Mary Cunnane – wisdom and advice from Australia’s favourite literary agent

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Mary Cunnane. Photo sourced from http://www.womenwritersnsw.org

Mary Cunnane. Photo sourced from http://www.womenwritersnsw.org

We were all such literary newbies that the HARDCOPY program co-ordinator had to explain to us who Mary Cunnane was.

Only the one of the best-known agents in Australia.  Only the woman to whom all doors in publishing were open. Only the founder of the Australian Literary Agents Association.

Oh, you mean THAT Mary Cunnane.  Right.

Mary led the final session of the HARDCOPY workshop, which was essentially an open discussion.  We would ask questions and she would answer them.  And she did – with generosity, wit and a sharp eye for the crux of the matter.

To follow are my notes of the conversation… but Mary’s answers weren’t nearly so cursory as my notes! Any and all errors are mine alone.

 

What are your tips for publishing internationally?

You need an Australian agent, who may then sell your work via their network of overseas contacts.  The US is the biggest English-speaking market, obviously, and the agents there will definitely ask ‘What is the author’s social media platform?’

Is age a barrier to publication?

No.  If the writing is good that’s all that counts.  [Mary then provided a recent example of a first time memoirist in their eighties].

Travel memoirs – what are you looking for?

The excellence of the writing.  I also take into account where you are travelling – have other books been there too?  If so, maybe you need to travel to somewhere different.

How long is a biography?

Around 70,000 to 100,000 words.  Probably a little less for a person who did not live to a ripe old age.

Can you tell us more about your thoughts around narrative non-fiction?

The quality of the writing is what counts.  Think also about where the book is going to sit on the bookshop shelves – this will tell you something about how to focus it, how to hone the pitch, and where to pitch.  I do wonder, for example, why there isn’t more really good nature writing in Australia.

Titles: how creative do you need to be?

Oh, it’s important to have a great title.  The subtitle, or strap line, is where you can explain what it’s about.  You have to draw people in.

When looking at a manuscript in a slush pile, what catches your eye?

Don’t obsess about the grammar and the full stops.  It’s kind of like a job interview – if you’re good enough I’ll hire you.  If you have the skills, I’m hardly going to turn you away simply because I don’t like the colour of your shirt.  So any publisher or agent who makes their decision based on whether you used Times New Roman or Garamond – well, who wants to work with them anyway?  Just play with typefaces until it looks good.  I do quite like Garamond… There has never been a book published without a typo.  If there are too many in your manuscript it might be a problem but one or two are inevitable.  If the writing is wonderful, if the idea is good, if the first paragraph and first page keeps me going then that is what gets my attention.

What should we consider when choosing an agent?

Look at their list, look at who they represent.  Are they authors you admire?  Have they published recently?  Are they successful?  If an international market is important to you, check to see if they have a list of international co-agents that they often work with.  Sussing out their reputation within the industry is trickier but judge them by the books they have out there. Remember too that the relationship is a partnership – you might simply be thrilled that an agent is taking you on but you wouldn’t engage a lawyer that way.  Ask some questions, do some due diligence.  Which publishers do they usually work with?  It should be a two-way interview.  It should also be an ongoing relationship.  A good agent will help you think through your career.  They will want to know about your second book, the third book, and so on.  You need to feel not only that they are competent but that you like them.  You don’t want to hear the phone ring and find yourself hoping it isn’t them!

Is it OK to join with an agent who has the contacts but is only just starting up their agency?

A new agent might be hungrier.  It might also be easier for you to get on their list.  It’s worth considering, sure.

What are some of the best books you’ve read recently?

Skyfaring is a new non-fiction work by a British Airways pilot.  It’s about being a pilot, and about the wonder of flying but really it’s much much more.  The writing is beautiful and goes well beyond the technical.  I highly recommend it.  I’m about to read Purity by Jonathon Franzen.  He said something interesting the other day about “people waking up and reaching for social media like a drunk reaching for a first drink.”  I thought, that’s me!  Honestly, you could drown in that social media stuff.  It’s good to know about it but don’t lose sight of the forest for the trees.  I’m also reading Kate Atkinson – she was a mid-level author who changed genre and as a result her career took off.

What is it that publishers see that makes them think a manuscript is worth taking on?

It depends on the market.  For a biography, for example, how many previous biographies are there for the subject?  When were they published?  Does this biography add something new?  For any nonfiction, the concept is important – is it unique? Is there a hole in the marketplace?  For certain kinds of books, is the author promotable?  Does she have a social media platform?  Although as an agent I’ve never turned down someone with a good manuscript just because they did not have a social media platform.  It also depends on the publisher: Penguin won’t take on a book unless they can sell a minimum of 10,000 copies.  Big publishing houses rarely take a chance – it does happen, though.

When do we know we are ready to pitch our manuscript?

When you have a good proposal and some sample chapters.  If it’s great you might even be able to sell it to publishers on that basis.  Or the agent might say no, you have to keep writing.  You never know.  Sometimes its good to get an agent before the manuscript is finished so that they can help shape the book.

Where do we find an agent?

