story, science, technology and creativity

How to get published: a second year of secrets at the Perth Writers Festival


The secret’s out!

This time, last year, I was secretly pregnant and attending the 2011 ABC of Publishing seminar at the Perth Writers Festival.

This year, my secret is literally out, so I took him (3-months-old already!) and sat at the very back of Publishing: The Whole Shebang.

Since I could only sit for as long as he would quietly sleep, my coverage of the seminar is incomplete, but…I did grab some choice quotes from the first session of the day. Thanks to everyone who spoke and to storyteller and MC Glenn Swift for a fabulous and interesting morning!

Shona Martyn, publishing director for Australia and New Zealand at HarperCollins

What is she looking for? “It’s not all about money, but it is about books we can sell.” Shona publishes around 150 new Australian books every year. Of these around 40 are childrens books, 40 are fiction, and the rest are non-fiction or from the ABC books list. Around 30% of HarperCollins books now sell through BigW, including commercial and literary fiction.

What are your chances? Shona’s keen on manuscripts arriving via an agent, “someone who can target individuals within the organisation and knows how they may respond to a particular manuscript”.

No agent? Shona recommended entering awards such as the HarperCollins Varuna Awards for Manuscript Development, administered via the wonderfully inspiring Varuna House. (I had a couple of weeks at Varuna a few years back and it was amazing…tapping away up there in the treetops, I felt I was a writer for the first time.)

Any advice? Shona stressed that you need to do your homework before you submit anything: first impressions count, she said, so don’t send your manuscript too soon, and research the publishers you send it to: know their specialities. She also said writers courses and writing workshops were “very worthwhile.”

End comment? “Research, and professionalism. That’s the best advice I can give you.”

Erica Wagner, children’s publisher at Allen and Unwin

What’s hot? Erica mentioned trends in:

  • series
  • YA or crossover novels (with appeal to young adults and adults)
  • graphic novels
  • mid-level fiction (10- to 12-year-olds)
  • Indigenous stories (“These books could be put out as adult books, but to me it’s really important that children read them.”)

What’s not? The non-fiction market, says Erica, has “just fallen right away.” There’s also been a general downturn in book sales, partly because of the crash of REDgroup retail (booksellers Borders and Angus & Robertson), which effectively removed 20% of the market. To illustrate, Erica pointed out that where once a picture book print run might have been 3000 or 4000 copies, it’s now just 1500 or 2000 copies. (But, the news was not all gory: she also said book club sales are on the rise and that a book club order can add 3500 or 4000 copies to a print run.)

And what about apps? Apps? What apps? “We have yet to discover a business model that works,” says Erica. Apparently the people who make apps only want to work for real money (as opposed to the people who make books, who seem prepared to work for next to nothing)(and yes, that includes me!)

What is she looking for? Erica works three days a week and paints in her spare time. She refuses to get bogged down in the business of publishing. “The way I cope is to focus on the content,” she says. And that means you need your story to explode off the page. Erica said she’s always hoping to discover “a stunning new voice,”(and wow, that hit me hard. My work doesn’t just have to be ‘good enough’. It has to be ‘stunning’. That’s an awesome call-to-arms! Yee ha! Inspiring stuff!)

No agent? Fear not! You can still get your manuscript to the people who need to read it. Check out Allen & Unwin’s Friday Pitch for the low-down on submitting to their weekly slush pile (but a slush pile that will get read!). (The Friday Pitch has a tiny two-week turnaround. Bravo Allen & Unwin!)

Any advice? “The most important thing is knowing where you’re going to sit in the shelves on a bookshop. What will your book sit next to? What is it competiting with?”

Henry Rosenbloom, of independent Melbourne publishers, Scribe.

What is he looking for? Serious non-fiction and fiction. Henry is a passionate publisher and will pass on a commercially viable book if he doesn’t agree with its politics. “It’s important we have a very good book available on issues that are current. There must be a strong case for why your book should come into existence. ” This policy is paying off: Scribe were Small Publisher of the Year in 2006, 2008, 2010 and 2011.

What are your chances? Scribe put out 60 to 65 books a year, but only about a quarter of these are sourced from Australia. Henry said there are two reasons for this:

1) By going overseas, Henry can access very good, quality books that are unavailable to him on the Australian market (because they get snapped up by the larger publishing houses), and

2) Going overseas is simpler: Since Scribe doesn’t have to create or edit the books, they can publish more books. “We employ roughly 12 people, not all full-time,” says Henry. “If we tried to put out 60 books in a year, everybody would be dead in about three months.”

So what are your chances? “We take punts on debut fiction all the time, and sometimes those bets pay off.” But today’s industry-wide Australian book sales figures for February, says Henry, indicated a 29% drop on last year’s sales. “The book industry in Australia is in a state of transition, to put it politely,” he says. “To put it more directly, it is in a state of crisis.” Aussie book sales, he says, are not just declining, “they’re falling off the back of a cliff,” and the same thing, he says, is happening in America and the UK.  “At least half the books we publish fail.”

If you want your non-fiction book to sell, Henry recommends you either be an expert in your field, or have an “extremely compelling” memoir.

No agent? Send a professionally writen letter. “First impressions are vital. All that letter does is get you through the door, but without it, you can’t get through at all.”  Henry suggested submissions to Scribe have about a two-week turnaround. (More efficiency for nervous writers…thanks Scribe!)

Any advice? What makes a successful work of fiction? “It’s the voice. It’s the story. It’s the character. It’s the plot. It’s none of those and all of those. It’s being captivated by what you are reading.”

Question time…

Question time yielded more interesting tidbits, two of which really grabbed me:

Would you take a self-published book?
Yes, Yes, and Yes. Although all three publishers indicated that if you want to pursue this route, you need to show you have readers for your book, and that your market hasn’t already been exhausted.

Should writers write to trends?
Shona: “Write what you care about, and be aware of trends. Go for what you know.”
Erica: “I can’t bear to think of trends. By the time you’re written and published you might be at the very end of a trend.”
Henry: “It’s very hard to publish cynically and succeed. Don’t write cynically. You have to write what you know about, care about and believe in.”
(I think that’s ‘no’, ‘no’, and ‘no’?)

So there you go…and that was only the first session!!

Can anyone suggest any links to coverage of the rest of the program? It was lovely fun playing peek-a-boo under the trees, but it did mean I missed large chunks of the day!

Cheers and see you at the festival!

Author: cristyburne


2 thoughts on “How to get published: a second year of secrets at the Perth Writers Festival

  1. Thanks! I’ve followed on Twitter and checked out your blog…look forward to seeing you again at the festival (and we can talk about gaslamp fantasy, which, I’m ashamed to say, I had to look up on wiki!)(AND living in Kyoto, you lucky thing!)

    See you at the writers festival! (And thanks for your lovely comments!)


  2. Hello and nice to meet you, Cristy.

    I attended the publishing seminar this morning and I remember seeing you! I have a 10 month year old daughter myself, and I thought it was very brave and inspiring that you brought along your little one to the seminar. Fantastic!

    I came across your site through twitter and was amazed to see that your work features yokai! My current work-in-process (and hopefully my debut novel) is based heavily on aspects of Japanese mythology.

    I live and work in southern Kyoto, but I am on a short visit for the Perth Writer’s Festival. Perhaps I will see you at the festival again on either Saturday or Sunday. I’ll come over and say hello if I see you!

    p.s. I’ll follow you on Twitter (@virtuefiction)

    See you around!


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