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UCL Alumni Professional Networking Event: How to get a book published

By Guest Blogger, on 12 October 2011

Emily Everett, UCL alumna (English Language & Literature 2008) reports on last week’s Alumni Professional Networking event: How to get a book published.

The short answer? Write a good one. That was best-seller Ken Follett’s first piece of advice, and it was quickly seconded by the rest of the experts on UCL’s all-star publishing panel. But they also seemed to agree that it isn’t always quite that simple – so they shared insider advice on how to bridge that colossal gap between aspirant writer and published author.

Some people dream of seeing their name in lights; I’ve always dreamed of seeing mine in Waterstones. When I heard of this event, I hoped it might be the catalyst I needed to actually get started with the process. As a teenager I knew I wanted to be a writer, but I eventually talked myself into more modest dreams that came with higher success rates. It was heartening to see that so many other UCL alumni share the same pipe dream, and encouraging to hear that there might yet be hope for us in the world of publishing.

Together, the panellists represent all aspects of the publishing process – successful authors and UCL alums Ken Follett and Joanna Briscoe, literary agent Luigi Bonomi and Bloomsbury Publishing’s Editor-in-Chief, Alexandra Pringle. Follett and Briscoe discussed how they first entered the business, and answered many questions about their writing and editing processes. Both agreed that you have to be willing to write, rewrite and rewrite again to please agents and editors, and stressed the importance of having honest and critical friends to read your work.

After explaining that his small agency receives roughly 5,000 submissions a year (of which they might work with only 10), Bonomi explained why first impressions are so important for an agent. “It has to hit us very quickly,” he warned, “within the first two to three pages.” Bonomi also gave a list of literary submission ‘Don’ts’ that had us all scrambling for a pen to take notes – he said agents cringe at single-spaced, double-sided manuscripts (if you want to save paper, this isn’t the field for you), and probably won’t read a page of your book if you give it all away in your submission letter.

Pringle’s insights into the world of publishing were particularly interesting since she really has seen it all – she started in the business as an “office slave” in 1978. Her primary advice was to secure a literary agent, to “find your champion” who will move you from the pile of unsolicited and generally discarded manuscripts to the recommended pile instead. “With an agent,” she said, “it’s not a blind date, but a date with a proper introduction.”

The most valuable advice that I took away from the event was a sense of the hard work (as opposed to raw talent) that it takes to produce something worthy of an agent and, eventually, a publisher. While the panellists agreed that a capacity for imagination and good prose was the minimum requirement, they emphasized that work and diligence were really necessary to turn an aspiration into something that might actually make the grade and get noticed. Briscoe chided us all, “Why are you here? You should be home writing.”

Please note that panel member Luigi Bonomi is happy to accept submissions from UCL alumni, please click here for more information.

Watch the UCL Alumni Networking Panel Discussion here:

2 Responses to “UCL Alumni Professional Networking Event: How to get a book published”

  • 1
    UCL Alumni wrote on 8 November 2011:

    Thank you for sharing your thoughts. It is challenging to cover all aspects of getting a book published in a short panel discussion. If there were any specific areas that you didn’t feel were covered effectively, please let alumni relations know (alumni@ucl.ac.uk) and we can try to advise you further. we very much value such feedback and will use it to inform future events.

  • 2
    Neil Matthews wrote on 8 November 2011:

    Some of the advice was useful, and hit home. One observation not noted in the above review was that a flawed, but emotionally engaging, manuscript may be more successful than a well-constructed, but less engaging, manuscript.

    On the other hand – to use an obvious pun – the panellists sometimes lost the plot. Alexandra Pringle asked for a show of hands as to whether the audience was there to hear about how to get their book published or for career advice about getting into publishing. Given that the event title was ‘How to get your book published’, this was a particularly stupid question to ask. And unless I misunderstood him, Ken Follett seemed to imply that you should start writing from as early an age as possible, maybe as young as four. This seems implausible.

    The brief talks and the Q&A were very focused on mainstream fiction which, for those of us writing non-fiction or in fictional genres such as SF and fantasy, was discouraging. While I’m sure they didn’t mean to give this impression, the publisher and literary agent between them left a picture of an almost wholly closed shop, which may become even more closed in future. Add Joanna Briscoe’s estimate that it may take up to ten years for your magnum opus to see publication, and it does make you wonder if you have any chance if you’re not an established published author, a celebrity or someone with big breasts (or Gordon Ramsay, who qualifies on all three counts).

    ‘You should be home writing,’ said Joanna Briscoe. I felt on balance that, unfortunately, the content of the advice given was not useful enough for me to disagree with that view.

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