Self publishing for family historians

As promised to the gentle folk at the Society of Genealogists on Saturday’s workshop on self publishing, here are my notes, posted in two parts.

WHERE I am coming from

What I know about self publishing comes from hard-earned experience publishing my book The Worst Country in the World, which after six years of writing (on and off) evolved into a hybrid mix of family history, early colonial Australian history, memoir and novel. For that reason alone I did not attempt to get it traditionally published. (Nor I realise would any publisher want to take on a book that is not likely to be a mass seller.)

Having read up everything I could find on self publishing and sent off for and received quotes that would entail taking out a mortgage, I decided to do everything myself: convert the book into ebook and design the paperback. The only things I paid for were for editing and cover design. (This not necessarily a path I would recommend unless you have plenty of time and endless patience.)

Sketch by Anna de Polnay

WHAT is self publishing?

Self publishing is ideal for family historians for the following reasons:

  • You get to control everything:
  • You can write the book you want to write
  • You can choose exactly how you want it to look
  • You can spend as much or as little as you want to
  • It doesn’t matter if you’re only expecting to sell a few copies

Print on Demand (POD), which means your manuscript is stored on some electronic device and only printed out when someone orders it, has revolutionised the publishing business. The unit cost of a book is the same whether you order one copy or five hundred. No book goes out of print, and there is no wastage.

However whether or not you decide to buy in professional services or advice it’s important to have a clear idea of what you are looking for with your book. There are sharks out there who are only too happy to charge a small fortune for not very much indeed.

Having done a lot of asking around two companies cropped up frequently, known to offer an efficient, professional and trustworthy service.

Matador’s charges are (according to Choosing a Self-Publishing Service, published by ALLi)

  • Setup, including ISBN, barcode, custom cover design: £680
  • Ebook conversion:  £150
  • Copy edit:  £390
  • Proofread: £340

They do not provide editors, but they do offer marketing and the possibility of getting your book into bookshops (apparently).

SilverWood’s charges are similar, though I’m told they offer a slightly more personal service, and they don’t take on every book.

Also worth considering:

A husband and wife team who offer cover design (at £240), book interior design, setting up of websites, marketing etc.

At the high end of the market:

A bespoke, personal service for print books only, offering everything from ghost writing to editing to the end production of a beautiful work of art, printed on paper of your choice, handbound in leather or anything else you choose.

Before you approach any of these companies however:

What you need to think of

EDITING:   Every writer needs an editor no matter how experienced or successful they are. There are three main types of editor:

  • Structural edit – checking for clarity, over-writing, under-writing, repetition, overall structure
  • Copy editing – line by line checking for grammar, clumsy writing, repetition, clarity
  • Proof reading – checking for mistakes and typos

There is a certain amount of blurring between these three tasks, but do not expect an editor to proofread your book. It is not his/her job. She/he may correct mistakes if they spot them but it is a different process altogether, and one a sharp-eyed friend might be able to do for you (as she did in my case).

For editors you could do worse than taking a look at the readers at the following manuscript assessment companies:

DESIGN of the book

  • Cover
  • Interior

Received wisdom says do not try to create your own book cover unless you are an experienced graphic designer or au fait with Photoshop or other graphic software. For cover designers:

  • UK-based. Your cover remit is ‘put out to tender’ to a number of designers who are invited to submit their designs, and you get to choose your favourite. The more you pay (from £189 up) the more designers you are likely to attract. This has the advantage of being able to choose between several completely different approaches.
  • UK-based. Rebecca Lawston, a highly experienced designer who works for several major publishing companies. Her fees start at £500 for print, £150 for ebook, to include branding and marketing material.
  • US-based. Uses stock images which they manipulate. Charges $150 for print, $100 for ebook, $150 for ebook and print.
  •  US-based. Uses ‘off-the-peg’ templates at $30, or custom design from $35
  •  As above

Matador and SilverWood also offer cover design.

In addition as one helpful participant suggested, it might be worth your while contacting local HE colleges for  graphic design students who might offer their services at a modest fee, in return for experience and publicity. (I have yet to check if this is possible.)

