Rachael Cooper | Head of Publishing and AgentMatch | Jericho Writers

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Hi everyone! I'm Rachael and I'm the Head of Publishing and AgentMatch here at Jericho. You can get in touch with me by emailing info@jerichowriters.com or publishing@jerichowriters.com and addressing your message to me.

A little about me: I have a Masters in Eighteenth-Century Literature and Romanticism, specialising in female sociability. I'm a dog lover, and an avid reader; my favourite books include Jane Austen's Emma, Francis Burney's Evelina and Henry Fielding's The Masquerade. I am attempting to widen my reading interests, and so will be joining the community book club - hopefully see you there.

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Over the last few months, we were joined by the wonderful Phoebe, who spent her Summer delving into agent profiles, researching submission requirements, and stumbling across interviews. Thanks to Phoebe's efforts, AgentMatch now has over 1000 agents recorded! 

In this blog post, Phoebe shares her advice on researching agents, successful submissions, and her top-tips for using AgentMatch. So, enjoy her thoughtful and helpful article, and remember to share your top-tips for submitting to agents in the comments section below. 

Thanks everyone! 

Rachael x


I spent my summer stalking literary agents and here's what I found 

by Phoebe Haywood, AgentMatch Executive (Intern)

So, you have finished your book (or at least the final draft before it goes to the Editor) and it’s amazing, it’s fresh, and it’s ready for representation by a literary agent. A few questions spring to mind:

Do you really need an agent? You can check the answer to that question here, but chances are that you absolutely do; if your book falls into a category that agents can and will represent, then you need to get one. It is that simple.

How do you find an agent then? Surely you want to find that perfect literary agent to represent your creation, one who will appreciate your hard work and adore your writing? But other than trawling through endless webpages and painstakingly ruling out hundreds, even thousands of agents one by one, how can you make a perfect match between your book and an agent?

Well… AgentMatch. Jericho Writers has a tool called AgentMatch. And it does what it says on the tin.

But what is AgentMatch?

AgentMatch is a tool available to members of Jericho Writers that comprises a database of all the literary agents in the US and UK. Each agent is presented as a detailed profile with a ton of specific data on their preferences, submission criteria, client list status, and even their hobbies.

Say you have written a sci-fi or fantasy novel and you want to find a relatively new literary agent who is actively seeking new clients. Or a non-fiction project about the history of medicine. Or a graphic novel for middle-grade readers. Just pop all those parameters into the search filter and you’ll find a match. Or several. There might be a list of a dozen or so agents who are all eager for your work and that is your list of 10 to 12 agents, the number we recommended submitting to on this post, ready for you to start querying.

Who am I to recommend AgentMatch and what do I know about it? Well, my name is Phoebe, I’m studying at the University of Oxford, and in my summer holiday this year I have been working on AgentMatch for the past three months. I have been updating its profiles and checking its data and generally ensuring that it gives authors the best possible information for them to find their perfect agent. I have been living it, breathing it, and dreaming about it. In fact, I’m not exaggerating; it was a very trippy dream filled with a lot of genre tick-boxes. So, you can trust me when I say: AgentMatch is an incredible tool. Where else can you find an agent database that cares so much about making the search for representation both easier and more personal?

But this post is not just about the brilliance of AgentMatch. It’s also about how to make the most of it to suit your book, your submission and your agent.

Here are a few tips that may prove useful, which have a mix of advice about the tech side of AgentMatch and about the querying process:

But first

I recommend opening profiles in a new tab, so you’ll be able to have multiple profiles up at once and be able to easily compare information to choose the best agent for you.

Open to submissions?

It’s a good idea to look at their Client List Status first so you don’t waste time on the agent if they are currently closed to new clients. The usual reason for this is that they are catching up on a backlog of queries. The Submission section should still show the agent’s submission criteria though, even if they’re closed, so you can start querying them as soon as they reopen.

Additionally, the Client List Status is also a great resource for indicating how likely the agent is to take on new clients; a new agent will be growing their client list and so take on a higher proportion of clients, whereas an agent with many years of experience might be concentrating more on working with their existing clients.

Don’t be fooled

If the number of clients for an agent says 0 or a very low number, don’t be put off; sometimes the agents don’t make their full client lists available or don’t distinguish which clients are theirs out of the combined agency client list. They could have agented for decades and represented over a hundred clients but if it wasn’t made available, it couldn’t be put on the profile.

In such cases, it’s worth checking the agent’s Profile section on AgentMatch as it often mentions a few of their more notable clients that they’ve discussed in the past. Definitely also check the AgentMatch profile’s Client section because it shows possible names attributable to the agent.

Updates

On the subject of what information is available, the AgentMatch profiles are kept as up to date as possible, a fact I know extremely well given that it has been my job to help keep profiles accurate this summer. But it means that I can also say with emphasis that the agenting world changes and it changes at light speed. They might put out ten new Tweets in the blink of an eye. One agent was open to new submissions and closed the next time I looked. So, while AgentMatch is without a doubt the best agent database, with the most data, detail, and literary soul, it is physically not possible to update over a thousand agents every day (unless the team here drinks a gallon of coffee).

Get to know agents first

You should obviously use AgentMatch to find a host of agents all keen to represent your exact book with passion and expertise, instead of scrolling to the nineteenth page on Google to find at least one agent interested in children’s non-fiction. But just make sure that, if you find a particular favourite on AgentMatch that has leaped up to first place on your shortlist of agents to query, you follow through on the Interesting Links section and double check their agency website. It might prevent a lot of emotional investment going down the drain after realising they stopped being interested in your genre or changed their submission criteria an hour after their profile was last updated.

