A few weeks ago I went to an event on how to get a book deal at Elle Magazine's cool new soiree space in Soho. They had put together a fantastic panel to discuss the landscape of the publishing industry right now, and all the steps you need to take from finding an agent to putting together a proposal that will get you published. Expertly chaired by Elle's literary editor, Sharmaine Lovegrove, the panel had some wise words for an audience of budding writers. Literary agent, Felicity Blunt, explained how it's important to find an agent whose taste is a good match for your book idea, you can work this out by seeing who their current clients are and what kind of things they write. You need to pick a good agent who will not only work hard to champion your book idea, but who will have clout with publishers and have access to commissioning editors. She said that once the book deal is done, the author shouldn't have to negotiate any business details such as price or what goes on the book jacket, that's her role, though she warned people to be ready to take some criticism from an editor at the publishing house who will want you to change things. Even Margaret Atwood has to do this, apparently, so you can't be precious over your manuscript and expect it to be the final product going out on the shelves.
The panel also featured two success stories – Laura Barnett who has just published her second novel, The Versions of Us, and co-authors Yomi Adegoke and Elizabeth Uviebinene whose forthcoming non-fiction book, the brilliantly titled Slay in Your Lane was fought over by nine different publishers. They had lots of advice for doing your research to get an agent that's right for you, and what you can expect once you're signed. I'm genuinely happy for Yomi and Elizabeth, the story of how they got a deal is so exciting, but I couldn't help feeling a bit jealous that since getting an agent I've not had a nine-way auction over my book (sad lol). This panel definitely left me feeling much more hopeful though, and really excited about the publishing industry as a whole; as a voracious reader and writer I would love to do some work within it. The final panel member was Abigail Bergstrom, who looks after YouTubers' book deals at Gleam Futures. She explained that they are taking a whole fresh new approach by actively looking for influencers with interesting content, and then pitching a book idea to them, that they'll then pitch to publishers. It sounds so interesting, in a digital-focused world where people share so many of their own stories online already, it makes sense to flip the publishing dynamic.
So, in summary – if you're someone with an idea for a novel, you will need to write the whole thing before you pitch to agents, and you need to give them a complete manuscript (Felicity was telling us that people often send her the 'best few chapters' that are all out of sync, and expect her to get it). For non-fiction you don't submit a finished book, it's enough to contact agents with the idea, and a brief introduction of who you are. When I did this to my agent, they replied saying they were interested and wanted a more detailed proposal, which we then discussed at a face to face meeting. You need to be able to sell yourself: what experience do you have? What market competition is there, and what's your USP (unique selling point)? The panel recommended for fiction writers that they know their characters inside out and have a 'bible' for them, with their back story, what they look like, every detail – even if it doesn't make it into the book, you will live and breathe your characters and want to spend time with them.
They also recommended doing research, not just about the industry, but for your book – if it's a historical book, can you write about that era convincingly? Do you know enough about your non-fiction book to be an authority on it? Authenticity came up a lot: are you writing about what scares you or challenges you? Is this your true voice on the page? It also helps to know what publishers are looking for, so networking events, and things like this Elle panel, will help. Shamaine explained to us that right now publishers want warmer, more universal stories, things like the TV show This Is Us that stay with you. Another trend is female empowerment, and stories that reflect the real life culture of women taking on more powerful roles in our society – the Prime Minister, and heads of the Met Police and Fire Brigade are currently all female.
This was a fantastic event, I'd really recommend keeping an eye on Elle's event calendar and going to have a drink in their new space. Side note: everyone was given a fab goody bag (above) with Laura's book and some other bits, including Hippeas! I can't get away from them… good job they're delicious.