Myth-busting the Publications Industry; Laura Williams, Literary Agent

“It’s the best job in the world,” Laura Williams, Literary Agent for Greene & Heaton told the members and guests gathered at the Hampshire Writers’ Society November meeting, “I get to work with authors, from day one of their career, until the end of their career.”

“Agents are not out there to take the author’s money,” she says, “and neither are they there to crash your dreams.” Outside the agency, they are super competitive. But, inside they are very forgiving. They talk books all day, swap manuscripts and read unbelievably fast. As agents for authors, they need to get to know all the publishers and booksellers in the industry. They go to book fairs and carry out a huge amount of editing. Laura’s message is that; if her author isn’t happy, she isn’t happy. Myth numbers one and two — busted!

Myth number three: your submission needs to be perfect? No. A bad synopsis will not preclude your submission. Your synopsis should be like a “greatest hits of your book.” The end MUST BE INCLUDED. Your covering letter needs to be polite, to the point and endorse that you know your book thoroughly. Also include a little about yourself. It doesn’t matter that you might have your genre wrong, that is fixable.

It also doesn’t matter who, in the industry, that you know. Laura is keen for us to understand that “It is all about the book.” Myth number 4 — busted!

Until she reads it, Laura sometimes doesn’t know exactly what it is that she is looking for in a manuscript. Her list varies from horror to big love stories that make her cry. As for timing and luck of your submission? The year’s two biggest book fairs take place in March and December. Do not expect an expedient reply if you submit at those times. Also, manuscripts submitted on Christmas Day are not likely to be read until the New Year! “Try three pm on a Thursday in August.” Laura says in jest. But yes, Agents really do read every submission that they receive.

On to myth number six – no, you do not need to live in London. Perhaps this was partly true in times of posting hard-copy manuscripts. Agents travel well and they are eager to try out all other cities. Laura even has clients in Canada.

Myth number seven: it’s about the prizes that you’ve won. It isn’t! A list of the competitions in which you’ve been successful, and your membership of societies (Hampshire Writers’ Society for one) in your covering letter shows that you are serious about your craft. Again, Laura is keen to advise that; “It’s all about the book.”

The same answer shot down myth number eight: it’s essential to have an MA in Creative Writing. There is a plethora of websites offering free advice. The Writers and Artists’ Yearbook is another free resource readily at hand.

Find the “essence” of your book and use that to pitch it in answer to the question, What’s it about? The essence is not always what the book says. All books can be pitched in this way.

Do not write for the market or the current trend. Some trends pass by very quickly, going right out of fashion. It may well be that by the time your novel is to come to fruition, the trend will be long gone. Always write the story that you want to write. If the agent picks it up and the genre isn’t clear; they’ll just “make it up”. And that takes care of myth number nine.

Ten: it’s all in the great writing? It’s a great story that is necessary. If, however the agent suggests a change, it is a good idea to listen. Again, here the agent supports their author. Laura once spent a Sunday afternoon re-writing half of a future client’s manuscript in order to change the point of view; the author did the other half.

What about social media? The agent and the publisher are there to help you through social media. Even if you have no presence on social media at all, it doesn’t matter.

Finally, to number twelve: once you have an agent, you’re set for life! Laura wishes that were true, but unfortunately it is not. Not all books are sold. However, many authors debut is not their first book. In the rare event that the agent is unable to sell your book, they will talk this through with you and together you’ll work out a way forward.

“Carpet bombing may not be quite the right phrase.” Laura says, “But, you get the idea. Send your manuscript to everyone that you want to read it. That’s what she does.”

Literary Agent, Lorella Belli Talks E-books, Publishing and Self-Publishing: an agent’s view

