12 September 2013

Lately I've been seeing more and more business cards attached to unsolicited manuscripts advising me that the writer is someone capable of teaching writing to potential authors.  Manuscript assessment services, workshops on how to become published, how to write a picture book, writing for young adults; the list of talents these cards shout about goes on and on.  Since I think I have a pretty sound knowledge of the children's publishing industry and at the least I know of a high percentage of writers I've been surprised by the fact that all of these business cards name people I have never heard of.  Ever.  But they all list websites and so I have begun looking at these to see just who these people are and why they have something to offer other writers. What I find quite dismays me.  Almost without exception these people have not been published at all. They even list themselves as 'award-winning authors'  when the awards are things like fourth prize in a local competition.  There is no shame in local competitions of course but they do not qualify the writer as award-winning.  Self-publishing does not make someone an expert in mainstream publishing either. These so-called children's authors have no credentials, no qualifications to teach others and little real knowledge of the industry if their websites are anything to go by.  Regardless of this they seem to believe they can set themselves up as trainers, teachers and assessors.  It's a free country and this is an unregulated area so I guess there is nothing to stop this sort of thing yet it strikes me as one of the more unfortunate results of the internet age.

There are many, many people who'd like to be published and I think I have a greater insight into this vast pool of keen people than most.  I meet writers everywhere who are as yet unpublished and who are so desperate to find themselves in print that they willingly pay someone who purports to know how it is done.  I have had letters attached to quite unpublishable manuscripts telling me that the manuscript has undergone  a thorough assessment and the writer has been told that its now very, very publishable.  I have seen one so-called 'reputable' assessment site that claims a letter from them will guarantee the writer's manuscript will go straight to the top of the unsolicited pile.  For a fee of some hundreds of dollars they can have just such a letter.  That is of course on top of the hundreds of dollars they will first pay for the assessment.

I have begun to feel very upset at this quite unprofessional practice.

Unpublished writers are a very vulnerable group and their vulnerability is preyed upon by these self-proclaimed authorities. I find it despicable and even sad.  So many are taken in.  So much money is changing hands with no perceptible results.  I'd like to encourage all the would-be writers out there to NOT use services like these.  Join your local writers' centre where at least you can be sure the workshops will be run by men and women who are indeed professionals.  Where the charge for training will be minimal; where you can join like-minded others and find strength in the group and the encouragement you need.  Attend local writing festivals - there are many of these.  Read as much as you can.  Spend time in libraries or bookshops talking to librarians or owners who can help you to recognise the reputable children's publishers in Australia.  Seek out the sort of books they publish.  See if your work is similar.  Polish your writing like the precious thing it is until you can truly do no more.  Make sure there are no spelling errors, no repeated lines, no unwanted bits you accidentally left in when you deleted something.  Then send it to the publisher of your choice and cross your fingers. 

Here are my writing tips for the month.

A story is not necessarily a picture book.
A list of things that happened is unlikely to make a good picture book.
A family event is unlikely to make a good picture book.
A great picture book writer leaves out a lot.  The illustrator fills in those gaps.
Illustrators don't like to be told what to draw.
Read the guidelines for the way a publisher wants to get work from you and do what they say.

I cant remember where I got this picture from so I apologise to whoever owns it for the lack of an attribution - but for me, this could be the start of a wonderful picture book. Why?  Because it leaves so much out.  Because it makes me want to know just what those tales the young soldier is telling to the rhinoceros are.  Because I love the images.  And most of all, because it feels so very original.


  1. This is a really interesting post, and being fairly old fashioned, I am one who sticks to well-known organisations and services. But what I loved the most is that dear little illustration and the simple words. As soon as I saw it I liked it and yes, wanted to know more about these unlikely companions. Thanks for another great post.

