Monday, 31 October 2016

Submission Agreements

There’s a new contract in town. One you have to sign BEFORE a publisher will even look at your submission. It’s called a submission agreement. But should you sign it?
I came across this a couple of weeks ago, when I was about to submit a non-fiction book proposal to Frances Lincoln. There have been a few changes at the company since the last book of mine they published (Best Walks in the Welsh Borders). They’ve been taken over by an American publisher called Quarto.
Many publishers offer some guidance to potential non-fiction authors about what they like to see in a book proposal, and Quarto helpfully point out on their website the key ingredients they require. But at the bottom of the page they state that all proposals need to be accompanied by a signed submission agreement. You can view that agreement here.
I had no real concerns about the first paragraph. It basically states that you have no claim on any projects that might currently be in the pipeline, or might be developed in the future, by the publisher, which may be similar to the proposal you’re going to submit. 
Writers have similar ideas all of the time. It is possible for two writers to submit similar ideas at the same time - it happens. I’ve experienced this myself. So this clause basically means you can’t get upset if your proposal gets rejected, but another writer’s proposal (which happens to be very similar to yours) is accepted.
But the second paragraph worried me. Firstly, I wasn’t sure I fully understood it. And that should always set the alarm bells ringing. What concerned me though, if my understanding was correct, was that they were claiming I had no claim to any new ideas that may have arisen following any discussions I had with the publishers regarding my proposal. 
Now again, it’s not uncommon for a writer to pitch an idea only to have it rejected by a publisher, but during a discussion between both parties a new idea might emerge which is of interest to them. Sometimes ideas need further development. But what worried me was that the clause seemed to suggest that the publisher could take my idea, tweak it slightly, and develop it without any further credit, or recompense, to me.
So I did what all writers should do: seek help. I contacted the Society of Authors. As a member I’m entitled to use their free contract vetting service. 
You can imagine my shock when Nicola Solomon, Chief Executive of the Society, got in touch directly and advised me not to sign the agreement as it stood. My fears were correct. Apparently, this is a common clause in the American movie world (and remember, Frances Lincoln is now owned by an American company). However, the Society have never seen this used in conjunction with book publishers. They felt this was an extremely troubling development. 
Nicola did make a valid suggestion though: that I contact the publisher, explain my reservations about the second clause and ask if they would still consider my book proposal if I signed the agreement but struck out the second paragraph.
Well, nothing ventured, nothing gained. So I did. 
Now the Frances Lincoln website has an error on it, which I didn’t spot at first. When I clicked on the UK email address for book proposal submissions, it actually inserts the email address for the US publisher, not the UK one, into the email message. So my query went to the US publisher not the UK one, as I originally thought.
It was only when the US publisher replied about half an hour later that I realised what had happened! And their response? Well, to paraphrase it, they said that so many writers were querying the clause because they didn’t understand it they were looking at proposals that didn’t have the signed submission agreement. The US publisher then gave me the UK email address in case I wanted to try them! (Which is when I discovered the website’s error.)
So I emailed the UK publishers with the same query. Again, within about an hour I had a reply. They said I could make a submission and strike out the second paragraph in the agreement, and they might look at my proposal.
Not as clear cut as the American publishers, admittedly. But it does clearly illustrate a point: if you don’t understand a contract, or don’t like something in it, then there’s no harm in asking to change it.
As a result of me making my query, the Society of Authors are now looking into this matter further, with their American counterparts. It’ll be interesting to see what transpires.
If the publisher had insisted I signed their original submission agreement as it stood then I wouldn’t have submitted my proposal to them. (Perhaps that’s their intention: to dissuade writers from flooding their inboxes with non-fiction book proposals. Who knows?)
But by getting the contract clarified, and asking for it to be tweaked, I’m now in the position where instead of dismissing this potential publisher because I didn’t like their submission agreement, I can now submit my proposal on terms that I find more acceptable.
It’s a useful reminder that we shouldn’t sign anything we don’t understand. Nor should we assume that an agreement is written in stone. If you don’t like a particular clause … start negotiating.
Good luck.

Monday, 24 October 2016

How Many Copies For A Bestseller?