In just over two weeks, Literary Agent Laura Williams will be speaking to Hampshire Writers’ Society. Her talk, Myth-busting the Publications Industry will be live at the Stripe. So, I thought it would be good to resurrect the report of a talk from the Literary Agent, Lorella Belli. Especially as Lorella appears in one of this website’s banner photos, plus it’s Halloween time; resurrecting things is topical!
Lorella talks about the role of an agent regardless of whether the author has chosen to self-publish or the more traditional route of ensnaring the interest of a publisher.
Lorella Belli and Barbara Large
What are the pros and cons of getting a traditional deal or choosing the self-publishing route? In this rapidly changing landscape, what is the role of the agent?
It was Lorella Belli’s ambition to set up her own agency. She set out to know the publishing industry inside out. Her brief to discover ‘new blood’ gave her not just invaluable insider experience but introduced her to many unpublished authors.
‘An agent works for their Author.’ Lorella says. As an agent, her primary concern and something which she feels forms a vital part of the agent/author partnership is; ‘What does the author want from their writing?’
She is the first to declare that the agent’s role in the modern author’s career remains unchanged regardless of chosen route of publication – self or traditional. An area of particular interest is the protection and exploitation of the author’s rights and here, Lorella is well versed and diva.
For the most part, a writer wants readers, they want to see their work in a bookshop. Equally, it is important to recognise the financial aspects of a writer’s career. Both the traditional route and the contemporary self-publishing route provides remuneration, but in different ways.
It is her belief that an agent has a responsibility to be aware of the many platforms of publication available to authors both new and experienced, how those platforms work and therefore be able to fit the author to the best publisher.
Lorella’s agency is vocational towards the needs of an author. There is no room for the agent’s preciousness over writing. ‘So, what if the book is ‘trashy’.’ Lorella says, ‘If the writer is happy, then their readers are happy and so is the publisher.’
An author can retain some control over publishing decisions e.g. the cover even through the traditional route. An informed agent will know to insert such clauses into their contract. Similarly, self-publishing has given the publishing houses some much needed competition – authors now have an alternative.
However, authors must be aware that by choosing the self-publishing route, they are choosing to take on their career in its entirety and inevitably this will cut into writing time. A publishing house provides editing, a marketing department, a sales department and publicity.
The traditional route may seem like it is taking its time, whereas self-publishing can be a whirlwind. Of course, this is after the author has learned all the skills needed to be a publisher.
One huge pro for the appointment of an agent – they get the hurtful rejections! However, an agent of Lorella’s talent will believe in the book and wants to see it published. It is that agent’s job to spot the writer’s talent and therefore their target audience.
It is hugely important that authors remain professional. When an agent is passionate about a book and has an author that they can build on, they will stand more chance of promoting it, even if it does not appear to fit, or is the wrong length.
Even to an agent as talented as Lorella, the next big thing is a mystery. There will always be the wild card – who could have predicted 50 Shades of Grey? However, a writer can keep their eye on publicity to hang on e.g. the Olympics.
As a writer grows more successful, their chosen path can become more complex. Lorella suggests building a team – delegate, remember the AAA (Association of Authors’ Agents) and ask an agent for advice. That is the bottom line of their job – to work for the author.
Lorella Belli
An agent’s website will state what they are looking for. There is no divide between male and female, it is all down to what that agent wants to feel when reading a book. For Lorella, it is what makes her laugh and what makes her cry.
The members present were left in no doubt of Lorella’s message – the agent works for the author, no one else, not themselves, not the publishers. Just the author. They thanked her for her candid, refreshing approach and dependably constant open door

Simon Trewin

SimonTrewinSimon Trewin, Literary Agent, Head of the London Branch of Literary Agency, WME.

Report by Lisa Nightingale

‘Don’t be in a hurry.’ is Simon Trewin’s advice. The Publishing world is slow. In the publishing industry there is movement, but it is often amongst itself. The industry runs the risk of becoming an island of in-breeds.

It is when an idea in a person’s head will not go away until it has been written down that they become an author. Validation of their creativity comes with an agent.

Unfortunately, the publishing industry has taken a path where the writer’s talent is dumbed down by a deal and a big cheque. Publishing has been suffocated by business and as a result, it is more concerned with turnover.

Currently publishers are putting lots of energy into debut authors – not such good news for the author’s future career. This is where your agent comes in. Here Simon gives us some examples of his clients who have much creative genius still bubbling after their first phenomenal success. the-boy-in-th-striped-pyjamas-205x300  the-thief-of-time-n-192x300The agent perseveres with the publishers along with the author’s creative abilities, picks their battles carefully, does all the speculative work and filters through the business issues of the writing/publishing process.

‘When a writer employs the services of an agent, they are buying into a set of tightly honed relationships with the publishing world.’ He says.

‘The world doesn’t need another novel.’ Simon tentatively states. An average reader might buy five books a year. The first four are likely to have been bought under some sort of pressure (Richard & Judy or even the book club’s choice) The fifth book is the one that interests Simon Trewin the Literary Agent. An author needs to make the Agent believe that theirs should be that fifth book. Technology has made that reader’s choice complex. Bookshops have declined and there is nowhere for the reader to browse for their next good read.

‘Do we over-communicate?’ He asks. We share everything using technology. A writer must embrace technology. Engage with Social Media.

Don’t be in a hurry, he repeats. It is not worth trying to hop on the band wagon of what’s trending in novels. Simon believes honesty and hard work is the key to a good relationship with the author. He has learnt tenacity through experience and is pleased to still be learning. An Agent is a good thing to be.

For Simons tips on submitting your manuscript to an agents see our members’ newsletter.

March Competition: Winners and Simon Trewin’s Adjudication

It was a pleasure to welcome Simon Trewin, Head of the London Literary Department of William Morris Endeavours as our adjudicator for March. Simon kindly stepped in when Becky Bagnell had a family emergency.

The number of entries this month was back to a more manageable number, at 27.

I am sure that all of the entrants are thrilled to know that Simon cast his expert eye over their work, a wonderful experience even if they didn’t win. Read Simon’s comments and the winning entries below. His choice of winners is:

1st Place

HOME TO ROOST by DAVID LEA

2nd Place

VOYAGE AROUND MY HEART by LOUISE MORRISH

3rd Place

FAMILY MATTERS by JUSTIN STRAIN

Highly Commended:

FIREBALLS by GILL HOLLANDS

BRITISH LAWNS AN OVERVIEW by CHRISTOPHER YOUNG

Congratulations to all.

Next months competition is:

 

Write a steamy love story. (300 words)

 

The adjudicator will be Alison Spencer, author of Tug of Love, best debut novel, Romantic Novelists’ Association.

Please remember that I have set up an automatic reply informing that your work has got through. I will come back to you ASAP if anything is wrong with your entry.

Keep writing,

Sharon

 

1st Place

Simon Trewin: ‘This felt instantly intriguing and that the author understood the genre from the inside out. HOE TO ROOST sounds like the sort of book as a consumer I would gladly pick off the shelves’

 

HOME TO ROOST by DAVID LEA

‘Home To Roost’ is a Police Procedural set in Hampshire. The story opens with the discovery of a body at a chicken farm – a young woman’s leg wearing a man’s Argyll pattern sock protrudes from the surface of a slurry pit.