  2. This one is an interesting and timely post. It reminded me of a time years ago when I joined a writing organisation for a genre I'd not written before. I used to subscribe to their newsletter, and I'd read the articles with attention and feel mildly chastened because I wasn't as organised and on-the-ball as these people. They wrote sith such authority. Then I noticed some of the articles ended with "So-and-so has an agent who is working hard to get him/her published" and I realised the how-to info I'd been sweating over may not have been any better than what I was doing already. So yes- I agree it is better to look at who lies behind the business card. (I deal with a nutter named Affa the Editor. She has wings and specs and an evil metaphorical pencil.)

    I think there is a place for ms assessors and pre-editors. I believe a good one can help prevent writers from shooting their mss in the foot, and also has the distance and broad experience to look at a ms from two points of view. One is from the reading POV (is this an entertaining and engaging story) and the other is from the editorial POV (is this well written, topical and free from elements that will make editors and librarians run howling to the hills). Letters of recommendation, in my opinion, are best if they are not paid for and better still if they're not written on demand.

    Also, like Kaye, I'd like to see that picture enlarged into a picture book text. Perhaps you should hire it out to a freelancer.

  3. I would love to enlarge that picture into a book but unless my brain ever gives me the name of the person who did it, I can't. And in the back of my mind I think it actually WAS a famous writer or illustrator's childhood work. Maybe I saw it on Brain Pickings?
    And of course there is a place for a reputable assessment - you are right. But how do people with no experience work out who is reputable? Today I saw a self- published book on how to write a great children's book by a person who has never written one. Writing a GREAT book is a singular task. One ought not claim it unless one has evidence.

  4. Earlier this year you wrote a post prior to attending the the First Nations Australia Writers' Network round table workshop, an initiative to engage writers and publishers in conversation to improve communication in the area of Indigenous writing and publishing. You wrote, "publishing Indigenous work is an area with many serious complications.'' I would love to hear any insights you gained. As a journalist, I have written a story aimed at children about Aboriginal soldiers and have received support and interest from both indigenous and non-indigenous people involved in SA's soon-to-open Indigenous War Memorial. But as you say, at the same time I am aware there are certain complications,so your advice or any learnings would be great! Catherine Bauer

  5. PS - I found a little more about the sweet illustration and text from your latest post! "Long before Edward Estlin Cummings (1894-1962) became known as E. E. Cummings, one of 20th-century America’s most popular poets, his words and sketches revealed a delightful childhood imagination. This youthful work, completed about 1901, displays one of Cummings’s earliest experiments with capitalization and punctuation, which would later become the poet’s trademark: THIS. RHINOCEROUS. / IS. YOUNG. / MARCHING BY A. SOLDIER. / HE TELLS-TALES TO-HIM.....Catherine

  6. Aha! Of course. Thank you Catherine.
    As to your query about writing stories that involve indigenous characters, setting or stories my advice is this:
    * First seek permission for what you are writing from the relevant indigenous group. In the case of men who went to war this permission is likely best sought from the First Nations Writers Network in the first instance.
    * Do not attempt to use any culturally significant work in your story - i.e. dreaming stories, secret women's or men's business, etc and do not attempt to rewrite such material.
    * Make NO assumptions about the material you are using and its cultural significance. Ask permission.
    There are writers who claim all sorts of exception to these 'rules' but regardless of what rights a writer feels they have, unless they are a direct descendant of an indigenous group they may not assume a right to write about that group.

    1. Thanks for this valuable feedback!


  7. I am not a published author but I dream of one day being a published author. I used to work in the publishing industry and I know how hard it is to get a book published, especially if you don't already have a successful title to your credit. One reason I love Omnibus, is that you are prepared to give us a go. Another is that you are prepared to give us good, sound, reasoned and reasonable advice. (Another is ‘The Terrible Suitcase’!) In the past, people have recommended that I send my manuscripts to an agent. I have never been prepared to do so as I wouldn't know a reputable agent from a charlatan. They all seem to represent themselves as brokers of dreams, fame and glory. How could an inexperienced, unpublished author know a certainty from a sham? I know that publishing professionals know their business. I trust their judgement. Having read your submission guidelines and your post above, I feel well informed and would much prefer to take my chances with an envelope in your unsolicited manuscripts pile than run the gauntlet with literary agents. Looking forward to February…