A Matter of Unparalleled Import

Last week, the Government announced it would support a recommendation to remove the Parallel Importation Restrictions (PIRs) that are applied to books by the Copyright Act, last proposed by the Productivity Commission in 2009. This is a serious issue for anyone interested in the book industry, as PIRs are a vital financial foundation of Australian publishing. As the Productivity Commission stated in their 2009 report,

“Parallel Import Restrictions (PIRs) provide territorial protection for the publication of many books in Australia, preventing booksellers from sourcing cheaper or better value-for-money editions of those titles from world markets.”

The report goes on to suggest that PIRs place upward pressure on book prices to the benefit of publishers and authors and detriment of consumers. What it does not state are the benefits to the consumer from the PIR regime, namely access to a higher quality product and greater opportunity to read and discover local authors.

Certain commentators have been dismissive of these benefits and the affect of PIR on them. They have argued that the removal of PIRs will have virtually no effect, as the industry is much stronger and competitive than it claims, or should become so as an effect of the changes. They haven’t offered any real evidence to these claims.

One complainant has even objected to the use of colourful language, to which I say: This is the business of words, why would they not be used for effect? And distinctions of the colour of the language aside, the result of this recommendation would be disastrous, so let’s not waste time critiquing the semantics.

If we must discuss the language, then let’s talk about the buzzword that all economic reform in this country now hinges upon: innovation. Let’s be clear, destroying territorial copyright is not innovative, it’s destructive. For this economy to succeed through innovation, it’s about making Australian product and industry innovative, not “innovating” policy to allow world markets to crowd Australian book producers out. That’s not the creation of competition. It’s the end of competition.

The Australian publishing industry is a diverse and competitive place. The proof of this is in the success of Independent Publishing, which is thriving in this country, in large part due to innovation. To hollow out the value of the market by flooding it with cheap international titles will destroy the conditions by which this innovation and competition is possible.

Why invest in local books when the risk of a return is made even more untenable? We already function as an extremely high-risk industry, and all this policy does is diminish the reward.

As a result of of removing PIRs, investment in Australian publishing and writing will be down, which means jobs will be cut and the voices of many local authors will not be heard here or overseas.

So how do we address this and stop it from occurring?

I had considered an open letter to the Prime Minister and Treasurer, but respected authors Richard Flanagan, Peter Carey and Tom Keneally beat me to it. Their letter was fantastic and covered many of the same areas I wanted to cover. But I absolutely wanted to reiterate some of those concerns and add my voice to this debate, because without vocal opposition, this policy could very well come to pass.

The Australian publishing industry employs some 20,000 people, and is worth around $2 billion. Territorial copyright is a pivotal financial plank of the industry. One of the counter arguments to this is that most of this money is made by Australian branches of multinational companies. But this naively ignores the various economic and cultural benefits that those companies bring to the Australian publishing industry. To see the vacuum that could be created by diminishing this input, one only needs to look to New Zealand.

One thing that these recommendations don’t seem to understand is this: Booksellers cannot compete with Amazon on price. The removal of PIRs may bring a temporary breath of cool air to booksellers, allowing them to drop prices, but they know as we all do, that Amazon cannot be beaten in a price war and nor should we want that. Not only would it signal the further deterioration of the perceived value of the book, it would diminish us as a book industry.

It’s a flight of fantasy that books cost too much. In Australia, the standard price of a paperback has dropped by around 20% since 2009. This fact alone shows that the Harper recommendation doesn’t understand or comprehend the mechanics of this industry. Yes, PIRs may place upward pressure on book prices, but local competition, as well as competition with overseas online retailers, places downward pressure on book prices. Competition from online retailers is not going to decrease in the future, so if anything the PIRs are vital to sustaining some upward pressure to keep publishing both profitable and able to employ the 20,000 or so people that it does.

I’d like to ask the Government this: if they are intent on removing PIRs on books, then they should first commission a review of the Book Industry by a panel that understands that this stunning practice of culture and commerce is an altogether different beast. As it stands, the removal of PIRs for the reasons stated in the recommendation is shortsighted and based on a poor understanding of the economics of the book trade. In short, it’s moronic.