BOOK INTERIOR:  First, find a book whose layout you like to use as a template. Consider:

  • SIZE:  Of the book; standard non fiction is 6”x9”, fiction 8”x5” (but you can choose what you like).  Mine was 6”x9”.
  • TYPEFACE AND TYPEFACE SIZE:  There are specifically recommended fonts. I used Palatino 11 point. It’s not a bad idea to print out a few pages in various typefaces and sizes in your chosen page size to see what it looks like
  • MARGINS:  Mine were quite generous at: top, bottom 1.9cm, inner 2 outer 1.5, gutter .33
  • CHAPTER TITLE LAYOUT:  Centred or left-aligned, upper or lower case, etc.
  • TRIMMINGS:  Drop caps, headers, small caps etc
  • IMAGES:  (photos, maps, family trees) Be aware of copyright: some owners may charge for the use of the image and/or map.

FRONT MATTER : What goes before the main text. This is a matter of choice, but for ebooks certainly it’s good to keep it to a minimum (especially for readers who have downloaded a free sample). Mine are:

  • Title page
  • Copyright page
  • Dedication/quote page.This explained the title of my book
  • Table of contents. Not essential (except in ebooks, for internal links), but standard for non fiction.

END MATTER  :  What comes after the main text. Mine are:

  • Afterword  :  A dedication to my late aunt, who started me off on my genealogical journey
  • Acknowledgements
  • Appendix & chapter notes
  • Bibliography
  • Index
  • Author biog

You can also include reviews, if you have them, or  books you’ve already written.

AUTHOR BIOGRAPHY:  This is important to readers, so it’s a good idea to make yourself sound interesting and likeable!

  • Keep it brief
  • To the point and in the context of the book.
  • Write in the third person

BLURB: The blurb is crucial – it’s what makes a person read a book or pass on. Mine is on the back cover of my book, and also on my Amazon page.

  • Again, keep it brief – no more than 200 words
  • Write in the third person present tense
  • Remember it is a selling tool not a synopsis, so don’t attempt to tell the whole story

The blurb also acts as a reminder of why you decided to write the book in the first place, and what it was made you think other people might like to read it!

Enough for now. The sun is over the yardarm.

COMING NEXT:  DOs and DON’Ts, marketing; ebooks etc.

Sketch by Anna de Polnay
Sketch by Anna de Polnay

Australia & New Zealand Festival of Literature & the Arts

It’s here again: the now-annual AusNZ Festival, at King’s College in the Strand.

AusNZ festival

Taking place right now, and over the coming weekend. Highlights (for me) include Let’s Talk about Anzac, a discussion with the director and cast of the current production of The One Day of the Year (a terrific production, reviewed on my theatre website at; The Indigenous Voice, with Kate Grenville and Tony BirchThe Mara Crossing, on migration, and Who Owns Culture? with Gaye Sculthorpe, curator of the current exhibition at the British Museum, Indigenous Australia.

There are films too: Tim Winton’s The Turning is on on this evening and Frackman, ‘an observational documentary following ordinary Queenslanders caught up in a modern day multinational “gas rush” to secure and exploit coal seam gas’, is showing on Saturday evening.

Other luminaries appearing include Howard Jacobson and AC Grayling, but unfortunately not Don Watson, whose fascinating book The Bush I am reading right now.

The full programme and booking details can be found here:

The festival is a must for anyone interested in Australia and New Zealand.

Crimes and Punishments

It didn’t take much for a person to be packed off to Botany Bay in the early days of transportation. In 19th century Britain there were more than 200 crimes that were punishable by death, compared with fewer than twenty 300 years earlier. These included forgery, pickpocketing, being in the company of gipsies for more than a month, blackening the face and impersonating a Chelsea Pensioner.[1]

My great great great grandparents were transported in the early 1800s for 14 and seven years respectively for the crimes of being in possession of forged banknotes, and for stealing ‘a cloak and other goods to the value of £1.13s.6d from the house of Thomas Cunningham, Gatton, Surrey’.

According to the National Archives the local Assize Courts were ‘where the most serious criminal trials were held twice a year by judges appointed by the monarch’.[2]  Since both John Johnson, the receiver of forged goods, and Mary Moore, the cloak-stealer, were tried and convicted at Stafford and Surrey Assizes respectively that gives some impression of the nature of the ‘serious crimes’ that led to transportation in the early 19th century.

