One author's dream journey with traditional publishing

Many authors aspire to be published by a traditional publisher, with the accompanying benefits of advanced royalties and free publicity. I interview first-time author John Fahey, whose book, Australia’s First Spies, has had a dream journey with traditional publishing, though with the usual bumps along the way.

Susan Pierotti (SP): John, first of all, why did you want to get published?

John Fahey (JF): My academic research in history requires a great deal of reading and writing and it makes me very aware of the dearth of solidly researched historical writing in Australia. I am a strong supporter of Neville Meaney’s critique that much of what passes for Australian history is ‘hazy folk-myth’. Australia’s First Spies is intended to address this problem by presenting a rigorously researched history of early Australian intelligence activity for use by specialist and non-specialist readers.

SP: How did you choose a publisher? Did you employ a literary agent?

JF: I didn’t have a literary agent. I did my own research on who would be the best publishing fit for my book. The essential criterion was that the publisher sat in the top ten academic publishing houses. It came down to two: the British multinational Routledge, the world's leading academic publisher in the humanities and social sciences; and Allen & Unwin, Australia’s leading publisher with both clout in the academic world and a substantial presence in the popular publishing marketplace. As I wanted my book to be available to a larger readership, I decided to approach Allen & Unwin.

                                      Which one to choose?                              

Another significant reason for selecting Allen & Unwin was that they had just published the three volumes of the official history of ASIO and Craig Collie’s book, Code Breakers, meaning that they were experienced in publishing intelligence history and it was a theme of their current publishing program. Thus, Australia’s First Spies was more likely to fit into Allen & Unwin’s prospectus than that of another publisher. It also helped that they were based in Sydney, where I live.

SP: As yours was an unsolicited manuscript, did you get a rejection letter?

JF: No. On the contrary, they emailed me within a short period to say they were interested in publishing the book, but not at the size it was, which was around 300,000 words. They also rang around to confirm I was for real and that I had academic credentials in the area.

SP: Had you done any work on the manuscript before you sent it to a publisher? Had you had others read over the text or hired an editor?

JF: I had 300,000 words of detailed research, I’d had two friends read through the text and had had a loose edit done.

SP: Do you think that your book would have been accepted for publication if you had not had this work done on it in advance?

JF: Yes, and no! The depth at which the research was conducted and the detailed footnoting and academic effort that were apparent sold the book. The loose editing may have helped, but the story and its detail were the real drawcard, I believe.

SP: Why do you think the publishers responded so quickly?

JF: The book looked substantial and it fitted into a ready-made slot in the market that Allen & Unwin had experience in. Australia’s First Spies is a history of Australian espionage operations from 1901 to 1945, a period that has never been examined in detail in a single volume before. It also didn’t hurt that I had served in an intelligence role in government and, as a result, was able to identify the nuances in files that are often overlooked by writers who lack experience in the day-to-day work of intelligence. Although my previous work means I do not write about events after 1945, Allen & Unwin saw my book as a marketable product.

SP: What happened next?

JF: I had a meeting with the publisher who had overseen the ASIO history. She initially read and undertook a broad edit of the book; this included a name change from A Little Investigation Now to Australia’s First Spies, and a requirement that I reduce the work from 300,000 words. I accepted the change of title and edited it down to 160,000 words. It was then sent off to one of Australia’s leading authors in this area for peer review and comment. He provided a detailed critique of the draft and made a number of suggestions in relation to problems. I made the necessary changes and then a senior editor and an editor were assigned to carry out the detailed editing. Once this was done, the work was returned to me so I could approve the changes and undertake rewriting of certain sections.

 Editing: bruising but beneficial!

The experience of editing and peer review is rather bruising, but extremely educational and beneficial. The rewriting was substantial because a significant chunk, 140,000 words, of the work had been taken out. In addition, the editing process makes you aware of problems of expression or emphasis that you may have overlooked during the initial writing. If you regard writing as an art form, further polishing is mandatory and you need all the help you can get in identifying the dull spots in your own work.

SP: Did you have any say in what images were to be included?

JF: Yes. In fact, the selection of images was left up to me with the editors reserving a right to final suggestions based on the quality of the images. Maps are the publisher’s part of the ship and, although I provided a selection of hand-drawn maps, the publisher decided the number and extent of the maps included.

