Grants for New Writers….plus other stuff.

Are you eligible for a grant for your writing project?

Julieann Wrightson called me excitedly last week, saying she had managed to squeeze into the Writers Grant Info evening being conducted by the NSW Writers Centre. 

Wrightson, who is in the last stretch of writing a book on Food Intolerances, had applied for entry to the free info session which was open to the public (with preference being given to Centre members), and to the speedy. The session was fully booked to capacity within 24 hours of being advertised. With the company of about 50 other writers (possibly 60, says Julieann if you count those standing at the back), it was a chance to hear information freshly delivered from the heads of the Australia Council of Arts (Wenona Burne), the Copyright Agency (Nicola Evans), Create NSW (Toni Close) and the CEO of the Writing NSW (NSW Writers’ Centre), Jane McCredie.

All these organisations have numerous grants for a wide variety of artistic projects, and sifting through the information on individual websites is a research project in itself. Therefore – information that is targeted for emerging authors? – bonanza.

This is the kind of event that NSW Writers Centre seems to do so well: an intimate evening being addressed by people who are the most able to provide vital and up to date information. Below is a question and answer segment with Julieann (btw – Julieann and I work together – she is writing a book on Food Intolerances and I am providing regular editing/coaching as she progresses).

Afterwards, I interviewed Julieann who was mightily pleased with the level of information and clarity she obtained in little less than 90 minutes.

The evening, how did it go?

Julieann: The place was full of people like me – emerging authors with limited experience in either publishing or applying for grants. In fact one of the tips I took on board was that there was a grant-writing workshop being held by Fairfield City Council [note: which is in Julieann’s corner of the Sydney woods]. However, most seemed to be fiction writers, whereas I am undertaking what I can now confidently call ‘a writing project’ (that is, a project that is more factual/wellness-based rather than creative fiction). Everyone was pretty excited, including me.

How did the workshop unfold?

J: Jane Mcredie chaired the panel and each organisational head gave an overview of their grant structure and mission, and the types of grants that are suitable for works in progress.

What did you get out of it?

J: What I realised is that there are quite a large variety of grants made available from quite a few agencies – and some of those are definitely for emerging writers. That is, people like me with very limited publishing experience and who don’t have a track record of written works out there.

I now know that my book would be considered a writing project, and for that category there are specific grants and criteria.

It seemed to me that the Australia Council of Arts (ACA) was the agency with the widest variety of grants suitable for emerging writers, with a few Fellowships also available. The Copyright Agency seems to cater more for established writers – requiring a minimum of two published books as basic criteria. Create NSW seems to have a professional development approach with priority given to people and organisations focussing on indigenous, regional NSW, outer western Sydney, and special projects like science (eg there is a grant for writers working with scientists).

There are several different rounds for grant applications with each organisation (Julieann provided the links below for each organisation).

Overall there are millions of dollars available each year for artists, writers and organisations catering for them. There are four rounds of grant application processes per year, and it is important to stage your grant to meet the requirements of your work (and vice versa). Something like 100-150 grant applications are submitted collectively to the agencies, and around 10-15% are successful. There are grants for groups, events, self development, Fellowships, assistance at various stages of a project.

And for you in particular?

J: For me – I know I will apply in the October round with the ACA – targeting the grant for assistance with writing projects. Specifically I will ask for funding to help with the marketing and layout costs of the book. By that time the book will be finalised. From what I understand of the grants, a show of good faith and effort – that my project is well-advanced should put me in good stead. I can show that my contribution has been serious and substantial. By October I will have completed the book. I will be able to demonstrate how much work has gone into the editing and mentoring (via Sydney School of Arts) and my own efforts in taking a public speaking course (in preparation for giving talks at Wellness groups and conferences). So the grant will be for very specific practical assistance in promotional costs and layout, readying the book for publishing.

I spoke to one of the panel members at the end of the session, and I think she was impressed that I had taken a great deal of initiative in working with an editor. To them I think it shows that I have invested in the project already. Plus I am building an audience via my blog, website and by engaging with wellness groups and events.

Will you self-publish?

