The Forgotten Readers

We’ve all been inside one. For many, including myself, our love of reading was grown and cultivated in a building absolutely bursting with books. You could stroll through the seemingly endless rows of towering shelves, trying to find that perfect book. Especially as children, libraries seem to house never-ending possibilities for reading. Across the country, indeed, across the world, libraries are institutions that open their doors to thousands of avid readers every day.

Whilst the library is the main source of reading material for numerous individuals, it is a commonly overlooked vehicle for increasing promotion and awareness of your book. This is largely because many don’t consider an institution that buys one copy of a book and then lends it to as many people as possible an opportunity for substantial profit.

However, if you look a little closer, you’ll see that there are far more opportunities for promotion than first meets the eye.

It has been suggested that libraries purchase as much as 12% of all books sold in Australia. Although many towns no longer have bookstores, especially rural ones, many of them still have a library, or have access to a travelling library – yes, those still exist! All these libraries need to be stocked, and librarians are always looking for new and interesting titles to attract readers to their shelves.

The fact that libraries only buy one copy of a book, and are therefore not worth spending time marketing to, is a common argument. However, not only is this not always true, even when it is, that’s no reason to discount the library. School libraries in particular are known for ordering class sets (usually around 30 copies) of books they are interested in acquiring. If a book proves popular, libraries may buy multiple copies in order to cater to demand.

But even if they only buy one copy, that copy is one more sale you didn’t have yesterday. In a 2011-2012 report, Australian Public Library Statistics recorded 1,505 public libraries across the country. If every library in Australia bought only one copy, that’s still a significant sales count.

Additionally, the report noted that there were approximately 9 million visits to libraries every month. Consider the exposure that one book could get if it was seen 9 million times a month. Nowhere but a library will you have that kind of potential for people to see a book, and quite often pick it up and read it. If they love it, not only do you have a loyal reader, but they’re very likely to spread the word to all their friends, who can easily access your book from their library.

For the small press author, libraries, especially your local library, can be a great support in getting your book talked about. Many regularly host events with authors, including talks and signings. Others may also support the idea of launching your book right there in the library. Events like these not only open up more opportunities for sales, but also make sure your book is exposed in a place that has regular and dedicated traffic – and they ALL read books!

As many libraries purchase largely through library vendors, this can limit the opportunity for small press and self-published authors to get their books on the shelves. But that doesn’t mean there isn’t a chance. Local libraries in particular love supporting authors who reside nearby. And once the word spreads about books that are popular, other libraries may begin to show interest.

Nowhere else in the world can you regularly attract such a concentrated group of readers as you can in a library. Those who are focused on the bottom line in the short term can dismiss those non-paying individuals who grip tightly to their library card. However, increasing the number of people who see and read your book is never a bad thing, in the long term it will contribute to an increase in sales. Especially if those library patrons are all as impatient as I am and, when faced with their desired book being on loan, goes out and buys their own copy because they cannot bear to wait. The book industry forgets about library patrons at their peril.

The Inescapable Villain of Time

We’ve all felt the anxious pressure of a deadline looming. That sweaty palm, sleepless night dread that you will never get anything finished. It’s terrifying, and it makes you wish you’d never signed up to do this crazy thing you said you would.

Deadlines are something authors, like the rest of the world, routinely face. Manuscript in by this date, have your draft done soon, we need it! We absolutely must publish on that date! The more famous your work is, the bigger the expectation, both from your publisher, and your rabid fans. Your first book might be relatively free from stress, but for sequels or follow up works, there’s often a weight of expectation that you publish again in a certain amount of time, lest the world forget about you.

With some of my own personal anticipated sequels due to come out soon, as well as a number of our Odyssey authors working on sequels, I’ve begun to question the influence of a looming deadline on the work that is produced.

One maxim that is so oft repeated many don’t remember where it came from, is the idea that ‘You can’t rush Art.’ It is undeniably true. You can spot a shabby, hurried novel from a mile away. There are continuity issues, the plot doesn’t make sense, or a key detail has been left out. Additionally, the creative process can be notoriously fickle. Some days you may be blocked, and blocked hard. There’s nothing you can do to force the process, you just have to wait.

