Saturday, 24 August 2013

How to get a publishing contract

What are the publishable classes? It's an expression coined by my virtual friend, Iain Manson, and means the sort of people who find it relatively easy to get an agent and a publishing deal, unlike most of us who find it next to impossible. It includes (and I'm relying on Iain to tell me if I've missed a category):
  • Journalists
  • Anyone with a contact in publishing
  • Anyone famous for something other than writing
  • Anyone related to someone famous
Recent examples include 21 year-old Samantha Shannon; from the Guardian article: "Her father knew someone in touch with literary agent David Godwin and, after an email exchange, he agreed to look at her manuscript. He was 'kind' about it but also turned the book down. Yet it was this connection that would not long afterwards lead to Shannon doing a two-week summer internship with his agency (in Seven Dials, Covent Garden), which was to prove illuminating about 'how the industry works'." David Godwin subsequently became her agent and sold the first three novels in her fantasy series to Bloomsbury for a six-figure sum.

Lottie Moggach is doubly qualified by being a journalist and daughter of Deborah Moggach, the successful writer. Her first novel, Kiss Me First, has recently been published by Picador. 

Then there's promising newcomer JK Galbraith, who turned out to have got a deal for his first crime novel by actually being JK Rowling.

I haven't read any of these books, and I'm not implying they are not excellent and worthy of a publishing contract. But I think this nepotism matters, because the pool from which publishers select authors is in reality quite small, however vast the slush pile may be. It seems to me self-evident that there are many equally good or better writers who are rejected time and again after a cursory glance by an intern. And these days when the future of Big Publishing is uncertain, they cannot afford to miss the next Big Thing just because it happens to have been written by a nobody.

P.S. On a happier note, self-publication has again proved the best way to go for most of us. Steve Robinson has accepted an offer from Amazon for a four book deal with an option on book five following the huge popularity of his genealogical crime series, now on special offer. Go Steve!


  1. I glanced at an article in the newspaper today written by a well-known journalist. She told of how she had applied for a job with the Radio Times (BBC). She was convinced that the well-paid job had already been taken by an insider.

    There is, of course, more to this tale but it was the recognition of something I'd seen in other tax-payer funded occupations that led me to read her story. The institutions are obliged to offer vacancies to the general public when an internal candidate has already been promised the job.

    The cost of advertising the positions that I saw was considerable. The cost to those who tried for the already filled positions was spelled out in the newspaper article, but it goes something like this: research, presentation of a C.V., new outfit, and much more.

    We probably all know what a writer goes through. Research, years of writing, synopsis and trips to the Post Office. And for what? For our work to be turned down without even being read. I used to put a hair between pages early in chapter one. It mostly came back to me.

    Agents/publishers no longer waste my time and I am much happier writing to my own timetable.

    And that is why I can say to Steve I am delighted for the success he has achieved - that is what he worked for and what he wanted and is undoubtedly what he deserves. Amazon have given us all a chance, one way or another.

  2. I think it was in Posy Simmonds' Literary Life that the agent shook submissions over the bin before posting them back in order to dislodge hairs planted by the sender...

    Looking for that, I found this: Oh yes, here it is:

  3. So they hadn't even read Posy Simmonds!

  4. I have to admit to having an 'in' with a well known agent. He was very nice about the book, and had put it out to readers. They all found it confusing and one accused it of going on about goblins and gremlins and things without explanation. At the time I mentioned gremlins once and goblins not at all. It's the other way round now. However what I'm saying is that it's fairly clear the person who made that comment had, at best, skimmed it.

    The fact is I didn't expect much. Publishing is very hard to get into. You need an excellent degree and I can't really see an Oxbridge English graduate enjoying my book.

    That said, I still agree with you.



  5. Though publishing has always been difficult (think of Jane Austen never making much money) I am a little nostalgic for the days when, if a publisher saw promise in a writer, he would publish her books until she hit her stride and became popular. Longmans did this with Mary Renault, for instance. That never happens now publishing is a slave to the bottom line.

    Just wait till gremlins become the Next Big Thing. Has to happen eventually...


  6. * Anyone famous for something other than writing
    * Anyone related to someone famous

    It maybe a case of success breeding success.
    I think of SciFi and Fred Hoyle the famous astronomer.
    When in retirement he published science fiction, drawing on his unique expertise in astronomy and astrophysics.
    His son Geoffrey then picked up the baton.

