How to get a book on the best seller lists – Carole Blake at Swindon Festival of Literature

18 May

Do your research, says legendary literary agent, Carole Blake.

Carole’s event at Swindon Arts Centre on Thursday night wasn’t appropriate advice for all writers – poets, people happily writing for fun, journalists, non-fiction, niche – but this gem universally rings true, whether you’re writing a CV or pitching your precious first book to an agent.

And it’s easier than ever. Check out most agent’s website and they’ll give you a step-by-step guide of what they do and don’t represent, in which format to submit your work, etc. And, of course, you need a cracking book that they like and think they can sell.

This is the thing, especially at Carole’s end of the literary spectrum.

You, the author, may not have grand ideas of retiring on the advance of your debut novel and have modest ambitions of simply finding people to read it. But the literary agents of Carole’s league (and publishers and all the other businesses involved in selling your book) earn their living from their authors. If the books don’t sell by the hundred thousand (and hopefully million) through big-selling outlets like (tellingly) supermarkets and Amazon, they don’t get paid.

So this advice is for those writers looking for a best-selling publishing deal. An agent is crucial. No big publisher will look at a new manuscript without one.

Carole represents twenty-nine writers who regularly find their books on the best seller lists. And she loves the work of all of them.

“We may complain about the slush pile,” she says, referring to the unsolicited submissions from unknown writers, “but agents want to find talent. Talented authors who want to get published.” And they need to be professionals who treat writing as their calling, their career, their day job.

Many of those manuscripts may be rejected because they haven’t followed the submission rules (Carole receives 300 by email a day, which she reads out of office hours, so rule breakers get short shrift) or they may not be good enough, or it’s addressed ‘dear agent,’ or it’s supernatural and she doesn’t represent supernatural… But when she does find a manuscript she likes: “You end up with your fingers tingling and you want to run out onto the street and tell everyone you meet.”

She reads submissions in this order: the query letter (the covering letter, preferably one page of an electronic A4, and to the point), the first few chapters, and then the synopsis, which has to be the whole story – including how it finishes. “Don’t worry about giving away the ending. We need to know what it is.”

And what is she looking for? “‘Absolutely commercial fiction’ and ‘really fine writing.’

So you’ve just finished writing your book. Do you send it out to an agent? “A really foolish author thinks: the ink is dry, I’m going to send it out now.”

Your book has to be as good as it can be. Write it, rewrite it, sit on it, rewrite it, seek ‘good muscular feedback from a writers group,’ or buy in constructive criticism from the ‘one or two excellent writers’ consultancies.’ After all, she adds: “You don’t get two shots at ‘no’.”

And what if you self-publish to whet the publisher’s appetite? After all, self-publishing has become easy and accessible to anyone through Amazon, iBooks and a plethora of other online outlets. “If you self-publish and have sold [only] 900 copies, no publishers will be interested.”

But if you want to forget about publishers and go down that route? “Get a professional edit and cover.”

So what if you land yourself an agent and a publishing deal? You’ll usually be offered a two-book deal – that’s two chances to prove your worth as a bankable author. And don’t think about changing genre until you’re very successful – your brand as an author is synonymous with your writing genre; publishers will view all the marketing invested in you so far to be wasted if you try your hand at something else.

But equally, advises Carole: “Don’t worry about your genre. Let crass people like me put a label on it.”

Her submission letter pet hates? Those which open with an overly familiar ‘Hi Carole’ or which: ‘slag off another writer, especially if they are a good friend of mine!’

Does age matter? Carole’s youngest writer was 16 when she took her on and her oldest was 70, who’s now on her twelfth book.

Carole’s event over, off I went to the author’s table clutching a copy of her book (which, she’ll be the first to admit, is long overdue a revision) and asked her a sneaky question as she signed it. So who do I approach for the supernatural / fantasy genre?

And that is an answer I’m keeping to myself…

Carole Blake, literary agent at Blake Friedmann, was at Swindon Arts Centre on 15 May 2014, and is the author of publishing bible, ‘From Pitch to Publication’.
Words by Louisa Davison. Photos by Calyx Pictures.

3 Responses to “How to get a book on the best seller lists – Carole Blake at Swindon Festival of Literature”

  1. andrewjameswriter 19th May 2014 at 8:38 am #

    Brilliant post. Carole’s book is fantastic too – I’d definitely recommend it. Thanks for sharing this.

  2. fenellalouini 19th May 2014 at 7:33 pm #

    Reblogged this on The Louini Sister.


  1. Of chickens and beards. Writers Workshop at Swindon Festival of Literature | Festival Chronicle - 20th May 2014

    […] So what if 95 per cent of fiction writers earn less than £5,000 a year? Not everyone dreams of earning a living from their prose, most people want it as a fun hobby alongside their day job. A thick skin is useful if you do want a ‘proper’ publishing deal – expect rejections – but equally your book maybe the next best seller. (See Carole Blake’s advice for more on that). […]

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