The paper chase

by Felicity Monk / 11 October, 2003

Help us find and write the stories Kiwis need to read

Writing a book may be the easy part - you then have to get it published. What are the pitfalls awaiting the would-be author?

Everybody has a story to tell, something to say, a book inside them - and, for most, that's where it remains. But those determined souls who do write a book and think the hardest part is over soon learn that their biggest challenge is yet to come: getting published.

Globally, fewer than one percent of texts offered to publishers get published; in New Zealand, it's rare for a new, unknown author to be picked up by a major publishing house. The first-time author is facing an uphill battle from the start.

As Quentin Wilson, director of Christchurch-based independent publishing house Hazard Press, says, "A new author, in the mass-market fiction area, coming through with all the potential of becoming a major writer today has very, very little chance of ever getting published, primarily because there is so little publicity made available to them.

"There are around 75,000 new titles published in English each year throughout the world," Wilson adds, "of which [the major book chains] would have access to a large number through the major publishers who bring them in from their overseas publishing houses. No matter how good the book is, for a first-time author, it's going to be a bloody hard job to get published."

So if a new author can't get picked up by a traditional publishing house, what are their options? They can self-publish, publish on the Internet, use a print-on-demand facility or they can enter into an author-subsidised agreement with an independent publishing house - also known as subsidy, joint-venture, shared-risk, or by the frank but disputed term, "vanity publishing".

As executive director of the New Zealand Society of Authors Liz Allen warns, expectations often outstrip results. "The thing that I don't like about some subsidy publishing is that it encourages people to publish material that really isn't marketable. As a consequence, they part with a considerable sum of money for a book that's never going to sell more than a few copies, and they may have to do a considerable amount of marketing and distribution of it and a lot of the sales might just be to friends and family who feel obliged to buy it." It would be far cheaper, she says, to self-publish.

Allen estimates that it would cost around $5000-6000 to self-publish 750 copies of a book of fiction. This would mean the author would have to undertake the whole publishing process, including the assessment, editing, printing, marketing and distribution themselves. "And if only 100 copies is the realistic market, then they can sell it to order using print-on-demand, and get it printed as and when they need it. There's nothing worse than having boxes of unsold books going mouldy in the garage."

Wilson says that from the hundreds of fiction manuscripts that Hazard Press receives each year, it publishes "maybe 10 books a year". About half of these, he says, may fall into the category of "assisted publishing", helped with either a Creative New Zealand grant (available only to literary works by previously published writers), a consortium of investors in popular fiction he calls "angels" or, sometimes, by the author.

Publisher Steele-Roberts also uses "some sort of a subsidy from somewhere" for around one quarter of its books, says Roger Steele, either through a grant, a partnership deal or author contribution, but it's "seldom more than a couple of thousand". For an average size novel - around 90,000 words - the print bill is around $5000-$7000 for 750 copies.

TRACY-ANN ZAHN KNOWS all about the tribulations of turning dreams into print. She wrote a romance novel and, eager to take the next step, attended an Auckland University course, Exploding Into Print: How to Get Published, run by author and publishing consultant Dr Cathie Dunsford.

Dunsford (MA and a PhD in English Literature) is a published author, with five anthologies, one poetry collection and four novels (her book Cowrie was nominated for the Commonwealth Writer's Prize for the best first novel in 1995) to her name. She runs writing and publishing courses at Auckland University and her DPC consultancy, established in 1983, "assesses, edits and prepares for publication in all genres ... In our first decade we helped over 150 new writers into print, creating a New Zealand record." Dunsford is neither a member of the New Zealand Association of Manuscript Assessors, nor the New Zealand Association of Literary Agents.

Zahn was offered a free professional manuscript reading. The feedback, she says, was terrific - her work was already at a standard high enough to be sent straight out to publishers; for an upfront fee of $992.50, she could have it prepared and marketed: "We will try all multinational and independent publishers until we find one interested enough to get their editors on board ..." the contract stated.

Zahn paid the money. A few months later, Zahn says, Dunsford told her that her marketing team had made contact with several publishers. Then Zahn received an email from Dunsford stating that National Pacific Press (NPP), a small independent Wellington publisher, had seen her manuscript and was interested.

Dunsford told her that she had marketed the manuscript to NPP under category one, meaning that it would be fully funded by the publisher. NPP also operates under categories two and three, whereby the costs are met 50/50 by the author and publisher, or where the author pays the entire cost. Chris Mundy, director of NPP, emailed Zahn with confirmation that they were considering her manuscript.

Zahn wrote to Dunsford, requesting a list of all publishers that had been contacted, and their responses; she also requested a copy of the marketing strategy. Zahn says she was assured that all the publishers in the Bateman NZ Writers Handbook had been contacted on her behalf. For the record, Harper-Collins, Tandem Press, Random House, Penguin, Steele-Roberts and Victoria University Press are all in the handbook, but representatives from each of these publishing houses say they have not received anything from Dunsford or Dunsford Publishing Consultants (DPC) for some years.

Zahn eventually received a full-refund cheque from Dunsford. "I never asked for my money back," she says, "or to withdraw from the publishing process with her. Only an update on how my money was being spent, as I had never seen an outline of any kind."

New author Peter Wright relates a similar story. He sent his manuscript to Dunsford for the free reading, received positive feedback - "we are impressed with your book and feel there is a strong commercial potential" - and was told that it required a little fine tuning. For $877.50 he received a "comprehensive report" and an assessment of his work. DPC said it was interested in marketing it. Wright paid another $992.25. Then he was told by Dunsford that NPP was interested in his revised text. A few months later he received a contract from NPP for a 50/50 subsidised deal. His share: $14,750. He says he told them to "stick it".

Wright also asked for a complete list of publishers and agents that DPC had approached with his work. Instead, he, too, received a refund.

Yet some of Dunsford's authors have been successful. Beryl Fletcher was the first New Zealand writer to have her work sold to a publisher through DPC; The Word Burners went on to win the Commonwealth Writer's Prize: Best First Book Asia-Pacific. Fletcher, the author of five books, has used Dunsford's services for 13 years. "Everything that I have ever written has been published largely due to Cathie's efforts. Because I am a feminist writer, I've always been really happy with Cathie Dunsford's work with me."

However, as well as Zahn and Wright, the Listener has spoken to three other authors less satisfied with aspects of Dunsford's company. All say that they were told that their work was promising and ready for publication. Two decided to take it no further. Of those who chose to be marketed by DPC - Zahn, Wright and another who does not want to be identified - all signed a contract that promised "we will try all multinational and independent publishers until we find one interested enough to get their editors on board ..." and all three manuscripts ended up at NPP. The writers say that Dunsford supplied them with information stating how hard it was for new authors to be published, and detailing other options available to them (including subsidy publishing) but none received any of the information they requested about other publishing houses' responses or copies of the marketing strategy - only refunds.

Dunsford says that, although she doesn't do the marketing herself - she says she contracts it out - she does take responsibility. She did not want to identify her marketers, other than to say that they were a team of six, two based in New Zealand and four overseas.

Asked why major publishing houses were apparently not being contacted on some authors' behalf, she says, "This is the marketing team's division and it's not got anything to do with what I do ... They give us results. All we are interested in is, can they get this author into a publisher?"

Yet three of her clients say that they were explicitly told their manuscripts would be marketed to a number of multinational and independent publishing houses, but this apparently didn't happen. Again, Dunsford's response is that it was her "marketing team's division".

For his part, NPP's Mundy says that he has only ever received manuscripts directly from Dunsford herself - never from her marketing team. "As I understand it, the main job of the DPC marketing team is to market manuscripts to bigger publishers ... so that those publishers have the first opportunity to view new writers' work."

Mundy is also co-director of Horizon Press, another small independent publishing house. Both Horizon and NPP were, he says, "essentially established for the same purpose, to help largely, but not exclusively, first-time authors to get their work into print". Horizon has published 15 books since it began in 1998, one of which it fully funded; the rest were subsidy options. NPP has produced two books so far this year, both of which were author subsidised and Mundy expects to have nine in print by the end of the year.

To become a full publisher-funded operation, Mundy says, "would really defeat the purpose of why we established those firms". But, he says, NPP will "move towards producing a significant proportion of titles on a fully publisher-funded basis from next year onwards".

He says that NPP provides a full publishing service; manuscript assessment, contract administration, editing, design, printing and post-production work, sales, marketing and distribution and warehousing - everything that the bigger publisher would do for the writer, the only difference being that the writer makes a contribution towards the overall cost of production.

What NPP is not, Mundy stresses, is a vanity publisher. "We only make an offer of publication where a writer's work is of a good publishable standard ... Vanity publishing is where a so-called publisher simply produces a piece of work for someone. Typically, no standards of quality apply - they will accept any work that someone is willing to pay to have produced." He says he rejects roughly half of all manuscripts sent to him.

Alec Goldsmith was one author prepared to foot some of his own bill for a memoir of his wartime experiences. The 92-year-old sent his manuscript directly to NPP, which offered him a 50/50 subsidy deal. Goldsmith says he was asked to pay $18,000, but refused. In the end, he paid over $13,000 to have 750 copies edited, printed, distributed and marketed. When he received the draft copy of My War and Peace, he says he had to send it back "with a list of mistakes which were not corrected in the final print".

A Wellington writer who requested she not be named was also disappointed with the finished product, saying that even her own name was misspelt on one page. Both authors would receive 40 percent of net sales revenue in royalty payments, though it's unlikely they will make their money back: it would require double the initial print run in sales to break even.

All part of the rough and tumble world of publishing, perhaps. But Mundy alleges, as does Dunsford, that some of the criticisms of NPP and DPC are part of an agenda driven by the New Zealand Society of Authors. "As you may be aware, the NZSA (or certain individuals within it) are the main opponents of subsidised publishing, and purposely try to give it a bad name by branding all such publishing as 'vanity' publishing ..." Mundy emailed. "It now seems they are trying to attack subsidised publishing publicly, through the article you are writing for the Listener."