The victim, Christiane, is French.

DCI James Gawthorpe leads the enquiry and is attached to the Serious Crime Investigation Unit based in Winchester. Gawthorpe is approaching his fiftieth birthday and the people he has to deal with rarely surprise him any more, whether criminal or police. He has a greyhound called Putin.

Gawthorpe meets PC Effie Makepeace at the scene of the crime. She is thirty-three years old and of mixed race. She is also extremely bright and very attractive. She went to school at Cheltenham Ladies College and speaks with an upper-middle-class English accent. She has joined the police under the auspices of the Police High Potential Development Scheme. All of the above can result in her attracting jealousy, suspicion and prejudice, both inside and outside the force. She also speaks fluent French and Gawthorpe needs her expertise.

As the investigation progresses there is no shortage of possible culprits and they all appear to at have least one of the usual motives – lust, greed, pride, envy and jealousy. Most of them have interconnected lives and motives. Most are also known to Roger Humphry.

Humphry is a grotesquely obese and deeply unhappy man who lives in a large house overlooking the farm. He is a consultant in the technology of surveillance and has hacked into the phones and computers of many of the suspects. He seems to have had a particular interest in Christiane. Effie agrees to meet him and we then fear that she could become the next victim. However, Roger commits suicide, leaving evidence that helps lead to the arrest of the actual murderer.

Although its setting is ‘cosy’, it is realistic in style and references a number of gritty contemporary issues. Apart from ‘whodunit’, the main plot interest is in the development of the major characters and, in particular, the relationship between Gawthorpe and Effie.

 

2nd Place

Simon Trewin: ‘This is bold, ambitious and multi-layered. I knew nothing about Jeanne Baret and this synopsis makes me very intrigued indeed as to how the novel will unfold.’

 

VOYAGE AROUND MY HEART by LOUISE MORRISH

Inspired by true events, ‘A Voyage about My Heart’ is set in the 18th Century and tells the story of Jeanne Baret, the first woman to circumnavigate the globe.

When Jeanne, a humble French herbalist, meets ambitious botanist, Philibert Commerson, the course of her life takes an extraordinary turn.

Commerson is compiling a grand herbarium, a collection of every plant in France, and desires Jeanne’s herbal knowledge. Working closely together, they soon become lovers. But when Jeanne falls pregnant, Commerson, intent on completing his life’s work, forces her to abandon the baby in a foundling hospital.

Clinging to the hope that she will be able to reclaim her baby one day, Jeanne stitches a keepsake into the child’s clothes; a muslin bag of carefully chosen herbs, symbolizing a secret message of love for her son.

But the baby dies within months.

Heartbroken, Jeanne believes she has little to live for. Within weeks, Commerson accepts a position as Ship’s Naturalist on a voyage of exploration around the world, and asks Jeanne to accompany him as his assistant. Seeking to escape her grief and guilt, and with nothing left to lose, she agrees. Disguised as Commerson’s cabin boy, Jeanne sets sail on the Etoile, a lone woman amongst three hundred men.

The crew are suspicious of her, particularly the ship’s surgeon, Vives. Over the next two years Jeanne travels uncharted waters, visiting exotic lands and discovering new plants.

But then the voyage runs into misfortune. Jeanne suffers an assault by Vives, and her secret is discovered.

When the Etoile reaches Mauritius, Jeanne realises she is pregnant. Commerson leaves the ship to work for Pierre Poivre, the administrator of Mauritius and a keen horticulturist. Desperate to escape Vives, Jeanne chooses to stay with Commerson, continuing as his assistant.

Jeanne gives birth to a girl, Stella, but soon after, Commerson dies from an infection. His Will leaves Jeanne enough money to live on, if she can return to France to claim it within a year. Jeanne sells herbal remedies to raise money for her passage home, and finally sets sail for France with Stella.

 

3rd Place

Simon Trewin: ‘This is a compelling premise for a novel and the synopsis fills me with a hunger to know more.’

FAMILY MATTERS by JUSTIN STRAIN

Steven’s family has a secret.

When Steven’s grandfather dies, his family is shocked to learn of an unknown granddaughter, Stella, who lives tucked away in a quiet Cornish village. Compelled to learn more, and searching for a change in his own life, Steven moves to Cornwall to meet Stella.

As Steven and Stella’s relationship grows, Steven begins to understand his history from a different perspective. He unearths the long-buried secret of Stella’s grandmother, Margaret, a wartime heroine, in Nazi-occupied France. Through flashbacks and letters, Margaret’s story gradually unfolds, revealing more about her clandestine work for the Special Operations Executive and her London romance with Steven and Stella’s grandfather, at the time a young seaman in the Royal Navy.

The revelations shake Steven’s beliefs and force him to reconsider his own family ties. Stella confronts him with his estrangement from his sister, his mother and his dying father, and challenges him to rebuild those relationships. Initially reluctant, he comes to realise how much they matter to him. As they begin to forge fragile bonds, Steven learns to accept his family, with both their virtues and their flaws, and to recognise his own responsibility for the divisions between them.