I’d love to fight with people in the comments. I love doing that. So please, have a crack.

As a wrap I would suggest the following for further reading on the subject (not all of which I agree with):

Black Inc. and Hachette: how the removal of PIR will affect our business, from Books + Publishing

The Productivity Commission Report on Copyright Restrictions on the Parallel Importation of Books

Jason Ensor, Read it and weep: the book trade needs more than parallel import restrictions at The Conversation

A resurrected debate with the same old dead language, Peter Donoughue Pub Date Critical

 

The Reading Season

Like everything else associated with the holidays, I’m sure you’ll consider this article one that comes too soon. But, for the publishing industry, the looming spectre of the Christmas season has well and truly begun.

 

This post was spurred partly by my receipt of an actual gasp physical book catalogue last week, geared at – you guessed it – Christmas shoppers. With a smidge less than a month until the big day, every business even remotely associated with retail is pulling out all the stops.

 

However, I was curious as to what Christmas meant for the publishing industry. As one that produces physical objects that may easily be used as gifts, it would be clear to anyone that this particular national holiday is important to book sales.

 

And yet, for many, the book is not at the top of any Christmas lists. True, the rectangular package under the tree does have it’s own brand of predictability. The avid readers out there will also be familiar with the mingling of excitement and dread as you unwrap a carefully chosen book to be confronted with your fourth copy of Pride and Prejudice. Book buying can become a minefield at Christmas time, so how does the publishing industry address this?

 

Well, first and foremost, by increasing the number of new and exciting titles for readers to salivate over and parents to be confused by. The significant increase in books being released for publication around the first week in October has become so apparent that it now has its own name – Super Thursday. This is the day on which many of the big potential bestsellers are released, with plenty of time to entice shoppers away from shiny plastic and chocolate-coated nuts.

 

The reason for this is that new books are generally given between 2-3 months to prove themselves, sales-wise. Usually it becomes clear after the first two months whether the publisher has a bestseller on their hands or not. By releasing books on Super Thursday, these books have just the right amount of time to get on the Christmas bandwagon and help the word of mouth spread in the seasonal sales rush.

 

But this is done in order to target a certain type of recipient – the ones who (apparently) most commonly receive books for Christmas. An article published in UK newspaper The Telegraph a day before the publication of this year’s Super Thursday books noted a large skew in one area – children’s books, and a complete absence of one particular genre – chick-lit.

 

This says a lot about the expectations publishers have drawn out about who will be buying books this Christmas. Overwhelmingly, the season is targeted at children. So an increase in the release of books aimed at this age bracket makes sense. Christmas-themed books also represent a growing and popular trend. The Elf on the Shelf book, for one, has combined Christmas, books and toys in such an appealing way that many will choose to sit a small plush elf in their children’s room this Christmas, in an effort to both awaken their holiday spirit, and get some well behaved children in the bargain.

 

The other trend is more interesting. The absence of chick-lit novels, and the presence of those focused on crime and war suggests that – if you’ll forgive me for invoking a stereotype to demonstrate how I think the industry is using it – that book publishers consider men (particularly older men) to be the recipients of books more often than women will be this Christmas. This is certainly not to say that the industry is ignoring women over this time, but it does not appear to be their focus.

 

Interestingly, this surge in publication around Christmastime is also a positive step for the future of the print book. Let’s face it; an eBook has to be one of the more underwhelming presents available. Oh cool! A digital file! – said no one ever. And the rush is predominately towards print.

 

This Christmas, you may choose to buy a book for a loved one, or even yourself. Certainly the outpouring of usually non-existent catalogues and a higher percentage of new, physical books would suggest that this might be a good time to stock up. For the publishing industry, just like others involved with consumption, Christmas is an important time, with products produced especially for those swept up in the spirit of the season.

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

Demanding Publishing

The place of the print book in an increasingly technological society has been debated again and again, with both sides having a multitude of arguments to put forward. One of the strongest arguments against continuing traditional print books, especially in the volume that we currently do, is due to its environmental impact.

