This Saturday past – 17th April 2010 – I popped along to Earl’s Court for my second How to get Published seminar. I attended last year and still remember walking up to a line of around 200 – 300 people thinking to myself: oh. my. god. THESE people ALL want to published.
This year I came close to not attending. I woke up late but decided that it would be silly of me not to go; I had paid the money, it’s only for a few hours…so I pootled along and got there at twenty to ten…and was one of the first ones there. Colour me surprised. I got chatting to two other aspiring writers who incidentally have both written kids books. So I did everything in my nefarious powers as SCBWI Volunteer to sway them to the Dark Side. I think I may have succeeded.
Anyway – the talk got underway in a packed out auditorium. I have no idea how many people there were. But I’d say around four to five hundred, if not more? I am rubbish as guesstimating crowd size!
The panelists were: (as nabbed off the LBF website)
|Chair:||Ms Danuta Kean
|Ms Carole Blake, Agent, Blake Friedmann|
|Mr Mark Booth, Publisher, Hodder and Stoughton|
|Ms Siobhan Curham, Author and Self Publishing Editor, Writers’ Forum Magazine|
|Ms Meg Rosoff, Author|
|Ms Lionel Shriver, Author|
Danuta welcomed her panelists and did a lovely introduction for all of them. She opened up the talk asking Mark Booth and Carole Blake to talk about industry perspective in the current climate. Carole Blake chatted in a very direct and heartfelt way, saying that although things are difficult, they aren’t dire. It’s not impossible to get published, but the trick is to make sure that what you are submitting is the utmost best you can send in, to draw that important second glance. She also said that a lot of what she receives on her slush / reading pile is utter rubbish, because people have not done their research. It’s not impossible to find new talent and that Blake Friedman had signed several new authors this year and have garnered seven figure deals for existing clients this year. So, cautiously optimistic and very tongue in cheek. She stressed, as did Mark Booth, how each day they approached their reading piles with suppressed excitement, because they are all very keen to find new authors.
Mark Booth chatted to us about submissions and how, before you start out, odds are stacked against you and how by doing a few simple and levelheaded things, you can even the playing field to improve the odds. He said that whilst you’re writing, you aren’t being subjective at all. But that it is necessary when writing a submission. He stressed how import the short pitch is, how reading that brief covering letter should make the reader immediately want to see what’s on offer. He mentioned that the title has to be punchy and catchy, even mysterious and intriguing. You would want to choose it on that aspect alone. Next he mentioned the sub-title (for non-fiction) and the strap-line (for fiction, mostly used in movies i.e. “In Space No One Can Hear You Scream”) – how this should encapsulate and enhance and picture the book you are trying to sell. It is also a way to indicate a high concept and to reflect your sense of humour i.e. Jane Austen meets the Evil Dead. Next up is the blurb in which you say in four hundred words or less what the book is about, conveying the flavour or the book, reflecting its tone. He also mentioned you should add a few lines about yourself and why you are qualified to write about this particular book.
Carole added that the covering letter should be honest. Don’t over-think it. Keep it short. The letter should create an energy and a sense of excitement. If the pitch isn’t good enough, the enthusiasm for it will be diluted, as you speak to colleagues about it. You naturally do not want this to happen.
The concept of VOICE came up – that unique selling point of having a unique voice. How does one develop it? And it’s hard to encapsulate and capture. The general consensus is: most people don’t know what it is, but they will know it, when they see it.
There were some questions from the audience – one person in particular asked for a more positive take on the industry as she was tired of hearing the doom and gloom…this brought an odd silence across the panel and many others because (just re-read what I’ve written above) how much more positive does she want? Even last year, before the doom and gloom that hit the entire industry (along with others) the mantra was the same: excellent product = excellent agent and deal.
Anyway, I have to say I missed the comments that came out of this because I was too flabbergasted to take it in. But, moving along, briefly advice that people gave to a variety of questions – the advice speaks for itself:
Meg: Write a fucking great book.
Carole: You need luck, you need determination. Do research.
Mark: Publishing is far less private than it used to be. Subscribe to things like The Bookseller and Bookbrunch. Be aware what’s going on in the marketplace, who represents who, do your research. When making your approach, do it professionally and also make it personal to the agent / publisher you are approaching.
Meg: Publishers and agents are always desperate for good books. If it’s well written, doors will open.
Siobhan: It is a positive time in the publishing industry. No one knows what the next big thing will be. Having said that, if your book is very quirky and may not find a place on a large publisher’s list, look elsewhere, look into self-publishing.
