Thursday, December 16, 2010

Menage a Trois- Part 2

A few months ago I was involved in a three-way email discussion/interview with two writers I admire Tania Hershman (author of the short story collection The White Road and Other Stories) and Sue Guiney (whose most recent book is A Clash of Innocents). Today we are posting the interview on our respective blogs in three parts.

Read Menage a Trois- Part 1 at Tania's blog here.

Menage a Trois- Part 2

This is fun! And very interesting. Is there anything you'd like to ask each other while I am formulating my thoughts?

Ooh yes. Lauri, my dear: you once mentioned on a blog comment that agents aren’t used or needed in the Botswana publishing industry. I’m ashamed to say I know almost nothing about how the business works where you are and I assume you might know something about the UK or US industry. Are there any other differences that you’ve noticed, and if so, do you find some differences better than others?

Thanks both...

Hello Girlies!
I thought what Sue said in this bit below about plays being visual and short stories and novels appearing more in a certain time frame to be very interesting. Maybe you can speak a bit more about this. Being a child of TV, almost everything I write is in scenes- especially genre stuff. I almost even break for commercials. I find it interesting that you compartmentalise in such a way.

What I meant about writing for money is that many people believe it compromises the work. I’d lie if I said it does not stop me from writing certain things- it does. If I can’t see the market, I don’t write it I just don’t have time for that and in that sense I suppose it does compromise the art of my writing a bit. But then too, I feel like I’m a bit more of a technician than an artisan.

Sue, you asked a bit about the difference between writing here and the writing climate in UK. Since most of my stuff is published here and in South Africa I can write about both of these places as they are similar, though Botswana on a much smaller scale. Publishers in Botswana (exclusively) and in SA (mostly) publish books for the school market. That is where they make their money and that is where writers will make their money if they intend to. There is a microscopic trade market in Botswana that is filled to the brim with international titles. Botswana titles do not stand a chance. I have two detective novellas, one published in 2005 which has earned P290 (USD 48) and one published in 2008 which has earned P799 (USD 133) from sales in bookstores. The publishers know nothing about marketing such books. That first book (2005) has now been taken as a prescribed book for junior secondary schools here. In April I will get a cheque for P130,000 (USD 21,600) and I will get about half to a third of that each year for the next five years. You can see the difference. In SA the trades are a bit better and occasionally you get a break out novel from SA- for example the Spud books, which exploded selling maybe 80,000 and now are going overseas and there will be movies etc.. A bestseller in SA is normally 2000-4000 books sold in bookstores, they have a population of about 47 million. We have 1.8 million. It is tough to make a living from those kinds of figures.
Of course there are writers here and in SA that don’t use local publishers and have agents etc and publish overseas. They of course do better in the trades.

I don’t really know about this one but I hear writers in USA and UK talking about editors and the big role they play in their success. Here we deal directly with publishers, even in SA, at least in my experience, except recently with the editor I was dealing with for my short story collection,. But we deal with publishers. They get editors, usually on a freelance basis, and then give you a report. I’ve never really known my editors or communicated with them and they are very ephemeral so I don’t think they’d play a very big role in my career. Then too, I’m not loyal to a single publisher. Currently for my published books I have five publishers, only my local Botswana one am I slightly loyal to.

This is very interesting stuff, really enlightening about the book market in Botswana/SA. Sue, can you shed any light on any differences between UK and US from what you've heard from US writer friends?

This may be a ten-part series, this interview - with commercial breaks!

Hi kids,
Monday morning after a somewhat sleepless night where I couldn’t turn off my brain. Of all the crazy, counterproductive stuff I was thinking about, this conversation of ours is one of the few things that isn’t driving me crazy right now, so I’m thrilled to start the week off with some responses to this latest instalment.

When I was a kid, I assumed that the way my world conducted itself in my little corner of suburbia was the way everything worked the world round, ie that we all had the same electricity, the same tv shows, the same brands of cereal. But then I met my first box of Weetabix. I feel the same now as I learn about the way the publishing industry runs around the world. What you have described, Lauri, is as different from what I have experienced in the UK and US as could be. Where I write and attempt to be published, writers are completely compartmentalized. Writing for schools is a very separate, specialized segment of the market. They have their own divisions of publishing houses, their own requirements and procedures. All that has nothing to do with the writing world I function in. My writing world is also very compartmentalized, but by genre with the most successful ones (financially) being in whichever genre is deemed to be the most popular at the time. Right now it seems to be memoir and celebrity bios, with some high profile detective/suspense novels thrown in. Agents are the gatekeepers to the large houses, and that means to the big distributors. You can’t break in without them. This is especially true in the US. Holding an academic position is also helpful — especially in the States, or so it seems to me. This has caused me to think quite seriously about trying to get a teaching position in a Uni somewhere, although to teach because I want to write instead of because I want to teach seems churlish to me, but that may change. I now find myself wondering if I would be approaching what and how I write very differently if I lived in a country whose markets and industries were run as yours are. It’s fascinating to me how our work is affected by such things. You say you are “a bit more of a technician than an artisan “. A very interesting and telling statement. Shouldn’t we need to be both? How do the vagaries of our individual markets force us into feeling one way more than another. I do want to say, though, that I think new technologies are forcing changes in the industry as it is run up here. I know you’ve heard me say this before and I don’t believe it’s only wishful thinking. The fact that books can be printed on demand or downloaded may well be the saviour of the small press. If small presses which are not only willing but eager to publish things like poetry, literary fiction, short stories can remain viable, then the reading public will have a greater choice of what to read and writers will have more freedom to write what they wish.

