Sunday, July 11, 2010

[Interview] Gary Smailes from BubbleCow

You may recall reading a post about the excellent resource for writers BubbleCow. Since I am impressed with his work and the advice that he hands out, I wanted to know more. I sent an invitation and the result is this interview, where we talk shop and discuss the state of publishing in its current form.   


Harry Markov: Gary, first of all, thank you for accepting my invitation, it is a pleasure to have you at my humble adobe. So, you are a writer, own your own editing agency and also give advice online through your blog BubbleCow. That is a lot to manage. How did you decide to branch in so many directions?  

Gary Smailes: Ha – that’s a great question! The reality is that I see myself as a writer, and like most writers I would love to be able to write full time. However, the reality of the industry (and life) is that very few writers earn enough money, through publishing books alone, to make a full time living. Therefore, I always knew I would need to do a ‘normal’ job as well as writing, so what better than helping other writers? 

BubbleCow grew organically from editing and consulting work my wife and myself were already doing as freelancers. The time came when it made sense to bring our separate freelancing efforts under one umbrella and BubbleCow was born. As for offering advice online it was a natural progression. We always knew that BubbleCow would ‘exist’ online and using social media to develop our reputation and strengthen our contact with writers was the only real choice. 

HM: And what were the initial challenges with founding and establishing an agency such as yours?
GS: As a literary consultancy we knew that one of the one of the biggest hurdles would be building trust. So we set out to be as open and honest as possible. We are contactable in many ways and never try to hide. I feel that simply showing up every day and providing honest feedback is enough to convince most writers that you are genuine and can help them get their work published. 

HM: Let’s consider a scenario, in which an author does well as in climbing through the lists and is well known in his field, but he/she is not a household name. What should he/she consider before deciding to quite the day job? 

GS: Make sure he/she can pay the bills! The publishing industry is unpredictable and very, very slow. Securing a book deal and signing a contract is one thing, but getting that precious advance into your bank account can take months! I would suggest that writers see themselves as doing two jobs, writing and the job that pays the bill. 

HM: You also mention freelancers. What advice can you give to budding freelancers?
GS: Firstly, define your market and skillset. Make sure you know what you are writing and who is prepared to pay for that writing. Secondly, see networking as part of your job. As a freelancer you are always looking for that next client. Set aside time each day to build a potential client list. Finally, charge the correct price. The trick is to resist pricing yourself too low and instead charge a price that is fair you’re your skills. Oh yeah, writing for nothing always a bad idea. 

HM: In your opinion, who is qualified to give advice about writing? The Internet is bursting its seams with advice and I am sure new how-to books are printed as we speak. Because writing seems so mystical, I guess that everyone wants to throw in his two cents. 

GS: I have blogged and talked online about this topic a lot over the past few months. For me there are two separate issues. The first is who is offering advice and the second is the importance of ‘writing rules’. 

In regards to those qualified to offer advice, I would say that it depends on your writing goals. If you are looking to find an agent, then you need to take advice from agents and writers with agents. If you are looking to get published via the traditional route, then take advice from writers that have been published by recognized publishing houses. Finally, if you want to self-publish, then take advice from writers how have successfully self-published their own books. Also be aware that many so called experts are offering ‘re-cycled’ advice they have picked up from other sources. On the surface what they say may seem valid, but once you scrape below the surface you quickly discover they are offering nothing new. 

The great thing about the internet is that is gives everyone a voice. The great problem with the internet is that it gives everyone a voice. It is very easy for writers to become quickly overcome by contradictory advice. Writers looking for guidance must look carefully at those who are giving advice before taking their word as gospel. 

This brings me onto ‘writing rules.’ The nature of blogging means that the ‘top five tips to writing a best seller’ kinds of posts are almost irresistible for bloggers. I think that the problem is that there are no writing rules, there is no set formula for success and writers looking for the magic key are perhaps wasting their time. For me the only advice worth following is to simply write. Writers who don’t write aren’t really writers…

HM: Speaking of editing, how do writers respond to criticism in general and what stage can you consider toughest for the writer’s ego? 

GS: To be fair 99% of writers who pay for feedback from us are open and understand we are all pulling in same direction. They understand their manuscript needs work before coming to us and are ready for the feedback. In fact, most writers are relieved to see positive comments as well as the areas for improvement.  

A writer’s ego only tends to get bruised if they are looking for something unrealistic from BubbleCow. If they want us to say this work is the best writing in the world or are looking to us to promise it will be published, then they are set for a fall. However, most writers come to us looking to improve their work and our feedback allows them to do just that.  

HM: Let’s talk shop and introduce people to your services. What do you offer newbie writers and what’s popular at the moment? 

