Friday, August 25, 2006

Some lessons for first time authors

My first book was published by Macmillan in 1993. Titled “The Doll That Grew” it was a children’s book that was aimed at second level readers.

The book was inspired by the years I spent as a Sunday school teacher and presenter of a children’s programme ( Pinyana Ping, BopTV).

Once the story was completed, I mailed the handwritten manuscript to Macmillan Botswana, Lesotho Swaziland (Boleswa). I knew that there was a possibility that the publishing house would reject the story based on its quality, but somehow it never occurred to me that they could reject it based on presentation.

A couple of months later, a commissioning editor for Macmillan’s children’s educational fiction time wrote to inform me that my story had been accepted and that a contract would be sent soon.

I was ecstatic! A big-name publishing house wanted my work! When the contract arrived, I didn’t consult a legal advisor. I signed a contract that granted me 8% royalties from sales (6% went to the illustrator) and no advance against sales ( it was a good deal actually) . Then I waited for the book to come out and the money to start rolling in.

Hey, I was 24 years old and still na├»ve enough to believe that if a book gets published, it would make money for everyone. Otherwise, why would a big time publisher like Macmillan spend their time and money on a project that won’t make them a profit?

I waited for a long time and nothing happened within the first two years. That’s the time it took for the publishing process to be completed.

Macmillan was not accepting additional submissions, so I had to look at other publishers as potential markets for my work. I had varying degrees of success, where my stories were considered for publication and rejected at the last dash. Or an educational project would begin and then have to be scrapped at the last minute, making the work I put in worse than useless.

In the meantime, I made money anyway I could. Writing copy for brochures and posters, articles for the local paper, a lot of features for national magazines. Most of my income came from doing material development for local non-profit organisations. The pay sucked, the outlay regarding time and labour disproportionate to the amount of work put in, but it was steadier money than the media work.

I didn’t mind the struggle. I believed that it was only a matter of time before my books were distributed nationwide and people stopped asking me what I did for a living, because they would know.

It didn’t turn out like that at all. I was a talented but untrained writer who still had a lot to learn. I had to learn that while my work showed talent and resonated with people, I needed to target it better. Write for people’s needs, rather than for self-indulgence. I had to learn to be critical of my work, so that by the time editors looked at it, the good parts were not overshadowed by careless grammar and spelling mistakes. I had to find my won voice and not try to write like the writer who’s work I’m reading at the time.

I also needed to learn and understand the editor’s viewpoint. I also needed to understand the South African publishing market and how it works, so that I can meet a need rather than expecting someone to be so blown over by my work that they would have to publish it. Publishing is driven by profit, I learnt, and a talented but unfocussed writer soon misses out on opportunity.

1993 was a watershed year for me. I landed a contract as a materials developer for a Soweto based AIDS organisation and I moved from Mmabatho to Johannesburg. It was also the year “ The Doll That Grew “ was released.

I did nothing to promote The Doll That Grew. I didn’t solicit a review, do a book signing, contact libraries or even conduct an interview, even though I knew a lot of people involved in children’s literature.

Due to the efforts of the publisher, the book was prescribed as secondary reading in Botswana and Swaziland, resulting in decent royalty cheques for a couple of years. Which makes me wonder how much better it would have done if I had done library readings, gone to schools to read for the kids and other marketing activities that I have since learnt.

Thank God for the Internet. It has provided ongoing learning regarding publishing and what I need to do to succeed as a writer. Now I know what to do the next time I publish a book.

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