Undeniably, the publishing industry is not one with a major focus on the environment. Publishing takes up A LOT of paper. It’s unavoidable. Not only do books themselves need it, but so does the editing process itself. As Brendan noted in his blog post Give Me Paper or Give Me Death, a few weeks ago, many editors, including us young ones, often prefer to edit on hard copies. Computers may have streamlined the process, and allowed us to create lots of coloured notes all over the manuscript, but there’s really nothing like boldly crossing something out with your plain old red pen (or blue pencil if you’re a traditionalist).

Yet another area of publishing in which our treatment of the environment is less than perfect is in the destruction of books that don’t sell. Arrangements between publishers and bookstores are often such that unsold books can be stripped of their covers and returned to publishers. As they have already demonstrated that they won’t sell, usually these books are discarded and pulped. Although the practice of stripping covers has largely diminished due to the insides being used for bootleg copies, pulping is still practiced, particularly for paperbacks.

The numbers of pulped books can get extremely high, and it’s not something the industry likes to admit. In an effort to combat the problem, smaller print runs are offered to authors who don’t sell well, and sometimes these authors are even dropped altogether.

Particularly in small publishing, businesses can’t afford the losses that come with being forced to destroy so many books. That’s why, in the past, their print runs have been very small.

However, with the advent of digital publishing, comes a development that has changed the industry, in particular for the small presses, taking the focus off print runs. It’s called print-on-demand publishing.

It does exactly what its name suggests it will. Instead of having a set number of copies required to produce the book, you only need to print what you need, when you need it. It was a system I first experienced when I visited the Lightning Source/ Ingram Spark factory (The Cave Where Dreams Are Made). Lightning Source offers such a print-on-demand service, and one that Odyssey, among other small publishing houses, takes advantage of.

The benefits of this are enormous. Smaller publishers, for whom every penny counts, are not burdened with ordering a set number of copies that may never sell. Ordering is simple, when an order for a book is received, it is put through the print-on-demand service, printed, and dispatched to the recipient. This has been enthusiastically taken up by self-publishers as well. For those just getting started in the market, it’s a great way to get your book out on as many websites as possible, without having to worry about being burdened with 500 copies in your garage if your venture never takes off.

For larger publishers, print-on-demand can be a less viable option. When you’re producing print runs of thousands of copies, traditional printing is still more cost effective. But there is scope for them to incorporate it into their production processes. Particularly with books that have been in print for a while, using print on demand allows access to books that may not otherwise get a second or third print run.

The system allows both readers and authors to tailor the publishing production process to more accurately fit their demands. Not only does it provide a future for reducing the environmental impact created by the publishing industry, it makes the book market more accessible. Print-on-demand is just one advent of digital publishing that has allowed the industry to make significant leaps forward.

The Counter Celebrity Kerfuffle

Jen’s wrong!

That’s right, it’s argument week!

After some unkind words were thrown, escalating our fake feuding to real feuding (it’s on ­­– or is it? How enigmatic of us!) I’ve decided to dedicate my – no, our – Friday to rebutting Jen’s blog on Monday. Leave the celebrities alone, Jen. They’re people too.

While I broadly agree that celebrity books can be gold-plated nothings, to say so is the highest of browlifts. To ask us to agree with that sentiment is dishing out the literary equivalent of a “do you even lift bro?” It’s not the characterisation of the vapidity of these books that has so inspired me to write this, and I’m sure many of you enjoy reading celebrity books, but the notion that their presence is removing opportunities for the little books.

As we know, I love the little books. I’m not stomping on them, but I refuse to blame their struggles on the books that provide the padding of the bottom line. The problem is not that too many celebrity or overtly-commercial books are being published. The problem is that the margins of the book business are too tight, and part of that is caused by public expectations of the price of books being incredibly tapered by certain profiteers of the trade.

The existence and success of these gold-plated nothings is not undermining the book, or the literary book. The simple fact is, from a highest-of-brows perspective, these books do not hold a place in the literary world. They are commercial objects that sit below, that pad the baseline and make the business of publishing objects which hold meaning just lucrative enough.