For Stella also, the revelations have far-reaching consequences. As her anonymity dissolves, she is drawn inexorably into the lives of her new-found family. She too begins to question the safety and comfort of her old life and to embrace a changing future, laying to rest her mother’s disastrous marriage and eventual suicide, and coming to terms with her own mental fragilities.

As the novel reaches its climax, Steven and his family confront their differences and the reality of his father’s cancer. A chance meeting with an old friend forces Steven to choose between his self-contained safety and the emotional gamble of committing to a relationship. Meanwhile, Stella discovers the story of Celeste and her brief but passionate love affair with Margaret. Past and present collide in Stella’s old family friend, Irene, and the tragic truth of Margaret’s life, loves and death is finally laid bare.

Lorella Belli – Literary Agent

 E-books, Publishing and Self-Publishing: an agent’s view

What are the pros and cons of getting a traditional deal or choosing the self-publishing route? In this rapidly changing landscape, what is the role of the agent? Report by Lisa Nightingale

It was Lorella Belli’s ambition to set up her own agency. She set out to know the publishing industry inside out. Her brief to discover ‘new blood’ gave her not just invaluable insider experience, but introduced her to many unpublished authors.

Mar 15 Lorella Belli and Barbara Larrge 2_1697‘An agent works for their Author.’ Lorella says. As an agent, her primary concern and something which she feels forms a vital part of the agent/author partnership is; ‘What does the author want from their writing?’

She is the first to declare that the agent’s role in the modern author’s career remains unchanged regardless of chosen route of publication – self or traditional. An area of particular interest is the protection and exploitation of the author’s rights and here, Lorella is well versed and undeniably diva.

For the most part, a writer wants readers, they want to see their work in a bookshop. Equally, it is important to recognise the financial aspects of a writer’s career. Both the traditional route and the contemporary self-publishing route provides remuneration, but in different ways.

It is her belief that an agent has a responsibility to be aware of the many platforms of publication available to authors both new and experienced, how those platforms work and therefore be able to fit the author to the best publisher.

Lorella’s agency is vocational towards the needs of an author. There is no room for the agent’s preciousness over writing. ‘So what if the book is ‘trashy’.’ Lorella says, ‘If the writer is happy, then their readers are happy and so is the publisher.’

An author can retain some control over publishing decisions e.g. the cover even through the traditional route. An informed agent will know to insert such clauses into their contract. Similarly, self-publishing has given the publishing houses some much needed competition – authors now have an alternative.

However, authors must be aware that by choosing the self-publishing route, they are choosing to take on their career in its entirety and inevitably this will cut into writing time. A publishing house provides editing, a marketing department, a sales department and publicity.

The traditional route may seem like it is taking its time, whereas self-publishing can be a whirlwind. Of course this is after the author has learned all the skills needed to be a publisher.

One huge pro for the appointment of an agent – they get the hurtful rejections! However, an agent of Lorella’s talent will believe in the book and wants to see it published. It is that agent’s job to spot the writer’s talent and therefore their target audience.

It is hugely important that authors remain professional. When an agent is passionate about a book and has an author that they can build on, they will stand more chance of promoting it, even if it does not appear to fit, or is the wrong length.

Even to an agent as talented as Lorella, the next big thing is a mystery. There will always be the wild card – who could have predicted 50 Shades of Grey? However, a writer can keep their eye on publicity to hang on e.g. the Olympics.

As a writer grows more successful, their chosen path can become more complex. Lorella suggests building a team, delegate, remember the AAA (Association of Authors’ Agents) and ask an agent for advice. That is the bottom line of their job – to work for the author.

An agent’s website will state what they are looking for. There is no divide between male and female, it is all down to what that agent wants to feel when reading a book. For Lorella, it is what makes her laugh and what makes her cry.

The members present were left in no doubt of Lorella’s message – the agent works for the author, no one else, not themselves, not the publishers. Just the author. They thanked her for her candid, refreshing approach and dependably constant open door.

Special Guests: Moira Blackwell and Liz Nankivel, joint authors of the Binky Bear books

Now on their third title, Binky Goes to London, Lizzy and Moira are completely self-published.

Mar 15 LIz Nankivell & Moira Blackwell _1698Being a parent reader at a local school, Lizzy acquired a good feel for what children like to read. This gave the two women confidence when the traditional publishing route closed to them saying; ‘stories with photograph pictures will not sell.’

As partners, every decision and every woe is shared. As are their venture’s financial commitments. Lizzy advised us that using grants from the European Structural and Investment Funds, they attended locally run business courses.

The two authors keep to a strict business type functionality when making decisions. Once they settled on their chosen format things moved quickly. Within a year they were selling Binky books from a stall at Arlesford. Moira admitted to having to become brazen about their sales – marching into bookshops and asking the manager to put the book on the shelves. ‘When you’ve done it once, it gets easier’, she says. They now have some prestigious outlets including Harrods, Selfridges, Buckingham Palace and Windsor Castle.

Binky Bear is one hundred percent British. He is printed using Cedar Press in Romsey and with the Union Jack branding, Moira and Lizzy now have an opening to sell Binky in Florida.

http://binkybear.co.uk/

Claire Fuller. Author of Our Endless Numbered Days.

Forty-seven year old, mum of two, HWS member Claire refused to be dissuaded from writing when she was advised by a writer less than half her age, who had met her agent at a party and been signed up, that what matters is not what you know, but who you know.

