Lessons learned from publishing & creating a community of writers across the world. An interview with Therese Walsh

Back in 2006, writers Therese Walsh and Kathleen Bolton were looking for a writing community. They didn’t find what they were looking for, and to cut to the chase, they set up WriterUnboxed. It’s a pretty good home for writers.

By pretty good I mean that it has been named by Writer’s Digest as one of the best websites for writers for almost ten years running, it has 15k followers on Twitter hundreds of thousands of visitors annually and 40 contributors including industry veterans like Donald Maas and Porter Anderson. It also runs a ‘secret’ promo-free facebook group for over 5k dedicated writers.

Therese’s debut novel THE LAST WILL OF MOIRA LEAHY was a was published by Random House and it was a finalist for a RITA award. Her books have won praise from publications like Booklist and Publishers Weekly. She is also the editor of AUTHOR IN PROGRESS, a collection of practical, candid essays for writers. The way I see it, Therese spends her life steeped in writing and the writing community. I just had to interview her. And so I did. I hope you enjoy the interview!

Tell me about your first draft you ever wrote? How long did it take you? How does it compare to the first draft of your second book?

My very first draft was a children’s picture book manuscript that was never published, and took me a week or two at the most. Compare that to the first draft of my first novel, which took about a year. I spent roughly the same amount of time on the first draft of my second novel. Editing each of those drafts took another year, for each story.

What’s the biggest writing lesson you’ve learnt since writing your first drafts?

Every book will test you as a writer in different ways, so while you may be better at skill X after writing your last story, your next will test you in skill Y. Despite how frustrated this may make you feel, it’s actually a good problem to have; it means you’re a progressive writer.

You’ll never be able to predict how long a story will take you to write.

Why do you write? 

My stories root into something personal for me. My first two novels were ultimately about grappling with the meaning of life after great loss — how to cope, how to carry on — which tapped into the loss of my dad at a young age. My third story — my work-in-progress — isn’t related to anything so personal, but it’s on my mind lately: the danger of false narratives. Looping this back to your question, I think I write to sort through the things that are plaguing me and to hopefully deliver those ideas to people who are struggling with the same issues.

What does your editor bring to your writing?

My last editor (I’ve had several due to the revolving-door nature of the business) brought both a critical eye and generous dollops of encouragement and praise. I needed and appreciated all of those.

How much time and effort do you spend marketing your book?

Probably not enough! Writers need to find smart ways to market themselves and their work without seeming self-promotional, and without the effort wearing them down and taking them away from the work of creating new stories. I haven’t yet found the right balance, but I’m always on the lookout for new ideas.

Writers need to find smart ways to market themselves and their work without seeming self-promotional, and without the effort wearing them down and taking them away from the work of crating new stories.

You run a hugely engaged and motivated group of writers at writerunboxed. How would you describe them?

They are my writing family — generous, wise, and there when you need them.

I believe they are an important fuel that makes us feel much less alone while writing.

Who are your writing heroes?

I have tremendous respect for many, but Barbara O’Neal (a multi-published, award-winning author and contributor at WU) holds a special place for me. I find her to be both a brilliant writer, a generous person, and someone who derives much creative pleasure out of life.

Have you considered self-publishing?

Yes; when rights were reverted back to me from my first novel, The Last Will of Moira Leahy, I self-published. I think it’s a great option for many.

So you self-published! How did you find the experience?  What will you do differently the next time?

I found the experience to be interesting! I had my book deconstructed by someone who then made a PDF from the pages and then a word document from the PDF. The PDF/word document then had to be proofed to check for typos — things like an exclamation point turning into the number one — which was a bit of a slog, but it gave me an opportunity to go through the book again, and even make a couple of minor changes here and there. (I know some writers don’t recommend making changes at this stage of a reboot, but I couldn’t help myself.) I also enjoyed the process of working on a cover and the design elements within the book itself. It was empowering to have control over every aspect, but of course, there’s a downside to that, as all the hours you’re putting into those things are hours you aren’t working on anything new in terms of your craft. But I’m glad I did it, and I don’t know that there’s much I would do differently next time

As an author, where would you like to be in 5 years time?

I would like to have published two additional books and to have developed a rhythm that sustains me creatively.

What do you wish you could change about the publishing industry?

I wish traditional publishers planned for a long-tail in promoting a novel, rather than pushing out books and then moving on to the next books.

