Talking Writing, Music and Editing with Tom Flood
Tom Flood helped us refine Reedsy from our earliest days. Now we want to share his amazing story. In one of our most in-depth interviews so far, what started as a conversation about Tom’s agency Flood Manuscripts moved on to cover his work as an editor, a writer, and an independent musician.
Tom analyses the oft-invoked parallel between book and music publishing and what the future holds for both these industries. He also shares his own experience as a writer - he made this great observation about identifying oneself as a writer:
“When people ask, ‘What do you do?’ and I answer, ‘Writer, editor, musician,’ the next question is invariably ‘Oh, what do you play?’ Writing is both less and more mysterious. Nearly everyone writes, so it engenders the second question ‘What do you write?’ way less often. The more revealing ‘How do you write like that?’ comes rarely. People think skill in musicianship comes with practice and dexterity, but skill in creative writing? Like art, they believe it’s a gift. The reality is they’re the same.”
His tripartite career gives Tom a unique lens through which to see what’s happening right now in the new world of publishing. His advice to writers is both practical/motivating — persevere, keep going — and informed by years of experience editing for self-published authors.
Hi Tom, you have an impressive portfolio and experience in writing, editing, and proofreading. Which one came first in your career? In other words, what made you become an editor?
Thanks, Ricardo. I came to editing via writing. I have always been a songwriter but in the 80s, buoyed by a boom of new Australian fiction engendered by the infrastructure built by the short-lived, ground-breaking Left government of the 70s, I began to try my pen at short stories, got one published in a short-lived journal, and finding that slow going, switched to the big picture of the novel. The success of that move (three national awards) led to connections in the world of publishing and I began occasional award judging, assessment through our major residential writers’ center, and some editing for publishers throughout the 90s, also being commissioned to write a theatre piece and a feature film. That all petered out as I moved back towards music performance and had a stab at academia.
In 2003, with a string of part-time jobs, and looking to find new income streams, I began working through the net for a few large assessment/appraisal services in other states, a relatively new industry, reading and advising across a wide range of prose writing. A year later my artist partner suggested I start my own to fund living through a PhD, and a writing client created the first Flood Manuscripts website. Within a year it was full-time assessment and clients began to ask if I would mentor them, act as agent, ghostwriter and all manner of services I had no intention of taking up. Dumping the doctorate to ride the growing self-pub wave with Flood Manuscripts, the next step was mentoring, structural editing and copy editing, and finally proofreading, as Aussie writers began to become impatient with the trade publishers and adept at dealing with the digital, their needs evolving. I keep the service personal, despite many suggestions to expand into an agency, because I like to be at the coalface.
You have also both won and been a judge to major writing awards in Australia, how did that start, and what do these awards represent for you as an author? (Is that just a nice acknowledgment of your craft or something you’re genuinely proud of?)
Awards! Without them Flood Manuscripts wouldn’t exist. Despite both parents writing pretty successfully (my mother, Dorothy Hewett, was a well-known poet and playwright), neither had published with a mainstream press. I made my name in fiction by winning our premier manuscript award, the prize including publication by Allen & Unwin, and that novel then took out more awards, including our oldest and best known fiction prize, the Miles Franklin Award. Everything else I have been lucky enough to be involved with has stemmed from those awards. Flood Manuscripts’ clients have since taken out even more awards, mostly international, and yes, I’m very proud to be a small part of that.
We are in London, and most of our audience is in the US. But you live in Australia, so can you tell us how the publishing landscape looks like over there? How “big” are ebooks and self-publishing?
I think we’re trailing a decade behind USA in some aspects, particularly genre, as we are a small market and still retain a certain English literariness in our publishing landscape, largely fed by our tertiary education system. That said, we were and still are ahead in acceptance of manuscript assessment /appraisal as an essential part of that landscape. Once convinced, Australians do have a fast technology take-up and self-pub is really developing into a snowball.
Has the “digital revolution” truly changed your career, or do you feel you continue working with authors more or less like you did before?
Flood Manuscripts is a child of the digital ‘revolution’. 98% of my work is sourced, contracted, paid and completed via the net. That has grown from about 70% over a decade. I’m receiving around one paper manuscript a year. I prefer to read and edit digitally for work, although I still like to read paper for pleasure. I like the ancient craft of bookbinding. It will be a shame if we lose that art form to the economics of the trade.
Songwriting, though, has not changed for me. The pen is still mighty, the pencil mightier, and scraps of waste paper litter the study on every surface. With the novel, I began handwriting it in ‘85, moved to a borrowed typewriter, then a borrowed word processor, and finally finished the last drafts on a redundant computer with bootlegged software (WordStar) from my partner’s work place. I was over 30, on the dole, and on the rebound from an art pop band in Sydney. I don’t think I actually got on the net until 2003.
This is a traditional question in our interviews: does working directly with an author (indie or hybrid) make it easier or harder for you? Does the absence of a traditional publishing structure change the way you communicate with the author?
Except in the early days before Flood Manuscripts, I’ve almost always worked directly with authors. I don’t court the trade publishers because there are so few here and they don’t outsource much anyway. How it continues to change is in the speed, volume and creativity of new digital ventures and what they offer to litworkers. As an assessor, keeping up with even a small part of that change is a challenge.