Submission requirements: what they want and how they want it

Speaking of which, the Submissions section is vital. Without exception, every single agent in every single interview said that the top querying mistake was ignoring the submission criteria. Even worse, it was almost always in response to the question of what causes them to instantly reject a query. It is therefore imperative that your query must follow the agency’s guidelines.

Yet again, our AgentMatch profiles are dedicated to going above and beyond. The Submissions section shows how to ensure your query is at least read and not automatically disqualified for using the wrong criteria, and the Advice section shows how to make your submission desirable. Usually this section entails a collection of quotes, advice and tips given by the agent in multiple interviews, which will help you to personalise and streamline your query for that particular agent. Sometimes this can prove vital to drawing them in, especially if the agent only asks for a query letter or uses one to decide whether to read a sample of writing. In such cases, even an incredible manuscript or proposal will be completely overlooked out of a disinterest in the initial query letter, so implementing their specific preferences or tastes for submissions will have a much better chance at making your book stand out in their mind.

How else can you grab an agent’s attention?

Another method of getting an agent’s attention, simultaneously a piece of advice expressed by the majority of agents in various interviews, is research. Well, clearly AgentMatch compiles your research for you, bringing together a huge range of sources for each agent to provide the fullest profile possible. But the kind of research that all agents want authors to conduct is to learn what they have in common with each other, such as an admiration for the work of one of their clients, or a shared love of their favourite books, or even enjoying the same hobbies or TV shows. Mentioning any mutual interests in the query letter will make your submission stand out, and finding common ground also shows that both of you are on the same page (no pun intended) about the kind of books you like and your interests in literature. The perfect agent for your book will be one who truly loves reading it, so be sure to check the Clients, Authors & Books Liked, and Other Loves & Interests sections on the AgentMatch profile. Perhaps your ideal agent is a fellow watcher of Schitt’s Creek?

Similarly, if offered representation, it’s important that the agent-client relationship is healthy and that you can work effectively together, possibly for many years and even for your whole career. Besides getting a sense of their interests and personality from their AgentMatch profile, it is worth going down to the Interesting Links section. This is where the interviews that provided quotes for the Advice section can be found, as well as various other resources, which can all give a sense of the agent’s personality.

You only get one shot, so don’t waste it

The Profile section itself usually involves a few key pieces of information for each agent, including their current agency, a brief aspect of their publishing career, their approach or attitude to being an agent, and (crucially) their areas of representation.

If your book doesn’t fit into the genres or topics that they represent, do not submit to them as they will never take it on. It’s not a reflection of the quality of your writing, it’s simply like hammering a square peg into a round hole. They won’t offer representation.

I know I’m labouring the point but it is the most frequent mistake made by querying authors, aside from using the wrong submission criteria.

There are so many wasted queries because of it. Don’t waste yours.

Luckily, every AgentMatch Profile section has a clear manuscript wishlist () and concise list of areas each agent represents, as well as what they are seeking. Far from merely showing which agents are open to your type of literature, most of the Profile section is filled with detailed information on what the agent is particularly looking for in submissions and what they specifically enjoy within their represented genres or subjects.

In short, the Profile is the agent’s manuscript wishlist and it’s an essential part of AgentMatch, the heart of it as I personally believe. You’re using it to narrow down that search. Maybe you have found the agents that represent your genre. But what about your exact sub-genre?

If the Profile section mentions that the agent enjoys the fundamental concepts of your book – be it monster protagonists, or small-town contemporary romances, or narrative non-fiction that deep dives into investigative journalism, or a cookbook that looks at the intersection of culture and food (all real examples) – you can be sure that you have found an agent who will adore your work.

This section shows not just an agent who will like your book but one who is actively seeking it.

One who just gets you as an author and client.

One who will offer representation.

And that’s AgentMatch.

It occurred to me today, as I’m preparing for our next publication (more on that soon!), how tricky the KDP dashboard is to navigate when you’re using it for the first time.  


When setting up Getting Published, I had a successful self-published author, a certain Harry Bingham, to lean on. There were countless emails from me to Harry’s inbox: ‘what does this mean?’, ‘will it break if I do this?’, or just a simple ‘help.’ This got me thinking, what about those of us who don’t have a bestselling, self-published author to hand? So that’s where today’s blog post comes in. I’m going to tell you all about the KDP dashboard’s best-kept secrets I’ve discovered so far. 

 

Preparation is key

It’s true. Preparation really is key when it comes to setting up your book (fiction or non-fiction) on your KDP dashboard. As with our cover selection process, we wanted our decisions to be driven by data and research. So, when it came to setting up our books on KDP, our methods were based on actual data.  


Categories  

When setting up your book on KDP, you’ll be asked to select two categories for your title. These categories (and subcategories) will help amazon customers find your book. Basically: what shelves are most highly relevant to your book? For example, if you look at ‘humour literary criticism’ category, you’ll find 52 Letters in the top 5.

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When you choose your categories on the KDP dashboard you need to make sure they're relevant to your book. Remember that if you opt for a specific sub-category, you are also in effect choosing the category above. So, if you chose “Romance > Historical romance > Regency romance” for a novel, you have also in effect popped your book in the “> historical romance” and just plain “> romance” categories too. 


But how do you select those categories? And more importantly, how can you be sure that those categories are the right ones for your book? Now, KDP does offer guidelines on how to assign your book to certain categories but not on how to choose your categories.  


As with any business, your first priority is to research your competitors: What are they doing? How successful are they? Have they missed something? Which is exactly what we did.  

