Monday, 24 October 2011

In which Scott/Steve/Pack/Stack talks of white dog poo and pitching non-fiction

Planning to pitch a non-fiction book? Aimed at the general, commercial (as opposed to specialist) market? Would you like advice from someone who is or has been all of these things: a) bookseller (of a rather influential variety) b) a publisher (of general, commercial non-fiction) and c) an author? Look no further.

Today we are talking about 21st Century Dodos: A Collection of Endangered Objects (and Other Stuff) by Steve Stack. Those of you who've been awake on Twitter recently will know that Scott Pack and Steve Stack do more than rhyme: they are the same man. And they are here today.

First, a bit about the author: Scott Pack, who writes as Steve Stack, used to be the buying manager at Waterstone’s head office, a role which did not make him all that popular. He is now the Director of Digital Product Development at HarperCollins, a role he combines with a few other jobs at the publisher. His first book, It Is Just You - Everything’s Not Shit, was a #1 bestseller in the Humour ebook charts (a small claim to fame, but one he is more than happy to chuck around). He blogs at and tweets as @meandmybigmouth.

About the book: A fond farewell to the many inanimate objects, cultural icons and general stuff around us that find themselves on the verge of extinction.

We’ve all heard of the list of endangered animals, but no one has ever pulled together a list of endangered inanimate objects. Until now, that is. Steve Stack has catalogued well over one hundred objects, traditions, cultural icons and, well, other stuff that is at risk of extinction.

Some of them have vanished already. Cassette tapes, rotary dial phones, half-day closing, milk bottle deliveries, Concorde, handwritten letters, typewriters, countries that no longer exist, white dog poo…

…all these and many more are big a fond farewell in this nostalgic, and sometimes irreverent, trip down memory lane.

I've been reading it and very entertaining and interesting it is, too. I'll tell you something: Steve Stack knows far more about cassette tapes than anyone really should. And at last I understand, in an almost geeky way, what really went wrong with Betamax. But absolutely the most fascinating entry is the one for white dog poo.

NM: You’ve been a bookseller, publisher and author. Tell us one thing you learnt in each of those roles that helped you succeed in or understand better the others.
Ooh, blimey. Erm…

I think I learnt the same thing in each role: authors who make the effort to be nice to deal with get more support than those who don’t.
[NM adds - that is SO true. I don't see why anyone thinks being anything other than nice is a sensible thing to be in a business that is about hearts and minds.]
NM: What are the commonest mistakes you see in non-fiction pitches?
The most common is that people don’t research their market. I often get pitches for books that I would never publish at The Friday Project, never in a million years, and any numpty could have worked that out with 30 seconds of research.
[NM: no numpties read this blog, I'm glad to say. We all research properly, don't we, people? That means discovering what sorts of books each publsiher publishes and pitching appropriate ones, OK??]
NM: What discussions take place in an Acquisitions meeting that aspiring authors would do well to know about?
Actually, all of the hard work for an acquisitions meeting takes place before the meeting itself. You need to prime everyone in advance, get them on board for the project you want to pitch. Identify the people who are prepared to champion it and make sure they are vocal in the meeting.

If you have that support then you are able to present the book with confidence and enthusiasm. That is what really matters.
[NM: indeed, I've heard that editors quake before these meetings, though I'm sure Scott is entirely unquakey. It's worth adding that in most publishing companies nowadays, the editor has to persuade the number-crunchers in sales and marketing, and they care less about the author's pretty words and more about the concept and whether they can sell enough copies. That's their job. They will also work out a budget and costings at this meeting.]
NM: Can you give your top three tips for non-fiction writers?
  1. You may not be writing a novel but you still have to be a great storyteller.[NM: Good one.]
  2. Does this really need to be a book, or is it a magazine article?[NM: Good one again.]
  3. Listen to the criticism you receive from people in the business. It won’t always be right but it will almost always be helpful. [NM: interesting take. Think about that one carefully, everyone. That's a version of "Nobody knows anything."]
NM: How important is it for a non-fiction writer to have a “platform” before you will take them on? Is that view common amongst UK publishers?
It certainly doesn’t do any harm but it is by no means essential. I have published authors who have already developed a readership, either online or in print, but I have also published complete unknowns who have gone on to sell over 100,000 books.

If you have a great idea and you write it well then a platform is not always required.

I think all publishers feel more comfortable if they feel there is a fanbase or existing readership, some more than others, but all of them have taken punts as well.
NM: What will be the next dodos in the writing/publishing/book world?
Ooh, good question. Who knows? Will these new Flipbook things catch on? Will print books be wiped out by ebooks? Will hardbacks be no more? I think there will be a few casualties but the new digital age is actually making more things available so it may not be as bad as some are predicting. [NM: I totally agree. People are too fond of saying, "This much has happened in the last five years, so by 2016 we will have...". Not at all necessarily. Everything is changing so fast.]
NM: What about space dust? Surely that’s an unforgiveable omission? Scope for Volume 2? Oh, and Gumption, too! Pfffth.
Naturally, any omissions are deliberate and are absent purely to set up volume two. [NM: clever...]
People, for your pleasure, do also go and check out this Flipboard link. And if you have an ipad, for crying out loud hurry to download the free Flipboard app. Beautiful and functional, I promise.

Thank you, Scott and good luck with your book. This could be this year's stocking filler in many houses.

One more piece of advice about non-fiction from me: don't over-estimate the potential market. Be ruthless and objective about your position in the market and what the competition is  Differentiate yourself. And do go and read my interview with Stephanie Butland, who successfully pitched her book on dancing with cancer - Bah! to Cancer.


JO said...

This is a really helpful interview, thanks.

Dan Holloway said...

Very interesting that a platform is desirable rather than required. And very wise advice about not overestimating the size of the potential market - that was the fatal flaw in my "How to Macrame Whippet Coats from Pasta" project

Stroppy Author said...

Dan, if only I'd had your book, my whippet would not have died of cold :-(

Thankyou, Nicola and Scott. As I sit here trying to work out which of my three n-f projects to work up and pitch... I keep changing my mind! I get part way through one and then decide another would be more fun/easier to sell. Aargh. Must admit it had not occurred to me to pitch to HC.

Melissa Sinclair said...

Excellent interview, truly inspirationa and thanks for the tips.


(Checkout the link at the start there seems to be an error!)

Nicola Morgan said...

Melissa, thank you - sorted now!

Stroppy - eeny, meeny...

David Griffin said...

A nice interview, I enjoyed reading it; love the idea of the book, well worth checking out, methinks.

As an aside: about four years ago now, I said to a friend's young daughter: "Do you know what an LP is?" She looked at me suspiciously, and replied, "Noooo – do you?" :-)

Dan Holloway's "How to Macrame Whippet Coats from Pasta" – heehee! I mean, ah, interesting... ;-)

James Pailly said...

I agree with Dan. The idea that a platform is preferred but not required is a huge revelation to me. I suspected this to be the case, and I'm glad someone from the publishing world has confirmed it for me.

Also, what was wrong with Betamax?