Claire is proud of her writing and enjoyed it. She began an MA in Creative Writing and Our Endless Numbered Days was her dissertation. But she cannot say that her consequent success was secured by the MA. However, she is adamant that a writer should find a good writing group who will critique constructively.

Our Endless Numbered Days was submitted to a lot of agents, many of which Claire did not hear from at all. Her pitch letter stuck rigidly to the requirements stated on the Agent’s website. ‘See it as a job application.’ she advises, ‘If the application is asked for in one way, you would not submit it another.’ She also listed her previous publications which gave her credibility.

The agent that Claire chose wanted a face-to-face meeting. This told her that the agent was checking her out to ensure that she was workable with. It is worth remembering that an agent must sell the author as well as the book.

Once signed, Our Endless Numbered Days was ready for publication in 19 months. Debuts are published in the Spring. Claire’s enviable deal is for one book, so although the publisher is harassing her for book two, she can relax – book two is passed draft one.

Claire and her publisher, Penguin will be hosting a workshop at the Winchester Writer’s Festival this year. We hope that success will not go to her head and she will return to keep us updated on her future successes.

http://clairefuller.co.uk/

May Competition Winners 2014

‘Write a Letter to a Literary Agent – 300 words’

As well as being the main speaker, James Wills very kindly took on the duties of adjudicator. James is a Literary Agent at Watson Little and has a BA in English and Italian, which he said was very useful as he has just come back from the Turin Book Fair. James said that he was passionate about reading and good writing, and urged members to read, read, read.

James’ Adjudication:

1st Prize: Louise Morrish, All Earthly Things

“An extremely good letter and, in my eyes, the obvious winner. It does everything a good covering letter needs to do and does so with ease. Clear, concise and professional in tone but just enough intrigue to make me want to read more. It’s a good title, a nice set up and a great setting for a story. Most importantly, the letter makes me want to read this book.”

Dear Mr Wills

I am currently seeking an agent for my novel, ‘All Earthly Things’. The novel is set in the First World War and tells the story of a young woman, Mary, who disguises herself as a soldier in order to follow her twin brother who has been conscripted. The novel follows Mary’s experiences in the horror of the trenches, her struggle to survive the Battle of Messines, and her subsequent escape.

In 2012 I completed the Faber ‘Write A Novel Online’ course, during which I wrote my first novel, ‘Beyond the Pale’, which I am currently self-publishing. I have recently finished another Faber course: ‘Exploring Genre’. A few years ago I wrote a series of non-fiction children’s books in collaboration with another author, which were published by Wayland. I have also twice won first prize in the Alton Wordfest short story competition.

I have attached the first 10,000 words of my novel and a synopsis for your consideration. I am submitting my novel to a number of other selected agents, but I will of course inform you if I receive any interest.

I look forward to hearing from you soon,

Louise Morrish 1st and Louise Taylor 3rd
Louise Morrish & Louise Taylor

2nd Prize: Michael Mortimore, The Troll Patrol

“A lively, fun letter that neatly captures the off-beat nature of the title. It seemed evident to me you enjoyed writing this letter and that made me want to read it too – well done”

Dear James Wills,

You requested an off-beat, quirky, and thrilling character driven story – I am delighted to present you with just that – The Troll Patrol. The book is 37,000 words, aimed at middle readers (8-12 years), and ends in such a way that it could form the basis for a series.

The novel is loosely based on The Little Mermaid by Hans Christian Andersen – a story of what it is to be free and to be able to choose how to live … but there are no beautiful mermaids in this modern twist … Becky is a troll. She’s the new girl at school, different, cool – Pete, Harry, and Johnny like her immediately. She gives them a new theme for their secret club. She gives them ‘The Troll Patrol’. This is a story of friendship, but will anyone want to be Becky’s friend when they discover her secret? The slime, the snot, the warts … not to mention all the bogies!

My previous writing experience is The Karma Kid (2nd Prize Writing for Children 2012, Winchester Writers’ Conference) and a YA novel, A.D.A.M. I have worked for a small publisher on another project recently with respect to illustration and also designed the official website – including all the non-fiction material on mythology, original artwork, and the very popular ‘Goblin Maker’ game.

I believe that children’s books should have a moral or defining quality that excites the imagination – even books with lots and lots of snot!

It goes without saying that I would be delighted should you wish to read the full MS and I very much look forward to hearing from you.

Yours sincerely

3rd Prize: Louise Taylor, How to Cook on Safari

“A good letter that clearly demonstrated your passion for the book and for East Africa. For future reference, I’d try to keep to your covering letter to one page, but that’s easily fixed – well done.”

Dear James,

I was hoping you would read the first 10,000 words of my novel, HOW TO COOK ON SAFARI.

In colonial Kenya, during the decades spanning its 1920s heyday to the Mau Mau rebellion of the 1950s, Cecilia, a young British woman, acquires a female friend and lover, a husband and, ultimately, a child. But who are the child’s parents and why does Cecilia reveal their identity only through the pages of a memoir she leaves behind after her death half a century later?

An earlier draft was long-listed in Mslexia’s 2013 competition for novels by unpublished female writers. The book, which I think falls into the historical literary genre, grew out of several visits to east Africa. As well as the game reserves, I spent many fascinating hours visiting Karen Blixen’s house, now a museum; getting sunburnt on a boat on lake Naivasha while trying to spot some of the old colonial houses that can still be seen in the area; and learning about the Mau Mau uprising at the Nairobi national museum.

