Sunday, 13 December 2009

Strategic Alliances - Guest Blog by Sarah Molloy, children's book agent

Christmas being a time of goodwill to all, it seemed the right time to think about alliances and what benefits they can bring.

Sometimes, from the author’s point of view, it seems that publishers are the enemy, rather than the ally. All the fine promises made when the editor is a-wooing – trade advertising, in-store publicity, author interviews, tours, the whole glittering array of baubles spread before the innocent writer – can so often seem to fizzle away to the point where you’re lucky to get a glass of lukewarm white paintstripper around the time of publication. Friends call in, saying worriedly, ‘I can’t find the book either in Waterstone’s or Smiths in Timbuctoo’; your mother-in-law is saddened that you don’t have the lead review in the Sunday Times. Your diary for publication day is one large blank space. And as the weeks after pass there are no insistent phone calls from the BBC asking for your immediate commitment to an appearance on Newsnight Review or indeed any kind of review appearing, no e-mails from Jenni Murray demanding your presence on Woman’s Hour and none from John Humphreys about Radio 4’s Book Club.

Six months reveals that the book has failed to appear on any of the shortlists that it once seemed a certainty to win; that first royalty statement is disappointingly bare of sales in three, let alone four figures: only the figure in the ‘unearned advance’ column appearing to have more than a single zero to its name. What has become of your golden child? Why has it failed to make even the briefest cameo on the bestseller list – indeed why has it barely made even the most fleeting of appearances on the front of store tables and, in some cases, failed to make it into the bookshop in the first place?

At this stage, the Number One suspect appears to be none other than that wicked seducer, the publisher. It probably wasn’t your editor’s fault – they seem to feel just as keenly as you do the disappointment at your baby’s sad performance. Ah - but sales and marketing, those evil twins whose glittering promises helped lure you into the publisher’s web - plainly they are paid to do nothing other than have convivial meetings with the book wholesalers, reviewers, literary editors and the book clubs, where darts are thrown at author photos and derisory comments made about the naivete of writers. It’s dismally clear that all their time and effort is spent in continuing to lavish attention and effort on those authors who are already multi-millionaires, whose books have automatic entry to the No. 1 spot in the charts. Those whose books are filmed, whose lives are charmed, who belong to the exclusive club from which ‘ordinary’ writers are banned for life. You have been weighed in the balance, plainly found wanting and cast aside in favour of more successful, more promising, more attractive fare. In short, you feel you’ve been dumped.

This is one of the most frustrating aspects of an agent’s job and it can be enormously difficult to reconcile the savage disappointment we feel on our clients’ behalf with the need to keep our tongue between our teeth: nothing is to be gained by the diatribe you long to give vent to. No publisher schemes to see a book in which they’ve invested time and money fail, but because they deal in many titles each month, their affections are more thinly spread. There are times when the ball is undoubtedly dropped with disastrous results, and brilliant pieces of writing fail to sell more than a few hundred copies, just as there are times when truly awful books achieve undeserved success and sell in millions. But while every book bought by a publishing house signals a commitment, not just in financial terms, but in terms of dreams to both publisher and author alike, it’s the author who sometimes needs to take control of their own fortunes.

Like all good romances, the courtship period between publisher and author is a blissful one. With few exceptions, this happy state seldom lasts. And a key part of the agent’s job lies in managing an author’s expectations, while at the same time, chivvying the publisher to deliver on those promises. It’s a balancing act: we have to accept that some things will go wrong as well as right, and you simply have to accept that luck plays its part. Although an agent’s heart always lies with the individual author, sometimes the best strategy is to keep quiet for the sake of their future advantage.

Just as the proverb says, ‘it takes a village to raise a child’, so it takes more than an author and an editor to publish a book successfully. As with any military campaign, strategic alliances may be the way to achieving the goal. The SAS is a classic example of a successful strategic alliance: on the face of it you are all rivals, but by pooling your talents, you achieve so much more than any one individual author could, both in terms of attracting attention and in getting your voices heard.

So what follows are some basic points for forging good alliances

1. Make sure you meet as many people at your publishers as possible as soon as possible. If people can put a face and a personality to a title page, they’ll be more interested.

2. Talk extensively and as early as possible to your publicist: take their advice about making the best of your CV. Suck up to them: make cakes for them - in other words, think of a way you can make yourself nicely memorable.