Amy Schumer’s advance was ridiculously over the top. As was Aziz Ansari’s, as was Hillary Clinton’s. It’s an endemic symptom of a Winner-Takes-All attitude pervading the big book businesses. That’s not to say that these books should not be published, but more that the advances being laid down are growing more and more preposterous.

In the sense that big companies are laying down advances that are far too big, perhaps there is scope that these funds could be dedicated to other, more literary titles. But often, these publishing operations are divided into different imprints with commercial titles published under several sub-companies (imprints) and literary under others. So the literary imprint is only going to have a certain budget, regardless of the celebrity titles. These budgets are dictated by commercial needs and rules, but as always the argument is that without the commercial drive, there wouldn’t be an incentive for money to be invested in publishing. This money then flows to the less commercial literary titles.

Not all publishing is about good books, or brilliant stories. Sometimes it’s just about the dollar, because it’s the dollar that carries us all.

I broadly agree with Jen’s sentiments about the literary value of slapping a celebrity’s name on a ghostwritten work, but I also think there can be value to celebrity books. Examples like Tina Fey’s Bossy Pants, Lena Dunham’s Not That Kind of Girl etc, have something to tell us, and can teach us about the experiences, particularly of women, working in industries known for their influence on popular culture. While not everyone will agree, it’s important to understand the mechanisms of Hollywood because it has a tremendous effect on us. To be oblivious to how this kind of cultural power works is to be wilfully disenfranchised.

I do hold sentimentality with the demand for a greater focus on literary works, but I think it’s a catch-22 when it is the commercial which supports the publication of literary titles. And largely, I don’t think the spate of celebrity books is the cause of the literary world’s problems, but a symptom of the times.

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?

 

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.

Publication Day Jitters

It’s crazy. In just three days, a book I found in the slush pile will be published. I’m nervous as all hell. Probably not as nervous as the author, Belinda, but still bloody nervous.

My main worry is whether I have done a good job with the editing. Have I allowed the author’s voice to cut through? At the end of the day, my thoughts as an editor rest with whether I’ve enabled the author to tell their story in the best way possible. That’s a very nerve-racking concern, particularly for one’s first-time fully editing a manuscript for publication. Did I mention that I’m nervous? Probably. This is a huge moment and will remain important to me for the rest of my life. I will always remember Hero as the first book, and that’s really special. (Thanks Belinda, for writing a story that moved me to do this.)

This kind of privilege – to acquire a book and see it through is such a huge thing to take on at a junior level. And yet, this is common in the US industry. Low level editors in most houses spend their time acquiring books at a fairly steady rate. In the Australian industry, acquiring titles is the field of senior editors (commissioning editors) and publishers. Below that, editors work on the books that their house has acquired, and may occasionally pass things up the chain.

These two distinct models of editorial careers are interesting, but do they change the content of what is published? If low-level editors acquire books as well as the upper-levels, would that not encourage more diversity? I believe so, and I also think that it represents a significantly different caliber of on-the-job training for editors. It would be more about creating a confident, individual professional over a competent, focused operative. While both systems have their merits, perhaps it’s better to have editors working on acquisition from the early stage of their careers. I know I certainly don’t want to stop picking something from the slush and running with it because I believe in it.

Hero very much fits that description. I first knew it was a good book because when I picked it up, I had been going through one of those awful phases where everything I picked up might have been a good book but it wasn’t grabbing me. Hero grabbed me immediately. I was skeptical at first glance, but then I read the first page, and the second, and then I couldn’t stop. They say there are books that you literally cannot put down and I always thought that was a weird or silly statement.

But now I get it.

There are books that, regardless of your capacity for reading at the time, sink their claws into you and pull you through them. They are the books that make reading as natural as breathing.

Hero is just that sort of book.

Back to my nerves. In a recent book about editing, the author stated that confidence was an editor’s “stock in trade”. Whoops. Though the larger part of me is very confident that we’ve got a good read, there is always the self-doubt at my own choices. But I know this is a good book, I’m just a mess of nerves. So perhaps I could be an okay editor and maybe I’m just a rubbish stock broker. But I think I can live with that.

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.