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False Summits–and How to Get to the Top Anyway

harrybinghamToday’s guest is Harry Bingham [1], the (British) author of the Fiona Griffiths crime series, which has been critically acclaimed on both sides of the Atlantic. He also runs a couple of outfits, The Writers’ Workshop & Agent Hunter, that offer a variety of help and advice to new writers. Harry lives in Oxfordshire, England. He’s married and he and his wife are, this summer, expecting their second set of twins. They’re not terrified at all.

I’ve had over a dozen books published by some of the world’s biggest publishers. Some of those experiences have been wonderful, while others have been . . . not so great. I want to help other writers have the best possible experience of publication.

Connect with Harry on his blog [2] and on Twitter [3].

False Summits–and How to Get to the Top Anyway

If you’ve ever hiked any distance in the mountains, you’ll know how elusive that final summit can feel. The loom of the mountain always shields your view, so your near horizon is filled with a crest which, as you approach, melts away into a new horizon, a new crest, another draining slog upwards. Never mind the actual ascent: that succession of false summits is wearying in itself. An inducement to despair.

If you know anything of what I’m talking about, you’ll also have a good sense of the life of an author. You want to write a novel? OK. That’s a tough gig, but you do what you have to do. You write away until you have a hundred thousand words of half-decent prose. Only then – whoops! – another summit looms. Gotta edit and correct and rewrite, till that half-decent prose becomes almost flawless.

[pullquote]Forewarned is forearmed. It’s important to realise that your job isn’t only about writing, and your job doesn’t finish once you get that book deal.[/pullquote]

And then you have to get a literary agent. And then you have to get a publisher. And perhaps, just possibly, you win an advance large enough to mean you don’t also have to haul garbage, or wait tables, or (horrors!) do anything else which is, like, an actual job.

And that has to be it, right? Manuscript, check. Agent, check. Advance, check. Plus, in this fantasy of ours, a big publisher ready to blast you into the stratosphere. No more false summits, surely. This is, this has to be, the very top.

Grumbles in Paradise

Well, yes. In theory. Only it’s no secret that my own experiences with publishers have been somewhat mixed [4], and you don’t have to hang around with authors for long to realise that plenty of them feel likewise. Indeed, when Jane Friedman and I surveyed more than 800 authors to find out what they thought of the firms that published them, we got a true measure of what authors actually think.

strange-death-cover-350px [5]You can read more about the survey results here [6] and consider Jane’s musings here [7]. But to reduce a complex picture down to a few simplicities, we found that while 70-80% of traditionally published authors were generally very happy with the editorial process and all that goes with it, a large proportion – half or more – had serious reservations about the communications and marketing side of things. If I had to summarise the entire survey in a single stat, it would be this: We asked our authors, “For your next book, if a different, reputable publisher were to offer you the same advance as your current one, would you move to the new house or stay where you are?” The responses broke down into roughly equal thirds: Move, Stay, Don’t Know.

Writers need to be publishers too

And that really brings me to the nub of this post. It would be easy for would-be authors to think that the hardest part of their job is done by the time they’ve hooked that literary agent, that publisher, that juicy advance. But our data says otherwise. Our data suggests that many authors are discontented even once they’ve reached, or think they’ve reached, that elusive summit. Too often, books fail for avoidable reasons. A poor cover. A clumsy marketing campaign. Opportunities missed.

But forewarned is forearmed. It’s important to realise that your job isn’t only about writing, and your job doesn’t finish once you get that book deal.

Take ownership

Above all, you need to take ownership, as far as you can, of that publication process. You won’t be in the position of a business leader who can simply say yes or no to alternative proposals. Indeed, you often won’t even be offered alternatives. More than likely, you’ll be told what’s been chosen for you and invited to enthuse.

And though you’ll be tempted to do just that – you’re a polite person and want to make nice – you need to refuse the bait. This is your book and your career. Think about everything as though you were self-publishing the book. If I were self-publishing, would I accept this cover design? Do I genuinely believe that this cover copy is the very best we can come up with? Could this marketing campaign be boosted by things that don’t necessarily involve any significant outlays of cash?