  1. Identify your competitors. For Getting Published, we carried out a simple search on amazon looking for comparable titles. We looked for titles in certain categories, like ‘nonfiction authorship,’ and titles that shared similar keywords to ours, such as ‘publishing’ or ‘how to get published.’ You might try ‘crime and thriller,’ ‘YA suspense,’ or ‘magical realism,’ whatever you feel matches your title.
  2. Research those titles and the categories they’re assigned to. Using the NerdyBookGirl book category hunter we researched our comparable titles and noted down the categories they were listed for. To do this, you’ll need their ASIN number (you can find this on a book's amazon page, under product details. It'll look something like ASIN: B08DQSVRG). We did this for each title. 
  3. Identify bestseller opportunities. We followed Dave Chesson’s advice, and identified those categories that our title could rank as a bestseller in. We used the Publisher Rocket Dave mentions in his article, but the same process applies for a manual search. We researched each category and then identified categories that we could compete in.  
  4. A little-known fact: KDP allows you to choose 2 categories when your setting up your book, but did you know that you can actually choose up to 10 categories? That’s eight more chances to get your book seen by potential customers! So, identify all the categories you think are relevant. Then when your book has been published and you have your ASIN, email KDP and ask them to update your book categories to include x, y and z. Dave Chesson’s article goes into much more detail for you, if you’d like to know more then you should definitely check it out. 

We used this exact process for Getting Published, and achieved #1 bestseller status in both the UK and US across multiple categories:

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Keywords and phrases

Another feature that we need to get just-right, is selecting the keywords we want our book to be identified with. Essentially, you’ll need to identify words or phrases that you think people are most likely to search, in order for your book to appear in the results. Don’t guess that. Cross-check your keywords by the auto-fill suggestions on Amazon.com. We also used Dave Chesson’s Publisher Rocket to help identify our keywords.  


Top tip: don’t rely on google to help you. People searching for keywords on google will likely be looking for something other than a book. For example, if someone googles ‘how to get published’ they’re probably looking for a blog, course, or YouTube video. But if someone searches that same term on Amazon, then it’s likely they are looking for a book. So although google can help focus your keywords, don’t rely on it. Find out more on choosing your keywords, here


You’ll probably end up with 2-3 phrases that really work for the book. Use those. Then use 1-2 keywords to fill the other boxes (you have 7 all told.) Don’t keyword stuff for the sake of it – it won’t help and will end up hurting it. For Getting Published, we only used 5 keywords and phrases, for that very reason. 


Amazon book description 

Writing a description is one thing, but I found the html formatting the most challenging element. Initially I followed the KDP advice, and used several online html previewers to make sure the formatting was correct. It was not. In fact, the more complex I made the formatting, the more errors I found in the description. From random spacing between paragraphs to haphazard bullet points, it was a mess. So my advice would be to keep the formatting simple. Try using, 

<b> to bold </b> 

<i> to italicise</i> 

And for bullet points – 

<ul>
<li>Bulleted List Item</li>
<li>Bulleted List Item</li>
</ul>


My one grumble with KDP is that you can’t see a preview of the book’s page before you hit ‘publish.’ The good news, is that you can make edits to the page when it’s live. So if like me formatting your amazon description made you want to crawl into a corner and hide, rest assured that you can always edit the page until you get it right even after you publish. 


And remember...

When you hit 'publish' you won't be able to access or change the manuscript, cover, or book details while the changes are ‘in review.’ This normally takes 6-12 hours but can take longer. After that though, you can go back in and edit any of those areas at any time, and then re-publish. 


Oh, and don’t forget, these features aren’t permanent. The categories, keywords, and book description are changeable. The world of publishing on KDP moves quickly, when one day you may be competing in an ‘easy’ category, the next a bestseller could come in and make that category very competitive. So, keep an eye on your books; change up your categories, keywords and book descriptions as needed.  


The beauty of publishing on KDP, is that the journey doesn’t end the moment you hit ‘publish.’ Now it’s about supporting your book and giving it the best chance of continued success.  

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They say you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover, but when it comes to Amazon that’s the first thing our potential buyer will be doing. The book cover needs to engage the reader’s interest, just long enough for them to click on the image. After that it’s the Amazon description and ‘Look Inside’ feature that’ll secure a sale. But how do you know which cover will appeal to your target reader?  


I’m going to talk you through the process we used for selecting a book cover for Getting Published. As Harry explained in Covers? Sorted. Reviews? Sorted., we commissioned a selection of book cover designs and tested them on Facebook to see which design would appeal to our target audience.  


To start off, we approached three designers, all of which had varying levels of experience designing book covers. As part of the brief, we requested  

  • three designs from each designer 
  • a cover design that would appeal to UK and US based buyers  
  • a design that would be clear and attractive as a thumbnail image on Amazon’s search result pages. 

In turn, we included some examples of our competitors and explained our cover selection process. 


We ended up with over 15 designs to choose from! We then selected our top five for testing – based on which designs we felt met the criteria we laid out in the brief and which ones we felt sat well within the Jericho ‘family.’ 


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Once we selected our top covers, we began the testing process. The split test allowed us to run five different Facebook adverts at the same time, one for each cover design. It was pretty easy to set-up. All we needed to do was resize the images (we used Canva), prepare copy to be used on all five adverts, and set the parameters for the test. The adverts were identical, the only variation being the image: 

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The only tricky part of this was getting our covers through Facebook’s approval process. Usually, an ad can only run with 20% text in the image. But this rule doesn’t apply for book covers, for the obvious reason that book covers generally need a lot of text on them! However, you can't ‘tell’ Facebook that you’re advertising a book cover straight away. You have to upload the ads as normal, and then wait to see if they get approved. If they do, great! If not, you’ll get an email from Facebook saying they’ve been rejected for having too much text (like we did) then you have to contact Facebook (through email or direct message) and tell them it’s a book cover. This is a bit of effort, but ultimately, they will apply the book cover exemption to your ads and finally, approve them! None of this will stop your ads going live, it just means you may need to plan some extra time to get them approved.  