Last weekend I was running a series of workshops on behalf of Relax & Write about writing a bestselling non-fiction book. 
Naturally, the question arose about how many copies do you have to sell until you can claim you have a bestseller?
Unfortunately, the answer isn’t straight forward. It all depends … upon how many otherbooks are being bought at the same time. 
Book sales data is collected by Nielson Bookscan who compile their own bestseller lists, which many of our newspapers then reproduce on their book pages. Data is collected from till points across the UK, including most bookshops and many online stores, although they don’t collect sales data from every retailer with a book offering (think of the garden centres, tourist gift shops and even card retailers who sell books). However, they certainly collect a vast amount of data from a wide variety of sources, so their data is a fantastic indicator.
To be on the bestseller lists a book needs to perform well compared with other books out there in the market. What this means is that what might be a good sales performance one week is not enough for the following week.
In December 2003 my book, One Hundred Ways For A Dog To Train Its Human reached number 7 in the top ten non-fiction paperback bestseller lists. To reach that position on that particular week it had sold 5,335 copies. The book in the number 10 slot had sold just over 4,600 copies during the same week. (Number 1 was Stupid White Men by Michael Moore, which sold 11,479.)
The following week my book reached number 3 (I did the happy dance that week, I can tell you!), because it had sold 9,445 copies in the previous seven days.
However, whereas in the previous week it was necessary to sell just over 4,600 copies to make the number 10 position, in this week the book in tenth place had sold just over 6,000 copies. So, in the previous week sales of 4,600 saw the author on the bestseller lists, but the following week 4,600 sales wasn’t enough to claim bestsellerdom.
In the third week of December I reached number 2 of the non-fiction paperback bestseller lists (Yay!), having sold 12,815 copies. Tenth place was taken by a book that had sold 7,310 copies: nearly 3,000 more copies than the tenth placed book two weeks previously. (And for those who want to know, because I know you will, first place on this particular week went to Michael Moore, again, who’d sold 17,262 copies.)
So it’s all a question of relativity. And remember, the examples I’ve given here are for the run up to Christmas, the peak sales period for books. The book at the tenth position on last week’s non-fiction paperback bestseller lists had sold 2,698 copies.
As you can see, having a bestselling book is not just about how good your product is, but also about how well everyone else’s books are selling in comparison to yours, and what the overall demand for books is generally.
Of course, you can’t have a bestseller until you’ve written a book. And no author sits down to write a bestseller. Because no-one knows that magic ingredient that will make a book a bestseller. But what every bestselling author does is sit down to write a book. So if you’re gearing up for NaNoWriMo on 1st November, don’t think about bestsellerdom. Just concentrate on getting the book written first.
Good luck!

Monday, 17 October 2016

Be Explicit!

There’s an excellent article in the Autumn 2016 issue of The Author - the journal for members of the Society of Authors. Called Pulped, it is written by Guy Walters, a journalist and historian, who bravely recounts events that led to one of his books being pulped on the very weekend it was due to be published.

The reason for pulping? Copyright infringement.

However, this was not some underhand or blatant attempt to infringe copyright. Walters had been in contact with the copyright holder. He even provided his publishers with copies of the emails he’d sent to the copyright holder, explaining which passages he was planning to use in his book, and how it would help. (This is one of the reasons why his publisher stood by him, because he could demonstrate that he’d made contact with the copyright holder and explained what he was up to.)

You see, the problem was that even though Walters was in correspondence with the copyright holder, he hadn’t actually, explicitly, requested permission to use the copyright material.

I’m sure many of us would think that if a copyright holder was informed that someone was going to use their protected material they would state if there was a problem with this. Because Walters had explained to the copyright holder of his planned use of the material, and had not been advised that he couldn’t go ahead with this, he’d assumed permission had been granted. Not so, as he found out when the lawyers got involved.

Technically, he’d not specifically requested permission to use the material, so, technically, no permission had been granted to use it, hence the copyright infringement.

Thankfully, for Walters (and because he’d kept all of those emails), his publisher remained committed to the project. He had to rewrite his manuscript, removing all the copyrighted material and any references to it. His book was eventually published two years later.

