Session: Australian Writer’s Marketplace Industry Masterclass – Part 1: The Journey of the Book
Panelists: Linda Jaivin (Author), Gaby Naher (Agent), and Shona Martyn (Publishing Director of Harper Collins Australia)
The idea of this session was to look at the process of producing and publishing a book from three viewpoints – how the author writes the book, how it gets to the agent and what she does with it, and then what happens from the publisher’s perspective. It was a fascinating session, and one of my favourite of the Festival.
The first thing that struck me when this session began was, in fact, not what was being said. Instead, it was the overall appearance of the panelists. I’m not someone who generally judges on appearance, so please don’t judge me in return. BUT… Let me describe the scene.
I’m in an auditorium looking at three ladies seated behind a long table. There are no name-cards to indicate who is sitting where, and introductions haven’t yet been made. I don’t know any of the three ladies by name or reputation, and although I’m sure I looked at pictures of them online when I booked the session, I certainly don’t remember who is who. But it takes me about 3.5 seconds to make an educated guess.
The panelist on the left is wearing a knee-length, black dress with stockings and sensible shoes. She’s wearing minimal jewelry (only her watch was obvious from a distance), and no ornamentation in her hair. Her make-up is subdued and professional, and her nails look neatly manicured.
The panelist in the centre is wearing a very stylish grey pant-suit with heels. She’s got a cream-coloured silk scarf around her neck, a long, eye-catching necklace, and a sophisticated hairstyle.
The panelist on the right has bright orange hair which is pinned on top of her head in a messy bun, flamboyant make-up, and dangly earrings. Every item of clothing she’s wearing is a different colour, including purple, orange, green, blue, and pink.
Not surprisingly, panelist #3 is our author, #2 is our agent, and #1 is our publisher. I found the fact that I picked this so easily interesting because I’d never really considered whether I needed to have a “look” as an author. If I’m asked to chair a panel one day (fingers crossed!), what am I supposed to wear? Should I have a style worked out in advance? If I don’t look particularly flamboyant, will people assume I’m a business-oriented publisher rather than a creative author?
What do you think? Is it something you’ve considered?
Moving on to the actual talking bit…
Linda Jaivin got the session started, talking about herself, her books, how she got into the business of writing for a living, and so on. And I can honestly say that she was the most vibrant, enthusiastic and fascinating person I’ve ever heard speak. She was so full of life, I was fairly certain that extra bits were spilling on to the floor around her. (I hoped some would magically find its way to me, but that so far doesn’t seem to be the case.)
She told the story of how she read a book when she was a teenager, and had the sudden revelation that “books are more than just stories”. Words are magical things that can take you away from yourself, put you some place new, let you have an adventure and learn from it, and then take you home again. A novel is a gateway to something greater.
Linda hadn’t really considered being a writer initially. She went to work in a library because “she loved books”, and then decided to study Chinese history and Chinese language. Back then, China’s border were still closed and there was absolutely no point in studying about a closed country. So, why did she pick those subjects? “It was just one of those crazy things you do because it’s really interesting,” she said.
She wound up working in Taiwan, writing book reviews for a newspaper through a series of really unlikely events that could only happen in real life, because no-one would believe them if it was fiction. And from there she started to write.
Her advice to new writers included:
- There are a lot of places that teach creative writing. Don’t do it. Don’t study creative writing. You can learn how to write on your own. Go and study something real. Study something you’re interested in. You’ll have more to write about and, if you’re lucky, what you study can also get you a job to pay the bills while you’re writing.
- You have to be serious about every aspect of your career. That includes the boring parts like keeping track of what you’ve spent on writing-related things for tax purposes.
- It’s the spirit of play that keeps us going. Don’t do a job that eats your brain.
Gaby Naher was next up. She was really interesting, and I found myself falling in love with the idea of an agent all over again. She was passionate, articulate, and talked to and about Linda as a business partner. She clearly loved the creative side of writing, but was very practical and realistic when it came to talking about the business side.
“Anyone who works in the arts community is always wondering where their next paycheck is coming from,” she said, and she clearly meant it. She left a position as a successful editor at a publishing house to work as an agent, and took a pay cut in the process. But she loves the freedom, the flexibility, and the chance to spend time with authors.
Like many agents. her message about self-publishing and indy publishing was a simple “don’t believe all the hype about what they seem to say. It’s too early to tell what the future really holds.” But when talking about traditional publishing, she said, “It’s still no picnic.”
The final statement Gaby made was one that has stayed with me. She was asked about how she chooses the clients she’ll take on, seeing as she doesn’t get paid unless their book sells. Gaby talked briefly about needing to feel passionate about a project, and then said, “But it’s always a risk. I gamble for a living. That’s just what I do.”
Lastly, Shona Martyn, publishing director of Harper Collins, had her chance to talk. She talked about how, with limited budgets that publishers have these days, the marketing department often has a bigger say in whether a book will be published than the acquisitions team. If marketing doesn’t think they can sell the book, the publisher won’t offer a contract. Her point was that, from the moment a book is written to the moment it’s published, “It’s a long process of persuasion.”
In saying that, Shona made it clear that the books that really break out and make a lot of money are always the ones that no one expects. So don’t try to write for a market. Write something you really care about.
Shona’s parting words were also quite interesting from a business point of view, and something that I (and probably a lot of other authors) hadn’t really considered. She said, “If we give an opportunity to a book we don’t think will work, it means we’re turning down another book that might.”
Overall, this session was a fascinating insight into three different perspectives on the publishing industry, and a great introduction to the Brisbane Writer’s Festival.