Jennifer Barclay: I can get your travel book published

Summersdale commissioning editor Jennifer Barclay gives you the inside scoop on how to get your travel memoir on the shelves

Peter Moore

OK. Let's start with a reality check. How many submissions would Summersdale get in a year?

It goes in cycles. I can get ten in a day or two in a day. But over the year I guess it would add up to thousands.

How many books would you publish a year?

Between 12 and 20. But not all of those are original commissions. We’d probably commission about 12 new travel narratives every year.

What do you look for?

It breaks down very loosely into two categories. One we call high concept exotic adventure – we’re talking a big journey, usually to somewhere people dream of going to. It might be South America or Asia, but it's got to be something exciting, something gripping. Maybe something goes horribly wrong like Lost in the Jungle by Yossi Ghinsberg. Or it could be something that most people would never do, like Martin Strehl swimming the Amazon. Those kind of books generally appeal to a backpacker audience.

Then we have the more soft, inspirational travel, often set in Europe. We do very well with expats living in sunny places like the south of France and Italy. A lot of people get a bit sniffy about it and say that it’s Peter Mayle territory all over again. But it’s very popular. People love reading about buying a place in the sun.

One overriding thing we're looking for is that it has to be a good holiday read. We like to publish books that are entertaining. Informative, but entertaining.

I'm guessing the aspiring author has to display some kind of writing skill as well?

Yeah, of course. A lot of people have been on great adventures but don’t know how to tell a story. It’s finding that ideal combination – someone who’s a good traveller, an observant, adventurous traveller, who’ll go out and do crazy things and meet colourful characters, but who can also craft that into a story that will make you want to keep turning the pages.

The writing can be very raw – that’s fine if it fits the story. It doesn’t have to be lyrical prose. It just needs to be something that grips from the outset. Not every first time writer can do that so we do spend some time looking carefully at every manuscript that comes in.

What are some of the 'rookie' mistakes people make?

A lot of people try sending their diary or the emails they sent back home to their mums. OK, they may add up to the 80,000 words you need for a book, but it’s still only the emails they sent back home to mum. There have to be characters that develop along the way, which very often, is the narrator themselves. Scenes have to be developed. Humour has to be brought out. It’s difficult to find that combination.

A lot of first time authors don’t really know where to start the book. I want to be immersed in the story straight away. I don’t want to know too much about the airport or being on the plane.

Any others?

I see an awful lot of what I call “What I did on my holiday” manuscripts which tell everything. And not everything is interesting. There’s a lot of stuff that isn’t interesting about travel, even when you’re doing it. And it’s not going to be interesting reading about it. So pare it down to the essential experiences. And expand those. If you’ve got a particular theme, bring out the drama, bring out the humour.

Are some areas of the world more popular than others?

It's more the case that it’s very hard for us to sell a book that is set everywhere in the world. A lot of people have been on a gap year adventure to 20 countries, they might have gone around the world, they might have ridden a motorcycle from the UK to Australia and it’s like ‘Wow! That’s amazing’, but it’s really hard for us to sell.

A lot of people buy a travel book because they’re going to a particular place. And most bookshops will have a section for that particular place. If you go into a great travel bookshop like Daunts or Standfords, they’ll usually have a Europe section or an Asia section. They might even have it divided up further than that. Foyles is the same. And even online. People don’t go as often to the section that is just general. So it has to be an extraordinary story for us to market a book that is set everywhere in the world.

One example that did work was Twitchhiker, where Paul Smith set himself the target of trying to get as far around the world as he could using the power of Twitter. He managed to get from Newcastle to New Zealand. It was a great story, he had loads of media following for that, so it worked because it was such an unusual concept at the time. But it has to be something big for that to work.

How polished does the manuscript have to be?

When something comes in, there’s obviously a good story there, there’s potential but it’s not there yet, I say go and read some of the books we publish, get a sense of how they work and rethink your approach. It might be just the first few chapters that aren’t working yet. Go back and polish and see what you can do. Sometimes it just doesn’t work, but sometimes people come back with something great.