J: Yes, as the book progresses I am thinking this is the most likely outcome. My book does not easily fall into any one category. It is about Wellness, but also about physical health, and has a cook-book section (which I think is vital to demonstrate that living with food intolerances need not be a culinary death-sentence). I understand that conventional publishers need to have track record of sales before they invest in a publication, and mine will be forging a new path. Also, I require a great deal of specialised promotion for this type of book. With some financial assistance I can ensure it reaches the right audience and book shops.

What is the track you will follow?

J: I started writing this book on food intolerances (which I have suffered and studied for over 20 years) – to help others. But also thinking I could knock it out in a few months. [Much mutual laughter here – Julieann has been working on her book, chapter by chapter for the past year – and week by week we have pored over each chapter editing and discussing as it has evolved.] Every step of the way has informed the next step, and the course of the book has created itself. I never realised it would be such a deep process, this writing. That has been a surprise. I never thought I would have to delve into so many of my personal experiences – but I realised this was pivotal to making the whole project make sense.

And of course building my audience, working on blogs, attending conferences and groups that will be conduits for reaching the people who would benefit from reading the book, that was organic. But surprising as well. Suddenly I realised that I would need to polish up my public speaking skills, and it terrified me. I had a little melt down, and now I am stepping up. I have signed up for a Toastmasters course, and heading towards the October deadline for the grant application at ACA. If successful, the funding should kick in in time for me to layout and then publish and market the book.

Links for Grants

Australia Council of Arts

Copyright Agency Cultural Fund

Create NSW Arts and Cultural Development Program

Writing NSW (NSW Writers’ Centre)

Fairfield City Council Local Area Grants

For the curious – how Julieann and I work as author and editor:

Julieann approached the SSOA in early 2018 with a satchel of research, an introduction, and a sketch of how she wanted her book to look. She had a big vision and a truck-load of inspiration and determination. I was assigned as Julieann’s editor/writing coach by Dr Christine Williams, the SSOA director. For the next year, as Julieann wrote each chapter, we would sit together, editing the words, discussing the flow, the shape, the tone of the book as it evolved. By the beginning of March, Julieann was almost finished in terms of gathering tables, research, the interplay of personal and ‘scientific’ information, and she had an idea of how she wanted the book to look and feel for the reader.


The commercial imperative – and the whole beauty of ignoring it

Day 1 – The story of the story – Mahreeb

Aspirant writers need to be realistic about the fantasy of  what ‘success’ looks like, in terms of money and fame, but there is another view that I think can sit with it: the beauty of writing and the whole messy, vulnerable, seeing-the-world-from-your-guts place where the act of writing deposits you.

Just to set the scene, I will use events that occurred just this past week. At the beginning of the week I receive an impassioned letter from a friend (I’ll call her Jane) working as a lawyer in Switzerland advocating not a case, but a manuscript. The document was written by a colleague of hers (we’ll call him Mahreeb) who started life as an Afghan refugee. It is a memoir – and she sent me his first chapter to give a sense of the writing, and asked for the low-down on publishing.

This advice she was needing – it was starting from scratch – and it reminded me how much in the dark you can be when you start on the writing journey. I mean, where do you start? Jane asked. Mahreeb had at first written the memoir as a way of healing the experience of being a child refugee, and ‘releasing the past’, as Jane explained. The first chapter attached to the email was harrowing and lovely at the same time.

Now most people in the hard publishing world would start to scoff at this point. Another memoir. Yes memoir is popular on the charts: Michelle Obama’s memoir, Becoming has sold over 10 million copies last count. But her situation is exceptional, as is her writing. Even the surface of her story is of interest to many people, and it has some deep and interesting insights at various other levels too (politics, being a professional woman/wife/mother, being the partner of someone famous, being in the spotlight almost every waking moment for years, thoughts about resilience and tenacity – whoa, who wouldn’t read it!).

And there are very sellable memoirs out there by people involved in some type of news drama or infamy, and importantly the ones that make their lives a salutary experience. For example funny/salutary like Fat, Forty and Fired by Nigel Marsh, or prurient/salutary like Educated by Tara Westover (Mormons gone crazy, and already 59 weeks on the best-seller list in the US), or motivational/self-help/salutary like Can’t Hurt Me by David Goggins (from dire poverty and abuse to acclaimed athlete and Navy Seal). And of course the brilliantly written Wild: a Journey from Lost to Found by Cheryl Strayed, and Eat Pray Love – so famous its title and meaning have become like new bits of currency in our language, and I don’t need to mention it is written by Elizabeth Gilbert. 

