Writers On Writing / Ashley Kalagian Blunt

‘Some people use the term gatekeepers to describe publishers, but in my experience, publishers are eager for great stories that will connect with readers.’

Writers on Writing is our regular conversation with a writer or industry professional about the writing craft, industry insights, and their own practice. This week, we spoke to bestselling author Ashley Kalagian Blunt about her numerous and varied experiences in the publishing industry, ahead of her workshop Pathways to Publishing: Perfect Your Submission.

You’ve published a thriller, memoir, and novella. In what ways was the publishing process similar/different for each of these works?

I’ve been lucky to have three very different publishing experiences with three different publishers. My first book, My Name Is Revenge, came out with Spineless Wonders in 2019, after it was shortlisted in the Carmel Bird Digital Literary Award. This is a small, local publisher that specialises in short-form writing. I got to have a lot of involvement in the process, including in the cover design, and did a lot of the promotion myself. My second book, How to Be Australian, was a memoir that came out with Affirm Press in 2020, after I approached them via one of their authors. This was a more typical publishing experience, in which I had less involvement in things like cover design, and the book went through several major rounds of editing. I worked with an external publicist, who got me on national TV to speak about the book. Both those books came out unagented.

When I wrote my psychological thriller, Dark Mode, I submitted to an agent and got representation both in Australia and overseas. That changed the process entirely, because the manuscript was sent to all major publishers and ended up in auction. Dark Mode came out with Ultimo Press in 2023, with a more rigorous editorial experience and a chance to work with the in-house marketing team. It was also published in the UK, Germany and South Korea. I’ve learned a lot from each of these experiences, and I’m now in the editorial process for my next thriller with Ultimo. 

What was it like when you got your first offer from a publisher?

I worked for nine years on the manuscript that eventually became My Name Is Revenge. There were a lot of times along the way that I thought about giving up writing. When I received that first offer of publication, I thought, okay, I can keep going with this.  

What are some misconceptions about the publishing industry?

Some people use the term gatekeepers to describe publishers, but in my experience, publishers are eager for great stories that will connect with readers. We as writers believe that our work is inherently interesting – that’s why we spent all that time writing it – and our friends and family may echo this to support us. I’ve experienced this myself, of course. But publishers need a hook to sell your book to booksellers, who in turn need a hook to sell it to readers. Walk into any bookshop and consider how many books are vying for your attention. What makes you choose one over the dozens of similar titles?

The other mistake we often make as writers is thinking our work is ready before it actually is. I’m very familiar with this as well. Now I can look back on the drafts I sent to agents and publishers years ago, and recognise them as underdeveloped. But at the time, that was the height of my skills, so of course I thought they were ready to submit. We need to keep developing both our skills and our ideas, so that publishers can get excited about sending our books out into a very challenging market. 

How do you know when your manuscript is ready to start submitting for publication?

I’ve heard it suggested that you should get to a point in your manuscript where you’re completely happy with it, where you can’t possibly think what else could need revising, where you consider it fully done – and then seek more feedback, realise it does in fact need more work, and reach that stage of “it’s definitely done!” twice more before submitting it to agents/publishers. 

In my experience, this is a great guideline. So many times, I’ve thought a manuscript was really working before I got feedback that made me realise it still needed major revisions. And every time, those revisions have made the story so much better than I ever imagined it could be.  

What are some new voices being published in Australia that you highly recommend reading?

Monica Vuu’s eerie debut novel, When One of Us Hurts, is a real stand out. Set in the fictional town of Port Brighton, Tasmania, it features two distinctive narrators, and delivers unexpected twists, taking the ‘small town with a dark secret’ trope to a new level. The Pulling by Adele Dumont is an extraordinary collection of personal essays about the impacts of living with a secret mental illness. And I’m excited for Siang Lu’s Ghost Cities, out in April, which ‘draws on Chinese history to explore the absurdity of modern life and work’. 

Ashley Kalagian Blunt is the bestselling author of Dark Mode, an internationally published psychological thriller. Her earlier books include How to Be Australian, a memoir, and My Name Is Revenge, collected fiction and essays, which was a finalist in the 2018 Carmel Bird Digital Literary Award. Her writing appears in the Sydney Morning Herald, Overland, Griffith Review, Sydney Review of Books, Australian Book Review, Kill Your Darlings and more. Ashley co-hosts James and Ashley Stay at Home, a podcast about writing, creativity and health, and teaches creative writing.

Enrol now in Pathways to Publishing: Perfect Your Submission with Ashley Kalagian Blunt Saturday 15 June 2024, 10am to 4pm

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