SWF 2013 – Forest for the Trees

Much food for thought today at the State Library!
Image (c) Bentley Smith (iambents) via Flickr
Well the weather was revolting today, but it was toasty warm in the State Library of NSW for the Sydney Writers’ Festival ‘Forest for the Trees’ seminar on Aussie publishing.

Sold out (like last year), the event ran for an impressive 6.5 hours, boasting industry heavyweight speakers including authors Delia Falconer and Emily Maguire and publishers Shona Martyn (HarperCollins), Brett Osmond (Random House), Alison Green (Pantera Press) and Joel Naoum (Momentum).

Unfortunately I missed the last two sessions as I had to leave at lunchtime, but you can see my live tweets from the first four right here.

Common themes were:

  • the importance of writers – especially aspiring ones – having an online presence (but also ensuring it’s kept at a level you’re a. comfortable with and b. can maintain);
  • the demands of the digital publishing medium (yes, it’s opened traditional publishers up to discovering new, and not necessarily agented, talent but the turnaround is so quick – just a few months usually, that manuscripts really need to be more polished than ever to get a look in); and
  • the need for any publishing submission (p book or e book) to be as polished as possible before you send it in. You only get one chance – they will rarely look at a manuscript twice; even one they found promising the first time!

Going into a little more detail, here’s a little recap of the sessions I got to see:

Session 1: My Path Through The Forest (Emily Maguire)

With humour, candour and passion, Emily gave us some insights into her year ahead, and the way she makes her living as a writer (a mix of freelance articles and reviews, teaching and, of course, spending as much time on her fiction writing as she can). She was realistic about the often rocky, but immensely rewarding, road of writing for a career, cautioning the audience that freelancing is getting tougher (rates of pay haven’t risen in 20 years; there’s a sobering thought!) and that while it’s all very well to talk about writing and pretend you’re actually doing it, at the end of the day, it’s about you and your keyboard, and the words coming out of it.

A final, encouraging thought – don’t feel the need to compare your output with others’. There’s no need to hurry a book. BUT there IS a need “not to waste time”. Emily looks at it like this: “Every day I don’t write is a failure”. And besides, if you love it, why wouldn’t you want to do it as much as possible?

Session 2: Staying on the Path (Emily Maguire interviews Delia Falconer)

Delia talked about her own path to publication – an interesting one, as she’d been focused on the academic path and then found herself writing creatively, with her PhD proving an excellent training ground for writing a novel. She noted that publishers expected much more polished work now than when she was first starting out – she has seen “brilliant” students from the creative writing course she teaches at UTS miss out on being published because their work wasn’t as ready as it could have been.
Winning competitions was a good way to get noticed and cut out a few steps to publishing, she said, and she also raved about her editor Judith Lukin-Amundsen (who also edited Emily Maguire’s Fishing for Tigers). A really good editor, like Judith, Falconer said, doesn’t have an agenda but identifies the issues, and leads you to change the book while making you feel as though it’s your idea!

Session 3: Hunting and Gathering – Australian Publishing Now (Giramondo’s Alice Grundy interviews Escape Publishing’s Kate Cuthbert, HarperCollins’ Shona Martyn and Pantera Press’ Alison Green)

A lively panel on how publishers are discovering and marketing new work and interacting with new authors. Digital is, unsurprisingly, the flavour of the month, and opening up new opportunities for unpublished writers. Publishers agreed the ‘Fifty Shades of Grey phenomenon’ had changed the way publishers treated submissions – there are more opportunities for unsolicited and un-agented manuscripts since E.L. James came onto the scene. In fact, Pantera’s entire publication model is built around this type of book. That said, it can be easy for authors to have unrealistic expectations of the success digital books will bring them – FSOG was a one-off not a template for the reception of every similar work thereafter.

And while digital = greater opportunities for new writers, it’s also much more demanding. Publishers agreed that manuscripts intended for the digital first sphere needed to be more polished upon submission than traditional paper books, because the turnaround to publication is so much tighter. When submitting work in general, publishers warned new writers not to be gimmicky, and (it sounds so obvious) to follow their submission guidelines. They’re there for a reason, people!

As for online presence – publishers agreed it was something they looked at and liked in new authors, but the panellists differed in just how much sway it held with them. By all means give it a go, was the message of the day (especially an author website, which needn’t be complex) – but don’t forget you have other networks too that might help get a book ‘out there’, and no use doing it if you’re uncomfortable or don’t know how to use it!

Session 4: To Market, To Market (Fremantle Press’ Claire Miller interviews Random House’s Brett Osmond, Momentum’s Anne Treasure and Booktopia’s Haylee Nash)

Big focus on genre fiction, especially romance, in this session. More on the importance of aspiring authors having an established online presence and following too. (General consensus: it’s critical unless you’re a big name author.) Hype through reader channels like GoodReads and Amazon is becoming more important as the number of journalists reviewing books through traditional media channels dwindle, and author proactivity was generally encouraged (doing signings, arranging interviews with local booksellers, etc) – although of course there’s a line to be trodden between being forward and being pushy! There were differing views on the longevity of paper books vs e books, though it wasn’t a focus. And finally (and perhaps most crucially of all) – never underestimate the importance of a well-placed cat picture for gaining online love!

All in all, a brilliant, thought-provoking day with some excellent speakers. I’ll be at a few more events this week, so stay tuned for thoughts on those!

~ DF

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