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Lucy Cavendish Festival

I spent the day at Cambridge Uni on Saturday, talking about writing at the Lucy Cavendish Fiction Prize Festival. It was a fab way to start the year and I think we all left feeling motivated to write or take the next stage in trying to get published. If you are a writer (or might be one day) here are a few of my thoughts on why it was a good use of time and money:

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Our main base for the day, Lucy Cavendish College.

1. Booking a day to spend only talking and thinking about writing makes you DO it. You can’t do work/childcare/tasks instead. It’s obvious, I know, but for me months can go by before I make a start on a project!

2. Spending time somewhere new is good for the mind. Lucy Cavendish College is beautiful, with gardens and a gorgeous library. I hadn’t heard of it before (or the famous prize) before twitter, so thanks social media. The college is home to women students over 21 and while based there, they study subjects all over Cambridge. But they have a strong literary background hence the prize and festival. Check out their website for all the info. I found the students and teachers I spoke to very welcoming and enthusiastic.

3. A day spent with talented, successful writers is ace and inspiring. I went to talks by Sophie Hannah, Allison Pearson, Laura Marshall and Lesley Sanderson – they were open and generous with their advice and full of practical tips. They talked about going on courses, getting rejected, inspiration, how they found agents, writing the second book, bearing grudges, helping friends with their writing, how titles get changed etc. I left knowing that it wasn’t easy but it WAS possible.

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Past short-listed and winners of the Lucy Cavendish Fiction Prize – impressive, huh!

4. It can be very difficult to meet industry professionals; they are busy and have paid work to do. But on Saturday we heard from leading agents and editors about what they look for, common mistakes and practical matters. I loved the straight-talking and was impressed by their patience when asked about amazon for the fifth time.

Tips I remember: They want to buy books so do pitch. Your book needs to be as ready as possible. A proposal/cover letter needs to get to the point and focus on what your book IS (not if your pal likes it, its better than JK Rowling etc). An agent will get your book in the door and make you money (you prob won’t on your own). I had a 1-2-1 with Katy Loftus, Editorial Director at Penguin Viking, who gave me tons of ideas in our short time; I wish I’d had more novel to give her – what an opportunity!

5. I met lots of people in the same position as me: they had an idea for a novel, or had written a novel and wanted advice on what to do next. We chatted on the stairs, waiting in the coffee queue, by the coats, before sessions. People were friendly and interesting, and all our ideas were different. There is a lot of potential out there and it will be interesting to see what flies.

6. I went to a workshop by top agent Nelle Andrew about characterisation and left with tips about the many ways to create a character, and how they are key to how a book will stay with a reader. Good, practical advice.

It was an interesting and enjoyable day in itself; the college was beautiful and the people great to spend time with. But I also left feeling motivated to write. I have a deadline and a goal. And as Sophie Hannah said “Why not you?”.

Courses cost money but this one was good value for me, and they have ways to help you if cost is an issue (Cambridge is pretty well-off).

Anyone been on other courses they can recommend?

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The Frankfurt Book Fair – what is going on?

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Next week is the Frankfurt book fair which is a HUGE deal in the publishing world. I thought it would be helpful to tell you what goes on from a UK publisher’s point of view – it might help if you are applying for jobs, are interested in rights, or are a writer.

The Frankfurt Buchmesse (I know!) runs this year between 10-14 October. It is pretty much the same time every year. Autumn and Christmas books are landing in shops right now so this is all about next year’s (or later) books. Over 250,000 people attend the book fair which tells you how big it is. I’ve been a couple of times and it takes place in a large conference centre – it is vast with not many windows. Exhibitors come from over 100 countries. The UK publishing companies tend to be grouped together in long rows of stands, with the big companies having the flashiest stands. The stands show books that have been published in the last year or two; the new ones tend to be hidden away only to be shown to international publishers who might want to buy them.

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In the months leading up to Frankfurt, UK publishers spend a lot of time getting sales material ready. In non-fiction this is VERY important. Books with a lot of photography are expensive to make so we rely on co-editions with international publishers (who despite our rudeness over Brexit, do still like some UK-produced books… I hope…). We make sample pages, often with expensive shoots, real words and a designed cover. If a UK publisher can get Germany, France, Spain, Italy or the USA on board before they print they can save costs and get excited about budgets and making money. Without these deals in place, a book might never happen.

