Things no one tells you about being a literary publisher

Date

Pippa Mason

Pippa Masson in her Sydney office.

Pippa Masson in her Sydney office.

To be a literary agent you have to have an eye for good writing – an eye that is honed through years of practice. At Curtis Brown we get between eight and 10 submissions daily. It's a lot and we take on less than 1 per cent of them.

I have to admit, the majority are pretty bad. What strikes me is that if anyone were applying for a job they would do it in a professional manner, whereas some people submit manuscripts in a very offhand way.

They don't tend to do any research on who we represent and why we might like a certain book. They even write "Dear Sir" when there are no men in our office. People are often very under-prepared and that is a cardinal sin.

One of the worst manuscripts I ever read was from a man who kept submitting to us. He was completely bonkers. He lived in a retirement village and wrote fantasies about group sex with other retirees. It was rambling retirement-village erotica. We had to tell him to stop because, frankly, it got a little bit creepy.

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We get sent so many gifts; silly things like a teabag with a manuscript, which does not work. Neither does chocolate.

A publisher I know was at the Romance Writers' Association Conference a while back. She went to the bathroom and someone slipped a manuscript under the cubicle door while she was on the toilet – the ultimate in networking!

Romance writers are quite aggressive networkers and are very good at getting their faces in front of publishers and agents. It's a huge market because these novels are a daily habit for many readers.

You have to have a reasonably healthy ego to get published because you have to deal with criticism on lots of fronts. It's mostly professional reviewers, but readers on Goodreads (goodreads.com) are the worst – anonymous keyboard warriors picking things apart. It can be psychologically crippling for writers.

I am used to stroking authors' egos and patting them on the head but sometimes people do take it to the extreme. I had one client, whom I no longer represent, who would text me at night "CALL ME RIGHT NOW" to talk about the book's cover or a minor editorial query.

Lots of authors need reassurance, which can be hard work. Some need to be told how brilliant they are, some need to have endless long conversations about their manuscript and what would work better here or there. Most of my clients are well-behaved and don't need to be patted a lot, but I also understand that it is part of what we do.

I also have clients who deserve to have massive egos and don't, like Hannah Kent who wrote Burial Rites, which has been a big seller in many countries. I keep waiting for her to have a diva turn and it hasn't happened.

We have another writer, Deb Hunt, who writes "Australiana" – her first book was a memoir called Love in the Outback and her second was a collection called Australian Farming Families. When I first sold her memoir, I thought it would do well, but it sold a lot more than I expected. Part of the reason is that she did a lot of tireless promotion, attending events in regional areas to support the country market.

I also represent the Kenneth Cook Estate. Cook is a deceased author who wrote Wake in Fright, the famous novel that was turned into a film starring Jack Thompson. Cook's other novels are just as great but they've proved almost impossible to sell here. In France, on the other hand, he is massive. They have most of his backlist!

Writers of women's fiction often sell better in other countries. For instance, Katherine Scholes' books are massive sellers in Germany. The French and German markets like beautiful writing in a foreign setting.

There is always a market for memoirs because they make great gifts, which is why a lot come out before Christmas.

But the big trends at the moment are colouring-in/mindfulness books, and wellness/diet books – anything to do with self-development, wellbeing and nourishing yourself currently sells. Books covering military history or any type of Australiana are also very popular.

For me as a reader, the most important thing is to be won over. I also look for a really clear pitch and beautiful writing. A recent example is a novel by Kim Lock which will be published this year – I couldn't put it down.

I am constantly keeping an eye out for what is selling. Domestic noire in women's fiction is a new trend, which Kim Lock fits into perfectly.

It's devastating for an author if a book does not sell well (generally anything less than 1000 copies) and it is hard for us as well – we take books on because we believe in them. It is also very hard for us to tell them, just heartbreaking. Most authors have a second job; in fact, we always tell them to keep their day job.

An advance these days can be anything between $3000 and $200,000. If you're selling more than 10,000 copies in Australia that's great, but if someone is paid $200,000 and sells 6000 copies, then that's not so good.

My philosophy is that you can't be a writer if you don't read. So many wannabe writers don't read books, and that is how you hone your craft. That, for me, is the absolute key. 

As told to Georgia Cassimatis.