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

Filming to begin on two new series due to be aired on Dave from next year


Arts and Entertainment
Kit Harington plays MI5 agent Will Holloway in Spooks: The Greater Good

'You can't count on anyone making it out alive'film
Arts and Entertainment
War veteran and father of Peter and Laust Thoger Jensen played by Lars Mikkelson

TVBBC hopes latest Danish import will spell success

Arts and Entertainment
Carey Mulligan in Far From The Madding Crowd
FilmCarey Mulligan’s Bathsheba would fit in better in The Hunger Games
Arts and Entertainment
Pandas-on-heat: Mary Ramsden's contribution is intended to evoke the compound the beasts smear around their habitat
Iart'm Here But You've Gone exhibition has invited artists to produce perfumes
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

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

    'It was first time I had ever tasted chocolate. I kept a piece, and when Amsterdam was liberated, I gave it to the first Allied soldier I saw'

    Bread from heaven

    Dutch survivors thank RAF for World War II drop that saved millions
    Britain will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power - Labour

    How 'the Axe' helped Labour

    UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power
    Rare and exclusive video shows the horrific price paid by activists for challenging the rule of jihadist extremists in Syria

    The price to be paid for challenging the rule of extremists

    A revolution now 'consuming its own children'
    Welcome to the world of Megagames

    Welcome to the world of Megagames

    300 players take part in Watch the Skies! board game in London
    'Nymphomaniac' actress reveals what it was really like to star in one of the most explicit films ever

    Charlotte Gainsbourg on 'Nymphomaniac'

    Starring in one of the most explicit films ever
    Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi: The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers

    Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi

    The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers
    Vince Cable interview: Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'

    Vince Cable exclusive interview

    Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'
    Iwan Rheon interview: Game of Thrones star returns to his Welsh roots to record debut album

    Iwan Rheon is returning to his Welsh roots

    Rheon is best known for his role as the Bastard of Bolton. It's gruelling playing a sadistic torturer, he tells Craig McLean, but it hasn't stopped him recording an album of Welsh psychedelia
    Russell Brand's interview with Ed Miliband has got everyone talking about The Trews

    Everyone is talking about The Trews

    Russell Brand's 'true news' videos attract millions of viewers. But today's 'Milibrand' interview introduced his resolutely amateurish style to a whole new crowd
    Morne Hardenberg interview: Cameraman for BBC's upcoming show Shark on filming the ocean's most dangerous predator

    It's time for my close-up

    Meet the man who films great whites for a living
    Increasing numbers of homeless people in America keep their mobile phones on the streets

    Homeless people keep mobile phones

    A homeless person with a smartphone is a common sight in the US. And that's creating a network where the 'hobo' community can share information - and fight stigma - like never before
    'Queer saint' Peter Watson left his mark on British culture by bankrolling artworld giants

    'Queer saint' who bankrolled artworld giants

    British culture owes a huge debt to Peter Watson, says Michael Prodger
    Pushkin Prizes: Unusual exchange programme aims to bring countries together through culture

    Pushkin Prizes brings countries together

    Ten Scottish schoolchildren and their Russian peers attended a creative writing workshop in the Highlands this week
    14 best kids' hoodies

    14 best kids' hoodies

    Don't get caught out by that wind on the beach. Zip them up in a lightweight top to see them through summer to autumn
    Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi: The acceptable face of the Emirates

    The acceptable face of the Emirates

    Has Abu Dhabi found a way to blend petrodollars with principles, asks Robert Fisk