Ep 161: A playlist for writer’s block. Plus meet Allen & Unwin publisher Louise Thurtell

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podcast-artworkIn Episode 161 of So you want to be a writer: Discover the unfortunate truth about most writers and listen to an awesome playlist for writer’s block. Avoid the top manuscript formatting mistakes and find out how to earn more than six figures as a freelancer. You could win a copy of Pamela Hart’s latest book, A Letter From Italy. Plus meet Allen & Unwin publisher Louise Thurtell. We also share platform building tips and much more!

Click play to listen to the podcast or find it on iTunes here. If you don’t use iTunes you can get the feed here, or listen to us on Stitcher radio.

Review of the Week
From Kirstie:

This has to be one of the best podcasts available for aspiring authors. Informative, entertaining and motivational by two clearly talented women who know their stuff. What else do you need?

Thanks, Kirstie!

Show Notes

The truth about writing is that almost nobody is “successful”

Got writer’s block? Lin-Manuel Miranda has a playlist for you

How to Format a Book: 10 Tips Your Editor Wants You To Know

Publisher in Residence

Louise Thurtell
Louise Thurtell acquires and publishes commercial fiction and non-fiction titles. In 2006 she set up the innovative electronic manuscript submission system, Friday Pitch. Similar submission systems have since been initiated at numerous Australian trade publishers.

After taking on a new book Louise oversees its project management, which involves editing or choosing an editor for manuscripts; briefing cover designers; liaising with authors and agents; budget management; writing marketing copy; and working with sales and marketing staff to maximise the sales of the books she publishes.

Follow Allen and Unwin on Twitter

Visit Allen and Unwin’s website

Allen and Unwin’s submission guidelines

Competition

WIN Pamela Hart’s “A Letter from Italy”

Your hosts

Allison Tait

Valerie Khoo / Australian Writers’ Centre

Connect with us on twitter

@altait

@valeriekhoo

Email us

podcast at writerscentre.com.au

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Interview Transcript

Allison

Louise Thurtell is the publisher for the Arena imprint at Allen & Unwin, and has worked in publishing for more than 20 years. She is a former recipient of the Beatrice Davis Fellowship, allowing her to spend time in various US publishing houses, and established the popular and successful Friday Pitch at Allen & Unwin in 2006. Louise publishes commercial fiction and non-fiction, and her list of authors includes Fleur McDonald, Karly Lane, Therese Creed, and Nicole Hurley-Moore. Welcome to the program Louise, and thank you very much for your time.

Louise

No worries.

Allison

So tell us a little bit about how you came to be a publisher. Because I think people thing that publishers are mythical creatures that merely appear from nowhere. But obviously, you must come from somewhere.

Louise

Yeah. Well, look, everyone comes through different routes. These days it is just incredible, much harder than what it was in my day. So for me, I did a science/law degree at Sydney Uni so I was not at all thinking that I would go into publishing. And half way through, so I went overseas after I’d finished my science degree and, I don’t know, just in the time that I was overseas for a year I realised I didn’t want to be either a lawyer or a scientist. And so I… And with the time to think about things, and it was sort of percolating in the back of my mind, I sort of thought about what was my absolute favourite thing in the world, which was reading. And how I could use that in a career. And so obviously, publishing was one thing. So when I got back from the UK – well, I was all over the place, but I was in the UK last – when I got back to Australia I volunteered to work at literary agencies while I was finishing my degree, the law degree, because I thought I wanted to just finish it. And I also got a job in a bookshop. And, you know, just continued to read enormously. So then, much to my mother’s horror, I finished my degree and was halfway through College of Law, all the time trying to get a job in publishing. And two weeks before I finished College of Law and was ready to –

Allison

Two weeks?

Louise

I know. To start, or you know, I was fully qualified, a guy at what was then Collins Angus & Robertson rang me and said they would give me a job as a trainee fiction editor, but they needed me urgently, so I had to make a decision whether I’d take the job pretty much on the spot. So funnily enough, the tutor I had – we were doing property at the time, just very quickly – and Kerry Chikarovski who ended up being NSW Premier was my tutor, and I was talking to her about it and she said, “a lot of my legal friends just hate what they’re doing. It’s a good idea to make a decision now.” And I did.

Allison

Wow. Okay.

Louise

So I took that job.

Allison

And from your mother’s perspective, I can totally see, like two weeks! I’m just going, oh my head is hurting.

Louise

I know, I know.

