Somewhere, Over the Rainbow

This was originally written for the British Fantasy Society Journal, and is re-posted here with their kind permission. If you’re interested in joining the BFS, or learning more about the society, you can get in touch with them through their website.

At every literary convention in the world there is a panel devoted to one variation or another of the eternal question ‘How to Get Published’. An assortment of editors, agents and authors (often new authors who can speak from fresh experience) show up and answer what are – if we’re honest – the usual questions. ‘Do I need an agent?’ (No, but it helps and we do recommend it), ‘Can I submit an unfinished manuscript?’ (Not if you want someone to read it), ‘I have a great idea. Will you read it and tell me if I should write it?’ (No), ‘What kinds of manuscript are you looking for at the moment?’ (Really good ones…) and so the panel goes on.

The same conventions generally have panels which cover the writing spectrum, from initial pen-to-paper moment through most of the business of being an author: the craft of writing; honing your manuscript; self-publicity and marketing, and even how-to panels about self-publishing. All of these (including that essential ‘How to Get Published’ panel) are important and useful to their attendees. But I think there’s a gap in the spectrum, and the omission has always surprised me. There’s nothing that addresses that tricky ‘You’ve Got A Publisher, What Should You Expect Now?’ moment.

Perhaps I find it odd because this is the point where my job really begins… and yet it often seems to be viewed as the end – the Happily Ever After. That makes sense, when the majority of a panel audience is made up of unpublished writers. But I’m not sure it’s as helpful as seeing the publishing deal for what it is: a mid-point in the journey to being a published author. As with the mid-point in any story, it’s never quite what you expected. Nor is it necessarily easy.

So maybe I can offer a few words of advice that fall into this panel gap.

The very first thing is: if you’ve received an offer, enjoy the moment. Take the time to be delighted by it. Celebrate. Celebrate with everyone. We can be dreadful at celebrating our achievements because as soon as we achieve one goal we replace it with another. Don’t do that. Celebrate.

And now have realistic expectations about what lies ahead. You are not, and you will not become, the next J.K. Rowling or Stephanie Meyer. Drive and ambition for your work are good things, but if you go into publishing expecting to be an overnight Number One bestseller, to sell millions of copies, to have film deals falling at your feet then you need to think again. This is a dream. Worse, it’s poison. All it’s going to do is make you unhappy with everything you do achieve. So put it away, because you have a greater chance of being hit by lightning, or of winning the lottery twice in a row, than you do of writing the next Harry Potter scale phenomenon.

While I’m crushing dreams, accept that while a publishing deal is going to change your life, you’re unlikely to be resigning from your job and devoting yourself to full-time writing any time soon. Not because you won’t be successful, but because a writerly income is a variable one. Advances aren’t necessarily huge, royalties don’t come at once and, as the finance industry is fond of saying, royalty payments may go down as well as up. The penniless writer’s existence is not a cliché many people want to experience. So for you, as for most published writers, your writing is most likely to be a second career which occupies evenings, weekends and holidays and be something you do for the love of it, not for the money. If you can accept that, and seize your opportunities with both hands when they come along, then rather than being frustrated you’re not achieving an impossible dream I think you’ll be pleasantly surprised by the fruit of your labours.

So you have an offer. You have realistic expectations for your writing career. You’ve celebrated and it’s very exciting and scary all at once. This is the point where most publishers suggest (if you’ve not signed with one already) that you get an agent. They may well even recommend a few agents you could contact to get the ball rolling… but why? Isn’t the hard part, of getting an offer, done?

Well… you’d think so, but yes and no. An offer is made up of two parts: the first part is about how amazing your work is; the second part is about how much someone is prepared to pay for it, and on what terms. The business bit. And most editors prefer to discuss that with an agent rather than with you. The most straightforward reason for this is that an agent understands the business and you do not. An agent will have a good idea whether it’s a fair offer or not, and they know what kinds of changes to contractual terms are possible, and what aren’t. They’re a business insider who can protect and advise you, while ensuring you get a good deal. This is a valuable thing.

The second reason is that making an offer is personal. If you’re receiving an offer for your literary baby, the chances are you’re not in a business state of mind. You’re personally invested; in a welter of hope and anticipation and anxiety and frustration and the thing you will want to do, more than anything else, is say ‘yes’. You’re about to achieve the dream you’ve been working and fighting for, sometimes for years, and most publishers recognise that the thing you need most at this moment is someone to say ‘wait a minute’. A publishing deal is for term of copyright, not just for Christmas. That’s a very, very long time to feel that you should have read the contract more carefully.

