Happy endings for would-be novelists
Find out what publishers are looking for and don't dream of a huge advance, says Sarah Bridge
Saturday 04 March 2006
Prospective authors raised a cheer this week when the publishing giant Penguin announced that the group will publish 250 first-time writers this year, hoping to replicate the success of debut bestsellers such as The Kite Runner and The Secret Life of Bees.
However, those dreaming of conjuring up a J K Rowling-sized fortune with their writing are likely to be disillusioned. A Society of Authors survey five years ago found that half of all authors made less than the minimum wage, and that three-quarters earned less than £20,000 a year.
"Most authors struggle," says Mark Le Fanu, general secretary of the body. "The gap between the few top authors and the rest of them is widening all the time," he says. "The vast majority of authors earn very little and most authors keep up their job until they can afford to write full time."
"If you are going into writing to make money, you are going to be disappointed," says Camilla Hornby of top literary agents Curtis Brown. "Most writers write because they are passionate about writing: it is easy to spot the ones who just 'write by numbers'."
Literary agent Anthony Lownie adds: "Unless you have a rich aunt somewhere who can support you, don't give up your job," he says.
Many well-known writers have held other jobs while writing. Poets Philip Larkin and T S Eliot held full-time jobs all their lives, as a librarian and a banker respectively, and writers throughout the ages have been journalists (Dickens), advertising executives (Peter Mayle, Fay Weldon and Salman Rushdie), teachers (Nick Hornby), stand-up comedians (Jenny Colgan) and even cab drivers and dentists.
In any case, huge sums of money from publishers don't add up to much under scrutiny. Literary agent Lownie sold a book for £200,000 last week, which he admits, sounds a lot. "But it was ghosted, so that's half to the ghost-writer," he says. "Then there is my 15 per cent, so you are down to £85,000. And it took several years to write and there were expenses in writing and researching it. So it is not that much in the end."
Still keen on becoming a writer? Some 161,000 books are published each year and the public buy 296 million of them. But where to start? It may sound obvious, but the first thing to do is to get writing. First-time author Jane Sigaloff advises: "Even if you are just writing one day a month, then at least you have started. So many people talk about writing but are always putting it off for one reason or another."
And she says don't try to predict the next big trend. It's a nice idea in theory but one that seldom works in practice: "If you try and scan the market to see what is successful or what is coming up, you will be about two years too late."
Publisher Judy Piatkus agrees. "While you should pay attention to the marketplace, you just can't predict trends or how long they are going to last."
"If you write for a certain market, whether it is chick lit or whatever, you will always be chasing your tail," says Hornby. "It takes at least a year for a book to get published and the industry might have moved on."
Once you have a novel, you need someone to publish it. So you send it off to a publisher or agent, right?
Wrong. The most important thing you can do at this stage is edit, proof-read, polish and edit again. You may be desperate to send it out into the world to see what people think, but that could scupper your chances entirely.
"Writing can be a lonely and isolating occupation, where you are sitting on your own, day after day, without getting any feedback," says Hornby. "And it is tempting to finish something and then send it out to people. But you should not use agents as a sounding board. A first rough draft will not show your work off in the best possible light and you should really give yourself the best shot. Even if you rework it afterwards, it is very difficult for agents to read it twice with a fresh view."
Jane Sigaloff says she looks back on her first, unpublished, novel and almost cringes. "I'm glad I wrote it because it got me to where I am today, but looking back I should have done so much more editing. It basically wasn't ready to be sent out as it was."
Only once you are happy that your manuscript is the best it can ever be should you send it out. And here, some basic research is all it takes to make the difference between getting noticed and getting binned. "I get 100 letters and manuscripts a day," says Lownie, "and of those, 70 can be discarded straight away. They are either completely unsuitable - say, science fiction when we don't deal with science fiction - or they are misspelt or sent out as a massive mailing without even putting my name at the top."
Most publishers and agents give very clear specifications on their websites or through the author's bible, Writers' & Artists' Yearbook, of how a submission should look. There is no excuse for not being able to provide exactly what they want.
