How an undergraduate got a book deal with Bloomsbury …

Samantha Shannon, 20, a student who is studying English at Oxford is already being hailed as the ‘new JK Rowling’ after landing a six-figure deal with Bloomsbury, publisher of the Harry Potter series. So how did she do it? Will Kindle kill off the bookshelf?

If you are a struggling author, you will probably view the great news of someone gaining such a fantastic book deal with mixed emotions. On one hand it is fantastic to know that even in this recession, such book deals do still happen to the ordinary person (who is not related to Kate Middleton or a celebrity) and are still possible. On the other, you might secretly feel a tinge of envy. Why has it happened to this young woman and not you?

Samantha, reports The Sunday Times, has written a fantasy adventure novel. The Bone Season is set in 2059 and is centred around Paige a 19-year-old clairvoyant who escapes from life in the criminal underworld. Apparently it was inspired by Samantha’s interest in works such as The Handmaid’s Tale and A Clockwork Orange. The plot – which the publishers believe will have the appeal of Stephanie Meyer’s Twilight series about teenage vampires – is set in Oxford and features a government in power called Scion. In Oxford – a town that has been kept secret and out of bounds because it is said, incorrectly, to be full of poison, Paige meets Warden, who becomes her keeper.

Samantha is fizzing with ideas.

Samantha Shannon

It sounds dark stuff, but Bloomsbury’s editor in chief Alexandra Pringle is quoted in the Sunday Times article as saying she bought it immediately. “Samantha is just fizzing with ideas.”
However, apart from writing a book her agent David Godwin and Bloomsbury clearly believe is exceptional (Mr Godwin reportedly said: “I got the book on a friday, read it over the weekend … and on Monday was on the phone asking Samantha to come to the office…”) there are other reasons why Samantha has been successful.

Successful authors are often highly marketable.

The first – and perhaps most importantly – is that she is very marketable. An attractive young woman, she also has a super story behind her book that any PR professional would be delighted to be presented with.
Being ‘marketable’ is something some authors seem to believe isn’t terribly important. For example, we recently received a press release from a PR company representing some authors who were looking for national publicity for their books. Yet, when we asked for more personal details such as their ages (even the person’s first name in one case – she insisted on being called by her initials!), what they did before they were published and whether they had children and were married, no-one wanted to tell us. The message was the book and their writing was the most important and how dare we even ask anything so personal.

Writing a novel is only one part of getting a book deal

Indeed, of course the writing is extremely important. But when you are hoping to gain national publicity for your book – to get the public to buy it in the first place – you need to dig deep to find a story that a paper such as the Sunday Times can write about on its very large page three.
And Samantha reveals such a story. According to the Sunday Times, until recently Samantha, who wore braces on her teeth, was terribly lacking in confidence. Apparently her mum wasn’t terribly supportive of her writing either. I am not sure whether I believe any mother actually moans to a friend, “I’m soooo worried about my brainy daughter. I just wish she’d go out with boys/go clubbing/get drunk/ go to all night parties rather than sit in her bedroom writing a novel and studying to get a place at Oxford.” Anyway, while the article does not quote her as saying those exact words, according to this piece, her mother was worried she was always stuck in her bedroom writing and not going out and was ‘relieved’ when having tried ten literary agents, Samantha was rejected by all of them.
Because of this, Samantha wrote a second book in her room at St Anne’s College, Oxford and “told virtually nobody … certainly not my family or even close friends.”

Publishers like authors who have more than one book in them

Herein lies the second reason why a publisher such as Bloomsbury is happy to invest money in their young author. Having written the first book (so they know she can complete a book) she has already started on the second. And in fact, although Bloomsbury have agreed the deal for her first book and two sequels, it transpires there will be seven books in total. As we say time and again, publishers like to invest in authors who will turn out one book after the other. It is very hard – both time consuming and it takes a lot of cash – to launch an author. And to pay back this sort of investment, there needs to be more than one book… and they must know what those books will be about (Samantha says the other books, “are either in my head or in note books.”)

Successful authors are determined and not put off

Samantha also appears to have been focused and persistent. She mentions she did work experience at her agent’s offices – although they had rejected her initially they’d sent a ‘rave’ rejection letter encouraging her to try again – and, having attended a creative writing course given by prize winning author Ali Smith, Samantha gave her the first chapter to read. “She was really encouraging about it,” says Samantha and apparently recommended her agent – who turned out to be Mr Goldwin. It seems, having polished her work, and despite the fact he didn’t take her on from her initial approach, she sent her book to him to look at again.

The key attributes

* Make yourself marketable. It is easy to look at an author such as Samantha and think, “Oh, she’s young and that’s why” but to gain a publishing deal you also need to make yourself marketable (if you have four children and wrote at night, say so, if you are a single mum put that in, if you were a high flying lawyer, mention it, if your husband and you almost divorced over your writing, then this could be a good line!) Ditto you are in your 60s and have never written before – everyone has a story. What is yours? You need to find out and when you have thought about it, tell any publisher, literary agent or journalist that you meet…

* Then you need to finish a book – many people say they will write a book but how many actually finish one? If you are a serious writer, able to write to order for money, you should be writing all the time…

* Show you can write more than one novel. For a publisher to want to invest money in you, you need to be at the very least writing two books – but preferably you have lots of books and potentially a long future as an author in front of you.

* Categorise your own book. It helps to be able to put your book in a niche. Editors like to know what niche your book falls in – Samantha is the new “JK Rowling in seventh heaven” with her seven books for an adventure series. You might be, ‘chick lit meets Jane Austin’, ‘misery memoir but with a twist – a story about a happy childhood.’ Whatever you are, you need to be able to tell an agent or author this.

* Be in the right place at the right time. Get up and meet other authors – go to events where literary agents will be. And you have to have persistence in spades!

Finally, if you have published a book, you need to be open to publicity. Unfortunately this might mean revealing some of your private life but you must be happy and not resistant to working with PRs and journalists to get your book out there…

Samantha Shannon’s book, The Bone Season is due to be published in September 2013 by Bloomsbury.

If you are an author and would like some publicity, contact us. As well as appearing on our popular author spot on this website, we are always looking for interviewees for real life stories to feature in national publications from the Daily Mail to the women’s magazines to TV shows such as ITV This Morning and Daybreak. Find out more here: Sell my book, Featureworld.

Alison Smith-Squire

Alison Smith-Squire is a writer, journalist and media agent selling exclusive real life stories to newspapers, magazines and TV. She owns the sell my story website, which was set up to help ordinary people sell their stories to the press.

One thought to “How an undergraduate got a book deal with Bloomsbury …”

  1. What an excellent piece! I’m normally a bit of a cynic when it comes to this sort of story, but the proof is in the pudding (and the cheque!) The lessons I’ve taken from this are:
    1. Hurry up and finish my second book.
    2. Try to come up with a plot that sounds as good as Samantha’s.

    Not much to do there then! 😉

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