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
The crowd enjoy Latitude Festival 2014

music
Arts and Entertainment
'I do think a woman's place is eventually in the home, but I see no harm in her having some fun before she gets there.'

Is this the end of the Dowager Countess?tv
Arts and Entertainment
Chris Martin of Coldplay performs live for fans at Enmore Theatre on June 19, 2014 in Sydney, Australia. (Photo by Mark Metcalfe/Getty Images)

music
Arts and Entertainment
Keith from The Office ten years on

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Maisie Williams prepares to enter the House of Black and White as Arya Stark in Game of Thrones season five

tv
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Taylor Swift won Best International Solo Female (Getty)

Brits 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Shining star: Maika Monroe, with Jake Weary, in ‘It Follows’
film review
Arts and Entertainment

Brits 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Paloma Faith arrives at the Brit Awards (Getty)

Brits 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Anne Boleyn's beheading in BBC Two's Wolf Hall

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Follow every rainbow: Julie Andrews in 'The Sound of Music'
film Elizabeth Von Trapp reveals why the musical is so timeless
Arts and Entertainment
Bytes, camera, action: Leehom Wang in ‘Blackhat’
film
Arts and Entertainment
The Libertines will headline this year's festival
music
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Dean Anderson in the original TV series, which ran for seven seasons from 1985-1992
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Muscling in: Noah Stewart and Julia Bullock in 'The Indian Queen'

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

TVViewers predict what will happen to Miller and Hardy
Arts and Entertainment
Kevin Spacey and Robin Wright in season two of the series

Watch the new House of Cards series three trailer

TV
Arts and Entertainment
An extract from the sequel to Fight Club

books
Arts and Entertainment
David Tennant, Eve Myles and Olivia Colman in Broadchurch series two

TV Review
Arts and Entertainment
Old dogs are still learning in 'New Tricks'

TV
Arts and Entertainment
'Tonight we honour Hollywood’s best and whitest – sorry, brightest' - and other Neil Patrick Harris Oscars jokes

Oscars 2015It was the first time Barney has compered the Academy Awards

Arts and Entertainment
Patricia Arquette making her acceptance speech for winning Best Actress Award

Oscars 2015 From Meryl Streep whooping Patricia Arquette's equality speech to Chris Pine in tears

Arts and Entertainment

Oscars 2015 Mexican filmmaker uses speech to urge 'respect' for immigrants

Arts and Entertainment
Lloyd-Hughes takes the leading role as Ralph Whelan in Channel 4's epic new 10-part drama, Indian Summers

TV Review

The intrigue deepens as we delve further but don't expect any answers just yet
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Segal and Cameron Diaz star in Sex Tape

Razzies 2015 Golden Raspberry Awards 'honours' Cameron Diaz and Kirk Cameron

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.

    Syrian conflict is the world's first 'climate change war', say scientists, but it won't be the last one

    Climate change key in Syrian conflict

    And it will trigger more war in future
    How I outwitted the Gestapo

    How I outwitted the Gestapo

    My life as a Jew in wartime Berlin
    The nation's favourite animal revealed

    The nation's favourite animal revealed

    Women like cuddly creatures whilst men like creepy-crawlies
    Is this the way to get young people to vote?

    Getting young people to vote

    From #VOTESELFISH to Bite the Ballot
    Poldark star Heida Reed: 'I don't think a single bodice gets ripped'

    Poldark star Heida Reed

    'I don't think a single bodice gets ripped'
    The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

    The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

    Netanyahu knows he can get away with anything in America, says Robert Fisk
    Families clubbing together to build their own affordable accommodation

    Do It Yourself approach to securing a new house

    Community land trusts marking a new trend for taking the initiative away from developers
    Head of WWF UK: We didn’t send Cameron to the Arctic to see green ideas freeze

    David Nussbaum: We didn’t send Cameron to the Arctic to see green ideas freeze

    The head of WWF UK remains sanguine despite the Government’s failure to live up to its pledges on the environment
    Author Kazuo Ishiguro on being inspired by shoot-outs and samurai

    Author Kazuo Ishiguro on being inspired by shoot-outs and samurai

    Set in a mythologised 5th-century Britain, ‘The Buried Giant’ is a strange beast
    With money, corruption and drugs, this monk fears Buddhism in Thailand is a ‘poisoned fruit’

    Money, corruption and drugs

    The monk who fears Buddhism in Thailand is a ‘poisoned fruit’
    America's first slavery museum established at Django Unchained plantation - 150 years after slavery outlawed

    150 years after it was outlawed...

    ... America's first slavery museum is established in Louisiana
    Kelly Clarkson: How I snubbed Simon Cowell and become a Grammy-winning superstar

    Kelly Clarkson: How I snubbed Simon Cowell and become a Grammy-winning superstar

    The first 'American Idol' winner on how she manages to remain her own woman – Jane Austen fascination and all
    Tony Oursler on exploring our uneasy relationship with technology with his new show

    You won't believe your eyes

    Tony Oursler's new show explores our uneasy relationship with technology. He's one of a growing number of artists with that preoccupation
    Ian Herbert: Peter Moores must go. He should never have been brought back to fail again

    Moores must go. He should never have been brought back to fail again

    The England coach leaves players to find solutions - which makes you wonder where he adds value, says Ian Herbert
    War with Isis: Fears that the looming battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

    The battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

    Aid agencies prepare for vast exodus following planned Iraqi offensive against the Isis-held city, reports Patrick Cockburn