GS: The core to BubbleCow’s service is professional editing. We aim to provide writers with the kind of editing experience they would receive from a publisher. Most writers don’t realise that editing is actually a four step process, which involves structural editing, stylistic editing, copy editing and proofreading. Our editing service combines the first three editing types. We don’t actually proofread manuscripts, though the vast majority of errors are captured in the copy edit. 

To keep things simple for writers, our prices are based on word count and we charge just £5/$8 per 1000 words, with a 1000 word minimum word count. We also aim to complete feedback with ten working days. 

One service that has proved popular is our book proposal guidance. This sees us offering advice and guidance on writing and preparing a cover letter and synopsis. The basis of this advice has been complied in to our five day guide to writing a great book proposal. This sees writers receiving five separate emails, one a day, outlining the best way to write a book proposal. 
Your readers can go to the link below to sign up for the free guide: 

We also offer mentoring to writers. You can find details of all our services here: 

Services: LINK 

HM: Let’s get analytical, now shall we. If you take your most trending service among writers, can you assess what’s the most common aspect writers are feeling comfortable about? And whether that is normal or not? 

GS: I think the best way to answer this question is to explain the main reasons why writers come to BubbleCow. Almost every client is looking to make their book as ‘publishable’ as possible. They recognise that BubbleCow will give them the feedback they need to make their book as attractive as possible to potential agents and publishers. 

We also have a large number of clients who are embarking on the self-publishing route and use BubbleCow as a pre-production editorial solution. These writers understand that a self-published book will meet some resistance from readers, and that by making sure it has been edited to the highest standard, they stand the best chance of the book being a success. 

I would also add to this one final thought. Almost every client comes to us with one question. Sometimes they ask it directly, other times it is in the sub-text of the submission. Yet, almost every writer wants to know – Is my book good enough? We are aware that in most cases we are the first ‘external’ people to read a writer’s work, and our feedback will be the first indication of just how good their book will turn out to be. We try to offer constructive and applicable guidance, and though we will never say if a book is publishable or not, we will offer a genuine view on whether we feel the work has a chance of reaching the standard required. 

HM: You vehemently defend the importance of the book proposal as vital element in securing a publishing contract, but surely a book proposal alone does not do all the work?  

GS: You are correct in that I feel the book proposal is the key to success. You are also correct in that the book proposal will not do all the work. The way I see it is that for a book to be published it needs to tick a number of boxes. Firstly, it needs to be of a high enough quality. However, one this is achieved, a book still needs to fit certain criteria to get published. It needs to match the publisher’s current catalogue, and the genre and readership need to be correct. It also needs to be different enough for the marketing team to find an angle they can use the push the book. 
The problem writers face is that they can tick all these boxes but a poor book proposal will still kill the project stone dead. Agents and publishers are very busy with hundreds of submissions and, to be honest, they are looking for an excuse to say no to your book. It is much easier for an agent/publisher to reject your book and move onto the next, than it is to say yes. Therefore, as a writer, it is your duty to make your book pitch as agent/publisher friendly as possible. 

Your book proposal needs to show the agent/publisher that you are good enough, that your genre fits, that your readership is accessible and that you can be marketed successfully. The key with a good book proposal is to make it almost impossible for an agent/publisher to say no! 

HM: I have a profound question. I believe the hardest question ever. Does practice makes perfect and can a writer excel to publication without even a spark of talent/way/intuition with words? Perhaps the said writer knows the industry, reads the blogs, knows the drill and takes this all very seriously, but somehow always doesn’t cut it. Do you believe such a person can exist or do you support the thesis that all success is 99% hard work, 1% talent?  

GS: Errm… Assuming that all poor writers will be rejected, I believe that a writer’s technical skill only needs to be ‘good enough’ and it is the ideas that really count. This said what ‘good enough’ means is open to some debate. Let me put it another way. I feel that a writer that is good enough and a writer who is technically brilliant, have roughly an equal chance of making a living as a writer, IF (and this is a big if) they have the ideas and execution required. 

However, being a good writer makes the whole process a lot easier. To understand this you need to see the process from the publisher’s point of view. They are looking for writers who can deliver manuscripts of a high standard, which need little work and consistently appeal to the readership. Therefore, a technically gifted writer will make the publisher’s job easier because the manuscript will need less work between submission and publication.  

Of course the holy grail of all publishers is the writer with amazing technical ability and a mind stuffed full of great ideas – now that writer will go a long way…

HM: Should the newbie concentrate on standalones or writing series, until he hits his first contract?

GS: It all depends on the genre. I write for children and ‘the series’ is the way forward. However, I always feel that selling an adult fiction series is tough. I advice writer’s to play down the series angle of a book pitch, unless the additional book are essential to the story or, ideally, already written. Many publishers will find it difficult to conjure up the budget to take a gamble on one book from a writer, never mind three or four. However, you may find that if you do pitch a series, and the first book sells well, it leaves the publisher in a position to offer a multi-book second contract, which is a huge win for the writer. 

