'Stop talking, start writing'
Irish writer Ann O'Loughlin is this week riding high in the ebook charts. So just how do you become a bestselling novelist these days? We ask the experts
Published 29/08/2015 | 02:30
Many of us feel the urge to write a book at some stage in our lives, yet so few of us will actually act on this and even fewer will get published when they do succeed in producing said manuscript. So how does one succeed at becoming a bestselling novelist these days?
The book industry may have undergone huge change in recent years, but there is still, according to insiders, enough wiggle room for new voices to break through, as Irish writer Ann O'Loughlin proved this week when she found herself on an Amazon.co.uk list of the top 20 bestselling ebooks of 2015.
So how do you know if you have what it takes to become a bestselling author?
"That saying 'we all have a book in us' I don't really subscribe to that," Penguin Ireland's managing director Michael McLoughlin tells me.
"I think that anyone who wants to write will write. It is a craft. The more you do it, the better you will get and I think most writers will say that. It's not easy."
We are sitting, surrounded by books in the Penguin Ireland offices on St. Stephen's Green, on the top floor. Everything about the office is surprisingly welcoming, even the dreaded 'slush-pile' of manuscripts is in reality, neatly stacked in a corner, awaiting careful consideration, while thousands more hopeful emails wait patiently in the editors' inboxes.
Publishers are more than keen to find that next-big-thing in the world of writing, in whatever shape it comes. There is no whiff of conspiracy, insider deals or needing to know the right people - you finish your book and Penguin Ireland will gladly look at it, Michael assures me, and if it is of sufficiently high quality, they may even publish it.
"Book sales in Ireland are down about 40-50pc in the last five years or so," he explains. "That has made some difference, but I think the market was changing anyway. The process of publishing books and trying to get books on shelves is harder.
"What authors need in order to sell is obviously to have a great book, but also to get the attention out there in the market.
"I suppose from our point of view in the last two or three years, we have naturally cut back because our editors - Patricia Deevy and Brendan Barrington who are buying fiction in particular - have found that they just haven't had the fiction come in to them that they wanted to buy."
Quality above quantity remains the key, according to Michael.
"We are always on the lookout for new fiction," he adds. "We'd love to publish more, and we do and we have from day one accepted unsolicited manuscripts from writers, unlike most publishers in town and practically all publishers in London.
"I look at everything that comes in personally and then I send it to one or other of the editors if I think it is worth looking at, or I will reject it," Michael explains.
"So an editor will look at every single thing that comes in. People will ask, 'Why is it that X publisher published that and Y publisher didn't?' or you hear one publisher rejected something and then it turned into a big bestseller, well that happens to all of us.
"It is down to taste and judgement and it is important that an editor absolutely loves something that they go on to publish because they have to have that passion for it or else the book won't work."
Literary agent Faith O'Grady is equally open to representing new writers. However, Faith cautions any writer against getting sucked into the very comfortable world of talking about one's novel, rather than sitting down and actually writing it.
"At a certain point you have to do the work," Faith explains. "That is what being a writer is about. It is very hard to sit down and face a blank page.
"Some days you really won't want to do it. I would recommend trying to carve out writing time every day if you can just to keep focussed and to keep your momentum up.
"Being a good writer requires a unique gift and imagination, but to develop this gift, you also need to work very hard and be absolutely convinced you have a good story to tell.
"Sometimes you might find a wonderful voice but there is no plot, so I suppose I am always on the lookout for books where all the elements work together - a compelling, original plot, fascinating characters, a fully formed world which the reader is drawn into. This is hard to find but when it happens, it is extremely exciting."
Rejection is, according to Faith, an occupational hazard for writers. "There is just so much material coming in, especially now because of email, every week there can be up to 70 or 80 submissions," she says.
"But if you have submitted it to a lot of agencies or publishers and have had a lot of rejections, after a couple of months, it might be an idea to go back and read your novel and say 'What do I think of it now?'
"In the meantime it is important not to be discouraged: it can all boil down to the personal taste of the agent or editor and whether they are currently looking for a particular genre or not. Good stories usually find their home, even if that can take a long time. A committed writer dusts themselves off after rejections and continues to develop their skills."
Dublin native, Sheila Crowley of Curtis Brown Literary and Talent Agency in London, believes that a good story will always make its way through the slush pile eventually and that writers must have faith in their work and in the industry.
"None of us in this business - agents, publishers, bricks and mortar booksellers, online retailers, newspapers - have a business without writers and authors: they are key to everything," Sheila tells me from her London office. "We get up in the morning to discover new talent and it is really exciting, but it has to be really good in the competitive market we find ourselves in."
Sheila personally receives close to 2,000 submissions a year from would-be authors, each hoping to be the next Jojo Moyes, David Nicholls or Marian Keyes. Yet, the reality for many writers is not millions of euro in advances and three book deals once their first novel has been completed. "I don't think those deals are a thing of the past, but they're not as frequent as they once were," Sheila explains.
"There is often this feeling that if you don't fly off the shelves on book one that you don't have a career, but I think good writing will always win out and writers have to believe that, and work with people who believe in them and will manage them through the up days and the down days," Sheila adds.
"I have worked with Jojo Moyes since the start of her career. I was there as part of the acquisition team for her very first book Sheltering Rain, but it was her ninth book, Me Before You, that broke her out into the international bestseller phenomenon she is now, and it was the same for Santa Montefiore for whom it was book 11." So what exactly are agents and publishers looking for?
"I am looking for something that gives me that tingle on the back of my neck," Sheila explains. "I just love a good story that comes alive on the page."
The window for submissions to the Irish Writers Centre Novel Fair 2016, an event which aims to introduce up-and-coming writers to top publishers and literary agents closes on October 16 2015. For more information see irishwriterscentre.ie.
How to get started: writing tips from experts
Vanessa O'Loughlin, publishing consultant and founder of The Inkwell Group and online magazine Writing.ie:
The most important thing is to just start writing - keep a notebook where you jot down ideas, news items that catch your attention, and use these to build a story. Set yourself an achievable goal, and that might only be 100 words a day or it might be 1,000, but get writing. When a writer has finished their first draft, that's when the work really begins, the rewriting, re-drafting and editing. The worst thing people can do at this stage is to put the last full stop down on the page and immediately send their book to an editor or agent. It will get rejected - every story needs time to develop, and every professional author will write several drafts of their book before they show it to anyone.
Faith O'Grady, literary agent with Lisa Richards Agency:
Keeping the reader engaged is key these days when there are so many distractions. You really can't begin your book with a lot of exposition and explanation. Make something important happen in the first few pages. The reader needs to be intrigued by the very first page, either because the writing is stunning or the plot and/or characters are captivating.
Every sentence has to work: there should be nothing extraneous. What motivates the characters? Is the dialogue authentic? Where is the dramatic tension? Does the structure work? What keeps the reader turning pages?
For your own sake, it is a good idea to have completed the full manuscript of your book before submitting the first few chapters.
Michael McLoughlin, managing director of Penguin Ireland:
If you think there is more work that can be done on your manuscript then do it before you send it to us. We will decide based on what we've got, we won't, for the most part in fiction terms, say 'well this is very good but it could be better if the writer did this, that and the other to it'.
We are assuming that the writer has sent in their most polished manuscript and probably can't make it any better. So we like things to come in as polished as they can be.