Have you ever wondered just what goes on at a writer’s conference? I spent last weekend learning about the ins and outs of commercial fiction publishing, with bestselling author Fiona McIntosh and an impressive panel of industry heavyweights who’d come along to share their wisdom with 120 bright-eyed writers just like me, at Fiona’s inaugural national conference: ‘NatCON’.

Prologue #fionamcmasterclass

The NatCON attendees came from far and wide across Australia, all of us alumni of Fiona’s Masterclasses, in which she provides a guiding hand into the world of commercial fiction – a role Fiona took over from her own mentor; Bryce Courtenay.

Wine barrel and view over winery
The view from O’Leary Walker Wines in the Clare Valley, South Australia

In the picture-perfect grounds of O’Leary Walker Wines in South Australia’s Clare Valley, we were treated to a three day insight into the world of writing, pitching, publishing and book-buying and selling. Those sharing their wisdom (in addition to our fabulous Fiona) included:

Chapter 1. Michael Robotham – keynote speaker

Michael shared the story of how he jumped from a career in journalism and ghostwriting to become an overnight success in crime fiction. Michael’s advice about writing was practical and to-the-point – in short, you have to write because you love it, and hope the planets align to bring publishing success afterwards.

Chapter 2. What publishers want

The publishing panel shared what they each look for in a story. Editors obviously have subjective tastes and there are lots of factors in whether they’ll be interested in buying a story, but everyone agreed a good story makes the reader care, and pulls them in straight away – so having a solid first paragraph and first few pages is critical. The publisher needs to love and believe in something in order to buy it – and they have to consider how many slots are available, if they have other similar titles on board already, and where a story will sell.

The author must know what they’re writing, where it fits in the market and who the audience is. What makes your book interesting and what sets it apart from others? Who would it sit next to on the shelf? The book needs a clear genre to be marketable – many readers want to know what to expect, and the publisher’s marketing team and booksellers need to know where the book would sit on a bookstore shelf.

Like any business, trends and tastes change in publishing. These days, readers want a story that gets to the point, and information that is delivered in as short a way as possible. Publishing takes time – it could be two years before a book is released, with consideration to whether the manuscript needs work to finish, and what month is best suited for its release.

Chapter 3. Openings and endings

See my live-posts from this session on Twitter

Chapters 4 and 5. Romance and pitching your story to publishers

The publishers talked about romance in writing, and how it continues to be a huge market for women readers.

From there, they moved onto advice for authors pitching to publishers, which was a godsend considering many of us pitched formally and informally during the course of the conference.

  • Your written query should include some information about you, your writing background and your ‘real life hook’ – what is it about you that gives you authority in what you’ve written about? Are you a member of any writing groups? Keep it to a couple of pages maximum, and include your pitch, a sample chapter.
  • Including comparison titles shows you read in the genre, know your reader market, and contextualises possible sales and marketing for the book. Keep comparison titles reasonably current – don’t go further back than a year or two.
  • A synopsis should tell the end of the story, unlike a blurb which is more like back-cover copy and shows that you know the market.
  • It helps to show you’ve made the effort to have a social media presence, even if follower numbers aren’t high, but the publishers won’t care if you don’t have a media platform yet if the manuscript is fantastic. All the publishing houses help their writers develop an author platform and do media training.

    Some of the goodies I picked up at NatCON
  • The publishers are eyeballing the author as much as their manuscripts – have we made the effort to establish a brand and following? Are we willing to do what we need to market our books? Support other writers?
  • Australian publishers accept unsolicited submissions, unlike the overseas markets which almost exclusively require authors to have an agent. Many publishers have open door submission periods and opportunities, such as the Friday Pitch.
  • Research the publisher to see what they want before submitting – and make sure you stick to their submission guidelines.
  • Be proactive to learn how authors promote themselves – what do other authors do and what works for them?
  • Take courses in professional development e.g. public speaking, and practice. Confidence comes from preparation.

Chapter 6. Self-publishing

Andy McDermott from Publicious describes self-publishing as an alternative – not a replacement – to traditional publishing. His company helps authors to cover all the aspects of self-publishing, retaining control of the publishing process without getting ripped off by unscrupulous companies, and achieving an end product that can be as professional as a traditionally published book. Andy discussed the various aspects that go into self-pubbing, including best-practice approaches to editing, type-setting, cover design, buying ISBNs, printing, ebooks, distribution and marketing.