HM: As far as I have heard, with series that is, it’s better to have the first complete and the rest outlined. Just in case the writer fails to sell the series.  

GS: Yes, that is the best approach. You don’t want to spend years writing a three book series, only to find that you can’t place them with an agent or publisher! 

HM: In a post sometime ago, you advocated for writers not to write every day. That goes well against almost every advice given ever. Isn’t it a bit controversial a statement?  

GS: I know many professional writers and none of them writer every day. In fact, I do get worried that many unpublished writers get caught up in the act of writing, developing it into an almost religious act that should be performed without fail.  

In Seth Godin’s recent book, Lynchpin, he suggests that the difference between a writer and an artist, is that an artist delivers. I think that it is far more important that a writer aim to finish their book. If this means writing every day then great, if it means writing just on weekends, then also great. What is important is that a writer is writing to finish, not just writing for the sake of writing. 

HM: Because every writer is different, right? 

GS: Yeah, you may be the kind of writer who writers every day. However, you may be like me, and see writing as a job. I write when I need to meet deadlines. Or, you may be somewhere in between. I think setting general rules for all writers is just dangerous.  

HM: However, you do support the thesis that a writer should blog every day. Doesn’t that clash with the writer’s priorities? I mean, writers write fiction and they should be focusing on that. 

GS: I actually say in the post that if writers are looking to build a platform then they should blog every day. Posts bring readers and readers turn into fans. Almost all huge blogs have been built on regular blog posts, since they build trust and readership. 

As for the argument that writers don’t have time to blog every day – this is horse crap. IF building a platform is a priority, then find time to blog every day, if not then don’t bother. It is all about priorities. Finding time is easy. Writers just need to get up an hour earlier or go to bed an hour later or (god forbid!) stop watching crappy soap operas and spend their time doing something constructive instead. I would challenge anyone who says that can’t free up half an hour each day. Saying you have no time to blog is just an excuse. 

HM: What other elements can a platform have apart from owning a blog? 

GS: I think a writer’s platform should have a central blog. I would also say that Twitter and Facebook are essential. Both are very different channels that need very different skills to use effectively. I don’t go along with the idea that Twitter and Facebook will someday die off. For me, people are too invested in these channels and they are here to stay. I would suggest that a writer invest time in writing regular blog posts and finding a way to build followers on Twitter and Facebook by adding value.  

HM: Apart from your blog, which is filled with all sorts of advice, you also ran a free five-day e-mail tutorial on synopses. You give a lot of freebies. Do people come back, now that they are hooked, or does the piracy mentality [‘Free? Good! Thanks. Bye’] prevail?  

GS: This is a great question. I feel our business is all about trust. Writers must trust us with their work and trust they are not wasting their money. It is not like buying a new TV, you can’t see what you are getting until it is too late. To build this trust we have been open and honest. Sharing free stuff is just part of this process. However, we do genuinely want to help writers. I recently put a live chat system onto our website and it has encouraged lots of people to drop in and ask questions. These conversations are fascinating, and yes some lead to business, but most of the time it is just nice to share. 

So, if people want to read our blog, pick up the free stuff and never come back then that’s fine. However, if you want to get involved and interact the chances are you will come away with a better experience. 

HM: As far as content goes, how do you feel about posting free flash fiction? 

GS: Great question – I think that if a writer is trying to build a following then they need to add value. One way of doing this is to give away free stuff, including flash fiction. However, it all depends on goals. If you are trying to build a following for your novel, then giving away shorter fiction is a great idea (free downloadable pdf on blog sidebar). However, if your aim is to release a collection of flash fiction, I would spend some time considering which work you are going to release, since you need a strong core of work for any potential publisher. 

Another way to think about this is to consider if there is actually a paying readership for flash fiction. I would suggest not! I would suggest that flash fiction collections have some market value, but on the whole a writer will gain more value using them to spread their popularity, rather than trying to make cash.  

HM: Thank you immensely for your time. Any final words of wisdom you would like to share? 

GS: Yeah – please ignore all the advice I have offered, it is your writing career and only you will know the correct route to take!


Christine Macdonald said...

Thank you both for this. I loved both questions and answers. I am one of those people who can't write every day. I need to get out of my own head for a little bit before I can dive back in. It's crazy in there.

Harry Markov said...

@ Christine: I happen to be the same and I have had some issues with following the write-every-day rule. For me it is unrealistic at certain moments.

T.S. Bazelli said...

"skill only needs to be ‘good enough’ and it is the ideas that really count." This gives me hope, though it's hard to know what is 'good enough' to begin with.

Anonymous said...


Harry Markov said...

I hate the uncertainty that surrounds the good enough part, cause there is no exact measurement and it drives me nuts. :D

Scott said...

Great interview and blog. As an aspiring writer, I am soaking all of this up.