We ran the testing for three days. We could have kept it going for longer, but it was clear on the third day which cover would be the winning design. The covers showed to 8,000 people who expressed an interest in writing and publishing (you can select your target audience using the tools provided by Facebook.) From those, 370 people clicked on the link and downloaded their free copy from BookFunnel (also, super easy to use, but you do have to pay an annual fee). 

The designs performed at different levels, in fact the top three designs were very close. In the end, the ‘best’ cover was the design that had the most downloads over the testing period. 

Cover testing can be a costly experiment. So, before you commit to anything, make sure that you’ve briefed your designer properly. You may choose to only work with one designer and request a range of sample covers to test with. Most designers tend to offer you around 3 designs to choose from anyway. For the Facebook ads, we budgeted for £150, but only spent £100/$130. You might choose to budget for lower than that, which you can do when you set the ads up. You can also keep track of the ‘live’ data as it’s coming in and stop the ads at any time, like we did, or let it run its course.  

So, there it is, our method for choosing the Getting Published book cover. We used testing and data to direct us towards the cover that would appeal to our intended audience – people like you, serious writers. And here it is: 

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Oh, and yes, you can get a copy of Getting Published here if you’re in the UK, and here if you’re in the US

A few weeks ago, Harry posted a blog telling you all about our foray into publishing, Covers? Sorted. Reviews? Sorted. The response we received, and the follow-up questions you posted, prompted us to think a little more about the kind of publisher we’d like to be. Why wouldn’t we share our journey with you? Afterall, we are a community of writers – supporting each other on our individual journeys to publication.  

So that’s what we’re going to do. We’re going to share our successes, processes, hiccups, and the tricks we learn along the way.  

Our first title, Getting Published by Harry Bingham, was released as an ebook and paperback on Amazon two weeks ago. We kept this pretty quiet for a while – we’ll tell you our reasoning for that another time – but for now let me tell you a little more about the book.  

Getting Published is Harry’s definitive guide to getting your book traditionally published. It was a mammoth task, but Harry has covered every possible question that writers like us might have. Getting Published will 

  • Tell you if you need an agent and how to find one 
  • Teach you how to create a captivating query letter and synopsis 
  • Show you how to create a book proposal 
  • Help you negotiate the world of literary agents 
  • Explain the market for books as it exists in the 2020s 
  • Help you figure out your publishing contract 
  • Show you how to maximise your chances of successful publication – and how to work with editorial, with cover design, with publicists and every other part of publishing 
  • Teach you what you really need to know about author brand 
  • Address all the financial questions you’re likely to have

To find out more and to get your hands on a copy go here if you’re in the UK or here if you’re based in the US. 

Oh, and if you think we’ve missed something out, let us know… that’s what second editions are for!  

We’ll be sharing more Jericho Writers Publishing news over the coming weeks, but until then we hope you enjoy the book!

Of all the writing habits I have, one of the worst – the worst from good financial sense point of view – is that I like writing LONG books.

My first novel was a spine-breaking 180,000 words. Not one of my novels has ever been less than 110,000 words. The first “short story” I wrote was 8,000 words, which is to say miles too long to be an actual short story. Heck, even this email is likely to be far longer than any other email you get in your inbox today.

Ah well. There are some things you can’t fight, and my addiction to length is one of them.

But that also means that when it comes to short-form copy, I’m at a loss.

I’m not especially good at book blurbs, which want to be about 100-120 words (depending a bit on layouts and where you’re expecting them to appear.) Since titles need to be short and punchy, I’m not especially good at those either.

In a word: I’m pretty damn rubbish when it comes to coming up with titles … and this email is going to tell you how to write them.

Which means if you want to ignore the entire contents of what follows, on the basis that I obviously, obviously, obviously don’t know what I’m talking about, then I have to say that the evidence is very much in your favour.

That said, I think it’s clear enough what a title needs to do. It wants to:

  1. Be highly consistent with your genre
  2. Offer some intrigue – for example, launch a question in the mind of the reader
  3. Ideally, it’ll encapsulate “the promise of the premise” in a few very short words, distilling the essence of your idea down to its very purest form.

The genre-consistency is the most essential, and the easiest to achieve. It matters a lot now that so many books are being bought on Amazon, because book covers – at the title selection stage – are no more than thumbnails. A bit bigger than a phone icon, but really not much. So yes, the cover has to work hard and successfully in thumbnail form, but the title has more work to do now than it did before.

Genre consistency is therefore key. Your title has to say to your target readers, “this is the sort of book that readers like you like”. It has to invite the click through to your book page itself. That’s its task.

The intrigue is harder to do, but also kinda obvious. “Gone Girl” works because of the Go Girl / Gone Girl pun, and those double Gs, and the brevity. But it also works because it launches a question in the mind of the reader: Who is this girl and why has she gone? By contrast, “The Girl on the Train” feels a little flat to me. There are lots of women on lots of trains. There’s nothing particularly evocative or intriguing in the image. I don’t as it happens think that book was much good, but I don’t think the title stood out either. (I think the book sold well because of some pale resemblances between the excellent Gone Girl and its lacklustre sister. The trade, desperate for a follow-up hit to Gone Girl, pounced on whatever it had.)