But if I can go back to my midnight brain override, one of the things I was worrying/wondering about does affect our discussion, namely how do we decide what we write. It has always been my experience, as I’ve said, that the genre dictates itself depending on the concept, image or character. I’ve also found that this often is directly related to the time frame the piece will develop in. But I now find that I am in a complete muddle about something I’m writing, and Tania, you know where I’m going with this. I have a character who’s been living in my head for years. I know everything there is to know about this man and I’ve tried to write his story in short story form twice. But I now am wondering if his story really would work better as a novel (God help me) and if so, why? But even more to the point, why do I want to insist on this being a short story? Because I haven’t written one in a while? Because I want to have something to enter into a competition? If I had an agent and a publisher presenting me with a 2-book deal, would I even be considering writing this as a story? Technician or artisan?

Ready for Menage a Trois Part 3?
Pop over to Sue Guiney's blog-Writing Life!


Sue Guiney said...

This was such fun, Lauri. Hey - maybe we should turn it into a text book for Botswana schools? Always thinking.....:-0

Adele Ward said...

This is certainly interesting and it was great to hear how publishing works in South Africa.

To comment on a couple of points, it's true that you need an agent to get into a large publishing house in the UK or US, but with profit margins being so tight for independents many smaller publishers prefer to deal directly with authors.

I do know that authors have a good amount of contact with their editors with large publishing houses as well as small ones, so that's a difference between the UK and South Africa. I was just talking to my novelist friend Joe Treasure about this a week or so ago.

The two-book deal with a large publisher isn't necessarily the great step authors might think. Large publishers also have trouble selling books, especially for mid-list authors, and those authors still worry that the third book won't be taken on. It's not easy for anybody (apart from bestsellers and authors the publisher has chosen to invest in with major promotion) to get into bookshops and to get their name known. They all have to really work at it and collaborate with the publisher by trying to get a following.

As for teaching, that's also a bit different in the UK and US. It can count for or against you. I know a lot of people who will give a book a bad review if it seems to come out of academia in any way, and people will deliberately play down the fact that they have done an MA or that they teach.

On the other hand, having a creative writing MA or a teaching post would help you at least get your submission read by some publishing houses. It's also good for me to know a book has gone through the critique of an MA workshop. It doesn't necessarily mean that book will be accepted - not all MA students achieve that, and it's only the small minority who do.

If a teacher also has a great book, it's an advantage that they have a following. I believe a link to academia helps more in the US.

Lauri said...

Yes Sue this was fun, and fascinating.

I am now back to trying to find an agent for my adult novel, I want it published off the continent if possible. It is a humbling bit of work. Got a rejection in 45 mins the day before yesterday. :( It almost makes me want to stay here in my nice little Southern African cocoon.

Unknown said...

Great discussion, Lauri. I find a lot of similarities between how publishing operates in Botswana and Nigeria, only difference being that there is "supposedly" over 150 million Nigerians...This alone should be a publisher's dream. Capturing just 5% of the market will be a healthy feat!

Lauri said...

Jude- I'm curious- what is considered a best seller in Nigeria? Do you have a well established trade market?

In Botswana selling to the trades there is nothing. I have a friend who self publishes children's books in a very unique way, she sells about 2000 of each title and she is by far the best selling trade market Motswana author in the country.

Judy Croome | @judy_croome said...

Very interesting and open discussion. As an unpublished author I always thought the journey ended once a publisher said yes...I'm realising that's when the really hard work starts!

Good luck with placing your adult novel off continent Lauri!
Judy(South Africa)

Unknown said...

Hi Lauri, hmmmm! A bestseller will be a book that sells anything from 5,000 copies and above. Established trade market!!! Lol! There is a market, however, their are no infrastructure to support it; no viable distribution structure, no book chain stores; authors published in the north may never get read in the south and vis-a-vis...the challenges are immense. But somehow, writers have been managing in the harsh climate and books are finding their way to readers hands...

Unknown said...

Ooops! Meant to say: There is a market. However, there are no infrastructure to support it...

Vanessa Gebbie said...

Just popping in to say how much I am enjoying this series, ladies! Lauri - I responded to a point you raised on Sue's blog... thanks for raising it! vx

Anonymous said...

Really enjoyed it. Very informative and the title just got me straight away. Are you sure none of you work in marketing? You know what they say - sex sells. Haha.

Thank you all for the tips and advice. Wishing you much continued success!