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.

Arts and Entertainment
'Banksy Does New York' Film - 2014

Art Somebody is going around telling people he's Banksy - but it isn't the street artist

Arts and Entertainment
Woody Allen and Placido Domingo will work together on Puccini's Schicchi

Theatre

Arts and Entertainment
The sixteen celebrities taking part in The Jump 2015

TV

Arts and Entertainment
British author Helen Macdonald, pictured with Costa book of the year, 'H is for Hawk'
booksPanel hail Helen Macdonald's 'brilliantly written, muscular prose' in memoir of a grief-stricken daughter who became obsessed with training a goshawk
Arts and Entertainment
Tom DeLonge has announced his departure from Blink-182

music
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
In the picture: Anthony LaPaglia and Martin Freeman in 'The Eichmann Show'

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Anne Kirkbride and Bill Roache as Deirdre and Ken Barlow in Coronation Street

tvThe actress has died aged 60
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Marianne Jean-Baptiste defends Joe Miller in Broadchurch series two

tv
Arts and Entertainment
The frill of it all: Hattie Morahan in 'The Changeling'

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Gillian Anderson and David Duchovny may reunite for The X Files

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Jeremy Clarkson, left, and Richard Hammond upset the locals in South America
TV
News
A young woman punched a police officer after attending a gig by US rapper Snoop Dogg
people
Arts and Entertainment
Reese Witherspoon starring in 'Wild'

It's hard not to warm to Reese Witherspoon's heroismfilm
Arts and Entertainment
Word up: Robbie Coltrane as dictionary guru Doctor Johnson in the classic sitcom Blackadder the Third
books

Arts and Entertainment
The Oscar nominations are due to be announced today

Oscars 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Hacked off: Maisie Williams in ‘Cyberbully’

Maisie Williams single-handedly rises to the challenge

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne in The Theory of Everything and Benedict Cumberbatch in The Imitation Game are both nominated at the Bafta Film Awards
Arts and Entertainment

Academy criticised after no non-white actors nominated

Arts and Entertainment
Damian Lewis shooting a scene as Henry VIII in Wolf Hall
TV

Arts and Entertainment
A history of violence: ‘Angry, White and Proud’ looked at the rise of far-right groups

tv

An expose of hooliganism masquerading as an ideological battle

Arts and Entertainment

art

Lee Hadwin can't draw when he's awake, but by night he's an artist

Arts and Entertainment

TV

Arts and Entertainment
Michael Keaton in the 1998 Beetlejuice original

film

Arts and Entertainment
Olivia Colman and David Tennant star in 'Broadchurch'

TV

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Greece elections: In times like these, the EU has far more dangerous adversaries than Syriza

    Greece elections

    In times like these, the EU has far more dangerous adversaries than Syriza, says Patrick Cockburn
    Holocaust Memorial Day: Nazi victims remembered as spectre of prejudice reappears

    Holocaust Memorial Day

    Nazi victims remembered as spectre of prejudice reappears over Europe
    Fortitude and the Arctic attraction: Our fascination with the last great wilderness

    Magnetic north

    The Arctic has always exerted a pull, from Greek myth to new thriller Fortitude. Gerard Gilbert considers what's behind our fascination with the last great wilderness
    Homeless Veterans appeal: Homeless in Wales can find inspiration from Daniel’s story

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    Homeless in Wales can find inspiration from Daniel’s story
    Front National family feud? Marine Le Pen and her relatives clash over French far-right party's response to Paris terror attacks

    Front National family feud?

    Marine Le Pen and her relatives clash over French far-right party's response to Paris terror attacks
    Pot of gold: tasting the world’s most expensive tea

    Pot of gold

    Tasting the world’s most expensive tea
    10 best wildlife-watching experiences: From hen harriers to porpoises

    From hen harriers to porpoises: 10 best wildlife-watching experiences

    While many of Britain's birds have flown south for the winter, it's still a great time to get outside for a spot of twitching
    Nick Easter: 'I don’t want just to hold tackle bags, I want to be out there'

    'I don’t want just to hold tackle bags, I want to be out there'

    Nick Easter targeting World Cup place after England recall
    DSK, Dodo the Pimp, and the Carlton Hotel

    The inside track on France's trial of the year

    Dominique Strauss-Kahn, Dodo the Pimp, and the Carlton Hotel:
    As provocative now as they ever were

    Sarah Kane season

    Why her plays are as provocative now as when they were written
    Murder of Japanese hostage has grim echoes of a killing in Iraq 11 years ago

    Murder of Japanese hostage has grim echoes of another killing

    Japanese mood was against what was seen as irresponsible trips to a vicious war zone
    Syria crisis: Celebrities call on David Cameron to take more refugees as one young mother tells of torture by Assad regime

    Celebrities call on David Cameron to take more Syrian refugees

    One young mother tells of torture by Assad regime
    The enemy within: People who hear voices in their heads are being encouraged to talk back – with promising results

    The enemy within

    People who hear voices in their heads are being encouraged to talk back
    'In Auschwitz you got used to anything'

    'In Auschwitz you got used to anything'

    Survivors of the Nazi concentration camp remember its horror, 70 years on
    Autumn/winter menswear 2015: The uniforms that make up modern life come to the fore

    Autumn/winter menswear 2015

    The uniforms that make up modern life come to the fore