Wednesday, 6 April 2011

How to get noticed

It’s who you know, isn’t it? The political debate currently rumbling about parental influence and unpaid internships has its echoes in the literary world too. Writing your first book is a lot of hard work for no money at all, and if you’ve got any kind of unearned income or someone to support you it is an enormous bonus.

And finding an agent is undoubtedly easier when you know people in the industry.

Take me, for example. When I started approaching agents I used every contact I had. Writer friends were generous enough to put me in touch with their agents. I also wrote cold to other agents.

Every agent who’d never heard of me turned me down flat -  in fact I’m still waiting to hear from a few. Some of those with whom I had some sort of link made time to chat, but ultimately weren’t interested. (One promised to read  my manuscript, but hadn’t got around to it by the time I had other definite offers. It later turned out that this lovely agent lived in my street. We both feel we had a lucky escape…I would have turned into a complete stalker, popping up as she put out the wheelie bins to find out if she’d sold the film rights)  
 But three of the personal contact agent were keen to represent me. And I met the friend-of-a-friend who eventually became my agent at - ahem, cliché alert – an Islington dinner party.

So, what about all those brilliant writers out there who don’t live in north London, work in the media and have writer friends? (I know, I know. In mitigation I point out that my parents had nothing at all to do with any of this, and have never been able to pull the slightest strand of string to aid my career, much as they would love to. My contacts are completely self-made which is one reason why I only got published in my forties. The other reason is that I never wrote anything before I got into my forties because I was too busy working in the media and making friends with writers and people in Islington.)

Luckily there’s another route to getting yourself noticed by agents and editors. The fabulous Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators runs loads of events at which aspiring writers and artists can meet commissioning editors and agents. There’s even an agents’ party -  this year's will be on September 29, and regular slushpile competitions, judged by agents.

Best of all is the annual competition to be part of the Undiscovered Voices anthology. This is the third year the competition has run, and winning is a fast track to getting noticed by agents and editors. Thirteen of the 24 authors featured over the last two years now have book deals. They include Sarwat Chadda, Candy Gourlay and Harriet Godwin, already big names, and some who will soon be big names – I’m lucky enough to have read Sara Grant’s brilliant dystopian novel Dark Parties,  and I’m looking forward to Bryony Pearce’s Angel's Fury  and Katie Dale’s Someone Else’s Life. Undiscovered Voices is fast becoming the X Factor of children's writing in the UK -  although the quality of its winners is much more reliable than some of the singing contest's stars.

Malorie Blackman is this year’s honorary chair and the list of judges is the stuff of an aspiring writer’s dreams: Rachel Boden, Commissioning Editor at Egmont; Jo Anne Cadiz, book buyer/seller for Foyles children’s books department; Amber Caraveo, Editorial Director at Orion Children’s Books; Julia Churchill, Greenhouse Literary Agency; Dagmar Gleditzsch, literary scout; Catherine Pellegrino, Rogers, Coleridge & White; Jasmine Richards, Senior Commissioning Editor at Oxford University Press; and  my agent, Jenny Savill, Andrew Nurnberg Associates.  Imagine that. All of them reading your work. It's making me want to enter, and I've got an agent and a publisher already (and, I hastily add, I am completely happy with them. It's just that I'm very competitive, and I didn't know about this competition until it was too late to enter it).

 The competition is now open for submissions and remains open until June 1st. Twelve authors will be chosen for the anthology, but another twelve also get honourary mentions, and many of them end up agented too. The success stories on the UV website are inspiring reading. What are you waiting for?

And Nick Clegg -  want to find out how to spot talent and increase social mobility? Have a look at how Undiscovered Voices encourages talent to shine and get noticed by the people who matter. And then apply liberally to the entire nation.


  1. I may end up trying this route as both you and Lucy Coats have blogged about it. Trying to submit from the relative isolation of a suburb in Adelaide, South Australia is rather like pedalling my tricycle uphill into a head wind on a road full of potholes!