The third element in a successful title – the “promise of the premise” one – is really hard to do. I’ve not often managed it, and I’ve probably had a slightly less successful career as a result.

So what works? Well, here are some examples of titles that do absolutely nail it:

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo

Brilliant! That title didn’t translate the rather dour and serious Swedish original (Man Som Hatar Kvinnor / Men Who Hate Women). Rather it took the brilliance of the central character and captured her in six words. She was a girl (vulnerable), and she had a tattoo (tough and subversive), and the tattoo was of a dragon (exotic and dangerous). That mixture of terms put the promise of the book’s premise right onto the front cover and propelled the book’s explosive success.

Incidentally, you’ll notice that the title also completely excludes mention of Mikael Blomkvist, who is as central to that first book as Salander is. But no one bought the book for Blomkvist and no one remembers the book for Blomkvist either. So the title cut him out, and did the right thing in doing so.

The Da Vinci Code

Brilliant. Dan Brown is fairly limited as a writer, but it was a stroke of genius to glue together the idea of ancient cultural artefacts with some kind of secret code. Stir those two things up with a bit of Holy Grail myth-making and the result (for his audience) was commercial dynamite.

And – boom! – that dynamite was right there in the title too. The Da Vinci part namechecks the world’s most famous artist. The Code part promises that there are secret codes to be unravelled.

Four words delivering the promise of the premise in full.

I let You Go

This was Clare Mackintosh’s breakout hit, about a mother whose young son was killed in a hit-and-run car accident. The promise of the premise is right there in four very short words … and given a first person twist, which just adds a extra bite to the hook in question. A brilliant bit of title-making.

___

So that’s what a title wants to do. A few last comments to finish off.

One, I think it’s fair to say that it’s quite rare a title alone does much to propel sale success.

Because there are a lot of books out there, and because everyone’s trying to do the same thing, there’s not much chance to be genuinely distinctive. My fifth Fiona Griffiths novel was called The Dead House, but there are at least three other books on Amazon with that title, or something very like it. That didn’t make my title bad, in fact – it did the promise of the premise thing just fine – but I certainly couldn’t say my title was so distinctive it did anything much for sales.

Two, if you’re going for trad publishing, it’s worth remembering that absolutely any title you have in mind at the moment is effectively provisional. If your publishers don’t like it, they’ll ask you to change it. And if they don’t like your title #2, they’ll ask you to come up with some others. In short, if, like me, you’re bad at titles, you just don’t need to worry too much (if you’re going the trad publishing route, that is.) There’s be plenty of opportunity to hone your choice well prior to publication.

Three, you don’t want to think about title in isolation. There should, ideally, be a kind of reverberation between your title and the cover. That reverberation should be oblique rather than direct. Clare Mackintosh’s I Let You Go had for its cover image a butterfly trapped against a window – a metaphorical reference to the anguish of the book’s premise. If instead it had shown a mother obviously distraught as a car struck her son, the cover – and title – would have seemed painfully clunky and ridiculous.

If you get a great cover image that doesn’t work with your chosen title, then change the title. If you have a superb title and your cover designer’s image is too directly an illustration of it, then change the image. That title/cover pairing is crucial to your sales success, so you can afford no half-measures in getting it right.

That’s all from me.

My kids are making elderflower cordial and singing as they do so. They are also wearing helmets for no reason that I can possibly understand.

Till soon

Harry

PS: Want to know what I think of your title? Then I’ll tell you. Just pop your title (plus short description of your book) in the comments below. I’ll tell you what I think.

Usually, on Thursday afternoon or so, I start pondering what I’m going to write about on Friday.

This week: no pondering. There’s only one thing I could possibly write about.

The biggest book-related newsflash this week – or this year – is that Barnes and Noble is changing ownership. The ins and outs are a little complex (and everything is not quite settled), but if all goes according to plan:

  • An investment firm, Elliott Advisers, is to buy Barnes and Noble, in a deal which values that business (including its debts) at about $700 million.
  • That sounds like a lot of money, but given that B&N’s sales are $3.6 billion, the pricing actually feels pretty cheap – reflecting the dismal state of B&N.
  • Elliott is also the 100% owner of Waterstones, the British equivalent of B&N. Both those chains are proper bookshops, appealing to proper book lovers. In that sense, the chains are distinct from the supermarkets, who just sell a lot of books but don’t care about them, or the British High Street & travel operator, WH Smith, which is as much a stationer and a newsagent as an actual book store.
  • Waterstones was rescued from impending financial disaster by CEO James Daunt. It was Daunt who negotiated the sale of the firm to Elliott.
  • Daunt will now act as CEO to both firms – B&N and Waterstones – and will divide his time between London and New York.

As it happens, Daunt also owns and runs his own mini-chain of high-end London bookstores. It was his experience at those stores which won him the position at Waterstones.

So, assuming that all goes according to plan, James Daunt will be the book world’s second most powerful human, after Jeff Bezos.

So what does that mean – for readers? For writers? For publishers? For anyone?

Well.

It’s a big and important move. James Daunt has a huge reputation in the UK and it’s probably deserved. His secret sauce for success? Quite simply this:

There is no secret sauce.

In the UK, Daunt simply took everything back to basics.

He turned bookselling into a proper career. (Albeit, inevitably, a badly paid one.) He retained staff who cared passionately about books and waved good-bye to the rest, perhaps a third of them. He cut costs. He made his stores prettier.

