Have idea. Write book. Submit to agent. Receive rejection. Try again. And again. Eventually secure agent. Submit manuscript to publisher. Receive rejection. And another. In fact, start rejection collection. Have idea. Call it Rejection Collection. Approach agent…
To a lot of those writers who are mingling in the Whitechapel Gallery this evening, this process repeats regularly. And with the publishing industry feeling the pinch – after a worldwide recession and new media revolution, where anyone at any time can ‘get published’ on websites, blogs, online magazines – it appears from the outside that hopes aren’t high for a publishing boom.
So tonight we’ve come to listen to the industry and learn how it works, and how it might work in future.
For tonight’s show, 26 has gathered three men from different areas of publishing. There’s Jeremy Trevathan, fiction publisher at Macmillian, David Miller, literary agent and director at Rogers, Coleridge & White, and Rob Williams, now an independent screenwriter but previously a creative director for Penguin and Hodder.
They’re here to tell us the dos, the don’ts, the whats and the whys.
Jeremy starts. As commercial fiction publisher at Macmillan, Jeremy lives in the world of ‘genre fiction’. He explains, with the help of a Wikipedia extract, that this is another name for popular fiction: the sort that’s written for a specific literary genre that has an existing readership.
‘But then take the structure,’ says Jeremy, perched on his chair, ‘and do something new. My biggest piece of advice would be to write what you write. It’s our job to find the market – or create the market – not the writer’s. Writers think editors enjoy saying no. Not true. We approach each manuscript with hope, excitement. We’re willing these things to be brilliant.’ Jeremy wants to be excited within 30 pages. Other publishers perhaps two or three pages.
After confirming that supermarkets are the biggest customers for commercial fiction, Jeremy touches on the future. Will the role of the editor, the agent, the marketer still exist in future?
‘The market’s changing. What’s the new thing? It’s digital publishing. And it looks like we’re about to have an explosion,’ he says. ‘Three years ago, e-books were worth $20,000 to the industry. Last year $12m. This year looks like nearer $20m. And what’s caused this? It’s the Kindle.’
Although David doesn’t see a revolution happening quite as soon as Jeremy predicts, he’s equally excited. ‘I guess the big question is, will the three of us be needed?’
Lounging in his chair, David seems at ease with change – he, as an agent, is perhaps more flexible than publishers and editors.
‘The book will not die. It will become an artefact – an expensive object, something of worth. Which it should be. And agents and publishers will still be needed. Just our roles will change a little.’
He then launches in to a set of rules to help anybody approaching an agency. ‘Number one – do your homework. Most important thing: work out who you’re writing your letter to. “Dear Mrs Miller, I’d like to…”’ We giggle. ‘You’d be surprised how often that happens.’
David takes us through some simple steps to impressing him. Research and think. Don’t say you’ve been referred when you haven’t. Make sure what you’re writing is good. And necessary (do we really need another Jeffrey Archer?). Express something that no-one else can express. And, very important, don’t think it’s going to happen.
Rob Williams picks up on this. ‘I went along to a Creative Writing course recently and left depressed. The main problem is that these writers expect it – expect to have their novel published. They’re fixated on having a beautiful hardback.’
‘It’s no good just being a writer these days. Writers need to think about what readers want to read. Be a marketer too. Think beyond the book. Be entrepreneurial. Think how to get your project into people’s minds.’
Perhaps Rob saw a decline in publishing a while ago. Perhaps he’s stepped ahead by embracing another form of writing, another media. Perhaps – as every copywriter in the room tonight can appreciate – a book needs to become a brand to succeed in today’s publishing world. So perhaps, as copywriters, marketers, designers, we’re well positioned to help the publishing industry embrace its multimedia future.
There’s a pause. Silence on stage, silence in the audience. ‘Which reminds me,’ says Rob, ‘of what William Goldman said. “Nobody knows anything.”’ We all nod and smile and hope he’s right.
Martin Lee, who introduced tonight’s speakers, summarises. Write the book that’s in you. Write a book that’s necessary. And find the inner drive to write. Soon, questions are flooding in from the audience, creating that dialogue so many writers never experience when peering into the publishing industry.
Why can’t agents publish? Should I go on a writing course? Is today’s best writing in TV and film? How can a writer find a publisher when she straddles genres? Do publishers actively search for the next big thing?
As debate ignites, I sit quietly and think. Just one key thought. It’s the word David finished his talk with. It’s a sentiment echoed by Jeremy and Rob. And it’s a notion that every writer should consider before they start work on rejection collections, or enter that world of self-doubt, the writer’s limbo. And it’s this.
If you want to write something, write it. Love and embrace every part of your project. Don’t expect to be published, to write a bestseller. But don’t expect not to be published. Because there’s one thing that neither Jeremy, David nor Rob can provide. It’s something we, as writers, need to remember, and need to grab and hug when we sense it. Sometimes huge advances, trilogies, spin-off television series come from stunning proposals, from the perfect approach to an agent or a publisher.
Sometimes it all comes down to luck.
Rob Self-Pierson secured an agent at the end of last year for a project that took him on a nocturnal adventure around Britain by the light of the full moon. Moonwalking is still hoping for a publisher…