While you should avoid trend-chasing - so stop writing that Dan Brown-style novel right now - you still have to be aware of what sells commercially.
"Go into book shops, educate yourself, immerse yourself it what is out there," urges Lownie. "Don't just think because your granny likes it then other people will too."
Increasingly, it is not just a question of what your book is like, but how it can be packaged up and sold. "It is a tough business and the better known you are, the more chance you have to be promoted," adds Lownie.
"If you are an actress from EastEnders or a weathergirl then you are going to draw more attention for your book that if you are a 75-year-old pensioner from Bournemouth. Publishers are keen on young authors who will do lots of promotion themselves, or journalists who will get a lot of media coverage or famous people who know other famous people. It's all about promoting a package."
Even if you are lucky enough to secure a book deal, do not think that you can sit back and relax. Publishers aren't looking for "one-off" books, they are keen to build a brand that has longevity.
Lownie says: "Even if you secure one book deal, you may find it harder to get another one. Some publishers are now looking more favourably on new authors than those who have already written a book, as they can look at the book sales and if it hasn't sold well then the publisher would be unwilling to take them on again."
"It is a business partnership with you and your publisher," says novelist Victoria Routledge. "They want a book a year and you have to deliver it."
How to sell your novel
* Make sure you are sending your work to the right people. Look on publishers' websites or in the Writers' & Artists' Yearbook for information.
* Most will want a covering letter, some sample chapters, a CV, a brief book synopsis and a stamped-addressed envelope for replies. Check that your work is presented neatly, that there are no spelling mistakes and you have spelt the addressee's name correctly.
* If they ask for three chapters, send the first three. "It is really frustrating to be sent chapters three, seven and 11," says Camilla Hornby of agents Curtis Brown. "And if the book doesn't get interesting until chapter three, that is where your book should start."
* Make your covering letter stand out by adding information that shows you can write. Have you had your work published anywhere before, are you a member of a writing group, have you won any writing prizes? But keep it short and sweet.
* Don't waste time on sending information that hasn't been asked for, such as detailed character descriptions and lengthy background information.
* Books have been sold on the strength of just a few chapters, but publisher Judy Piatkus and Camilla Hornby both recommend finishing the book. Piatkus says: "If I like it, I want to see more, and if it takes a year to complete you have to go through the whole process again."
Victoria Routledge: 'I'm just pleased people like my work'
Victoria Routledge, 32, was working for a publishing company editing other people's manuscripts when she thought "I could do this". After three years studying English at Cambridge she felt unqualified "even to edit an e-mail", but seeing how much behind-the-scenes work went on in getting a novel to print meant that she gained the confidence to write a novel of her own.
Once she had found an agent, her first novel was auctioned between publishers, resulting in a £50,000, two-book publishing deal.
Victoria gave up her job just before her first book, Friends Like These, was published, and has since signed a three-book deal with Simon & Schuster for a considerably larger sum (she is reluctant to say how much).
"Working in publishing means I'm much more aware of the need to be commercial and to work really hard to publicise my books," she says. "There is such a small window when a book comes out. But I'm not complaining, I'm just really pleased that other people like my books and relate to the characters."
She is just finishing work on her sixth book, The Secrets of Saint Dee.
Jane Sigaloff: 'I don't know how long it will last but it's exciting'
Jane Sigaloff, 33, is proof that if at first you don't succeed, it pays to keep on trying. Her first novel took two years to write and got her an agent, but a publishing deal remained elusive. "I was about six months too late for the chick-lit boom," she says. So she gave up her job at the BBC and moved back home to start her second book, taking a part-time job as a PA.
Several rewrites later, in December 1991, she finally secured a two-book deal for £4,000. Her romantic comedy Name & Address Withheld was published in 2002, and since then she has signed a £50,000 three-book deal. Her fourth novel, Like Mother Like Daughter, is published this month by Mira. She is now a full-time writer, and recently got engaged.
"Very few people make a living out of writing as it is a very insecure profession and you don't know how long it's going to last," she says, "but to be paid at all for something you love doing is fantastic. I'm still very excited about it but it has been hard getting here and I'm still building up a brand."
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