And, in a move so radical that it shook British publishing to its core, he let each store manager select their own inventory. So, yes of course, every store was expected to stock major bestsellers of the moment. But beyond that, what stores sold was guided by local passion and local knowledge. From a reader’s point of view, stores got better. There was more energy, more passion, more commitment.

But publishers, for a while, didn’t know what to do. In the past, publishing worked like this:

  1. Publishers paid Waterstones a big chunk of cash to get into a 3-for-2 front-of-store promotion. So Waterstones was actually retailing its shelf-space. It wasn’t really curating its own retail offering.
  2. Some of those 3-for-2s did really well, and became huge bestsellers.
  3. Others didn’t, and the volume of returns was enormous (often 20% of total stock.)
  4. Publishers pulped those returns, ditched those authors and just made money from their mega-successes

That was check-book publishing and check-book retail.

Daunt killed that, and terrified publishers. How could they market books if the key step wasn’t just throwing bundles of money at retailers? [and if you want a reminder of the different publishing options, you can get that here.]

Well, they solved that problem … kinda. But all they really did was turn their attentions (even more than before) to the supermarkets and other mass retailers. Waterstones’ local stores are great and feel like real bookshops … but they can’t build a bestseller as they did in the old days, because each store chooses its stock according to its own tastes.

Daunt’s path in the US is likely to follow the exact same route.

He’s commented that one of the issues he feels on entering a typical B&N store is quite simply “too many books.” Too much stock. Too little curation and guidance. Not enough knowledge from the booksellers. An atmosphere so flat, you could swap it for cigarette paper.

He’ll cut stock. Reduce staff, but retain the best and most passionate members. Eliminate central promotions. Get better terms from publishers. Sharply reduce stock returns.

Do the basics, but do them right.

The impacts, positive and negative?

The positive:

Elliott’s cash plus Daunt’s knowhow should save specialist physical book retail in the US. That’s massive. It’s the difference between a US publishing industry that operates much as it does now and one that would be almost wholly slave to Amazon. That also means that trad publishing is likely to survive in roughly its current shape and size, rather than being sidelined by the growth of digital-first publishers (notably self-pubbers and Amazon itself.)

The negative:

US publishers will have to learn the lessons already absorbed by the Brits. If B&N no longer operates national promotion systems as in the past, publishers can’t make a bestseller just by buying space. Yes, they’ll go on seeing what they can do on social media and all that stuff. But, as in the UK, they’ll be even more dependent on supermarkets. The make-or-break of a book will be not “Is this wonderful writing?” but “did we get enough retail space in enough supermarkets at a sufficiently attractive price?”

I know any number of authors where Book A did incredibly well, Book B did poorly … and Book B was better than Book A. The difference, in every case, was that the supermarkets backed A and not B, and there’s damn all a trad publisher can do once the supermarkets have said no.

Oh yes, and supermarkets don’t really give a damn about the quality of writing. They don’t know about the quality of the writing. They just buy on the basis of past sales (if you’re John Grisham) or a pretty cover (if you’re a debut.)

Of course, they’d say their selection is a damn sight more careful than that, and it probably is. But that’s still “careful by the standards of people who mostly sell tinned beans and dog food for a living.” That’s not the same thing as actually being careful.

That sounds like a fairly downbeat conclusion, but the Elliott-saves-B&N news is still a real big plus for anyone who loves traditional stores, print books and traditional publishing. It’s the single biggest win I can remember over the past few years.

What that win won’t do, however, is weaken the hold of supermarkets and Amazon over book retail. Those two forces are still huge. They’re still central.

And of course, talking about print books has its slightly quaint side. Me, I prefer print. I hardly ever read ebooks. I just spend enough time on screens as it is.

But print books constitute less than 30% of all adult fiction sales, and online print sales accounts for a big chunk of that 30%.

In other words, all those B&N stores up and down the US are still only attacking 23% or so of the total adult fiction market. However well Daunt does, that 23% figure isn’t about to change radically. (Or not in the direction he wants, anyway.)

But, just for now, to hell with realism. Let’s remember the magic of a beautiful bookstore.

Daunt does. Here are some comments of his from 2017:

“[there is a sense that] a book bought from a bookshop is a better book.... When a book comes through a letter box or when a book is bought in a supermarket, it's not vested with the authority and the excitement that comes from buying it in a bookshop. …Price is irrelevant if the customer likes the shop. The book is never an expensive item, [particularly for the many customers who] we know are quite happy to go into a café and spend dramatically more on a cup of coffee."

Quite right, buddy. Now go sell some books. The readers need you.

Till soon

Harry

I’ve been reading a terrific guest post on our blog by our Craig Taylor. (And actually, “guest post” doesn’t feel like quite the right term, if I’m honest. Craig’s a buddy, not a guest.)

The post is on how to write a scene and, in it, Craig asks:

If the theme of your work, say, is unrequited love, does your scene angle in to that theme? Does it demonstrate a circumstance or a feeling which is associated with unrequited love? Or does it demonstrate a circumstance or a feeling about requited love, so as to throw into relief the experience that one of your characters will have about unrequited love?”

And those are interesting questions, aren’t they?

I, for one, don’t write a book thinking that every scene I write has to “angle in” to my major theme. But what if that’s wrong? What if, in a well-constructed book, pretty much everything angles in to the one same issue? (Or, rather, cluster of issues, because a book that is rich thematically can never be too neatly categorised.)

And here’s another thought:

What if you don’t especially think about these things as you build your story? What if you do concentrate on good writing (nice prose, strong characters, a well-knitted plot), but don’t overthink the thematic stuff?

What happens then? Is the result strong? Or will it never reach the kind of thematic depth and congruence that Craig is hinting at?