One of our authors who has been really successful, Anna Nicolas, was just reminding me the other day that I sent her first book back to her three times to work on before we published it. It was written in a way that wasn’t quite working for us. It was written more like fiction. But then – success story.

How do you like to receive submissions?

Almost exclusively by email, at the moment.

Should they send you the whole manuscript?

In the old days people used to say don’t send the whole manuscript because there’d be all these 300 page chunks of paper sitting around the office. But it doesn’t really make much difference when it’s an attachment to an email.

Usually what we like to see is a cover letter explaining the rationale for the book, what is it, why you have written it, something about what this book has to offer the market, just in general. Or a proposal that expands a little bit on those things: Have you done your research? Have you looked to see if there are any other books in the same general area? How does your book differ from those books already on the market? Is there a niche? Are we filling a gap?

Maybe a paragraph or two describing the story of the book. Some publishers do like to see an outline of each chapter, but I’m not interested in reading that. I think that it’s all in the writing. So just a brief description, the kind of description that you’d read on the back of the book. It should hook a reader in and it should hook us in, in the same way.

And then probably the first three chapters. Everyone has a different idea about the length of a chapter but as a general rule, about 50 pages. And it should always be the first 50 pages. A lot of people send a chapter from later on in the manuscript which is absolutely useless for me because even though it might be the most exciting chapter, the first chapter should also be exciting too. And I like to read a book from the beginning. Like most people. So I can’t get a sense of a book if I don’t know how it starts.

I’m guessing you want stories about trips the author has already done, not ones they are planning to do.

That’s a really good point – because we publish travel narratives, it has to be a good story. If you haven’t done the trip, you don’t really know if you’ve got a good story to tell. It’s best to have done the journey and to have written a substantial part of the book.

We might commission something on only a third of a book, but only if the writer has proven themselves on a longer piece of writing. I’d even be quietly nervous acquiring a book like that if the author had journalistic experience because there’s a big difference between writing a small piece and a full book.

It’s not just for our sake. It’s also for the author’s sake. A few years ago we acquired a book on the basis of the first couple of chapters from an author who had been published by very good publishers before and had extremely good credentials writing for other media. When this person delivered the manuscript it wasn’t something we could publish. It wasn’t the story we believed we would acquire and we couldn’t publish it. We did go back to that author to try and find a way to get the manuscript re-worked but it didn’t work out. That’s an awful situation for the author and for the publisher because both have invested a lot of time and money into it. It’s just a lot safer to be a little further along the process.

With the rise of eBooks, print-on-demand and self-publishing in general, what can a publisher like Summersdale offer an aspiring author?

As a publisher we go through the hundreds of submissions we get and try to select the best stories and we try to make them as good as they can possibly be. We put in an awful lot of editorial time, working very closely with the author.

We also provide a fresh set of eyes. No matter how many friends you get to read your manuscript, there’s a big difference between that and having someone read your manuscript who does it for a living. Someone who knows what makes for a great travel read.

So we’re choosing the best, we’re making them as good as they can be, packaging them and then getting them out to a wider audience, distributing them, getting them into shops, to retailers, getting them on the websites they should be on, getting the press coverage. We’ve managed to get a lot of coverage on Radio 4’s travel program, Excess Baggage, which is fantastic. People get to hear about your book. It’s all very well putting the book out there, but people need to hear about it.

There are a lot of self-published authors who are doing really, really well but it’s a lot of work. A lot of self-published authors come to us and say, “I can’t do this anymore! It’s really tiring. Are you interested in taking my book on?” It’s a lot of work publishing a book. The writing is just half the battle.

What sort of thing can aspiring authors do to improve their chances of getting published? Should they be writing articles? Building a profile on social media networks?

Definitely. If the author has already established themselves as an authority in an area, whether that’s by writing a blog – a regular blog that has followers – getting articles published in a magazine like Wanderlust for example. Generally getting on top of their subject and making people aware that they are something of an expert in that area.