The rights team are in charge in the run up to the fair and while there. They set up back-to-back meetings to discuss the sample material. Are the recipes ok for the German market? Do the plates look trendy enough for Scandinavia? Is the USA still into baking? Have you got a book like this already? Want another? And if so, how many copies, for how much money and when exactly? It is a fascinating business and these clever people can do it in various languages too! Editors sometimes go to add a bit of variety to the meetings; we chip in when content is being discussed, but we can get in the way too. It is the rights’ team’s show.

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As a book editor I love prepping Frankfurt sample material. It is a chance to get the design of the book established, hone the text style and start to get the sales departments interested. Authors can write the text or if it is a new idea that the company is trying to punt, editors or freelancers sometimes write it (hey, we are cheaper than authors and the book might not happen).

In fiction, most deals happen away from Frankfurt, usually all year round. But it is a great bit of marketing if a book generates a lot of excitement, so publishers do use Frankfurt as a place to get interest going and to maintain relationships with international partners.

A few other thoughts if you want to go yourself:

* Agents and publishers tend to be pretty booked up. They don’t get time to wander around or chat to potential writers. I hear that London is better for events that encourage new writers (pitching workshops etc). I think this is because it is so expensive getting staff to Frankfurt that this can’t be a company’s priority.

* The public tend to go on different days to the trade so you won’t just bump into the head of Penguin for a chat sadly. A day ticket for non-trade is about 20 euros so if you live in Frankfurt, or have a pal who does, why not go and have a look? If you fancy a mini break? Hotels are booked up many months in advance so that is probably tricky.

* Self-publishing. There is a whole area devoted to self-publishing, with companies who specialise in this at stands so you can go and talk to them, get contact details and brochures. They are also busy trying to sell their books to retailers.

* Author talks: There are author talks but I’m not sure this is best use of your time. The UK book festivals are more a focus for UK publishers.

* Publishing trends. This can be fascinating – a book fair is a great place to find out what is happening with the latest technology, printing and design. You can see what is happening in publishing all around the world. You will discover companies you have never heard of. You will realise what a business publishing is.

* If you go, book restaurants, as everywhere is full hungry, drinking publishers!

I’m not going this year, but if you go, let me know how you get on!

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Do you need a degree to get into publishing?

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We have lots of graduates dressed in their gowns walking around our city at the moment, going to their graduation ceremonies in the Cathedral. It’s a fab time of year. I often get asked by parents about degree courses as their teen is interested in a job in publishing. So if you are choosing A levels, BTECs or thinking of university I thought I’d share some thoughts with you:

I often do talks at local secondary schools about publishing. Near me they do career fairs for the year 10s who are thinking about A levels and college. I set up a table and pile it with a range of books, magazines and newspapers and teenagers come up to me to ask questions. It is always brilliant fun as they are so interesting; they are at a great age where they are interested in a LOT of different things and its great to keep options as open for as long as possible. I always like to drag over those who don’t look that interested too; I’ve spoken to teens who are interested in banking, law, beauty and retail and I always point out that PUBLISHING IS A BUSINESS and that if you have a financial brain – great! You might end up running the company. Bookselling is retail of course, so I mention that, and styling and working with models happens in mags and books too. For those interested in law I explain about rights and contracts. There are so many potential jobs in publishing – it is not only being an editor or designer.

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I have also been back to my old uni, Leeds (pic above), and talked to students who are at a different stage of life. I tell them about my career path, why my Leeds English Literature and Language degree has been an asset and give them as many ideas as I can for landing that first job. So thoughts:

1. Choose the subjects that you are best at and most interested in. For a job in publishing it doesn’t have to be an english degree. If you love maths, geography, science, law, psychology etc then great. Just a quick browse in your local book shop will show you that there are books on any subject; publishing is not just fiction. You could focus future job applications on non-fiction publishers eg ones who specialise in sport, history or science. The boss of a science publications company told me the other day that she would rather recruit science graduates than english grads as they need the subject knowledge and genuine interest in what they actually publish.

2. Do you need a degree? Hmmm, well not for every job in publishing. We have jobs in sales, production, printing, retail, design, photography, finance etc. Those in sales and finance are generally paid better than those in editorial. Editorial might need a degree –not that you need it, just that you are competing with a lot of people that have one. As time goes on, as you develop expertise in your field eg nursing, sports medicine, food etc your knowledge might outstrip the need for a degree.

3. So you want to do a degree, and can get the money together. So which one? There are a lot of degree courses (BA and MA) that focus on publishing now. Norwich, Lancashire, Plymouth, Falmouth, Derby, Bath Spa and Hertfordshire have publishing courses, some BA and some MA. Looking at the course offered at Bath Spa as an example, the BA course offers some useful practical skills that an employer would like eg Indesign skills as well as work placements, which is brilliant. You can do it as a combined degree too, so if you can keep up your history, or do business, for example, which can only be a good thing. Employment rate after the course is cited at 95% although it doesn’t say whether these are in publishing (more on that in a mo). You will need BBC or thereabouts to get in.

