Thursday, 2 February 2012

Becoming a Five Leaves writer

Five Leaves is pretty clear on unsolicited manuscripts. Our website says we are not looking for submissions. Despite this, we receive one, two or three pitches a day. Several hundred a year. Of these, some are clearly sent, scattergun, to every email address the sender can find. Others are from people who've carefully examined our list (although not noticed the note on submissions) and even some who have read some Five Leaves' books (we are grateful). A few have seen the submissions note but write "I see from your website that you don't normally accept unsolicited submissions, but..." Sorry, no buts.
Why don't we look at unsolicited manuscripts? Bloodaxe does, for example, and in consequence it receives - according to the firm's website - getting on for 100 submissions every week from new writers, say 5,000 a year, only one or two of whom will be taken on. God knows how they manage to check through them. And that is one reason we are not keen - we do not have the staff to go through the unsolicited work.
How then do we recruit new writers? Are they all friends, a clique? Well, we could survive happily taking on no new writers. Existing writers on our list have a habit of writing more than one book. We don't, contractually, tie people down and some of our writers have gone elsewhere, somewhere bigger, or somewhere more appropriate with their other work. Good luck to them. But some writers are now on their second, third... eighth book with us and that leaves little room. Most of the books we publish are commissioned. We might think of an idea, and find the right person to right it. Thus we commissioned Mark Patterson to write Roman Nottinghamshire - we'd been looking for a writer, and luckily for him he wrote a piece in Nottinghamshire Today, which had just the right tone. We approach writers whose work we like. We'd noticed that Naomi Jaffa had been publishing some good poems over the years in good poetry magazines but had not published a pamphlet or a book. We asked her. I attended a talk by Michael Billig on Jews in rock'n'roll - I asked him if he would write a book on the subject for us... and so it goes on. Our historic reprints are another matter as we usually ask around for suggestions, from people expert in the areas we are interested in. Beat material, working class fiction, utopian social history, London novels. Sometimes things just develop. Some years ago we published an anthology of East Midlands' young adult fiction writers... one of the stories by Berlie Doherty became the novel A Beautiful Place for a Murder, published by us, another story by David Belbin will form part of his book Student, due out this year and we have republished a novel by one of the other contributors, with another pending. Our next poetry pamphlet, Oxygen Man by Joanne Limburg, is by someone who appeared some years ago in our anthology Passionate Renewal, where we printed substantial sections of her work. Later this year we are picking up a book by Bali Rai, whose agent represents several of the young adult writers on our list, and through them we've got to know Bali. But our favourite anecdote was that J. David Simons joined our list through my starting reading his first novel in an in-law's bathroom. This led to a mention of the book in a blog entry, then to some correspondence, then to attending a reading by him, and a conversation where he was encouraged to write along a particular line, and the consequent book, and his first one, are now Five Leaves. The in-law is now thinking of putting in a special shelf. Two of our writers this year - both writing on jazz - came to us by recommendation by another publisher, but we knew Peter Vacher and Chris Searle's work already. And so it goes on.
Getting on Five Leaves' list is the most inexact science. It's not fair, but publishing a book is a bit investment of our time and our money, which will often result in much more time being spent and a loss of money (in publishing, the story goes that 80% of books make a loss) so it seems to work best when we have, somehow, built a relationship with a writer, or admire their work, or have come to them by serendipity. Wading through submissions does not do it for us.
So my advice to all potential writers is to get out more; get yourself noticed, write for small magazines, turn up at readings, give talks, don't be a hermit. But also, don't scare off publishers by being demanding or needy. Don't forget to stay in more too - reading the books you have bought or borrowed. Good writers are good readers.

No comments: