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Today I’d like to welcome a friend of mine – Travis Casey, author of a series of romance novels who has recently attended the London Author Fair.

Travis over to you….

I attended the London Author Fair 2014 on Friday, February 28, 2014. The aim was to put authors in direct contact with literary agents and experts in the publishing industry to learn more about how it all works. This was my experience:

London was stupidly busy as I expected. When I got the London Victoria train station, the first thing I did was pay 30p (50 cents) to pee. Welcome to the big city. Next, I quickly looked over the routes for the Undergound and made my way to an escalator heading for the Piccadilly line. The moving staircase was extremely long and steep — like taking a ride into the bowels of hell. Adjacent to my downward spiral were two escalator going up. The thousand faces going the other way hardly looked angelic on the way to heaven, but at least they were going toward street level. Halfway down my descent, an announcement was made that the Holborn Station was closed due to a person under the train. There are times I think it would be wise for the London Transport Authority to lie.

I made my way to an inconspicuous building, The Hospital Club, in Covent Garden. I looked smart in my baby pink sweater with black pants, complemented with my newly highlighted hair. If I didn’t get a publishing deal I still might have gotten lucky in the men’s room.

As I checked in, the organizers insisted I don my pre-printed author identification tag, but I was reluctant. After all, I was there to learn and absorb information and didn’t want to be distracted by an endless stream of autograph hunters. Fortunately, everyone respected my privacy and I was not hounded or asked for one autograph the entire day.

The fair was spread over three floors with various workshops and seminars such as: Marketing Your Book, Discoverability, Working with a Literary Agent, Book Cover Design and much more spread throughout the building. Because of the logistics, it was difficult to judge, but I would guess there were somewhere between 300-500 people in attendance.

I grabbed a free coffee and stuffed two free coffee mugs in my free “London Author Fair” canvas bag before heading to the seminar room in the basement. Black velvet curtains blacked out everything around the audience except for the panel of literary agent on the stage. They each spoke about the changes in the book industry and the rise of the self-publishing market. The more they spoke, the more my heart sunk.

Superb writing is not the most important element in the publishing industry. An amazing story, is. They still expect anything submitted to them to be error-free, but story concept may outweigh the odd missed comma. But an agency receives circa 100 submissions A DAY. So what makes your story so AMAZING? And that’s what one has to convey in one page.

Besides being an amazing story (they did use those exact words repeatedly), it has to be marketable. If the publisher doesn’t think they can capture 5% of the market with it, they’re not interested. They all confessed that there are some fantastic stories out there, but no place in the market for them, so they get passed over. Celebrities get rushed to the top because publishers know that will sell. The already have a “platform” so it’s far less of a gamble. Even if you would manage to get picked up by a mainstream publisher, they still choose to put their marketing money into a name where they know will get a return.

When an agent takes on you and your story, it may take him or her a year to sell it to a publisher. Then it may take another year to get it into print, and the chances of striking it big are slim. It is a slow process unless you happened to be lucky enough to sleep with Mr. or Mrs. Obama —  in that case they would rush you into print the following week.

My moment of glory came from stumping the panel — but I didn’t want to stump them, I wanted answers. When they asked for questions from the floor, I raised my hand and I was identified as the man in the back wearing the pink sweater, and invited to ask my question. I rose and took the mike.

“Most submission guidelines request a one to two page synopsis. So if I have to whittle my 80-90,000 word manuscript into 200-400 words, what is the most important thing to focus on and what can be left out?” The man in the pink sweater sat down as a collective gasp rippled through the audience.

The panel remained silent. Really silent. Finally, the chairperson commented, “Well, that shut them up.” One of the agents remarked, “I hate questions like that.” After more humming and haa-ing from the panel of experts, it was agreed that writing a synopsis is an art and skill in its own right. They conceded that it was not easy, then admitted that many times they don’t even get read unless they are excited by the covering letter and the first three chapters. So the man in the pink sweater still doesn’t know how to write an effective synopsis.

I requested early, and was granted a slot to try and sell my book idea to an agent for her to take me on as a client. After causing disarray to the panel, it was time to go make my pitch to the agent. This would be my defining fifteen minutes of fame. I was pleased to have a woman agent to pitch to. I usually connected well with women. We sat down and I handed her my presentation: Cover letter, synopsis, and the first three chapters of my latest published novel, Forbidden Trouble.

As she looked over my papers, I remained respectfully quiet. “Go on,” she said, “we only have fifteen minutes, start making your pitch.” Damn multi-tasker. It was a little unnerving to talk about my yet to be discovered bestseller while the master of my destiny was not looking at me. My blue eyes are my greatest asset above the belt. You should see my legs. Anyway… I pitched. By this time, she had made it to the first paragraph of the novel.

Why I remained heterosexual was beyond me. I found the good looking chicks, but they either turned lesbian on me or wouldn’t leave their shithead husbands. At least gay guys didn’t have women trouble.”

Her jaw dropped. “That’s some opening,” she remarked, yet void of any reaction. I couldn’t read her.  So I shrugged. “It was either that or ‘It was a dark and stormy night.'”  I smiled. She didn’t. Oh shit.

My time with her went quickly. Perhaps she was in shock by a guy in a pink sweater writing about a heterosexual. Then she gave her advice:

I shouldn’t have been pitching that novel, I should have pitch my current WIP. My current work should cut all ties from my past books to prove I can write fresh material and not count on past characters or settings  to fall back on. Write third person, not first. I took exception to that advise. She kept repeating how difficult and limiting first person is, which I realize. That’s why I have studied it in-depth and am well versed in the pitfalls and traps, as well as the do’s and don’t’s. But she seemed to be making the assumption without reading my work. And 108,000 words was far too long. I should be aiming at 70,000.

My time was up and I felt slightly more dejected, but I was there to learn, not to be discovered — not yet, anyway.

So, that leaves self publishing. Being a self-published author means one has to be an entrepreneur: Marketer, Salesperson, Twitterer, Goodreads Reader, Facebooker, Public Speaker, Blogger… who the hell has time to write?

So my journey to enlightenment ended in the conclusion that there is no easy way — which I knew.  But after speaking to the experts, it seems to have become even more difficult.

At least the conductor smiled at me when I boarded the train for the journey home. Then I noticed the pink handkerchief streaming from his back pocket…