Monday, 14 April 2008

London Book Fair Masterclass Report - Deb's version

I arrived by taxi as R felt sure I would get lost, although even I can manage to change tubes/trains or whatever they are called on the underground. The first thing I did was buy a copy of Jonny Geller's book, 'Yes, but is it good for the Jews?' and a cup of tea.

My first thought when I entered the packed auditorium containing approximately 500 people was how much competition there is for becoming published especially when you think how many writers I know that weren't there. Surely the attendees are a mere fraction of all the wannabes out there. However, when someone asked Harriet Evans to repeat the title of the Writer's and Artists Yearbook, I then thought that maybe all was not entirely lost.

(I now have to condense 17 pages of A5 notebook into this post so I shall do my best).

Jonny Geller (Literary Agent and Author), Harriet Evans (Editorial Director & Author), Gareth Sibson (self-published ex-lawyer and ex marketing consultant), Joanna Trollope (Author), Adele Parks (Author) and Danuta Kean (Journalist & Publishing Commentator) were all extremely helpful and approachable. Jonny Geller happily signed my copy of his book even though we were supposed to go through to another room for the one-to-ones asked if I had found the masterclass useful. Naturally I told him that I had. He has beautiful hypnotic eyes (sorry, I digress).

Here are the main points:

Jonny Geller - 99% of all work is publised through an agent who is an author's best friend and business partner. He does accept usolicited manuscripts but is not interested in historicals or sagas and said that you need to send your m/s to the correct agent for your genre.
- Work out who you are as a writer and edit, edit, edit.
- Ask yourself, what are you sending? What is it about? Know your target.
- Determination is vital ie The Memory Keeper's Daughter did the rounds three times as did Lovely Bones. Daniel Clay's, Broken was rejected about 37 times. Daniel Clay's account of how he escaped the slushpile and also his submission letter and synopsis sent to Jonny Geller is here

JG said to be aware that determination is as important as talent. He receives about five submissions per day and 200 per month at his agency..

What he is looking for in a covering letter is brevity. Be brief, say who you are (briefly), then three sentences of blurb on your book (not a pitch, ie Sofacles meets Quentin Tarantino).
Do put the hook that leads you to the book.

He said there is a 10 word rule (although I only have 10 and apologise if the missing one is vital) which is: "This is a story about a man/woman who..." Remember: say what the book is about.
- Letters must be addressed to a person. See who to write to by looking up the agency's website or in acknowledgements of a book that you think relevant. Do not address your letter Dear Sir/Dear Madam. Focus who you are sending it to and do your homework.

He said that copyright exists automatically as soon as the work is created. Words are copyrighted, ideas cannot be.

- Be interesting and new
- The publishing world is desperate for new and interesting work.

When asked what he was looking for and what left him cold, JG said that he doesnt like anything based in an office. He believes that it is going more to the 20-something market again; sincere stories with attitude that make the reader weep. Post 9/11 books; gritty urban stuff is nearly back. Historicals too and writing with a twist ie with a strong femal lead, fantasy is still big ie Labyrynth, Lovely Bones etc. Re: bonkbusters, the publishing industry is waiting to see what happens with Platinum when it comes out next month.

Names are important. 'It's a Sin' by Nigel Spriggs became 'Broken' by Daniel Clay. Everything is a product and has to be sold.

When asked the worst/best time to submit:

Worst: April (London Book Fair - not 3wks before or 2 wks after)
October (Frankfurt Book Fair)

Best: Early December when agents are winding down for Christmas. January and August are the best times to submit though.

Harriet Evans - edits commercial women's fiction such as Penny Vinchenzi, Emily Barr, Eva Rice. Her last two buys were, 'Top Tips for Girls' based on a newspaper column and Daisy Goodwin (bought only 3 wks ago) 'My Last Duchess'. The fact that these were by well known people or something already out there didn't give me much hope.

She wants to read: something that is involving and takes her to a world that she knows nothing about. She has to believe the world you are creating and says that Voice is vital as is Determination. Having written her own books (she is working on No 4) she is now tougher on her authors as she knows that if you want to get it right you have to rewrite until you do.

