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Ways with Words (part two): Agents & publishers

After a whirlwind introduction into the, quite frankly, heady world of modern-day writing and publishing from Ian Sansom, the next part of our Belfast Book Festival event  – LitNetNI’s Ways with Words – saw some of the key players take to the stage. The agents and the publishers.

So, those who are more usually just a name on a website, an entry in the good old Writers & Artists Yearbook, took form and sat in front of a collection of us writers to dispense advice, answer questions and no doubt, hope not to be mobbed at the end…

We had Clare Alexander of Aitken Alexander, Lindsey Fraser of Fraser Ross Associates and representatives from Blackstaff Press, Carcanet Press and Liberties Press. In short, as pretty impressive line-up.

The question is… just what did they say?Q

Well, unsurprisingly, they were fairly straight-talking and clear on what they wanted and ultimately, that is Good Writing. Sorry, Great Writing. Not rocket science, no, but then again, when there’s so much emphasis on marketing these days and getting attention, it’s important to remember that without fantastic words, nothing’s ever going to happen.

Below are their responses to three key questions put to the panel:

1) What can writers do to attract the attention of an agent or publisher?

Carcanet Press (who have TS Eliot winner Sinead Morrissey in their stables) use their PN review journal as a sort of vetting for authors. That is, we were told, it is often used as a “test for publication”, with writers published here more likely to go on and get a book published with them.

Blackstaff Press meanwhile, are big on social media and how much reaction writers are getting to their work online – do they have a huge amount of followers (and therefore potential buyers?) – are they attracting attention? Blackstaff have already used this method to publish authors, e.g. Lessa Harker’s Maggie Muff trilogy gained a very healthy following online and subsequently brought her to the publisher’s attention.

London agent, Clare Alexander, was very forthright in saying that for her, she jumps straight into the writing when she gets hold of a submission, bypassing the synopsis (that thorn in every writer’s side!) so it doesn’t spoil what’s to come. She also advised in sending to about three agents at the same time, as waiting for a response can, of course, take months… And if you are so lucky as to find someone expressing an interest in your work, she added: “Go and see them. See how they describe the book to you. If they describe a different book, then they’re not for you.” (How disappointing if you were to find an agent who liked your work but completely misrepresented it? The only thing to do is wait it out for someone who ‘gets’ your work.) Clare also said to look out for that up-and-coming agent building their client list – someone who will be keen to recruit new writers.

Lindsey Fraser added that most of the Fraser Ross Associates authors write for children and that, yes , wait for it – a great number of their submissions are rejected. Why? Because the writer has just “made attempts at a story” but hasn’t gone into a bookstore or library to see what the competition is. “We turn down some because they’re quite similar to what we’re representing,” she said. “But we don’t get it right all the time.”IMG_1982

2) How much of a package should we be offering? For example, should writers have a blog and be on Twitter?

“Particularly with children’s writing, authors are expected to get out there to do their stuff,” Lindsey told us. “Public persona has become more important. Blogs about children’s writing… some are great. Some are not.”

Clare advised us that all writers should do what’s natural to them but that for her, she didn’t care very much about ‘the package’.

It was a mixed bad of responses to this one but, suffice it to say, whatever works for you, although each genre has its own ‘best way’ perhaps of raising awareness of its particular brand.

3) Genre: should we be fully formed in this?

Clare’s advice was that, ultimately, no – writers do not need to be fully formed in their particular genre, but they do need to clarify a genre. Writers who approach her with a crime novel or ‘a rom-com if you prefer that’, or a kid’s book, a historical fiction book (you get the picture), will get an automatic ‘no’ from her, as “they need to know what they’re offering me.”

Blackstaff agreed on writers not having to be ‘fully formed’ and even said that feedback sometimes can be given to see work improved. (Feedback may be rare but it does happen!)

I’ve focused on the main responses to these key questions and it should be pointed out that all of the panel were agreed on one thing (put into words quite succinctly by Blackstaff Press!): If you’re not reading – what are you doing??reuben reading

You have been warned! Readers make writers. Readers write and writers read.

Carcanet added that for them, they want “something that’s surprising in sound and form as opposed to the content”.

Our advice to take away was:

  • Find your own way of writing and being a success (it’s different for everyone – publication? Simply completing a story? You decide.)
  • It’s never really finished – keep going! Write on!
  • If you’re not reading, what are you doing?
  • Do your homework before submitting

And ultimately – they may not know what they want – but they’ll know it when they see it….

Next week: Self-publishing revelations!

Post Script

This week I am pleased to say I attended the Reading and Writing for Peace: A Poetic Celebration performance event in Belfast, where my peace poem was performed by an actor alongside a collection of the other project participants’ work. Details of how this went coming soon…

 

 

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Ways with Words… Part one

“I think the opportunities for the writer have never been better. All sorts of boundaries have been broken…”

So said former publisher and widely published author/academic, Alison Baverstock at the weekend, when I had the opportunity to attend LitNet NI’s Ways with Words Literature Development Day at the Crescent Arts Centre as part of the Belfast Book Festival 2014. It was a day packed full of tips and advice from those often heard of, seldom seen (unless you’re one of the lucky authors to have secured an agent and publisher!), with professionals flying in from Edinburgh, Manchester, London, Dublin and of course, coming in from Belfast city itself to engage with us local writers.

We enjoyed Q&As with said agents and authors and heard from two successfully self-published authors in the afternoon, but first, it was left to the inimitable Ian Sansom to stir up some lively enthusiasm for the day with his introductory message – entitled: Crusoe’s Reckoning.Flying letters

We had anecdotes! We had tangential side stories! We had facts! History! Research! Opinion!

We had A LOT of stimulating titbits about writing and the heady dynamics it can entail today – via the internet and all that Social Media – but it certainly fired up anyone who wasn’t already on the edge of their seats. If anyone has ever heard Mr Sansom speak, they will know that his passionate addresses flow fast so, in point form, I present a mere few of those literary titbits…

The Digital Revolution is happening and it’s happening via:

  • Text
  • Real-time communication
  • Broadcast and moving pictures
  • Debate and discussion
  • Reference
  • Games

Nothing new there, I hear you say – we know about these things. Yes, but – how do they affect you as a writer and how do you – indeed, do you – harness them effectively to support/publicise your craft?

“We’re in a phase at the moment that we might call the Digital Incunabula – no-one’s seen anything like this before,” explained Sansom. “We haven’t quite worked out what all these things are meant to be… using this digital technology as writers.”

Indeed, even books – bound, printed, basic books – were once an enigma to be mastered. Writing techniques, publishing techniques and publicising techniques have subsequently fragmented with the internet and we’re still muddling our way through the amazon. So to speak.crusoe

“We write/edit/design/publish/print. We’ve gone from needing an agent and publisher to now needing beta readers, brand managers, copy editors, designers and printers…

“How do writers reckon with themselves? We need to reckon with our time… (herego, Crusoe’s Reckoning) It’s to do with how you match your time with what you have available.”

Yes, when Robinson Crusoe was stranded on his island, he realised he needed to seize control of his situation – he had to reckon with himself with regards to how he would take ownership of his time and consciously apply himself in his new environment.

What I think Sansom was asking us writers was – are we doing the same?

It was a good start to the day – a day which had many more insights to come and which, for those who weren’t there, will have to wait for another post…

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