So writing requires time and patience. That’s accepted. But is there a limit to how much time and patience a publisher needs to have? This is a particular problem with sequels. Many readers don’t like to buy the beginnings of a series until they will be assured that it will end. The consequence of this is that publishers will often need assurances of further books, so they can be confident in your ability to remain in the market. Without this, your first novel could be stellar, but it may be too much of a risk to publish.

As you continue on in the journey of writing a series, or even just a set of stand alone books in succession, the need to remain relevant and continually have something fresh to put out there only grows. If you develop a following, your readers will be waiting for new reading material. Make them wait too long, and they could easily forget about you, and move on to pastures with more books in them.

In light of this, it’s easy to see why publishers need to impose deadlines on their authors. Publishing is a business, and to an extent, writing is too. In order to make money in this business, the name of the game is producing books. Deadlines help a publisher launch your book at the best possible time, and give the writer something to work towards. We all know how easy it is to languish in an endless cycle of words if we don’t have a particular goal in mind.

The key, as always, is balance. Writers need to be given the freedom to write, and the flexibility to adapt, for when things don’t turn out as expected. Publishers need assurances that their time and investment in you will eventually come to fruition. Oppressive deadlines that allow no room for movement will always impact on the quality of the work produced. Books are not like business reports; their structure is flexible and ever changing. So too should be the deadlines they are bound by.

The Un-Conventional Pitch

Authors and editors alike are always interested in how the manuscript gets into the publisher’s hands – authors because they want theirs to be read, editors because it means things to edit – yay!

Traditionally, publishers receive manuscripts in two ways, depending on their preference and, usually, the size of the organisation. Most of the big publishing houses use literary agents, who write letters of recommendation, extolling the virtues of this particular client’s work. The person in charge of the slush pile (often your lowly intern!) reads the letter, and if interested, may actually set eyes on the manuscript.

The other way to do it, usually a more common method for smaller publishing houses, is through unsolicited manuscripts. This involves the author emailing or submitting the manuscript online whenever they choose. It is not based on the request of a publisher or the advice of a literary agent.

This is the method that Odyssey uses. Authors upload their manuscript through our submission portal in order for us to see it. We require them to include a synopsis, a biography, an ‘elevator pitch’ (how they’d pitch the book in the time it takes to ride an elevator) and the first four chapters of the manuscript.

Each of these methods work fine, indeed, at least for Odyssey, it’s how we discover most of our authors. But it does have its downsides. Both styles of submission are very impersonal; they consist of a letter, an email, or a summary. They give no scope for your impassioned defence of your work. All you can do is try and type as much as you can into that little box, and hope it’s enough to sell your work.

However, particularly with small publishers, a third option seems to be emerging.

As I noted in my blog post on the Supanova Pop Culture Convention a few weeks ago, going around these conventions with Odyssey, I have seen a number of authors willing to come up and make themselves, and their work, personally known to my boss.

Nowhere was this more evident than at the Conflux Science Fiction Convention Odyssey attended in Canberra over the October long weekend. Conflux provided an option for authors they called PitchFest, which gave them a chance to pitch a particular work to my boss in 10 minutes.

The session worked thus: after brief introductions, they began by covering their title and synopsis. The publisher could then ask for clarifications, and even request the author elaborate on details they found interesting. Then they went over their author platforms, while the publisher made sure they understood the way Odyssey works, and knew what it would be like to work with a small press.

I considered this opportunity an excellent way to bring publisher and author together in a way that allows for a more personal and in depth interaction about the work. It was also a great way for everyone to get their names out there, and for authors to have a go at pitching their work.

Aside from this more formal aspect of it, I also found, as I have with every convention I have attended this year, that interest can also be expressed very casually. Throughout the day, a number of authors stopped by to discuss publishing with us, some interested in how Odyssey worked, others wanting to quiz our authors on what is what like to be published with us. Our boss was always open to informal sessions over coffee, and, as always, we found a few interesting manuscripts over the weekend.

So it seems that any and all opportunities to make yourself and your manuscript stand out should be enthusiastically undertaken by authors. Networking is key, as you get a chance to both formally and informally meet different publishers, and figure out which one is best for you. Some authors we have met at previous conventions are now part of the Odyssey family. If you can, I would always recommend taking a chance on the unconventional pitch

Gold-Plated Nothings: Celebrity Books in the Literary World

After a dose of political intrigue, international news and the unsolicited opinions of numerous journalists, my surreptitious lurking in the entertainment section revealed an interesting piece of news. Comedian Amy Shumer has landed a book deal, with an advance suspected to be around $8 million dollars. I almost fell off my chair. As a young editor working for a small press, that kind of money around an advance is still awe-inspiring. But as I thought about it more, it increasingly began to disturb me.