Choose one who belongs to the Australian Literary Agents Association.  Then you know that the person subscribes the ALAA’s code of ethics, and that there will be no reading fees.  An ALAA agent cannot work for both a publisher and an author.  There is also a certain number of deals an agent has to have completed before they can join.  It’s a big fiduciary responsiblity to be an agent but there are in fact no legal or regulatory requirements to hanging out your shingle.  So look at the ALAA list, see who is open or closed for submissions, then go to their website and start doing your research.

Do you really only get one shot at pitching?

It depends on how you were declined.  If they’re interested in seeing you again they’ll say so.  And I do always use the term declined, rather than rejected.  You might be declined for any number of reasons that have nothing to do with the quality of your work.

Are there particular publishers I should choose for a health memoir?

Memoir is pretty strong for all publishers.  Memoirs generally do quite well in Australia, there is a robust market for life stories here.

Are overseas readers interested in Australian stories?

If the writing is extraordinary, they will be. [Mary cited Jill Ker Conway’s popular memoirs as an example].

The whole social media thing – is it here to stay or will it lose traction?

I think there is no way back.  It’s now an integral part of the publishing world.  How far immersed you want to be is up to you – as I said earlier it’s possible to drown in all that stuff.  It depends on the book, of course.  A social media following makes it easier to sell but if it’s wonderful writing I’m not going to say no.  A lack of social media can be fixed.  I just tell the author to boost their profile before we start campaigning.  With social media I think you have to be in the game but you don’t have to play at test cricket level!

How should we deal with rejection?

I can’t tell you how many authors have been repeatedly declined and then gone on to be very successful.  Tattoo this onto your skin: persistence pays; persistence pays; persistence pays. Agents get rejected too but it only takes one acceptance.  It’s a tough business – you have to take rejection, believe in yourself and just keep going.

Where is the non-fiction market at, right now?

Biographies and memoirs are strong and have always been strong.  Books by journalists and books on sport also do very well.  The years between 2009 and 2014 were a perfect storm for the publishing industry.  The global financial crisis, Amazon, e-books, BookScan – together these things tipped the publishing houses arse over teakettle.  Before BookScan all the sales figures were pretty loose and only ever approximate – and usually rounded up.  The figures tended be based on print runs rather than actual sales.  BookScan, however, covers around 80% of the market and digitally counts all sales.  It has had a big effect on authors selling their second book.  If the numbers weren’t there for the first book then the second simply won’t be published.  This storm has now passed over, though.  Sales of e-books have plateaued, money is being spent again, and the Australian dollar is weakening so fewer people will buy online.  So you are all in a better position here in 2015-16 than you would have been in 2010-11.

And finally?

Be positive.  Without you there is no publishing industry.  Be proud.  You’ve written a book.  Be optimistic and realistic – it is possible.

Poor Mary left then left the workshop with a large pile of manuscripts to read.  The HARDCOPY program has a third round, but only for ten of the original non-fiction participants.  Those lucky ten will have the chance to personally discuss their manuscripts with a range of publishers, agents and industry insiders.  And Mary has to choose which ten manuscripts might make the grade.  Naturally I have my fingers crossed very firmly indeed…

 

I’ve written before about the HARDCOPY program:

Acknowledgments
The ACT Writers Centre is supported by the ACT Government.  HARDCOPY has been assisted by the Australian Government through the Australia Council, its arts funding and advisory body.

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18 responses »

  1. Enjoyed this of course, Michelle. Even though I’m not planning a book myself, I love understanding the industry more.

    I was interested in her comment about nature writing. An American blogger I read only just this last week asked for recommendations for good nature books (which she interpreted very broadly). I had trouble thinking up some Aussie suggestions.

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    • Is it because there are no nature writers? Or because landscape is so integral to so much Australian writing that we don’t even think of nature writing as a separate genre? For instance, is Tim Winton a nature writer? Is Stephen Daisley? Is Kate Grenville’s The Secret River nature writing? Hmm, I’m not convinced by my own argument!

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      • Yes, well that’s it. I think a lot of our writers do incorporate landscape. The US have quite a few nature writers like Thoreau, John Muir, Mary Austin, and Edward Abbey. Nature was the subject for them.We do have a Nature Writing Prize. It’s only about three years old but they define nature as being about place which perhaps answers your question about nature in Australian writing?

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  2. I’m not very familiar with those US writers (except for Thoreau) – for me recently it’s been the English (non-fiction) nature writers who have absolutely wowed me. Gossip From the Forest by Sara Maitland. The Old Ways by Robert Macfarlane. And of course H is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald. Perhaps Australian writers are better at writing nature into fiction than into nonfiction? A recent excellent exception being The Bush by Don Watson. But perhaps I’m simply ill-informed. I’ll go back to the Nature Writing Prize winners and do some reading, I think.

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    • And I wasn’t really aware of recent English tradition but I do have H is for Hawk on my TBR. I really really want to read it but other books I must read keep getting in the way. I hear grumbles from some quarters that people aren’t seeing books they’ve given me reviewed on the blog so I need to get onto them! This blogging has its pitfalls!

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