Back in 2013 I believed I had finished my first novel, but I wanted to be sure and so sent it off to a literary consultancy just to double check it was ready for the millions of readers who’d be standing by just to buy my wonderful book. The novel wasn’t ready and I began the journey of understanding just how far I had to go to improve my skills to get even close to publishing something of worth. The consultancy was Daniel Goldsmith Associates and Lorena Goldsmith was the person that kick-started learning in the real world of how to write, plot and self-edit. Today Lorena joins me to talk about DGA, the First Novel Prize she runs each year and gives me invaluable tips about breaking into the publishing world.
Lorena, thank you for joining me today. Can you give me some background to your career before you started DGA?
My pleasure. Strangely, my background has always been publishing. I started at 18, as my first paid work, as a freelance editor and translator, while studying at university. I always wanted to work for a publisher, but because I lived in Cheshire and not in London, Cambridge or Oxford, my options were limited. After graduating, I started co-running a business with my husband (now ex-), churning spreadsheets and paying invoices. During meetings, I often scrolled through various newsletters from publishers about titles they were releasing.
How did DGA start?
When I turned 26, my son was born and I was finally done with 9-5, so I began thinking about starting a kind of editorial business that would allow me to work from home and in publishing. He was six weeks old when I founded a literary consultancy and named it after him. Clearly, I had no headspace for anything else at the time.
So it started with a baby. Everything else was just admin. My investment was £120. It was for a website I had ‘commissioned’ a friend to develop for me. I wrote all the initial copy for the website while Daniel was sleeping. I wasn’t sure where all that energy was coming from – staying up at night in between feeds, researching pictures for the few pages that were going to go on the website. Even now, most of the pictures on www.danielgoldsmith.co.uk are the same ones I bought on stock archives and got incredibly excited about during those sleepless nights.
I now know, that, had it not been for me to have a baby, I would have never started my own business. As parents, we often struggle to cope with parenthood, but, if I could say one thing to new parents, it would be that now is the time to start something amazing. You’ll be surprised by how easy it suddenly is to cancel all the noise and channel all those aspirations into that project you’ve often thought about. Watching it grow, alongside your baby, will be one of your most rewarding achievements.
What makes you cringe or roll your eyes the most when you see an underdeveloped novel / submission for the first time?
Authors opening the manuscript with a quote from themselves always gets me. Acknowledgments thanking the neighbours and their dogs for staying quiet while the book was being written, that kind of secretly grandiose stuff.
What’s the biggest high you get out of your work?
Like everyone else, I get the highest highs from interacting with other people. I am euphoric after a great meeting, a stimulating new idea, an energising project that brims with potential. That’s when I feel I’m in the right place.
What would you say is the biggest success one of your clients has gone on to have?
Many of our clients have been successfully published, several at Top 10 best-seller level. However, every spring we organise The First Novel Prize and it’s a period of intense activity, in which we read hundreds of manuscripts trying to find the one. When we eventually find it and it goes on to be published, sometimes as far as multiple territories across the world, as it is the case with Clarissa Goenawan’s Rainbirds, this brings a special kind of joy.
Have you ever had to tell one of your clients that they’re just not going to make it? If you haven’t, then you must have thought it?
Yes, I have had to tell this to many clients, always subjectively of course. We have a section in every assessment report called ‘Marketability’, in which we spell out, in very clear terms whether we think the manuscripts stands a chance in today’s market. It’s true that, when I get my hopes high about a manuscript which I feel is just perfect and I show it to people who subsequently come back labelling it ‘unsellable’, my heart sinks. So I try to stay aware that publishing is vastly a matter of personal taste. Books get published because someone, at the some point in the chain, got excited, very excited, about it and pushed it forward.
Do you mix in the agent / publishers world?
Our team is formed by editors, editorial directors, junior literary agents and literary agent assistants and our in-house writing competition, the First Novel Prize, is judged every year by one senior commissioning editor and one leading literary agent. This involves some level of mixing, but because I don’t live in London and because my son needs taxiing to a lot of after-school activities, I tend to skip evening events – sticking to the occasional lunch.
Can you give me an insight into that special and magical place that so many unagented / unpublished authors dream of breaking into one day? I guess the mystic vision isn’t going to match the reality!
I would ask them to relax and focus on their writing and not on the industry. A good manuscript will open more doors than any contacts will. A good manuscript will eventually be discovered and the endless number of hugely successful self-published authors going on to secure million-pound deals and number one best-seller positions is proof. Ultimately, publishers will listen to what readers like and want more of.
What’s the biggest advice you can give to those querying their work to agents or publishers?
Be selective in whom you query. Endless rejections can take a heavy toll and dishearten even the most hardened of us. There are hundreds of agents out there, so start with those who represent new authors in your genre. A common mistake aspiring authors make in doing their research is to read only classics and best-sellers in their genre and think, if I do what they did, I can’t go wrong. What they should be doing is read debuts in their genres instead, books published by unknown people over the last two or three years, and then find out who signed them up and who eventually commissioned them. And what success they managed to get for those debuts too. Only this way they can be up-to-date with market trends in their genre.
Do you consider the self publishing / independent world to be the future of the industry or do you think the best works will always be available through the big publishers?
It’s difficult to envisage a future in which self-publishing prevails, because the big fish will always find ways to come on top. Be it through larger budgets, tireless marketing, unlimited resources, they will make sure that they have the largest share of the market. Self-publishing’s greatest achievement will be, and most definitely is, to bring success to hugely talented people who had been deemed as ‘unmarketable’ by agents and publishers. The author as a person is a huge factor in whether a book gets signed up or not. As unfair as it is, their age, TV- or radio-appeal, willingness to speak publicly, to tour the country for book signings etc, all these are heavy factors in making the decision. Talented writers who find the time and dedication to write only after retiring, and produce the most mesmerising manuscripts, but who have been told that they have started ‘too late’, have every right to turn to self-publishing and let the readers, not PR departments, decide.
For those who simply can’t do everything themselves, from copy-editing to cover design to typesetting, to marketing, we have clients who have set-up successful publishing ‘cooperatives’, in which they publish each other’s books under the same imprint, with every author contributing their time and skills to the success of the list. I think this is a brilliant idea and certainly an alternative to going it alone.
You’re taking a break from the day to day work at DGA to study. Can you tell me all about that?
Yes, I thought a PG diploma in copyright law would be fun, as I’m working on adding the rights and contracts side of publishing to my career. It was a challenge to complete it – the EU legislation is particularly ridiculous in size – but it’s done and now I’m moving on to gaining experience.
Can you tell me why you launched the First Novel prize and has it turned out to be as per your vision?
It started after a meeting with a literary agent in 2016. He mentioned how hard an agent’s life was. I’m saying this only half tongue-in-cheek, OK, we all know they’re mostly schmoozers, but there is also a huge amount of hard work involved in discovering a new writer. So I called him that evening and said, I think I know how we can help find a new writer for you. The Prize has turned out to be beyond my wildest expectations. It received instant interest from the industry and now we have queues of agents waiting to read the shortlisted manuscripts every year. This is all because of the amazingly talented team of hard-working editors who double as readers in the shortlisting process, and because of the brilliant judges we’ve been lucky to work with so far, so all credit goes to them.
Who would you suggest enters, mainstream genres or would you consider apocalyptic fiction? 😀
I love apocalyptic fiction. As a teenager, my world-view was shaped by the books I read – and still is. I vividly remember The Road – there is nothing more atmospheric and immersive than a certain sense of danger looming over the characters and threatening to strike at any time, and there’s no worse villain than bad weather and an environment dead set against you. And, in fact, The High Lands, one my top favourites in the First Novel Prize shortlist in 2018, is very much like that. I’m very much looking forward to the release of In the End. What is it now? Less than a week away?
Do you know who the judges will be this year?
I do. Shall I tell you? But then obviously, I’d have to … you know…
It must be a mighty task reading all those manuscripts?
It’s not easy. We are very lucky to work with a hugely talented team of real grafters.
How many authors entered last year?
We don’t release a figure, but let’s say it was double the previous year and way more than the entries in another, very prestigious, competition aiming at unpublished and independently published novelists.
Do you have to read each one cover to cover?
No, of course not. We read until we feel we want to stop. If we want to carry on reading, we won’t stop and that entry will end up on the longlist.
Do you keep in touch with previous winners?
Absolutely. We work hard to get the manuscripts to every agent who has expressed an interest and we follow up with the winners and shortlistees about who’s interested. When a deal is agreed, we want to be the first to know.
I learnt a lot from your feedback and from your book, SEFTS. What would you consider the best training ground to be for new authors? A degree in English literature, creative writing courses, reading books like your own, or another route?
Thank you, I’m pleased to hear it. Joining a writers’ group can be fun and stimulating. Reading books like your own helps more than anything else, as long as you read them critically and question every decision the author makes along the way.
Do you write fiction yourself? Surely you would boss it!
I only wish that were the case. I sadly struggle with imagination, so I tried my hand at writing some fiction that was mostly based on personal experience. Absolutely no one liked it. So I just keep it in an old folder, not sure why actually. Perhaps thinking that one day I’ll find the time (and talent) to turn a sentimentalist and whiny heartbreak story into a meditation on the universal human condition exposed through a unique experience of enormous depth with which millions will resonate and which will leave readers looking at the world in a new light. Then go on to win a few serious awards too. Then pigs might fly.
It just leaves me to thank Lorena again for joining me today and I wish you all the best for the future. You’ll be seeing my novel In The End in your pile of entries for next year’s competition, unless of course the forthcoming tide of overwhelming success makes me ineligible. But first I’m off to edit my acknowledgements before the 30th November!
Entries for the next First Novel Prize open in February 2019 for self-published or unpublished novels. For full details see the prize website. For more information about DGA’s services you can visit http://www.danielgoldsmith.co.uk and you can keep up to date with Lorena via Twitter.
If you enjoyed this interview then why not follow my blog where I’ll be posting more interviews and conversations soon. I regularly provide an insight into my own experiences as I publish my debut novel, In The End, an apocalyptic thriller that will leave you breathless, available to pre-order now.
If you’re an author, or work in the industry and you’ve got an interesting story to tell, drop me a line on firstname.lastname@example.org