    Lexi, I think you need to knock up a bit of Fabergé and become famous in the jewellery world (if you're not already!), then write a thriller about a jewel thief.

    That would work .... can't wait to read it!

  7. I know successful people can often succeed in several fields - Dick Francis and Jeffrey Archer, for instance. But there are some poor novels out there penned by celebrities, which would never have been published but for their author's name.

    Famous in the jewellery world? Ha! Okay, Q, name three famous contemporary designer/jewellers. Bet you can't name one. (Celebrity 'jewellery designers' like Paloma Picasso and Michael Caine's wife do not count.)

  8. Here I'm relying on Marilyn Monroe singing in her film 'Diamonds are a Girl's Best Friend:

    Black Starr!
    Frost Gorham!
    Talk to me Harry Winston.

    Perhaps she isn't contemporary now but I still watch her films! LOL

  9. Plih.

    Those are commercial firms; they employ designers and craftsmen, (though not designer/jewellers) and none of the people they employ will be known to the public, let alone famous.

    Have you heard of Stephen Webster, who's made jewellery for Madonna among other celebrities here and in America, or Stuart Devlin, a designer/silversmith who redesigned Australia's coinage? They are as famous as it gets. There are famous gardeners, chefs, architects, but not jewellers for some reason.

  10. Humph. I'm feeling a bit exposed now!

    I'd better confess that I know absolutely nothing about designing jewellery.

    But if the field is so bereft of famous talent, isn't that an opportunity? In science we say that "nature abhors a vacuum".

    If it's there to be filled, you should perhaps go for it! Maybe develop contacts in the treasury for redesigning English coinage?

    Gotta speculate to accumulate!

  11. It's not that there is a lack of talent. I'm not sure why jewellers aren't famous. But go back twenty years, and there were no famous gardeners or chefs. Maybe all it would take is one talented jeweller with a flair for self-promotion - or maybe it will never happen, simply because making jewellery is difficult to turn into a television programme...

    Did you know that Monty Don was a successful jeweller before he became a famous gardener on television? We were in the same workshop in Clerkenwell many years ago.

  12. I think that gardening and cooking are very popular hobbies so that radio and TV shows are almost guaranteed an audience.

    I remember listening to Gardener's question time on the radio years ago. I think it must rival the Archers for longest running radio show. I seem to recall that the likes of Geoffrey Smith, Bill Sowerbutts and Professor Allan Gemmell were going strong some twenty years ago. Not sure about cooking though .... my interest there is very basic!

    Cheap jewellery seems to be popular and I notice from craft shows that designing necklaces for example, using semi-precious stones like jet and polished haematite, is extremely popular. Crystals and magnetic minerals also seem popular with the 'alternative healing' community, as a visit to Glastonbury will show.

    I guess it might be the expense of precious metals and gem stones that would deter popular interest in the top end of the market.

    I would have thought, however, that enough interest is available to support a TV show, maybe combining the jewellery with a fashion interest.

    As you suggest, maybe it just needs the right person with suitable charisma, to bring it into high profile.

    Fascinating that you knew Monty Don as a jeweller!

  13. I used to listen to Gardeners' Question Time too. The difference is, I know about Jamie Oliver and Marco Pierre White and Gordon Ramsay without ever having watched their programmes. Now that is fame.

  14. Sorry to be so late, Lexi, but better L than N, as they say.

    My publishable classes (an adaptation of Graham Greene's "torturable classes") are:
    1. Journalists (by far the largest category.
    2. People in publishing.
    3. People with connections in publishing.
    4. Graduates of prestigious creative writing courses.
    5. Celebs (a case apart, but included for completeness).

    The list may not be exhaustive, and needs qualification -- if, for example, you fall into category 2 or 3 but have no talent, then publishers won't be interested. But I set myself a few years ago to find the backgrounds of new novelists, and all came from the above groups.

    I don't blame publishers for ignoring everyone else. It's what I would do in their position. Lacking the time and resources to give every submission serious consideration, they employ a crude filtering mechanism.

    But I take issue with them for lying about it. And I think it shameful that they make money from how-to-write books, when they must know that they will reject sight unseen the work of those who buy them.

  15. Iain! Thank you for that. Honesty seems in short supply in the publishing industry - and I include authors who've had a leg up but attribute their success solely to the brilliance of their writing.