Although a lawyer by profession, I have an MA in Creative Writing from Winchester University. One of my short stories was short-listed in the 2012 Writers’ and Artists’ Yearbook / Arvon short story competition and, in the same year, a travel piece set in Africa was third in BBC Wildlife’s travel writing competition. My poetry has appeared in various publications, most recently in the May 2014 issue of Synaesthesia.

I enclose the first 10,000 words and a single page synopsis as Word attachments to this email.

Thank you for your time.

Highly Commended: Gill Hollands, Slingshot

“A good, clear letter. I like the fact that you acknowledge that this could be a series but do not presume so, and that it works as a standalone book. This is my pick for “highly commended” letter since you sent two letters and it’s always best to pick your strongest work when submitting to an agent.”

The prizes were books supplied by P&G Wells, together with a signed Certificate of Adjudication.

The competition secretary, Jim Livesey thanked James for doing such a great job of adjudication, and we know that getting this kind of feedback is something our members very much appreciate. 1st prize winner, Louise Morrish said that this was only her second visit to the HWS, and she was thrilled to have won and thanked the committee for all their hard work.

Questions and Answers with James Wills

James Wills - May 14

Points raised by the questions:

  • Check the agent’s website for submission guidelines and do what they say! Emails are acceptable.
  • Yes, you can contact multiple agents, but be courteous enough to let them know you are doing this, and inform them should you accept an offer; it is very annoying for an agent to spend a weekend studying an author’s work only to find on the Monday that another offer had been accepted the week before.
  • Are literary agents getting fewer submissions due to the rise of self-publishing? No, they are getting more!
  • Has self-publishing affected literary agents? Not really; the agent’s search for serious writers continues.
  • Can the self-published book get the attention of an agent? It can, but it does depend on the degree of success and other factors.
  • Will agents be impressed by a web presence? Broadly, yes; but if you are not good at website creation then get experienced help.
  • What percentage of a book is read by an agent? This depends – enough to make a decision!
  • Do sub-editors have the right qualifications and skills?       Yes, if you pick the right one for your book!
  • What about copyright protection of the MS? Usually quite adequate, but in the event of an infringement the AAA may be able to help.
  • What about the contradictory comment and advice an author gets from different agents? Comments will always be subjective, but are worth analysing and absorbing.
  • Often, “rules” of how to write a novel are offered. When so many classic novels break these apparent rules, can they be valid? There are no real rules, but you need to understand what you are attempting.
  • Must we write purely for commercial appeal? Best to immerse yourself in what is going on at the time and understand what is popular and why, but do not simply duplicate.
  • Is the selection of children’s books for publication purely commercially driven? Are themes of sex and violence creeping in too much? Editors of children’s books are lovely people, but with the changing times slightly darker themes will inevitably creep in.
  • Are the first and last sentences really key? No – but they are a good start!
  • If a book has not grabbed the reader by the throat by the 5th page, will it be binned? Probably, unless you have effectively set the scene by then.
  • Would works of acknowledged genius, if submitted today, get published? If it is not what the intern is looking for, it probably will not.       Newspapers try this out periodically, but fail to appreciate that publishing is market-driven.
  • Should I complete the book before trying for an agent? If fiction, absolutely.
  • Will an agent dump a book after reading just one sentence?  Such brutality is very rare, but the reputation is worth having!

 

Some general questions from the membership then followed, and James had the following comments:

  • Do not go to an agent who asks for money to read your MS.
  • Are there any truly taboo subjects for thrillers? Yes; truly appalling sexual violence etc.       Discuss your intentions with your agent.
  • How long should an author allow for a response from an agent?       This depends on the time of year, Watson Little try to be under 4 months. A polite nudge is acceptable if you have been waiting for far too long.
  • Some agents ask for 3 chapters; how much material do they think they will get for that? Some people do write with short chapters; use common sense and send 30-50 pages as you believe will do the job.
  • Do film and TV tend to use adaptations or fresh material? Literary agents usually have associates who handle these options; check the agent’s website carefully.

James Wills at the HWS May 13th 2014

Report by David Eadsforth

Gary Farnell opened the meeting and explained that Barbara Large, who would normally manage proceedings, was absent on family business. Gary explained that tonight had a particularly full agenda. First, there would be a number of HWS announcements, to be followed by His Worship the Mayor of Winchester, who would provide an outline of his work during his term of office, which was due to end shortly. Then James Wills, of Watson Little, would talk about why a literary agent was still needed in the digital age, and finally the results of the monthly competition would be announced.

HWS Announcements

First, an award had to be presented to Rebecca Laurence for her poem “Fossils” , as Rebecca had been absent on the night in question. Then Cat Randall, chair of “Big Up Words” announced that a poetry festival would be held on the 24th May in Romsey. Cat explained that there would be 100 prizes of volumes of Slam Poetry and a reading by Teapot Percolator. She also gave initial notice of a Youth Anthology event which is planned to take place in Andover. Further details would be found on the site: http://www.bigupwords.co.uk

Celia Leofsy announced her debut novel “The Company of Goblins”. Celia thanked Jenny Knowles of Little Knoll Press for having made this possible. Against a projected image of a book cover drawn by 11 year old Emily, Celia explained that this book was the first of a trilogy featuring twelve-year old Izzy Green, who battles against the ambitions of the goblins who want to take over the world. Celia has drawn on Anglo-Saxon and Norse mythology in the creation of the story and the book launch will take place at Waterstones at West Quay, Southampton on the 12thJune between 17.00 and 19.00.