We have all heard of people being transported for the crime of stealing a handkerchief, though I gather most of them were not first-time offenders. (And handkerchiefs in those days were not the plain old cotton things some people use now: they were often made of silk and could be worth as much as 4s), but I can’t help noticing further up the page where my ancestress Mary Moore was ‘committed of Felony’ other felons convicted of crimes such as stealing a sheep priced £4, or goods valued at £2.12, are to ‘be severally hanged by the neck until they are dead’.

Another ancestor (my step great x three grandfather, an Irishman named Robert Aull) was given a death sentence, commuted to transportation, for ‘uttering forged stamps’. (‘Uttering’ means knowingly being in possession of stolen or forged goods with the intention of passing them on.) Margaret Catchpole, one of Australia’s most famous convicts, who featured in my first book The Worst Country in the World, was given two death sentences, for horse stealing and then for breaking out of gaol, commuted again to transportation because people stood up for her good character.

Robert Aull conviction-page-001 (1)
Robert Aul [sic] conviction, Londonderry Assizes 1813

Now I need to find out why John Johnson, a potter from Staffordshire, was apprehended on the streets of Leek with three forged banknotes on his person, and why his wife-to-be Mary Moore was convicted of stealing from the family she worked for. It’s possible she was intending to sell the goods on, as many people did, to a ‘fence’ – which suggests she had criminal contacts – or, more likely, she was planning to pawn them. Local newspapers are my only hope.

But meanwhile, back in Australia …

[1] Bound for Botany Bay by Alan Brooke & David Brandon, (National Archives, London, 2005)
[3] ASSI 94/1616.

Family history book 2: Convicts

It’s been a very long time since I blogged about anything. (I still find it difficult to find the time to research and/or write and keep up a blog.) But as I embark on another family history adventure I thought it might be useful and/or entertaining for any others out there doing the same to file the odd report . Some of these items date back to late last year but I hope now to keep posting regularly-ish.


The first thing I’m realising as I embark on book 2 of the family saga is, as with childbirth, if you risk leaving it too long between babies and/or books you risk forgetting how to do it.

These are my thoughts as I wend my way to the National Archives here in Kew in south London: how do you do this? Where do you start? Which way round does the nappy go/how do you apply for a reader’s ticket? Why can’t I remember anything?

National Archives
National Archives, Kew, London

This time round I’m starting with my Australian convict ancestors, who were hidden from view until a couple of generations ago. I have some information about them thanks to previous family genealogists but no references. What’s more they have difficult names (difficult as in common) – John Johnson and Mary Moore. Do you know how many John Johnsons were transported to New South Wales in the 19th century? (No, nor do I, but there are pages of them.)

As you register for a reader’s ticket you are taken through a five-minute video of how to handle ancient and precious documents which I pay scant attention to as I don’t think they’re going to apply. (I am very wrong.) Then with the help of the friendly staff at the NA I am taken on a guided tour of the relevant parts of their website, I find the documents I am looking for, order them up, go down to the cafe for a break and half an hour later there they are in my allocated locker: two ancient tomes with handwritten records of trials that happened over 200 hundred years ago; and later on in a different room, parchment scrolls detailing the crimes and punishments meted out to convicts at – in my case – Staffordshire and Sussex Assizes in 1808. At which point a light bulb clicks on inside my ailing brain and it all comes back to me: this is why family history is so fascinating – these ancient documents, some of them so unwieldy they have to be held down by weights, these are what bring my ancestors to life. (And in some instances ‘life’ means something else entirely).[1]

John indictment scroll
Staffordshire Assizes scroll (John Johnson)

I learn that my great x three grandfather John Johnson, a potter from Staffordshire, was along with another ‘… at this assizes severally convicted by their own confession of feloniously and without lawful excuse having in their custody Bank of England notes knowing the same to be forged and counterfeited for which they were sentenced to be transported to parts beyond the seas for the term of 14 years.’

John Johnson conviction and sentence
John Johnson conviction and sentence

I discover that my great x three grandmother Mary Moore was at the same time but at different Assizes ‘Committed the 19th October 1807 by the Right Honourable Lord Leslie charged on the oath of Elizabeth Cunningham with feloniously stealing at Gatton, one red cloth cloak, two muslin aprons, and divers other articles of wearing apparel [valued at £1.13s.6d] the property of Jane Cunningham …  jury says not guilty of breaking and entering the ‘Dw. Ho’ [dwelling house] say guilty of stealing the goods …To be transported beyond the seas for the term of seven years to such place.’

