Guest Column with Professor Kevin Brophy

September 12 / 95

Travels in English or What Publishers are Looking for Now or Five Hits and You're In 
The University of East Anglia (UEA) lies on the outskirts of the city of Norwich, a town with a medieval core and enough ancient churches to suggest that once upon a time this fortified town might have been a paradise of faith. 
Recently I was a resident on the UEA campus, which has a creative writing program that is the
envy of the world. In 2012, the program received a national award for excellence from the Queen. Established by Malcolm Bradbury in 1970 and claiming Ian McEwan, Kazuo Ishiguro and Anne Enright among its earliest alumni, it had a flying start. Each year about 24 would-be novelists, and about the same number of hopeful poets and creative non-fiction writers, enrol in their famous one-year MA. My aim was to immerse myself and get a feel for how different this institution and its students might be and where we might find common ground. What follows are some fragments of that experience.
After attending readings by visiting writers where Paul Farley confessed to spending a writing residency watching 'Deal or No Deal' in his boxer shorts, Sean O'Brien committed himself to 'the unreasonableness of real poems', and John Lanchester suggested that the job of the fiction writer is to get at unchanging truths, such as our ability to be oblivious to catastrophes we're bringing upon ourselves, I joined one of the regular events for students of the program: a visit from a literary agency. Conville & Walsh were presenting their perceptions of the state of publishing and their prescriptions for what kinds of manuscripts might make it beyond the slush pile. 
Clare Conville and Sue Armstrong informed students that 'Reading Group Fiction' is what publishers are looking for now. Unusual settings, unusual voices, and a little bit of crying are all desirable. This agency cycles through nearly 500 manuscripts a month, and yet, at the end of the session Clare Conville confessed that she has no reliable formula for a successful book. Who would have predicted a graphic novel interpreting Bertrand Russell's 1913 Principia Mathematica would become a best seller? (Logicomix: An Epic Search for Truth, by Apostolos Doxiadis, published by Bloomsbury). Clare Conville spoke of looking for a "voice" when she reads first-time manuscripts. She cited S. J. Watson's Before I Go to Sleep (Doubleday). 
The students wanted to know how readers get to know about debut novels. Firstly, Clare Conville and Sue Armstrong pointed out, the publicity virus of word of mouth must operate, and book clubs are ideal for that. In addition, it takes, it seems 'three to five hits' to get someone to buy a book: a review, a TV chat show, a radio interview, a billboard advertisement, a topical article in a newspaper (preferably with a photo of the author), festival appearances, bookshop appearances, book placements in retail settings, blogging, internet talk and attention from critics. 
Much else happened during this residency, including many conversations with the Director of the MA in writing, Andrew Cowan. As a result, we hope that students from UEA and University of Melbourne will be able to study on international exchanges in the near future. We do not plan a joint assault on the Book Club Book phenomenon, but we do hope that we can jointly help to produce the next and the next-after-that crops of writers who might make more of those unexpected, unpredictable works of imagination.

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