The title – how grand to dispense ‘advice’ – might be misleading. For all of you who’ve come here thinking I’m some sort of ‘guru’, I shall most honestly admit I’m not. I don’t have a reassuringly long list of published books. Just the one. (I spent fifteen minutes trying to decide whether I should hyperlink that. I don’t want this to be a post about my books. Although in case you’re interested it’s here here here!)
I presume you have a finished manuscript in hand, or are in the process of finishing one (or several, if you’re like me and enjoy juggling things around) and are now, or soon, looking to unleash your precious progeny upon the world. You’re searching for a publisher. You’re thinking (or not) about literary agents. Should I? Shouldn’t I? What’s a good contract? (Will I ever get a contract?) Once again, I’m not claiming expertise, but I write this with the small benefit of hindsight. The long coolness and comfort of knowing nothing can be changed. It helps that I’ve been there not so long ago.
Every now and again, I make a note to self – Next time I should do this… – and wish I’d had someone to advise me so earlier. Not to say that it hasn’t gone well so far. In comparison to a few other ‘first-time’ horror stories I’ve heard, working with the people at Random House has been wonderful. Yes, you’re embarking on a wonderful literary adventure. But it helps to store a few pennies in the drawer.
A good friend and mentor told me You only have one shot at a first book. This is a mantra for even when you’re still rewriting and revising your first few drafts. Writing a book should be fun, but it’s a part of you that you’re sending out into the world. It needs to be the best that it can be. And unless you’re Françoise Sagan, who apparently wrote Bonjour Tristesse overnight, this means hard work. My friend’s line is also a mantra in general, for the process of being published. There’s no hurry. Take your time – to decide which agent, publisher, book cover, and most most importantly, which editor.
- This brings me to a question I’ve been asked several times by other fellow young writers – “Should I get an agent?” Less than a year ago, I answered in an email: “I’ve heard getting an agent is useful – but I didn’t really try to find out. Not yet. Am thinking I should for my next book?” If you asked me again now, I’d say yes. Even though another literary friend and mentor said the only difference she found, with an agent, was that publishers reverted much faster, I’m still sticking to a resounding Yes. I tend to be unplanned about things and not strategize – to be honest, at the time, I was just happy to have my book published – but I can see now that a good literary agent would help take care of negotiations, rights, publicity. All the things I’m terrifically useless at. Also these are things that might get in between you and your moleskine. How to find an agent? I’m not quite certain. Some people have fabulous connections. Some get lucky. Some persevere. Perhaps all three. When I find one I’ll be sure to let you know.
- If you’re going ahead without an agent and dealing with publishers on your own, wait until they’ve all given you an answer, so you can make, what I’ve been told is called in (corporate speak) an “informed decision.” This might sound pedantically commonsensical, but always send your manuscript to more than one publisher. In fact, send it to all the publishers (within reason, of course), whose lists you think your books fits into well. If you must choose between similar offers, go with your heart. (See what I mean about not strategizing?)
- Or choose the one with an editor with whom you share a strong connection. See how responsive he or she is to your emails, how enthusiastic, whether they ‘get’ not just your work, but you. In my case, my editor comes from the same part of the country where I grew up, and since my stories were intricately linked to place and landscape, I felt she understood them well, and could then concentrate on how they could be more meaningful and layered. (She also promised me a great cover and I trust her visual eye.)
- If you’re keen to publish your book outside your country, try negotiate the ‘world rights’ clause in your contract. Approaching a foreign publisher with that intact might be easier. Publishing houses push their books at fairs and festivals, but they usually have a long, long list and may not be able to heap particular attention on yours. If you want to earn a living as a writer in India, you more likely than not need to have your book published in Europe and America. Unless, of course, you write a desi 50 Shades Of. (Shiver.)
- And now we skip ahead to when your book’s published. If you’re having a book launch in a city where your publishers aren’t based, make sure you’re carrying a box of your books with you. You might think this a strange suggestion, but I landed up at the cafe in Bangalore for my reading and the courier from Delhi hadn’t arrived. Panic. Phone calls. More panic. To cut a long story short, it didn’t reach on time. Not anyone’s fault, as these things happen – who knows what magic portal courier packages disappear into – but it would have helped if I had more than two copies of my book with me, which I held up to my sweetly patient audience, saying, ‘This is it, folks. Have a look!’
- I’m only adding this because 7 is supposed to be lucky. Not true. I do have another important point. If you can, negotiate the clause in your contract regarding the cover – that the book cover and everything on it (quotes, blurb, praise, etc), finally needs to be approved by you. Many people will have an opinion on what your book should look like – your editor, the sales department – and while I’m sure no one sets out to deliberately make their author unhappy, it’s reassuring to know you won’t end up with a book you don’t think looks pretty on a shelf.
Finally, remember, it’s your book. As a first-time author, you’re bound to feel overwhelmed and unsure. You might think everyone else has done this for longer and knows better. And yes, you’ll be surrounded by people who you can learn from, that’s the wonderful part about working with a team. But don’t allow anyone – your publisher, agent, friends, family, editor, vegetable vendor, boy/girlfriend, neighbour – to coerce or bully you into adding (or excluding) something that doesn’t sit well with your vision of the book. Whether on the cover or in between the pages. It’s yours. Cherish it. And have a cupcake. You earned it.