Mary Moore conviction and sentence
Mary Moore conviction and sentence

So there we have it – the what, if not the why. Why did a potter from Staffordshire knowingly have forged banknotes in his possession? Why did a 19-year-old girl from Surrey steal items belonging to what I assume was her employer’s daughter, when the sentence for others who were found guilty of stealing goods worth £2.2s. was ‘let them be severally hanged by the neck until they are dead’?

In the end I have to be virtually thrown out of the Archives at closing time at 5pm. Deeply tired but deeply happy.

Welcome back to the world of family research. Like having babies you don’t really forget how to do it, but you do forget the pleasure it brings.


[1] For reference if you are researching convict ancestors this is what you do: on the National Archives website click on Discovery/Person/Criminals/Criminals and Convicts. Scroll down to English Criminal trials 1559-1971 key to Assize courts – – scroll down again to find out the relevant ASSI. There are three records for each trial: Crown and gaol books which list names, charges, pleas, verdicts and sentences. Indictments – the unwieldy scrolls containing more details of the crimes including, in my case, facsimiles of the forged notes my great x three grandfather was found in possession of.

Pitches and pigeonholes

I was thinking about pigeons and the holes they live in (do they?) yesterday, as I was watching The Pen Factor, the last event in The Literary Consultancy’s annual conference ‘Writing in a Digital Age’.

The Pen Factor, which takes its name from The X Factor, features a group of brave writers who are given a limited time to pitch and read extracts from their books to a panel of agents, who are themselves given a limited time to respond, and all this in front of an audience.

There seemed to be a preoccupation on the part of some panel members with genre: ‘Is it really a psychological thriller?’ said one. ‘It doesn’t sound like a thriller setup to me.’ Bearing in mind the limited time allotted to both writers and agents you might think this was a distracting waste of time, as did TLC’s founder, Rebecca Swift. ‘Don’t try and define the genre’, she admonished from the audience, ‘it’s a beautifully written, idiosyncratic book, not necessarily of majority appeal but a beautiful book nonetheless.’ The writer of it admitted agents had told her before they found it ‘hard to place’, so what did she do? She self published it.

Journey into the Interior, by Sylvia Moody
Journey into the Interior, by Sylvia Moody

Before coming down too hard on the agents however it’s worth remembering that when they take on a book they too will be given a few minutes perhaps to pitch it to a publisher. So if they can use that time to say, ‘It’s a thriller with Sci Fi elements, a mix of suchandsuch (insert appropriate bestselling title/author here) and suchandsuch (ditto), rather than, ‘it’s about a woman who after a mystery illness receives odd visitors and communes with vases and the supernatural and some of them are imaginary and some real and it turns out they’re all part of her in the end and it doesn’t really fall into any particular category’, their job is somewhat easier.

So hello self publishing, where while a book has to fit Amazon’s (or Smashwords’) categories to some extent nobody is going to turn it down because it isn’t strictly a thriller or a romance or crime or even a literary novel. I’m about to face a similar problem myself with a period romance that contains elements of erotica. Were I to market it as erotica it might sell quite well but it would disappoint a lot of readers expecting whips and leather and wall-to-wall fornication, if that’s what readers of erotica expect.

Besides it’s hard to know which agents would be likely to handle such a book. As the panel showed it is vitally important, if you are looking for an agent, to find the right one. Not necessarily the biggest or the most successful but the one who is most likely to really love your book and to put time and energy into promoting it. Researching them online is all very well but for most writers this isn’t enough.

Yet another reason to self publish?

Festivals, conferences & inserting images

The AusNZ festival of literature and the arts is all over now. I blogged about it on my other site at The Worst Country in the Worldand there’s more on the Festival’s official site at It was a fantastic event and the hope is to make it a regular one. If you want to be included in their emailing list have a look at their site.AusNZ festival

Happening right now as I type this is (and being tweeted on @TLCUK) is the now annual TLC Conference: 

It starts today, Friday and continues on till the end of Saturday plus a ‘bonus’ half-day on Sunday. It’s always a buzzy event stuffed to the gills with information and the chance to chat to fellow writers, agents and other folk involved in the trad and self publishing business. If you’re there on Sunday come and say hello!


