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Yesterday I attended the Bloomsbury Writers’ & Artists’ conference: The Insider Guide to How to Get Published. I heard from a wide variety of publishing professionals and took copious notes while sipping water and hoping not to slip out of my seat from heat exhaustion in the very grand but decidedly un-air conditioned lecture theatre at Senate House, London. Here are the highlights…

The conference was introduced by Alysoun Owen, editor of the acclaimed Writers’ & Artists’ Yearbook which is now in its 107th year. She gave a brief overview on the state of publishing, referring immediately to the big news of the week – namely the merger between Penguin and Random House and the subsequent loss of two women in CEO positions. Read this article for more detail. She also made the point that while UK spend on books has increased 4% year on year most of the top ten selling books are not exactly great novels, being mainly YA, erotica or cookery. It was a bleak but realistic start to the day.

There was then a discussion around what today’s publishers are looking for, with Jane Lawson, Editorial Director of Doubleday, Sarah Savitt, Editor at Faber & Faber and Judith Kendra, Publishing Director of Rider, chaired by Nicolette Jones. The key things to note are that they are all looking for commercial and universal appeal, as well as strong voices and high concept pitches. It is absolutely essential to do your research and identify the best agent/publisher for your submissions and to perfect your ability to sell your idea succinctly. Grammatical and spelling mistakes will absolutely not be tolerated! They all agreed that what matters ultimately is the story, or the idea – there is no particular requirement to provide a long list or indeed any list of writing credentials and throughout the day I sensed some cynicism regarding creative writing courses and editorial services. That said, including reference to your published work can spark more of an interest and is worth mentioning, along as it is relevant. A strong beginning to your ms is absolutely essential as generally only a few pages will be read. Authors nowadays are also expected to help market their work in some way, although this shouldn’t be off-putting – publishers have lots of ways to help you engage with the reading public and are fully supportive of any preferences or fears. There is no doubt that raising your profile will help you sell more books. Originality is more important than following trends.

There followed a talk by author Howard Jacobson, who I haven’t read but who was entertaining and compelling. He is certainly a man of strong opinions. He considers himself to be a highly idealistic writer and advises that everyone should take as long as is required to write the very best they can. The quality of your writing is paramount, not the number of words you manage in a day. I’m not sure this is helpful for new writers where the main challenge is getting to the end of a first draft. It sounded like he edits as he goes along and I’m afraid this would leave me paralysed. Perhaps this is better aimed at more experienced or confident writers. Don’t tie yourselves to a structure, he said – write with ‘loose hands’. Don’t make the mistake of thinking readers are interested in your thoughts and opinions…if you have something to say, dramatise it. He finished with a diatribe against lazy readers, i.e. those who declare themselves bored by the first page. Surely this is why beginnings need to be so strong so whose responsibility is this – the author or the reader? This would make for an interesting discussion in itself.

After lunch Cressida Downing aka The Book Analyst gave a lecture on how best to submit your work with a useful breakdown of the preparation required for your ms, the covering letter and the synopsis. It is crucial to get this right and not rush any part of it, however desperate you are to get your ms out there – a single type could relegate your work to the bin, unread. If you’re submitting by email then the covering letter is the body of the email and the synopsis and ms sample should be two separate attachments. Do not include opinions (your own or anyone else’s) or editorial reports – agents and editors prefer to make up their own mind. The ms sample should be the first three chapters or around 50 pages if unchaptered (for fiction) and the pages should be numbered. Include relevant information and writing experience only. Point out the USP of your work and why you feel the agent would be interested (in other words, demonstrate you have done your research). The synopsis should be a maximum of two pages and include all the plot twists and turns including the ending. It is definitely not a chapter plan but do include key points such as where and when the story is set, who is involved, who it is aimed at and what happens.

Alysoun Owen the chaired a talk by agent Jemima Hunt and her client and memoir author Renata Calverley which gave a good insight into what happens when an agent becomes interested in your work and the many and varied editing stages it has to go through before it is considered ready for publication. It seems that re-writing to enhance a particular angle, or the ‘hook’ of the book, is quite common which can be quite a soul-destroying process – making the relationship you have with your agent of the utmost importance. This is worth remembering when it comes to signing on the dotted line…

Finally, a trio of feisty agents including Jemima together with Lucy Luck and Jenny Savill had some words of advice around the submissions process. Their priority is their existing clients, as they are the ones who are making them money…however, even if an agent says their list is full and that they’re not looking it is probably worth submitting anyway if you are sure that they are the best possible agent for you as most of them can’t resist the lure of a possible hit. They insist on immaculate presentation (do you notice a recurring theme here?) and adherence to any specified submissions guidelines. Don’t phone an agent to ask if they are accepting submissions – details will be on their website so do the work yourself and don’t waste their time. Don’t tell an agent how to sell your work. Be genuine and passionate, polite and respectful. Recognise (and accept) that it can take up to 6 months, sometimes longer, to respond to a submission but it is perfectly acceptable to submit to more than one agent at a time (as many as you like).

There are many, many ways for aspiring writers to spend their money in an attempt to get ahead of the pack – in my opinion, this is a great value (in terms of the number and quality of the speakers) and worthwhile event to attend. I believe it is annual (I went a couple of years ago and last year to the digital variant) so get yourself on the mailing list and go to the next one – the website is well worth exploring as well and is being developed all the time. Bloomsbury seems to be a publisher that is thoughtfully supportive of those who wish to self-publish as well and they offer a wealth of reputable services in all areas – check it out here. Be sure to enter their short story competition as well – never mind the £500 cash, if a place on an Arvon residential course doesn’t tempt you I don’t know what will…

And if you have read this far loyal reader, especially after my prolonged absence, you deserve another lovely link – to the Virago is 40 free ebook download. Enjoy :-)

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