Wednesday, 27 May 2015

Literary Dragon's Den

In April this year, the London Book Fair opened its doors for the first time in its new home. Olympia is light and airy, much less enclosed than Earl's Court. It is also a maze of interconnecting halls in which it is only too easy to get lost. And a very long walk from the nearest Tube station.

The other first for this year was the institution of a 'Dragon's Den' style pitching opportunity for authors. For the last couple of years, it has been possible for authors to book a precious ten-minute slot at the Fair to pitch their book face-to-face with an agent. (WWJ reported on it back in 2013.) But this time, instead of a private session with an individual agent, authors were invited to make their pitch, in public, to a panel of agents.

Pitching your book is challenging in any circumstances. But doing it in front of an audience sounds downright terrifying. We asked Carol Cooper, who was in the audience, and Caroline Mawer, one of the brave souls making their pitch, to tell us what is was like.

Inside the Dragon's Den

Carol Cooper
by Carol Cooper

The London Book Fair (LBF2015 to the in-crowd) had a demob flavour on its final afternoon, but for 10 hopefuls the serious business was only just starting.

The Write Stuff was a session organized along Dragon’s Den lines. Ready to breathe fire on the aspiring authors were agents Mark Lucas, Toby Mundy and Lorella Belli, along with non-fiction publisher Alison Jones.

While they didn’t look too fierce, you had to admire the contestants for standing in front of the panel plus a packed Author HQ to sell themselves. Each had just one minute to say who they were, two minutes to pitch their book, and five minutes for questions and comments from the panel, who had already sampled the titles.
Dragons Alison Jones (left) & Lorella Belli 

Some might have been in the audience for fun, but the session provided insights into how agents think, and trenchant observations on things writers should know.

Lucy Brydon, a young Scottish film-maker, pitched a novel set in China where she had worked. While The Boy Who Died Comfortably was redolent of the culture and highly filmic, Toby Mundy wasn’t sure that, as a foreigner, the author had ‘a place to stand in this story.’

Characters came under scrutiny when Catherine Miller presented her novel Baby Number Two. The panel was clearly impressed with her perfect title, as well as her blurb, her writing, and her Katie Fforde bursary. Not so much with the motives behind her characters’ actions, however, and Alison Jones felt she had shoehorned in too many topical subjects.

Caroline James had also written primarily for women readers. Coffee, Tea, the Caribbean and Me was aimed more at women in their fifties, and drew on her background in the hospitality industry. ‘Highly relatable,’ thought Mark Lucas, relatable being the buzzword around LBF2015.

The authors received all comments with good grace, though Olga Levancuka seemed a tad combative. Dressed in a Guantanamo-orange coat, she looked every inch the Skinny Rich Coach (her alias). She responded feistily when the panel questioned her approach, even her authority. While she didn’t win that afternoon, she did subsequently land an agent.

Jaunty Mike Rothery spent decades in the Navy, and his novel The Waiting-Pool involves an ocean voyage. A good thriller, thought the panel, but it took too long to get started, and Alison Jones didn’t care enough about the characters. The protagonists began life in another book, so getting the amount of back-story right may have been an issue.

Italian satirist Vittorio Vandelli had an account of the dystopia of the Berlusconi period. It was, he explained, a dire warning to Western democracy. He soon digressed from his blurb and just gave us his tirade. As entertaining as it all was, Vittorio and his book came on a little strong. Mark Lucas felt that he was being smacked too regularly over the head with all the things he should be outraged about.

Caroline Mawer is a doctor, globe-trotter, and author of A Single Girl’s Guide to Rural Iran. The panel thought there wasn’t enough of herself in the work, the book was trying to do too many things, and the title didn’t quite match the text. Wouldn’t Skinny-Dipping in the Spring of Solomon have been more arresting? Maybe literally?

Up stepped Julia Suzuki, whose children’s book The Crystal Genie was, appropriately enough, all about dragons. The panel sat in rapt attention. Was it about them? They all claimed to love dragons. Alas, Suzuki’s characters were ‘a bit too black and white.’

Sanjiv Rana, receiving his award
Lenox Morrison, an award-winning journalist from Aberdeen, offered a collection of short stories. She writes ‘like a dream,’ but the consensus was that short stories are very difficult to sell on a grand scale.

The winner was another journalist, Sanjiv Rana, with his topical and controversial The Insignificance of Good Intentions. This first person novel is about a 33-year old virgin who’s sent to prison charged with rape. The panel agreed that Rana has a very original voice. But that didn’t stop them comparing him to other writers.

Nonetheless, Rana won a certificate and an appointment with Toby Mundy. I think Rana will be big news, and you’ll be hearing a lot more from the other contestants too.

Carol Cooper is a journalist and author from London. Her novel One Night at the Jacaranda was self-published after a string of traditionally published non-fiction. In her spare time she’s a doctor.

On twitter @DrCarolCooper

Better Than Pitching

by Caroline Mawer

Caroline in the Dragon's Den
This year, ten lucky authors win the chance to pitch Dragons Den-style at the London Book Fair. I was one of them. And I want to share some what I learnt: especially two things that are maybe even better than pitching. I sent in a 250 word summary for my book, and the judges liked that enough to ask for three chapters. Then they liked the sample enough to ask me to pitch. It was all very exciting. Actually, the email “we’d love to invite you …” was very very exciting. Although kind of weird that they then asked me to confirm I still wanted to take part.

Hold on a moment though! 250 words? To summarise my precious book? To include tempting morsels about myself as a person and a writer and how perfectly I’ll fit into a sensational book marketing campaign?

I’d already submitted to several agents. Spent what feels like innumerable lifetimes honing my elevator pitch, and buffing up my cover letter and synopsis.

But writing only 250 words that glide as elegantly as a swan, whilst simultaneously doing as much hard work as an army of labourers, forced me to focus on really understanding what Skinny Dipping with the Mullahs is trying to say, and who I’m trying to say it to. I thought about the weakest points in my book, as well as the strongest.

And all of that is something you need to do too. Whether you want to sell to an agent or  as an indie publisher - more directly to your readers. A 250 word summary is something you not only can do now, but I think should do now. At whatever stage you are in your book.

If you don't find any gaps, great. If you do, that’s also great. Since you can only solve problems you know about.

Then there was the pitching itself. I’m not scared of speaking in front of an audience, but I was allocated the final slot in a time-limited session, so it was difficult not to feel anxious that the time-keeping was initially so generous.

When my time eventually came, I was taken aback by the advice I was given.

I was told to focus more on my Unique Selling Point. No big deal there, you might think, except the judges told me that my USP is myself. Which I confess I hadn't understood.

Skinny Dipping in the Spring of Solomon (the pitching session also helped me finally decide on the title!) is a close-up view of daily life in modern Iran, written from the viewpoint of a single woman, travelling alone. I’m not Iranian, but I’m a Persian speaker. I have been to Iran many times and, to be honest, I don't feel special doing that. Personally, I’m fascinated by the historical and political context and the stories I share from and about Persian women. But, the LBF judges told me, the story that will resonate most with readers is about me, about why I would work so hard to visit some of the most hostile terrain in the world, even if I do get to swim naked in the Spring of Solomon along the way.

And I hope you may be able to learn from my surprise. Are you really thinking from your readers point of view? Or are you perhaps so close to your book that you can't appreciate what is so particularly special about it?

If you’ve got those two things sorted, though - if you can focus down on a 250 word summary, and also stand back to see through your readers’ eyes - then that, well that is better than pitching.

Caroline Mawer is a writer and photographer. You can find out more on her website: or follow her on Twitter @caromawer.

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