SP: What about the front cover design?

JF: The publisher very specifically controlled the front cover design, and I believe with good reason. The reality is that the publisher is far more experienced in selling books into the market than I, as an author, am. It is silly to override the publisher’s advice in such matters if you want your book to sell.

SP: Did you need to do anything else?

JF: A book of this sort contains masses of information, all of which has to be fact-checked. To assist in this, I listed the barcodes for specific files I used. This enables any researcher following in my path to quickly identify the files and documents upon which I have drawn. It makes the work far more transparent and, as an aside, the editors at Allen & Unwin found it made their fact-checking very easy.

Australia’s First Spies is, first and foremost, a serious work of historical research. It has 1,471 endnotes containing 23,988 words drawn from 233 files in Australian, British and US archives as well as from 24 biographies, 97 books, 19 articles, 36 newspapers and 34 official histories, as well as 26 online publications. To make this work usable, it has to be carefully set out and cross-checked.

On top of this, it has to be accurately indexed by a professional. The indexing cost around $2,000 for a good one and this cost is borne by the author. I did do an index myself using Microsoft Word, but it cannot handle the work. I rapidly and wisely concluded that it needed an expert indexer to do it. Allen & Unwin strongly suggested I employ a specific indexer who specialises in military texts and I accepted their recommendation.

 An index crafted by a professional indexer - worth paying for. 

SP: How long has the publishing process taken, from the day that you were accepted by Allen & Unwin?

JF: The draft work and my proposal were submitted to Allen & Unwin on 10 January 2017. On 22 February, Allen & Unwin emailed that the work was interesting and recommended a meeting. A proposal outlining the contract and other matters was sent to me on 3 March and my emailed acceptance returned on 7 March. The contract was signed off and returned on 27 March. It took just over three months from the initial submission to the signing of a contract. The main part of the editing process extended from April 2017, with submission of the approved changes draft on 9 January 2018. The changes agreed were made and then a final technical edit, including maps, diagrams and photographs was done and the final layout agreed.

SP: Was your publishing journey what you thought it would be? If not, how did it differ?

JF: The publishing journey has been close to what I expected. As an author, I benefitted from being experienced in business. The usefulness of this lies in the fact that I could predict the commercial imperatives and respond quickly to the changes required in the book. Being in business myself also made it easier to surrender personal control of things like book titles, formatting, content and rewriting sections based on advice because I already had a good appreciation of the need for teamwork in successfully carrying out a project like writing a book.

SP: Is there anything else you would like to tell people reading this about publishing with a traditional publisher?

JF: The very first thing is that publishing is business. Sticking to your word, meeting deadlines and working cooperatively are very important characteristics for any author in building a successful relationship with a publisher. The ability to listen to the professional and experienced voices within a publishing house and to cooperate without too much fuss does pay dividends for any new author.

The other thing is that, whether an author likes it or not, your book has to fit in with a publisher’s theme. If it doesn’t, it has a much lower chance of being picked up. The other problem is that the book needs to be unique without being alien. If it is just another version of the last four books published, there is a further reduction in its appeal to a busy publisher. However, if it is so original that it is alien to the experience of the publisher, then it is even less likely to be picked up. The reality is that extensive work based on rigorous and careful research provides a busy publisher with the best evidence that a book might be worth a look.

I suppose I would make the following points:

Know the subject better than anyone else. Rigorous research always stands out even in fiction.

  1. Write the book from the research and write much more than you need. It is always easier to shape a work by chiselling parts away than by trying to stick new bits on.
  2. Know your publishers and their needs and themes. Don’t try forcing a square book into a round publishing hole.
  3. Listen to their advice, stick to your undertakings and complete the agreed tasks within the time and resource constraints agreed to.
  4. Appreciate that, while this is your book, its publication is a team effort and this requires that you surrender total control. Busy people have little time for genius – and no time for difficult genius!

SP: Thank you, John, for this interview. We wish you well for the sale of your book.

Australia’s First Spies was launched in July 2018.

John’s dream journey in publishing is unusual. If you want to publish your book and are looking at options, contact me today for a chat about my editing services and publishing advice.

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