And then there are others that teeter on the edge of sellable: memoirs that people write for the benefit of their families, or their beliefs, or are told from an insider’s point of view on historically important times, written by people who are relatively unknown. The success of this last group depends greatly on the topicality of the subject and how well the book is written as a story as opposed to a ‘witness account’.

Below is the advice I sent – it really is starting from the basics – and it is knowledge that we have been able to piece together amongst us on the SelfPub team after a year or so of working with a small publisher. Even though we have all of us worked in journalism, magazines and newspapers, the book publishing industry is the innermost spiral of the innermost rung of the innermost circle of the writing world. Getting info is the equivalent of mastering secret handshakes, complex passwords, whispered codes in shady laneways, and the darkest of dark webs. Kidding. Almost.

I want to make this point –  Mahreeb did not want to make a million bucks and become a famous author when he started writing his memoir. He probably does not see himself as a career writer or storyteller professionally. But he wrote this thing. It would have been hard, it would have been lonely. When you write – and I don’t care what it is you write – you are exposing bits of yourself that usually never sees the light of day. It costs. And because it is written there is a need to see it read. Which is the other half of the equation, right? Something gets written, does it mean anything until someone else reads it. For some very very few authors,  it does not matter a hoot (I talk about some of them in a later blog). But for most it does. Its like being an actor who has rehearsed all their lines and ready to perform, with absolutely no audience.

In a way it does not matter what route for publishing Mahreeb chooses – and there are, these days, many. The writing of it has evidently brought about such a sense of value that he and his friends believe it should be made available for others to read. Hope, courage, optimism in the face of the most difficult shapes that life can take. Those are worth bringing to light. Maybe only a hundred people will read it, or maybe a million. But those who do read it – even if just a few – will have a story about the story. Like this blog is in fact. Me telling the story of his story. 

So my first counter-argument to the commercial imperative is – that some stories are not written by virtuoso storytellers, but the imperative to write them is beautiful and messy, and the attempt to bring that story to others, is honest, natural and courageous.


(Maria Issaris is an editor, journalist and writer working within publishing and community broadcasting.)

My Advice to Mahreeb:

Hey Jane

How are you! Thank you for the manuscript, and yes I agree that stories like Mahreeb’s are worth telling. I am reaching out to my contacts for further information that might help Mahreeb for his type of work, but here are some initial thoughts:

1. If Mahreeb is going to market the book to publishers/contacts it would help to provide: 

  • A Summary of the story and its genre- roughly 300 words
  • Length of the work – Number of words
  • Bio of the author – 300 words 
  • A Pitch – roughly 300 words
  • The manuscript in double space, 12 point

I know this is administrative but publishers usually ask for this and it gives a leg-up for the manuscript. 

2. Many publishers have a specialisation for certain genres or are focussing on certain genres for that year etc. I am trying to find out if there are any international publishers that specialise in memoir for you. But if you are famous or in the news, it is way more likely that a memoir will be picked up. 

3.  What is it Mahreeb wants to achieve in publishing? This can go in his pitch above. 

4. Mahreeb has many options for publishing – there are a plethora of small publishers and self-publishing platforms around if his aim is primarily to get his story into print. In common, most of these options will sell his book (digital and hard copy) on Amazon internationally, and GoodReads, and will print on demand for book sales. He can set up a website and sell his own books (not too hard, really). 

5. The difference between publishers is the degree to which they can push your book. That’s why an international large publisher is the first option because they have sway in book shops and your books will be marketed by their PR machine. These larger publishers will take the risk of absorbing all the costs for final edit, proofing, layout, design, printing, then marketing. However the royalties for the author are quite low (circa 10 percent of all sales). A small publisher is likely to charge for some  of the costs of layout, design, cover, final edit and first print run, but the royalties for the author would be far higher (up to 40% or so). 

6. Editing and editing. Most publishers will do a final edit for a manuscript – but they won’t do a deep edit to bring the document to publishing standard (unless it is one that they have commissioned.) Which is where professional editors come in. OK – I have read Mahreeb’s first chapter – and it is fluid, does not seem to need much of a fine edit (grammar, spelling, etc). But I dare say, given that the first chapter is over 14,000 words, that it would need a content edit (that is an edit that ensures the structure of the story makes sense, that it is apportioned into logical and effective chapters, so that the thrust of the story can emerge in its trueness according to what the author wants to achieve. There also needs to be a story arc signaled right from the beginning – something that tells the reader they want to read this, that it is compelling, it will make a difference to their understanding of the issues raised, and that makes this more than an ‘account’.) 

Costs for an edit of that sort vary – but I would go for someone who suits his temperament and will give him an all-up cost for the whole project. A lot depends on the number of words at hand.

To be honest – a memoir of this type should not be more than 60-80,000. 40,000 would be better. A wonderful autobiography someone can pick up and know they can read through and learn something new, broadens their understanding, gives them some meaningful messages. True. If it is way, way longer – it may need to be split into different volumes. 

My thoughts – if you can avoid the large self-publishing giants do so; they are expensive and are quite heavy to deal with (really big sales pitch that can intimidate the unwary). On the up-side they will do everything for you which is very tempting and convenient.

Try the large publishers, but please don’t be despondent if they don’t pick it up. Memoir is popular but a hard sell.  Searching out an appropriate small publisher may be the way to go.  

I know of one author who has produced a beautiful memoir (a Sydney Jewish woman who married an Egyptian Muslim and lived there for over a decade) – gorgeous, passionate writing describing her international courtship, her life in Alexandria, and what goes on behind the veil. She joined a workshop with a lawyer/writer specialising  in international human rights and may publish with her mentor, a small publisher, or self-publish if she cannot find a large publisher. However this publisher specialises in women’s stories. With this type of publisher – I am not sure of the contractual conditions or the degree to which you would need to pay for the suite of services associated with bringing a book to the printer, but I can find out. 

The publisher I work with (and please don’t think I am pushing this at all! Just giving an example because I actually know the math on this situation), specialises in memoir. She is an author of a biography of Krishnamurti and another on Christina Stead and the best editor I have ever come across, and she has this methodology. Once she accepts a manuscript (and she is selective) the author pays a fee that ensures the document is at publishable standard and more or less invests in the whole process: final proof and edit, layout, design, cover, first print run, posting up on Amazon, GoodReads, print-on-demand, sale on her website (Sydney School of Arts & Humanities), and will usually organise the launch at a bookshop which agrees to take the book – for example in Sydney this is often Ariel Books, an iconic indie bookshop. 

Upside is that she works really hard with the author – gets involved to ensure it is absolutely top quality before it goes to print. The royalties are high for the author. The personal encouragement and attention to detail is of real value.

However, she would likely insist that Mahreeb’s manuscript gets content-edited before entering the publishing stage above due to its relatively unstructured approach (or so I am gathering from the sample sent). 

Good luck Jane – and I will get back to you with any further info.


The genius of gut-driven publishing choices…

Thank God that people still insist – insist with the force of a kind of madness – to throw all thoughts of commercial success out the window and instead follow some unbridled chaotic inspiration that has nothing to do with sales/data/established traditions/funding requirements/popular approval/ratings. And also for the astute publishers and producers and directors who decide they will give a chance to risky material, like Dr Seuss (rejected by 27 publishers for being too strange), Hemingway (rejected for ‘being tedious and offensive’), the pitches for Mad Men and Breaking Bad (rejected for their unusual take on American life), the scripts for Pulp Fiction and The Usual Suspects(for non-linear plot-lines). Thank God for that because we end up with truly original, disturbing and joyful material.

I have just finished reading about a conference debate on ‘data-driven’ versus ‘gut-driven’ publishing decisions on the day I have two meetings at Radio 2RPH, a community broadcaster in Sydney where I carry out some work.

The main activity of 2RPH is to read to people – magazines, books, newspapers, and develop programs which serve the interests of our listeners. But who are our listeners? Originally intended to serve the blind community, 2RPH (wearing the outdated and no-longer-used acronym Radio Print Handicapped) now serves a wide range of people who for countless reasons don’t/can’t/won’t read (where do you start: disability, isolation, mental health, learning, age-related or debilitating conditions, plus people who work in cars/trucks/computers and are what we categorise as ‘time-poor’ and ‘eyes-busy’ – we had a debate about whether these are actually a new branch of disability in our urban environment – only half jokingly in fact).