3. Meet your local sales rep and, if possible spend some time with him. Write and thank your sales director for his and his reps’ hard work about two months after publication. It takes five minutes but you’d be amazed at how few people do so and what a positive effect it has.

4. Visit, and make friends with, all your local bookshops, especially the independent ones.

5. Make your local schools aware of you – write and let them know you exist, and give them some idea of the kind of age range you’re writing for. Let them know you’re a local author and keen to come and visit.

6. Join the Society of Authors and other writers’ support groups such as SCBWI and, of course, the SAS: you’ll make friends and very probably get lots of good ideas from others seeking to achieve the same ends.

7. Think about whether the subject matter of the book might connect with any local groups or charities – for instance, pony books lend themselves well to Riding for the Disabled. Offer a couple of copies as prizes for fundraisers.

8. Make friends with your local paper: a lot of their content may be syndicated, but they have local press pages to fill every week – and at the start of school holidays and half terms you can get a lot of publicity in return for a few free copies perhaps as a competition prize. Timing is everything here – so get in touch at least two months before the event.

9. Engage your family and friends: my own children are brilliantly trained to put my clients’ titles on top of all rival authors in bookshops, and I am prepared to bet that some extra sales have been made this way. Get your friends to ask for the book if they can’t see it on display – quite often it’s simply sitting in boxes in the stockroom.

And finally (this is not about alliances, it’s about you) – overcome your reservations about being thought pushy. Resist the temptation to mutter, eyes modestly downcast, ‘Oh, this little book – it’s not really anything. Just a bit of fluff I cooked up.’ You have already achieved what 99% of aspirant authors never will – a publisher loved your work enough to make an offer and publish the book. Speak up for yourself enthusiastically – no one else can do the job as well as you. And be proud of what you’ve already done: hopefully the best is yet to come.

With best wishes for a very Happy Christmas and New Year.

Sarah Molloy is the children’s agent at A.M. Heath. Before becoming an agent, she worked as a fiction editor at HarperCollins, Hachette and Random House.
A.M. Heath's website


Yunaleska said...

Great advice - I loved number 9!

Katherine Langrish said...

Brilliant and entertaining advice, Sarah (with plenty to make the galled jade wince...)

I shall copy out your nine points and stick them on the wall in my office. Thank you!

karen ball said...

Wow! I would never have thought about writing to a scary sales director. What a great post.

Katherine Roberts said...

Thank you very much for this interesting view from the agent's perspective! After 13 books, I can see the (slightly depressing) truth in it.

One thing surprised me, though... do you really see authors as rivals? I see us more like colleagues, some of whom have become good friends, all working towards the same goal - that of personal creative achievement.

It's only when our books hit the shelves and become "products" that rivalry enters the equation. Literary prizes and top ten bestseller lists encourge this, of course, but I think it's important to remember the difference between
the BOOK (a single point in an author's career) and the WORK (the author's journey).

As an author, I am not trying to be "better" than any other author. I am simply working towards my personal ambitions... one of which is to have a No. 1 best-selling title before I die, naturally!

Linda Strachan said...

Thank you Sarah for such clear and excellent advice.
It is so important for authors to see the other side of the industry; to try and move beyond our own desperation to see our precious book winning hearts (and sales!) and not to forget that publishers, yes - even sales directors, are also ordinary people who will be pleased to hear praise of their efforts.

Sometimes the problem is knowing how much time and energy to spend doing other things, such as school visits and talks, following through on marketing ideas etc etc, so that these don't become displacement activities that entice us away from actually writing.

michelle lovric said...

Thank you, Sarah.
I am embarrased about how few of these very smart things I ever do. WILL DO BETTER.

Meg Harper said...

Excellent kick up the proverbial, Sarah! Thank you very much! Relieved to see I do do at least some of it!


Stroppy Author said...

What a full and detailed account - thank you, Sarah.

I agree with Katherine that I don't see other authors as rivals, though. It's not as though people only buy one book. But maybe I'm being naive; maybe a lot of people really do buy only one book :-(

fionadunbar said...

Thanks for this, Sarah; well, I manage a couple of these, but...making cakes for your publicist? Blimey: I really didn't know I was meant to be doing that! Do people do this?