Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Opinion: So You Wanna Be A Paperback Writer?

In these hard times, fond farewells to work on redundancy or early retirement often prompt the brave assertion I always wanted to write.

Sure enough, with cheaper computers and convenient internet access, it’s never been easier to express oneself and self-publish in free weblogs.

Writing can seem a road to wealth and celebrity. In some ways it's the new rock and roll with the J K Rowlings and A A Gills mingling with the rich and famous and even becoming bestest friends with Jeremy Clarkson.

Although there are now many books and magazines instructing one how to make it as a freelance writer, it still remains fiendishly difficult to get published - especially for money.

It’s quite straightforward to have a go and enter the fray, since no-one can stop you switching on your Compaq fresh from PC World and churning out thousands of words on your chosen topic, but successes are few and far between. Here are a few comments by way of reality check:

It pays to have contacts: However good your features article, review or novel may be, publishers are disinclined to pay any attention to a novice without a track record. Normally they won’t even look at material unless there’s a real reason to do so or unless you have contacts and they know you.

The son also rises: whilst talent may be needed to forge a long-term career, it does seem that the sons and daughters of established writers, novelists, journalists or actors find it easier to secure that crucial initial entrée. The same applies for virtually any celebrity from politics, sport, the arts or media. A well-known name, rather than pure talent or insight, prompts newspaper editors to request 500 words on topical issues ranging from underwear to infidelity – and nice little earners they must be.

Beware the rottweiler at the gate: the first point of contact at many publishers, magazines and newspapers is the junior staff member – often an ambitious young woman – who is diligently trying to labour her way up the corporate ladder and waiting for her own big chance to excel and go on to become a star. This person does not take kindly to being asked to facilitate the progress of any freelance interloper who in her eyes may take what should have been her once in a lifetime opportunity and consign her to further years of photocopying and making excuses for the interminable absence at lunch of her boss.

Be careful with your ideas: if you pitch to a publication with a concept for a brilliant new series, tread carefully and record your proposal rigorously. You may be shocked to find a close approximation of your idea subsequently appears - but not necessarily under your by-line. You may learn that it was, after-all, a common-place concept and that it was inconceivable that it could have originated from an unknown like you. Remember that copyright actions are potentially costly for an individual dealing with wealthy publishers with high-powered lawyers.

Avoid threatening the Editor’s perks: However witty and thrillingly perceptive your skills as a restaurant reviewer may be, do not forget that the current holder of the post may value it beyond rubies (curries or otherwise). On some publications, where pay and status are low, free trips to review local restaurants may be the highlight of the week, particularly if the reviewer is permitted to take along his or her lovely spouse. So, if you suggest that you be appointed restaurant critic and threaten to usurp the one perk that makes an otherwise grim existence worthwhile, do not expect to be welcomed with open arms.

Comply with publisher’s instructions precisely: Some publishers helpfully say on their websites that they are prepared to consider unsolicited manuscripts. Many will not entertain them at any cost, so to avoid wasting everyone's time, check this out first. If a publisher is willing to receive your magnum opus, make sure you comply with their instructions to the letter. If they say your letter should address specific issues such as plot or intended audience or only cover a single page, make sure it does. If you need your manuscript back make that clear and enclose an addressed envelope stamped with the correct postage. The harsh reality is that many of those who now say they will consider your work will not keep their word.

Don’t expect them to read your manuscript without prodding: If not binned immediately, your unsolicited manuscript will, in all likelihood, be plonked on a pile on someone’s desk and gather dust. Realistically it is far from certain that an unsolicited piece will be read at all. After a sensible period – probably of several months - it is not unreasonable to telephone to enquire briefly and politely if they have had a chance to read the piece and ask that it be returned if not of interest. This will probably result in the immediate return of your SAE with its precious contents, but at least will save more costly photocopying at Prontaprint. Sadly, many publishers who say they will return manuscripts if you supply a SAE do not do so.

Don’t expect large fees on publication: if you are able to secure publication of an article in local magazines or newspapers, the payment is likely to be staggeringly modest, particularly when compared with the time and effort taken in preparation. This is a fact of life and must be accepted as a necessary step in building up a portfolio of published material. When eventually this becomes too frustrating, it’s time to give up and start that novel, which in turn brings its own problems.

Beware the polymaths: the journalistic and literary world seems to be stuffed with well-connected individuals who have attained a senior editorial position on one or more publications and also prolifically contribute features and reviews to a wide range of others. Such ravenous polymaths are adept networkers and benefit from their reputation and energy: in doing so, they clean up. They do make it even less likely that a freelance will succeed in getting any opportunity or break.

Develop a thick skin: as a freelance, particularly if you are provincial, middle-aged and without useful connections, you are increasingly a sitting duck to be patronised, insulted and most often ignored. That’s simply the way it is, so get over it.

Consider getting an agent: A good literary agent is said to oil wheels, open doors and no doubt many other metaphors for facilitating budding authors. It is comforting to have realistic advice and in-put on what can otherwise be a lonely journey. In the unlikely event that a new writer succeeds in getting an agent, it still probably won't work.

Celebrity, even the sort amounting to notoriety, is increasingly the only qualification for publication: putting it simply, if you're not famous you won't be published and if you're not published, you won't be famous.

If, despite all this, you do succeed however, try to remember what it was like getting there and try to make things fairer for beginners trying to achieve what you have done.

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