By Serina Huang
On Friday, I attended the first of the three-day Intro2Industry sessions, as part of HARDCOPY: a professional development program for Australian writers run by the ACT Writers Centre.
HARDCOPY is awesome. Seriously awesome. I know this firsthand as last year I was privileged to be part of the 2015 nonfiction program. It has inspired me to identify as a writer and given me courage to try new things. Nor am I alone in benefiting from the program. Of our group of 26, one had a book publishing deal before the program even finished, two are signed with Random House, one had a bidding war with seven publishers, and another has had an Australian film icon agree to write a foreword for his book. And then there are the articles published in journals such as The Monthly and prestigious prizes awarded for literary talent.
The inaugural 2014 group is also pretty special. There was fierce competition from throughout Australia to be selected for the 2016 fiction HARDCOPY program, so I must admit to being somewhat daunted about being an outsider among this group. So far I am impressed with their creativity and commitment to storytelling. Can’t wait for their bestsellers to be published.
Intro2Industry provides an opportunity for Hardcopiers to find out more about what it is like to become a published author. Our session started off with a sobering assessment of the industry by Harper Collins publisher Catherine Milne. According to Milne, book sales in Australia plummeted by 20% in 2012 and never really recovered. Many Australian debut books in the top 14 only sold between 2,000 to 5,000 copies. Reading patterns are changing in response to better storytelling on television and more time spent on social media. Simply put, people are not reading books—neither physical nor ebooks—the way they did previously. Fiction is tricky, and literary fiction is tough.
But yet, there is something about well-written fiction that attracts, especially when it contains ‘breath of life’. Milne said what she looks for is something original, something that has its own integrity, something deeply felt and urgent ‘with blood in it’. As a publisher, she needs to have an emotional response to a book, needs to fall in love with it. While publishers do need to consider the pragmatic side about what the market potentially wants, her experience is that fiction is ‘about the gut, the heart and head’, like falling in love.
Literary Agent, Jacinta di Mase, shared how her experience with HARDCOPY reaffirmed her view about how fabulous the Australian publishing industry is, and how professional most companies are. She advises her writers on the long-term relationship with a publisher. ‘Getting published is like getting married,’ she said. ‘Most people concentrate on the wedding, the dress, but really the important part is the marriage together afterwards.’
An agent’s job, according to di Mase, is to help an author develop his/her pitch to something that is as close as possible to something commercially viable while retaining personal preferences. To illustrate this point, she asked everyone to write down up to seven themes that their writing contained on post-it notes, which the Hardcopiers then stuck on one of the walls in grouped themes. The exercise is similar to what publishers use when they are looking to attract media attention for a book.
Di Mase shared stories about several of her authors, and it was clear that she had a strong understanding not just of the written words on the page, but of the back story, the passion behind why the authors were compelled to write. And she was clearly passionate as well about reading and writing. ‘We never sleep,’ said di Mase about her job. ‘Agents never stop thinking about books. We are always reading—on the plane, on the train, everywhere.’
Alex Adsett is a literary agent, lawyer and publishing contract guru. I had heard the exact same presentation last year, yet felt like I gained a whole new appreciation from the topic this year. She somehow manages to make discussion about copyright sexy and interesting. Copyright, which creeps into writing in all sorts of ways. For instance, when would it be okay to borrow and build on a line from a favourite poem or song lyric in your writing or poetry? And what do you need to consider in including recipes? And always be cautious about using images obtained from the internet.
Big question: once an aspiring writer gets his or her first contract, what is best—a big fat advance or a decent royalty? Alex guided us in a debate on this issue. ‘Of course you are not likely to turn down a million-dollar advance,’ she said. But she also encouraged us to look deeper to examine the entirety about what was being offered. Potentially more important than the zeros in the advance, is the marketing commitment from a publisher, how royalties are calculated, the relationship with a publisher and crucially a clear reversion clauses.
The final session was a roundtable with three authors who delivered honest feedback about what they wished they had known before they were published. Robyn Cadwallader, author of The Anchoress, shared how she sat down in a café and cried when she learned of her publishing deal. It was a sense that now someone ‘gets it’. While she has had some lovely reviews, several have been mean-spirited and not especially thoughtful. Her response is to force herself to go back to her desk and keep writing.
Sulari Gentill, author of the Rowland Sinclair Mysteries, talked about her deep love of writing, and about how she was a complete novice when she sent her manuscript off to a publisher and it was accepted. She recounted how she lay in bed laughing nearly all night after she was offered a contract. Although she was a lawyer, she was so overjoyed to get a publishing deal she was in no place to negotiate. ‘If someone had said I had to wear a pink hat for the rest of my life I would have agreed,’ she said.
The White author, Adrian Caesar, provided a frank assessment of his ‘mistakes’ in engaging with his first publisher, and his many rejection slips. He shared how he felt it was difficult sometimes to categorise his work into the specific genre that publishers wanted: one book for example included a young person as a central character but was deemed to include too much war for Young Adult fiction. Writing was a process that was difficult to plot in advance. You needed to have a way of letting yourself go on the page, of giving into your subconscious. You needed to ‘live with the insecurity of feeling you know how to do this one but have no idea of how to do the next one’.
HARDCOPY is a special initiative of the ACT Writers Centre. The Program is assisted by the Australian Government through the Australia Council, its arts funding and advisory body.
See Day Two recap here.
Serina Huang was part of the 2015 Hardcopy program. She is writing a book on Chinese post baby confinement. She also blogs about mindful frugality, personal finance and super cheap recipes at www.msfrugalears.com, and writes food reviews for The Riot ACT.