An aspirational author’s guide to (success or) self sabotage-(part 2)

September 10, 2009


In Part 2 of this look at the do’s and don’ts of approaching a Publisher, I have decided to be a little more practical, and actually to help emerging writers rather than amuse myself and my friend Robin Dickinson with further ironical statements.

6. Formatting

Know that editors are like elves in Tolkein or goblins in Rowling. They have terribly strict rules that they live by, and as a proposing author you must obey them. Failure to obey editorial rules around formatting brings immediate friction, or a slowing down of relevance. Consider a burp during speed dating. A fall in figure skating. The same applies here. The general rule is consistency in all your formatting choices. Beyond this, the basics are, choose a plain font, like Times New Roman (forget Comic Sans), and use double spacing. This assists reading at speed. Do number the pages and don’t plaster everything with copyright notices. Doing so is like telling the Pope you’re a Catholic too, over and over again. Publishers live by copyright, so assume they will respect yours.

7. Proposal document

Books have been written about the importance of this document, and people have bought these books to the extent that the subject is worthy of consideration. Here’s the rub. Its easier for someone at a Publishing company responsible for manuscript assessment (ie sorting between bin ’em, burn ’em and buy ’em) to read a proposal document of ten pages, outlining the intended market, the book’s distinctive relationship with this market and other successful books servicing it, than it is to read a complete manuscript unsupported in any way. A proposal document that includes a chapter breakdown and summary and is accompanied by three solid chapters is going to send a manuscript assessor to lunch on time, with a good level of engagement with your ideas. That’s the ballgame. The people at the other end of your writing journey are just like you: busy, easily bored and hungry.

8. Discoverability

As a proposing author, are you on anyone’s radar at all? Its harder to publish a writer who has 50 folllowers on Twitter than it is to publish one who has 50,000. Publishing is a numbers game cross bred with a value game. The more people you can reach, with a valuable piece of content, the more successful you will be. Make the effort to build an audience independently through the (amazingly) free resources of blogging (through excellent services like WordPress) and Twitter. If you are reading this, you probably already are. If not, consider these measures fundamental.

9. Communication style

If by some wonderful (or wonderfully random) series of events you receive a call from a Publisher or Agent, how will you decide to come across? Will you listen or will you gush? Publishers live in a sea of information, so they prefer to hear everything in summary. If they call you, they may have been touched by your story. Try not to prick the bubble by explaining how cleverly you created the illusion. Listen to the words the caller uses and, while responding naturally, give yourself a microsecond to adapt your response to the style of the caller.

10. Next book

A wise writing coach once shared with me his concern that many writers get so absorbed with the publicity and effervescence of their first book that the next book is not published until two or three years after the first. Consider your work in serialised formats before you finalise the first manuscript. Could it be a trology? A quartet? The twenty-one Famous Fives? Know that your lifespan as an author depends on you having a new book coming every one to two years.

Photo by Philofoto


7 Responses to “An aspirational author’s guide to (success or) self sabotage-(part 2)”

  1. Great post with lots of practical advice. Thanks for sharing.

  2. I like the way you call editors goblins, I think this will help me deal with them more effectively:) Great article – no excuses for messing up now!

    • Ben Dawe Says:

      Yes indeed. Editors play that role writers need more than they want. Some editors can communicate their role with sensitivity, in which case, they offer a powerful alliance.

  3. Hi Ben, great advice in your blog, thanks :-). I’m a one-time, self-published, picture book author/illustrator searching for that elusive path to mass publication. Do you have any thoughts on submissions in this category? Is it wise to send a fully illustrated book or just a couple of illustration samples with the manuscript? I have tried both unsuccessfully and remain confused. My self-published book won an award in the US, I always send this reference in my submissions—with regard to your blog point No.2, is this approach clever or just clutter?

    • Ben Dawe Says:

      Hey Heather
      Good on you!
      I’d like to encourage you to think widely about your skills and what formats are commercially viable. If I could draw, I would think about one colour, illustrated fiction
      for ages 8+. This market is divided between trade big-hitters (like Andy Griffiths here in Oz) and a sea of other less shiny luminaries in literacy education. These
      two markets are worth many more $ than the picture book market which seems to support only a few major successes each year (due to cost/demand). Having said that.
      I worked with Mem Fox on a writing book this year (English Essentials- ) and she is one of those few major successes every time she writes.
      So, for $, diversify, and see what opportunities this creates for you.

      • Hi Ben,

        Thanks so much for your feedback, that’s great advice. My illustration style does lend itself to B&W too so I’ll def take a look at that possibility and see if it helps me on my journey to publication 🙂


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