  2. I was just wondering if it's worth even thinking about if you live in the Middle East - then i saw Catdownunder's comment. I will if you will.... Actually that was a rather hastey promise - I mean I'll look into it and consider it if you will :-)

  3. A brilliant blog post! That judging panel is chock full of wisdom and experience and I'm so thrilled that Malorie Blackman is part of Undiscovered Voices this year. Talent will out - that's the key. Talent and hard work. Undiscovered Voices enables people to be noticed and that's a great thing in this competitive market. Will there one day be Undiscovered Voices initiatives in other countries? Sounds as though there's a demand!

  4. This is the second brilliant post I've read about SCBWI in 24 hours. Undiscovered Voices sounds like a brilliant initiative, maybe I'll set next year's submission as my target date for getting my manuscript completed.

  5. I just wish UV was open to writers involved with the SCBWI-BI who don't live in the UK - it's such a brilliant opportunity. I totally get what catdownunder says - trying to get represented or published in the UK from the sunny depths of South Africa is also no mean feat.
    @Karen - there is no such initiative as UV here in the same way that the local book publishing market is tiny and limited to very specific age groups and genres - and hence the need for local writers to look overseas for opportunities.

  6. So you have to be resident in the UK to enter? Because you can join SCWBI-BI (British Isles) without being resident, can't you?

  7. Oh right - another avenue closed to me. You DO have to be a UK resident. They might at least have opened it up to residents of Commonwealth countries. It is still not easy but it is actually easier for UK residents than it is for many writers living in more remote parts of the world.

  8. Without Undiscovered Voices, I wouldn't have even met my (and indeed your) agent Jenny, as I don't live in North London and her agency wasn't listed in the Children's Writers' and Artists' Yearbook. It's a hard, hard market to break into without personal contacts, but then surprisingly friendly once you're inside it - a bit of a paradox, that. But SCBWI has really opened that world up for me.

  9. Hi All! It's Sara Grant here. First, thanks, Keren, for helping spread the word about UNDISCOVERED VOICES 2012. Setting the guidelines is a tricky business. The key is to be consistent and fair. Technically you are only a member of SCBWI-BI if you live in the UK. If you join SCBWI, it’s an international organization and you belong to the international organization and your local organization – if there is one. Obviously any one can attend any event anywhere in the world as an SCBWI member. That’s one of the many wonderful reasons to join this international organization. One of the reasons for this particular limitation to the UNDISCOVERED VOICES anthology is that authors living in the UK are in the best position to take advantage of the competition. We have been approached by Brits living outside the UK who want to be included and others in the EU who don’t have an active SCBWI organization and have attended SCBWI-BI events. We HATE to turn people away but it’s a slippery slope. We are talking about how to expand and help other SCBWIs create something similar, but for now…you must be an SCBWI member living in the UK.
    Best, Sara Grant, co-editor of UNDISCOVERED VOICES

  10. As someone who was involuntarily absent from the UK for eight years, I'm hugely sympathetic. Is there scope for some enterprising person to set up an online Undiscovered Voices competition for non-residents, and maybe approach some industry people to be judges? Some from the Uk, some from Australia or South Africa maybe? Just a thought..

  11. That is an interesting idea Keren. I really doubt that a country like Australia or New Zealand could set up something like that in isolation. Our populations are simply not large enough.
    It is increasingly difficult for new authors to get published here. Obviously it does happen but as much of it depends, as you suggest, on knowing people as on the quality of the writing.
    When you live in even a relatively remote area this can be a problem.
    I suspect that at least some good writing is being ignored here in favour of authors with more physical access to the venues which will allow greater publicity.
    We can work on it!

  12. That's a really great article Karen!
    I had heard of UV but didn't know it was this awesome :) As an aspiring author (if I ever get the time to actually finish writing my current WIP, ha!) I think it's a great place to start!!
    *thinking about moving to Islington* :D
    Thanks for the advice :)

  13. great post and I know exactly how you feel - I REALLY want to join in the fun even but I'm not eligible ( not that I'm complaining - I love my faithful agent!)Still, at least we get to blog about it :O)