Some, but not all, of the participants, publishers and agents.

Some, but not all, of the participants, publishers and agents. Sadly my red ‘power boots’ are barely visible. Nor are my lucky socks.

It’s really easy. All you have to do is spend 2-10 years writing, refining and rewriting your work. Then apply for a place in the ACT Writers Centre’s HARDCOPY Program for emerging writers.

Then, if you are among the 30 or so people accepted, find the cash to pay for the course as well as two (and hopefully three) trips to Canberra. Flights and accommodation. And then arrange or negotiate some childcare too.  Then, after the first two weekend workshops, rewrite your sample piece again and be one of the ten chosen by Mary Cunnane to receive feedback about your work from a diverse set of publishing industry bigwigs.

See? It couldn’t be easier.  Not.

I’ve just spent another weekend in Canberra, at the third and final session of the 2015 HARDCOPY Program.   It was intense. Terrifying. Exhilarating. And, in the end, an extraordinary privilege.

Over the course of two days seven publishers and two literary agents gave each Hardcopier 30 minutes of one-on-one feedback about a 30 page sample of the participant’s work and its accompanying proposal. There was also time for participants to regroup, share their experiences and to have quiet conversations with former agent and publishing industry guru Mary Cunnane about what it all meant.

The agents were Jacinta di Mase (Jacinta di Mase Management) and Pippa Mason (Curtis Brown). The publishers were Meredith Curnow (Penguin Random House); Julian Davies (Finlay Lloyd); Chris Feik (Black Inc); Kate Goldsworthy (Affirm Press); Sophie Hamley (Hachette); Charlotte Harper (Editia); and Henry Rosenbloom (Scribe).

Each day began with a panel session, where the agents and publishers responded to questions about the industry. I should point out that these sessions were wonderfully chaired by Nigel Featherstone, of the ACT Writers Centre. If he stops writing and publishing fiction he definitely has a fall-back career option as a public speaker and conference facilitator. Funny, smart, insightful – the man is the original triple threat!

Five publishers and agents from the above list attended on Saturday, the remaining four on the Sunday. To follow is a summary (from my rough notes) of some of the key points discussed during the panel sesions:

  • Excellent narrative non-fiction is what all publishing houses are looking for.
  • Sales are a mystery. Good or bad, reviews have little influence on sales, although a good review may lead to increased sales to libraries. Any writer would be lucky to sell a dozen books when speaking at a writers’ festival. Social media coverage doesn’t necessarily convert to sales. The large discount stores have a big influence on orders but not necessarily sales – there is a large return rate. Booktopia going well now the Australian dollar has dropped. Even at the biggest publishing houses, they are lucky if more than five titles return a profit.
  • Publishing a book is like putting a message in a bottle – you simply have to hope it finds a receptive shore. Just write a good book.
  • Social media is only worthwhile if the writer can use it authentically. No use participating just because you feel you have to. But make sure you have your contact details available online in case a publisher wants to get in touch!
  • Penguin Random House still has separate editorial teams for Penguin and for Random House. So you have to submit your proposal to each team separately.
  • There is no point chasing a trend – it will be over before publication anyway. And no point making predictions. Who knew about colouring books? Believe in your own project.

Both panels also spent some time talking about what they want to see in an author once the book is selected for publication (or even shortly before):

  • Be professional and courteous. Meet deadlines. Manage your time effectively.
  • Understand that producing a book is a team effort.
  • Don’t be high maintenance – your editor has plenty of other books to work that are equally important as yours. Authors who are a pain to work with won’t be invited back a second time (and word does get around).
  • Patience is a virtue. Submissions aren’t read during business hours but inevitably at nights and on weekends. It takes time.
  • Trust the professionals to do their job and to do what they say they will do. Constant emails requesting updates are an irritant.
  • Be open and prepared to engage with the editing process. It’s a partnership, a collaborative process.
  • Take the feedback, live with and consider it for a little while but take the comments seriously.

After the panel each morning, Hardcopiers launched into our one-on-one interviews, moving from one 30 minute interview to the next without a break. It might have been chaos but the wonderful team at the ACT Writers Centre had us all well under control and everything flowed remarkably smoothly.

The conversations were illuminating.

None of the agents or publishers pulled their punches but the consensus was that their feedback was thoughtful, intelligent and considered. But that didn’t mean it was consistent! Most of us received a spectrum of responses, some of it completely contradictory. That alone taught us a valuable lesson about the varying approaches taken by each of the publishing houses, and about their diverse preferences.