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4. There just aren’t enough book publishing companies to employ every graduate from a publishing course. When unis say they have an employment rate of 95% it won’t all be in Penguin and Bloomsbury. Before you spend your money/loan, spend some time googling publishing jobs – you will see they are for online magazines, in business magazines, e-newsletters, writing material for sales catalogues, for sports equipment, science journals etc. Excited? Then carry on.

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5. I have been involved in recruitment for entry level editors and I would say that practical skills such as Indesign would be a big plus for me. I am pleased that universities are offering actual useful knowledge – classics and medieval English are lovely but have never been relevant to me in 20 years of book publishing. Warning: There is still snobbery about certain universities out there – I once had a boss tell me to sift applications (as we had so many) to just Oxbridge. I argued against it. But just so you know. I hope that is dying out. However, if you are in the lucky position to be choosing a very tough course/uni to get in, maybe stick with that and follow with a publishing MA if you really want to. Likewise with non-English subjects – please carry on and then do a publishing MA if you want to, or just get applying for jobs. Your maths, science and geography skills are very useful in areas of publishing.

6. While you are at uni/college, get involved in the student magazines/newspapers etc. It might sound cheesy but you will learn things – it could be using Indesign (the software publishers use), it could be writing and editing, how to get money from advertising and just how to get along with others you don’t know very well. This is all useful and will give you something to talk about at interview.

7. Great interpersonal skills are always an asset. I have met bright, clever grads who find it really hard to talk to other people. We need you to be easy to work with, a great communicator who can speak up when there are problems, someone who can get along with a huge range of authors, designers, suppliers, accountants etc. I urge you to keep up the drama clubs (do drama A level if you love it!), music clubs and get a job of any kind. Work in a bar, shop, babysit or whatever – it really helps broaden those skills that will help you shine at interview. Publishing is not sitting in a lovely ivory tower surrounded by books in silence (well, now and then) – we work in busy, buzzy offices, with people of all ages, strong personalities and with authors who might be awful sometimes. I would hire the confident, dynamic grad from a less-known uni over a reticent academic. And if you have maths A level great – the spreadsheets can be a killer.

So, to summarise: Study what you love and are good at. Keep up your life outside academia – work, write, explore. Develop practical skills that are useful in the workplace.

I’ve barely covered the many options open to you; get in touch if you need more specific advice – I try and keep my fees as low as possible for students and hope that I can help you avoid any expensive mistakes.

Do you need a proofreader?

I’m assuming here you are writing a book, a book proposal or a job application. If you are already getting a book published, they will organise a proofreader (maybe me!) for you, so skip ahead. Everyone else, read on:

I have worked as a freelance proofreader for many years for many of the big publishers, including HarperCollins, Bloomsbury, Vermilion and Penguin. I also did a lot of proofreading while working as a Managing Editor. A few things to know:

1. Every book and proposal needs a proofreader. Everything needs a second pair of eyes, whether a book cover, catalogue, website or the precious inside pages of a book. In editorial departments, we swap work for checking. I have seen catalogues about to go out with the wrong year on them. I have seen book covers with the names of newspapers spelt wrong. It can happen to anyone.

2. In book publishing, “proofreading” means checking the final set of proofs for errors. In a publisher, this is the last time the book/catalogue/cover is checked. It will already have been seen by two or three editors, the author and now finally the proofreader. The pages will be fully designed (whether just text as in a novel, or in layout with photos and captions for a cookery book, for example). Page numbers and running heads will be in place.

3. The proofreader will be looking for errors – any errors. They could be from the typesetter (a company who takes a word doc and makes it look like a book), an editor (making last minute changes) or a designer (who’s added images, changed the font etc). In the past we would mark up “typesetting” errors in a red pen and the cost would go to the typesetter. These could be where there is a wrong font, or missing text or the page numbers have gone wrong. Editorial errors that should have been picked up earlier (spelling mistakes, missing words etc) are marked in blue, and the publisher pays the typesetter to change them. Any queries to the author or editor would be marked in pencil for them to decide whether or not to change. The pen thing has become a bit blurred as often the editor working in a publisher will make the changes themselves to an Indesign document, so it won’t matter what colour they are. For you as an author it doesn’t really matter but just thought I’d clear that one up while we are here.