Meanwhile I’ve been genning up (not before time) on how to insert images into ebooks. Like so much else to do with ebooks it is, once you get your head round the instructions, dead easy.

I’ve updated my book to include these instructions (though not yet for print, which is to come). It’s available here – – for 77p.

Here they are:

The images must be in jpeg, gif or tiff format. If your originals are Word documents, as mine were, you can convert them into jpegs by printing them out and scanning them into your computer.

Bear in mind that your images will show up on some e-readers in greyscale, which means some colours may more or less disappear.

Inserting images

  • First, create a folder for your images, and name and number them in the order in which you want to insert them into your text.
  • In your text, place your cursor where you want to insert an image, click on Insert>Picture>Browse to the relevant file, click on the image and click Insert. Centre it.
  • Don’t put a page break before the image, and only add one space after it. Don’t worry if gaps appear before or after the images on your Word document.
  • Save this document in Word, and then as Web Page Filtered. Close it.


In your manuscript folder you should now see, in addition to your Word document, your Web-saved document and another folder that has been created for you with the same name. This second folder contains your images and has to be included with your web-saved document, which you need to zip, or compress.

  • To zip your web-saved document: right click on it, Send to>Compressed (zipped folder). A new folder will appear with a zip in it.
  • Drag the second folder containing your images into this folder. This zipped folder is the document you will be submitting.


Patsy Trench
London, June 2014



Introducing Shelley Weiner

The role of the editor.

As I have said elsewhere, and often, the one person no writer – however experienced, and whether self published or otherwise – can do without is an editor. The editor is the person who comes to your work fresh and assesses whether it works structurally, makes sense, and does not repeat itself. The editor is not strictly speaking an assessor, and he/she is definitely not a proofreader, but if you are lucky she/he will offer her or his opinion on your work and how and if it can improved.

I was very lucky to find Shelley. She did a magnificent job editing my book The Worst Country in the World. She was sensitive to the material and did not try, as a previous potential editor had – changing ‘the wind got up’ to ‘the wind rose’ for example – to alter things for the sake of it.

Shelley Weiner (
Shelley Weiner (

Finding the right editor is like finding the right partner. You are looking above all for someone who understands what you are trying to achieve and who does not impose their own style on your writing, or to ‘correct’ your obvious (and deliberate) idiosyncracies.

In addition to her editing work Shelley is an established author of five novels and many published short stories. Her book ‘Writing your first novel’ is being published in June by The Guardian as part of a series of ’60-minute Masterclass’ ebooks. She also teaches creative writing and mentors new writers, and it is this that I wanted to ask her about.

P:   How would you describe the job of an editor?

S:   A good editor aims for an understanding of what the writer is trying to say and whose story it is. Having achieved this, the aim is for CLARITY. This means finding a balance between what the writer aims to say and the economy of language with which to say it. The ultimate aim is to achieve the kind of transparency that allows a reader to be drawn without distraction into the heart of the story.

P:   As an editor and tutor what are the commonest errors you encounter among your student writers?

S:   It’s at the character invention stage – which, for me, comes right at the beginning of the process – that many new writers falter. So often, and even when they have written large chunks of their novel, I find that they don’t know their characters in the deep, multi-dimensional way that is essential for strong believable fiction. The other big stumbling block is control of point of view – meandering without particular reason from one character’s consciousness to that of another. That can be distracting and confusing. As a reader, I lose faith in the skill of my storyteller.

Personal comment: I’d like to add to this something Shelley told me once, which is that a large chunk of her student writers DON’T FINISH THEIR BOOKS. 

P:   Do you have any particular words of advice to writers, beginners or otherwise?

S:   Writing fiction is a complicated process that takes imagination, commitment, and skill. This last requirement is more complex than is generally perceived. While few people begin piano lessons with an assumption that the concert hall is only a few scales away, many new writers dream of instant publication. They are perhaps less excited by the prospect of a long hard slog with very little fame or fortune at the end of it. So only write if you really want to do it. Among the many talented writers I’ve encountered in my decades of teaching, those who succeed at any level have tenacity.

P:   How does your work as an editor and tutor impact on your own writing, if at all?

