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

What’s in a Career? Fear, Excitement…

Returning once more to the intern side of things, I’ve been thinking about my future career a bit lately. What’s the future for jobs in our economy? There are estimates that nearly 40% of jobs currently done now will be gone in the next decade or so. It’s the computers, they are coming for our jobs. It’s like I, Robot but friendlier and with more unemployment payments.

While I know that there will always be a need for human writers, editors, publishers and designers, I do hesitate to think about what all of this means for my future. I sit in a very precarious position at the start of my career. It’s precarious because I have absolutely no idea what I’m doing. I’m sure if I knew where I was going though, I would get lost. I’m happy to go with the flow, but it does worry me from time to time.

As one job comes to an end, I’m wondering how much longer I’ll be doing temporary contracts. Or if I’ll become a slashie, a term for someone who crafts full-time hours out of multiple jobs which tend to be in entirely different careers, i.e. “I’m a such-and-such/this-or-that/third-career-or-job”.

I wouldn’t mind having that sort of career trajectory as my main goal at this stage is do something interesting or meaningful, preferably both.

I think there is also a definite need for people willing to do many different things, sometimes all at once. In 2013, I attended the Independent Publishing Conference hosted by the Small Press Network in Melbourne. It was a fantastic experience for me then, as a student, and one of the key things I took away from those three days was that it’s quite common for people in the publishing industry to have a range of different roles that don’t necessarily correspond with one another. To be someone who “wears many hats”.

These storied careers are fascinating, and show a side of the business which I think is both wonderful and scary. It’s wonderful because I find the prospect of those changes to be inviting. The idea that while your career is on a path, that path is always turning. It’s not a straight ladder.

The scary part of that is the unpredictability or insecurity of it. Just like temporary contracts, you never really know when or where or how things will end.

The publishing industry is a tremendously exciting place with a range of different roles to fill and I think in the future it’s going to be more and more important to be able to fill many of those roles, to be an all-rounder. That excites me, but it does also concern me. I worry that we’ll lose specialists. Many roles have already been taken out of the house and made into freelancer positions. I don’t know if this translates to less people becoming that kind of specialist, or if it means more. I think it’s probably less.

That’s one of the weird effects of digital disruption in a way too. Digital opens up the toolkit of publishing to anyone. So while some jobs may fade away or diminish because of this, other freelancers will be sought by more customers than previously. This adds to the career excitement and the fear, and I think it’s a balancing act that a lot of people at the start of their careers feel. It’s an important one too, I think.

In this blog, I haven’t answered the question that spurred me to write. But I have come to a better way to ask the question:

How can I balance the excitement and the fear, to have an interesting career?