If you could time-travel five years back to a typical publishing presentation at a major house, the talk would have been exclusively of brands. What do we seek to publish? Brands. What do we want from agents? Brands. The word delivered with the finality of the Ten Commandments. An unknown author had little chance of competing in that landscape. So went the prevailing theory.
I remember sitting in one such meeting, and as the sandwich platter moved around the boardroom table, I wondered why we couldn't create brands from scratch, i.e. use our resources to turn unknown authors into names readers recognised. Wasn’t that what publishing was for? The question, when I asked it, was followed by silence.
Fortunately, like many creative industries, publishing runs in cycles, and while authors who have built audiences over the years will rightly do well (as will books as brand extensions), discovery of the new is the beating heart of publishing. So it is really exciting to see that talented authors with only a great manuscript to their name have recently shaken up the charts. Today ‘debut’ is the word which goes neck to neck with ‘brand’. When Elizabeth is Missing by Emma Healey (Penguin) landed in my inbox (it came with a working title Maud) I had no idea it was going to be the biggest paperback fiction title of 2015, but I knew that I loved it and that it had great potential. And so did the publishers who worked tirelessly for 12 months prior to its publication building a campaign which proved that it wasn’t necessary to trim your ambition to fit a debut, that an unknown author could indeed be published like a big name.
We are seeing great campaigns for new writers across the board – The Miniaturist by Jessie Burton (Picador), Disclaimer by Renee Knight (Doubleday), The Versions of Us by Laura Barnett (W&N), The Trouble with Goats and Sheep by Joanna Cannon (The Borough Press), Grief is the Thing with Feathers (Faber & Faber) by Max Porter to mention but a few from a range of publishers.
Hunger for the new – new voice, new idea, new perspective – will always be the engine which powers our industry. A debut promises an adventure. It comes with the excitement of the unknown (as well as a clean sales track record and the opportunity for the marketing department to unleash their imaginations unconstrained by what came before). It seems as though there has never been a better time to be a first-time author. Every publisher – big or small - wants a debut. Pushkin Press has even started an imprint dedicated to debuts only. We are all poised to discover the new.
And perhaps discovery rather than debut is the operative word. A voice or a story which plays with the zeitgeist – wherever they come from: a first-time writer or a veteran. Something which can be published with real confidence because it will engage, unsettle, move or entertain. As agents and publishers, our job is to discover. The moment we turn complacent and settle on a trend, we will be letting down readers who trust us to bring them the very best that art and entertainment can offer - or they will find it elsewhere.
As Curtis Brown and Foyles are getting ready for the new edition of Discovery Day, we hope to say to writers that publishing is – and always should be - about discovery rather than gate-keeping. All you need is a great manuscript.
Karolina Sutton is an agent at Curtis Brown.
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