With fewer debut novels selling, what do editors want to tell authors?

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In a tightening market for fiction and especially for debut authors looking for that big break, editors can be choosier—and many are more dependent than ever on literary agents to find their next debuts.

A room filled with aspiring writers awaited three editors and a debut author last week at London Book Fair’s session “Why We Commissioned These Debuts.” Speakers included:

  • Penguin Random House UK editor Jade Chandler, who handles crime and thrillers for Harvill Secker and Vintage
  • Nick Wells, the founding publisher at independent house Flame Tree Publishing, which is to launch an imprint for horror, crime, and science fiction/fantasy in September
  • HarperCollins UK editorial director Martha Ashby
  • HarperCollins author Sarah J. Harris was on hand to provide the debut writer’s viewpoint

Harris is also published in the States by Simon & Schuster, and she’s written three YA novels under a pseudonym.  And she described the comparatively dreamy experience she had in entering the market with The Color of Bee Larkham’s Murder.

Having spent nine months writing the book, she said she researched agents and picked out the ones she thought would suit her best. Among them was Jemima Forrester who was starting a new list at David Higham’s agency.

Harris wrote a cover letter, targeted her agents’ list, met Forrester first and signed with her.  Once the book was edited, Harris said, Forrester submitted it and the manuscript drew overnight interest from publishers.

Within less than a week, HarperCollins made a bid, which Harris said she knows is unusually fast action.

From an editor’s viewpoint, Harvill Secker’s Chandler said that in a pre-empt, a publisher may “offer quite a lot to the agent because you want the book” to be taken off the table.

“But sometimes the agent will have it go to auction. I’ve pre-empted two books this year,” Chandler said, “and it usually involves reading the book overnight. It’s very dramatic and exciting and involves sleepless nights.”

Chandler said that like most editors, she finds authors through literary agents who filter submissions. “It’s quite an old fashioned process,” she said, “but in reality, I’m just one woman and I can only read so much.” Not surprisingly, she said that good relationships with agents become important if an editor is to find the best material.

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