Reasons to be cheerful: How to net that elusive book deal

There are myriad outlets, but how does a novice author get signed after the final draft?

Off the shelves: After a difficult decade for global publishing, Irish publishers had a relatively good year in 2014. Photograph: Dave Meehan

Off the shelves: After a difficult decade for global publishing, Irish publishers had a relatively good year in 2014. Photograph: Dave Meehan


‘Sooner or later the best-selling writers of the 1960s and 1970s would either die or go senile, making room for newcomers like me.” Stephen King recalls his pragmatic attitude to getting published as a nobody in his 2000 memoir On Writing. A mix of personal anecdotes and advice on the craft, the book is a masterclass on the trajectory from budding writer to successful author.

Creative writing has become an industry in Ireland over the past decade. There are evening classes, summer courses, weekend retreats and an annual Novel Fair at the Irish Writers Centre. Each of Ireland’s universities now features creative writing programmes as part of the curriculum. With more places than ever for new writers to hone their skills, what are their chances of getting a book deal with a finished draft?

After a difficult decade for global publishing, Irish publishers had a relatively good year in 2014, when sales increased by roughly 10 per cent in a market that was broadly static. Michael McLoughlin, managing director of Penguin Ireland, says the current climate is “very good”.

Last year the company published seven first-time authors, across fiction and non-fiction genres. This year it has eight new authors published or forthcoming, with five new names already signed for the 2016 list.

“Literary magazines like The Dublin Review and The Stinging Fly have been nurturing new talent for years, and this has fed through to publishers taking chances on new collections and first novels,” says McLoughlin. “We’ve published a steady flow of debuts – most recently Liz Nugent, Karl Whitney, Andrew Fox and David Shafer – and we have more in the pipeline.”

Unlike many of the bigger publishers, Penguin Ireland considers unsolicited submissions, and “occasionally publishes work that come to us in this way”. New writers have the option of going to a smaller Irish press or submitting to the “big five” in the UK. So which approach does McLoughlin recommend?

“Each writer needs to think about which publishers seem the best fit for their work. The most important thing is to find an editor who loves the work. Writers need to canvass opinion among other aspiring writers and established writers, go to workshops, attend festivals, talk to agents and then decide what’s best for them.”

Approaching Irish publishers first could be regarded as the smartest route for an unknown Irish author, as the pool of submissions is smaller. On the flip side, independent presses with relatively few staff can take months or even years to get back to authors. If the publisher isn’t interested in the script, new writers will often hear nothing.

Sarah Davis-Goff, co-founder of Tramp Press, recommends trying smaller houses and relevant imprints within the big five.

“Look at an author whose work is similar and has been published well, and reach out to their publisher or agent,” she says. “Traditionalists will tell you to submit to one company at a time and wait for a reply, but that’s not practical any more.”

Davis-Goff says that many small Irish presses are better than a UK publisher. “Boots on the ground can mean better PR and more events,” she says. “Larger UK publishers can offer bigger advances, though the differences aren’t always as big as you might imagine.”

Pot luck in publishing

The Spinning Heart.

The book went on to win a number of awards, as well as a Booker nomination and the book of the year at the Irish Book Awards in 2012.

Davis-Goff has moved on, but Lilliput still has an intern whose job it is to go through the slush pile and find manuscripts that have potential.

“We get almost daily submissions so there is a constant reading process,” says Emma Flynn, publicity manager at Lilliput. “[Signed authors] meet every member of the publishing team, from editing to design to the publisher themselves. It’s a business model that fosters the relationship. For a first-time writer, that’s important.”

On favouring a selective or scattergun approach to submitting a novel, Donal Ryan recommends the latter. “Life’s too short for circumspection in this regard,” he says. “Agents and publishers can take months or years to reply if they do so at all, so buy a copy of the current Writers’ and Artists’ Yearbook and get yourself out there. Brace yourself for multiple rejections.”

For all his submissions, Ryan ended up being published by the first press he had contacted. “There was just a time lapse between receipt of the manuscript at Lilliput and reading of same,” he says. After the critical success of The Spinning Heart, a deal was brokered through Marianne Gunn O’Connor that allowed Penguin Random House to spread the book to a worldwide audience.

Ryan has found similarities between Lilliput and the larger imprints: “Doubleday Ireland and Transworld UK have the same spirit and intimate feeling, the same care and love for what they do. I can see my luck, though. I’ve heard of writers being mangled in the machine, their work fundamentally changed and packaged and marketed in a reductive manner.”

Getting noticed can be difficult without representation, because many of the big five affiliated imprints don’t accept unsolicited submissions.

“If you want to publish in the UK, US or farther afield, you need an agent,” says author Nuala Ní Chonchúir. “Research agents. Who represents the kind of work you write? Do you get along better with men or women? You may want to choose your agent based on their gender as much as their track record.”

For first-timers approaching Irish publishers, the need for an agent isn’t as pressing. “Irish publishers are extremely friendly, fair-minded and approachable, in my experience, but it is great to have someone to look after unfathomable things like contracts.”

Ní Chonchúir has worked with both Irish and international publishers, most recently with Penguin for the US launch of her third novel, Miss Emily. With a bespoke publisher, she says, the experience is more collaborative. “They mind you and consult you about pretty much everything, from the cover to the launch. And they have you over for tea.

“With a larger publisher, you are a very small cog and you might be told what is going to happen rather than being very involved. I found Penguin very efficient and they were firm about deadlines, which suited me. Because they employ more people, the editing process was lengthy and rigorous. Smaller houses often don’t have the resources to hire multiple editors for one book.”

The path to acceptance

More often than not, a writer looking to be published for the first time doesn’t think as far ahead as the editing process. The goal is to get the book accepted by whomever will take it.

Henrietta McKervey’s debut novel What Becomes of Us was published by Hachette Ireland in March. “I didn’t have a distinction [between Irish or international],” she says. “Getting published was the aim, and even [that] felt like a big ask. What the big publishers have in terms of scale and market, a lot of the smaller ones make up for by putting together such interesting, quirky lists.”

Insider knowledge of the industry is one of the benefits of going through an agent. “We know what editors in the various publishing houses are looking for,” says Faith O’Grady, who runs the literary division at the Lisa Richards Agency. “The agent matches the author with the right publisher, whether that’s in the UK or here. They can also help to shape the work editorially before it’s shown to an editor, as sometimes a novel is submitted too early. An agent knows what editors are on the lookout for, whose lists are full, what a particular editor’s tastes are, and they can target accordingly.”

This strategic approach to submissions is echoed by London-based agent Sallyanne Sweeney of Mulcahy Associates. “I think being selective is always going to be better than scattergun,” she says. “An agent will ensure you get the best deal possible, and look after the business side of your career. Ireland is just one of many markets throughout the world. A good agent will work on exploiting the US, translation and film rights too, generating the writer more income and readers.”

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