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.

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The Bones of the World

It’s both fitting and amusing that Jen’s most recent post was about deadlines, as I am absolutely beyond the deadline in getting this done. Sometimes we’re all terrible at time management, even us chiding editor-types. But I’m here now, and I’m finally blogging about immersive worlds.

There’s nothing better than diving into a new book and finding yourself in a beautifully crafted world. The best stories are so immersive that your hands clench the pages, your head bows and you’re lucky if you remember to draw breath. You can sit like this for hours, consuming (not literally, or maybe literally – it’s your imagination) the flora and fauna of a new planet or wading deep through the storied life of the protagonist’s forebears. Losing one’s self in the hierarchies of different societies and the intricacies of new cultures that span centuries is a great way to use an afternoon, or the hours before your alarm at dawn.

At Book Expo Australia earlier this month, I had the pleasure of attending the Fantasy Worlds panel to listen to Tracy Joyce, Patricia Leslie and R.B. Clague. While the conversation was wide-ranging, all three authors agreed that making things relateable was a fundamental part of good world-building in order for the work to be engaging. This is crucial, regardless of how many different technologies or magical elements a sci-fi or fantasy world may have, the reader still needs to be given a bridge from their everyday to the book. This relativity is then a foundation from which to draw the reader further in to the book.

Another aspect that the authors discussed was that the details in the world need to make sense, or else readers will turn right off. Now, a fantasy world may not necessarily align with our own rules of reason and logic, but where it does diverge, it needs to so in a way can be explained or at the very least excused under artistic license. For Tracy, in the creation of the world of Altaica, research was crucial. She would research cultures and technologies that might share some values or aspects of the cultures that exist in the fantasy world she was building. Most of this research doesn’t go directly into the book, but it allows the author to approach the good stuff that actually makes it into the final cut in an informed way. This gives fantasy fiction an element of truth, so that the reader can say “Yeah, that makes sense” and then want to know more.

In much the same way that authors should have that research as a basis, they also need to give the reader a structure. I’ve always found that my favourite fantasy authors have done this incredibly well, such as David and Leigh Eddings and Sara Douglass. I love the way in which they place their stories into these beautifully designed worlds. I’m a bit mad about this stuff and so I particularly enjoyed The Rivan Codex, which details this process for The Belgariad and The Mallorean series. I’d recommend it to anyone else who loves thinking or reading about how fantasy worlds are made.

One thing I particularly appreciate when I’m reading a new fantasy or sci-fi book is when the author lays out the bones of the world. Not in a boring way of course, where it’s just a list of where things are and why, but as part of the opening of the narrative. It gives me a place to perch and observe the structures that are driving or supporting the story.

Once these structures are eked out, I find that my imagination can be funnelled through them and directed to the important places and colours and people. This is a crucial part of making the world accessible to a reader, and it needs to be accessible or else they won’t ever really visualise it. Once I can imagine it, then I can start in on questioning it. Is it topsy turvy or earth-like and why? Has everything gone pear-shaped for some inexplicable and possibly metaphorical reason? These are things I want to know.

On a related but tangential finishing note, the other thing that I’ve always found to be particularly immersive is character development. Now this is a no-brainer, characters need to be interesting, in order to draw the reader in. Rounded characters that are full of depth, but not fully on display are the goal here. These characters must interest the reader, but the reader doesn’t necessarily have to like these characters. This is standard stuff, but please don’t forget, it as good characters will do more to make a book immersive than anything else. Again, harkening back to Eddings, the character of Silk (also know as Prince Kheldar of Drasnia, Radek of Boktor, Ambar of Kotu etc.) is a wonderful character that is interesting and fun, and importantly is very nearly real. He’s not even the protagonist and yet the reader is able to understand and relate to him, cunning and rat-like and loveable as he is. Frankly, Silk is the best (put that on the record!).

Oh and Happy All Hallow’s Eve!

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 Big Picture: Structure and Flow

Happy Friday! You may have read Jen’s excellent piece on Monday about editing sweet, sweet copy. If not, there was a link back in that last sentence and you ought to click it. Now it’s time for the second blog of the week, by me! As Jen covered copyediting, we thought it would be swell if I talked about the bigger picture: structural editing. Here are some choice shower thoughts I had about this blog, that became this blog.

