Last week I hooked up with my girl pal and published author Tracy Buchanan to mingle with fellow literati at the Marie Claire UK’s How to get Published event, part of their Inspire and Mentor 2011 series. A jolly good campaign if you ask me! Plus we scoffed champers and canapés, bonus. Apologies for the picture of me and Tracy by the way (Buchy as I call her) – this is the only one I can find of us together without a wig on or wine glass in our hand). And no, we’re not very photogenic.
Anyway, I digress… so, as we sat on mega uncomfy chairs in a super hot room at the Malmaison Hotel in Birmingham, we listened to a panel of uber nice and informed folk in the publishing business as they handed out stories of their own success, top tips and general encouragement for those of us who want to see our manuscripts turned into best-selling novels.
So it was mildly amusing to me that when Q&A time rolled around, one wannabe author asked Lindsey Kelk to tell us how she got into publishing. Er… she told us like 20 minutes ago in her little talk? Were you not listening? Lesson 1, pay attention.
Another asked if you need a degree to get your book published. Can you imagine it… “JK, we just love your Harry Potter books, they could be massive, but there’s just one thing….
Christmas hats and cheesy grins... Tracy and Robyn do Christmas
you don’t have a degree. So maybe come back to us in a few years when you’ve got some letters behind your name?” Unlikely.
Another said she couldn’t get published in the UK because she was young, successful and black. I’d like to think the publishing industry represents more than just middle class white women and that it’s your writing and ideas that get you published, not your ethnicity or your degree.
Others said they were half way through writing their first novel and looking to approach agents soon. I wrote my novel over a year ago and am currently on draft 2.5. Given, I’ve utterly neglected it of late, but I’d be naïve if I thought my first draft would ever get beyond an agent’s in tray. I guess I’m lucky enough to have a published author for a buddy and several completely dedicated writing friends who are fonts of all knowledge when it comes to publishing dos and don’ts.
The most telling part of the evening, to me, was how the audience, 70 of us in total, formed an orderly queue to get books signed by Lindsey Kelk when the evening drew to a close, yet very few dashed to speak to the agent – the woman in the room who could actually help get our books published. But maybe the bulk of these girlies aren’t ready for pitching yet, just there to soak up the info.
Gah, maybe I’m coming across as bitchy and what do I know, I’m so far from being a published novelist I might as well be writing from the moon. The panelists were surprisingly unbitchy (given the competitive industry they work in) and highly likeable and composed. The theme of the evening was Inspire and Mentor, after all, and they certainly succeeded in both. I loved Rowan Lawton from PFD and would love for her to be my agent; she was nice, informed, passionate and fun. And she takes a lot of commercial women’s fiction (chick lit – considered to be a dirty word these days), which is what I write (despite my mostly hate-hate relationship with the genre). So Rowan, when I get my novel to a ‘fit for public consumption’ state, I’ll be coming for ya!
The over-arching theme was to GET AN AGENT, so much s that I had to write it in capitals. Your agent is a friend, your champion and the one person who’s going to work their sweaty butt off you get you in print. After all, they don’t make money of they don’t get you a publishing deal so have to believe in you and your work.
Anyway, here’s a round up of what was said, hope you find it useful…
THE BEST-SELLING AUTHOR
Get an agent! Be passionate, believe in what you’re doing and keep trying are Lindsey’s key themes. Working as a copywriter she took a pay CUT to work in publishing, to be closer to her passion, and when she decided to start writing her own book she was determined, made contacts and opened the right doors. And now she has a series of published books with more on the way.
THE ONLINE MAGAZINE EDITOR
Helen Russell, online editor, Marie Claire magazine
- Do your research – editors are impressed by salient facts
- Know your audience! Who will love your ideas, who will love reading your story?
- How to pitch – catchy title, snappy synopsis and spellcheck, spellcheck, spellcheck
- When contacting an editor, know their name and how to spell it right and call their assistant to find out if you don’t already know
- Include your CV and examples of any work you’ve had published when you make your pitch
- Don’t hide behind email, face to face works too. Get to know an editor by offering to take them for a coffee and learn more about their personality, their tone and their interests – they’re more likely to remember you that way
- A great idea is a great idea so don’t get disheartened
- What Marie Claire is looking for now – what readers are doing now that they wouldn’t have done six to 12 months ago, for example, infidelity via Twitter; cultural zeitgeists; emotional first person stories; and the wow features that make people talk
- If you want to work online you need to be online already – so get on Facebook and Twitter and start blogging etc
- Make contacts and connections and have a USP (unique selling point)
Rowan Lawton, Peters Fraser & Dunlop (PFD)
- Get an agent! Most publishers don’t accept unsolicited submissions so you will need one, plus they’re your first champion, someone who’s always going to be on your side
- A good agent will be honest and may disagree with you
- How to get noticed – you need a compelling submission, a high concept idea with strong plot and characterisation
- A strong title will get noticed and needs to tell the reader exactly what the book’s about.
- Know your market!
- You have to really want it. Agents get bombarded with submissions so you won’t have long to get an agent’s attention
- Do your research so you approach the right agents – Writers’ and Artists’ Yearbook, online, author websites and the acknowledgement section of authors’ books. If your writing’s similar to a published author, check out their agent
- It boils down to the quality of your work in the end but the first step is to get noticed so do something bold
- Write a stellar covering letter, make it personal to the agent’s client list and pitch your idea in a couple of sentences
- If you have friends or contacts who are authors or journalists, mention it but don’t make your letter too long
- Treat it as career, be dedicated
THE COMMISSIONING EDITOR
Kate Bradley, Harper Collins
- The publishing world is challenging, book sales are in decline and the market is poor. So it’s a tough nut to crack!
- Traditional booksellers are fading fast with Tesco is currently the biggest bookseller in the UK. With the price of books so low it’s hard for publishers to make money so they have to be certain they can sell your book; it’s all about profit. Publishers want books that Tesco will want to sell.
- Out of the 70 people in the room, one is likely to get published
- Make friends with other writers, they can help and support you and possibly even write a quote for the back of your book should you ever get published
- Sign up with something like the Romantic Novelists’ Association
- Authonomy – useful site where you can grade each others’ books, make connections and possibly get noticed
- Do you have a personal story to tell, something to pitch about you? Use your USP to set you apart
- Editors WILL pick your work apart
- Practice. There’ always something to learn