 It’s a business, of course, but so much could be done that isn’t being done to support authors and books that have already been published.

What advice do you have for someone stuck on writing their first draft?

If you’ve been stuck for a while, see if you can find a beta-reader to analyze what you have and offer thoughts, question decisions, and push you to consider your story through fresh eyes.

Ultimately, the most success I’ve had at overcoming ‘stuck’ness’ is to write, write, write, so I’d encourage those writers to keep at it. Perseverance is my favourite word.

Want to hear more from Therese? Check out Therese's author website or check out her uber helpful community at Writerunboxed.

The World of a Literary Scout–and International Rights

My story starts with J.K Rowling…

Literary Scouts know a lot, but they’re not mind readers.

It was my first week as a Scout at what was then Anne Louise Fisher’s agency (now Eccles Fisher), and the office was buzzing. Constant phone calls. It was the buzz of publishers from around the world; the news had come out that Robert Galbraith, a low-profile crime author who had sold 500 copies on publication, was in fact J.K Rowling.

‘Why didn’t you tell us?’ a publishing client asked our agency.

Well, of course, we didn’t know; NO ONE knew. It was leaked by Rowling’s lawyer, for which he was sued. Rowling had wanted to live like common people and she had succeeded, for a bit.

Our clients were a dozen European and US publishers across the world like Penguin Random House Spain, Montadori Italy, and they relied on us, their Scouts, to keep them in the know over which unpublished and published books were being talked about, which authors were rising, and anything significant in the book industry.

At any one time, a good Scout can tell you the top 10 books editors or agents are reading; their job is to know. But they are human and, as in the case of J.K Rowling’s secret, there are things that simply can’t be known.

But let’s rewind a bit.

Scouts fit into the big puzzle of international rights, so to understand them you need to know the basics of how books are sold from writer to publisher to foreign publisher.

My simplified version of how authors get their books published around the world. (Skip if you already understand this.)

Authors sell books to a publishing house, normally in their home country. That publishing house will often ask if they can buy the international rights as well, so that they can sell the rights to publishing houses in different territories like Germany, France, Spain, etc. In other situations, agents will try to sell international rights themselves. In the case of Robert Galbraith/Rowling, her agent, The Blair Partnership, held onto international rights. Whoever has the rights, they try to sell them to other publishing houses and take a fee for sales. Open the book market and of course it’s like any other industry, a complex marketplace–the products are books, the brands are authors.

Now, the official way of selling rights is for the rights team to contact editors in international publishing houses and persuade them to buy. For example, see below for how Little Brown advertised Robert Galbraith’s book, available for sale in their Frankfurt Book Fair 2012 catalogue. You can see they’re naming the Blair Partnership (an agent) for translation rights. It would be a year later before the secret became public.

Cue — the Scout.

However, if a publishing house wants a warm body on the ground, a local informant, assessing what’s really going in a country, they employ a Scout. This will be someone who know the local market, knows the agents, the editors, knows what’s being talked about, and what deals are about to be made. As a reader, you won’t have heard of a Scout simply because you’re not their market. But if you’re reading an American book that’s been published in the UK, or see a UK book that’s popular in Sweden , that book has likely been read by, and possibly recommended by, a Scout to a Publisher.

A good Scout knows what’s hot before anyone else does.

Forty-eight hours before huge publishing deals like Fifty Shades, you’ll have seen a UK Scout on the phone to their US clients telling them they have to read the book NOW.

Everything for a Scout is about relationships–how much the local editors and agents like and trust you, and how much your client trusts you. Being a Scout involves a lot of face-to-face meetings, coffees and drinks galore . It’s your job to know everyone.

As a Scout, I jotted down storylines that agents told me they were reading from full or partial manuscripts, sometimes no more than a line. If I knew a manuscript was coming in on the 10th of March, I’d have a note to call that agent or editor on the 11th to ask if I could finally see that elusive manuscript. Maybe it would be groundbreaking, maybe it would be mediocre; whichever way, I needed to read it and find out.

And when a story was right, I’d pass that information to clients in territories that I thought were right for it.

As a Scout, you have to be able to get your hands on what your client needs without compromising your relationship with editors and agents (who often don’t want you to have the manuscripts until they’re ready).

A Scout has a unique overview of the entire market.

