Ask the Expert

22 Nov

answers from Ra Page on The Short Story and Indie Publishing

Ra is the Founder and Editorial Manager of Comma Press, a not-for-profit publishing initiative dedicated to promoting new fiction and poetry, with an emphasis on the short story. It is committed to a spirit of risk-taking and challenging publishing, free of the commercial pressures on mainstream houses.

What are the qualities which a writer needs to have in order to write a good short story, versus a longer novel?
An ability to write backwards… essentially. You can’t start a short story like you start a novel. Novelists sit down and (in most cases) just start writing. They don’t know where it’ll go and it’s only in the writing, and the redrafting and editing, that it finds itself. With a short story, you need to have the turning point or the central image in place first, and then devise a story that leads up to, and supports, that apex. It’s kind of like the Swift’s Lilliputian professors in the Academy of Lagado, trying to building houses by starting with the roof and then working down. It’s not just the roof you have to start with, it’s the ridge-plate that sits at the very top of the roof.

What do you think is fundamental to the short story form?
Structure. An awareness of how the short story is, at its core, an ending (or at least a change, which is a kind of an ending). Everything in a short story is leaning towards that ending but at the same time pointing the other way, misdirecting the reader, for as long as possible, so the ending is a genuine surprise (and only inevitable in hindsight).

I've had some success writing short films and I've recently adapted one of my feature scripts into an 87,000-word Fantasy/Comedy novel & wondered if you had any tips on where to go from here?
Sounds like you need to get an agent, to place the book for you with a publisher. First thing to do is look at other books (ideally books that have since been adapted into films), and find out (a) which agent or agency represents them and (b) which publishers deal specifically with that genre. Publishers and agents work strictly within certain pigeon holes – asking a publisher or agent about a type of book they don’t normally deal with is not just a waste of time, it’s worse, it will give people the impression you really don’t know what you’re doing. So do your research first, and make sure you know the field of who publishes who and who represents who first. Then when you’re absolutely sure you’ve got the right fit, send a spanking a first chapter, synopsis and covering letter to the right agent suggesting one or two right publishers who might be interested in this type of book, talk about your book in terms of it being ‘in the mould of X’ even if it’s not. Don’t say it’s ‘unique’, everyone says that surprisingly enough, and of course it never is! Also remember that agents and publishers are inundated with piles and piles and piles of manuscripts and their inbuilt survival mechanism is constantly on the lookout for weaknesses and reasons to reject a submission. A typo on the cover note (or in the synopsis, or the first page of the book) is enough reason enough to hit the ‘REJECT’ button. So make sure it’s inch-perfect before you send anything.

Be up-front about your longer term plans as well, but don’t come across as too overconfident, show your willingness to work hard towards specific goals. If you’re lucky and an agent takes you up they will in turn try to represent your film rights as well.

Can you explain the financial relationship between the publisher and the writer?
Publishers usually pay authors an advance, which is technically speaking a loan against expected income through royalties. They will then specify a royalty figure – say, 7% – which is a percentage of all net income from sales of the book that will be paid to them (note: this is net income and NOT the RRP/ cover price). Initially, this royalty rate will be offset against the advance. But when the royalty percentage has made an amount equal to the advance, then and only then royalty payments will start to be paid additional to the advance. This is why often for the first few years the royalty statement sent to authors totals a negative figure (i.e. the royalty payments haven’t reached the advance figure yet, so nothing more is due). If the royalty totals never reach the advance figure then no further payments are ever made.   

The exception to this is rule with anthologies, where the payment for a single story, poem or essay (appearing alongside other people’s contributions) is usually a one-off payment, not an advance.  

In return for these payments the author will licence certain rights to the publisher, these will start with the publication or volume rights (usually exclusive for a certain period of time) but often they also include subsidiary rights – e.g. translation rights, foreign (English language) rights, serialisation rights, adaptation rights, etc, or a proportion of these rights. These days they also often include eBook rights and smartphone app rights. Any sale of such subsidiary rights is counted as part of the ‘net income’ referred to above.

Do you deal with literary agencies and do I need to get an agent before I can get published?
Comma does not deal with agents, as it’s an independent. As to whether you should get an agent, well, that depends… If you’re a short story writer and want to carry on being a short story writer, then no. Likewise if you’re a poet. If you’re a (non-academic) non-fiction writer or a novelist, then absolutely, yes. (And if you’re a short story willing to be moulded into a novelist, then also yes!)
The thing about agents is all they want to do is hike up your value (e.g. your advance, your appearance fees, etc) to all comers, and then take their 20% of every payment. They’re money-makers, that’s it. This is great if your chosen form is an innately commercial one – like the novel. But if it’s not – like short fiction or poetry – then don’t bother. An agent will only try to persuade you to write a novel, otherwise they won’t be able to sell your work to anyone at a rate that makes it worth their while, so they won’t touch you.   

Also, if you’re working in short fiction or poetry, it’s most likely that you’ll be thinking of the independent publishing sector, and frankly independents cannot work with agents. Agents just make it impossible for the two parties to get on. Everything they do and demand and expect makes it impossible (and also very unpleasant). From Comma’s point of view, several book projects have completely fallen through entirely because the author has an agent (even when the author’s been willing).    

So, yeah, it’s complicated.

What makes independent publishing different from other types of publishing?
Indies have editors in the old fashion sense of the word, whilst mainstream publishing houses have ‘acquisitions editors’ – which means they acquire manuscripts which have already been developed by an agent. This acquisition is a two-sided balancing act: with their left hand they’re bidding for a book from a selling agent, usually bidding against other publishers, and with their right hand they’re trying to convince their own sales, marketing and finance departments that the book (or the two-book deal) is worth the figure they propose, that they can make the numbers work for them. 

This means the only people doing real development work on the manuscripts are the agents. Publishers will touch up manuscripts (this is usually done by editorial assistants and production editors, not acquisitions editors). But by the time a book gets to a major publishing house it’s already a fait accompli. As I say, the agents are ultimately just money-making machines, which means, overall, the mainstream publishing world is set up to develop commercial literature, not literature per se. You might argue, ‘T’was ever thus’, but the emergence of the agent as the ultimate editorial arbiter is a relatively new thing, and the shift of ‘editorial power’ from the publishers to the (commercially-minded) agents is a little worrying.

In complete contrast to this, independent publishers are the editors, they’re the real deal –they develop the manuscript personally. Indie editors have more time to do this, there isn’t as much at stake, and there isn’t the weight of corporate expectation pressing down on them.

Let me put it another way. Take a good look at an indie editor next time you see one – he or she probably isn’t that well dressed; money, fancy suits and fast cars probably aren’t that important to them. In other words, they’re doing it for other reasons: probably – to hazard a guess – for the love of good literature. Which means they will develop the text in the direction of ‘good literature’, rather than in the direction of ‘commercial literature’.    

Now ask yourself: what kind of publisher do you want to be with?

Have you got any top tips for a novice writer?
Have patience – patience with the people you ask to read your work, patience with workshop members who give you feedback, patience with the text itself, patience with the publishers, agents and everyone else who want to help you, if only you’ll have patience with them. Most of all, patience with yourself. Otherwise you’re really not taking yourself seriously, are you?