Travels inspired by the Wombles

Thursday, 6 October 2011

How to get a book published...?

This was the optimistic title of a panel of experts assembled at UCL last night, 5 October, at UCL, for the benefit of that university's alumni. The panel members themselves included at least three UCL alumni: Ken Follett and Joanna Briscoe, giving authors' perspectives, and Luigi Bonomi, a literary agent. Alexandra Pringle, editor-in-chief at Bloomsbury, completed the line-up. Each gave a brief talk and then there was a Q&A session.
So what wisdom did the panellists have to impart? In no particular order, here are some of the points made:
  • Write a good book - make the reader care about the characters
  • Many publishers don't read unsolicited manuscripts and it is essential to get a literary agent
  • When approaching agents, make it clear you have ideas for other books
  • Approach the agents which your research shows will be a good fit for your book(s)
  • Be ready to promote your book over the long-term
  • Write what you want to write, but don't bore the reader - cut, edit, redraft
  • Plotting needs discipline - a plot idea is not a plot
  • A flawed but engaging novel may be more popular than a well-worked-out novel which doesn't engage the reader
  • Don't give up the day job
  • Small numbers of people work in agencies and receive up to 5,000 manuscripts a year, from which they may select 10 authors with whom to work
  • Write short chapters
  • Agents may make their minds up about a manuscript within 2-3 pages, or a chapter at most
  • For non-fiction, the synopsis you send in is crucial - not so much for fiction
  • A book is launched a year before it is published, or sometimes more than a year before

The event was billed as offering 'all the tips you will need to achieve your dream'. It's hard for me to assess whether it really did that, as I have heard and read much of this advice before (and will go to more such events, no doubt, in future). And I'm not a subscriber to the post-modern ideology that everybody can do anything - clearly that's a ludicrous notion. Nonetheless I found this event a little less than encouraging. Ken Follett claimed that you had the best chance to become a writer if you had started writing around the age of 4; which seems less than realistic - although his other comment, that those who show imagination from an early age are better-placed to succeed in writing, is surely nearer the mark.

After the formal event, I drew a blank with a couple of personal approaches. As Bloomsbury have recently republished the Wombles books I wanted to ask Alexandra Pringle who in Bloomsbury might be the appropriate contact for me. But - albeit politely - she just blanked the question with a standard response: 'You must get a literary agent.' I also asked Luigi Bonomi if his agency is considering travel books at present. His reply (again, polite but to the point): 'No... sorry. It is tough out there. Good luck.'

Overall the brief talks and Q&A were heavily biased towards novels, which may be part of the problem. More and more agents and publishers are hunting a smaller and smaller target - the blockbuster best-selling novel. For those of us writing anything else - and I had an interesting chat with an alumna who has written a series of three SF novels - it seems it is going to be harder and harder to attract the attention of the mainstream industry. Predictably, the literary agent was very sniffy when asked about self-publishing - although, perhaps surprisingly, the publisher acknowledged it might be a good route for some.

Good thing Robert the Bruce didn't want to be a published writer...

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