Books: Taking the right road from slush-pile to stardom

From Pitch to Publication by Carole Blake Macmillan, pounds 14.95, 385pp; Do you have a potential bestseller locked in a drawer? Kate Figes reads a guide for would-be novelists and finds it long on facts, but short on fun

THIS BOOK would make an ideal set-text for anyone studying publishing. Like every essential textbook, it has that monotonous tone, detail that is so intricate about contracts and royalty statements that you feel as if you ought to take notes, and a little bit of bossiness now and again just to put us in our place. Blake is, after all, a leading literary agent who worked for many years for a mass-market paperback house before setting up her influential agency, Blake Friedmann. Even though this handbook is intended for the first novelist of commercial fiction, I suspect that there are countless publishers out there who might learn a thing or two.

This is not a book about how to write. It is for the enthusiastic amateur clutching their script after years of work, who needs to navigate their way through a quagmire of rejection slips and find out how the book trade actually works.

Blake describes in detail exactly what an agent will do for you and how to submit your novel (synopsis, one or two chapters, character outlines are what she prefers) as well as general dos and don'ts. "No good plot should rely on coincidence"; don't send manuscripts that smell of tobacco or anything else, and definitely never set booby traps to see if the agent has read the manuscript. She is realistic about rejections but is also relentlessly encouraging, pointing out that the agency has represented many authors who came in on the slush pile and yet made it to the bestseller lists.

She gives clear, concise and thorough explanations about auctions, negotiating (never believe a publisher who tells you that they have standard contracts), and who does what in publishing houses. Commissioning editors buy your book, structural editors "try to leave out the parts people skip", and marketing managers hold the key to whether you are ever going to make it.

Blake is right to point out that books are never the product of the author alone, for they often go through countless drafts with invaluable and invisible editorial advice. She is also pragmatic when it comes to publicity. Authors habitually moan about never getting enough, but she correctly says that authors must expect to work for it these days. Publishers have other titles to occupy them and authors have a vested interest in doing everything they can to promote their book. Have postcards of the cover printed, write press releases if the publisher won't, and contact your local bookshop and newspaper. Create your own website and never, ever reply to a bad review - however tempting.

There's enough realism in this handbook to put the romantic dabbler off, and enable the seriously committed writer. However, I wanted more of the stories from the writers Blake represents which pepper this text with refreshing light relief. Michael Ridpath is quoted as saying that "most people don't realise that there's an awful lot of typing involved in writing a book". Maeve Haran rewrote the ending of one of her novels to suit her German publishers. When Blake went to see the managing director of a major publisher to go through an author's royalty statements, he couldn't understand them. When he called in his royalty manager to join the meeting, the latter couldn't understand them either.

That is the stuff of publishing I know and love. But that's just about all we get. This is a useful book and I will consult it when the next royalty statement comes in, because I never understand them.

But what makes publishing special is the buzz, the passion, that agents and publishers feel for special books, and the phenomenal thrill when a gamble pays off and the book becomes a bestseller or wins the Booker Prize. And that thrill is missing from this book. If writing and publishing were just about earning a living, few of us would do it.

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