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How to get your first novel published

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Will Gompertz | 14:55 UK time, Thursday, 18 February 2010

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".

ManuscriptsBut 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:

 &nbsp• 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.
 &nbsp• Don't submit your whole manuscript, just a synopsis and the first three chapters.
 &nbsp• Be different. Publishers are always looking for new ideas and approaches.
 &nbsp• The words, it won't surprise you to hear, matter. Polish and hone.
 &nbsp• 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.
 &nbsp• 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 The average advance for a previously-unpublished writer is £5,000, which is also likely to be not far off your annual income as an author.
 &nbsp• You've heard it before, but write from experience. Stephen Kelman did.
 &nbsp• Be realistic. Over 133,000 new books were published last year; why will yours stand out?
 &nbsp• 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.

Be lucky.

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  • Comment number 1.

    Will asks - "How to get your first novel published"?

    Own a publishing company, be related to a footballer etc. etc. It is not what you know, or how well you express yourself, but who you know - remember the son (or daughter) also rises (see the BBC for confirmation!)

  • Comment number 2.

    Looks like Peter Mandelson to me.

  • Comment number 3.

    Why don't you talk about the people/publishers who exploit those who have the 'fame' desire and charge a fee to submit work for publication. I know for a fact it happens in the photo world. They talk about admin and return costs but its how they make money, photo art books don't sell. Only one person wins so its gambling . Also many refuse to view work unless you pay a fee. Its a feudal situation, any regulation ? not that I know of - does it come under gaming law ?

    Do you wish to highlight this little problem Mr Gompertz ?

  • Comment number 4.

    I had one book in me, and I didn't want it to stay in me. So, naively I wrote the thing and proceeded to do everything contrary to your advice.
    Thanks to your piece, I've uncovered why I slipped to the bottom of the "slush pile", from thence to recyling, and from thence to someone's garden fertilizer.
    Good on you, Stephen Kelman, being unemployed, no contacts, etc. I'm not a pinch jealous, not at all: I'm covered head to toe, black & blue, from pinches.

  • Comment number 5.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • Comment number 6.

    I'm sure it takes more than luck to be discovered. The story must be intriguing enough. I wish the article had described what his book is about. There are many routes to get a book published, for example self-publishing. Sadly very few self-published books are visible to the mess regardless of their values. I can think of one excellent example of an inspiring self-published novel called 'Somewhere carnal over 40 winks'. I was 'lucky' to stumble upon the book. Does anyone know the places on the net where I can find brilliant self-published books? They deserve attention as much as the well-known.

  • Comment number 7.

    PIGEON ENGLISH is the story of five months in the life of twelve year old Harrison Opoku. Newly arrived from Ghana, he lives on an estate with his mother and sister, where he skips through his new life, blissfully unaware of the very real threat all around him. With equal fascination for the local gang, the Dell Farm Crew, and for the different shapes of Haribo, Harrison tries to get used to England, watching, listening, and merrily attempting to learn the tricks of inner-city survival. But when he and his friend, Dean Griffin, see the police tape around a dead boy, they start a murder investigation of their own, and the Dell Farm Crew are not amused…

  • Comment number 8.

    surely most writers have only one book in them.


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