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LBF Masterclass 2009


London Book Fair Masterclass 2009

In the 2009 How to Get Published Masterclass at the London Book Fair a packed audience listened intently to a varied group of speakers in a session chaired by journalist Danuta Kean. The panel comprised Bill Swainson, senior editor at Bloomsbury, Simon Trewin, co-head of the book department at new agency United AgentsClick for United Agents Agents References listing, and authors Kate Mosse, Lola Joye and Gareth Sibson.

The focus of the Masterclass was on how new authors go about getting published. Bill Swainson said publishers were ‘irrepressibly optimistic’ and told the audience: ‘You’re human beings, we’re human beings, publishing is not a machine. It all depends on the energy you put in, it’s a huge amount of networking.’ He urged writers to ‘prepare for a long game’ but he said that editors should not be seen as an ultimate literary judge. As an editor ‘You’re paid to find books you can publish.’

Agent Simon Trewin said there were basic rules for a submission letter. ‘Don’t make it too long and focus down on one subject. Convey that passion, something about you and what you want to write next.’ He stressed the importance of professionalism and said writers should leave out ‘a sense of arrogance that conveys the subtext "I am a genius and you are a moron if you don’t take my work"’.

Trewin exploded one myth by saying that writers shouldn’t send their work to one agent at a time, ‘send it to two or three’. He stressed that the three qualities required of writers were professionalism, patience and confidence. ‘An agent is a quality filter. If I send a manuscript to an editor I have a good relationship with, it’s about connecting with the network.’ He said that the role of the agent had changed and they were more involved in the editorial process, and added: ‘Never send something off that you’re not happy with. Write something then put it away for a month before looking at it again.’

Swainson explained how publishers deal with potential acquisitions: ‘If we’re excited by the book, we will do our research, talk to the agent or author, and ask what else the writer has done and what are they planning to do next.’ Answering a later question from the floor, he said that Bloomsbury had published three unsolicited manuscripts over ten years, only one of which did not make money. 75% of what Bloomsbury takes on comes from agents, who are very important, but the 25% includes acquisitions from America and from other overseas publishers, as well as direct submissions.

Gareth Sibson, author of Single White Failure, described his own path to success and said: ‘It’s a market, commercial awareness is important, I am, or will be, a brand.’ He talked about his own success using his Chasing Bridget blog, which captured people’ imagination and built word of mouth. The media look to one another and blogs can get picked up.

Lola Kaye described her own path to becoming a published writer. She had wanted to be a writer since the age of ten and in 2008 her first novel became a bestseller for HarperCollins. Her second novel While You were Dreaming is out soon.

Kate Mosse, who as a former editor and the founder of the Orange Prize achieved bestsellerdom with her novel Labybrinth, emphasised the hard grind of the writer’s life: ‘Writing is hard and you must do it every day. You cannot be a good writer unless you write. Five minutes a day is better than nothing. It’s like doing your exercises before running a marathon.’ She later described how she works when she is writing a book – seven days a week, 10 hours a day for three months to get the first draft of her novels out.

She also feels that the passion to write is about reading. ‘You cannot be a good writer if you are not a good reader' and went on to say: 'Not every word springs perfectly from your fingertips, be prepared to throw some of your work away. You cannot send something out there until you are proud of it – you need to be able to say: "I have done the best I can."’

Mosse talked about publicity and the relationship with the book trade: ‘I do a lot of publicity but that’s because publishing is still a very different kind of industry, filled with incredibly hard-working and committed people, so I feel as an author I should work hard too…. Think of yourself as part of a team – you all want your book to sell.’

Danuta Kean, a freelance journalist who formerly worked for the Bookseller, said she thought writers needed to have passion in the voice of their writing, passion in their agent and publisher, and passion in promoting it, so that this passion will ripple through everything the writer does.

There was an interesting question from the floor about the difference between commercial and literary fiction. Mosse said that commercial fiction was story-driven and that telling what happened next was the priority. In literary fiction the priority is the sentence-by-sentence quality of the writing and ideas.

Trewin said: ‘Everyone is trying to encourage literary novels which are more commercial,’ and he emphasised the degree to which writers are so in control of the creative medium, making it the most pure medium. He insisted: ‘Everyone in this industry gets excited by new writers.’

© Chris HolifieldManaging director of WritersServices; spent working life in publishing,employed by everything from global corporations to start-ups; track record includes: editorial director of Sphere Books, publishing director of The Bodley Head, publishing director for start-up of upmarket book club, The Softback Preview, editorial director of Britain’s biggest book club group, BCA, and, most recently, deputy MD and publisher of Cassell & Co. She is also currently the Director of the Poetry Book Society; During all of this time aware of problems faced by writers, as publishing changed from idiosyncratic cottage industry, 'occupation for gentlemen', into corporate business of today. Writers encountered increasing difficulty in getting books edited or published. Authors create the books which are the raw material for the whole business. She believes it is time to bring them back to centre stage. 2009