In terms of deciding on programming, we have our own ‘gut-driven’ versus ‘data-driven’ problems. People who have difficulty accessing print media are not likely to fill in online questionnaires to provide us with the type of meaningful feedback which contributes to sufficient ‘data’. Our gut tells there is some programming that is always going to do well. Reading fiction is one of them.

Up until recently we had only read popular published writers. But what about original material written by ‘emerging’ Australian writers (read ‘unknown’) who could inspire our listeners. We experimented. We had great success with two trial-runs of programs – one of which was by a new writer, Jenny Sheldon, who agreed to have her recently launched book, I Will, serialised.  Would it inspire our listeners? Well it inspired us a lot – and one of our producers was passionate enough that we bent every rule we had about using only high-audio-quality voices to read.

I used to sit and listen to Jenny Sheldon read out her work in writers’ groups while she was constructing her book. It was powerful work – raw, honest, real, without a trace of self pity or pumped up courage. The effort it took for her make it physically through a reading added another layer of understanding into how much difficulty she would have faced writing it. Jenny has aphasia (a type of mental gap between what you think and what you say), halting speech, and the use of only one hand, conditions resulting from a stroke. Everyone who has come into contact with Jenny during the whole process of writing her book has been elevated by her attitude and her experiences. She is not living the same life as an English teacher and singer that she had before, but it is a rich one that has branched out into writing. Her book can help thousands (40,000 people in Australia suffer a stroke annually – almost 800,000 in the US).

Jenny’s book, by way of experiment, was serialised at Radio 2RPH in Sydney where I sit on the Board and a couple of committees. At our 2RPH programming meeting we discussed the technical issues of recording a voice which is ‘challenging’ to the ear. As a radio reading station relying heavily on high audible quality of voices, (the audition process is stringent) this was worst case scenario technically speaking. We were able to modulate to smooth out Jenny’s sentences, plus we had a producer who was willing to read the main part of the book so that we could have both a ‘taste’ of Jenny’s voice in the more personal parts of the story and a fluid professional voice for the main parts. If we could manage that, we said, we now had proof positive that we could manage a range of of other disability affected voices (cerebral palsy for instance).

Now that we had the whole book recorded (8 hours to be serialised in half hour segments) we also had an audio book. Could we on-sell it? What would be the royalties for the publisher? Could we form an alliance with a publisher and attract other writers who could have their work read on radio.

Audio books are the fastest growing segment of the international publishing industry – it is referred to as an ‘audio gold rush’. In the 2018 publishing environment,  growth of print sales was minimal – ‘flat is the new up’ being the mantra, and an average 3%  growth globally was considered an upswing. Whereas there was a whopping 13% growth in audio sales**, and 45% growth in revenue. Audio is hitting new markets with audio versions of books drawing in younger and more male audiences, and being heard increasingly on smartphones.

Back in Glebe, Sydney, Australia, we are looking at Jenny Sheldon’s newly produced audio book and marvelling that what started off as a ‘generous’ and good minded gesture on everyone’s part, had the potential to turn into a much needed income generator for all parties.

Which brings me back to my original issue. Thank god for people who write out of inspiration rather than because they think it will sell. And for those selectors who pick risky work because they have a feeling it will do well, as opposed to depending on formula and data.

Because that kind of data would force us all to watch back-to-back reality TV (on the small screen), and formulaic unchallenging movies, and reading endless uplifting self-help books (the popular item in publishing this year now that the ‘adult colouring-in books fad is over). All of which are great, have their place, but not in surfeit. You cannot forge and evolve as an exciting innovative industry if all you ever do is predict from the past. Even publishers are catching up. The audio boom has caught them by surprise. They could not have predicted that. And one of the liveliest debates (apparently) at the 2018 Future of Books international conference was about how much publishers/agents are relying on data to choose manuscripts, as opposed to gut feeling. The confession made by agents is that in the final analysis they rely on their gut instinct about a work. And thank god for that too.

For this blog I have drawn on the following resource (the excellent online Magazine, Books and Publishing).


** . Most of the growth seems to be in people aged under 45 (US figures in 2017, 45% of Audio book readers are under the age of 45), and most are heard on devices such as smartphones (47%) .