How to get your first novel published
We've all heard it said: everyone has at least one book in them. "And that's where they should stay," I am told by an experienced "reader" - readers being the people a literary agency employs to read the thousands of unsolicited manuscripts sent in every year. In the publishing business, they call this collection the "slush pile".
But occasionally a new author is plucked from total obscurity and launched as a "hot" new discovery. Such success gives other budding authors hope that one day a publisher will discover them too, and so begin an exciting new chapter in their life.
That's what has just happened to Stephen Kelman, an unemployed 33-year-old, who had no contacts or experience of the publishing world and sent his manuscript on spec to a few agents more in hope than expectation.
But then, remarkably quickly, he heard back from one. Jo Unwin loved his work; together they honed the novel's structure and then... bingo! His book, Pigeon English, was the subject of a bidding war between twelve of the country's top publishers, resulting in a six-figure advance, international sales and a two-book deal. (You can hear me talking to Stephen Kelman on the Today programme here and see Jo Unwin's profile at Conville and Walsh here.)
So, how did he do it? I spoke to Ms Unwin and others in the publishing industry, who had this advice:
• Only write a book if you feel really, utterly, compelled to. It takes great commitment and is long, laborious work that will probably never see the light of day.
• Don't submit your whole manuscript, just a synopsis and the first three chapters.
• Be different. Publishers are always looking for new ideas and approaches.
• The words, it won't surprise you to hear, matter. Polish and hone.
• Find out what the agent's taste is before sending a manuscript. If they specialise in historical non-fiction, they won't be remotely interested in a contemporary novel about rock music - however good it is.
• Do not give up the day job. The average advance for a previously-unpublished writer is £5,000, which is also likely to be not far off your annual income as an author.
• You've heard it before, but write from experience. Stephen Kelman did.
• Be realistic. Over 133,000 new books were published last year; why will yours stand out?
• Don't write a trilogy and send it in. This happens!
Stephen Kelman's experience was a bit like an accumulator bet coming off: the odds were very long and involved an unlikely series of events all falling into place: being picked from the slush pile, finding an agent willing to invest six months helping to shape the book, having twelve publishers vying for your signature, securing a six-figure contract and then selling it to a further ten countries. That's unusual.
And of course, being published is only the first step. Next is the dual pressure of hoping the book sells and the dreaded "second novel". And I don't want to be a downer, but for every JK Rowling there are thousands of AN Others.