Posted April 27, 2013
into Writing by John Birmingham
I was reading a story this morning about a movement in the US to take control of public schools away from the local government authorities and vest it in parents. Interesting enough story, with any number of intriguing political angles, but it suddenly struck me that depsite all of my writing about and research into America over the years, I have NFI what your state governments do.
The Feds? Yep, all over them. And municipal government, yeah, them too. But that's where I suddenly had my eureka moment. A lot of the stuff that your city administrators look after, like cops and schools, are the preserve of the states here. In fact the states probably deliver the bulk of end user government services that aren't stricty related to the functioning of towns and cities. And even then they deliver a whole heap of those services too, like water and electricity. (A lot of which has been privatised, admittedly.)
Posted April 26, 2013
into Writing by John Birmingham
So, you’ve written the final line on your soon to be best-selling novel, perhaps a high octane hyper-accelerated thriller, perhaps a dense and unreadably brilliant inner dialogue-driven character study of three generations of strong-willed women. ‘Whatevs’, as they say on ‘teh interwebz’. (‘Teh interwebz’ is also something they say on the internet, when they are trying for ironic distance).
The first question I’d ask as you hurried through shining black marble foyer of the international publishing house you have personally chosen to receive your heart breaking work of staggering genius, is what the hell are you doing? Where is your agent?
While it’s not unknown for publishers to pluck a diamond from the slush pile of unsolicited manuscripts, such happy occasions are exceedingly rare. So rare, that it seems their exceptional, almost singular nature is imbued with the power to blind would-be novelists to the brutal realities of the industry.
Publishers hate unsolicited manuscripts. They do sift through them, because they are no more inured to the magical fantasy of that one, special find than are the army of unpublished authors burying them under a mountain of largely unpublishable books.
If you really think you have something special in your bottom draw, or nowadays in your Dropbox account, do yourself the favour of running it past the jaundiced eyes of one of the industry’s foulest, most nihilistic misanthropes – an agent. With an agent in your corner, you need not even read articles such as this. You would merely concern yourself with banging out five or six hundred pages of top shelf word processing, and they would do the rest; including the all important task of making first contact with whichever publisher you plan on shaking down for an unconscionably large advance. (More on this later.)
Publishers deal with agents all the time, and although they don’t necessarily like them, they do like what do. At least insofar as agents protect them from the shower of offal which pours into the slush pile, day and night. Granted they don’t much like agents when they ratchet up the size of that unconscionably large advance, but there is a price for everything, isn’t there? One caveat. When choosing an agent, avoid any that charge you a fee for their services. The only time an agent should put a hand in your pocket is when they have made a sale and are taking a commission. Reading fees, edit fees, manuscript assessment fees, they are all recognised as the work of charlatans.
There are manuscript assessment agencies around, and some are even worth the money they charge. But they are not agents.
So, lets say you have inexplicably decided to do your own pimping and negotiating. Perhaps you don’t fancy turning over somewhere between ten and twenty per cent of your income to the misanthrope. Perhaps in your day job you eat high priced negotiators for breakfast.
There is another difficult, preliminary question you need to ask yourself. It’s difficult because you’re probably not qualified to answer it, but without an agent with whom you might chew over these things, where would you turn for advice? As you hurry through the black marble foyer, tracked by the invisible lasers and defence turrets of the Pan Macmillan in-house security system, or the slavering attack dogs of Rupert Murdoch’s Harper Collins, perhaps you should first ask yourself, ‘Do I even need this publisher’.
It’s not the sort of question publishers like to encourage, but increasingly authors and the misanthropes who represent them, are asking the very same. Lets illustrate the point with a little experiment. If you have web access handy, pop over to Amazon, the world’s largest online book retailer and festering sink of evil, and do a subject search under Kindle for, say, mystery and thrillers. There you’ll find some familiar names. Lee Child, Janet Evanovich and so on. But who are all these people you’ve never heard of? With titles that seem to cost .99 cents?
Well, they may not be the future of publishing, but they will be part of it. Self published authors who moved swiftly into the e-book space while the slow, lumbering engines of olde worlde publishing were still banking up the coal supplies for their steam engines. There are now any number of options for unsigned authors to say, ‘The hell with Random House, I’ll publish myself’.
Some of them have made a pile of money. Not because they’re good, but because they were fast to market, they were cheap, sometimes even free while they established their name as a micro-brand, and because they could often put half a dozen small electronic books into the channel while the publishing houses were still dunking their Tim Tams into the Earl Grey at acquisitions meetings.