S:   I try to separate my activities and, while I’m writing, suspend the critical part of my brain that might impede the flow. The problem is not so much cross-contamination but the pressure of time. Unless I’m extremely strong minded about dividing my days, it’s easy for the teaching and mentoring to swallow the weeks. On a positive note, I have learnt an incredible amount about my writing from the close scrutiny of others’, and feel that engaging with new writers is a highly creative process.

P:   The burning question: do you think it is possible to teach someone how to write?

S:   I believe that we all have a right to write, and that the first vital requirement is the will to do it. Beyond that, however, is the technique: the skills required to create an illusion of reality, to depict a fictional world that seems plausible to the reader. To that extent – yes, those skills can be taught. But some people have a particular and innate ability to shape a narrative and enthral a reader. That too can be honed with practice, but I’m not sure if it can be taught.

P:   Now you have self published your books as ebooks what are your views on self publishing?

S:   I think self-publishing is a wonderful opportunity for writers. One of the worst aspects of finishing a novel is the sense of powerlessness, the passivity induced by waiting for responses for agents and/or editors. While I believe that there is still a strong place for conventional publishing, it is a great thing for writers to have at their disposal – and within their reach – the possibility of finding their own readers. For me, the process of writing is incomplete without readers to close the circle, and self-publishing allows that to happen – and more. Increasingly we hear stories of writers whose self-published novels achieve online success and are then discovered by mainline publishers. As a tutor, I’m delighted to be able to put forward a proactive route to publication. It’s a refreshing alternative to all the bad news I’ve had to transmit:  difficult climate, very few new novelists being taken on, etc.


Shelley book 2 Shelley book








SHELLEY WEINER’S novels include A Sisters’ Tale, The Last Honeymoon, The Joker, Arnost, and The Audacious Mendacity of Lily Green. She is the author of ‘Writing your first novel’, a ’60-minute Masterclass eBook’, to be published by The Guardian in June 2014. Shelley presents workshops on fiction for Guardian Masterclasses, Faber Academy, Skyros Writers’ Lab, The Literary Consultancy and others that include Birkbeck College, Anglia Ruskin University, the Open University, the British Council, and Durham University Summer School. She is a mentor on the Gold Dust Scheme and a trusted Reader for The Literary Consultancy. Shelley’s website:


Australia & New Zealand Festival

The full title is the Australia and New Zealand Festival of Literature and the Arts, and it takes place from Thursday 29 May to Sunday 1 June at King’s College University campus on the Strand in London. As far as I can see it’s a first, and they have an impressive line-up of Aussie speakers such as Tim Winton, Helen Garner, Bruce Pascoe, Clive James, John Pilger and Kathy Lette, and other luminaries including Margaret Drabble, Rebecca Swift and the supremely talented Ben Whishaw, plus many many more far too numerous to enumerate. Day passes to the festival are £30 and weekend passes £80 (presumably for the four days).

Bruce Pascoe
Bruce Pascoe

In association with the festival the Bush Theatre is featuring a season of short plays by Australian writers on Friday & Saturday 24 & 2th May called Going Bush

Going Bush
Going Bush

I’m thrilled to bits by this and hope it’s a wild success. Aussies – and New Zealanders too I’ve no doubt – punch way above their weight when it comes to books, both writing them and reading them. It’s time the rest of the world took notice of this fascinating country, and not just when members of our royal family are visiting.

Details of the festival can be found here:

Peter Buckman

Welcome to guest blogger number 2, Peter Buckman  of the Ampersand literary agency.

Peter Buckman (
Peter Buckman (

I worked with Peter some years ago on a new play festival organised by the Writers’ and Directors Guild. He was a writer then, mostly for stage and television, with credits under his belt such as the screenplay for the film All Together Now, episodes of Morse and The House of Eliott and the TV adaptation of All Passion Spent Since then he’s swapped writing for agenting so I thought I’d ask him a few questions about what it’s like to be on that side of the writing fence.


PT:  You spent your working life as a scriptwriter. What made you decide to become an agent?

PB:  I also wrote novels and non-fiction, journalism, and stage plays – basically anything that paid except advertising and greetings cards – but as writers grow old, commissioning editors get younger and prefer their own generation. In other words, no one was buying my work, and as my wife had been an agent selling foreign rights for many years, it seemed a sensible idea to find authors for the English-speaking market so that between us we could conquer the world. That was over ten years ago, and I’m having more fun now than ever.

 PT:  What sort of genres and authors do you represent?

