Saturday, 11 September 2010

Worldcon wrap on pro panels

Looking over my notes from panels at Aussiecon 4 last weekend, I can see that my interest fell largely into two categories: 1) topics relating to publishing and being a pro author, 2) topics relating to themes, trends and execution of fantasy/SF fiction. I attended a few panels that didn't fall into these two categories, but they were few by comparison. Certainly I took the most notes in category #1! Here are some thoughts on these.

'Making a living: professional writing for SF authors'
There was some talk about how to get into freelance writing on non-fiction subjects (none of which was really news to me, given my current profession), and the point was made that kids' stories commissioned by the education department tend to pay very well -- if you're lucky enough to be a children's writer.

The discussion then meandered into e-publishing -- such a hot topic at the moment. I think the audience member who brought it up was wondering whether there was merit in self-publishing on-line -- pay per download type of thing. The panellists seemed to think it was a bad idea for a few reasons, including:
> you lose negotiation leverage, should a publisher actually want to publish your novel. The incentive goes away if it's already out there.
> writers should be writing, not worrying about all the other stuff (editing, cover art, distribution etc). That's what publishers do.

Someone also made the interesting point that writing doesn't get faster courtesy of new digital and automation technologies. Writing, like other service industries, still requires straight human hours, whereas tasks like publishing might get quicker because of new tools. This is one reason why many services won't actually get cheaper...

Publishing industry panels
I attended four panels directly related to the publishing industry: 'Pitching the novel', 'Editing the novel', The secret life of literary agents', and 'How we edit'. Many of the panellists were common across these panels, thus many common pearls of wisdom were imparted, many of which I had heard a thousand times before: be professional, courteous, patient; do your research; write the best novel you possibly can.

It was also good to hear some long-known maxims reinforced -- especially 'before you pitch it, finish it', and 'don't query until it's the best it can possibly be'. (When they said this various members of my writing group rolled their eyes at me.) It was also good to hear an emphasis from several industry professionals on the importance of good writing -- 'the worst plot in the world can be saved by great writing' said one, thus warming the cockles of my heart.

The two editing panels were interesting, and covered similar ground. It seems that once your book is bought by a publisher, the editor is your new best friend (as opposed to feared gate keeper). They exist to make your vision the best it can possibly be. One of the panellists said he had never yet come up with a solution to a problem that was better than the author's. He said he isn't there to create, he's there to shift thinking into a different direction. (Take the author gently by the shoulders, rotate, let loose...)

They talked a little about adjusting font size, leading and margins to manipulate the final number of pages -- either more or less, depending. And how editors often don't read through a manuscript more than twice, owing to commercial pressures and throughput demand. On the topic of the slush pile, they were frankly depressing. The odds there are NOT good. Put simply, your ms may very well be screened by the work experience student... oh, horror. The reality is that there may very well be publishable material in the slush pile, but editors will always prioritise those manuscripts they have already bought...

The agent panel was largely concerned with how to get one -- although everybody knows that most in Australia aren't taking any new clients. But hypothetically one approaches them similarly to an editor. We're told that agents want to love your novel, but getting them to take notice can still be impossible. A few interesting points:
> Most agents are looking for something they connect with personally, others are looking for books that will merely sell.
> Agents will google you, so it's best to have an online 'footprint' (see below).
> Agents are essentially 'free', since they'll negotiate a better deal than you could yourself and therefore pay for themselves.
> Some agents track short story markets, but not having short story publications isn't a hindrance (although it may help).
> Agents are completely fine if you approach multiple agents (although I think they prefer if you tell them up front); they also encourage you to approach editors simultaneously.

'The writer and the audience: online interaction and public personae'
This was an unexpectedly interesting panel -- particularly in light of the above point that agents will google you if they're interested. The upshot is that if you're a novice/unpublished author it's a huge benefit to have a professional blog/web site etc that proves you're serious and demonstrates an understanding of the industry.

If you're a public figure/published author it's more or less essential in order to nurture your relationship with your audience. However, it's important to be nice at all times and not too opinionated. The question of whether to mix professional and personal lives was discussed too -- particularly with respect to social media like facebook.

At the end of this panel I was left thinking I should generate a public blog/web site that only includes upbeat posts about my writing, and absolutely no moping about how slow or disheartened I may be at times... After all, we want prospective agents etc to read about how of course we'll churn out at least one a book a year, don't we! I was also left a bit daunted by the enormous number of web sites, blogs and podcasts that I feel I should be reading/downloading. How does one find time for all that as well as write?

That's a wrap on my summary of panels about publishing and the business of being a pro writer. Next I'll cover off panels about writing itself.


  1. Wow. I should have been sitting next to you and copying your notes. I went to "Online Interaction and Public Personae" too, and it seems the only message I got out of it was "Don't Be A Dick".

  2. Great summary Ellen. I am impressed you've got the time to share this much detail ... but I am glad you're happy to share the detail.