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Interview with Tobsha Learner: Writer & Provocateur

Tobsha Learner is a Stories About Penises contributor, our first anthology. In her essay she talks about a play she wrote called Homage: "as in homage to the male gender – I wanted to stage a ten-minute monologue from the perspective of the penis of a porn star who’d just had the epiphany (in the middle of a filmed orgy) that he needed emotional intimacy to continue to perform sexually.”

Tobsha is also an accomplished novelist, playwright and screenwriter with three best sellers in three genres (historical fiction, erotic fiction and thrillers). Her first book, Quiver, a collection of erotic tales, sold over 250,000 copies. I’m thrilled to share with you this interview which includes some excellent information for writers who are pitching agents and publishers.

Guts: Tell us about your first book, Quiver.

TL: I initially wrote it as a hobby – I was a working (and performed) playwright at the time and this was my first venture into prose.

Guts: When did you write it?

TL: In the early 1990s – an entirely different publishing world back then – no social media pressures on authors – just the touring and interviewing – real marketing by the publishers and decent advances.

To put this in context – Quiver was my first book, I’m currently working on my 13th.

Guts: How did you pitch it?

TL: I didn’t pitch it, I simply got my lit/theatre agent to send the completed manuscript to a couple of publishing houses – and I chose one (there was more than one contender).

Guts: How long did it take you to find a publisher, and who was it?

TL: Penguin, AU – Julie Gibbs was the commissioning editor. I remember I had a fantastic Chinese/Australian line editor they matched me with – that’s another thing that’s changed over the decades – publishers used to really care about stuff like that.

Guts: When did you find out that Quiver was a bestseller?

TL: Within about three weeks of publication – one brilliant thing the marketing department (Penguin) did at the time was to place a free-standing free excerpt/short story inside a prominent fashion/women’s mag at the same – a couple of weeks before the book release – that created a lot of heat.

Guts: Do you have any advice for fiction writers who are currently pitching their work to agents and publishers?

TL: I think the whole landscape has tightened up and become far more (and way too much) market conscious. A lot of in-house commissioning editors now like to dictate their own concept of what a bestseller (lit/commercial or otherwise) should be. This is the result of commissioning ghost writers for insta stars, unless you are branded already as a lit bestseller and have the name. All of the above makes it far harder for a new breakout author – unless you fill their increasingly narrow concept of what is politically relevant or diverse.

The other route is to win a lit prize, in turns of the big publishing houses, many of their top authors will have a clause in their contracts making sure they’re entered into the big prizes. You need to be entered by your publishing house to win. This makes the smaller publishing houses and indies more attractive in a way for new writers.

NEVER submit an early draft or something that isn’t the best you can do. Work on something you are very passionate about, be self-critical, don’t be afraid of doing a lot of rewrites, get a number of readers (I like to go broad on this re: age and genders) to read a near final draft and listen to their feedback – if any criticisms are repeated, take note. Be self-critical, and pragmatic about your writing process.

Re: Agents – shop around, research your potential champion – does she/he already rep material like your own, what’s her/his record on successfully placing books? Develop a few choices, interview, do you respond personally to them, etc.

RE: Publishers – try and develop relationships with editors even before you’re signed by the house.

Remember – being published is just the beginning – many are badly published. You need to be prepared to pretty much market your own book anyhow, but it helps to get your agent to push the marketing via your contract.

Also bear in mind even getting published and even selling – say 50 thousand (for the first year) will not get you a living income in traditional publishing – the royalty cuts will insure this – (check the stats out).

You will make far more money (if you’re successful and self-promotion has a hell of a lot to do with this) self-publishing – and increasingly there is less stigma attached.

It helps to think that your ‘book/narrative’ is just one facet of a six-sided hexahedron – and the other sides are the opportunities to market the same narrative – podcasts/short excerpts on SM, etc. All feeds into your market/audience/sales.

Guts: What have you been working on recently?

TL: I have a couple of film features in the process of getting cast (original script – I’m a screen writer also) and have a couple of TV series ideas in development. However, I’m also in the last throes of a HUGE novel, very ambitious conceptually but accessible.

For further info:

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Tobsha Learner is a British novelist, playwright and screenwriter with three bestsellers in three genres (historical fiction, erotic fiction and thrillers) and a dual resident of the UK and the US. She has sold over 790 thousand books and is in translation in a number of countries. Her publishers have included Tor US, Little Brown UK and HarperCollins AU.

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