PB:  The first book I took on turned into “Slumdog Millionaire”, which either shows what incredibly good taste I have or that talent needs luck and good timing. I asked my veteran consultant Peter Janson-Smith (who represented Ian Fleming among other luminaries) if we should specialise, and he said we should wait and see what comes our way. So we take on writers whose style really enthuses us with a terrific story told in a distinctive voice. And that includes non-fiction as well as novels.

The trappings of success: Peter with Vikas Swarup
The trappings of success: Peter with Vikas Swarup

PT:  As far as I know you don’t represent scriptwriters, even though you were one yourself. Is there a reason for that?

PB:  My first job was as an editor at Penguin, and on the whole people in publishing are a decent bunch. Editors move around but their tastes are reasonably constant, so you know what, and who, you are dealing with. The same cannot be said of the film business; in theatre  it’s as hard to get a new playwright commissioned as it is to get a poet published; and as for television, what they are looking for changes on a daily basis. So we keep sane by dealing chiefly with publishers, though of course we frequently negotiate contracts in other media, including digital.

PT:  What makes you take a particular writer on? Is it simply what you perceive to be his or her commercial value, or is there more to it?

PB:  Believe it or not, commercial considerations come low down in our list of priorities. Obviously we won’t take someone on if we don’t think we can sell their work, but it’s the story-telling skill, the voice, the ability to make the familiar fresh, that really excites us.

PT:  What kind of books and authors are currently selling best, in your experience?

PB:  Genre material seems to be doing well – crime, of course (though I detect a slight shift from the hard stuff, with lots of violence, to cosier crime), but also sci-fi, fantasy, and romance. One thing I do know is that though publishers are always saying “vampires are dead” or “nobody wants to read about angels/zombies/elves any more”, they’re pretty quick to snap up a self-published writer who’s proved readers like something familiar.

PT:  You had a massive success a few years ago with Slumdog Millionaire, which started out as a book called Q & A written by an unknown author called Vikas Swarup. Can you tell us how that all came about?


PB: It’s a bit of a fairy story. I was about to close down my computer one evening when the following opening caught my eye: “I have been arrested. For winning a tv quiz show.” I thought that was pretty intriguing, read the chapter, and rang up the author, an Indian diplomat stationed in London, to ask for the rest. When we met, he told me he’d only written the first chapter, and was going back to India in three weeks. I suggested he finish it, and he sent me the whole first draft a couple of days before leaving. I suggested some small changes, which he made on the flight home, and within six weeks I’d got him a two-book deal with Doubleday, for a six-figure advance.  His editor showed the ms to Film 4’s book scout, and they asked if they could have an option. My initial response was no, as I was sure I’d get offers from Hollywood, but they persisted, and in the end we came to an agreement. I thought they were wrong to commission Simon Beaufoy to write the screenplay (he’d never been to India – but then nor had I), and certainly mistaken to get Danny Boyle to direct, as his two previous films had been flops. But the film was made amazingly quickly, did well at festivals like Toronto, and of course ended up with 8 Oscars, not to mention being sold in 43 languages. Nothing has gone so smoothly since.

PT:  Other than that, what has been your biggest success so far?

Blood Harvest, by S J Bolton
Blood Harvest by S J Bolton

PB:  Sharon Bolton has done very well with Transworld. The prolific Cora Harrison always recoups her advances and earns royalties, whether writing for juveniles or adults. Georgette Heyer continues to sell hundreds of thousands of copies, even though she’s been dead for 40 years. What I’m proud of is that almost every one of our fifty or so authors has been found a publisher – and we’re continuing to work on behalf of those who haven’t.

PT:  What do you personally enjoy about being an agent? Do you miss being a writer at all?

PB:  I write all the time, articulating my thoughts about the books our clients send us. I’m better at reacting than creating, and I find the process of helping a writer to hone their work very rewarding. And I enjoy the lunches and parties: publishing is a very sociable profession.

The Sting of Justice by Cora Harrison
The Sting of Justice by Cora Harrison

PT:  Do you or your readers read everything that is sent to you?

PB:  We look at everything, but we don’t read it all. We get around 100 submissions a week, every week, and if we read them all we’d never have time to work on our clients’ behalf. Which is why the first sentence/paragraph/page is so important: we put ourselves in the position of any potential book buyer, and need to be intrigued before we get involved.

