authors with no intention of actually promoting their books. Avoid the bastards.

To this end, and also just because anyone who's done Nanowrimo has written far more than me this month so hats off, I'm open to any questions or requests for advice this week if you're thinking about going after publication. I can't read anyone's actual stuff because it takes days to give proper feedback, but if you have any questions, post them and I'll try to make sensible suggestions. All comers welcome. (That includes people who didn't do Nanowrimo. Hey, I didn't either.)

When it comes to scammers, here are the basics:

1. Neither a publisher nor an agent should want money from you. The agent should be on a no-win-no-fee basis, getting a cut of whatever you make and nothing if your book doesn't sell. The publishers should be making their profits from selling your book. Any exception to this is self-publishing at best, utter fraud at worst.

2. Do not trust a publisher or agent that advertises for new writers. The reputable ones already have more submissions than they can handle, and there's no way they'd waste their money on an ad.

3. Do not trust a publisher that says they'll sell you copies of your book at a discount. A legitimate publisher should give you anything from four to twenty copies of your book free as part of the package. Once you've had your complimentary copies, then they'll start selling you books at a discount if you want more, but if you have to pay for every single book they print of yours, then it works like this: they produce the book cheaply and sloppily to reduce costs, then sell enough copies to you, your friends and family to put them into profit. Once they're in profit, they don't need to promote your book any further: they've got what they wanted. You'll have your manuscript printed and bound, but no bookshop will ever hear of it. That's not publication, it's packaging - but it'll quite possibly put legitimate publishers off your book if you try to remedy the mistake.

4. Do not trust a publisher whose website or PR uses space that could have been spent advertising newly-published books to talk about how they give new writers a chance. That's a clear warning sign that they're addressing hopeful writers, not the book-buying customer base - which should tell you what their biggest source of income is. Not readers, but writers: you. They're looking to make money from you, not for you. Even if your main concern is love of writing rather than profit, money has to come from somewhere if a business is to keep afloat, and a legitimate publisher will always want that money to come from the people they sell the book to, not the person who wrote it. If you're their source of income, chances are it's your money and not your book that they're interested in.

5. In fact, do not trust anyone who talks about giving new writers a chance period. Legitimate companies all do give new writers a chance - they read their submissions and take them on if they like them; that's what getting a chance is. They don't need to talk about it. If a company actively offers you a chance, they're hustling you. Similarly if they talk about dreams, aspirations, frustrations, the difficulty of getting published, or make any other emotional appeal. There's no reason for someone to talk like that unless they're trying to seduce you. Legitimate companies don't want to seduce you; they have enough applications that you'll need to seduce them. The excellent Making Light has an article here that discusses this and various other points I'm also making here in more detail; read it and believe it. http://nielsenhayden.com/makinglight/archives/005540.html

6. Do not trust anyone who implies it's impossible for new writers to break into the business. Legitimate companies love finding good new writers; it makes their day, and possibly their fortune, when they get a really talented newbie on their books. If a company stopped accepting new writers, it would collapse. Writers aren't invulnerable: sometimes they get sick, or get blocked, or decline in quality, or take sabbaticals, or, you know, die, or do any number of things that mean they don't have a book for you this year. Without a supply of fresh talent, a publisher's days are numbered. To a professional, saying it's impossible to break in sounds ridiculous, because they know from first-hand experience that new writers get published all the time - just not every new writer who wants to be. It's not a closed door, but it is a small one, and you have to charm the guard to get in. A company that suggests the publishing world is closed is looking for people who are anxious or frustrated enough about rejection to grab at a chance of finding another entrance. But if you want in to the real world of publication, there is no back door, and anyone who says the front door is locked is lying.

7. Be very careful of a publisher that contacts you out of the blue. The likeliest explanation is that they've picked up your name from some list of writing groups, competition applicants, writers' websites . . . There are a lot of places dishonest people can cruise to find victims. Occasionally legitimate agents might contact you if they've seen work of yours in an anthology; that happened to me a couple of times. But a publisher generally waits for agents to do the gleaning and bring stuff to them. The agents who approached me only ever promised to look at my work; they didn't promise publication, or even to represent me, and they didn't ask me for anything. If the publisher contacts you without warning and asks for money to help publish your book, then they're definitely criminals.