Before we go any further though, I want to make it clear that this is not a rant about Amy. I’m a huge fan of her work, and she can make me laugh harder than I thought possible. But her work is as a comedian, in stand-up, television, and film. What she isn’t, is an author.

We can be pedantic all we want about what the term author means. If whether all you have to do to be an author is write something, or if all it takes to be considered one is to be published. But the increasing rise of celebrity ‘authors’ bodes ill for the rest of the literary industry, as they take away from those who wish to write more than just a recap of their lives and their endearing, charming, hilarious or heartbreaking thoughts.

Books published by celebrities usually constitute autobiography, memoir, or collection of thoughts and essays. There’s the occasional cookbook of lifestyle guide, and British celebrity Katie Price, also known as Jordan, has written a novel. For the most part, these books fail to add much to the literary landscape, and rely on our cultural fascination with the lives of celebrities. The quality of the writing varies greatly, the story is often much the same – young aspiring star walks the hard road to achieve their dreams, and examines the struggle with being rich, famous and adored.

By all means, worship a star if you want to. Go see their movies, hang off their television interviews, and buy the products they endorse with that winning smile. But what do their books really add to that? More of the same things you see in their films, their stand-up, their interviews. They may be entertaining reads for those obsessed with their favourite celebrity, but as books, they often fail the test of time, and become one time reads to collect dust on your bookshelves.

And these books are doing a significant amount of dust collecting. In The New York Times bestseller list from this week alone, almost half of the top twenty are written by some celebrity, whether they be from the comedic, film or political persuasion.

With such solid represent in the bestseller lists, we can see why publishers are so keen to embrace these books, and why Amy has been given such a huge advance. No doubt her book will make it a number of times over. But it displays a worrying trend of pursuing financial gain to the detriment of literary quality.

In an increasingly risk-averse market, the booming celebrity book industry produces numerous carbon copy memoirs that make bank for their publishers, and their authors. But this takes the time and energy away from less well known authors, as they work to produce original and painstakingly crafted works, only to have them rejected because they won’t sell the same way the glittering, celebrity endorsed hardbacks will.

When the bestseller lists indicate a particular trend, naturally publishers are going to jump on as quickly as possible, ever thinking about that bottom line. The only solution for those who wish to patron higher quality literature is to of course, stop buying celebrity books. But in a society obsessed with the minute movements of celebrities, I don’t see that happening any time soon. The cost is, and will always be, the smaller authors, those who haven’t yet got the money, the influence or the fame behind them to push a book like a celebrity can.

The Shelving Game

In some of our marketing blog posts, you would have heard Brendan or I talk about the need for small publishers to look at alternative ways of selling and advertising books, other than bookstores. What you small press aficionados may have already noticed in your search for the perfect indie novel is that you will rarely find a small press book on the gleaming shelves of a shiny bookstore, particularly if that bookstore is a chain.

You may have bemoaned this fact as you drag your feet away from the rows and rows of choices, back to Book Depository, Amazon, or even the publisher or author’s own website to find what you’re looking for. It’s definitely a pain, but many people don’t generally question why. What is it about the organisation of bookstores that prevent small press from getting a real foothold?

Start by thinking about your favourite bookstore. Picture it in your mind. Whoa! There’s SO MANY BOOKS. I always find it a bit overwhelming when I walk into a bookstore. There’s a multitude of choices, and that’s the reason very few people are still brave enough to venture into one with me.

But step back for a moment. That choice that we’re all confronted with, those who own the bookstore are confronted with that decision on a far larger scale when they are considering how to stock their store. Those seemingly endless shelves hold only a small fraction of all the possible books a store could stock. There is so much choice; bookstores need to find a way of cutting through them all.

Obviously, part of what they decide to stock is based on demand. If five customers a day come in and want a particular book, then it makes sense to start getting a few on the shelves. Customers are notoriously impatient people, and will be far more satisfied with their experience if they don’t have to wait a couple of days for their book to be ordered in.