You are also a musician, singer, and songwriter in the acoustic trio Blues Angels. The music industry and the publishing one are often compared, many people proclaiming that what happened in music will happen to books. What’s your opinion on that?
Conventional wisdom has had the popular music evolution in four phases: 1) sign with a big label; 2) music publishers make big money from big musicians and use some of those profits to develop new talent; 3) big musicians realise they’re leaving money on the table and set up their own labels (self-publishing), resulting in music publishers dwindling and new musicians having no corporate sponsorship; 4) digi-platforms like iTunes do the same as Amazon/KDP/Kindle and new musicians go direct to consumers (less 30%), but there is new pressure to discount or give away material for free; and we can now add phase 5) big musicians realise how much money they are leaving on the distributors’ table and abandon digital platforms (Taylor Swift/Spotify, Radiohead /iTunes). New musicians have no sponsor, make no money from Spotify and can’t sell on iTunes without a massive marketing spend.
The book trade significantly differs to music in that it doesn’t have a regular large performance aspect, although writers are often performers at festivals, schools, readings, etc., and libraries aren’t really a power in the same way in the music trade, although ideas like Self-E and the digital library may significantly endanger lending rights payments in the pursuit of ‘going viral’. It’s not a matter of ‘will happen’; it already has, at least to level 4. Writing, like music, has gone digital and that digital product is being given away in the millions to create traction towards a fame of sorts and is being streamed, not quite like Spotify et al, through Kindle Owners Lending Library, but podcasting and YouTube are pushing text more into performance re audiobooks, book trailers, and even as the music industry has been digitally driven back towards the single as its principal product, so Kindle Shorts, blogging, social media publishing and other developments continue to drive fiction back towards the heyday of shorter forms. Will this be a boon to poetry? It should be, but I haven’t seen a Shorts- or YouTube-based boom in verse, though it’s early days yet. I do see bundling going on in either form by both indies and trade, both live and product-based, and I expect we’ll see even more specific-subject social media appearing, like mootis, a Twitter for legals, and new models for crowdfunding, like Patreon.
This is the big picture, but as with BluesAngels, who don’t operate in the world of popular music, we do our gigs and small festivals, make our recordings and sell our music at those live gigs, then rinse and repeat. Sure, we’ve put it up digitally on iTunes and Spotify, but we don’t expect to compete with the pop forms; we don’t have that kind of money. So far we’ve made eight cents from streaming. Indie authors can and do still exist at this same level. I have a long term client with Flood Manuscripts who self-pubbed a hardback verse novel, offset printed, and took it on the road to sell – door to door! He’s sold 15,000 over a number of years, making him a best seller in Australian poetry, and funded an audio CD, but he doesn’t register on Bookscan, nor have the poetry awards or Amazon ever heard of him.
A hard question now: do you prefer being an author, and editor or a musician? Where do you feel you have more creative freedom?
The last one was hard. Creative freedom might just be a curse to some. Many artists prefer a given structure within which to work, although I’m not one of them. Some like to push the boundaries of form, others to innovate within those boundaries, and others prefer to capitalize on proven market structures. Creative freedom is not a term I think about or relate to, perhaps because I have it? Perhaps not: like writers’ block, I don’t think you can pin down what it is. As to author, editor, musician, all three can be personally satisfying.
Some say that certain media are better than others to express a particular message. Do you think music allows you to express some things that you cannot in writing, and vice-versa?
As an aural form based on sound, not words, and not limited by language, only taste, music is probably capable of appealing more indefinably to the emotions, but I’m a songster, so for me it’s a vehicle to carry fewer words more urgently to the audience, kinda like poetry, but it can and does operate differently. Unlike writing, there are also visible tools, and people do appreciate visible, live craft. When people ask, ‘What do you do?’ and I answer, ‘Writer, editor, musician,’ the next question is invariably ‘Oh, what do you play?’ Writing is both less and more mysterious. Nearly everyone writes, so it engenders the second question ‘What do you write?’ way less often. The more revealing ‘How do you write like that?’ comes rarely. People think skill in musicianship comes with practice and dexterity, but skill in creative writing? Like art, they believe it’s a gift. The reality is they’re the same.
Finally, if you had one word of advice for authors (mainstream, indie, hybrid) in 2015, what would it be?
I’m a novelist! Even tweets give us more than one word, but when it comes to publishing, I shuffle between ‘Persevere’ and ‘Quit’, but ‘Time Management’ may be two words worth contemplating. Things are both worse and better for authors than at any time in the history of printing, but the history of authors is millennia older. What we’re seeing today is the very rapid furthering of the democratisation of publishing. Making money is a relatively new notion in that history. What is an author? A writer: or a writer who is published? With the rise of self-pub, ‘is published’ is changing to ‘has published’, from passive to active, but an author is simply an originator. So my advice to authors, as always, is mundane; if you enjoy writing, keep learning by reading and doing, and you will be constantly challenged to go further. It is principally a vocation. If you want to become a publisher, you’re back to square one – an ingénue - set out to learn your new set of jobs thoroughly, and keep learning and doing.
Thanks a lot for your time, Tom, and for sharing these fantastic insights with us.
Thanks, Ricardo, for this opportunity, and thanks to the Reedsy crew for authoring this quality new service.