Denise O’Hagan

Sapling speaks with Denise O’Hagan

Sapling’s Emerging Writer Series (Black Lawrence Press)
Sapling #596, 26 April 2021 

Sapling: Tell us about the process of getting your book published. Did you enter contests? Open reading periods? What transpired between sending the manuscript out initially and its acceptance by your publisher?

Denise O’Hagan: To be honest, I had no thoughts of publishing my own poetry in the first year or so of writing. I was immersed in the process: exploring the mysterious sources of inspiration behind poetry, refining the craft itself, and seeing where that might take me. Then, when my poems began to be published, I submitted to competitions as well. It was only when I had gathered what I felt constituted solid recognition behind me that I started thinking about pulling my work together into book form. Without external validation of my worth as a writer, I would not have sought to have my own book published.

My role as Poetry Editor for Australia and New Zealand with Irish literary journal The Blue Nib was hugely instrumental. It plunged me into the wider literary scene, giving me the confidence to consolidate my own efforts so far into a complete manuscript.

I didn’t enter any contests for unpublished manuscripts for the simple reason that there were not many for which I was eligible. Instead, I approached Ginninderra Press here in Australia, one of the larger of the established independent presses which is open to consideration of work by emerging writers as well as established ones.

My writing routine – if you can call it that, as it was squeezed in between work and family! – didn’t change while I was waiting to hear back from Ginninderra Press. I realised, however, that I was becoming more discriminating in my choice of journals. After all, submitting costs time and often money; I was interested in having my work associated with journals known for what I considered good poetry.

Sapling: What was your experience with the editing of the manuscript? Did you have an opportunity to make revisions either at your own suggestion or at the suggestion of your editor? How involved were you in the design aspects of the book’s production (cover image, design, etc.)?

Denise O’Hagan: Partly because of my own background as an editor in commercial book publishing in the UK and Australia, I did not seek editorial assistance with my own manuscript which, when I received first page proofs of my book, I quickly realised was a mistake! I could see that its structure was wanting, and by then I also had some newer, and in my opinion stronger, poems. It is to Stephen Matthews’ (managing editor of Ginninderra Press) credit that he was flexible enough to allow me to restructure the book thematically in the form which it eventually took. I delayed publication by nearly a year in order to achieve a more coherent and polished whole.

As to the internal design (typography and layout), that was out of my hands, and other than specifying that I would prefer a typographical design, I left the cover design to the publisher. This was the way I was used to working in commercial book publishing, but in retrospect I realise I could have had a greater say. We live and learn!

Sapling: Did you publish any excerpts in literary journals or other periodicals before the publication of your book? If so, did this seem like a necessary part of the process for this particular project?

Denise O’Hagan: I didn’t publish excerpts from my book in the lead-up to its publication because many of the poems in it had been published already in literary journals, magazines and anthologies, and I had shared them at the time of their publication. I didn’t want to overdo this side of things and ‘push’ my poetry, preferring to guard very carefully my private space and the peace required to actually write it.

I am very aware that due to the rise of print-on-demand and ultra-cheap electronic publishing, there is a steep increase in self-publishing but also a parallel decline in quality. With no editorial panel to evaluate manuscripts for publication, many self-published authors are their own adjudicators, with questionable results. I did not want to go down this path, preferring to build up a base of externally approved published work and then approach an established or independent publisher.

Sapling: In what ways have you been involved in the publicity and promotion of your book thus far? In what ways is your publisher helping you with marketing your book?

As my book The Beating Heart was published in the midst of the lockdown due to Covid-19 (August 2020), virtually all publicity and promotion was online. Ginninderra Press assisted by giving me information for authors including a virtual launch, though it was up to me, as author, to circulate it on social media channels – Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn and Instagram. Since publication, I have elicited industry reviews of the book, participated in readings by Zoom, and reached out to writing centres to try to keep sales happening.

I’m learning to tread the fine line between straightforward promotion and forging genuine relationships in the literary community, which often lead to mutual support and feedback. I count myself lucky to have met some wonderful and talented people who have become true friends – I’d rather a handful of real friends than a huge collection of virtual acquaintances. It’s give and take; I learn so much from talking with others about their books, and am happy to pass on my experiences too. Online connection is an invaluable tool for deepening your own appreciation of literature as well as your own promotional activity and, like many, since Covid-19, I rely on it far more than I used to!

Sapling: What are some things that surprised you about the process of getting your book published? Is there anything you wished you’d known beforehand about putting a book out into the world? 

Denise O’Hagan: Because I’d worked with many authors in publishing companies already, nothing really surprised me – I was aware of the steps in the process and the subtle variations in how those processes are adapted by different people in different countries. But I admit it did feel a little strange to have the shoe on the other foot, and be the author rather than the editor!

The one thing I wish I’d been alerted to is the need for authors today to be their own primary marketers, and equally the need to use social media regularly and carefully. As it was, I am learning this on the job, probably like most writers.

In retrospect, I also wish I’d invested more time in preparing and finalising my manuscript before submitting it for publication. There is a great rush to be a ‘published author’ today, but it’s wise to think carefully about your reasons for wanting to be published in the first place and, in my opinion, aim at quality rather than quantity.

9 thoughts on “Sapling speaks with Denise O’Hagan”

  1. Jena Woodhouse

    A very illuminating and informative interview from one who knows writing and publishing from multiple viewpoints. Bravissima!

  2. Maurice Corlett

    A good read for anyone (myself included!) considering approaching a publisher. Thanks, Denise

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