HE wanted her books accepted on their merit and not because of who she was (although the fact that she knew how best to word her submission would have helped) and sent a brief email attaching 6 chapters of her book and only said, "This book is called... and I want to write books like I Capture the Castle meets Notting Hill(??)" Again, keep it very short. She believes that even though she is an experienced editor, as a writer she is still learning her craft.

HE is not into historicals. She said that The Other Bolyn Girl was successful because is was unputdownable. Write about lives you want to know more about, not dull day-to-day stuff but about relationships that are interesting and have believable characters. Whatever you write, be it a bonkbuster or whatever, don't be cynical and love what you're writing about.

Gareth Sibson only sent to 10 agents and then self published with Authorhouse. He was very happy with them but said that he feels he missed out on the editing side even though his girlfriend and trusted friends did read his m/s and tell him honestly where they thought it went wrong. If he did it again he would send to at least 40 before trying the self-publishing route. He now has an agent who although she doesnt quite 'get' his novel (about a male Bridge Jones type), she does now believe that it is marketable (something he wanted to prove and added it as a download on his site that had 20k hits per day).
- Your work has to be 'of the moment'.
- It will need at least one edit (Deb - Thank heavens for RNA and the NWS scheme).
- Know your voice, it has to be good enough if you want to succeed.

They all agreed that you need an entertainment lawyer to help with selling film rights and to get contracts checked.

Danuta Kean said that if a publisher wants paying then don't go with them as you should have to pay to be published.
- Remember: word of mouth is vitally important.
- Make your work available by any means possible.

We've all heard of JK Rowling simply because there is only one JKR.

Joanne Trollop said that she wrote 7 historicals (her apprenticeship) before hitting the big time with her 4th contemporary novel. She took 20 years to make it big. She said:
- You have to be professional
- Your books have to be timed to the mood of what people are reading (ie it has probably helped that the Kite Runner is set in Afganistan, somewhere in the forefront of everyone's mind at the moment).
- Think about what are people sick of reading and what do they want to read
- You need to live to write - she believes that writers are better after 35 (well, that's something anyhow) as by that age they've been a bit battered by life and can therefore write about it.
-Take writing v seriously as a profession but with humility - like your book but be ready to learn
- Look at writing for every publication possible ie the parish magasine. The more practice the better and it will add to your CV.
- Train yourself to observe people. Observe, record and relate your characters.
- It has all been said before but you have to translate it in a new interesting way.
- Keep a scrapbook of life: scraps of your writing/poems/conversations in checkout queues etc
- There is also the prize route. JT has just chaired the Costa Price and said that the book that won was published by a small backstreet publisher and had been passed over by everyone else.

When you get a deal is when you start, not when you've succeeded.

Adele Parks - looks at structure. She makes detailed notes before starting a book (ie characters birth signs etc) even though this information may not be used in the book. She knows her characters thoroughly before writing.
- There are 1 million ways to be published. It isn't a science, so there are no guarantees that if you work hard you will be published.
- You have to be robust/thick-skinned to succeed.
- A published author has to do all sorts of promotion, writing, talking and different writing to support themself even when published (apparently T S Elliott worked in a bank).
- Show a friend or use a trust-worthy literary consultant. Adele Parks showed a trusted friend.
- She believes you need a lot of humour and authenticity in your writing.

I had a wonderful time and hope that this post isn't too jumbled but my brain is a bit switched off after my first day back at work after five days off (and days of endless walking around London) and I wanted to post this today. I did already know a lot of what was said but also learnt a lot too. The members of the panel did their best to answer questions from the audience and did their best to be as helpful as possible.

27 comments:

Yvonne said...

Wow Debs your post is so helpful, thank you so much for going to all that trouble! Sounds like it was a great opportunity, some excellent advice there.

Denise said...

What a great post, I really felt like I was there! I went 3 years ago (know what you mean about his eyes!) and found it fascinating. It is scary how many people are also trying to write. The Winchester writers' conference details were announced today. Another place where you're surrounded by hundreds of people all trying to do the same thing. Great place to go though.

Debs said...

yvonne - thanks, glad you found it helpful.

Calistro said...

Oh that was brilliant informative Debs. Thanks so much for typing it up! I wish I'd know about how Jonny likes his cover letters to begin before I sent novel #1 to him (on 23rd March so 3 weeks before London Book week. Ooops!). Still, am heartened that he thinks books like the Lovely Bones are in as there's a passing similarity with my book there. Will just have to cross my fingers and wait and see :o)

Lane said...