Even established authors are beginning to examine the prospect of going it alone. Or perhaps not entirely alone, but certainly without the help of a publisher who’ll generously let you have a whole 10% royalty on your cover price, as opposed to the 70% you can earn freelance.
Of course, as a freelance, you’d have to organize editing, production, placement, marketing if you intend to do any, and so on. There are emerging into the market, a number of businesses providing these services. Some are reputable. Some are just retooled vanity publishers. You’ll need to do your own research as to whom you’ve fallen in with. Alternately, some agents are beginning to organise their clients as ‘stables’ where they produce copy for Amazon, or iBooks or Barnes and Noble, and the agency takes care of everything else, effectively cutting out the publisher but ensuring the production work is done professionally.
Publishers, as you’d imagine, are not happy with this. Some authors have seen existing contracts cancelled on the basis of entering into such arrangements.
Lets hand-wave all these modern confusions and tergiversations aside, however, and proceed on the assumption that you are an old school writer with an old school proposition. You have a saleable manuscript and you would like to sell it directly to a publisher. What do you need to know?
Firstly, what are you selling? It’s not just your beautiful prose. You are selling rights to commercially exploit that prose in any number of formats and markets. The publisher will want the right to everything, up to and including your DNA. When they rush you with a contract, fountain pen and a hypodermic syringe, just take a moment to say, “Whoa”. You may not want to assign a small Australian publisher the right to market your work in Romania or, possibly more importantly, in the US. You may want to withhold foreign rights, audio rights, video game rights, and so on.
There are many traps for young players in this area. For instance you may ‘invent’ a whole story universe, filled with compelling creatures and characters and worlds. Perhaps you write a series of successful novels within this universe but then move on, only returning to it years later. Suddenly, after announcing you intend to return to your roots, a lawyer’s letter arrives informing you that said roots are owned, root and branch by the original publisher. You didn’t just sell them the words in the manuscript. You sold them everything. The creatures, the characters, the world. The very fruits of your imagination.
This is why I say, you should either have an agent or an IP lawyer in your corner doing the talking. The power, unfortunately, is mostly with the publisher. Negotiations can be brutal. You’re an artist, you don’t do brutal. Unless you’re Tom Kratman. But your misanthropic agent or lawyer was born that way. Let them do their worst so you can be at your best.
They are the ones who will discuss the all-important filthy lucre. Just how much are you expecting to trouser for this deal? I hope it’s not too much. Advances are falling across the industry as it restructures to deal with the advent of electronic publishing (where the industry accepted advance for e-book only deals is one tenth of one per cent of fuck all; which is to say, zero). The virtual collapse of the US economy and subsequent contraction of its publishing industry is also feeding through to the rest of the world, undermining confidence.
There is no reasonable, generally agreed figure you can settle on for an advance. If you are a first time author, don’t be surprised at the insulting, piddlesome amount on offer. It’s an advance. If your work is that brilliant it will sell a million copies and you’ll be rolling in royalties with only the tax office goons to ruin your party. There are some authors who think making a publisher bet the house on a book is good business. Or rather, I should say there are some ex-authors who think making a publisher bet the house on a book is good business.
Having settled on who owns what, and how much dough is changing hands it’s time to think about the nuts and bolts of your agreement. You’ll want to know exactly what happens in the case of failure. Either you, failing to deliver, or the publisher failing to get to the book to market. Ideally, if they make a hash of everything you need to be in a position to recover your rights to everything. Alternately, if you make a cock up of things, how much are you going to have to pay them back? The full amount of the advance? With interest? Best to know. It used to be the case that in the days of gentleman’s agreements, advances were never recovered. Those days are over.
Will there be a marketing budget for your work? Will you tour? It’s a sad reality that the sales of books increase in direct proportion to the amount of effort that goes into pimping them. Be very careful that you’re not expected to organize and run your own publicity efforts. Unless marketing and publicity is your day job, you’ll fail. Get the publisher to spell out exactly what they intend to do in this area, in print.
There may be costs associated with your work. Will there be an index? Under no circumstances agree to pay for it. Professional indexing is hell expensive. So too with permissions for photography. As perverse as it might sound, even public institutions such as libraries will try to charge you for access and publishing rights to material they hold (paid for by the taxes extorted from your good self before you foolishly gave up merchant banking for the composing of epic poems). If there is a production cost involved in bringing your work to print – don’t be the one left holding the bill.
