Thursday, May 12, 2005

Not only free but valuable

Some time in the summer of 1961 -- the precise date eludes me for the moment -- I attended a garden party at Queens' College Cambridge. (And, if you're wondering, the apostrophe does go after the S because the College was founded by two Queens; unlike Queen's College, Oxford, which had to make do with only one.)

One of the other attendees at this party was Sir Harold Bailey, who was one of the most distinguished Fellows in the College's history. An Australian by birth, he was Professor of Sanskrit, and spoke an indecent number of other languages besides. It is said that, when he visited an Academy of Sciences in one of the small Soviet Republics, he addressed them, to their astonishment, in their own language, Ossetic, which even then was almost forgotten. They were so impressed that they presented him with a Cossack uniform, which he wore proudly when he had his portrait painted.

Anyway, during the course of this garden party, Sir Harold and I fell into conversation (as you do), and I remember very clearly one of the things he said to me. The gist of it was as follows: if you have spent your life studying something, you should make quite sure that you publish the fruits of your research; otherwise your time has been wasted.

This was not, of course, a staggeringly original thought. Although I do have to point out that, in those far off days, it was perfectly possible for a scholar to spend twenty or thirty years on a subject without having to worry about publishing anything. Today, of course, any academic who doesn't publish half a dozen papers a year is hardly likely to hang on to their post. And the fact that no one in the entire world troubles to read those half dozen papers is considered of no consequence whatever.

All of which gets us back to a point I made on Tuesday of this week, namely that there are a considerable number of thoughtful and intelligent people who are prepared to use the internet to give us the cost-free benefit of their experience. Another of these is the novelist Ian Irvine, and I was pointed towards his work by a commenter called L'etranger, who turns out to be a blogger in her own right.

Ian Irvine runs a web site which, as you would expect, is devoted mainly to plugging his own novels. It contains, however, a substantial amount of information which is of great value to ambitious writers, and is clearly the result of long and sometimes painful experience.

Sample, for example, the section entitled The Truth about Publishing. I was going to pick out a few juicy quotes, but really the whole thing strikes me as being so down-to-earth and sensible that, if you are even thinking about writing a book, I can only advise you to read the whole piece. I will, however, draw your special attention to Lesson 10A: You're not published until you're in print, and sometimes not even then. It runs as follows:

Deals fall over for all sorts of reasons, so don’t count your chickens until they’re roosting in a thousand bookshops. Here are some of the most common problems.

There was a ‘misunderstanding’ when the publisher made your agent an offer for your book. You don’t get a publishing contract after all, or you get a contract but a worse deal than originally offered.

The publisher goes bankrupt before your book is published. If they’ve paid the advance, you keep it. If they haven’t, you’re back in the queue.

Your editor leaves or is fired and her replacement hates your book and decides not to publish it. You keep the advance though.

The publisher is having a tough time and decides that they would lose money publishing your book, so cans it. You keep the advance and, if you’re lucky, they might pay you a small sum in lieu.

The editor loves your book and offers a terrific hardcover deal and great promotion, but the sales department or the major book buyers don’t agree that it has big sales potential. You get downgraded to paperback, with little or no promotion, and your potential income and sales are massively reduced.

Your book is found to be libellous and the publisher doesn’t want to get sued, so they cancel publication, or if it’s been printed, withdraw the book and pulp it. You’ve violated your contract and have to pay back the advance, and they could even sue you for their losses.

Your non-fiction book is proven to be fraudulent, ditto.

In a more lighthearted vein, Ian offers A Guide to Success. This was originally written for the HarperColins Voyager web site, and although there are humorous touches there is also an enormous amount of good sense.

And it is all, as I say, free. So if that doesn't persuade you to read one of the man's books, nothing will.


Dee Jour said...

Wow thanks for the mention. I have to say that in this last week I've found this site to be the most informative site on books, novels and story writing in general. I was reading - still reading - your work, On the Survival of Rats in the Slush Pile and I was immediately drawn to it because a similar concept came to my mind more than a year ago but I couldn't phrase it and 'fluke' doesn't really give justice to the phenomenon. At my former work, a small educational publishing company that happens to near dominate Australia (with the exception of Pearson), a few editors (and a couple of publishers at work) casually mentioned J.K. Rowling and her difficulties, but I had no idea that she was rejected by twenty literary agents. It's an indication of how little people do know, especially those here in Australia who supposedly work in the industry. I didn't work in the editing/publishing department but we would all cross paths, needless to say after four years I threw in the towel because it can be dismal here publishing wise. Australian literary agents are often quoted in newspapers 'mourning' the decline of Australian fiction, but they can be incredible snobs and they won't take any steps to aid Australian writers, they're on the lookout for sensationalism like the recent sale of our former opposition leader's (who lost in our last federal election mind you) - who has never served as Prime Minister, he was Labor leader for one year, 'diaries' for something in the vicinty of five figures to the University of Melbourne. If anyone heard Mark Latham (this 'one year' opposition leader) speak they would cringe. He isn't Gough Whitlam,who has a story to tell about his dismissal by the then Governor General. Other agents here list, on their sites, that they aren't accepting any submissions. Other's still, don't reply when asked what type of work they read (few have internet sites). I suspect that many here are spitting chips over the success of The Da Vinci Code. Random House Australia is planning a huge 'do' the minute it hits the million copy sale mark here.

I'm glad you liked Ian Irvine's site. It was a random find for me. I was looking up other agents after that damned rejection and his site came up on google. I think anyone who writes or tries to get somewhere with writing needs a few reality checks from time to time. There are many sensational sign ups, like Helen Fielding and the Bridget Jones series, that I find to be 'crappy' in sections especially now that many recent cases of drug trafficking have been reported from Indonesia (It's like Australian traffickers are the flavour of the month). The first BJD was a fun read, I like fun, everyone likes to be entertained but the second novel, with the drug imprisonment segment was so far fetched it made me wonder how on Earth it got into print. The reality is no one caught with narcotics is released within a short space of time in such countries, just because one's ex is a barrister. If Kathy Lette was caught with narcotics in Indonesia, her hubby wouldn't be able to get her released.
A 1.5 gram narcotic can mean ten years imprisonment in countries such as Indonesia and Bridget had, what could be considered, a crapload. There's a thin line between entertainment and what is feasible, within reasonable limits and I think Fielding overdid it there. It's all okay to be a bit 'out there' if one is Stephen King, it's horror, but a story set in the contemporary world, that isn't fantasy, horror, sci-fi, ought to have some realistic standard.

jon said...

free horoscope astrology info is so cheesy but we were looking at it anyway...why i dont know. I guess it is fun to play around online. Anyway, I saw your free horoscope astrology posts and though it was cool...Alright, well...have a great night, I am back to free horoscope astrology surfing LOL : )


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Mack said...

I can't rightly remember the circumstances, but I stumbled upon Ian Irvine's site about a year and a half ago. As an Australian writer, it's the best resource bar none on the net.

I actually emailed him for some advice when I was negotiating my latest book deal, and he replied promptly with typically sensible advice.

Now I'm on his mailing list, and periodically receive information on his latest fantasy releases. If his books are written with the same deft touch as his website, they might even be worth a look.

Love your blog too. All power to you.