On May 21st, the New South Wales Writers’ Centre presented an epic, full day seminar as part of the Sydney Writers’ Festival. The six-part seminar was titled, Forest for the Trees, and gave writers the opportunity to hear from authors, publishers, and marketing experts, alike. The event’s key focus was the current state of Australia’s Writing and Publishing Industry. To kick off, the day began with an address from debut novelist, Bruce McCabe.
Even before taking to the podium, McCabe’s approachable, friendly demeanour seemed to ooze out of him with natural ease. As I sat and watched people slowly trickle in to their seats, McCabe took the time to introduce himself, and we shared a chat about the trials of novel writing. We also marvelled on the differences and similarities between this, rather mammoth task, and the skill and precision of crafting short stories.
Before long, however, the seminar was ready to begin, and McCabe took to the stage. From there, he began to tell the story of how his first novel, Skinjob came in to being; how and why he turned to Indie Publishing; and how that lead to an even bigger publishing deal with Random House.
Highlights from Bruce McCabe
According to McCabe, the genesis of his idea took six years, before he began to write, and a further three years before the finished novel was published. He confessed to rewriting some paragraphs as many as twenty times – a confession that was met with an amused, knowing nod from the writers around the room.
When the novel was finally at a stage he considered ‘ready to show the world’, McCabe quickly gave up on approaching mainstream publishers, due to the lack of feedback they were are able to provide. Instead, McCabe made a decision.
Hell…” he said, “let’s get it to readers. They’re the only ones who really matter. I want to know! I want feedback. Is it working?”
But McCabe doesn’t like the term ‘self publishing’. He prefers ‘Indie Publishing’, as he believes writers still need a team of ‘good people’ to help them achieve success. In fact, this quickly became the theme for McCabe’s address.
First piece of advice I’d give you is join a writer’s centre. Because you get a community, and you can’t do this alone… Everything good that happened to me came through other people, not through my own actions.”
McCabe also told of his attempts to promote his own work. Again, here he found he needed the help of other people.
What I learnt… and what I continue to learn, is that no-one wants to hear from the author that their book is worth reading… The only people they want to hear from are other readers.”
Surprisingly for McCabe, he found the best way to get word out about his book, was not through the internet, but via bookshops. So often we are told that today’s market is all about online presence, but for McCabe at least, the truth turned out to be quite the opposite. Only when bookshop managers took their own copies to read, and approved them to be sold in their stores, did readers begin to pick up on the novel. McCabe stressed that it was all about hooking five people at a time. For once one person read Skinjob, they could recommend it to another, and that person could recommend it to another, and so on.
But at the end of the day, McCabe wanted to leave writers with one piece of ultimate advice:
It’s all about readers. It’s all about other people. No one wants to hear the message from you. Be flexible. Everyone’s got a different path…[The industry] is changing every week anyway, so you better be nimble!”
Enter Sophie Masson
At 10:45, McCabe was joined by award winning author, Sophie Masson for a Q&A session. Masson is an extremely prolific writer with more than sixty titles to her name, published over a period of only twenty-five years. Her work spans across genres, from Children’s Books, to Young Adult, and Adult Fiction, as well as a number of non-fiction titles. Masson’s own journey was quite different from McCabe’s, demonstrating, quite effectively, that there is no one way to achieve a writing career.
For Masson, the first book she had published was the third book she actually wrote. The House in the Rainforest (1990) was based on a short story she had written at the age of fifteen, and returned to as an adult. Despite sending it out to various publishers, however, this book wasn’t picked up until after she wrote Fire in the Sky (1990), a children’s novel she sent to Angus and Robertson. The two, very different books for two very different markets were then, remarkably, picked up for publication within about two months of each other – a moment Masson describes as her ‘breakthrough moment’.
Best Advice from Sophie Masson
Masson warned writers against the temptation to ‘chase trends’, claiming a well-published author once told her:
Chasing trends is the way to dusty death.”
She then explained this by stating simply:
By the time a trend hits the bookstores, it’s almost over… If you chase the trends you see around you, you’re not actually going to make it, in terms of the timing.”