Walk into any book fairs where editors come to buy and rights teams come to sell (Frankfurt, LBF and Bologna are the biggest in Europe), and in that crowd there will be a handful of Scouts keeping an eye on dynamics and sending daily reports from their phones about which books are selling like hotcakes.

As an editor, I went to book fairs and had scores of meetings with US, French and other foreign publishers selling their books to the UK. It was busy but fun, like window shopping, only for books. The only stress was worrying that we might be missing ‘the next big thing’ (likely from the US).

As a Scout, my experience at a Book Fair was a completely different and thrilling experience. I went to Bologna as a Scout, and I had to know what every UK children’s publisher was selling, even the books that were ‘hidden’ for a surprise announcement.

I remember our Hungarian clients arrived late to the fair and had back-to-back meetings about to start. I stood huddled in a corner of the conference room, with a publisher and editor. I had 20 minutes to give them an assessment on the top 200 books that were available at the fair and a few others that agents were talking about but not selling until after the fair. I pulled out my 40-page report and highlighted the top 10 for them, and sent them off, asking them to call if they needed help with anything. I visited all the UK publishers throughout the day, and called my client when a book they wanted had started to sell across the world. I was on call the entire time but loved being so deep in the early stages of publishing, and playing the role of matchmaker, on speed.

Of course, the real hard work had started around 6 weeks earlier when I was talking to editors and agents about what they were reading. And 3-4 weeks before, I was reading manuscripts I thought would be most important for my clients.

Did I mention that all the reading was on my own time?

Daytime was for meeting editors and agents and writing reports, and in the gaps of every other moment, I read — while brushing teeth, walking (I nearly got run over), during dinner, after dinner; I read myself to sleep. My head was a mashup of a million brilliant storylines. I picked up late night emails from clients that would be hilarious in any other context.

I had just started dating someone, and thankfully my new girlfriend was amused rather than annoyed by my permanent attachment to my Kindle.

Even after I left Scouting (it was a maternity cover), I would, for the next 2 years, see new books released in Waterstones or on Amazon that I had read years previously, unedited.

What Scouting taught me:

As a Scout, you see from afar hundreds of books passing through the marketplace, editors around the world chasing and rejecting the best books. I saw an editor at a small publisher get excited over a book that I could tell on my system had been submitted years ago and rejected repeatedly. I could see trends come and go across the world. I saw how a senior editor snatched the book EVERY editor wanted by reaching into the company’s fat wallet and paying stupid money for it hours after it was sent out to editors. Would the company make the money back? Were they the best publisher for the book? I’m not sure, but they had the clout to wade in and take what they wanted.

As an editor I romanticised individual publishing houses. As a Scout, I could see which ones had bigger hits, struck better deals, and had the best rights team. It’s all subjective opinion, but it changed the way I saw publishing and it made me see publishing as it was — editors and publishing houses gambling on what they thought readers would like. Sometimes they got it right, sometimes they got it wrong, but they were driven by a love for stories and a desire to do well for themselves and for their company.

It was always about the story.

So what did all editors talk about? We did discuss history, awards, how personable an author was, but universally I saw that conversations with editors across the world was always about the story. Okay, sometimes, like in the case of Minecraft books or a brand like Peppa Pig, we also discussed popularity and fan bases, but for the most part, editors chose or rejected books based on whether they loved the story — whether it moved them, stayed with them, and whether it was right for their country.

Publishing can be a hard-nosed marketplace where editors hope for bestsellers and potential award winners, but in my experience as a Scout, what we all loved the most, talked about the most, and what I always tell writers to focus on, is the core of it all–the story.

Why Every Entrepreneur Should Write a Book (and not for the reasons that you think)

I was recently invited to a party by a good friend of mine. An entrepreneur.

I arrived late and stood at the edge of the room. I've worked with startups in my previous jobs, and I've been to a gazillion entrepreneur events, they sort of blend into a blur of bland pitches and egos. 

But there were two things I noticed about this particular crowd. Something I haven't seen before.

1. Almost all of them had laser focused pitches.

I'm a high-end life coach

We provide personalised fitness plans based on your DNA

I'm a peak performance coach

Not everyone can get away with making bold claims, but these entrepreneurs sounded sincere, authentic and they spoke with no hesitation. 

2. Most of them were also authors.

They were proud to say they were self-published, and all were doing very, very well.

My friend later told me that they had been on the same course about cementing authority (KPI programme). 

