Get that book published

EVERY freelance has a book in them. Or so the huge turnout (over 80 members) at September's London Freelance Branch meeting would suggest. Getting that book ready for publication was the subject was the topic. We heard advice from former Virago editor Rebecca Swift, of The Literary Consultants - which helps prepare authors' book proposals for submission to a literary agent. She was joined by Matthew Hamilton of literary agent Aitken Alexander, who is a former Bloomsbury editor. Both are non-fiction specialists.

An increasing number of journalists are pitching non-fiction books, either in the hope of getting richer, or to increase their profile. "You get more work once you've published a book," says Rebecca.

Matthew Hamilton: © Guy Smallman
Matthew Hamilton

The first question a journalist turning book author should ask themselves, advises Matthew, is why is this a book? What is it about this that demands it be told in so many thousand words? Journalists have learned to cram everything into 500 or 1000 words, but when writing a book, you've got "more space than perhaps you know what to do with," cautions Matthew.

Both our experts noted book publishing is a much tougher world than even five years ago, and your book proposal has to show you're passionate enough - and have enough stamina - to pull it off. You need to convince an agent that you have the enthusiasm to carry out a labour of love, and only then look at the pragmatic, market-oriented aspects of the project.

The preferred pitch to a literary agent is in the form of one - or increasingly two - sample chapters. Leave as little to the agent's imagination as possible. Rebecca advises a 3000- to 4000-word overview, an "extended blurb", an explanation of "why the world needs this book", and a chapter breakdown. The agent's job, says Matthew, "is to make the editor listen."

Rebecca Swift: © Guy Smallman
Rebecca Swift

Submissions to multiple agents are common, but it's best to confess that's what you're doing. How long should you wait before following up on a submission? Try to get them on the phone after four to six weeks, recommends Rebecca. "Be pushy but respect their workload".

Non-fiction is easier to sell, because "you can measure what your likely market can be. With fiction there's no way of knowing," says Rebecca.

Fiction publishing is "flatlining" according to Matthew, "it's almost impossible to sell fiction on the basis of just a proposal". With fiction there "isn't much other way than trial and error, looking for agents on the basis of what other work they are handling," advises Rebecca. Matthew advises that journalists hoping to become fiction authors "should research the genre" and draw on "personal contacts and confidence: you as journalists are good at that".

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