4. If the author or editor starts making changes right at the end of the schedule (aghh I forgot to thank my husband!) these changes then need rechecking as typing them in can cause errors elsewhere. Last minute changes are always where mistakes creep in. If you buy a book with lots of spelling mistakes or missing words, chances are it’s because the author did a lot of last minute tweaks. So resist them if you can!

5. Proofreading is one of those jobs that keen readers want to do; they think it will fit in with family life/part-time working etc. The fact is that publishers don’t need many freelance proofreaders. They will handle the proofreading within their full-time editorial team when they can. And if they need to send it to a freelancer, they can choose from hundreds of former editors who have years of book experience already. It’s rarely worth taking one of those proofreading courses advertised in the back of magazines – there just isn’t the paid work out there. Even experienced proofreaders don’t do it that often. A book can take just a few days to proofread so it rarely is a great source of income.

6. If you have a book proposal and some sample chapters ready to email to an agent or a publisher, then I strongly suggest you get it proofread by a professional. You can ask that they just check it for typos, spelling mistakes etc. You can specify if you don’t want them to comment on style, sense etc. A professional will be able to do it quickly and will have a very high level of accuracy. I do this all the time – if you would like me to proofread your book, get in touch becky.alexander.editorial@gmail.com. I don’t always have time, but if I can, I will. Prices on homepage and by agreement.

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Is social media worth your time?

Twitter, instagram and facebook – you can spend HOURS roaming social media. As an author/writer, is it the best use of your time? Here’s my thoughts:

  1. Social media is a brilliant source of publishing information. It costs you nothing to get on twitter and instagram, and you can follow as many publishers, agents, writers and literary events as you have time for!
  2. Getting on to twitter via your laptop or phone takes about 10 minutes; you could choose an identity just for your writing if you already use it for personal or business use.
  3. Start by following publishers and literary events as these can really inspire you. Focus on indie and local if you don’t want to get overwhelmed. If you have a great local indie bookshop, follow them too – they can be a great place for author events that you can go along and support.
  4. Twitter feels to me to be the best social media for writers – you write for a start! I am always amazed how open many journalists, authors and agents are on twitter –they share a lot of information, for example, agents will say when they are open for submissions and some authors chat with their followers.
  5. I think Facebook seems to have had its day for professional uses, although the big publishers do use it for some marketing and events. I think your time would be better spent browsing publishing websites which seem to be kept more up-to-date.
  6. Instagram a visual stream – if you are writing about anything that lends itself to photographs such as food, fashion, parenting, film, craft etc then get on instagram and start sharing what is interesting to you. It will only take about 10 minutes to sign up. Follow some of the authors you know, but don’t just stick with the huge names; you are far more likely to build up likes and rapport with lesser-known authors – and who knows where it will take you all? My insta account for food writing is packedwithgoodthings – go and have a look to get some ideas, and don’t forget to say hello!
  7. If you think you are going to waste hours on social media and that you should be writing instead, well, yes that is a risk! Why not set a timer on your phone and just stick to half an hour each day while you have a coffee break? Think of it as your research and marketing time.
  8. If you have a book to sell then you can promote it via social media, though people don’t always love that. If there is news eg you are reading at an event, or there is a special sale price, then by all means mention that.
  9. I have known brilliant authors with big publishing deals who refuse to do social media. It DOES affect sales. It also impacts on their relationship with their publicists who are working hard to get your book heard in a very competitive world. If you hate it, don’t understand it etc get advice and get someone to help you.
  10. Lastly, if you think you might do a Trump and say something you might later regret, get someone to handle social media for you. There are some ace freelance marketing people out there who would be happy to budget an hour or two a week for you.

Will you make money as an author?

Oh this is a toughie. I’d love to be able to say that YES you will be the bestselling novelist who pops up in The Sunday Times bestseller list, but this isn’t the case for MOST authors. Here’s the lowdown:

If you add up all the hours you spend writing, thinking about writing, editing and pitching to agents, then it could be the worst paid job you ever do! Just think of that hourly rate! But if you have a great idea, write brilliantly and get a break, then yes, you can make money. Being an author can also bring you new opportunities and exposure, which can be lucrative. But, just how much money are we talking about?

Publishing is a business, and the publisher wants your book to sell and make money. It costs a lot of money to get a book commissioned, edited, designed, printed, marketed and on the shelves in bookshops/online and the publisher wants all of that back, and more. Some of the big London publishers have very flash buildings – they cost a lot of money.

