There's more to the story than just writing the story - a publisher reveals what it takes
Stage and Screen speaks with Penguin Random House to give you tips from the inside.
They say everyone has a book in them. Other unkind souls say that’s where it should stay. But if you are an as-yet-undiscovered J.K. Rowling, Stieg Larsson or even E.L. James, there are things you need to know. And whether you are writing about boy wizards, tattooed detectives or fifty shades of something freaky, there is a path to follow.
Cate Blake, Commissioning Editor at Penguin Random House, loves her work.
“I get a real thrill when a book is successful. It’s all down to the author’s hard work of course, but it’s nice to know we had a small hand in it,” she says.
You don’t necessarily have to create a classic opening a la ‘It was the best of times, it was the worst of times…” from Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities or unveil a universal truth acknowledged in the overture from Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. Cate confides you have around fifty pages to grab her attention.
“Occasionally a voice is so strong you get taken in from the first line and you know you’re reading something extraordinary. But sometimes it takes longer to get hooked by the story or the characters and I normally give a book a reasonable chance before deciding it’s not for me. But having said that, another editor may like something I don’t,” she says.
So how do you give your completed manuscript the best chance? Cate has advice on what to do next.
“State-based writers’ centres can provide guidance on freelance editors, literary agents, publishers, contracts and writing competitions – all the professional information writers need to make their work successful. There is a lot of solid advice out there. Fiona McIntosh is a successful author from our stable and she has written an excellent book on commercial fiction writing, How to Write Your Blockbuster. Writing classes can also be useful as they provide immediate ‘crowd-sourced’ feedback.”
Publishing is as much of a gamble as writing. We like to think the publishers who passed on Harry Potter are now sad alcoholics – and they may well be - but perhaps they weren’t wild about Harry because he wasn’t right for them at the time.
“To make a book successful as a publisher, you have to love it. Often we will be looking for a manuscript we can work with personally. If you get a rejection, it may just be because that particular publisher didn’t like it. If you believe in your work, back yourself and keep pitching,” says Cate.
Here are seven tips from Cate to help turn your work into print:
Make sure you’re reading as widely as possible, particularly in the area you’d like to be published. Read Australian books to get a sense of what publishers like and what is successful.
The best writers spend years perfecting their craft, determined to get as much writing experience as possible under their belt before they start pitching to publishers.
Once you’ve finished your manuscript, let it sit for a while and then ruthlessly go through it, making it as clean and perfect as possible. It’s not ready for publishers to read until you’ve refined it as much as you can on your own.
Look into publishers you’d like to work with, find out who is publishing authors similar to you and work out where you fit in the market. Think about the other avenues to publication as well. Would you like to work with a literary agent? Or try for a manuscript prize? Your state’s writers’ centre can advise on these issues.
Consider your pitch carefully, as you would a job application. Your cover letter should be enticing and make publishers want to read your work immediately. Think about the marketing angles and correlative titles as much as you did the plot and the characters.
Work out the best way to submit your manuscript. If you’re submitting directly, make sure you read the publishers’ guidelines so your pitch will appear professional.
Publishers are always swamped with submissions and most editors only get time to read manuscripts outside of their regular work hours. Understand it may take them a while to get back to you.
By Mal Chenu