I’m in the Royal Albion Hotel in Brighton. It’s FantasyCon 2012. I’m sitting in the main lounge – lots of comfy seats, most of them full. It probably doesn’t look the way an outsider would imagine a Fantasy convention to look. There are no elves, nor dwarves, and while there is plenty of grey hair, none of it is topped off by pointy hats.
I’ve just arrived and can’t see anyone I know. I see faces I recognise but not necessarily well enough to go over to, shake a hand, buy a drink, share the news with. Members of the T-Party, a London Science Fiction Writers’ Group I’m loosely connected to will be around somewhere and I can always talk to them if I get lonely.
(Later I will bump into Ben Baldwin who does the marvellous covers for my short stories and for ‘Bloodjacker’ the novel that’s coming soon. Ben’s one of the nominees for the ‘The Artist’ category in the British Fantasy Awards. I also chat to some old writer friends who aren’t members of the T-Party.)
It’s difficult to know how to describe this convention to someone who’s never been to one. A lot of people here seem to know each other from way back when. I’ve been coming off and on now for about 7 years but I’m not sure at which point I qualify for ‘when’.
And here is the paradox which quickly presents itself to most newbie writers, and goes something like this:
This is your first convention. You’ve sold a couple of short stories to pretty good magazines and you have a novel in the can which has been turned down by some publishers, and a number of agents have assured you your work is ‘interesting’ but unfortunately they’re not looking to expand their list at the moment.
So, you go to a convention panel called, “How to Fail at Getting Published”, with five editors from leading publishing houses. The title is a joke, of course, so you’re hoping you’ll actually learn how to get published, only in a roundabout way. The panel is pretty informal, it seems, with the editors happy to admit they don’t know what they’re going to talk about. There are quite a lot of anecdotes relayed, which are amusing but don’t actually tell you very much.
Then, one of the editors spends five minutes telling you exactly what she wants to see in a submission. She describes the contents of the Advanced Information sheet, that she has to put together in order to sell your book to her acquisitions and sales committees. If you really want to score points with me, she says, send me your submission in the form of an A.I. sheet; then you save me the job of having to do it and you show me you know how to sell your work.
You scribble this all down fast, heart thumping with excitement that at last you have a form you can put your work in that an editor will take seriously – this editor, even. Why not her? You can add in your cover letter that you enjoyed what she said at the convention, etc . . .
You keep pen in hand waiting for more but there isn’t any. And you’ve just learned your first lesson about conventions, although it might take a few more of the same before you make it conscious. Which is that you may only learn one piece of useful information at a conference and/or make one useful contact. And that is a good result. It’s different for a fan, who scores dozens of good results at every convention. He gets free books in his convention goody bag. He gets to buy lots more in the dealers’ hall. He gets to see lots of exclusive films, drinks loads, goes to the ball and next day can’t remember anything about it, shares fantasy news with other fans . . .
It’s just not like that for a writer. He’s not a participator, he’s a creator. But there is only so much space for creatives at a convention.
Towards the end of the panel, questions are taken from the audience. Often, someone, probably a new writer, will ask how he can get his work in front of an editor. It might even be you asking, trying to wear an expression on your face that suggests if one of those editors asks to see the first three chapters of your novel, which you happen to have in a nice strong envelope in your bag, they won’t be disappointed.
The editors will share looks and laugh at this, having heard the question so many times before. One of them will talk about how difficult it is to get your novel to stand out in the slush pile. She will say that a personal touch in your cover letter can help. Mention that you met her at this convention, for example, and that will at least get your submission read.
And here it comes . . . if you see me in the bar, she says, come and say hello. Introduce yourself. Buy me a drink – that always does it! Do that enough times and your name will stick. It’s a small world, she says, UK SF/Fantasy publishing. We editors talk to each other and we notice people we’ve met.
Your heart thumps even harder. It will be difficult but you’ll do it. Tonight, you’ll do it. Go to the bar and look for an editor. You commit all five panellists’ names to memory, matching them to the faces.
