Friday, 4 February 2011

Authors: e-network or die? (part 3 of 3)

Part 3: Where do I go from here? (or, who says I can write anyway?)

'Nuff said (image: Charles M. Schulz)
So, the futurologists (otherwise known as sellers of online services) want me to own some serious cyber real estate, but agents (otherwise known as the gatekeepers to glory and riches) assure me that the writing is everything. What should an aspiring novelist (otherwise known as a manic depressive) do? I'm still not convinced much has changed from the traditional route for a new author; it really depends on that writer's personality.

Those garrulous, social types who, in the past, wrote lots of letters, spent all day on the telephone, and all night at the pub can do so using the new technologies. In fact, they can be BFF with thousands of people they'll never meet. Stephen Fry is a prime example: he would do what he does socially even if he wasn’t famous; he just wouldn’t have two million followers on Twitter.

If an unpublished, non-celebrity author can generate that kind of following, then great; I hope someone tells me when it happens. Claims of similar success in the music industry involving MySpace, such as The Arctic Monkeys, proved to be false.

If I'm honest, I really enjoy writing the occasional blog – it's a bit like coughing up phlegm on the brain. But even if I had the inclination, I just don't have the time to spend cultivating a Facebook or Twitter following worthy of mention. Actually, even if I had the time, I wouldn't know where to start – I'm simply not a naturally social animal. Does that really mean I’m doomed to be left off the bookshelf?

My time is limited because I have to work for a living – long hours, and I’m trying to come to the creative writing party in middle age. I'm not in the industry already, so I can only write in my spare time; and remember, the writing is everything, so that’s my main objective. The second authorial priority is reading. Why would you want to write if you don't read? And if I am going to enter cyberspace, it's likely to be for research.

I have nothing against people who like to build up a friends list the size of Wales, in the same way that I ignore fat, middle-aged men who buy sports cars. But I rail against those who wish to force me to do things their way for no good reason. I write because I find immense pleasure in doing so, but I don’t tell everyone that you have to write to find pleasure. I wouldn't expect someone who enjoys bungee jumping to tell me it’s the only way to have fun; I'd tell him to go and jump off a cliff (bad example).

My advice to new authors? Write. Write what you want, how you want, when you want, for whatever motivation you have. Write it to the best of your ability because that’s what an agent wants to see. If your instinct is to network, then do it. If you're an old curmudgeon like me, don't (people soon catch on and unfriend you).

If the futurologists are right, then we’ll only be able to buy books (and e-books) written by authors who are internet sensations. But I’ve yet to see anyone equate ‘socially popular on the internet’ with’ talented at writing a pageturner’. I really hope they’re dead wrong.

Let me know what you think.

I'd like to thank those agents who generously offered their time and thoughts to help me make sense of this issue. Rest assured, I'll be knocking on your doors in twelve months time with my manuscript. We'll see how bloody generous you are then.

Thursday, 3 February 2011

Authors: e-network or die? (part 2 of 3)

Part 2: What do agents think? (or, bear in mind that JK Rowling was turned away by several agents and publishers)

Publisher to agent: "This doesn't look like the menu to me" (image:
For new author, getting published is a daunting proposition. The very nature of the typical writer puts them at an immediate promotional disadvantage – self-doubt is a crippling trait. Then there are the horror stories of authors wallpapering their writing sheds with thousands of rejection slips. Add to that the rumours of slush-piles so large and old that they have their own listed building status.

Simplified, the traditional route for a novel is for an agent (or a sub-contract reader) to receive the manuscript, judge its potential for success in the market, and, if good enough, talk to a publisher who might agree with the proposition. So, where does the futurologists’ publishing new world order fit in with an agent’s lot?

Eve White, head of her own literary agency, said that an online presence would not be the first thing she looks for. She made it quite clear that ‘with a novel, the writing always comes first.’ However, Eve did go on to say that if an author had an online presence, she would mention the fact to a publisher as they ‘are very keen on authors who can promote themselves through social networking.’

Conville and Walsh agent, Alex Christofi, who runs the company’s website and Twitter page, said,’It depends on the kind of book. Non-fiction depends more on profile than fiction.’ Alex gave the example of 59 Seconds author, Richard Wiseman, who has a huge online following and is able to take advantage of it. Alex pointed out a potential downside to having an online existence: ‘If an author has drawn the wrong kind of attention to themselves by spamming, self-publishing or vanity publishing, that’s going to work against us when we try and sell their book.’

When asked if agents consider the internet profile of a prospective author, Sam Copeland, an agent at Rogers, Coleridge and White, was unambiguous: ‘No, manuscript only. Anything else is dressing.’ He felt that having a healthy following wouldn’t hurt, given that it contained the right kind of content. When pushed about whether an author with a large Facebook following might be easier to sell to a publisher than one without, Sam would only commit to ‘possibly’.

Veronique Baxter, of David Higham Associates, said that she would look for an internet background if it existed, but added, 'The writing comes first. If I like a manuscript, a lack of online presence doesn't bother me.' However, Veronique felt that publishers like writers who are clued up on social media matters, 'A good writer, with a good idea and a large social media following, isn't going to find it hard to get a publisher.'

None are fully aligned with the crystal ball gazers’ views, so what does this all mean?

In the third and final part, I'll discuss where I go from here.

Wednesday, 2 February 2011

Authors: e-network or die? (part 1 of 3)

This is the futurologists' mantra that's being foisted upon businesses and individuals in many industries. The publishing industry is one of those witnessing tectonic technology shifts in business models; first, with the digitisation of the presses, and more recently, with the exponential surge in e-book sales. Now it's the authors themselves who are being targeted for change.

In this three-part blog I'll be discussing whether a prospective author needs a large online following – website, Facebook, blog, Twitter - before approaching a literary agent.

Part 1: Crystal ball gazing (or, if you can tell the future, how come you haven't won the lottery?)

If you pay me a subscription fee, your book has more chance of selling (image:

A tsunami of advice for authors is rolling across cyberspace, typified by FUTUReBOOK’s recent blog, ‘If you won’t have a blog, don’t bother sending us your manuscript.’ Here, Steve Emecz, of MX Publishing, suggests that authors should become a brand, using social media to market themselves. He equates an authors desire to sell books with their willingness to self-promote because ‘good blogs sell more books’.

BookBrunch creator Liz Thompson, using the London Book Fair Spotlight blog, states that ‘social media is not an option for authors but a necessity’, and that ‘having a content-rich website is now de rigueur for established writers and newbies alike.’ She goes on to mention Philippa Gregory, bestselling author of The Other Boleyn Girl, who has a 17,000 army of Facebook followers, and who tweeted an abridged version of The White Queen in the voice of one of the characters.

In her Publishing Perspectives blog, Hannah Johnson writes about online promotion strategies presented at the eBook Summit. She reports that publisher Farrar, Strauss and Giroux has launched a literary blog with the goal of helping young authors advertise their wares. An industry panel spoke about using ‘online content as a way for authors to get discovered and build fan groups.’

Another approach for authors using technological means to advance their sellability would make agents’ lunches with publishers a rather noisy affair. Richard Curtis of e-reads suggests that instead of the traditional discussion about the author’s manuscript, and how it would fit into a publisher’s portfolio, an agent would bring along their iPad to show off the prospective authors dexterity with social media techniques, topped off with a self-made video pitch from the author.

All these opinions seem to be generated from self-proclaimed futurologists or web-based organisations trying to muscle in on traditional publishing turf. Although publishers are running flat-out to catch up with the e-book explosion, I have yet to read from anyone from the ‘old ways’ who says that they need authors to be popular before being published.

In the second part I'll let you know how literary agents respond to this.