The UCL Publishers' Prize: Debut Publishers for Debut Authors

The UCL Publishers' Prize: Debut Publishers for Debut Authors

Marianne Tatepo is part of the team behind UCL Publishers' Prize for Student Writing 2015: A Collection of Short Stories and Flash Fiction

‘Risk is inevitable’ is not the usual opener to bachelor degrees. But every day the publishing industry says exactly that. Each of its constituents puts itself on the line with seemingly more vulnerability than ‘Wolf of Wall Street’ embezzler Jordan Belfort.

Penguin Random House have likened their operations to ‘launching 2000 start-ups’ per annum. Of course, the workforce and workflows involved in those processes are scaled up to the task at hand. Yet, human error prevails – how can businesses achieve seamless end products on the majority of their titles?

Such is the type of question we found ourselves obsessing about when taking over the sophomore instalment of the UCL Publishers’ Prize for Student Writing. And that’s only one anthology we’re publishing; one start-up, which is essentially in its second year.

This year, AAA member Lizzy Kremer from David Higham Associates (a UCL alumna herself) returned, and we hope to have her as a resident judge. But to ensure each story was read by enough pairs of eyes, we engineered adding individuals from different areas to the mix. The end result is an academic and columnist, an author, a literary agent, a retailer, and two publishers as judges.

Additionally to a wide range of professionals, this year we were meticulous about representing a range of genres: our author is Peter James, recently voted ‘best crime writer of all times’ by WHSmith, and our academic and columnist John Mullan, Guardian Book Club host, and Head of English at UCL. Gillian Redfearn, UCL alumna and Publishing Director at sci-fi and fantasy imprint Gollancz further contributed to the originality of the prize and we were extremely fortunate to have Lee Brackstone, Creative Director at Faber Social on board. But the prize couldn’t be reflective of the industry without involving a retailer, enter Chris White and Joseph Knobbs from Waterstones’ fiction buying team. How did we get here?

Most arts degrees don’t teach you that anyone can be a businessman, MBA grad or not. This is both the danger and fuel of UK entrepreneurialism. You need not look further than the creation of specialist porridge and cereal cafés to see that where there is a niche, there is a profit margin. But successful businesses thrive on good deals and firm handshakes as much as they do on pleasant luncheons with clients.

Spending three years with your eyes scanning hundreds of pages as a thirsty shipwrecked wanderer would the Saharan horizon suggests that ‘knowledge is king’. What isn’t always clear is that knowing facts is right up there with knowing people. Networking was our bread and butter once we set up our marketing materials for the UCL Publishers’ Prize. With books wielded like hoovers, we knocked on the doors of literati, attending university events for book clubs aficionados, novelists, poets, and screenwriters.

One challenge when promoting to students is raising brand awareness vs. narrowcasting, especially when many entrants are one-year postgrads. Where established prizes can use PR and lead generation from publishing houses old and new, setting up a prize means dabbling with the publishing industry’s own “Voldemort”: self-publishing.

Fortunately, our venture was steered by keen supporters: the Desmond Elliott Prize with whom we will be working closely in the lead up to their prize’s shortlist announcement, Dimension Data who funded part of the cash prize, Faber & Faber who are offering a Faber Academy course, The Bookseller, and of course UCL itself (JFIGS, UCL Centre for Publishing, UCL Press). Our sponsors’ dedicated care and working hours have cemented the gravitas of the UCL Publishers’ Prize as the first vocational student-run prize at UCL. 

Our book is now out, and our hopes in at least one of our authors emerging as an Eimear McBride. But even if something goes wrong, being part of this course project the past six months have taught us something no Cambridge Companion can: soft skills. With imminent changes ahead, here’s hoping the UK’s educational system reforms (e.g. coding classes) can mimic its business flexibility. Because without risk and novelty, what will become of us?