One participant was devastated after her first two feedback sessions: neither of them much liked her work and both thought she needed to completely revise and rework it. But the third loved her writing sample and was keen for the participant to get in touch once the program was over. Later that participant and I discussed her situation. What if we had been sending out our proposals to individual publishers and agents, one at a time? We certainly might have stopped after two solid knock backs and so would never have known that a third was keen. Again, eye-opening stuff.

This sort of insight into the vagaries of who-likes-what might also, I hope, provide at least some comfort to my fellow Hardcopiers who weren’t selected in the final ten. Just because one person (in this case Mary Cunnane) didn’t choose your work doesn’t mean that no-one else will either. And none of the ten third-round participants found our work unanimously lauded either.

Some of the feedback was, as mentioned, pretty confronting although never rude, or personal. Across the board some of the feedback was about voice, some about structure, some about ensuring a consistent narrative thread. We received feedback about how difficult it might be to sell our work, even if the writing was wonderful. Who would the market be? Which shelf would it sit on in the bookshop? What was it actually about?  I should note too that even though the second HARDCOPY workshop placed a firm emphasis on the need for a social media presence, no-one I spoke with mentioned or asked about mine.  The focus was entirely on the work, with passing reference made to the proposal.

But what about me, and my feedback?

For me, it was an overwhelmingly positive experience (although at first it was simply overwhelming). At the end of the first day I just felt kind of shocked. They liked it. They all really liked it and thought I could write. Maybe this could be a real thing after all. There was no euphoria, just a dawning awareness about what might happen if I can spend the next two years working really really hard.

My feedback, like everyone else’s, ranged along a continuum.

To paraphrase, it ranged from ‘Needs more emotional engagement and less of the historical context – could you fictionalise it?’ to ‘Of course don’t fictionalise it. But it needs more intellectual heft and less emotional engagement.’

Written like that it sounds a bit trite, but I have pages and pages of notes from each interview to pore over. Some of the feedback was strategic, some of it was about why I’d used a particular word or sentence structure, some of it was just friendly chat about my background and writing motivations.

As I scan those notes now, some key points include:

  • Who you want to publish it with might influence how you shape the first draft.
  • Very little non-fiction is submitted via the [larger] publishers’ slushpile – so the pieces that are submitted this way tend to stand out.
  • Potential for film and tv rights.
  • Not offering anything new. Not sure if Elizabeth Macarthur is the right subject.
  • To what extent is it a book with a regional focus or a book with a national focus? Publishers prefer the national focus.
  • How far towards fiction can we move it?
  • Incredibly polished first draft.
  • Use more scenes, and include Elizabeth in nearly every one.  Need to see it through her eyes.
  • Avoid ‘amongst’ and use ‘among’.
  • The key selling point will be something like: this book restores a remarkable woman to her proper role in history.
  • Publish in Britain? The British are profoundly uninterested in Australian stories, the Americans even more so.
  • Good enough for serious consideration.
  • Ensure what you say really matters.
  • Difficult to sell as a straight biography, maybe make it about a range of farm women.
  • Elizabeth Macarthur’s story is historically intriguing.
  • Needs more characterization – not setting out to write an academic monograph.
  • Loved it. Inspiring. Entertaining. Engaging.
  • Writing style is confident but at times a bit flat, with a tendency to slip into cliché.
  • Needs more grist to add depth. Why is this relevant, why is this important, what is going on? How does it relate to who she was and why she is important?
  • Ensure there is a gender battle as well as the historical story. Otherwise there is a risk of being a nice middle class person who writes a nice light story.
  • There is a real thirst for these sorts of stories about women.
  • Writing is accomplished, clear and intelligent.
  • I don’t love it, but I do like it.
  • Focus on how powerful the domestic can be. Celebrate the domestic as an economic and social force.
  • Write down seven themes to draw out in discussion – the first three or four should be easy, that’s why you need seven!

See? That’s why I’m still thinking it all through, a week later.  No doubt I’ll be continuing to think about it all for quite a while.

But the main point for me was that nearly every publisher I spoke to was interested in receiving a submission from me. That was huge, and a huge surprise. So my next step is to see if I can find myself an agent and then, with her, think about how best to approach the submission process.

Oh – and I need to actually finish the damn thing too. 2016 looks set to be a very busy year.


In case you haven’t read enough about me, me and me – I’ve written before about the HARDCOPY program: