“I had never been to an event before. I approached Storm Constantine, nervous and red-faced and she asked me to sit down at her table. While we were speaking, they asked me to send them my book and two weeks later I got the call: They wanted to publish it.”
Those were the words of Kim Lakin-Smith, dark fantasy and science fiction novelist regarding her first book, Tourniquet. The event she was speaking of was the first alt.fiction. I was interviewing her in Leicester’s finest budget hotel, three sheets to the wind, but her words didn’t fail to make an impression on me as virtually the same thing had just happened to me. Well, minus the getting published bit.
I arrived at alt.fiction expecting to see people dressed up as Spock and talking about World of Warcraft. What I got was much different. There were no Stormtroopers or (sadly) half-naked Princess Leias; there wasn’t even a hobbit. There were a few people with pink hair and one dude in a kilt, but other than that most people looked like me. In fact, many of them were surprisingly buff. Writer of Urban Fantasy, Tom Pollock could be Jason Statham’s stunt double and Fantasy Faction blogger, Marc Alpin looked perfectly capable of bending a steel girder in half with his bare hands.
That was only to be the start of my education into the world of genre fiction. Over the course of the weekend, I discovered that everything I thought I knew about getting a book published was wrong.
1. Agents will read your work, even if you are unpublished.
John Jarrold, an agent who represents several authors and who has become the sci-fi writer’s first port-of-call reads almost every submission he receives, a daunting thirty submissions a week.
When I put the question of agents reading unpublished work to Jenni Hill (editor for Orbit books), Jared Shurin and Anne Perry (editors at Jurassic London), they shrugged and said “yeah” in unison like it was the stupidest question in the world. “As long as you read what they’re looking for and obey their submission rules, they will read your submission and get back to you, but it may take awhile.”
Gary McMahon (horror novelist): “Agents are always looking for the next best thing. A debut author can often make a bigger impact on the market than one who has already been published.”
2. A book only needs to be good to be published.
Conrad Williams (multi-award winning novelist): “Be true to yourself and don’t try to second guess the market. It’s okay, even if your idea isn’t an original one. If you believe in the work and it is good enough, eventually you will get published. I believe that absolutely, 100%”
Gary McMahon: “Talent, persistence and faith in what you’re doing. That is all that it takes.”
3. Your first book is the hardest one to get published.
I asked this of almost everyone I spoke to and got the same answer every time: Debut authors are like gold dust to agents and publishers. Agents would rather take a chance on a new author than push a second book from someone whose first novel didn’t sell well. The flipside of that coin is the depressing realisation that getting your first novel published is by no means an express train to Fametown. The most painful thing I learned at alt.fiction is that if you like money, writing is not for you.
4. Literature Conventions are not just for airing out your Chewbacca costume, they are your key to avoiding the slush pile.
Kim Lakin-Smith: “Simply tell an author at an event you like their book. That is often all it takes to get the conversation going.”
Jared Shurin: “The London Book Fair is a good place to find an agent or a publisher, if you are able to be businessy and professional for a day. It’s stressful and you really have to put yourself out there, but it’s worth it.”
Tom Fletcher (horror novelist): “When book people say that conventions are a good way of increasing your chances, they don't mean that they're there scouting. This sounds incredibly corny and pathetic, but just be genuine and talk to people you meet as you would talk to anybody you've just met. If you just treat everyone as normal people, then eventually you could well find that you're in a situation where it is appropriate to start talking about your own stuff.”
Tom Fletcher tries out the world famous 'hand wig'
Genre authors are optimists and their enthusiasm is contagious. This is true, despite the fact most of them are broke-asses. There were many negative things I learned while I was there; advances are smaller, budgets are tighter, ebooks are killing the industry etc, but those things didn’t seem to matter. The depressing realities of writing in 2012 fell away like water off a Future Soldier’s powered exoskeleton. I left alt.fiction full of hope and determination, which in my case is quite a feat.
After I had finished interviewing the authors and editors, I sat down with a glass of wine and surveyed the room. Everywhere I looked people were happily chatting about fiction. Writers, fans, editors. Not an ounce of ego or awkwardness to be seen--I thought writers were supposed to be miserable and insular!
I picked up my drink and walked over to Tom Fletcher and before I had said, “Hi my name is...” he’d invited me to sit down. With him and with people who work for his publishing company. We ate and boozed for the better part of the night talking of books, hamburgers and how to say “loch” like a Scotsman (I failed miserably). They weren’t snooty or judgemental, even when I admitted I don’t read much sci-fi and that I love Jonathan Franzen novels. In fact, they couldn’t have been more welcoming. I was speaking to real novelists and book people about the industry (and my book) just like Kim Lakin-Smith did at her first alt.fiction. I may not have received a publishing deal on the spot, but I did get some business cards and when it comes time to send my book out, I can say to them: ‘Hi, remember me?’ That in itself is worth thirty quid and the cost of a hotel room.
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