If, in private, you have reservations as you think about those things, it’s far better that you share them – clearly, early, and politely – than allow them to go on niggling at you. In some cases, you’ll find that the industry experts simply know more than you do. (“You think this book cover looks a bit bland, a bit generic? Yes, exactly, but we’ve designed it for the supermarkets who buy that kind of thing in huge volume.”) In other cases, your concerns won’t be allayed and you’ll have to negotiate through to a solution.

Take time

Because all authors are newbies compared with publishers, you’ll often need time to figure out your own thoughts and reactions. Do be sure to take that time. Think through what you really feel (about a cover design, a draft blurb, some marketing ideas.) If you’re presented with these things at a lunch or a meeting, you need to be prepared to say, “This looks great. I’m really pleased at how much work and thought has gone into all this. But give me a day or two to mull this over and I’ll be able to give my considered thoughts then.”

That is not what anyone will want to hear – but it’s your absolute right to take that time and any final decision will be better for having been properly thought through. Truth is, the publisher too will get better outcomes that way. I once roundly rejected three (terrible) cover designs pushed at me, one by one, by the same fine publisher and we ended up with one that – we all finally agreed – was way the best of the lot. In that instance, it was my willingness to be stubborn which gave that book its best chance of success.

Ask questions

You also need to ask questions, including the ones that people don’t want you to ask. Particularly around matters of sales and marketing, publishers have a tendency to assume that they know best (which is sometimes true) and that consequently authors have little value to add (which is emphatically not true at all.) You will get a better outcome by insisting – politely – that the whole marketing campaign is presented to you, with the relevant personnel right there in the meeting with you. What’s more, that presentation needs to happen at least four months in advance of publication, otherwise in some crucial respects it may be too late to change course.

Adding value

Areas where you can add value are legion. Do you have contacts which may be useful in terms of endorsements or media opportunities? What is your digital footprint like? Is your website communicating the right kind of message to potential visitors? Do you have a mailing list set up which makes it easy for people to sign up to alerts that tell them when your next book is coming out? You don’t need to be some superstar author with a million awesome connections to add value. Indeed, simply ensuring that you do the basics properly represents a win.

To take just one very small example: it’s tremendously rare for publishers to include a blurb, either in print or e-book, asking readers to sign up to the author’s mailing list. But why is that? Email converts into dollars much better than Twitter or blog posts. It gives you, the author, a direct relationship with the most loyal segment of your readership: your brand ambassadors, if you like. And if your publisher isn’t encouraging that kind of activity, you will certainly add value by making sure it happens. If you need technical help, then a publisher should be able to help you over the (low and easily negotiated) hurdles in your path.

Use your agent

And finally, yes, let’s admit that if you’re assertive, there will sometimes be real points of friction and argument. Which is OK. It’s from those sorts of debate that the optimal solution is most likely to emerge. But you do need to keep your relationship with your editor as clean as possible. If push really comes to shove, feel free to use your literary agent to handle the dirty work. He or she will have an excellent sense of how to push a point without causing offence and will be able to navigate to the best available solution.

A parting hope

I dearly hope that the data from our survey will cause publishers to pay more attention to their (previously neglected) author care strategies. I hope that publishers grow better at including authors in their deliberations, empowering them and resourcing them. But that’s a hope for the future not, very often, a reality in the present. In the meantime, you simply need to understand that – one more summit! – you yourself will need to be active and assertive in shaping the publishing process. You won’t just feel better about the final result – a better book cover, a strong digital campaign – your book will sell more copies and your career will be that little bit more likely to thrive. Best of luck!

Are there ways in which you’ve felt self-empowered (or discontented) once you’ve reached that “elusive summit”? We’d love to hear your experiences. What opportunities have you taken advantage of (or missed) along the way?