On a related matter, if you are planning to defame anybody, you might wish to secure an indemnity from your publisher. Best not to defame anyone in the first place, of course, but given the antediluvian nature of Australian libel laws, even the best of intentions can go pear-shaped. Ask Bob Ellis. Or better yet, don’t. Just learn from his example.
Once these tedious issue are settled you can get to the very heart of the author-publisher relationship; power. In the end, whose book is this? Do you have final say over its content and form or do they? Again, be wary of coming on as an overweening tool. While you may have very strong ideas about, say, the cover design of your precious tome, it might be the case that in matters of print aesthetics you don’t know your arse from a hole in the ground. So too, with editing. What makes you think that after three or four rewrites you have any capacity to objectively judge what needs to happen to your manuscript before it is released to the paying public, who, believe me, can very quickly morph into the baying public. By all means lobby for final control, but try not to exercise it.
There are two last issues you need to bear in mind. Publishers get very jealous of their authors. When they say they don’t want you releasing ‘competing’ titles they mean it. Sometimes, in the real world, delays and changes of allegiance can mean you have an older title with a previous publisher coming out at or near the same time as your new book. It is should be possible to deal with such instances like grown ups. But publishers are increasingly on the look-out for authors going maverick. Releasing, say, a self published e-book of short stories or magazine columns at the same time as the publisher’s title.
They hate this, in the general and in the particular. Contracts have been voided because of it.
Which brings us at last to final consideration. What happens at the end? Chances are you won’t be with this publisher unto the grave. When the link is sundered what happens to all those rights you gave when things were fresh and the very air itself was humming with mutual love and admiration?
Perhaps you really should get that lawyer and/or agent.
32 Responses to ‘Literary agents. Licensed to kill. Like a motherfucker’
Posted April 24, 2013
into Writing by John Birmingham
I was a bit surprised to see a report from the Sydney Writers Festival the other day. I didnt even know it was on. It's one of the older, more serious festivals and I don't get invited nearly as much since I started writin' the splodey.
It's cool. I'm not bitter.
Still, that report did jog my memory about a piece I wrote for someone, somewhere, possibly The Spectator, about bad behaviour at literary festivals. I dont think it's ever been available online so for all those people who wondered what they're missing out on if, like me, they didn't score an invite to this year's SWF, enjoy:
I’ve never understood writers who complain about the festival circuit. Fuck me, what’s not to love? You get flown in like James Bond, put up in some plush hotel, fed like a fucking potentate, and over the course of a week you might have to do about fourteen minutes ‘work’, which mostly involves gobbing on about the fascinating fellow who is you to a room full of adoring groupies. Other than that, it’s all hookers and blow.
Plenty of blow, if you’re the visiting international super author who swept through Sydney a couple of years ago like a tornado through a trailer park. Plenty of blowjobs if you’re the handsome, visiting, young literary lion who cut a swathe through the ranks of doe-eyed publishing grrrls at festival after festival, leaving it to his grizzled old agent to explain that the knee trembler out the back of the wharf restaurant was just ‘festival sex’ and, really, the duly ravished editor, publicist or marketing maven shouldn’t plan on a Mills and Boon ending.
In fact, the standard of behaviour amongst overseas authors is so uniformly and despicably lower than the local scribblers, that you could only put it down to being a long way from home and surrounded by strangers, none of whom you plan on ever seeing again.
While there have been a few embarrassing incidents of Australian writers getting caught out in the wrong room, or the hotel foyer wearing only a short white bathrobe and an unsightly bulge, for world class roistering and rogering you almost always have to turn to the international talent; the hugely successful overseas crime writer who, having wowed the audience though a two hour session, then wowed one of the lovely young ladies selling his tomes at the festival bookshop, through a six hour sesh back at the hotel; the cheeky Kiwi author whose surprisingly successful pick up routine involved wandering into the ladies toilet as if lost, and chatting up whoever he found, trapped in there; the French philosopher who managed to paw, grope and fondle every single woman who crossed his path during his brief, action packed visit. And, having learned the ways of the foreign johnnies, the ex-pat Australian scribe who methodically propositioned a vast number of women over the course of a night, all to no avail. His essayed his final attempt to get laid in a taxi going home with three distinguished lady publishers. After being turned down by two he turned to the last one and said 'Surely you'll fuck me?'
Surely, she didn’t.
Not that it’s always the writers who are on the tool. A dashing young British agent – no not Bond, the literary sort of agent – ran his pork sword through a brace of local industry loverlies a couple of years back. While some of the loverlies themselves fell into a screeching cat fight over who was going to bag a visiting super poet, which ended only when the limerick legend tossed them all out of his hotel room at omigod-thirty in the morning.