You go back to your hotel room and lie down for an hour or so. All those people, all that noise and concentrated Fantasydom has given you a headache. You pull the curtains, turn down the lights. Relax.
Later, when it’s probably about Bar Time, you have a shower – don’t want to put off an editor by smelling of convention. You pack your bag with the essentials: first three chapters of your book and a notepad in case the editor gives you any tips while you’re talking over the drink you’ll buy her.
Nervous but determined, you go downstairs and straight into the bar. You look around. You don’t see any editors. You go into the lounge and don’t see any editors. You go hunting for editors in the other bars and rooms. But you don’t find any.
You buy a drink and sit in a corner of the lounge, half reading one of the freebie books, half looking around. For editors. You buy another drink. A nice man sits next to you and you have a chat about, well, you’re not sure, really.
Then, going to the bar at around ten pm for your fifth drink, you see an editor! It’s the one who talked about the A.I. sheet. There she is, standing by the counter with, and you’re not sure how this can be, a golden glow around her. Is it just the light she’s standing directly under, or is it really her commissionable aura? The problem is, she’s not alone. There are five people standing in an arc before her. People who clearly know her well. They’re sharing jokes, possibly discussing wacky submissions she’s seen, like the one she mentioned at the panel, handwritten in purple on pink paper.
Worse still, she has a drink. It’s in her hand, and it’s nearly full. Can you buy her another? If you offer and she refuses, will that count against you when you send her your book? All these thoughts are academic, however, because you know you don’t have the nerve to break into her private circle, even if she’d sort of given you permission to earlier at the panel talk.
So you buy a drink and sit near the group, pretending to read your book but actually waiting until the editor is alone. When you can make your move. But a half hour passes and she is still talking to her crew. How can you join her crew, you wonder. You suspect there are no clear rules about such a thing, but there should be. She should advertise in Locus, then interview the most promising applicants. She should –
– she’s leaving the bar! With her crew. Probably off to another panel or a film or maybe even to watch Match of the Day.
You buy yourself another drink, go back to the lounge. The nice man you were talking to about something or other has gone. You read, finish your drink and go back to your room. Match of the Day has finished so you have to make do with highlights of the Championship instead.
There are of course writers who’ve gone to a convention knowing no one and come away with a whole batch of editors’ and agents’ contact details. But the reality for most writers is feeling constantly frustrated and uncommitted by not having made the contacts everyone says conventions are good for.
Which leaves you with that one piece of advice you wrote down about how that particular editor likes to see a submission shaped. Is it worth three days of your time, the cost of the convention, the hotel room and all those drinks? When you send her that A.I. sheet about your book, will she ask to see the whole manuscript? And if she does, but doesn’t take on your book, will it have been worth it?
Well, here’s the thing: no one can answer that but you. And you might not be able to answer it until you’ve been to twenty conventions, the risk being that at the end, you may decide it isn’t.
But that’s the stupidity and the glory of writers. Talent, yes. Hard work, yes. Commitment, yes. But even if you’re writing stories that are brilliant, getting them taken on by an editor can turn on just one small piece of advice that you got at just one of those twenty conventions.
* * *
If you want some detail of this year’s convention, the following are notes (fairly rough) I took of the ‘Ask the Editor’ panel:
Duncan Proudfoot – Constable & Robinson
Oliver Johnson – Hodder & Stoughton
Simon Spanton – Gollancz
Gillian Redfearn – Gollancz
Nicola Budd – Jo Fletcher Books
What’s more important – the commerciality of a book or that you love it?
(There was some contradiction in the answers!) All at first said they have to love a book; that you really can’t tell what’s going to sell. On the other hand, one said he couldn’t think of a single example when he’d pushed through a book he loved, against a negative consensus from the board. Another made the point that it’s more important that an editor knows what to do with a book (i.e. how it can be marketed).