Hey, ho. Interesting questions. So I thought I’d take a look at my own work and see what’s actually happened there.

So my last book, The Deepest Grave, has a cluster of themes that include:

  • Ancient history, specifically post-Roman Britain and the shade of Arthur
  • Treasure and fakery
  • Death (because this is a murder mystery, but it is also a book about Fiona Griffiths, whose attitudes to life and death are deep and complicated.)

But then, I only have to write those themes down on the page here – something I’ve never done before; I don’t plan my thematic stuff – and I realise this: that those themes absolutely and necessarily contain their opposites. So a book that is about fakery and death is also, essentially, a book about:

  • Authenticity
  • Life – or, more specifically in Fiona’s case, the whole knotty business of how to be a human; how to establish and maintain an identity in the face of her overawareness of death.

OK. So those, broadly, are my themes. Let’s now look at whether my various scenes tend to hammer away at those things, or not. Are themes something that appear via a few strong, bold story strokes? Or are they there, fractal-like, in every detail too?

And, just to repeat, those aren’t questions I consciously think about much as I write. Yes, a bit, sometimes, but I certainly don’t go through the disciplined thought process that Craig mentions in his post.

And blow me down, but what I find is that, yes, those themes infest the book. The book never long pulls away from them at all.

So, aside from a place and date stamp at the top of chapter 1, the first words in the book are these:

“Jon Breakell has just completed his chef d’oeuvre, his masterpiece. The Mona Lisa of office art. The masterpiece in question is a dinosaur made of bulldog clips, twisted biro innards and a line of erasers that Jon has carved into spikes.”

That’s a nod towards ancient history. It’s a nod towards authenticity (the Mona Lisa) and fakery (a dinosaur that is definitely not a real dinosaur.) It’s also, perhaps, a little nod towards death, because in a way the most famous thing about dinosaurs is that they’re extinct.

It goes on. The mini-scene that opens the book concludes with Fiona demolishing her friend’s dinosaur and the two of them bending down to clear up the mess. Fiona says, “that’s how we are—me, Jon, the bones of the fallen—when Dennis Jackson comes in.”

That phrase, the bones of the fallen, puts death explicitly on the page and in a way which alludes forward to the whole Arthurian battle theme that will emerge later.

That’s one example and – I swear, vow & promise – I didn’t plan those links out in my head prior to writing. I just wrote what felt natural for the book that was to come.

But the themes keep on coming. To use Craig’s word, all of the most glittering scenes and moments and images in the book keep on angling in to my little collection of themes.

There’s a big mid-book art heist and hostage drama. Is there a whiff of something ancient there? Something faked and something real? Of course. The heist is fake and real, both at the same time.

The crime that sits at the heart of the book has fakery at its core. But then Fiona start doubling up on the fakery – she’s faking a fake, in effect – but in the process, it turns out, she has created something authentic. And the authenticity of that thing plays a key role in the book’s final denouement.

Another example. Fiona’s father plays an important role in this book. He’s not a complicated or introspective man. He doesn’t battle, the way his daughter does, for a sense of identity.

But what happens in the book? This big, modern, uncomplicated man morphs, somehow, into something like a modern Arthur. That identity shift again plays a critical role in the final, decisive dramas. But it echoes around the book too. Here’s one example:

“Dad drives a silver Range Rover, the car Arthur would have chosen.

It hums as it drives, transfiguring the tarmac beneath its wheels into something finer, silvered, noble.

A wash of rain. Sunlight on a hill. Our slow paced Welsh roads.”

That’s playful, of course, and I had originally intended just to quote that first line, about the Range Rover. But when I opened up the text, I found the sentences that followed. That one about “transfiguring the tarmac” is about that process of transformation from something ordinary to something more like treasure, something noble.

And then even the bits that follow that – the wash of rain, the sunlight on the hill – don’t those things somehow attach to the “finer, silvered, noble” phrase we’ve just left? It’s as though the authenticity of the man driving the Range Rover transforms these ordinary things into something treasured. Something with the whisper of anciency and value.

I could go on, obviously, but this email would turn into a very, very long one if I did.

And look:

Yet again, I’ve got to the end of a long piece on writing without a real “how to” lesson to close it off.

Craig’s blog post says, among many other good things, that you should ask whether or not your scene angles in to your themes. But I don’t do that. Not consciously, not consistently. And – damn my eyes and boil my boots – I discover that the themes get in there anyway. Yoo-hoo, here we are.

Uninvited, but always welcome.

So the moral of all this is - ?

Well, I don’t know. I think that, yes, if you’re stuck with a scene, or if it’s just feeling a little awkward or wrong, then working through Craig’s list of scene-checks will sort you out 99% of the time. A conscious, almost mechanical, attention to those things will eliminate problems.

But if you’re not the conscious mechanic sort, then having a floaty awareness of the issues touched on in this email will probably work as well. If you maintain that rather unfocused awareness of your themes, you’ll find yourself naturally gravitating towards phrases and scenes and metaphors and moments that reliably support the structure you’re building.

And that works, I think. The final construction will have both coherence and a kind of unforced naturalness.

And for me, it’s one of the biggest pleasures of being an author. That looking back at a text and finding stuff in it that you never consciously put there.

Damn my eyes and boil my boots.

Till soon

Harry

I had plans for today, plans that involved some interesting and actually useful work.

But –

Our boiler sprang a leak. Even with the mains water turned off, it went on leaking through the night. Finding an engineer who could come out today (for a non-insane price) took the first half hour this morning. The engineer is coming at 3.30, and that’ll eat the last part of the day.