There must be something about poets. Another one, a local lad this time, once took all of twenty minutes after his arrival at the festival to find himself in a shower with a sixteen year old admirer.
It’s not all about the sex though. There’s also the drunkenness. I chose my agent Annette Hughes, many years ago because she’d passed out and fallen under the tables at the casino, a vantage point from which I was certain she would understand things from my perspective. In fact, I’m somewhat proud of the fact that of all the drunken, rambling, pointless and offensive performances I’ve seen on stage at writer’s festivals, nobody can top mine and Hughesy’s after a whole day of throwing back the complimentary fizzy drink before staggering out in front of a couple of hundred strangers to disgrace ourselves on a panel with the late great Grant McLennan and actor-turned-writer William McInnes. Neither of the Macs had ever been to a festival before, and were completely blindsided by our foul mouthed, drunken hysterics, but neither of them were as unbalanced as the chair of the session, poor Andrew Stafford, who looked like all he wanted in the world was for the earth to open up and swallow him.
Anyone who spends any time at a festival will eventually see, or trip over, some God of Letters, crawling around on the floor, covered in their own vomit, and possibly taking up skirt photos with their mobile phone cam. A Brisneyland-based author recalls stumbling across one legless Brit Lit genius, being unexpectedly and unwantedly pashed by another, before getting ‘belly-butted’ outside the dunny by a Nobel prize-winning Irish poet and novelist, all in short order.
While it’s all good fun for we 'umble scribblers, the burden of these piss poor shenanigans has to fall somewhere, and for the most part it’s the heads of our publicists and agents; again, another reason I chose the hard-bitten, two-fisted take-no-prisoners Hughesy as my personal consigliore. Ever ready with a fresh drink or a strong arm, she’s steered many a gullible newbie through the shoals of their first festival. She once had to frog march a tired and emotional author away from a group of internationals, whom he’d decided to lay into with grog-addled gusto. By the time the world famous, prize winning Indian writer had been told that he was a slimebag and a talentless lowlife, Hughesy came over all Maori bouncer and took it upon herself to muscle the provocateur off the premises.
Ironically, she herself was later ejected for delivering a fearsome rant against street performers from a wobbling table top in the hotel foyer. A bit harsh really, given that the security goons hadn’t done anything about the senior editor who decided it was just too hot for humans, staggered to her feet, and lay down, fully clothed, in the decorative pond in the foyer.
Less forceful agents and publicist however, have long memories and lots of scar tissue. There is always one monster among the visiting literati, one writer so irredeemably vile that nobody wants to wrangle them. And for some reason they often seem to be crazy American crime writing ladies. One such best selling creature, put out that nobody would carry her bags for her, spent her entire visit complaining about the wretched food, and pissy coffee and the horror of being dragged to this shit hole at the end of the world. She even alienated her fellow best selling Americans, with whom she had to share a platform, asking, in front of them, ‘What I am doing on stage with these fucking nobodies?’
Another author of massively popular pot boilers used to insist that a peeled Mars Bar be readied for him in the Green Room, before he went on stage, while a morbidly obese female novelist, now dead, simply couldn’t leave her room until some long suffering publicist had given her swollen, blue veined feet a good rub down. One poor publicist was forced to follow yet another Indian writer with a bottle of wine, ever ready to top him up should his glass drop too low. A colleague was forced by an American ‘cult’ author, to act as her valet, packing her stinky underclothes into a suitcase while the literary genius stoked the fires of her personality cult on breakfast radio. And a hugely credentialed writer once insisted a festival director bring him some bed pillows from the directors own home, because, having sampled the entire ‘pillow menu’ at the hotel, he couldn’t find anything remotely appropriate upon which to wrest his noble noggin. Perhaps he should have done as a colleague did, and stripped naked in the foyer until his demands we met.
None of this should put you attending of course, unless you fancy a career at the bottom of the food chain in the publishing industry. For you, as for us, the drunken, drug addled dilettantes, the Festival is all about the good times. And the foot rubs.
Posted April 15, 2013
into Writing by John Birmingham
Hugh Howey (Wool) is touring down under soon and I'm thinking of dropping into his Brisbane event at Dymocks, lunchtime this Thursday. If I was a complete dick it'd be interesting to ask him about a set to he had with Chuck Wendig over the issue of putting out your own books.
Wendig has a piece I'd be hard pressed to find fault with over at his Terrible Minds blog, and if you're thinking of going down the self published route, it's worth a look.