Has the speed of getting out a self-published book affected the traditional industry?
Yes, and trad. publishing is lagging behind. Trad will become more instantaneous, particularly in genre. However (another said), you have to bear in mind that I might spend 6 weeks editing a ms; then the author another 6 after that; then say another 3 on line editing, all of which means 18 months is not slow; not if you want the book to be better. You can self-publish now but it might be crap. In 18 months, it could be great. In other words, ‘It might be worth the wait’.
Editors no longer have to rely on agents or the slush pile. They look at self-published books that have passed the test – succeeded when the author has nothing to help but word of mouth. So we look at the Amazon Kindle charts, etc: now a very important contribution to trad. publishing.
Is there any point in a new author submitting to you, especially if he’s only got one book?
You’re looking to build a brand (out of an author). One book is fine but you need to have in place ideas for book 2, 3 and 4. As a new author, what you write about is crucial – because you don’t have a name. So if you write about a detective monk you have to be willing to keep writing about him; and to take direction (in this) from your editor. OJ (John Grisham’s editor): John Grisham got rejected a lot of times until his agent went to a publisher and said, I have ‘The Firm’ here and ideas/outlines for 12 more legal thrillers. He was signed because the publisher could get his vision.
All agreed: a ms free of spelling mistakes and with good grammar will get you a look in.
As an editor, you can teach structure but you can’t teach ‘it’, and an author must have ‘it’.
Don’t put your ms out to too many readers; it will dilute it. You just need a couple of readers who know your genre.
How important is it that an unpublished author has web presence and/or success in short fiction?
Very important. We all look at the short form and sometimes approach writers because of it; and they use it in their approach to us.
Web presence is important. We’re looking for writers who don’t hide behind their books. However, we recognise the contradiction, in that writers spend most of their time alone with a screen, with the world shut out; yet we want them to be sociable too.
I don’t want an online nutter, though. I want to be able to tell from your online presence that you’re not mad, that you don’t pick fights with people in the industry, that I’d feel comfortable with you in the room.
Don’t forget that your job is to write books. No point in having a great online presence if you aren’t actually writing any books.
Quality vs quantity?
The industry hasn’t needed self-publishing to get crap out there.
It’s a myth that everyone has a (good) book in them. When we reject your book saying something like, the characters are great but the world-building isn’t quite there, it’s not what we’re looking for at the moment – do we want you to re-write it and send it back? No. We’re being nice. We probably really mean it’s crap but we don’t want to crush people – even though our lawyers tell us to be honest.
Do you use readers?
Not any longer – no money now. So, a book gets put in front of a senior editor, say, and if he likes it, he’ll pass it down the food chain to an assistant or someone in Marketing. If they like it, he’ll take a look.
Are you affected by marketing trends?
(Again, some contradiction here.)
General consensus was that you can’t anticipate or follow trends. Trends happen for various reasons, e.g. reader/viewer taste translating (eventually) into what writers write. The ‘hive mind’ plays a part too, e.g. when several publishers put out the same kind of book at the same time. However, there was also agreement that publishers will occasionally jump on a trend, like with ’50 Shades of Grey’, and that is not a very noble thing, especially when it always quickly leads to rubbish and spoof.
Are you affected by stylistic trends in writing? e.g. a lot of YA Fantasy novels hit the ground running, plot wise and don’t let up until the end, even if at the expense of character.
General agreement was that there are stylistic trends, and that books for children/YA are affected by short attention spans and games/TV/movies where action plots are essential. On the other hand, good writing is good writing whatever the style.
* * *
Incidentally, I asked them that last question. I’ve found it something of a trend with modern YA Fantasy novels, that they are often very action-based, usually sequentially. What tends to happens is I tear through the first hundred pages or so, put the book down and realise I’m exhausted. Then I often don’t pick it up again and I think the reason is I don’t care enough about the characters: insufficient time has been spent building them, in and around all that action.