Curtis Brown literary agent Karolina Sutton has always been a keen supporter of our creative writing courses and will be coming in to speak to our next crop of students in March. Ahead of Discovery Day, when she’ll be receiving pitches from new writers at Foyles Bookshop on Charing Cross Road in London, Karolina has written a piece on the changing landscape of the publishing industry for The Bookseller. And we liked it so much – as will any aspiring writer seeking to find an agent and publisher for their debut novel – we’ve stolen it for our own blog.
If you could time-travel five years back to a typical publishing presentation at a major house, the talk would have been exclusively of brands. What do we seek to publish? Brands. What do we want from agents? Brands. The word delivered with the finality of the Ten Commandments. An unknown author had little chance of competing in that landscape. So went the prevailing theory.
I remember sitting in one such meeting, and as the sandwich platter moved around the boardroom table, I wondered why we couldn’t create brands from scratch, i.e. use our resources to turn unknown authors into names readers recognised. Wasn’t that what publishing was for? The question, when I asked it, was followed by silence.
Fortunately, like many creative industries, publishing runs in cycles, and while authors who have built audiences over the years will rightly do well (as will books as brand extensions), discovery of the new is the beating heart of publishing. So it is really exciting to see that talented authors with only a great manuscript to their name have recently shaken up the charts. Today ‘debut’ is the word which goes neck to neck with ‘brand’. When Elizabeth Is Missing by Emma Healey (Penguin) landed in my inbox (it came with a working title Maud) I had no idea it was going to be the biggest paperback fiction title of 2015, but I knew that I loved it and that it had great potential. And so did the publishers, who worked tirelessly for 12 months prior to its publication building a campaign which proved that it wasn’t necessary to trim your ambition to fit a debut, that an unknown author could indeed be published like a big name.
We are seeing great campaigns for new writers across the board – The Miniaturist by ex-Curtis Brown Creative student Jessie Burton (Picador), Disclaimer by Renée Knight (Doubleday), The Versions of Us by Laura Barnett (Weidenfeld & Nicolson), The Trouble with Goats and Sheep by Joanna Cannon (The Borough Press), Grief is the Thing with Feathers (Faber & Faber) by Max Porter to mention but a few from a range of publishers.
Hunger for the new – new voice, new idea, new perspective – will always be the engine which powers our industry. A debut promises an adventure. It comes with the excitement of the unknown (as well as a clean sales track record and the opportunity for the marketing department to unleash their imaginations unconstrained by what came before). It seems as though there has never been a better time to be a first-time author. Every publisher – big or small – wants a debut. Pushkin Press has even started an imprint dedicated to debuts only. We are all poised to discover the new.
And perhaps discovery rather than debut is the operative word. A voice or a story which plays with the zeitgeist – wherever they come from: a first-time writer or a veteran. Something which can be published with real confidence because it will engage, unsettle, move or entertain. As agents and publishers, our job is to discover. The moment we turn complacent and settle on a trend, we will be letting down readers who trust us to bring them the very best that art and entertainment can offer – or they will find it elsewhere.
As Curtis Brown and Foyles are getting ready for the new edition of Discovery Day, we hope to say to writers that publishing is – and always should be – about discovery rather than gate-keeping. All you need is a great manuscript.
For an in-depth course as part of a group of 15 (in which students are selected on the basis of their submission) with a great tutor and participation from our literary agents, apply for:
Six-Month Novel-Writing Course in London with Christopher Wakling (deadline for applications is Wed 17 January).
Six-Month Online Novel-Writing Course with Lisa O’Donnell (deadline for applications is Wed 24 January).
For a dedicated online course for those writing for young adults or children as part of a group of 15 (in which students are selected on the basis of their submission), with a top children’s author, apply for:
Writing YA and Children’s Fiction with Catherine Johnson (deadline for applications is Sun 28 Jan).
We are offering three low-cost ‘foundation’ courses, featuring tuition from CBC director Anna Davis:
Starting to Write Your Novel (deadline for enrolment is midnight on Mon 15 January).
Write to the End of Your Novel (deadline for enrolment is midnight on Mon 22 January).
Edit & Pitch Your Novel (deadline for enrolment is midnight on Mon 29 January).