Masson also spoke about the importance of writing from your own passions. She emphasised that readers are very discerning, and will not respond favourably if they believe you are merely trying to fit the flavour of the day.
You have to write from the heart, you have to write from your passion.”
But of course, there are times when a writer’s passion can merge with the ‘zeitgeist’ of the day. Masson admits that writers can be extremely fortunate in this respect, however, she had one more piece of advice: Be creative!
You’ve got to find a new way in to that story that hasn’t been done before.”
If readers want to hear more from Sophie about how writers can survive in the ever-changing book industry, they can buy her book, The Adaptable Author: Coping with Change in the Digital Age.
Hunting and Gathering – Data, Data, Data
Up next was the Hunting and Gathering seminar, in which Mark Higginson, of mPath Consulting, invited a panel of key speakers to examine the data of booksales. The panel included Shaun Symonds, General Manager of Neilsen BookScan; John Purcell, Head of Marketing at Booktopia; and Elain Richards, Loyalty and Marketing Manager of Dymocks.
Although the media is constantly telling us the print book is dead, data from book sales would suggest this to be far from true. In fact, the data presented by both Richards and Symonds revealed most readers (including young, teenage readers) still prefer print books over ebooks. This is useful information for writers to bear in mind when considering self, or ‘Indie’ publishing a book. John Purcell also highly recommended Print-On-Demand, for what he deemed ‘risky publishing’. This can leave a print book option open for readers, without wasting money, producing copies that may never get sold.
In the Q&A of the panel, one audience member posed the question: ‘What can authors do to support sales figures?’ This was answered by both Richards and Purcell, who advocated clearly: Provide more content. For Richards, this means allowing book lovers to get to know you, as the author, via book signings, special events, and so on. For Purcell, it involves authors providing websites (such as Booktopia) with more information/links about themselves; sending traffic to their site via social media; and saying ‘yes’ to any promotional opportunities that may arise.
Planting the Seed
Next, it was time to explore the land of social media. For this, we were joined by a panel of four writers: Kylie Scott, Jan Cornall, Allison Tait, and Walter Mason. Each writer spoke up for their preferred platform of social media, and why they consider maintaining an online presence to be so important.
The Best Advice on Social Media
Kylie Scott discussed the way Pintrest can serve as an ‘inspiration board’ for your writing. When working on a new book, Scott uses her Pintrest board to gather bits and pieces (images, quotes, etc) that relate to her story, and thus help spark her creative energy.
Best quotes from Kylie Scott:
When you’re on social media, your book is not your brand, you are. You need to be thinking long term.”
“Be very careful about your ratio of promotion. I’m on social media to build a community, I’m not there to promote. If I’m doing more than 10% promotion, people are going to get really bored of me, really fast.”
“It’s very important to decide, early on, how much access you are going to give people into your life… You’ve got to remember, you don’t know who exactly you are interacting with out there.”
Jan Cornall – Email lists
Although Jan Cornall is on social media platforms, such as Twitter and Facebook, she considers herself an ‘old fashioned girl’.
And I like an old-fashioned email list!” she stated.
According to Cornall, she has found great success via email newsletters, which she uses to update her followers, invite them to exclusive events, and generally make an ongoing connection with readers.
Best quotes from Jan Cornall:
Be yourself. When people have a taste of you, they’ll want more.”
“You have to… get over your shyness, and embarrassment about being an author and having a work to share… You have a gift, really, to give to the world… So you have to find a way to get rid of that side of you… You’ve got to let go…”
With 1.9 billion people using Facebook daily, Allison Tait stressed the importance of using this as a platform. She advocated that Facebook Pages (kept separate from your personal profile) could be used as an official platform for you, as a writer, to build a community with your readers. According to Tait, it is through this community that we can find others to be excited about our work, aside from our own mothers!
Best Quotes from Allison Tait:
The thing to remember with social media is… you don’t need to be everywhere, but you do need to find out what’s easier for you.”
When it comes to twitter, Mason revealed he has a seven step plan to success.
1. Spread the word of other’s good work – Mason underlined the importance of talking about others, not just yourself.
The key to succeeding in twitter is generosity.”