But how much money do you, the author, make?A book that is expensive to produce, such as a cookery book with lots of photography, may mean that the budget left is low to pay the author – unless they have a TV show and then things are very different! A text-only novel can be much cheaper to produce, print, discount and get online sales, so there can be more money available for the author from the start.

What is an advance?

Authors usually get paid an advance, and earn royalties for each book sold. Advances vary hugely; JK Rowling was paid 2000 pounds for the first two Harry Potter books, and the Obamas were recently paid 60 million dollars for their memoir. In 2016 The Bookseller magazine found that the average (median) author advance was under 6,600 pounds.

If you are given an advance by the publisher, this is “earnings against future sales”. For each book sold, you get a royalty, and these add up to pay off your advance. When you have earned your advance, you might get some more money from royalties. This tends to only happen if the publisher orders a reprint of your book: they usually do all the costing maths based on a first print run.

Say you get paid 10 percent of the “price received” for each book sold (5–7 per cent is more usual). Price received is really important – it is not the same as the cover price. So if your book has a cover price of #10 but Amazon sell it for #5, then your percentage comes from the #5. If you agree to a contract for 5 percent, that is 25p per copy for you. If you get an advance for 1000 pounds, you will need to sell 4000 copies before you earn anything more than your advance. That’s quite a lot of copies!

So, for most writers, it is important that you don’t give up the day job. Even if your book becomes a big success and earns more than your advance, publishers pay royalties each six months, so you might have to wait to get paid. Many of the writers I know have many work projects on the go – they teach, run cafes, work as private chefs, perform comedy, write for newspapers, edit books, do accountancy etc. Think about how much money you need to live on, and work backwards – being an author might not pay for your lifestyle, but if you love it, then I hope you manage to fit it in!

If you are in negotiation with a publisher and need some impartial advice about whether this is a good deal, email me on becky.alexander.editorial@gmail.com.

Do you need an agent?

I get asked this all the time! On the train, at weddings, at work events etc. So what is the answer?

Every writer’s forum out there will say that, yes, you do need an agent. And this is often (but not always) true. If you have written a novel, a collection of short stories, a book for children, or poetry, and want to sell it widely, then yes, you will need an agent to get it read by publishing companies. If you email or post your writing to a big company, they won’t read it – they call them ‘unsolicited’ manuscripts and many company websites will tell you firmly that they don’t accept them.

Some companies will get interns or more experienced readers to go through unsolicited manuscripts, but this is pretty rare. If you think you have written something amazing that needs to be read, then you need to get an agent.

Getting an agent is hard work in itself. Agents specialise in different genres (types of books) and you need to think about are they the right agent for your type of book. For example, some agents only represent food writers, others only fiction. The Artists and Writers Year Book (published by Bloomsbury) is your friend here – read it online, buy a copy or find one in your local library. Write a list of the agents who like your type of work and follow their submission guidelines to the letter. Follow them on twitter to see when they are accepting new submissions, which can be just a couple of times a year (so they have time to get on with the rest of their job!).

There are ways to pitch to agents at literary festivals and The London Book Fair, although very competitive, do give those a shot too.

For non-fiction books, the situation can be very different. If you are an expert in something, whether childbirth, food, maths, medicine, sport, the environment, music etc you might be in luck. You might be able to pitch directly to publishers who publish your sort of thing.

Have a look at the books on your shelves, in the bookshops and libraries and make a note of which publishers publish your sort of thing. Then look on their website to see what their pitching policy is. Don’t forget to look for the smaller publishers who might specialise in sport, food, gardening, craft etc – they can be happy to deal with you direct – but they will drive a tough deal of course. But at least you will be on your way.

If you find yourself in the fab position of a publisher being interested in you, you might want to get an agent involved to help you at this stage. They can help make sure you get a good deal and negotiate for you. An agent will take a percentage of your advance and any book sales but a good agent will tell you that they expect to make that sum of money back for you.

If you would like specific advice about whether YOU need an agent, email me at becky.alexander.editorial@gmail.com.

Insider help for authors

Hi

I am an experienced senior book editor based in the UK. I have worked for Penguin, HarperCollins and Bloomsbury commissioning and editing high-profile books (and still do). If you need help with pitching or writing a book proposal, need someone to read your sample chapters (not your pal from book club) or help you apply for a job in the highly competitive world of book publishing, get in touch. I offer freelance consultancy at affordable prices – I love to help new graduates, first-jobbers and first-time authors which is why I keep my prices low.

All costs are agreed before work starts so there are no scary bills. I have worked with many well-known authors including Bake-Off contestants, TV presenters and novelists who are new to book writing.

Get in touch!

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