For me, being someone who’s never seriously considered self-pubbing, Andy helped me to understand that it doesn’t have to be daunting, but he still stressed the importance of the author being prepared to work hard, including with their own marketing.

Chapter 7. Masterclass alumni success stories

Successfully published masterclass alumni Adam Cece, Dianne Maguire, Tricia Stringer, Juliet M. Sampson, and Susan Murphy shared their very different journeys into the publishing world.

Chapter 8 and 9. Author self-promotion, websites and social media presence

Jason Lehman, Nick Croydon and Michael Robotham shared tips and tricks for authorial self-promotion, and how to manage a successful website and social media presence.

Self-promotion for authors

  • Worry about writing the book first!
  • When your book is due out, consider bookstores, local radio, magazines and online forums as avenues to assist with promotion.
  • Go along to festivals and conferences. You may not sell any books there but it helps to get yourself known and to reach people.
  • Children’s authors can do school visits.

Websites and social media for authors

  • Keep your website updated and relevant. Use it as the lynchpin to link to your other social media platforms. If people are interested what you say on your platforms, they’ll come back to your website.
  • Keep it simple, with easily readable fonts and good quality images.
  • Don’t always post about your book or readers will switch off.
  • If you can’t do it yourself, find someone who can, and if you pay for a professional website, make they’re someone reputable who sets up a site you can maintain and update yourself.
  • Make sure your site has a data responsive design i.e. it renders properly on a personal computer/laptop, phone and tablet.
  • Take domain ownership by buying your domain name and its variations e.g. with your middle initial, and country codes. If someone is cyber-squatting on your domain name there is nothing you can do about it.
  • Websites are an enourmous commitment. Your website can be set up to include social media feeds that will pull content from your other platforms and help your website appear current.
    • In a spontaneous pop-quiz, most of the audience said they look for authors on Instagram, seconded by Facebook and Twitter, with a few people interested in websites, and a mere handful who’d look on YouTube.
  • Beware of feeding any trolls, because they thrive on interaction. A good approach is to hide their posts without deleting them, so the troll and their troll-mates can still see the post but no-one else can. Deleting troll posts will encourage them to come back and post more.

Chapter 10. Bookstores

The bookseller panel discussed the changing dynamics in bookstores, and how independent bookstores, chains, online and the discount department stores all play a role in an author’s success of getting to print, and reaching readers.

It’s important that authors be willing to market and sell their books, including traveling to small regional towns for library and bookstore appearances. You need to be able to connect with the community and customers to sell more books – including getting to know your local bookseller.

The takeaway message was be prepared to help yourself and do everything you can to promote your books and learn from it. Being nice to people is important!

Chapter 5. The evergreen genres

The publishers and booksellers commented that historical fiction, thrillers, dual-timelines, and crime are always popular, with Aussie crime fiction being reinvigorated by Jane Harper’s rural crime noir.

The million dollar question – why aren’t the big Australian publishers interested in speculative fiction?

Aussie speculative fiction suffered from Borders and Angus & Robertson closing down, and local emerging writers are competing for the attention of local publishing houses who are selling the books of overseas authors who have massive backing and marketing from being picked up by the publisher’s international offices. Aussie spec fic authors aren’t getting the sales needed to renew interest from the “big 5” local publishers, although the booksellers all said speculative fiction continues to be one of their best selling genres. Go figure…and thank god for the small publishing houses like Pantera who are willing to take the chance on Aussie spec fic.

Chapter 6. The end

Fencepost and crops
Farmland in Auburn, South Australia

After finishing the weekend with a morning of pitching our stories to the publishers, we drifted out of wine country with our minds full with a whirlwind of valuable information, and hearts full of hope for our individual writing journeys.

It was such a fabulous experience to meet the industry professionals, pitch to the publishers and spend time with such a funny and talented group of people. A big thank you to Fiona and her support crew and the team at O’Leary Walker Wines, all of who worked tirelessly to pull off a successful conference, answer all our millions of questions and keep us fed and caffeinated over the weekend.

I’m keenly awaiting Fiona’s next NatCON, whenever it may occur, and in the meantime I’ll continue to work at finding a publisher for my low fantasy manuscript, The Silver Tattoo, and getting stuck into a new story.