The Literary Business
The Literary Business
Jonny Geller (Managing Director - Curtis Brown (Books)) gives expert video advice on: What advice do you have for writers setting out?; How does an agent sell a book to a publisher?; What makes a sellable book? and more...
What advice do you have for writers setting out?
If a writer was to ask me what would be my advice just setting out, I would say probably two or three things. One is: Look at the market. I know that sounds very anti-creative, and I'm not saying that you must write fully to your readers, but there is no point in not knowing what is in bookshops. You need to go into bookshops regularly. Look at the covers and look at the books that are in these 3 for 2 deals. Work out, "Where would my book be? Why?" Ask yourself, "Why would anyone read it?" If you're writing as a hobby, that's great, and you should continue to do so, because writing is a tremendously rewarding thing. But if you're writing to be a published author, you've got to know what you're up against. There is no obligation for anyone to read your book. It can only be done by enthusiasm. If I was a writer, I'd go into bookshops once a week or once a month and look. You're probably a reader anyway, if you're a writer, but you probably shy away from the commercial side of it. The second piece of advice to writers is to understand that story means a certain level of compromise. If you started with an idea in your head that you liked, and the book becomes slightly different, don't keep on pushing it back to that original idea, because it won't work. You have to go with what seems right, rather than what you think is right, and that's where advice is needed.
How much is publishing dictated by trends?
Publishers are very much dictated by trends. What's happened is that the Richard and Judy Book Club on Channel 4 has totally revolutionised publishing, in the sense that a lot of books that didn't fit into categories are being picked by that book club and have done extremely well. We at Curtis Brown have done quite well out of Richard and Judy's Book Club, just by sheer coincidence that we've had seven books in them. I've seen the change it gives to an author's life. What is good about that Book Club is that it's like any book club that is around the country at the moment. It tends to be women; they tend to get together, and they want to read books with good stories and an emotional heart. But they're not easy to categorise. They're not necessarily thrillers or chick-lit, or anything else. They tend to mix everything up. Publishers tend to work in genres. They know how to do crime, they know how to do thrillers and they know how to do historical, but if something's a crossover, then it's a bit of a lottery.
What seperates a successful writer from an unsuccessful one?
What separates success and non-success for writers is very intangible. It's totally down to the writer's perspective. Some see reviews and awards as success and are not worried about sales, and others only want sales through tills. Some only want positions on the bestseller lists; no matter how cheaply these books are given away, they want quantity out. All three positions are perfectly fine but you've got to know what you want, and if you've written a very specific type of work for a specific audience, like fishing in North Wales, that's fine. But you have to understand that's not going to appeal to everybody, but if it gets to the right audience then you've succeeded as a writer.
How does an agent sell a book to a publisher?
The way an agent sells to a publisher, especially with new authors, is a long process. We have to drop the idea of what the author is writing about way in advance to these publishers. We sort of test the literary market. You go out to lunch with an editor and they ask you what's coming up, and you say, "I like this idea - actually it's coming up." If they remember it, they'll e-mail you and say, "Whatever happened to that book?" Meanwhile, you are working on it with the author so you do a slow build and then when you reach the crescendo where the book is ready, hopefully there will be three or four or even more publishers primed. You then hit them with a very, very strong pitch, and a pitch letter which is pretty crucial, because hopefully in that letter, the agent will signal to the publisher how to publish the book, what the marketing lines are, and what the USP - the unique selling point of this book - is, and that's the way they will target the publisher. Then, hopefully, they will get the right level of advance
What makes a sellable book?
One of the big stories of the next few years can make a sellable book. Do you think we've probably seen enough? I've certainly seen enough thrillers with Al-Qaeda in them. They don't sell. They won't sell for a while. There is a boom in historical novels now, but only a certain type of historical novels. It's no good just having a good idea; you have to write really, really strong prose. The voice has to be right. Thrillers are very big books at the moment. Why are they big? They tend to be fantastical. If you look at the huge phenomenon of books over the last few years, whether it's "Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell” or it's "The DaVinci Code" or it's “Lovely Bones” or “The Time Traveller's Wife”, they all have a fantasy element to them; they all have an element of escaping the world. There is a huge hunger for story. And I would pursue that. It's a hard time if you are writing voice driven, poetic, lyrical novels. It's just not that time at the moment.