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

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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!

The Cave Where Dreams Are Made: An Intern’s Visit to the Printers

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The Lightning Source/ Ingram Spark Headquarters

by Jenna O’Connell

So, something I’d never thought about until recently was where our books came from. I’ve been interning for Odyssey for almost a year now, and I’d never questioned the appearance of our books. We just got them out of boxes when we needed them. Intuitively, I’m sure I didn’t believe that our publisher just waved her fingers and the books appeared in a puff of smoke, but I certainly hadn’t given printing a moment of consideration. As I learnt recently though, not only is there a lot that goes on between the final edit of a book and pulling out a knife to slice open that first crisp box of books, but it’s something that almost no one thinks about.

On a recent trip to Melbourne, I was lucky enough to have a site visit at the Lightning Source/ Ingram Spark printers in Scoresby. While it doesn’t initially sound like an awesome adventure, let me tell you now, for all you booklovers out there: IT. IS. CANDYLAND! Ingram Spark is a publishing-on-demand platform that offers both print and e-book versions. Publishers like Odyssey, as well as authors who are self-publishing, upload their manuscript, and the relevant details like ISBN, pricing, territory rights etc. The book is then processed, printed at a facility like the one we visited, and distributed out to warehouses, retailers, publishers, whatever you like! But, as with everything in life, there’s a bit more to it than that.

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Piles and piles of printed books waiting for their covers. The process begins…

Our visit started with a meeting with the manager for content acquisition in Australia, Debbie Lee. We had a chat about Odyssey’s relationship with Lightning Source/Ingram Spark, how Odyssey likes the relatively new Ingram Spark platform, and the small publishing industry in general. Here, one of the main themes stressed again and again was quality. That’s something my boss is passionate about – delivering quality books that are worth reading. For both Odyssey and Ingram Spark, quality control is a big issue, and one of the reasons my boss uses Ingram Spark as a printer.

Then we headed out onto the floor. And that’s where the real fun began. Just this site here processes between 40-50,000 books a month. You walk through the door onto a raised lookout over the factory floor. That’s when the excitement hits. Books everywhere! It really is the book-birthing suite, with books in every stage of the printing process. Lightning Source has two black and white digital printing devices on the floor. There’s a digital link that routs the publications from a database in the United States. You submit a book through the Ingram Spark portal; it travels digitally to the US, is processed and re-routed back to this device, which begins the printing process. At this facility, publications are routed three times a day, at 3pm, 5am and 8am. Inside here the book is cooking away, producing all the pages. From there the books are cut, and we start dealing with covers!

The cover-printing machine rolls out the covers in big long strips, which are then cut and assigned to their relevant books. Everything is done via barcodes. At any stage of the process, if barcodes between covers and manuscripts don’t match up, the machine won’t work. So if you’ve ever wondered what that barcode in the back of your book is for, now you know!

From there, the books are put into a binding machine, to finally attach cover and pages. The newly created book is shot out the end. But wait! This doesn’t look like a book! There’s cover hanging off everywhere! That’s because after the book is bound, it still needs to be trimmed. Something I hadn’t realised was that the books don’t shoot out automatically bound perfectly. The cover printer has a standard size paper to print on. This means the book is often quite a bit shorter than the cover at first. Once it’s through the trimming machine though, everything is finished. And boy is it tempting to pick up those books and run away with them!

The mighty book binding machine. Magical!
The mighty book binding machine. Magical!

The visit to Lightning Source/Ingram Spark (or as I’m now referring to it, The Cave Where Dreams Are Made) has been one of the highlights of my internship so far, because it opened my eyes to a whole side of publishing I had never even considered. I started this internship with my eyes firmly focused on learning how to be an editor. But sitting in on this meeting, and touring the site where books are actually, physically, made, I’ve discovered a world of other interesting facets in this industry, and one I’m definitely keen to explore further.

The Hitcher in the Picture: An Odyssey Intern takes Supanova

by Jenna O’Connell

Have you ever been to a convention? No, not those super boring things in the boardroom where everyone wears a name tag, and if you’re lucky there’ll be a Monte Carlo and some hot orange juice for morning tea. I’m talking about a fan convention, in this case, a pop culture and all round awesomeness convention. I hadn’t been to anything like that before I started interning for Odyssey. But for authors and publishers, they are so much more than a chance to dress up and overspend on a heap of cool things.

What I’m constantly learning about, working in the small publishing industry, is that there are so many more ways to market books than just shipping them off to a bookstore and crossing your fingers. And when you’re a small press, you REALLY need to be pursuing all those other opportunities. So far this year, I’ve tagged along with our publisher and some of our authors to two Supanova conventions, and learned a ton about the opportunities that come out of events like these. For those of you who haven’t heard of it before, Supanova is a pop culture convention that runs across Australia at various points in the year. It bills itself as a celebration of all things pop culture, so fans of anime, fantasy, sci-fi and everything in between unite over three days to dress up, meet some of their heroes, and (hopefully) buy a lot of cool and quirky things.

The set up for those selling things is quite like a market. A lot of booths, mostly small, although the bigger companies had massive ones. We were located in what is called Artist’s Alley, which is an area specifically put aside for smaller artists, from comic book designers, to jewellery makers, to publishers and authors like us. Before we went to our first one, I assumed we were going just to sell books. We publish quite a bit of sci-fi and fantasy, so I figured this was a new way to sell to our target market. And it definitely was. What I didn’t realise, is just how much more than that it would also be.

Supanova was a great way for us to make our brand more recognisable. For every one person that bought a book from us, we had 10 more picking up cards, chatting to us, wanting to learn about our website. Many of those people will lose the cards, and forget all about us. But a picture of us is in their head, and they’re more likely to recognise us next time. I began to realise that awareness is just as important as actual sales. Awareness is about engaging a customer so that they will return to see what we do next, and who wants to know what else we do. I also learnt just how important being different is in building that awareness and recognition.

On the second day of Sydney Supanova, I dressed up as the Hitcher, from the television show The Mighty Boosh. One of our authors, Tracey Joyce, dressed up as Isaura, from her very own novel Altaica. The amount of photos we got stopped for, even when we were just hanging in the booth, was amazing! And just by drawing people into the booth, having them look at what we were doing, we captured a lot of people who otherwise might have walked right past us. And not only that, we had some awesome conversations with some truly amazing costume artists.

Speaking of conversations, one of the things that took me most by surprise was the amazing opportunity for networking that Supanova is. At both conventions, not only have we sold our current books, we’ve also been approached by prospective authors. A couple have already joined our Odyssey family, others who have amazing manuscripts that I honestly can’t wait to read. And not only that, we’ve met self-published authors and talked strategy, we’ve met illustrators and graphic designers interested in working on cover art with us, and we’ve also had a chance to chat with other publishers, both small and large, and see how they approach conventions, and even marketing in general.

Just sitting around with our publisher and her authors at these conventions, I absorb so much. The conversations that come with meeting others in this industry casually, or even in outlandish costumes, provide more hands on experience than you could ever hope to get trying to research all this stuff. Selling books at a pop culture convention turned out to be so much more of a learning experience than I could have ever expected it to be. For me, it shows just how much can be learnt by being a fly on the wall in every possible publishing and marketing experience. As usual, I learn just as much outside the office as I could ever hope to inside it.

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!