Allison

So you took the job and here you are.

Louise

But I knew that I would, I knew I would. I was very lucky. And just briefly, and I mean I guess it foreshadows what the whole route into publishing is these days, when we advertise for a publishing assistant, we will get almost all people with double degrees or further degrees.

Allison

Wow.

Louise

So, masters. And most of them have interned in publishing or worked in a related career.

Allison

Wow. So that’s how difficult it is now?

Louise

That’s how ridiculously qualified, yeah. Back in the day, we were laughing before we started an interviewing process, and saying none of us would get a job these days. None of us, we just wouldn’t.

Allison

Wow. Okay. That’s a bit scary, really. All right, so let’s talk about the Friday Pitch. Because it’s a very successful, or it has worked out very well for Allen & Unwin, and it’s basically where people send you in one chapter on a Friday. And you go through them and have a look. Tell us a little bit about how it works. What is the actual process of how it works?

Louise

Okay. So they’re asked to send in both a synopsis and a chapter.

Allison

Okay.

Louise

So either late on Friday afternoon… It used to be a publishing assistant went through them. So initially it was me for many years. And then the company decided because it had been so successful we’d make it our company-wide submission system. So a publishing assistant took over the reading. Then it was just falling behind. So I now look at, have a quick glance through really quick on either a Friday afternoon or Monday. And really, I tend not to, I tend to just go straight to the chapter itself to see if the person can write, or if the writing is strong. And then if I like something, I’ll go and have a look at the synopsis and see if it’s something that I would probably be interested in. I’m thinking about the market. In both fiction and non-fiction. And then if… Well, usually actually if I really love the writing regardless of the synopsis I will ask for the manuscript to be sent in.

Allison

Okay. And how many submissions would you average on a Friday?

Louise

Look, it’s… Because I think because there are other submission systems, we probably get about 40 a week, possibly.

Allison

Wow. Okay.

Louise

A hell of a lot of them are non-fiction. And the area that I’m looking for in non-fiction, some of the areas I’m looking for in non-fiction are Australian memoir. And I’m also really interested in popular science, politics, and just Australiana type stories.

Allison

Okay. And of the 40 that you get each week, how many would you follow up? How many would you actually ask for a full submission?

Louise

It tends to go in some sort of cycle. Because sometimes it will be none, and sometimes it will be three, and sometimes it will be one. So, you know… A few weeks ago I saw, I really liked about two or three. And then an assistant is asked to follow them up.

Allison

Okay. So as far as what makes you follow up for a full submission, is it really just what grabs you on that first page as far as the writing is concerned?

Louise

No. I mean, if I like something’s first page I’ll read it to the end. And also if it’s something that’s not right for me, because I do very commercial stuff, and I think it might suit someone else, I’ll then forward it to that person and they’ll have a look and get back to me and say, “can you ask the publishing assistant to request the manuscript.” So, yeah look, you can tell very quickly whether you enjoy a person’s writing style.

Allison

Okay. And what types of works tend to do, on average, tend to do best? In the sense of, is it very much about looking at what Allen & Unwin publishes and making sure that whatever it is you’re doing fits into that? Is that what works best?

Louise

Um… Look, I used to publish fantasy, and I published Sara Douglass, and we haven’t had any luck with fantasy here at Allen & Unwin, and it doesn’t feel that Australian fantasy is doing that well at all. But if I found a corker fantasy manuscript, I would be interested. I used to, when I was at Harper Collins and then Random House, I used to publish Peter Temple. And probably crime is my favourite commercial genre. So I would be open to crime as well, but it’s not selling that brilliantly. And commercial rural fiction has been so popular for so long. And there are 45 different rural fiction writers who have been published by trade publishers in Australia. I’d say about 20 of them are ongoingly active. And it feels like there’s still room for new entrants in that sort of area.

Allison

Wow. Okay. So who are some of the authors that you’ve discovered through the Friday Pitch system? Who has come out of the submissions pile, so to speak?