It’s a compelling reminder that if you want to use someone else’s words in a project of your own, that you intend to publish, you must always seek permission from the copyright holder. If the creator is still alive, or if they died fewer than 70 years ago, the text is still under copyright.

Although copyright law allows for the quoting of some material under ‘fair use’ exceptions, the definitions of ‘fair use’ are not always as clear cut as they could be, which can keep lawyers arguing for some time. The safest solution is always to seek permission (in writing).

There is now a useful website that makes this much easier, if the material you want to quote from is in a book or magazine. Sometimes finding out who the copyright holder is can be challenging. Publishers and imprints gets swallowed up by large conglomerates. Finding the right contact at the permissions department can be difficult. 

Called PLS Clear ( it allows you to search for an ISBN, ISSN, or publication title. The results are returned, from which you can select the relevant organisation, and then proceed to make your request electronically. Most UK publishers are signed up to this scheme, which means the chances of finding the correct rights department to contact are that much greater. If your request is straightforward your permission could be granted within the hour.

The next time you want to quote someone’ else’s work, just stop and think about Guy Walters’ experience. And if that text you want to quote from is in a book or a magazine then check out the PLSClear website. Your permission to quote copyrighted material could be just a few clicks away.

Good luck.

Monday, 10 October 2016

Try, Try, Try Again

On Friday the editor of Outdoor Photography magazine got in touch. He liked one of my photos (attached) and wanted to use it for the Viewpoints section of the magazine in the December issue. As I had already supplied him with the photo, he now needed me to provide the words to accompany the photo. 

It wasn’t until I was adding the acceptance to my database that I realised I’d submitted this particular image for this same section of the magazine a couple of years ago. But on that occasion I was unsuccessful.

See? If at first you don’t succeed …

A rejection from a particular magazine is not necessarily the end of the story for a piece of work. Editors are not just making a decision based upon the quality of the material. They’re also taking into consideration other material that has been submitted, its subject matter, area of coverage, theme, tone and style of the piece. For example, perhaps when I first submitted this image the editor was inundated with other images taken in December in the Lake District. For this particular spread the editor is usually looking for a nice distribution of images from across the UK, so it doesn’t matter how good the images are that have been submitted, if he’s got too many from one particular region, he’s got too many.

Something similar has happened when I’ve submitted short stories and articles. I’ve sold both to the same markets that had previously rejected them. Short stories, in particular, can be rejected simply because an editor has got too many on a similar theme. There are only so many Halloween stories an editor can use at any one time.

The next time a piece of yours is rejected, try not to think the worst. Sometimes all you need to do is try again a bit later.

Good luck. 

Monday, 3 October 2016


Has anyone signed up for NaNoWriMo yet (National Novel Writing Month)? For those of you who don’t know, this is where writers set themselves the challenge of writing 50,000 words of their novel during the month of November. (That’s an average of 1,667 words a day.)

If you’re not used to writing big projects, this can be a great way to get started. Your aim is just to get 50,000 words written. They don’t have to be great words. They’re not perfect words. In fact, you’re not supposed to do any editing at this stage. Just write 50,000 words. At least. 

But that’s quite a challenge: not only are you committing yourself to a big idea (which you hope is big enough to sustain you for at least 50,000 words during November, and then another 20-30,000 words for the rest of the novel), but you’re also committing yourself to writing on a regular basis. Ideally, daily. For some people, especially those not used to writing something every day, NaNoWriMo is two challenges: writing every day and writing 50,000 words.

Which is where my OctoWriMo idea comes in. It’s not about a particular writing project, as such. Or writing as many words as you can. It’s simply about sitting down and writing something EVERY DAY. It’s about creating that daily writing habit.

It can take up to 28 days to form and habit and as today is 3rd October, there are 28 days until 1st November and the start of NaNoWriMo, if you take action tomorrow.

So why not make NaNoWriMo a little easier this year by tackling OctoWriMo? Make October a month of writing. Anything. It doesn’t matter what. Just write. Something. Every day.

Don’t give yourself a word count target. That’s not the point of the exercise. The task is to make sitting down somewhere and doing some writing a daily habit. A habit that will put you in good stead for November. Do that and you’re half way to achieving NaNoWriMo. Then all you need to do is to come up with a good idea for your novel. Easy. See?

Good luck.