But another key part of the decision making process are distributors. These are companies that act like sales executives for books, and liaise with bookstores to get books on shelves. They often provide promotional material for bookstores, and have large selections that sellers can choose from.

Like everything else in this world, they cost money. Often a lot of it. Therefore, those with the most books to sell, and who usually publish books in high demand, have the most to gain from a distributor. If you’ve only published one book, or even only ten, the cost of a distributor will be far more prohibitive. So once again, we have a means for accessing consumers dominated by the large publishing houses.

If you aren’t with a distributor, your chances of getting on the shelves are much lower. Distributors are respected companies, and the fact that they accept a book, author, or publisher into their repertoire is a vote of confidence. A distributor with a nice shiny catalogue will always be considered more respectable than an author who can’t afford such resources off the bat, but is still passionate about what they have produced.

Unfortunately, getting your book into a bookstore isn’t as simple as just sending them a bunch of copies. It involves a complex mix of ordering, permission, returns policies and sales figures. Distributors can smooth this process, which is why they are an important part of getting a book on the shelves. But small press are often left out as big companies and bestsellers take the place of lesser-known books. The fact that small publishers have such difficulty getting into bookstores is often something that prevents their growth, as you can’t make sales if no one sees your product. It’s unfortunate that, although it seems like we have so much choice in a bookstore, the decision on whether to read small press books or not has already been made for us.

if you’re keen to explore what small press has to offer, think about exploring the websites of small publishing houses. Odyssey conducts sales through its own website, as well as on Amazon and Book Depository, as do most other small presses.

Traversing the Thorny Thicket

One of the most typical intern jobs around is being assigned to the slush pile, as both I and Brendan have been at different times.

In layman’s terms, the slush pile is the collection of all the new submissions a publisher receives. Part of my job is to sift through the hopeful cover letters and (often) ambitious manuscripts, and divide them into two groups, the ‘Don’t Bother’ and the ‘Worth Consideration’. It’s a job commonly assigned to interns and newbies because it’s intensive, with often little to no reward. However, ploughing through the slush pile is an important step in any intern’s journey for a number of reasons. It allows you to hone your critical thinking skills, as you learn to look for certain signs that a book may have what it takes.

It’s prompted me to think more deeply about why I approve or reject a certain manuscript. Not only do I suggest certain manuscripts for our publisher’s consideration, but for every manuscript I read, I’m required to do up a summary document, where I provide a short synopsis, pick out the elements that are good and/or bad about the manuscript, and justify why I would or would not publish it. It’s quite a lot of power, which has the potential to easily swell this small intern’s head!

Before I even read the manuscript, I’m looking at the cover letter, the biography, the marketing plan, and the way the author sells their work. And so, before we’ve even made it to your manuscript, we’ve made a lot of assumptions about you. One of the most important, and often overlooked is: can you follow our submission instructions? Someone who hasn’t bothered to add in their pitch, or whose cover letter leaves out relevant details automatically needs their manuscript to work harder for them.

The process of turning manuscript into finished product sees an editor and author working very closely. So when we consider your book, we’re also considering what you will be like to work with. These things come out very easily in cover letters, and will definitely make us reconsider you, even if your manuscript is out of this world. The relationship between a publisher and an author is very much a partnership. The work doesn’t stop once we agree to publish. So, ideally, you want to come across as interesting, enthusiastic, and willing to work with us, to be in the best possible position for us to accept your manuscript.

Now on to the fun part: reading the actual text! At Odyssey, we usually ask for the first four chapters, to give us a sense of the work. When I’m reviewing the slush pile, rarely will I read all four of those chapters. From discussions with various editors and slush pile enthusiasts I’ve met through my work, I’ve discovered that everyone has their own rule of thumb. For me, it’s the first twenty pages. What I’m looking for, first and foremost, is a text that can capture me in those first twenty pages. Even better than that, if I end up wanting to read more than the four chapters an author has sent, that’s usually when I send excitable emails to the publisher, demanding that we request a full manuscript, just so I can know what happens!

How does an author capture my attention and keep it? Well, that’s the part that’s hard to quantify, and is different for every book. Readers today are more spoiled for choice than ever. A novel that can make readers connected to their characters, absorbed in the action and excited to see what comes next, just in the first twenty pages, is going to be one that has a much better chance of succeeding in the market. So I can’t highlight what I want. But I can give you some ideas of what I don’t want.

  • Poor Editing – Oh wow! As editors, we know that typos slip through all the time. We do it too! (only sometimes) But a manuscript that’s full of typos just seems lazy. If an author can’t be bothered to edit their manuscript properly before submission, how are we supposed to think they are at all dedicated to making sure their book does as well as possible?
  • Over-Detailed Introductory Material – This is guaranteed to make me stop reading a manuscript very quickly. The best novels catapult you right into the world you have created. Backstory comes later! It trickles out and keeps you hanging on for more. If you load it all in at the beginning, no one will be hanging around for the middle, let alone the end.

As I’m rapidly running out of space, I’ll leave it there. My adventures in the slush pile have made me one of the pickiest readers around. Every manuscript I work with allows me to better understand what it is that makes a novel stand out as publishable amongst the mountain of slush that never will be.

Doing it for the Little Guys

Small Publishers – What are they and where do they fit in the publishing industry?
by Jenna O’Connell

So, one of the first questions I inevitably get asked after mentioning this internship is something I dread: oh, cool! How small is the publishing house? Because, how do you describe something like that? Do I measure in square feet of office space? In the weight of all the books Odyssey has ever published? The number of people who are employed in the company? All these are different measures of people’s perceptions of small and large, but none of them really sum up the difference between small publishers and large publishers. As I’ve progressed through this internship, I’ve realised that very few people, and almost no one outside the publishing industry, can adequately define what exactly small press is. So, with my limited experience and the searing overconfidence of youth, I’m going to attempt to give it a go.

The Small Press Underground Networking Community (now Small Press Network) examined this problem in a report commissioned back in 2007, designed to figure out exactly what small press is, and why it is important to Australia’s publishing and literary industries. One of the clearest distinctions between the two was that small press are mostly separate from large corporations. Another is in their engagement with alternative modes of bookselling, rather than just a reliance on bookstores. From there, most of the criteria is far less definitive, as the nature of small, growing companies is that they can flow within and over these categories as things change. But the most common factors that appeared were a release of less than 12 books a year, and a print run for each book no larger than 5,000, and usually far less than that, somewhere around 1000-2000 copies. But all these numbers are pretty arbitrary. What I find to be the defining feature of small press is the personalised attention they are able to provide. Michelle, our publisher, is involved in every stage of the process for the books she publishes, from submission, to cover, to promotion. She also interacts personally with all of her authors, something that blew me away when I first started working here. Wait, I get to meet HOW many real life authors? Sometimes, it’s almost too exciting to believe. This kind of interconnectedness is something that would be impossible in a larger operation. Not that that’s necessarily a bad thing, but it highlights that both small and large publishers have their place, and provide vastly different services.

Small publishing houses are admirable for their ability to take risks where large publishing houses will not. Indeed, many larger publishers will not accept unsolicited manuscripts, meaning it’s a lot harder for new authors to grab their attention, especially if they’re doing it completely on their own. Usually, an author will get their start with a smaller publisher, and move to a larger one as their fan base and sales grow. I can’t speak for other small presses, obviously, but a lot of our focus here at Odyssey is on trying to find the stories that are clamouring to be told, rather than the ones that fit a generic model that may be guaranteed to sell, but lack that something special. And often those are in mediums that have faded from the public consciousness. Small press publishers overwhelmingly represent short fiction and poetry production. Many of us are a bit blah about these modes of storytelling nowadays. When was the last time any of us read a short story that wasn’t written by someone who has been famous for at least 50 years? I know I’m certainly guilty of it, but I would be devastated if suddenly these ways of writing were phased out. Small publishing houses are the cornerstones of targeting niche and speciality markets that may not attract the attention of larger publishers, but still have their devoted audiences. For example, Odyssey is about to release a book about the journey of whiskey! Talk about a niche market there! How many books really cater to the whiskey lovers out there?

Large publishers like Penguin or Harper Collins are ones that, inevitably, the mind strays to when I mention I’m interning in publishing. They are undoubtedly the biggest kids on the block, and their contributions to the publishing industry have been enormous. But learning how publishing works from a small press perspective has been infinitely more enriching, as I’ve been exposed to so many different facets of the industry, in a way that I could never have done in a larger company. More details of those experiences to come in later posts!