**I have to apologise here as I note I’ve not written the advice down from Lionel Shriver who was funny, charming, sweetly ascerbic and wonderfully erudite. I think I was a bit starstruck, listening to her. So uh, sorry about that! (makes mental note to write down more stuff said)
Next, up Danuta turned to the authors for some perspective. She asked Lionel how she kept positive, with her other books less well received, until she wrote “We need to talk about Kevin” which became her breakout novel.
Lionel was honest and said she kept on going because the story ideas kept on coming. And also, she was proud of those books she had worked on and felt that they stood for something. Also, they were published, by good publishers and therefor she felt strong and validated. Lionel warned that publishing is a hugely emotional business, for everyone concerned, not just the author and writers stand to lose their enthusiasm if things don’t happen.
Meg leaned forward and stared out at the audience from behind those dark rimmed glasses of her and said: Writing is the best job in the world. But you have to do it, because you love it. Most authors have a low to middling career, making do with part-time jobs to make sure the money comes in. You have to be realistic about things, treat is as a job, even if you are sitting around in your pj’s in front of a computer. She said we should all know that some days, some weeks even (!) nothing happens and all you do is stare at that screen. She advised that we had to persevere and have passion, or nothing would happen.
Next Danuta asked Lionel about the changes winning the Orange Prize made in her life. I loved how honest everyone was being on the day, which I think shocked a lot of the audience, but Lionel turned and looked at everyone, who was staring at her with greedy eyes and she said: yes, it made a difference because of the money. And that people don’t always realise that prizes don’t always equate to more book sales. In her case she was lucky that people knew about “We need to talk about Kevin” before the Orange Prize win so it steamrollered. It also helped her other novels which people picked up to read. She also said that publishers want to publish her because she made someone else a lot of money. She mentioned how Kevin got picked up by various book clubs and how important word of mouth is.
Danuta asked about the amount of marketing the authors put in to market their books. All of them agreed that they did a lot. Meg mentioned that although the idea of swanning around various countries on tour seems a dream come true, it is in fact, very hard work. It impacts on your writing time. Which after all, if you remember correctly, is a job. But, she also pointed out, how much fun it is meeting fans of her work.
Lionel was unapologetic when she said she does a grotesque amount of self promotion and she enjoyed it. She is mostly motivated by fear, that if she didn’t do it, no one would buy her books, and that they’d send her “back” and that spending a lot of time promoting is admittedly hard work, but it does pay off.
Siobhan mentioned as a self-published author she has to view self promotion in a positive way. She had to do it for all of her books published by standard publisher anyway. Now she makes sure to go along and talk to libraries, local bookshops and book groups. She enjoys the interaction with readers and feels she’s in a very privileged position, being able to talk to people about her writing.
Danuta wound everything up with a quick round of questions and a fair amount of interest was directed to Siobhan and her self-publishing story. The questions were all quite general, with the panelists reiterating facts they had stated earlier, hence no further write-up at all.
All in all, it was a very worthwhile experience. The advice was solid, the feeling of the panel upbeat and positive, keen to answer as many questions as they can. A bit of advice I didn’t write down above (because I wanted to highlight it separately) was when a lady sitting in the front row asked: several agents have said that they like my writing but that my novel can’t be classified, and therefore they don’t feel they can sell it. Meg Rosoff looked at her and said: write another book. The woman replied: I don’t want to, I’m very attached to the one I’ve got. Meg just shook her head. And I forget who spoke next, but I think it was Carole who spoke about it later and said quite distinctly, that agents will turn something down, if they like it, when they can’t figure out how to sell it to publishers…because they know an editor won’t know how to sell / classify it to her marketing people who in turn will struggle to sell it to booksellers. Your piece of fiction / non-fiction has to be able to fit somewhere.
This made me think about how attached we get to our work – it’s both a good and a bad thing. I’m getting ready to let go of the Djinn manuscript at the end of April / beginning May this year, and I am terrified out of my tree. But in the meantime I’m working on something else. I have to because I want to be a full-time writer. I know it’s not going to happen overnight, but if I don’t lay the groundwork now, as a newb, I’ll only ever stay that person who has only one manuscript to sell.
I’m sure there is loads that I’ve missed out on, but I feel that what I’ve noted down above is the core bits that I selected for myself, to keep me going until I have an agent and a contract. I hope the above has helped you / given you a flavour about the day if you were unable to attend. I would highly recommend attending at least one of these seminars because, more than anything, seeing everyone else with the same dream as you, really does wake you up. It makes you realise that to be the one to get the deal you have to work genuinely hard at it and that you have the talent to sustain it.
Enough introspection! Go forth and make words on the page!