A disjointed novel, much like a disjointed limb, can be pretty useless. It goes without saying, but there’s a reason that people find short story collections without a very tied-in theme difficult to read in smooth succession. It’s because it’s hard to jump from world to world so quickly because you’ve only just established a connection with the previous story. You need that cool down time, where you dwell in the spaces the author created. You fit yourself into the world’s nooks and wonder about the characters and the plot. (You might wonder why it is that Gandalf didn’t want to go through Moria, but wouldn’t tell the fellowship his fears? Was Gandalf deliberately keeping the truth from Gimli? That bastard!(This was indeed a shower thought.))

Similarly in a novel, disjointed chapters or voices can have the same effect. If the author has created what feels like two different worlds that have no connection, then it can become very difficult to invest as a reader. It becomes more difficult then for the author to impart their story, to build characters and share emotions with their readers.

The job of the structural editor here is to ensure a sense of consistency, or provide suggestions of where to put the glue in the cracks. One of the many things a structural editor will do is called “chunking” where the parts of the story are categorised or chunked into groups. This allows both the editor and the author to get a better sense of the story and character development, what’s happening and when. Often a structural editor may even suggest the scalpel for a voice or chapter, as it brings nothing to the story and is hurting rather than helping. We do the same with paragraphs, but that’s on my next point.

Flow is often one of those annoying buzzwords that people use. But I am people, and I will use it because it’s the right word for the situation. It also literally means flow, as in the same way water flows. Why is it important to a structural editor and also to an author? Flow is vital to the creating a good reading experience of the book overall but also for each individual chapter. Something structural editors look to ensure is that voices, moods or scenes don’t chop and change (unless of course, that is achieving something deliberately). An important part of flow is ensuring that chapters don’t run up against each other and cause people to need a break from the book. Within those chapters, flow is about ensuring that people don’t switch off. That each paragraph pulls the reader to the next like a current. Sometimes to create flow in a chapter, we use the scalpel. Sometimes we move things about. Sometimes we ask for more. That’s what we do. We help put things in place, words, sentences, paragraphs and chapters. All for the long view.

At some point a manuscript becomes a book, and the job of a structural editor is build and mentor, to pester and worry, and ultimately to make sure that an author’s words connect with the reader. We’re for good stories, written well and read even better. We are the big picture people, and as many editors will tell you, the bigger picture is often in the details, which is why structural and copy editing work together to create good books.

They’re Their: Copy Editing and Its Importance to the Finished Product

Right now, I wouldn’t be surprised if a few of you are feeling a bit ripped off. In our introductions, and most of our discussions about what we do, Brendan and I have both said time and time again that the majority of our work centres around editing. But so far, a lot of our blog posts have focused on other topics. We hear you, loyal readers! You want to know about the ins and outs of editing, and we plan to bring it to you.

Today this post is all about copy-editing, the often confusing, mostly frustrating, and frequently overlooked aspect of editing that many authors forget they need. Copy editing does not concern itself with major plot holes, aspects of drama or action that need livening up, or even fixing those incredibly annoying characters that you just cannot stand. In a nutshell, copy-editing involves editing a text to make sure it is clear, easy to read, and most of all, consistent.

When I talk about copy-editing’s concerns with being clear, I am mostly taking about issues of spelling, grammar, and punctuation. Misspellings, an over abundance of semicolons, or passive voice are all concerns of the copy-editor. This also ties into making the text as easy to read as possible. Copy-editors scan your manuscript line by line, just waiting to find those devious little sentences that are too long, too verbose, or just plainly too confusing. Like a tiny little word ninja, they swoop in and cut those sentences down, making them pleasing and simple to read.

One of the absolutely key jobs of a copy-editor is to make sure the manuscript is consistent. There are many out there, mostly frustrated writers banging their head against battered keyboards, who would love the writing process to be simple and straightforward. The reality, of course, is that it is a highly creative and organic process. As such, characters undergo major identity changes, settings are moved, and events are scrapped and written again. This means that your average manuscript can often be full of inconsistencies that the author has overlooked or simply forgotten to fix. When your Hobbits begin by marching through the Misty Mountains, and end up at Hogwarts, that’s when you know you need a copy-editor.

Most inconsistencies aren’t usually as drastic as all that (although, now I think about it, Bilbo Baggins’ sorting would make some awesome fanfic). Usually checking for consistency involves fixing characters who were redheads in one scene and brunettes in the next, or whose names have mysteriously changed halfway through. Not only that, consistency with word choice is also important. How many times have you Aussie writers battled frustratingly with a Microsoft Word that insists on changing your ‘s’ to a ‘z’. Small issues like these occur frequently throughout a manuscript, and finding and fixing them is an important part of the copy-editing process.

