This is Ask Me Editing, a new writing and publishing-advice column where our writing-industry agony-uncle dispenses priceless advice.
Welcome to ASK ME EDITING, the publishing advice column that is not so much the front page of the internet, more like the acknowledgements. Let’s find out some stuff about books.
Q: Do I need to be a Vine chick to sell books?
I'm in the very early stages of trying to get publishers interested in my MS, and every house and agent I've spoken to has advised me to work harder on my social media presence. Is this something I really need to do? I am on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, but I mainly lurk, or check out what my friends are doing. The thought of having to spend all day on Twitter building a following or becoming a Vine chick gives me anxiety nightmares. Honestly, I've stopped talking to some of my friends IRL because their online personas make me shrivel up inside. Is social media celebrity just part and parcel of being a writer these days?
OK, so being a ‘social media celebrity’ certainly wouldn’t hurt, but that’s not what people are asking of authors. And it’s also not about spending all day on Twitter building a following, although once again, if that were what you want to do, that probably wouldn’t hurt either. There’s a very simple reason why there’s been a sudden interest in authors having a social media presence, and that’s engagement. Authors having direct access via social media to readers or potential readers is an amazing marketing tool, and crucially, is not something that publishers can replicate.
Publishers and agents are interesting beasts because at the heart of it, they are a business. This doesn’t mean that they are cynical, money-grubbing bankers, whose eyes flash up with dollar signs when they pick up a book however.
Most publishers that I’ve ever known are immensely passionate about the books that they work on, and usually commission them only if they truly believe in them.
The best thing about publishing houses are that people do massively geek out about books all the time. Anyway – that said, they are still making a HUGE investment of money in any book, and they are gambling on the fact that the book will do well. Which is why when they pick up an author who has an active, engaged group of social media followers, they feel it can help mitigate the risk somewhat. If they know that the author is going to be getting 5,000 people on Twitter potentially excited about their book, and hopefully buying that book, then it’s a more attractive prospect.
So, no, you don’t HAVE to have a social media presence. But we’re in an overburdened industry, with more wannabe authors than ever, so the fact is that you’re competing against lots and lots of books that are at least the same quality as your own – or perhaps better. I’ve sat in on acquisition meetings where publishers have put forward two books that they’re equally passionate about, but the book by the debut author with a good social media presence (not even big, just GOOD and engaged) was the one they went with, because they were a better package.
Q: Judging a book by its cover
I’m just about to self publish my first book and I’m wondering how important the cover actually is – I’ve already shelled out for an (expensive) edit, and I really don’t want to pay too much for the cover.
Basically, covers are very important. I’d love to pretend they weren’t, but they are. A cheap cover turns people off the book, even if it’s the most amazing piece of literature the world has ever seen. Sorry.
Furthermore, covers help single out what kind of book we’re looking at, which gives the reader subconscious signals. If you’re looking for a fantasy book, there are certain tropes or aesthetic choices for the cover that can help make a particular book stand out to you. A romance book should look like a romance book. An award winning literary novel needs to be covered in birds, etc etc.
Also, keep in mind that ebook covers have different requirements than print. Most of the time an ebook cover will be thumbnail size, so you want it clean and bold and eye-catching on the screen.
Other writers seem to already know editors or publishers and can get their work seen easily - how do I make those connections?
From the outside, it will often look like people on the inside have some kind of unfair advantage – all these people who know each other and move in the same circles and therefore have their work seen first. Basically, I believe, this is something of an illusion. If you put in the time and effort to go out and meet people, at writers festivals, at writer’s centre events, doing courses or workshops or other things, you’ll start meeting people too. Nobody was born with an inherent ability to automatically know publishers.
There is however a kind of privilege for people with the wealth to afford these kinds of things, or even the health, or even the luxury of time. A lot of places are doing great stuff to try and combat this too – for example, a few years ago I was involved with an event with The Emerging Writers Festival, where deaf writers were able to pitch directly to publishers, which was cool. Or there’s the Overland Writer’s Residency for Single Mothers which is also a great initiative. So yes – start going to your local writer’s centre and getting involved, and check out writer’s festivals. If you’re a young or new writer, I recommend the National Young Writers Festival (which is entirely free) in Newcastle, or The Emerging Writers Festival in Melbourne. Both regularly have lots of people worth meeting, both for “networking” reasons and also just for meeting cool friends.
Patrick Lenton is your NEW PROFESSIONAL AGONY UNCLE. If he doesn't know it, he'll go and find out. ASK HIM ANYTHING! Send your questions to Patrick care of firstname.lastname@example.org or tweet them to us, and he'll respond with FREE professional advice.
Patrick Lenton is an author, works for Momentum books and runs Town Crier, a social media and digital marketing consultancy for authors.