The Masterclass “How To get Published”, held as part of this year’s London Book Fair, was a bit of an eye opener. Much of what was discussed I already knew, which boosted my confidence, but there were one or two pieces of information that I felt contradicted general received wisdom.
The class was attended in the hundreds, and the four speakers formed a panel on the stage, each giving a talk and taking questions from the floor.
First up was literary agent Simon Trewin. A lot of what he had to say was standard stuff – treat your approach like a job interview, list your previous successes, demonstrate that you really want to write (he even advised listing any writers courses you have been on), really sell yourself, present your work on one side of A4 with double line spacing and number the pages. It was refreshing to hear him say he would consider anyone from any background provided their writing is exceptional.
Something that had been bothering me for a good while was having to submit my work to agents and publishers one at a time because it’s considered bad form to pitch to a few in one go (in case they ring up saying they want to publish and you say you’ve already got a deal thanks). I learned from Simon that you can pitch to four or five agents at once, provided you tell them that that’s what you have done. It was such a relief to hear it, because the commonly accepted method would mean having to wait weeks and months just to hear from one organisation, and it would take a great many years to approach them all.
Another encouraging piece of advice (for me, anyway) was to send off your already published book to the agent and explain what your game plan is for sequels or your next book. Needless to say, Anne Droyd and Century Lodge will be going in the post to him and a handful of others this week!
My good friend and fellow author, Darryl Sloan, might be surprised to know that Mr Trewin cast publish-on-demand companies in a highly favourable light and specifically named Lulu.com as a good example. He also welcomed the idea of self-published authors who have had modest success backed up by sales and reviews sending in their POD book. He said they are easier to read on the tube than a lot of loose paper (i.e. manuscript). So, Darryl, my advice to you is stick a copy of Chion in the post as soon as you can.
Another thing I learned was that “no unsolicited manuscripts” does not mean you shouldn’t bother trying at all. It simply means don’t send in your submission. However, you may write the agent/publisher a one page letter describing your novel and ask if they would like to see it.
Following Simon Trewin was a representative from publisher Little, Brown, a lady called Antonia Hodgson. The most memorable thing she said (from my perspective) was that publishers tend not to look at unsolicited manuscripts. They use the agencies as a filtering system and consider what the agents pitch to them. And not everything pitched is taken on. So, for me, the focus really should be agents rather than publishers.
Tim Lott, author of The Scent of Dried Roses and The Seymour Tapes, was quite a dour fellow, but amusingly so. He said he didn’t enjoy writing at all (picking up on what Simon had said earlier – “Do it because you enjoy it”). He said having to sit down for four, five, six hours a day and try to write thousands of words is not enjoyable – it is work.
I was also surprised to find that even a successful author with a few well received books under his belt and a reputable literary agent plugging his work could still have a proposal rejected. The Strange and Somewhat Sad Story of Sadie Strongheart, a novel developed from a story he told his god daughter was turned down by several publishers before Walker Books took it on and published it as Fearless.
He was refreshingly honest and said that when his first novel was repeatedly turned down he did consider giving up and focusing on a different avenue of his life. I took some comfort from this, as I too have often seriously considered giving up. Trouble is, it only takes me to have a great idea while soaking in the bath, and then I’m saying, “I really must write that down. It would make a great book!” So, I guess I’m a real writer – I cannot stop.
Mr Lott made an interesting distinction between genre writers and original storytellers. He said if you want to make a lot of money become a genre author and just mimic whatever is popular at the moment.
He told a funny story about a well known genre writer who admitted that all he does is buy the Top Ten books on the current New York Times bestseller list, read them all, and then take the best bits an amalgamate them into a plot of his own. It’s downright plagiarism, but he gets away with it. He’s writing pap for the masses and earning a fortune from it.
But if you want to tell a story that means something special, if you want to make a point about something you see in the world, or make your reader think in a profound way, you may not make a lot of money at all. Most novelists who are committed to telling original stories never give up the day job.
The final speaker was bestselling writer Joanne Harris, known largely for authoring Chocolat. As with Tim Lott, that book was not her first venture into publishing. She had done a couple of other projects; she had a mainstream publisher and an agent to help place her work. And yet Chocolat was rejected by several companies on the grounds that British readers won’t want a book set in France. Of course, eventually it was published, and was then optioned as a movie. The movie actually got made and various aspects of the film were nominated for the prestigious Oscar award. The work is now world famous, much loved, and Joanne Harris is a household name.
She said she felt obliged to challenge Tim’s view, that writing is not enjoyable, that it is just hard work. Harris said that to her it is very enjoyable indeed. She loves it.
A point that came over quite forcefully from all four speakers is that the publishing world cannot predict trends (although they do often capitalise on existing trends). They advised prospective authors to just work hard on their books. An agent/publisher will often make their decision based on the strength of the opening paragraph. Simon Trewin said that if he reads beyond the first paragraph, he carries on until either there comes a point that he’s lost interest, or he gets so lost in the story he forgets where he is. Naturally, if your submission induces the latter frame of mind, you might well receive that much anticipated phone call.
I came out of the class with a clear plan. I will try to cultivate interest with literary agents by sending off Anne Droyd and Century Lodge, and in the interim continue with my plan to self-publish Anne Droyd and the House of Shadows if no one takes me up. There are too many people out there asking when the next one’s coming out for me to stop. And Anne is not the only card up my sleeve. There are other projects that simply must be put in the hands of the reading public.
So it’s onward and upward.