Similarly, Dunsford - who has made several threats of legal action during the preparation of this story - wrote in an email to the Listener: "... it became apparent that your journalist was working to the same agenda that rival agencies have used to try to demolish my company for the past decade or more (without success). It also became clear from her questions who was driving this agenda, as she had information only available to NZSA complaints committee, which is supposed to be independent, but is in fact run by rival agencies to us."

Allen denies the allegation that the NZSA is run by rival agencies, and believes this may simply be the result of a misunderstanding by Dunsford of the NZSA's programmes and services and its role as a writers' advocate. Certainly, while the NZSA did provide the Listener with contact details for the writers quoted in this article, it played no other role in the motivation of the story.

"It is nonsense that the NZSA is against subsidy publishing. We're not," Allen says. "What we recommend when it comes to agents and assessors is that members use the services of organisations which have a code of professional practice and strict entry criteria. This ensures that, should a member have a complaint about a service, it can be dealt with in a professional manner.

"We have not published a view as to what is and isn't a vanity press.

"However, we do caution writers, that if they are asked to commit a considerable sum of money for the publication of their book, they should do so only after having researched the market for the current costs for each stage of the publishing process. We also advise them to be aware that their investment is unlikely to be repaid. Finally, we suggest that they research the publisher's ability to market, promote and distribute their book effectively."

On that score, Dunsford says DPC is now considering "pulling out of the marketing side of it completely and going back to just manuscript assessment and writing classes ... and it causes us so much hassle, because it doesn't matter how much we explain to authors what the processes are, you're constantly dealing with rejection and that's a very, very difficult minefield area.

"What I find is that a lot of authors - it's like the romantic myth of marriage and the reality - still want to believe that they're going to be the next J K Rowling or Keri Hulme or whatever and it doesn't matter how many documents you give them, or how many times they will have had the document, it will have been explained in class and explained to them further down the line, they just simply don't want to believe it quite often and that's the hard part. You can explain till it comes out your ears."

YET HOPE SPRINGS ETERNAL, and in the risky game of first-time publishing there is still the occasional winner. Cherry Simmonds is such a case. She wrote Nobody in Particular - a memoir about growing up in Merseyside - and decided to market the manuscript herself, sending it off to publishers here and overseas. No one wanted it, even after it had been read on National Radio and Simmonds was told by the producer that "we have been quite overwhelmed with the level of interest in your book, with several calls enquiring every day about availability". So she self-published, had 300 printed and went off to the Frankfurt Bookfair in Germany, thinking she would be overwhelmed by offers. She wasn't.

Eventually, an agent in the UK expressed interest and, shortly after, her manuscript was sold to Transworld/Random House. The book was released in the UK in May this year, debuted at number 10 on the UK top-10 bestselling author list and when this story went to print it was at number six. Nobody in Particular has sold over 35,000 copies and, Simmonds says, it continues to sell steadily. Also, the audio rights have been sold and there has been interest shown by two UK film companies.

Simmonds is quick to emphasise that her success didn't come without an almighty battle - one she very nearly lost. She now gives talks about self-publishing. Her advice? "Don't."

But what if you think you have a great manuscript? "Unless you get picked up by a major publishing house, don't bother. Throw it in the drawer, because you are going to have a lot of heartache and if you think you are going to make money, forget it."

She is now writing her third book.

SETTING A NEW STANDARD

The best chance anyone has of writing a rotten book and getting it accepted by a mainstream publisher is to get in touch with Penguin Books. What an odd publisher. It has a very good local fiction list - Maurice Gee, Lloyd Jones, Charlotte Randall, Paula Morris. It excels at local history and biography - Michael King, James Belich, Anne Salmond, Ranginui Walker, Vincent O'Sullivan. Penguin is also seemingly committed to local junk, with three new titles in stores next week.

"Some things never change," drones Kevyn Male, in the introduction to his lame photo essay, ON THE BEACH: Where Kiwis love to play ($34.95). "I still get that same buzz today from a Sunday visit to the beach with little Louis, my grandson: plenty of laughter and fun, a good feed, a big ice-cream on the way home." His book offers plenty of uninspired photos of beaches the length of New Zealand.

Co-authored by Stacy Gregg and Cathrin Schaer, UNDRESSED: New Zealand fashion designers tell their stories ($29.95) offers a hack's tour of 15 of the usual suspects - Kate Sylvester (who weeps that she only has one nanny for her kids!, not three as once reported!), Denise L'Estrange Corbet (compared with Mick Jagger), Marilyn Sainty (compared with Buddha), Karen Walker, Trelise Cooper, etc, with a small range of colour images, and a larger range of grainy black-and-whites. Awful cover, too, but no match for the proud awfulness of CHARLOTTE'S SECRETS: Advice I wish I'd taken ($34.95), by the secretive Charlotte Dawson. Issues include depression, career change, gossip, plastic surgery and ... oh, whatever.

- by Steve Braunias

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