Louise

So all my rural fiction has come through that. So Fleur McDonald, Kelsey Neilson, Nicole Hurley-Moore, Karly Lane. Funnily enough, I’m publishing next month a fantastic new commercial women’s fiction, it’s actually set in a regional town but it’s just straight commercial women’s fiction, called Girl In Between by a woman called Anna Daniels. And even though it was also short-listed in the Vogel, she had also, she sent it to us as a Friday Pitch before she entered it into the Vogel, or even while it was being considered for the Vogel. And my problem with it was that it was just too short. We’d requested it, we’d requested the full manuscript through Friday Pitch. Anyway, so after it was shortlisted in the Vogel I decided that I would take it on and try and increase the word length. So we did get it up from 36,000 to 80,000. And it’s very funny, very funny, very Australian, bit larrikin. And it’s typical commercial women’s fiction, romance, and so forth. The other, on the non-fiction side, I have taken on a fantastic book that’s still selling travel, Sicily, it’s Not Quite Tuscany. And also Daughter of the Territory by Jacqueline Hammar, which we sold about 15,000 of in trade paperback, and also An Outback Life. So you know, you can see the theme, it’s Australian. Australian and rural. It is absolutely – even though I’m a country girl myself and I know the country well, know farm life and so on well – I am amazed by how much Australians want to read about both the outback and rural life.

Allison

Okay. So one thing that stands out for me from that conversation, beyond the outback and rural aspect of things, is the fact that you’re willing to work, you will work closely with an author to get the kind of book that’s going to work, won’t you? As far as if you see something in the work that you think is going to be special, then you will work with an author to get it to where you think it should be?

Louise

Absolutely. Because really good writers are so rare. Or, you know, I mean it’s subjective really, but if you really like someone’s writing style, that is very, very rare. So if you see someone who you think has a great writing style, then you jump at it.

Allison

Okay, terrific. So what does a typical day at work look like for you? Because I’m imagining that trying to fit in reading 40 submissions a week is one thing, but then you’ve got a million other things to do as well. So what, are you starting work at 5am? What happens?

Louise

No. No. So, and also, a lot of actually most of the publishers here don’t have kids. So I’m in a bit of a disadvantage because I’ve got three kids. And really, I can’t do as much reading at home as possibly someone without kids. But so typical day. Today is a pretty typical day. I’m reading on my Kindle. So what I do is, if I get a new submission from an agent or whatever, or an author direct who I’ve published before, I send the manuscript to my Kindle, which I’ve got on my, I’ve got a Kindle app on my iPad. So at the moment, I’m reading a second novel by an author who I’ve published before. Really enjoying it. I’ll be checking in, today just happens to be the day where we send all the BookScan information, for the weekly update on BookScan. So I will have a quick look at that, look at trends, look how my books are going and so on. So I’ll be doing a lot of reading today. Whereas on Tuesdays it is all meetings. Allen & Unwin tries to get all of its meetings out of the way on a Tuesday.

Allison

Oh right.

Louise

So we’re in meetings most days on Tuesday, and Monday, Friday afternoon, Monday is probably half a day spent on Friday Pitch. Because even with 40 submissions, I can tell so quickly whether it’s worth either me pulling the manuscript in for me or someone else, or whether it’s just none of them are any good. Or I don’t like any of them enough.

Allison

Okay. So where do you think most authors go wrong with their submissions then? Is it sending to the wrong place? Is it the manuscripts aren’t quite ready? What do you think is the issue?

Louise

Because I only, I’m only sent a chapter, and you can tell in a chapter, it’s essentially, maybe it’s what I’m looking for. I’m looking for either really good raw writing style, that I think will have a great story. Or if in my dreams, a manuscript arrives, or a chapter arrives, and the narrative voice is really distinctive, and the reader has, I just really want to keep on reading… So narrative voice is probably the most important for me. And not being too flowery and so on. So, Daughter of the Territory, which is this book about a woman who grew up in the outback, in the Northern Territory, it was written by an 85-year-old woman. And it’s about her and her family’s, like her father, went up to the Territory when he was young after he got back from the war, so you know, she just had a really distinctive strong lively writing style, and so I pulled that in the same day. And she’d written, it was 130,000 words that she’d written free-hand and got someone to type up and submit for her.

Allison

Wow.

Louise

She still does not, she does not use a computer.

Allison

Wow. Okay.

Louise

So I have to send her communications – and it’s done so well – but I have to send her communications by letters.

Allison

That would be a chance of pace for you!

Louise

Yes. But it’s lovely. And she’s a gorgeous old woman. So it’s been great dealing with her.

Allison

So are you looking at a submission, when you get a full submission in, when you request one, are you looking at that submission just based on one submission? Or are you looking at a manuscript and thinking, “can I develop this author over time?” Or is it just, “can I publish this one book?”