And –

I have a vast number of kids: four, in theory, but most days it seems like a lot more than that. And one of them, Lulu, spent most of the last couple of nights with, uh, a stomach upset. Of the intermittent but highly projectile variety.

So –

Not masses of sleep. And today’s interesting work plans have been kicked into next week.

Which bring us to –

You. Life. Books. Writing.

The fact is that even if you’re a pro author, life gets in the way of writing all the time. Because writing isn’t an office-based job, almost no writer I know keeps completely clean boundaries between work stuff and life stuff. Life intrudes all the time. Indeed, I know one author – a multiple Sunday Times top ten bestseller – whose somewhat less successful but office-based partner always just assumes that she’ll be the one to fix boilers, attend to puking children, etc, etc, just because she’s at home and not under any immediate (today, next day) deadline pressure.

And that’s a top ten bestseller we’re talking about. Most of you aren’t in that position. You’re still looking for that first book deal. The first cheque that says, “Hey, this is a job, not just a hobby.”

So Life vs Work?

Life is going to win, most of the time. And it’ll win hands down.

The broken boiler / puking kid version of life intrusion is only one form of the syndrome though. There’s one more specific to writers.

Here’s the not-yet-pro-author version of the syndrome, in one of its many variants: You have one book out on submission with agents. You keep picking at it editorially and checking your emails 100 times a day. But you also have 20,000 words of book #2 on your computer and though, in theory, you have time to write, you’re accomplishing nothing. You’re just stuck.

That feels like only aspiring authors should suffer that kind of thing, right? But noooooooo! Pro authors get the same thing in a million different flavours, courtesy of their publishers. Your editor quits. Your new editor, “really wants to take a fresh look at your work, so as soon as she’s back from holiday and got a couple of big projects off her desk …”. Or your agent is just starting new contract negotiations with your editor, and you are hearing alarmingly little for some reason. Or you know that your rom-com career is on its last legs, so you’re looking to migrate to domestic noir, but you don’t know if your agent / editor / anyone is that keen on the stuff you now write. Or …

Well, there are a million ors, and it feels like in my career I’ve experienced most of them. The simple fact is that creative work is done best with a lack of significant distractions and no emotional angst embedded in the work itself. Yet the publishing merry-go-round seems intent on jamming as much angst in there as it can manage, compounded, very often, by sloppy, slow or just plain untruthful communications.

So the solution is …?

Um.

Uh.

I don’t know. Sorry.

The fact is, these things are just hard and unavoidable. Priorities do get shifted. You can’t avoid it. The emotional strains of being-a-writer – that is, having a competitive and insecure job in an industry which, weirdly, doesn’t value you very highly – are going to be present whether you like them or not.

There have been entire months, sometimes, when I should have been writing, but accomplished nothing useful because of some publishing drama, which just needed resolution. No one else cared much about that drama, or at least nothing close to the amount I did, with the result that those things often don’t resolve fast.

Your comfort and shelter against those storms? Well, like I say, I don’t have any magical answers but, here, for what it’s worth, are some things which may help:

  1. Gin. Or cheap wine. Or whatever works. I favour beers from this fine brewery or really cheap Australian plonk. The kind you can thin paints with.
  2. Changing your priorities for a bit. So if you really needed to clear out the garage or redecorate the nursery, then do those things in the time you had thought you’d be writing. You’re not losing time; you’re just switching things around.
  3. Addressing any emotional/practical issues as fast and practically as you can. So let’s say you have book #1 out on submission, you can help yourself by getting the best version of that book out (getting our excellent editorial advice upfront if you need to.) You can make sure you go to a minimum of 10 agents, and probably more like 12-15. You can make sure those agents are intelligently chosen, and that your query letter / synopsis are all in great shape. (see the PSes for a bit more on this.) You can write yourself a day planner, that gives some structure to the waiting process: “X agents queried on 1 May. Eight weeks later is 26 June. At that point, I (a) have an agent, (b) send more queries, (c) get an editor to look at my text, or (d) switch full-steam to the new manuscript.” If you plan things like that upfront, you don’t have to waste a bazillion hours crawling over the same questions in your head.
  4. Accepting the reality. It’s just nicer accepting when things are blocked or too busy or too fraught. The reality is the same, but the lived experience is nicer. So be kind to yourself.
  5. Find community. Yes, your partner is beautiful and adorable and the joy of your life. But he/she isn’t a writer. So he/she doesn’t understand you. Join a community (like ours). Make friends. Share a moan with people who know exactly what you mean. That matters. It makes a difference.
  6. Enjoy writing. This is the big one, in fact. The writers who most struggle with their vocation are the ones who like having written something, but don’t actually enjoy writing it. And I have to say, I’ve never understood that. My happiest work times have nearly always been when I’m throwing words down on a page, or editing words I’ve already put there. And that pleasure means you keep on coming back to your manuscript whenever you can. And that means it gets written. And edited. And out to agents or uploaded to KDP and sold.

Of those six, then cultivating that happiness is the single biggest gift you can give yourselves.

And the gin, obviously.

Harry

Here's the place to talk about today's email - "The days that say no" - in which I talk about that feeling of reluctance to grapple with your current draft. We've all been there. What's your solution? What's worked, what hasn't, what's your advice?

And here's a picture of apple blossom to make us feel happy.

Want to ask questions? Got any follow-up? Don't agree with something I said? Then here's the place to do it. I'll follow the chat thread on this post for a few days following my email, and I'm happy to talk about anything at all.

Meantime, here's a picture of a scary-but-pretty bug.

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Rachael Cooper | Head of Publishing and AgentMatch | Jericho Writers
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