8. Do not trust a company that calls itself a 'traditional publisher'. Genuine traditional publishers just call themselves 'publishers'. Vanity presses are no competition to them. They have, therefore, no need to compare themselves with such companies when talking about what they do. A company that calls itself 'traditional' is protesting too much and almost certainly up to something.

9. Be very careful of a company that advertises a 'new way of publishing'. If what you want is someone who will take on your book purely because they think it's good and distribute it to bookshops so other people can buy it, you want the old way of publishing. Other methods will, at best, involve a lot more work from you that you should ideally be spending writing; at worst, they'll be scamming you.

10. Do not trust anyone who says your work will be 'professionally edited' with them. To a legitimate publisher, that goes without saying; it's like a laundry saying that if you let them wash your clothes, as an additional benefit your clothes will get washed. There's something shabby going on in a business that makes essentials sound like extras.

11. Do not trust an agency that seems to offer a new or special deal when it comes to commission. Legitimate agency rates are very straightforward: they take a set percentage of any money made by selling your work, usually 10 or 15 per cent. The rates may vary when it comes to the sale of things like foreign rights or movie rights, but they should all be clear and simple. They sell the book, the publisher pays the money to them, they pass it on to you, keeping a contractually agreed percentage for themselves. There's no reason to change that simple and effective system unless they're trying to conceal costs somehow - and it's your pocket those costs will end up coming out of. And run a mile from anyone who says they're currently offering special rates. You do not want an insurance salesman delivering your baby.

12. Do not trust an agency that says they'll promote your book with an e-mail campaign to publishers. No way. I've had experience with such agencies as an editor. What they do is this: they put the e-mail of every publisher they can find on a mailing list, and every time they have a book to 'promote', they'll send it to the entire list of recipients. Very labour-saving from their perspective, because all they have to do is click the 'send' button and they've given you the campaign they promised, but they've totally skipped researching whether the book is appropriate to the recipients. Autobiographies get sent to children's publishers, thrillers to mind-body-spirit publishers, political tracts to erotica publishers . . . I have frustrating memories of working for a company that specialised in popular genre fiction for the UK and US market, and continually getting sent pitches about personal memoirs from some bizarre organisation in the Middle East. And - this is the kicker - I did what every submissions editor ends up doing with such agencies. I deleted the e-mails with barely a glance, knowing they'd almost certainly be unsuitable, sent them form rejections explaining our requirements, and when the e-mails kept coming, sent a sharp e-mail back asking that we be deleted from their address list. If they hadn't complied, the next step would have been to block their address. In the unlikely event they'd sent something that actually was suitable, there's a good chance I wouldn't have paid it much attention, because I had absolutely no respect for the agency's judgement. 'Not these idiots again' is not the reaction you want publishers to have when your agency approaches.

13. Do not trust anyone who makes publication with them sound easier than publication with an established, reputable company. Any legitimate publication is difficult, and easy publication means that they're not legitimate. Easy is bad. In publication-land, the shortcut leads to a dead end, or possibly over the edge of a cliff.

14. Do not, in fact, trust anyone who isn't listed in The Writers' and Artists' Yearbook or an equally reputable directory. I'm not sure what the local equivalents are outside the UK, but any library or big bookshop should be able to tell you; just ask for the publishing and agents standard industry directory and explain why you want it, and you'll get pointed in the right direction. Industry directories contain all the trustworthy companies in the business. If somebody isn't in it, then tread with care.

If it looks too good to be true, it probably is, and I wouldn't like to think of any of you getting taken in.

Another point to bear in mind - awkward but true - is that if you've got a Nanowrimo novel written, you'll almost certainly need to do some reworking on it before it's ready for publication. The reasons for this are twofold:

1. You undoubtedly wrote it in a hurry. Such books need polishing. Often it's good to take a few weeks away from the book to let it settle in your mind before trying to redraft; you'll be coming at it with a clearer head.
2. Unless you're some kind of prodigy, your novel will be around the 50,000 word mark. That's too short for most publishers. Even small presses tend to prefer books to be at least around the 75,000 mark. My first novel was 145,000, and the second novel I'm contracted for is supposed to be 125,000. A Nanowrimo novel will almost certainly need to be revised and expanded before it's a suitable size, or possibly pruned down to short story length.