Louise

Um. Well, okay, so these days you don’t get a second chance. Well, you rarely get a second chance. So, it has to be that you think that that first book can be successful.

Allison

Wow. Okay. You’ve got to get that first one out there…

Louise

I know. Back in the day, you had lots of opportunities. Well, at least two. Not everyone had BookScan. It was hard to verify figures of someone. Booksellers didn’t have such, well, this is when I started, booksellers didn’t have such good inventory systems, so they couldn’t look up exactly how they’d done with a previous book. So, you know, on the other hand, you sometimes are able to increase an author’s sales after a first book. It’s just that it’s really hard to sell it to Sales & Marketing that you want to do a book by that author again.

Allison

So are you taking into consideration an author’s platform or profile when you’re deciding whether to publish the book? Is that part of it?

Louise

Well, not with Friday Pitch so much. We are, like with Amanda Keller, I published Amanda Keller, that obviously didn’t come through Friday Pitch. Yes, I went to her manager and asked if Amanda would be interested in writing her memoir. So you are thinking about the market with that. And their popularity and so forth. Look, some of the other publishers here who are younger are really across social media. I’m just a Facebook girl. So they know Instagram back to front, they know Twitter, people with really good Twitter followings and so on. Yes, to some degree, when you are putting together a proposal to take to an acquisitions meeting, you certainly look up all their figures, all their social media figures, and you’re selling it on their existing platform. Whether it be as a newspaper writer, television star, and so on.

Allison

So, because as a publisher, you get the manuscript and you love the manuscript, but then you actually have to take it and sell it into an acquisitions meeting, don’t you? It’s almost like you’ve got to go into bat for the manuscript and convince everyone else that this is a good option. Is that sort of… Do you sort of get better at that as you go along as a publisher? In the sense of this is why you should publish this book? I mean, it must be fairly…

Louise

You certainly get to know… You’ve got a good background on what sold well in the area, you’ve got a better knowledge of what sold well in the area and so forth. Look, you do have to really sell it like very quickly. And you do get better at knowing what’s going to strike a chord.

Allison

And is it a tough audience? Is it the toughest audience you have?

Louise

A very tough audience. A very tough audience. So we have the CEO, the Chair, my boss Tom Gilliatt, all the other publishers, the head of Sales & Marketing, the key accounts person, and the marketing person. So it is a tough audience.

Allison

So I guess one thing that authors need to be aware of then is their manuscript is kind of competing for attention right from the start, isn’t it?

Louise

It is.

Allison

It’s not just once it gets out into the market, it’s actually getting it into the market as well.

Louise

It is. So they get past their publisher, and then the publisher has to sell it enthusiastically and effectively to the sales and marketing department, or to a pretty sceptical bunch of people who’ve seen it all. So right from the start, it is pitching it.

Allison

And is there an expectation that an author will work on social media and platform and stuff after the manuscript is accepted, like to help sell their own book? Is that an expectation these days?

Louise

Yeah. Yep. We do have, marketing have put together a book, a document on what they should do, which social media platforms they should use, how to set up, so how to set up an author Facebook page. How to set up a profile on Goodreads. Because I find Goodreads quite effective. People love going from a book that’s been recommended, quite often they’ll go back to the author’s profile. So it’s worth setting up a profile on Goodreads. Look, if you’re not going to persist with a blog or being on Twitter or whatever it’s not worth, if you’re not going to post regularly, it’s not worth doing those things. But yes, it’s good to have a Facebook profile, an Instagram, a good Instagram following, and so on.

Allison

Yeah, okay. And do you still get excited about reading manuscripts and working on books, given how many you’ve worked on over the years?

Louise

Love it. I still love my job as much as I ever did. Totally, totally love Allen & Unwin. It’s definitely the best of the publishers I’ve worked at. Very community spirited and nice relationships here. So yeah, I totally love it. It’s never got old. I still feel the same excitement when I read a manuscript I really love. The one thing is, I don’t get to edit as much as I used to. Because there’s much more of a focus on bringing in more books. So to me, there has never been, if you are a good writer, there has never been a better time to try and get published, to be honest. Because everyone is looking.

Allison

That’s exciting. Do you attend a lot of conferences and festivals as a publisher? Given that you have three kids I’d imagine that’s fairly difficult.

