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.
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.”
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??
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!
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…