There is so much that can be done online. Getting followers on Facebook and Twitter is really helpful, not just to attract our attention but as an ongoing process. Getting your book published is partly about how good your book is. But getting your book published successfully and selling lots of copies is very much about how much energy and commitment you’re willing to put in: be out there talking to people, whether that’s online through social media or in person, going out there and doing talks at local travel clubs. Being pro-active is extremely important. They’re the authors that, in the end, sell a lot of books.

What can a first time author realistically expect to make from a book?

A lot of people think that once they’ve had a book published that’s it. The royalties start rolling in. The reality for most authors is nothing like that at all. It is wonderfully exciting, one of the most thrilling things in the world, to get a book published, to actually feel that book and show it to people. But it’s certainly not the way to make your first million.

Some people we perceived as being overnight successes, weren’t at all. For example, Elizabeth Gilbert, the woman who wrote Eat Pray Love, had written a number of books that she herself admits hardly anyone bought.

In terms of realistic expectations, the money you make from that first book tends not to be from the book itself but from a spin-off. Once you have a book out there you’re an authority. You’ll get more of an opportunity to get an article published in a newspaper, a magazine or a blog. You may have opportunities to do talks. Obviously you have to be out there hustling. It’s not going to come to you, but a book gives you the credibility to make it happen.

What constitutes a best seller?

10,000 copies is good at the moment. The book business has been going through a really difficult period over the last couple of years and it’s going through a period of change as well where people are reading more books on Kindles. Having said that we wouldn’t print less than 3,000 copies. We start with a very conservative print run because the books are printed in the UK and it’s very fast to do a reprint so if something starts taking off we just reprint and reprint. We also try to keep books in print for a long time. As a medium sized publisher we chose books that are going to backlist, that aren’t going to go out of date. Books can be steady sellers. They don’t have to sell huge amounts in the first year. With some books it takes a while.

Certainly first time authors shouldn’t be give up the day job. Actually, on that point , one of the best travel writers out there is John Gimlett, who’s a lawyer, and he’s never given up his day job.

Should authors chase trends? There seems to be a bit of thing for round the world cyclists at the moment. Or should they just stick to what they’re passionate about?

It has to be what you’re passionate about. It’s helpful if it’s something other people are interested in too! There are some books that we would find very difficult to publish no matter how passionate an author is because there just isn’t a big enough market. But then, there’s no point at looking at Tim Butcher’s book, Blood River, and thinking, “I’m going to go and write a historical travel book as well” because a lot of books published on Africa don’t sell.

There were a lot of other factors that combined to make that book a best seller. It’s very, very risky chasing trends. Having said that, you can see that cycling has become a lot more popular in the last few years and we are slightly increasing our output of cycling related travel books because it gives us another way of selling a book. There are only so many people out there who buy travel books, but there are people who buy cycling books. The same way, if we publish a book set in Italy but it’s also about food then we can sell that in another way as well. People who are interested in food may also be interested in this book.

Finally, someone has just read this, taken on board all that you’ve said and think they’ve got a best seller on their hands, how do they get in contact with you guys?

All the submissions guidelines are on our website. It’ll give you a step by step guide on how to submit a book idea to us. And please do. We love to hear from all sorts of authors.

And we now have a Facebook page called Great Travel Reads and we’ve got a twitter account called @SummersdaleGo. Sometimes if we’re looking for something in particular I’ll put a message out there.

So join us there, send us your ideas, send us questions. We try to be very accessible.

SummersdaleSummersdale just celebrated 21 years of independent publishing and is one of the world's leading publishers of travel narratives. They are always looking for fresh new ideas and authors. Aspiring authors are encouraged to follow the submission guidelines on their website.

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 Your Comments (2)

  • 18th August by Fiona Trowbridge

    What a brilliant interview!  Many thanks Jennifer and Peter.  I am sure it has inspired many Wanderlusters. I certainly found it very helpful and have taken on board everything you said.  However, I have already broken the first rule by giving up the day job but there's nothing like no monthly salary coming in to make you try harder.

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  • 5th January by Liz Cleere

    Thanks for highlighting this interview, I missed it first time round. Jennifer seems a very down to earth and upbeat person, and the article pulls out some good, solid advice. Duly clipped.

    Now, I just need an idea for a book...

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