I can see the cogs whirring in your brain from here, even though none of you have yet read this article as I’m writing it. This sounds like proofreading! Proofreading is easy, I do it all the time in my essays, why have you gone and given it a fancy name? I should note, before our publisher reads this and then decides to hunt me down for my factual inaccuracies, that there IS a difference between the two. Although proofreading and copy-editing have several things in common, they are different parts of the editing process. Proofreading is generally the final stage of editing, where we look for errors that have been overlooked in previous edits. These are usually small spelling mistakes and typos. Copy-editing is a far more intensive edit, and aims to make the text as cohesive as possible, in order to provide the most pleasure for you, the reader.

It’s very easy to think that editing is just the one process, rather than the many-layered beast it is in reality. Manuscripts go through a number of edits before they are even proofread, and a major part of this is the copy-editing. We’ve all been frustrated by a sudden change in a character’s appearance or name that shouldn’t be there, but the sign of a solid editing process is when that never happens. And as someone who wants to be an editor, boy is that a lot of pressure!

Fostering Beginner’s Luck: Branding Debut and Midlist Authors

As I mentioned in Monday’s blog, one of biggest problems ahead for the publishing industry is the closing of opportunities for debut and midlist authors. There is an unfortunate reduction in paths to publication through a traditional publishing house for both debut authors and for those who are steady but not spectacular on the midlist. There are a variety of factors contributing to this reduction including digital disruption, margin-squeezing and cultural homogenisation, but I won’t go into them in this blog. There are also some fantastic and brave people out there actively working to boost the opportunities for debut and midlist authors. This blog isn’t about them either. Today I want to cover how that shrinking window of opportunity can be combatted at a small press, by both the publisher and the authors.

In my opinion, I think a small press is probably best suited to work with debut and some midlist authors. It might not be the dream scenario for many authors, but it’s the most workable. Small presses, by neccessity, have to help grow new talent or nurture midlist talent as it’s the bread-and-butter of the small press industry. Small presses have both the ability and the motive to get out there and find new voices and take risks on them. Further, many small presses are less constrained by structures which can limit the bigger houses and hence can be more nimble and diverse in their publishing efforts.

One of the most important things a small press can contribute to helping debut and midlist authors to succeed is help with development of the author brand (as well as their writing craft). An author’s brand is an essential tool in the digital world, potentially more so than before Amazon and ebooks. An online presence is a necessity for community engagement. While this may not lead to direct sales, if an author’s brand is properly managed it will lead to a broadening of the base to which authors can hawk their books. It means reaching more new readers more often.

In 2013, bestselling author Neil Gaiman teamed up with a smartphone company to unleash a campaign where he could collaborate with his fans on a series of short stories. The response to the campaign was overwhelmingly positive and highly engaging. Fans submitted story ideas corresponding to themes that Gaiman then turned into short stories. Fans then submitted artworks inspired by the stories. This was a modern, technology-enabled creative conversation between an author and his audience. It worked brilliantly.

Here, Gaiman used his author brand to create momentum for a campaign that wasn’t aimed directly at selling books. Instead, he engaged his readers in a venture that allowed them inside his creative process. The cynical benefits were that Gaiman’s brand and the smartphone company’s brand both got a boost from this campaign. The more idealistic benefit is that Gaiman expanded on an excellent connection with his readers and further developed their passion for him as an author.

The take away for debut and midlist authors is not they can do exactly what Gaiman has done, but that they could replicate it, in part, to create bigger brand awareness and engagement for themselves and their audience. This isn’t a strategy for hard sales of books but more about increasing online presence. The purpose of this is to indirectly or eventually increase sales, but that’s not the direct outcome or immediately tangible reward for the exercise. For authors this is a no-brainer as building a strong brand helps your marketability with publishers and makes them more willing to take a risk on publishing your book.

Another brilliant example of author branding, that is in the physical space rather than digital is Odyssey author Rachel Drummond. This year, Drummond appeared at Supanova with a stall marketing her book The South Forsaken. With distinctive yellow signage and an open and engaging personality for readers, she was a huge success.

These two examples show approaches to branding that should be informative for how authors can push forward both online and at events:

  1. Be Distinctive/Interesting.
  2. Be Open and Engaging.

These seem to be rather generic ideas, but they are fundamentally important for authors when designing and implementing an online presence for their readers to engage with. I haven’t put forth an argument as to whether authors need to do this, because they absolutely do. It’s really non-negotiable unless you’re a bestseller. To get ahead as an author today you need to get out there and engage in whatever way possible.