PT:  The thorny question: are you taking on new writers at the moment?

PB: We’re being cautious, because this is the harshest publishing climate I’ve experienced in over 40 years in the trade.  But new writers are our future, so of course we are always looking for talent that tickles our imagination.

[PT: For Ampersand’s submission requirements please check their website at]

PT:  How in your experience has self publishing impacted on the book business as a whole?

PB: It’s changed it utterly, and democratised it via digital distribution. But it has also impoverished most writers, because payments (except for those who sell hundreds of thousands) are based on absurdly low prices, and there’s no quality control over content.

PT:  Do you have any words of advice for writers?

PB: Trust your instinct over your intellect, and don’t be too proud to promote yourself.


The London Book Fair

I was more or less warned off going to the London Book Fair by other writers who said ‘It’s really not for authors’, but I went along anyway on the offchance.

Earls Court

Entering the massive space of the Earls Court Exhibition Centre is daunting. You feel as if you’re in the cosmetics section of the biggest department store in the world. You stroll past the glossy stands of Chanel, Estee Launder and Clinique (Harper Collins, Hachette and Bloomsbury), and the cheap-and-cheerful counters of Bourjois, Olay and Max Factor (the smaller publishing businesses) and on through the digital solutions bit, and there tucked away right at the back is the Author HQ. Here you can attend back-to-back seminars, mostly but not entirely about self publishing, many of which bore little or no relation to the schedule I had painstakingly downloaded from the LBF website.

Author HQ

Thus I found myself this afternoon accidentally sitting in on part of a seminar called ‘The Write Stuff’, where brave authors can pitch their books to a panel of writers’ agents. They have two minutes for their pitch and the agents have two minutes to comment. As expected, the ones with the brilliant sales strategies weren’t necessarily the ones with the best product, and vice versa, which only goes to confirm my concern that in the self publishing world it’s not your writing that matters so much as your marketing skills.

On the Tuesday I bumped into Becky Swift from The Literary Consultancy who told me they have developed relationships with Amazon, Kobo, Nook and the rest, all of whom are looking to them for product that has the TLC stamp of approval (which is not easy to get), which means they are acting as a kind of useful filter.


Upstairs in the rarified virtually author-free zone of the IRC (International Rights Centre), where I was stopped at the gate and quizzed about my intentions and only let through when I said I was visiting an agent friend and promised not to misbehave, agents sit in rows of stalls doing deals with publishers. News from there was gloomy – in an uncertain market the larger publishing houses are increasingly reluctant to take on new and untried writers (nothing new there). Which  means of course it makes even more sense to self publish. As one (self published) speaker said earlier, ‘Why wait months for an agent to turn you down and several more for publishers to do the same when you can submit your book now?’

Alternatives to Amazon

I’ve already blogged about Smashwords, which distributes ebooks to all outlets, including Amazon, but I also wanted to check out alternatives to Amazon’s CreateSpace, their print-on-demand ‘arm’. I’ve published through CreateSpace and found it miraculously easy, efficient, quick and free (to upload). But if you want to avoid Amazon there is a company called As far as I can tell they print and distribute your book, just like CreateSpace, only they have outlets in the UK, thereby in theory reducing shipping costs. I haven’t investigated them properly yet but it looks as if, unlike Amazon, they have startup costs. They handed me a couple of impressive-looking brochures so if you’re thinking of publishing something where quality and colour are paramount, they may be worth checking out.

Or there’s Ingram, which I knew as LightningSource, which I looked at when I was publishing my Australian book as they have an outlet in Australia (as well as here in the UK). The lady at the counter however, who was in charge of ‘transportation’, told me postal costs within Australia are so high it’s cheaper for Aussies to buy from the US, which is rather astounding. Again they have startup costs (I believe), but if you are expecting to sell a lot of books in the UK they may be worth checking out at


Other interesting things I learned:

  • children are really into ebooks (perhaps not surprisingly).
  • the best selling book in the Australian charts is The Book Thief, written by the Sydney-born writer Markus Zusak. (Good to see the Aussies celebrating their own.)
  • the Guardian is introducing a prize for self published authors.

Was it worth going? Absolutely, if only as an excuse to get out there and connect with other writers and anyone connected to the writing and publishing business. Which as indie authors we have to do!