TEXT Review

Commercial realities

review by Donna Lee Brien


A Decent Proposal: How to Sell your Book to an Australian Publisher
Rhonda Whitton and Sheila Hollingworth
Common Ground Publishing, 2001, reprinted in 2003
ISBN 1 86335 045 4
140 pp, Pb AU$20.00

Mission Possible: How to Make Money from your Writing
Rhonda Whitton and Sheila Hollingworth
Common Ground Publishing, 2002
ISBN 1 86335 101 9
173 pp, Pb AU$25.00


Taking on board Samuel Johnson’s recommendation that “What is written without effort is in general read without pleasure”, these two concise books urge writers to deal seriously with the business end of writing – addressing in particular the task of writing a winning book proposal and other ways of making writing pay its way. Authors Rhonda Whitton and Sheila Hollingworth offer a mass of basic information in the now-classic self-help format, presenting foundational information in bite-size chunks, this fare seasoned with humour and a series of cartoon illustrations.

A Decent Proposal: How to Sell your Book to an Australian Publisher deals with the elements of writing and formatting a book proposal – from the tone and contents of the covering letter to advice on how many sample chapters to include. It also incorporates information on the various publishing options open to writers (commercial, on-line and self- and vanity-publishing) as well as on book contracts, advances, royalties, copyright, agents, manuscript appraisal services and writing centres. Mission Possible: How to Make Money from your Writing surveys the traditional areas of the pen-for-hire marketplace such as freelance journalism, corporate writing, and book publishing and reviewing, together with less immediately obvious opportunities. These include ghostwriting and speechwriting alongside the specialist niche markets of greeting card captioning, menu writing and teaching into the corporate marketplace. There are also brief sections on grants and writing competitions.

Much of this will be grist to the mill for novice and student writers uneasy about the commercial realities of publishing. For those of us who are already on the publishing and/or freelancing merry-go-round, both these books offer a fresh take on familiar territory. I found myself thinking, I could do that, and I could do that, as well. The problem being, of course, that there is nothing in the book that tells me how to find those extra hours to give my latest proposal the spin and polish it needs, let alone the time to even think about how lucrative writing obituaries, eulogies, real estate ads or corporate reports could be.

When considering possible audiences for these books, I began to envisage a type of writer apart from those who fit into the categories of ‘beginning’, ‘emerging’ or ‘established’. In my mind, these writers are akin to the ‘armchair traveller’ – would-be authors who love reading about writing, who take writing courses and join writers’ centres, who enjoy going to writers’ festivals and other events to listen to writers talk about writing, but who have little time, or inclination, to actually write themselves. Perhaps this ‘armchair writer’ is a market others are already aware of, but I think they would find a vicarious pleasure in reading these books, and imagining the various writers therein described at work.

My quibbles are few. The multiple topics dealt with (and handy size and, therefore, modest price of the books) means that the authors lack the space to tease out many of their best suggestions. Much of their advice is good, as in: “learn arts-speak” (for grant applications) and “think creatively about topics and not be limited by the obvious” (when sourcing ideas for freelance articles). This counsel is, of course, totally correct, but knowing what to do is a very different matter than knowing how to do it. This is a common problem of self-help texts – authors want to include information for as wide an audience as possible but, at the same time, they also need to give each reader enough specific information to urge them to read or buy this book in particular and not one especially devoted to the particular topic of their special interest.

I also fully understand why the authors kept the amount of statistical evidence to a minimum (as this quickly dates the volume), but I longed for a few more facts and figures about the publishing industry in A Decent Proposal – this factual element being more fully (and satisfyingly) elaborated in Mission Possible. What I found less acceptable was the weakness of the sections dealing with fiction proposals in A Decent Proposal. It is perhaps understandable, as the authors themselves are principally non-fiction, professional and corporate writers – but a much stronger section on writing fiction proposals would substantially enhance the book’s content and value. Neither book has an index and there are quite a few typos, especially in the bibliographies – a poor example if these books were used with students.

Both these texts are published under the BooksOnWriting.com <http://www.booksonwriting.com> imprint of Common Ground Publishing based in Altona in Victoria. Their site <http://commongroundgroup.com> lists some 17 works in the broad area of writing, including the two books here reviewed. Common Ground Publishing describes itself as a “Publishing Service Provider…simultaneously producing each title as a printed and an electronic book”, their stated aim to make the widest variety of books available to readers. The processes they list as foundational – these (and others) are listed on their website – print on demand, rapid manuscript turnaround, minimal editing services and increased percentage payment to authors on sales, may be attractive to writers for various reasons, although the other side of this equation is that authors take on an increased editorial and marketing responsibility and, as the publisher has confirmed to me, authors do “contribute to the production cost of their titles”. A list of their Standard Service Rates is available on application by email <info@commonground.com.au>.

Donna Lee Brien is a Senior Lecturer (Writing, Editing and Publishing) in the School of English, Communication and Theatre at the University of New England in Armidale, New South Wales.


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Vol 8 No 2 October 2004
Editors: Nigel Krauth & Tess Brady