This was new to me.

I mean, sure, I knew a bit about self-publishing (Joanna Penn, Taylor Pearson had already impressed me with their books) but this bunch turned me around on self-publishing. Their drive, their persistence.

I wanted to dig deeper into what these entrepreneurs were gaining, in real terms from their books. After all, they were super busy running businesses, did a book really make a difference?

I interviewed 10 of them on the phone and over coffee. I asked them why entrepreneurs should write books. And for the purposes of making this readable, I separated their answers into 3 buckets.

The first is obvious, the second was interesting and the third I didn’t expect.

#1. Your book is talking to potential fans, friends and customers while you sleep

Having content, videos and books with your message and voice help you reach more people, at scale. Leanne Spencer, Founder of Bodyshot, offers fitness and nutrition based on genetics and DNA profiling. She explained that more often than not, by the time she had met a potential client, they had bypassed the introductions. Why? Because they had read about her, understood her philosophy and method through her online presence and her books.

So what is the potential impact of someone having access to so much of your content?

Daniel Priestly, author of Oversubscribed explains that it takes, on average 7 hours to make a big decision. This happens in business and is part of the process of taking a client through the sales funnel. Think about the hours spent building relationships with clients? In Japan, businessmen entertain and socialise with clients for hours before even discussing a deal. There’s a psychology to this.

“After you have a 7hr+ relationship two great things happen. Firstly, you don’t feel uneasy offering something of value and secondly, you are less likely to blow the relationship by offering something you don’t fully believe in… Strangely, the human brain can’t distinguish between digital media and real life (which is why we still feel sad when a celebrity dies even though we didn’t ever really meet them)” — Daniel Priestly, Oversubscribed

Using content, blogs, videos and books to distribute your message helps to do this at scale. If a blog or video offers an introduction to you and your message, a book is the second step, the equivalent of getting inside your head and understanding your mind. The third step is to meet you in person.

#2. Being a ‘best-selling’ author can boost your authority. Result? More speaking opportunities, more leads.

What do you send a conference organiser? Online links? A business card? How about a book? For all the entrepreneurs I spoke to, having a book made meant getting better speaking opportunities and more organic invites. It goes without saying that if your book doesn’t add value to the topics you’re writing about, then you’re wasting your time. But entrepreneurs like the elite coach and trainer Jean-Pierre de Villiers have used books to boost their brand and business. He is now one of the UK’s highest paid personal coaches.

Authors like Tim Ferris and James Altucher have hit and maintained bestseller status, which is a level that most authors find difficult to achieve. Some of the authors I spoke to had momentarily hit ‘**bestseller’ status but no one was earning more than 20k annually from their books. Not yet. However, almost all recognised that they had muddled through the process but were confident that subsequent books would read and sell better. All were working on 2nd and 3rd books and all of them saw Amazon as another platform to reach their potential allies, fans and customers. Only 30% were natural writers. The rest used grit, perseverance and a reached out for help including paying for professional editors. **Being a best-seller is a whole topic in itself, something I’ll cover later. But it’s enough to know that even if you’re not top of the pile in the Amazon charts, it’s worth considering writing a book.

#3. Writing will help you clarify your mission, your philosophy. Don’t underestimate how powerful this is.

What does your company truly stand for? Robin Waite, author of Startup Online said that the process of writing helped him his systems and belief. 

The world’s most influential companies lead with their mission statements. com. Can you guess who they are?

“To organise the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful”

“To bring inspiration and innovation to every athlete* in the world”

“To create a better everyday life for the many people. We make this possible by offering a wide range of well-designed, functional home-furnishing products at prices so low that as many people as possible will be able to afford them”

“Provide a global online marketplace where practically anyone can trade practically anything, enabling economic opportunity around the world”

These are mission Statements from Google, Nike, Ikea, Ebay. Having a clear sense of purpose is important. Connect with your customers to show them what you care about and how you’re making the world a better place.

If you want to stand out in a world of content, you need to underline your expertise. Publishing a book is not just putting your thoughts on a blog post. It’s an event. It shows your best-curated thoughts and it shows customers, clients, investors, friends and lovers what the most important things on your mind are right now — James Altucher, blogger, investor and author of bestselling title Choose Yourself

Do you know what your business stands for? Can you articulate it clearly?  If you're thinking about writing a book, what is stopping you?