This should make you doubly wary if someone approaches you offering money to publish it, because the laws of the marketplace lay down that 50k is a difficult size to sell. (Readers generally want to buy something longer.)

So, the first piece of advice this week is be careful of crooks, and think twice about sending out a novel in haste. I'll carry on trying to make useful suggestions over the week. Anything people want to ask about?

I wonder if you could say a bit more about word count (with either your author or editor hat on)?

Ultimately, I suppose, one should just write the story to be the length it seems to need to be.

On the other hand, I would like to sell my book to a publisher - and that means making it look like a viable product.

Would 75,000 words look problematically short to many publishers? Would 175,000 look problematically long? Does this vary according to genre?

I'm sure there are no hard and fast rules - but instinctively, whereabouts would you place the boundaries?

Thanks a lot - and good luck with your current 125,000!
Hi there.

That's a good question. Unfortunately, there's an element of 'how long is a piece of string' to the answer.

You're absolutely right that the story should be as long as it needs to be; artistic considerations have to come first. I say that both as a writer who wants to do good work and as an ex-editor who wanted to publish good work. So ultimately, the length of any book is judged on a case-by-case basis.

However, that's a frustrating answer, so I'll try to be more specific, with the Orwellian proviso 'Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.'

As a rule of thumb, 75k is definitely on the short side, but if it's seventy-five thousand good words, then that's probably just about okay - though eighty to ninety is more usual.

175k is quite long, but if it's a three-part epic doorstep fantasy extravaganza, for instance, or a heartwarming multi-generational family saga, then length can sometimes be a plus.

My own first draft was round about 195k; my agent pointed out that this was too long for most publishers. But then again, that was partly because it could lose about a quarter of its word count without becoming garbled, which means that it was longer than it needed to be.

So, instinctively, I'd place the boundaries somewhere between 80 and, oh, 160 thousand . . . but I'm wary about misleading you. Catcher in the Rye is only about 55k, the later Harry Potters are over 200k. Let's say that if you print it out in Times New Roman 12pt double spaced (which is the preferred format), it should probably be at least an inch and a half thick and not too big to pick up. Bear in mind that printed out manuscripts are always substantially thicker than finished books.

A means of testing this: with a calculator and some muttering under your breath, you can do a rough word count for any book off your shelf. Check the average number of words per line based on a few samples, count the number of lines per page, and multiply both by the page extent. If you do that with books that seem in the same ballpark as the one you're writing, it should give you a rough idea of what's usual.

One reason why I mentioned length in connection with Nanowrimo is that a book written with length as one of its main deciding factors is that it may actually end up the wrong length, because word count rather than artistic necessity is a driving force (especially given the deadlines Nanos work under). If you've got a 50k first draft, then the next thing to do is look for the essential storyline and make sure that it's being done justice.

Having said all that, you sound like your instincts are in the right place, so I'm fairly comfortable in saying that if you trust your own judgement you'll probably find the right length for yourself. Good luck with it...

Great post today. Do you think you could publicize this guy? His name is Johnathon Clifford and he gives away a ton of stuff about vanity publishers for free on his website. He certainly helped me last year when, after about 40+ agent rejections, I sent my manuscript in response to an ad (in Private Eye of all places). The company was called "Serendipity" (which it wasn't!); they offered to publish it for GBP 5,500 and claimed they would "market" it. I was just about to send them the cheque when I found his site, and was so glad I did! But you know, I'm sure there must be thousands of budding writers who know almost nothing about the publishing industry, and even less about vanity publishing. This guy really fixes that (well, I for one owe him five and a half grand!).

hello mrs whitfield!
i can t speek/write englisch very well...sorry.
i have bought your great book twice!once in german ,once in englisch!do you wrote the story further?have you wrote a 2.nd part?
i was sad about the sad end ...and hoped that you have written a 2.nd part but i cannot find it.
wish you a nice day!greetings from germany amin380@web.de
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