What I Learned from Famous Writers at London Book Fair

IMG_4276 (1)London Book Fair always buzzes with big names and LBF16 was no exception. Meg Rosoff, Deborah Levy and Judith Kerr were all interviewed at the English PEN Literary Salon (a designated area away from the publishers’ stands). Sadly, I missed all of the above but I did manage to catch appearances from other successful writers: Jeffrey, Peter and Jeanette. But can you learn anything useful by listening to a half-hour slot from an established name?

First up, I happened to be sitting in the PEN Literary Salon area (meeting a friend) when who should show up behind a wall of press photographers than Jeffrey Archer in a novelty tie (it may have had books on it, but I wasn’t close enough to see).

Archer is brash (often dismissive of press and underlings) and irrepressible. He talked about book promotion rather than writing, and declared himself a “storyteller” rather than a writer. He produces about 14 drafts of each novel.

Peter James is the antithesis of Archer. Where Archer is loud, larger than life with an ego that fills the room (Olympia), Peter James is quieter, considered and calm. Whether or not this is due to the amount of time he spends with dead bodies I don’t know, but this unassuming man certainly sees the darker side of life firsthand as he often accompanies police on various raids and has lost count of how many autopsies he has attended.

James offered sound advice, saying character is key, followed by research (to ensure accuracy) and finally plot. ‘You’ve got to surprise yourself as a writer or you won’t surprise the reader.’

Jeanette Winterson was both formidable and passionate as she regaled the audience with her Version 3thoughts on Shakespeare, theatre, and the London he knew – a young city where everything was urgent and people lived life to the full.

Winterson’s latest novel, The Gap of Time, is a reimagining of The Winter’s Tale. ‘I am a foundling,’ Winterson said, ‘it has an abandoned baby at its centre and I used to read it looking for clues.’

She went on to say that there are three available endings: revenge, tragedy and forgiveness, and that as she gets older she is more interested in forgiveness.

Impassioned and inspiring, Winterson followed her dynamic reading by sharing her view that creativity is at the centre of everything. ‘Creativity is a birthright. Never doubt that what you’re doing is at the centre of life. Money is not the heart of life, it’s creativity.’


Car Trouble and Publishing Deals

The prophecy stated that following a spate of problems with my car, I’d sign a publishing deal in June. Well, that prediction came years ago.

I’ve had my palm read twice. Once when I was 19 and backpacking in India where a guy in a jewellery shop said I’d nearly die at 35 (I think he was irritated that I wasn’t buying his gold), and secondly by a friend’s hippyish dad who was visiting the UK from Australia.

Me, in India, aged 19
Me, in India, aged 19

Obviously, I was relieved to find the Indian guy was wrong as I made it through to 36 unscathed and happily alive, but not so thrilled to annually suffer the car issues without the longed for publishing deal.

Most years there have been promising signs that this could be “the” June – a shortlisting for a writing competition, inclusion in a literary magazine or website, or a book out on submission via my agent, but so far each June has drawn to a close with a hint of melancholy (which quickly dissipates with the arrival of my birthday).

Anyway, it’s a truth universally known that the road to publication is circuitous for most writers. Unless you’re Martin Amis, a footballer or celebrity, your average writer has to fight for his or her right to be published. I mean, I even thought about writing a novel about twitching and sending it to Jonathan Franzen so he could champion me, but someone beat me to it, so what else?

LONDON TSUNAMII’ve always sought publication via the traditional route. I have a charming agent who talks to the right people but still it’s not easy, and recently it hit home just how hard it is for writers to secure a deal. At the London Book Fair I attended a talk about the market for crime and thrillers. Sarah Hodgson, deputy publishing director at HarperCollins, revealed that they take on about three new writers a year. Three. And that’s in a hugely popular and commercial genre. And who are they taking on? Often it’s writers who are already doing it for themselves. They have self-published novels that are selling, or perhaps they are YouTube stars with millions of followers.

Anyway, whatever, YouTube is not for me, but I’m all for putting work out there, so that’s why this June is different. Yes, there’s been car trouble – tyres that needed attention, new car tax and a parking permit – yawn yawn – but then that is what the Australian fortune teller predicted -.

London Tsunami & Other Stories is available here for the UK, and here for the US. Also available for Kobo, Nook, iBooks etc.

Book Cover Design: the Golden Rule

A well designed book cover will certainly improve a book’s chances in today’s crowded market, so what are the secrets of successful book cover design?

At the recent London Book Fair I attended a talk by Damian Horner, brand development director at Hachette, and this is a brief summary of his advice for authors:

1 Membership – look at the genre rules for book covers and ask, am I a member of that group?

2 Lust Factor – you have to look at it and love it. Does it stand out? If it’s fresh, you’ll look again.

3 Blink Test – is there one stand out thing that people will take away if they look quickly?

4 Title – Important for search engine optimisation and for design. Is your title strong and memorable?

LONDON TSUNAMI5 Straplines – these can explain the title but they can be messy and are not always necessary.

6 Retailer – think about how the thumbnail sized version works, important for Amazon etc, and also think of how your book will sit spine out in a bookshop such as Waterstones.

7 Hierarchy – Title or author? It’s best to choose one or the other.


With all this in mind I got to work on my cover for LONDON TSUNAMI & OTHER STORIES which is a collection of 21 contemporary stories set in London.

After initially going in the wrong direction with several ideas (including a linocut that took me at least a week), I settled on a photograph of some flats that I have been fascinated by for years. By day the building looks drab while by night it’s transformed by its central pillar of glowing windows. There are so many different and equally vibrant lives being lived in that one building and my collection is a bit like that – 21 stories of different people, of different ages, leading different lives in west London.