Louise

None of us, apart from the Publishing Director, Tom Gilliart, goes to London Book Fair, Frankfurt Book Fair, some of the festivals. Not that many conferences. There’s not a huge number of conferences in any case. There’s the bookseller ones and Leading Edge, a couple of publishers have just come back from Leading Edge where they’ve sort of presented authors or whatever. So, no, I don’t go hugely. I’ll probably go to two festivals a year. I love the Sydney festival. I think it’s overtaken every other Australian festival as the best in the game. Or it has as of… Last year, I loved it more than ever. I love Byron Bay festival. Melbourne’s good. All of them are good. But I always get to Sydney, but that’s not really involving travelling. So, yes. But I don’t get to many conferences. I’m asked to do a few, you know, ‘how to get published’, feedback on the craft of writing and so on, I get asked. Sometimes I get asked to go to the Northern Territory or whatever, or into some part of Australia or present something in Sydney every now and again, probably a couple of times a year.

Allison

Do you have any advice for authors who might see you at such events, or attend – because you do sometimes do pitching sessions, and I think I saw you at a romance writer’s festival one year, do some pitching sessions and things like that.

Louise

Yeah. Do you go to those?

Allison

I used to go. Before I got sort of segued and side-tracked into children’s writing, I used to go to them.

Louise

Okay.

Allison

Do you have any advice for authors who might see you at such things?

Louise

Yeah, just come up and talk to me like a person. Yeah, look I’m just a normal person, and come and say hello, and they’re fine to pitch their book at me. Don’t… I don’t know, just don’t hassle me too much. But by all means, come up and say hello and talk to me about what I’m looking for and so on.

Allison

Don’t slide manuscripts under the toilet door or anything like that? I’ve heard stories, Louise.

Louise

Oh look, people can give me, I would usually give someone my business card and tell them to send me a manuscript and so on. But you know, some people can be really rude and hassle you endlessly. So avoid that.

Allison

Okay. And what are you seeing as trends in commercial fiction at the moment? Are there any distinct upticks that we’re seeing?

Louise

What I was saying about Australiana and Australian memoir is popular. Clearly, The Barefoot Investor is one of the bestselling books of recent time. So I wonder whether that’s just his blog following and the people who love his stuff and are interested in personal finance have bought that. The Liane Moriartys are doing well. So I’m looking for general commercial fiction, and rural fiction still, and I’d like to find some really good historical fiction as well.

Allison

Okay, well there’s some tips for you.

Louise

And I’d love to find a bestselling crime novel, too.

Allison

Oh, wouldn’t we all. We’d like to write a bestselling crime novel.

Louise

So, you know, and popular science. I’m really interested in popular science. But it needs to be by someone who is very well-known or very expert in their area. So, yeah, I’m sort of interested in Australian history, and outback memoirs, and celebrity memoirs. And I quite like travel. I wish I could find, I really would love to find a great crime novel.

Allison

Okay. Are you listening people out there? Louise is looking for a great crime novel. All right. So let’s finish up today with our usual last question, which is what are your three top tips for aspiring authors?

Louise

Okay. So read a lot, but don’t, like, read a lot in the area that you’re interested in, but don’t just read for pleasure. When you’re reading, observe the craft of how the person, how the author has set up a great narrative voice, how they’ve developed characters, whether the characters are likable. Because for me, I prefer books with likeable characters. You know, just look at every aspect of the craft. How they’ve moved their plot along, the structure, and so on. So that’s my first thing. Read a lot, and read for the craft. Of good manuscripts, by the way. Go back to your favourite novels and look at why they are so good. So once you’ve written your manuscript, revise and revise and revise. Some authors revise until it gets stale and they can’t see the woods for the trees, really. And I completely understand that. Because sometimes when you’re editing something, you get to the point where you can’t do anymore. So revise your manuscript. I think send to a pitch system. Or if you’ve got a good in with a literary agent – literary agents are great, as well, and all publishers, even the ones that don’t have pitch systems, they take agented manuscripts. And there are some great literary agents in Australia. So they are my bits of advice.

Allison

And they are excellent bits of advice. So thank you so much for your time today. I really appreciate the insight you’ve given us into the publishing process, as I’m sure that our listeners will. And if people are looking for the Friday Pitch, it is at allenandunwin.com.au is that correct?

Louise

Yes. And the address is, it’s listed up there. And there’s a children’s, there’s a separate address for children’s submissions.

Allison

Fantastic. And we will put the links in the show notes to both of those things so that you guys can find them easily. In the meantime, thank you so much Louise and best of luck with the next thing, the next big thing.

Louise

Thank you very much. It was a pleasure.

 

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