Thanks so much for this Debs. It's a mine of information!
I'm going to bookmark it safely for reference.
Thank you:-)

Lol at the person asking to repeat the title of the Writer's and Artists yearbook:-)

Maddie Moon said...

Wow, what a great post, so much useful information. Thanks, Debs. I'll keep on file that submission letter and synopsis for a later date!

Yes, thank heavens for the New Writers' Scheme!

Kerry said...

Debs, thanks so much! This is really helpful and I'm sure I'll be returning to the post again and again! :)

Debs said...

It's strange how these comments are saved in a wierd order.

denise - I would love to go to the Winchester Writers' conference but can't unfortunately. Maybe next year as it does look very good.

calistro - I know, I've just sent off several submissions too, about three weeks ago.

lane - thanks, it was such a useful masterclass. I wrote as they spoke so have most of it down. I knew my years as a secretary would come in useful at some point.

maddie moon - I need to get going with my NWS submission soon.

kerry - thanks, glad you found it useful.

Phillipa said...

DEbs - fantastic post and I hope you don't mind but I've linked to it on my blog and on my N&S CW site. IT scares the hell out of me though - I never know how I got my break, when I read the requirements and trends. It all sounds so diffiuclt with such a changing market.

Ray-Anne said...

Thank you so much for these notes = they are far more comprehensive than the Guardian newspaper Article about this talk. I have watched Jonny Geller talking about his job on YouTube and he is impressive. Wouldn't you love to have him as an agent?
Now on with the show! we have submissions to write.

KAREN said...

That's a really interesting post, Debs, thanks for that :o) It does drive home again how Determined you need to be.

Yvonne said...

Debs I've tagged you, just in case you want to take part...

Debs said...

phillipa - no problem at all, link away.

You probably got your break because your writing is fantastic.

ray-anne - I shall have to have a look at the Guardian article.

I showed R where Jonny Geller had signed my copy of his book and said how wonderful that must be to see that signature on a contract. No harm in wishing, I suppose.

karen - thanks. I know, it can be quite daunting when you think of it.

yvonne - thanks for the tag. I shall certainly take part.

Nik's Blog said...

Wow! What a thorough report. Thanks for taking the time to post.

NIk

Debs said...

nik's blog - thanks for visiting my blog and commenting. Glad you enjoyed the post.

motherx said...

Sounds like a very interesting day. Would loved to have gone! You sure took a lot of notes! Thanks for the info.

Gonna be a writer said...

Thanks for this great post. Lots for us to think about. Sounds like you had a good day.

Debs said...

motherx - it was great. I was a PA for years and am used to taking notes, so that really helped.

gonna be a writer - thanks for commenting. Glad you found the notes interesting.

L-Plate Author said...

Wow Debs, I loved that! Thanks again, like everyone else said, for sharing it. I too will be visiting it again and again. And I like the fact that they are going for urban grit! Might be hope for me yet! x

Leigh Russell said...

"When you get a deal is when you start"... always another mountain to climb! But that's life.

Thank you for the detailed notes. It's lovely to share it with you like this.

Fiona said...

Thank you for taking the time to put this up for us struggling writers. Much appreciated. My blog will be very quiet but hope to get back to it in a couple of weeks.

Hypnotic eyes. What are you like?:)

JJ said...

Fab information Deb, thanks for all the effort.

Debs said...

l-plate author - glad you liked the post. I shall have to keep going back to it too to remind myself of what was said.

leigh russell - I would just like to get a deal. Shall have to keep on working on my writing.

fiona - glad you liked the notes.

Sorry, but they were completely hypnotic (I'm easily distracted and thankfully only spoke to JG at the end).

JJ - my pleasure.

Leigh Russell said...

Not sure if my comment was swallowed by the gremlins... but I find Adam creepy... How could he think Lucy would agree?

liz fenwick said...

A huge thank you - brilliant write up :-)

Anonymous said...

I am very grateful for your account of the London bookfair master class. I am also trying to get published and would love to have been in London at the fair. Now I feel as if I almost was. Thank you again.
This is my first visit to your site but I'll be back!

Debs said...

anonymous - thanks for visiting my blog and thank you for your encouraging comment.

Hope to see you again.