Image from Perth Festival
Words by Cleo Robins
Many of us have ambitions of becoming fully-fledged writers, but what does it really take to make it in the industry? This question was the premise of Fremantle Press and Perth Festival’s event, The Business of Being a Writer. The seminar was comprised of four panels, each addressing a different aspect of the writing business, from ethics to social media. For Pelican readers who weren’t able to attend, the key advice from the event is summarised below.
The first panel, Running Your Writing Career Like a Small Business, covered all of the practicalities of having a manuscript published. The talk was facilitated by Yuot A. Alaak, author of Father of the Lost Boys, and comprised a panel discussion between three key members of the Fremantle Press publishing house: CEO Jane Fraser, Marketing and Communications Manager, Claire Miller, and Publisher Cate Sutherland.
One detail that surprised me from their conversation was how long it takes to actually produce a book. The publishers all attested that it could take at least nine to twelve months for a manuscript to hit the shelves. The time between the submission of a manuscript to the book launch is filled with contract signing, editing, cover design, physical production of the novel, promotion, and finally, sale of the finished product. The panellists emphasised how much work goes on behind the scenes of the publishing process, and characterised editors and publishers as advocates of an author’s work- whose purpose is to guide writers through the industry. This is a particularly comforting notion for those who are thinking of a career in writing, but who are reticent to put themselves out there. Don’t worry, the publishers have you back (if they like your manuscript, of course).
Which leads to another key question from Alaak: what is a good manuscript, and what are publishers looking for when they sit down to read new submissions? Fremantle press CEO, Jane Fraser, answered this quite succinctly – her publishing house is looking for “great stories, well told.” This seems like obvious advice on a surface level, except Fraser went on to clarify that Fremantle Press, and many other publishing houses, are not interested in what authors think is trendy or will get the most reads. They want to read stories that ring true, and which the writer themself believes in.
Truth and authenticity were the threads which bound the evening’s four panels together, and the advice from the second line-up of panellists was very similar to that of the first. This session, From BookTubers to Bookcasters: Social Media for Writers Circa 2022, was helmed by writer and journalist, Molly Schmidt, who sought the wisdom of writer and podcaster Riley Benfell, editor Kirsty Horton, and YA author Bianca Breen; to unravel the mysteries of book promotion on social media. Both Benfell and Horton create book reviews content online, via podcast, and YouTube respectively. Throughout the discussion, they both expounded on the benefits of having a loyal fan online base. The connections you make online, they said, are particularly useful for emerging authors. Since online communities coalesce around similar interests; if you have a circle of book-loving friends on social media, they’re already interested in reading, and therefore more likely to engage in conversations about your own writing.
Breen was similarly enthusiastic about the benefits of social media, describing how she shares tidbits of her writing process in order to get her followers interested in her next project. While the three panellists acknowledged that it is not necessary for authors to have a strong social media presence, they all agreed that online platforms allow writers to build a very personal and authentic rapport with potential readers.
The third panel, The Ethics of Representation, was the most insightful panel of the night. This discussion was facilitated by Maria Papas, author and 2020 winner of the City of Fremantle Hungerford Award unpublished manuscripts (keen readers will also recognise her as having taught Creative Writing classes at UWA). Papas was joined by a panel of Australian writers and publishers of colour. In-person were authors: Emily Sun, Rashida Murphy, Helen Milroy, and speaking from Broome via Zoom was publisher and author, Rachel Bin Salleh.
The aim of this panel was to explore who can and can’t speak on behalf of certain cultural groups, and whether or not certain writers are always the right people to tell certain stories. The general consensus of the panel was, again, to tell the truth, and to avoid approximating the experiences of people whose lives you do not actually understand. Often when people who come from the predominantly white cultural background of mainstream Australia try to integrate representations of marginalised people into their work, the effect is one of underlying prejudice, or even outright stereotyping. And stereotypes have great power to harm, as Helen Milroy, an Indigenous children’s book author, as well as a practising psychiatrist with a focus on children and adolescents, articulated. Milroy reminded the audience that the way that Indigenous children see themselves represented in literature is particularly important, as representation has the ability to affect a child negatively, or to empower them. She said that the most authentic way for diverse representation to be integrated into any author’s work is to create genuine friendships with people from many walks of life, which is not an overnight project, but something that continues throughout a person’s entire life.
The panel also tackled when it is appropriate to translate your own life experiences into fiction, and how this process affects the real people you write about. Rashida Murphy in particular acknowledged that she does draw plot and character elements from the people around her. However, she did emphasise that her work is fictional. She takes a kernel of truth, usually an element of her own experiences, and uses this piece of reality to bounce her fictional ideas on. Not only does this approach sound like it would yield exciting stories, but it also allows for that grounding and authenticity that all of the panels acknowledged as so important for a good book.
The fourth and final panel, In the Writer’s Room, Storytelling for the Screen, was hosted by author Holden Sheppard (whose debut novel Invisible Boys is currently in development for television). Sheppard spoke with screen industry professionals Victoria Midwinter-Pitt, Ben Young, and Maziar Lahooti, who have all worked on many films, television, and documentary projects over their careers. Unlike writing a novel, writing for a film or television is intensely collaborative, so much of the advice imparted by this panel related to how to balance the creative expectations of other people against your own vision. Victoria Midwinter-Pitt and Ben Young both attested to the fact that film and television scripts change all the time, due to the competing interests of producers, directors, writers, and studios. The key to navigating this creative uncertainty, they said, is to leave your ego at the door, and learn to be open to changing your mind.
The panel also had some good advice about networking. All three panellists saw networking not as a chance meeting with a bigshot at a cocktail party, but as an opportunity to find people you like and can trust with your creative vision. It is easier to find people in the industry, said Ben Young, if you let your work speak for itself, and allow potential collaborators to come to you, not the other way around. That way, you know that the people you are working with are legitimately invested in your ideas.
Attending The Business of Being a Writer was an informative and encouraging experience, and writers should take these tips from industry professionals and use them to start building their own careers. Overall, the most essential piece of advice of the night was to keep writing, and to persist in making yourself heard as an author. As Rachel Bin Salleh said: “Your story is just as important as what’s already out there.”