2. Target people – If you want to get noticed by people, Masson recommends following them, retweeting them, and sending out posts about them, unasked.
But, I’ve got to stress,” he adds, “don’t be stalkerish about!”
3. Be enthusiastic in all your dealings, and don’t complain or criticise – Masson underlined the importance of taking the moral high ground – Don’t allow yourself to be dragged into arguments
Let people be wrong.” He says.
4. Ten minutes a day is all it takes – This is something all the panellists agreed on. You don’t need to get too lost in social media, or allow it to drain all your time and energy. But if you commit ten minutes a day, you can keep your community thriving.
5. Follow six people a day – According to Mason, this helps us to broaden our horizons, and can even gain more followers ourselves.
6. Follow ten-for-one rule of promotion – Mason admitted that Twitter can be a great platform for self-promotion, however, like Scott, he believes we should limit this. For example: for every self-promotion, post ten tweets about others.
7. Take it offline – If you follow people on twitter, go to their events. Don’t just lurk behind the computer screen, get involved.
Take these relationships you make online out into the real world.”
To Market, To Market
The penultimate seminar of the day looked at marketing. Anna Valdinger, Fiction Publisher of HarperCollins and Kate Cuthbert, Managing Editor of Escape Publishing, joined Publisher, Aviva Tuffield of Affirm Press, to discuss how Publishers identify, utilise, and manipulate the trends of the market.
When it comes to marketing, Valdinger and Cuthbert both consider the following questions:
- Where does a book sit in the current market?
- Who is going to buy the book? What are their other interests?
- Why are people going to buy the book? What else are they reading?
- What are the current trends of the market? How are these trends evolving?
Equally as important as any of these questions, however, is the following: What’s happening on the outskirts of the market? And what are the gaps in the market that can be tapped for success?
Valdinger and Cuthbert also commented on the importance of writers establishing their own relationships with their readers. According to Valdinger, this type of ‘organic’ connection is often far more successful in boosting sales than the obvious, sales pushes from Publishers.
The Open Road
To wrap up, the final seminar explored the new platforms that exist for writers today. Angela Meyer hosted the panel, comprising of author Cat Sparks, Joel Naoum, from Momentum, Malcolm Neil from Kobo, and Ash Davies, founder of Tablo Publishing.
Tablo is a particularly interesting platform, that has recently challenged the way readers and writers experience the publishing industry. Described as the ‘YouTube of the writing world’, Tablo allows writers to share their work with readers as they create it. In this way, writers can establish a following before they officially publish. And readers can discover the next big book, before it hits the shelves.
We focus a lot on bringing the author incredibly close to their own readerships, so they connect directly.” – Ash Davies
The panel became quite heated, however, when Cat Sparks confessed to a personal dislike of self-publishing.
I don’t want to read a self-published book in the same way that I don’t want to go to a self-taught dentist… I don’t understand why we’re so proud of there being no barrier to entry to our field.”
And just like that, Cat lived up to her name, and ‘sparked’ a fiery debate.
Do you know how I learnt? From the people who said ‘no’,” she claimed, “The Editors who said no to me, made me the writer I am today, and I don’t suck too badly… I would still suck, if it was fifteen years ago and I could just publish my own stuff, I would still be that author from fifteen years ago.”
But Joel Naoum was quick to disagree.
I don’t think you would,” he said, “I actually disagree, and I think the reason is because, you get the same feedback by self-publishing than you do from being rejected. If no-one likes your work, no-one will read it. That’s a pretty stunning indication that you’re not doing a good job.”
After Sparks suggested the introduction of self-publishing had ‘clogged’ the market with “literary cholesterol”, Davies also spoke up to defend this publishing avenue.
The way people are finding, and reading, and discovering books that they enjoy is still very much the same as it used to be… Curation is still incredibly important. Editing is still incredibly important… The norms of discovery are still there, and the good content will rise to the top.”
Joel Naoum agreed.
I think [self publishing] is a fantastic thing!”
Writer’s Edit would like to thank Sydney Writers’ Festival for the array of wonderful events, and for providing our writers with passes to attend.