Book review: The Writer’s Handbook 2011

‘The complete guide for all writers, publishers, editors, agents and broadcasters’ is back with a new edition – almost 800 dense pages of contacts, resources and advice. It’s for novelists, of course, and short-story writers too; poets, as well, and playwrights. But it’s what it has to offer non-fiction writers that concerns me for the purposes of this blog – and especially new writers. Worth it or not?

Yes – with a few reservations.

I’ll get my quibbles out of the way first. What has always slightly disappointed me with The Writer’s Handbook – and indeed its competitor, the Writers’ and Artists’ Yearbook – is the lack of much information about individual magazine and newspaper markets, besides the obvious essentials such as contact details.

Take the entry for MacUser. In its entirety it reads: “Launched 1985. Fortnightly computer magazine”. This is helpful only in that it confirms we’re not dealing with a journal aimed at Scottish drug addicts. Now I know, as I’m always telling my students, that you need to analyse the magazine anyway – however helpful the description may or may not be. But with the addition of some meatier facts – regular sections/columns, particular requirements, filler opportunities – I maintain the reader would be able to gauge much more reliably whether or not a market was worth exploring further.

I think it’s that these entries have the potential to be so much better that slightly frustrates. If you’ve ever seen the American Writer’s Market, you’ll know what I mean. Vast detailed entries, with tips from editors (including tips for writers looking to break in), and a breakdown of sections and requirements – all so, so useful. There are certainly signs that the WH has improved in this regard – as many entries are fairly substantial – but I for one would be willing to fork out another tenner to pay for the extra research that could flesh these resources pages out more fully.

Anyhow, quibble two: there’s nothing on copyright, it seems. I consider this to be the most important issue for writers everywhere, and it barely gets a mention. This really must be put right, I feel, and as a permanent fixture, not a one-off article. (There’s a copyright section coming to this blog soon, incidentally.)

Quibble three: the indexes. We have an index of entries and a subject index – but it seems not an index for subjects which are universally writerly, such as accounts, editing and copyright, some of which are covered by the pieces at the beginning of the book.

Quibble four: there’s nothing on writing for the internet.

Right. Glad that’s done.

I really enjoyed some of the articles. ‘Settling accounts’ by Ian Spring covers tax and VAT and expenses and more and is most practical.

Peggy Vance’s ‘Non-fiction: writing what you know’ made me laugh and nod in agreement – and furrow my brow and shake my head in disagreement too. It’s an unusual, mixed-bag of a piece, with occasional gems of advice – ‘Writer’s block simply isn’t an option’ – rubbing shoulders with the odd baffling untruth – ‘people who write non-fiction actually do something else’. There’s much wisdom about the publishing business here – especially when it concerns networking – and the value of no-frills writing is emphasised. But her sideswipe at aspirants who add the copyright symbol to their submissions leaves a little sour note on the tongue, merely serving to illuminate how regrettably widespread copyright ignorance is among the writing community (and also this book’s failure to cover the subject).

There’s reams of info for, er, non-non-fiction writers too. I don’t write poetry or screenplays or novels or short fiction or radio scripts, but mine is a never-say-never attitude, and perhaps one day in my old age I shall. For now, I like the warm feeling the fictional resources give me: there are seemingly abundant opportunities awaiting me in future decades should I choose to pursue them.

The book is super value for money – £15!

It’s a great book to read to generate ideas and find new outlets. Flicking through the magazine markets section, you find yourself mentally composing proposals to publications you’d never otherwise consider twice. This simply isn’t the case when you’re confronted with wall-to-wall magazines in WHSmith – which can on occasion render you instantly exhausted and overwhelmed when arriving on the back of a determined intention to seek out new markets. I think it’s because all you see are covers at the newsagent, and covers are concerned with image and photography and design and colour, and we writers are concerned with words and words only. The WH makes you ask: Why not submit an idea to Car Mechanics, to Caravan Magazine, to Cat World? And I like it for it.

Ultimately, credit has to go to long-standing editor Barry Turner for pulling this generous resource together. I’ve written a few books myself, but I still took a lot from his ‘So you want to be an author?’ introductory article, which really does offer the new writer the nuts and bolts of the book publishing business.

There’s a lot of ‘no serious writer should be without it’ talk that comes with books like the WH and the WAYB, but I know lots of proper writers who’ve never heard of either book, let alone seen them, so they’re not essential. But I do think, if you’re a new or newish writer, you should absolutely buy it – if only for reasons I gave in my previous Mistake.

The Writer’s Handbook 2011 (Ed. Barry Turner) (Palgrave Macmillan)

Footnote: my original intention here was to write a double ‘compare and contrast’ review with the WAYB, but A&C Black don’t send out advance review copies of the latter and I’m too impatient to wait for publication (it’s out 30th June). I’d be interested in your thoughts over coming weeks and months on which of the two is better, and why you buy one, or the other, or indeed both.

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