So you have a book in you. How to get it out?

JOURNALISTS have a huge advantage over other would-be novelists. According to former journalist, sometime stand-up comedian and now best-selling comic novelist Jenny Colgan, 90 per cent of people who finish a novel can't write at all. "Most write in green ink. The fact that you work in the industry cuts the odds right down."

Getting a novel published seems to be getting harder and harder, however, she told the September London Freelance Branch meeting. There is a huge concentration on a very small number of books. "A whole hinterland of things are not getting through.

"You have to be incredibly aware of what is out there and what your writing style is like," she said to the would-be novelists in the audience. Like the classic film pitch, you should be able to say in one line what your book is about. And it helps to be able to say which successful novelist you most resemble. "You should look in bookshops and read as much contemporary fiction as you can afford."

Marketability is an important part of it, she says. "People don't like that, but it is." The difficulty is that it is very hard to predict what publishers will want two years down the line: it takes six months to get an agent, six months for the agent to sell it, and a year at least to publish.

Many people still submit proposals to publishers, but the days of publishers reading manuscripts have gone. Now everyone needs to start with an agent, as they are the ones who sell to the publishers.

Colgan recommends approaching the big agencies. "They have a very broad range of writers. Single-handed agencies are very specialist, or not very good." The way to find an agent is to see who represents authors whose books are similar to the one you are trying to sell.

Then you have to convince the agent that you have a third book in you. Most of their return will come from that, not the hard slog of selling the first. She advised people to ignore those who say you should only approach one agent at a time. If more than one agent wants you, one will be delighted to be the one you sign with.

In the past, when books went to publishers they would work with you. Now they will not do that so you have to submit your last draft not your first. And that means getting the manuscript prepared right down to the copyediting. She suggested for help with this.

Book festivals were a good place to meet agents. The London Book Festival even runs a session - Lit Idol - when you can pitch to an agent. And she recommended the Arvon Foundation's residential courses.

For more tips from Jenny, see the Frequently Asked Questions on

  • Sorry this report is late - the mailing dates got as far out of phase with meetings as possible.

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