27 January 2016
Advice for debut writers on submitting, and how to make your submission appeal to editors, from Jenny Parrott, commissioning editor for leading independent Oneworld’s new crime imprint Point Blank ...
Jenny Parrott, commissioning editor for leading independent Oneworld’s new crime imprint Point Blank, has excellent advice for debut writers
What state should my manuscript be in, and when should I submit it to publishers?
‘What is important (and alarmingly often overlooked) is that what we need to read a novel that an author has worked hard on, and really thought about. There’s only the one chance for an editor to read a novel – we don’t have time to re-read – and so it is irritating to feel an author has wasted an opportunity when we get in something that feels half-finished.
‘I’ve worked with a lot of self-published writers, and often they’ve neglected to notice that their level of writing has failed to improve over what might be many books. It’s so easy for a self-published writer to produce ebooks that aren’t what I’d call a “real” book – they might be too short to seem value for money for a print edition, say, or not have enough plot, or be lazily two-dimensional with its characters – with the author never realising that actually the book might not even be halfway to the level of writing it could be taken with some judicious planning and effort.
‘And just because an author might have got themselves an agent, sadly it doesn’t necessarily mean the agent is going to do a whole lot of editorial work. Having said that, I get a lot of submissions from US agents, and generally speaking, by the time they get to me these tend to feel very “finished” in a way that British books quite often don’t. There are of course some wonderful UK agents doing brilliant editorial work too, but there are also some who concentrate more on the selling rather than editorial concerns.
‘In any case, I think that what does hold true for all books is that nobody is ever going to care as much about a book as the person who has written it, and so all authors owe it to themselves to not squander a submission by sending in something when in their heart of hearts they know it’s a bit floppy and slapdash, or that it could have done with a new draft.
‘And while I don’t mind at all doing editorial work with an author, the editorial process will work better if I can join after the ‘inventing the wheel’ stage, as it’s only at that point that some okay books will become good, or good books become great, yet there is a limit how much an author wants to hear their editor making suggestions.’
What can I do to make my submission appealing?
‘I think always be aware of ways you can easily make it easier for a publisher to say yes to you. So here’s a list that should do that:
‘Read more than you write – I think a balance of spending twice as much time reading as writing is about right. And when I say “writing”, I’m including thinking time too, so you might find your actual writing time feels very small by comparison. But the time you spend reading and writing won’t be wasted, I promise, as it is very likely to lead to one or two fewer drafts.
‘Beware high concept too, if you want to have a long career as a writer. Follow-ups to a successful high-concept novel quite often disappoint everyone. And few writers can come up continually with muscular high-concept ideas. I’m not saying don’t write high concept, just be aware that prospective publishers might have concerns.
‘Always have your characters behave as people do in real life, and not as the plot demands.
‘With dialogue, say it out loud – if you can’t say it easily, your reader won’t find it easy to read, and ultimately that is distracting. And "distracting" can never be a good thing.
‘And bear in mind too that books aimed at youngish male readers are books that are targeting the most difficult sector of the market for any publisher to reach, not least as it is a part of the market that buys fewest novels per head probably because the pull of the PlayStation or the pub or footie is so strong at this age. And while this wouldn’t affect the chances of being picked up by a publisher for an utterly brilliant book, with something a bit less special that borderline for a publisher (we often see books where we can easily argue ourselves into offering, but as easily argue that it’s not quite right for us), it just makes it much easier for a publisher to say No.’
If I get published with you, what can I expect to earn?
‘We pay what we feel the book is worth, and we are neither mean nor overly generous, as that is a policy that both supports our authors and protects ourselves.
‘I’m rather fond of bonuses in addition to an advance. Then, if a novel goes on to have a bit of unexpected luck (such as a prize win, or a major book club selection), or if it sells better than we expected, then the author gets a financial boost, while the relatively modest advance will at the same time mean that we are not too exposed to financial loss if the book fails to sell as we expect.
‘Authors can drive themselves mad with supposed advances their friends have got for their books. Remember that this is an industry of rumour, and frequently advances are less big than is bandied about. It’s true too that a mega-high advance can be the most brutal career-killer of all if the book then massively under-performs.’
To find out more about Point Blank and Oneworld, see the website