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.