London SYP Speaker Meeting: The author’s experience

Posted on August 28, 2008 in Uncategorized

Most people who work in publishing would agree that we’d have a bit of a problem without the authors, though we may curse them at times, so the SYP’s speaker meeting on the author’s experience gave an essential insight into the other side of the publishing process.

Our speakers for the evening were Marie Phillips, author of Gods Behaving Badly, Marina Fiorato, author of The Glassblower of Murano and Anthony McGowan, author of several books, including Hellbent and The Bare Bum Gang books.
Marie was first to take the floor. She told us that she had worked as a bookseller before getting published, and thus had had an insight into the harsh realities of seeking a book-deal, through meeting reps and seeing how books sold on a day-to-day basis. ‘I didn’t have high expectations,’ she said, ‘I was prepared for it not to be a success.’
But Marie was pleasantly surprised by the fast route to publication that her book had. One of her first submissions of Gods was un-agented and un-solicited, to Jonathan Cape. A rep that she knew gave her a name to send it to, and that was all it took. The editor emailed back the next day, asking to see the rest of the manuscript and, having read it over the weekend, made an offer for it on Monday.
At this point, Marie got an agent to guide her through the contracting side of the process and rights, about which, she told us, ‘I have no idea!’ The healthy advance that Jonathan Cape made to Marie could have prompted her to go to other publishers and haggle for more money, but what really impressed her was that ‘the whole team’s enthusiasm for the book was so evident, and to see this genuine enthusiasm made me feel that they would understand and publish the book properly.’
So no complaints about Cape or Vintage – ‘from editorial support to covers, I felt that I was being consulted at every stage and that my concerns were taken seriously.’ She was happy with everything that happened at each stage of the process, her expectations were managed well, the publicity outstripped what she expected, and although she wasn’t completely convinced about the paperback cover, she felt that the team had earned her trust, and so agreed to it.
However, it was a different story with her US publishers. ‘They were nice people, but I felt that at every stage they did everything wrong. From the cover, to blogs that didn’t have the right traffic, to promoting it as chick lit when it was actually comedy fantasy.’
‘But in Greece,’ Marie concluded, ‘I didn’t even know it was coming out at all! I only found out because my brother’s friend found a copy when he was there on holiday!’
Next to speak was Marina Fiorato. She had a very different experience of being published, in that it happened first in continental Europe, then the UK, then the US. She also had ‘no frame of reference,’ and ‘wrote most of the book over the head of a breast-feeding baby,’ or ‘doing a Rowling’ (taking your baby to a coffee shop and attempting to write the novel there).
Once the novel was finished, the next step was to send it to someone who knew about the publishing process, as only her husband had read it up to this point. Luckily she had a friend who was an author, who advised Marina to send the book to an agent. She gave Marina the name of four agents – ‘who she told me were the best agents in London’ – which gave Marina the advantage over other authors, who may tend to ‘go to the Writers’ and Artists’ Yearbook and start from A.’  
Apparently, the first agent hated it, which was discouraging, but the other agents asked to see the rest of the book. ‘Two of them were nothing but positive, but the third was more prescriptive – she asked me to work more on one strand of the story.’ Marina chose to go with this agent, as ‘she seemed to really know the novel and have the editorial impetus. It was more work, but it was worth it.’
The second draft was finished in time for the 2006 Frankfurt Book Fair, and was sold on the first day in something of a bidding war between three German publishing houses. At the end of the week, it had also been sold to Spain and Holland. ‘Then nothing happened for two years – the UK didn’t want it. It was rejected by pretty much everyone. None of my friends could read the book – I don’t think they believed me!’
Marina’s UK break came when one of her friends met a publisher at a wedding and got his business card – he happened to be the MD of Beautiful Books. She duly emailed the book to him, and happily he immediately loved it and wanted to buy it. ‘Then things snowballed and the US picked it up the following week.’
Marina went on to talk about the marketing of her book in Germany in the UK. In Germany it cross-marketed in conjunction with a chain of shoe shops. ‘I have no idea why, but it seemed to work!’ And in the UK, Lalique, the prestige glass and crystal makers sponsored her book tour, hosted the launch party, ‘and even made me the glass heart pendant that appears in the book, as well as bringing out an accompanying range of glass hearts.’
Author, Anthony McGowan was the last to share his thoughts on working with publishers. In the 1990s, Anthony McGowan was, he told us, ‘a failed academic and philosopher writing David Lodge-style books.’ Then he started writing what was to become his first young adult book (though the audience he had in mind at the time wasn’t specifically young adults), about a teenage boy who dies and goes to hell, loosely based on Dante’s Inferno. About three-quarters of the way through writing, he sent it off to various publishers – ‘I got loads of rejections, most of them not even personalised.’
‘So I became a woman instead!’ The slightly bemused audience were soon enlightened, as Anthony described how he wrote chick lit under a female pseudonym in order to get published, succeeding in securing a book deal in both the UK and the US. ‘It was good financially, but I couldn’t tell anyone! But I got an agent as a man off the back of this.’
Anthony’s agent sent off his young adult book, but it was still rejected, and she told him to write something sensible instead. This led to an adult book deal at Hodder and Stoughton for his novel Stag Hunt, which was well-received, ‘and then the paperback came out. Tesco bought 40 000 copies, but the barcode was wrong and they sent all the stock back!’
After writing six books and working with six different editors, Anthony went back and sold his original young adult book to Random House, who made him take out the swearing and explicit content, at which point he discovered that he was a teenage writer, and has been doing it ever since!
Anthony’s advice about becoming an author was ‘don’t! It’s sheer chance and you can’t plan it as a career. Though it’s still wonderfully satisfying.’
The audience were then invited to ask questions. Inevitably, the first question was an attempt to discover which female author Anthony is, but he refused to divulge, though he did confirm that he is not Belle De Jour!
Our authors were asked what were other annoying things that editors often do or say. Marie told us that the fact that the US publishers didn’t trust her sense of humour and wanted to Americanise the book even though it is set in London, ‘by changing things like “a pensioner with a tartan shopping trolley” to “a senior citizen with a plaid shopping cart”. I felt that my ethnicity was being attacked! You wouldn’t ask an Indian author to refer to chapati as bread.’
Marina had had a similar experience with celebrity culture – references to Robbie Williams and Chelsea had to be changed in her book, as the US wouldn’t have understood them. Anthony said that not caring about his advice on covers was one of the most annoying things that he had encountered.
Next up was ‘now you are published, what’s life like?’ Marina spoke about her two book deal – ‘the second book is like the difficult second album. The publisher want something fairly similar; you can’t go crazy and write something really different, but you need to bring out something fresh.’
Marie ‘deliberately chose something very different for my second novel – no gods, nothing supernatural, not based in North London!’ Her editors were hands-off and told her not to worry, to leave it as late as possible and bring it to them when she was ready.
The authors were asked if they were all writing full-time, and how they managed to structure this. Marie said that ironically, although she is officially writing full-time, she actually writes less that she used to. Previously, she could chose to write on some days and not on others, but now she has to balance events with writing. She tries to write every morning and deal with admin in the afternoon, ‘and I still can’t get it done! No wonder it took Donna Tartt seven years to write her second book – she probably spent six years doing admin!’
Marina also writes full-time, but had a three-year-old and a five-year-old, so has to balance her writing around her children and filling in US tax forms in spare minutes. She also spoke of the ‘strange but lovely fractured time-frame’ that she is working to – Germany are in the process of buying her third book, Beautiful Books are working on her second book, and she is in the process of writing the fourth.
Anthony has been writing full-time for ten years, ‘but I spend about four hours a day googling my own name!’