Some of it picks up the threads of the fight he had over at Salon.com, which ran a story that was basically an Abandon Hope All Ye Who Enter Heere, warning for would be selfies. Wendig characterised the article's author, a self proclaimed failure, as 'a guy who basically tip-toed into a dark and empty room, left his book on the mantlepiece like some kind of Author Elf, and then wandered back out wondering why he didn’t become a millionaire.'
He warns about genres, agents, self delusion, risk, all the good stuff.
All up, for a guy with a rep for being, er, difficult when in contention, it's a very positive and useful bit. Sometime this week, I'm going to redo a piece I wrote for the Spectator about using an agent, but I thought this'd be nice to link to Wendig's first.
We’re possibly on the cusp of a golden age for writers. We have so many paths up the mountain. Let’s celebrate that. Let’s cheerlead not one option but all the options — and let’s embrace the fact that each path has strengths and weaknesses that’ll suit some authors and repel others. We don’t need to shut down or shout down options. We don’t need to suggest one way is superior. Or that others should feel inferior for their choices.
7 Responses to ‘Some self-publishing advice from Chuck Wendig’
Posted April 12, 2013
into Writing by John Birmingham
This is a tale of two blog posts. Well, three really. There's been a spot of bother over at Fairfax this week because a senior finance journalist was sacked for writing a piece in Crikey critical of the company. On the one hand, I guess being journalists, we should just man up and take our beatings as they come. On the other hand, there aren't many companies which tolerate employees pissing on them in public. But that's not what's been exercising my thoughts the last couple of days. I've been thinking about what the audience wants, and what we give them, which is in a tangential fashion the very issue canvassed in that Crikey piece. There has been a lot of traffic through the Instrument this week. A couple of metric shitload's, actually. It all started with that first piracy blog, which I tossed off full of piss and bad manners after a boozy dinner in Hanoi. It was a short piece, without nuance, calculated to offend, which it duly did. Bottom line: ching ching ching, we hit the traffic jackpot. Of course we also hit the sweet spot for moronic derpery, and I must admit I didn't even bother reading the comments. I paid attention to the spinoff debate over here, however. And as you know I was irritated enough by Lord Bob of Nowhere's stolen goods analogy to sit down and pen a long reply. Much longer than intended. So long, in fact, that I couldn't justify putting it up at the Burger. Having spent five hours writing and rewriting it, plus three quarters of an hour on the phone to Orin, nutting out some of the finer points, I'd effectively wasted a whole workday. I published it at Blunty simply to get some compensation for my time. It too was a very successful blog entry in terms of traffic and retweets and Facebook shares. But not nearly as successful as the shorter, dumber much less considered piece that started off the whole bingle. (It did however have an unexpected real-world effect. For all of the freetard nerd rage, more than a dozen people contacted me via Twitter and Facebook to say I had convinced them to buy the series and stop torrenting. A drop in the ocean of illegal downloads certainly, but still a sweet drop of clean water in a vast, poisoned sea.) And then we come to Thursday. And TheOnion-style fake news blog about the coalition's NBN policy launch. I didn't want to spend a lot of time thinking and writing the second Blunty of the week, because I'd invested so much time in the piracy issue, not just on Fairfax, but across all of the social media channels into which the debate quickly spilled. I was also a bit groggy and out of shape from a couple of hours in the dentist's chair, where I'd seen the launch of the Coaltion's policy on the television affixed to the ceiling. I didn't follow it very closely, preferring to listen to my audiobook of Shelby Foote's The Civil War. Even so, it was still obvious, lying there with a head full of drugs and a mouthful of sharp steel, listening to the battle of Manassas, that Malcolm Turnbull was being torn apart by his own internal conflict. I thought about writing a reasonably straight, if snarky NBN piece for Blunty, but realized that would approximate something like hard work. At about 5.30 in the afternoon a thought occurred to me; I'll just take the piss. About seven minutes later, the first draft was complete. I returned to it a couple of times to give it a polish both before and after publication. Maybe another five or six minutes in total. It totally fucking buried the traffic and share stats of the previous blog. Not the comment stats of the first piracy blog, which was calculated to get people all het up. But while a healthy comment thread, at least in terms of sheer numbers, looks good, what really counts in online media is volume through the page and republication via readers personal networks. In those terms the funny little NBN joke utterly destroyed the long, considered essay which took a whole day to write and another day to wrangle. I wonder what possible lesson I might draw from this.
42 Responses to ‘When someone is wrong on the internet.’