Anne Sherry announced the availability of her book “Safe Passage”, the writing of which has dominated her life for the last two years. Anne was prompted to write the book after facing the problem of what to do with her huge cache of travel journals, and in going through these she rediscovered a lost world. “Safe Passage” is Anne’s story, which she subtitles “The Human Face of Dementia”. Anne self-published, which had high costs in both money and time, but this enabled her to maintain the level of control she wanted. Alzheimer’s Research UK encouraged Anne to continue with self-publishing when the going got tough and helped with publicity.

James Wills, Literary Agent, Watson Little and the Right Worshipful the Mayor and Mayoress of Winchester, Cllr Ernie Jeffs and Mrs Barbara Jeffs.
James Wills, Literary Agent, Watson Little and the Right Worshipful the Mayor and Mayoress of Winchester, Cllr Ernie Jeffs and Mrs Barbara Jeffs.

Gary then introduced Cllr Ernie Jeffs, the Right Worshipful the Mayor of Winchester, and revealed that Winchester had the second oldest Mayoralty in England.

Cllr Ernie Jeffs started by answering the question in everyone’s minds; the oldest mayoralty in England was, of course, London. Cllr Jeffs recounted how he had attended the Winchester Writers Conference of 2013, and had been most impressed by the advice that Julian Fellowes had had to offer. He also noted that Barbara Large had run the conference for 33 years before handing over, and hoped that 2014 would go well.

As a result of praiseworthy research, we now have a list of the mayors of Winchester from the year 1200, he was the 814th, and was very proud to have been elected to the office. The Mayor has the use of a house in Winchester, one which has neither bedroom nor bathroom, and is used mostly for meetings. However, Cllr Jeffs was very keen for the public to use it as well as the city officials. The house was built on the site of an abbey founded by the wife of Alfred the Great and existed until the dissolution of the monasteries under Henry VIII. In 1889, Winchester City Council bought the house for £5,500, and its use is now largely ceremonial.

The duties of the mayor are considerable, and can involve up to 500 events per year. Over the Christmas period, he attended 22 carol services and 5 nativity plays. Regarding the latter, he had been advised to attend the dress rehearsals, the parents’ evenings generally being prone to descend into chaos, and so he did, although at one of these Baby Jesus was continually dropped on the ground by a somewhat maternally-inexperienced Virgin Mary. He had also led support for a number of charities; Help for Heroes, the Countess Mountbatten Charity, and the Scouts of Winchester. The last event he would attend would be a concert to be held at St. Swithuns at 19.00 on the 24th of May (to be preceded by a picnic) and for which tickets were widely available.

Referring to Winchester’s place in the literary world, Cllr Jeffs mentioned Jane Austen, who spent her final time in Winchester before her premature death, and who now has a splendid memorial in Winchester Cathedral. Thomas Hardy mentions Winchester in “Tess of the D’Urbervilles” and was reputed to have based his heroine on Mrs Hamo Thornycroft, the wife of the sculptor of Alfred’s statue in Winchester. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle also wrote three stories in Winchester. And of course the Winchester Bible, now conserved in the cathedral, is Winchester’s oldest book, having been created between 1160 and 1175.

The Right Worshipful the Mayor and Mayoress of Winchester, Cllr Ernie Jeffs and Mrs Barbara Jeffs
The Right Worshipful the Mayor and Mayoress of Winchester, Cllr Ernie Jeffs and Mrs Barbara Jeffs

Two books about Winchester have impressed Cllr Jeffs: “The Bloody History of Winchester” the launch of which he hosted in December 2013, and “Time Gentlemen Please” about Winchester pubs. Cllr Jeffs admits he was “rubbish” at English at school, preferring maths and science, and eventually becoming an engineer. However, as an engineer he had to write proposals and reports, and frequently had to correct those of others. Cllr Jeffs ended by thanking the University for its support of the HWS and said again what a huge privilege it had been to be Mayor of Winchester.

James Wills then took the stage and launched into his talk on “Do I need an agent in the Digital Age”. His immediate answer to this, surprisingly perhaps, was ‘no’. Do we wrap up now? he asked the members. However, he then went on to ask the members how many possessed electronic readers, and also took a rough poll of those who wrote fiction and those who wrote non-fiction. Twenty years ago, self-publishing used to be termed ‘vanity publishing’ but this was no longer the case. So, do you need an agent today? After all, the agent often seems to be a gatekeeper, all too often preventing your book being published. James then made the all-important point; do you, as an author want to write or do you have to write? There is a huge difference in mentality between these two groups of authors, and he is interested in the 25% or so who simply have to write. So, when it comes to the question of how writers get an agent to represent them, a big part of it is to realise that the agent wants to do more than simply push an author’s book to publishers; the agent wants to help the passionate.

Career management of the thoroughly committed is the ultimate aim of the agent. If an author can transmit the passion for his work to the agent, then the agent in turn can transmit that passion to the publisher, and the commissioning editor can in turn transmit that passion to the Acquisition Meeting. Editors now have accountants and marketing people to contend with; the book is no longer the end of the debate, possibilities are now the emphasis – possible film, TV, and theatre, and project momentum is the key. Most authors will not be an all-rounder – there are very few like Stephen Fry (although Stephen Fry does have an agent…) – most authors should be allowed to get on with what they do best: write.