But if this is the second consideration, why do we care? Perhaps for a reason you wouldn’t expect: because the editor feels exactly the same way. From our perspective the deal is the moment where our relationship with you begins. If we’re offering for a novel then that book has made us walk on air. We are über-fans, we see potential, there is something in there that we love enough to invest ourselves in it – more, it’s something we’re prepared to nail our professional reputations to in the belief that you have the X Factor… and, at the stage where an offer can be made, we’ve literally gone into the Dragon’s Den to fight to make it. It’s personal for us that we get to publish you. It’s exciting, and it’s terrifying and it’s brilliant. We really want to meet you to talk about how amazing you are. We do not, so much, want to have a protracted email negotiation with you over how large an offer we can make for your work.

It gets the relationship off on the wrong foot – one of business and costs rather than mutual enthusiasm and joy. It sets an initial tone in which we’re on opposite sides of the debate, which is unhelpful when we’re about to form a team. And in a difficult negotiation it lays seeds of disappointment, a sense of being taken for granted or undervalued on one side, or one of being forced to invest more than really makes business sense on the other. When you are going to be working closely with someone, potentially for years, that’s not a good foundation for the relationship at all. In contrast, with an agent it’s their job. An agent and editor can have a bitter negotiation and still shake hands and part as friends at the end, because it was nothing personal. Between an editor and an author it’s much harder to do that. It’s deeply personal, and if it wasn’t then neither of you would there.

Finally, if we’re honest, we don’t want to negotiate at all. For many editors, the negotiation process is agony. Just like the author, we’re in a torment of anticipation, hope and frustration and we desperately want the other party to say ‘yes’ so we can start doing the part we love – the working-with-you and publishing bit. We’re like cats on hot tin roofs, hopping and swearing and checking our email every minute. We’ve already stalked you online, done some research, worried you might be dreadful, been relieved that you seem human… now we want the deal to be done, so we can meet the person who created this thing that we love and get on to the business of publishing.

So we recommend agents. It might prolong the initial agony of the offer and the deal, but when it comes to starting a relationship between author and editor properly, it’s an invaluable thing. Perhaps not for the reasons you expected.

Of course, there’s a third reason we like having an agent involved… it lets us keep our powder dry for everything that is to come…

And what is that? Well there’s a lot to expect, because there are suddenly many things that you are expected to do, without any training, when you become an author. The first is rewriting the prized manuscript you have laboured over for years, and the very editor who just told you how wonderful it is will suddenly have reams of notes about things you have to change. You can also expect your editor to be on hand to remind you about deadlines, to make you attend conventions, to have a website, a Facebook page, a Twitter profile . . .  I could talk at (tedious!) length about this and more – but now we are back into the realm of things that convention panels often discuss. Handling the non-writing authorial work. And if you’re at this stage you’ll have a guide on your great publishing adventure: for praise, promises and problems alike. When you’re exhausted and sick of sight and the thought of your own work, and you realise that now you’re an author you can’t walk away from it any more, you can expect your blasted editor to make you go and revise it one last time.

You can expect publishing to move slowly. There are days when it feels as though nothing is happening – followed by days when deadlines are pressing, the writing is hard, there are cover images to comment on, there are a thousand things to do and no time for any of them. Expect to find yourself working far, far harder as an author than the money justifies.

Being published is hard.

So what should you expect to find, somewhere over the rainbow? Expect to have your work published by people who are as engaged with it as you are. Expect to be doing it in addition to your day job. Expect to be sick to death of it but with more to do… in the midst of long periods of silence. Trust that your publisher works as hard as you do, on your behalf, and accept that work will be largely invisible. Expect your editor to help when you say it’s all too much. Expect to Google yourself, in hope and fear, every twenty seconds… and then ban yourself from Google. Find that you are expected to be on forums, in chat rooms and on Twitter, where you must be professional, polite, enthusiastic about your work, and never to rise to your own defence whatever is said to you (expect your editor to tell you this).

And finally: expect it to be amazing. Expect it to be a rollercoaster. It’s both, because you care about it. But take a good hard look at the reality of the publishing dream first. If you do, then there’s a chance you really can achieve it.