Becoming a good writer depends for a great part on being a good reader. You, as a writer, should read as much as you can. Even though you might wish to ‘do something new’ you have to know the rules before you can break them; all too often the ‘great new idea’ painstaking developed by an author will turn out to have been done before; possibly many times. You will not be contaminated by reading: you must want to learn. If you want to write children’s stories then buy some and see how others achieve their effect. Research! Talk to people! Successful authors actively monitor and absorb the trends.

Regarding the approach to be made to an agent, if you do not plan this sufficiently you are very likely to suffer a rebuff. Watson Little handles a very wide range of subjects, and it is important that you find the correct agent for your book. When making an approach, avoid doing, or stating, anything that might put off the agent. Be concise, professional, and passionate. The slush pile can also be the talent pool, but you have to do what is necessary to float to the surface. In short, an agent wants to manage the career of their charge, in good times and in bad, so you have to be worth managing.

A question and answer session was then conducted with James answering quick-fire questions from the members to finish. Please see the separate blog for James’ question and answers.

Gary thanked James for his fascinating and very useful talk and then handed over to Jim Livesey for the competition results.

Madeleine Milburn, literary agent, at the HWS

report by Carole Hastings

Chairman Barbara Large set the scene for an interesting evening. She congratulated Kirsty Whittle, winner of two competitions at the Winchester Writers’ Conference in 2011 and co-author of Journeys and What-not, for making it to the last eight in the Macmillan “Write Now” competition for Young Adult fiction. The winner’s book will be published later this year and is yet to be decided…

Pippa from the West Meon Festival talked about their festival of books taking place July 11-14.  The have a workshop and a great line-up of speakers – Michael Morpurgo, Kate Mosse, Elizabeth Buchan, Jane Gardam and many others.  Checkwww.westmeonfestival.co.uk for details.

Madelaine Clark publisher of the new New Writer Magazine explained how she and her partner Alison Glinn took over the magazine when the previous editor wanted to retire after 113 issues.  They have injected new life into it, extending the remit to attracting writing groups, developing it as a sister magazine to the their other publication New Books.  They gave everyone a copy and encouraged people to subscribe at a special price of £18 per year.  Check the newwriter.com and newbooksmag.com.

Madeleine&Barabara (2)David Eadsforth introduced Madeleine Milburn of the eponymous literary agency who shared a thought provoking presentation.  Madeleine started her career at AP Watts 10years ago.  The agency is the oldest in the UK and represents highbrow writers such as Zadie Smith and Sebastian Barry who are less prolific than many of the more commercial authors she handled when she made the move to Darley Anderson.  Here Madeleine built her own list of authors in the female fiction, young adult and children’s genres.  These moved with her to her own agency and she works closely with all 25 of them and is branching into crime and thrillers.

The digital age has seen a 66% increase in 2012 of books being read on e-readers amounting to £3.34 bn and just a small slippage on physical books of 1% £2.9 bn so overall more people are reading these days.

Her advice to all writers is to try to get an agent before you consider self-publishing as although self-publishers have control of their book they have no advantages that a publisher brings such as editing, marketing, publicity, advance, editing costs, advance. Also low sales of a self published book may put off prospective agents.

An agent will always fight your corner and give you editorial guidance whilst pitching, networking and negotiating rights in other media and overseas.  Publishers are interested in international best sellers and agents can facilitate this.  She recommended that all writers blog, tweet, network, constantly self promote and be prepared for editorial criticism.

Madeleine looks for a hook, the most powerful voice, authentic characters, excellent dialogue, a good backstory with the minimum “telling”.  She expects a three chapter submission to be well presented with a one page synopsis covering who, when, what, where.  Titles need to make sense or be very different e.g. The Hunger Games, Before I Go to Sleep, Lovely Bones etc.  Full manuscripts should be available if requested.  She tends to get back to writers within a day or so, if she loves their writing, but receives 30-40 submissions a day.
She encouraged writers to develop a pitch that sells their story by checking out back of book blurbs and testing pitches by tweeting to keep them succinct.  Distill a paragraph into sentence to help focus the pitch.  Think of a different angle to your book.  Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn is a no 1 best selling thriller with an unreliable narrator that holds a reader’s attention throughout.

It is important to approach agents that you think is on your wavelength, so research is key – their websites, Facebook, bookseller, festivals etc will all help.  Send your work to 4-5 suitable agents at once.  Your covering letter needs to be positive and conversational with the aim to pitch your book by introducing yourself, saying why you think that agency is right for you.  Tell them what you are in the process of writing next.  All Madeleine’s writers produced stunning letters that accompanied unsolicited submissions!  Publishers need to know you have a book a year or at least every eighteen months in order to outlay advances and promotion funds.

Currently short story anthologies aren’t selling well but some publishers are using their popular authors to write digital shorts to build their names in between novels.  Some booksellers will not sell short story collections at all.
Key tips for successful agent catching:
Join writing groups
Attend festivals and book fairs

Follow agents on social media

Digest The Bookseller & Publishers Weekly

Read writing magazines

Go to writing retreats

Read best selling books

Study trends

She advised that poetry needs to be pitched directly to publishers these days.
The talk was exceptionally useful for anyone who seriously wants to be published.