#SCBWICON15 Publishing 101 report by Sarah Dukes

Julia Churchill, Penny Holroyde &
Maureen Lynas

Shhh: Trade Secrets: Publishing 101! 

My first SCBWI conference: an exciting weekend, for many reasons. I could unlock secret knowledge on what agents and publishers are looking for! 

 I could schmooze with authors and illustrators, wearing my funky and highly original steam punk octopus tattoo at the party! I could sleep, for a whopping eight hours straight, safe in the knowledge that my darling sprats are over a hundred miles away, waking up my husband with demands of water and cuddles instead of me! 

It would be utterly foolish to type my address on the Etsy page wrong, so that the oh-so-cool tattoo doesn’t arrive in time. It would be damn right stupid to mistake two cold-and-flu tablets for harmless paracetamol: tablets packed with caffeine, and taken right before bed… 

Well, two out of three ain't bad: I did attend the Publishing 101 break-out session, with literary agents Julia Churchill and Penny Holroyde, learning a whole heap about what agents, authors and publishers actually do. 

First up, agents. 

With the rise of self-publishing, you may wonder why you might even need one. Well, agents can be the perfect mediators – lovely, friendly, supportive go-betweens, who help you to develop your ideas, get your novel as brilliant as it can be, pitch it to publishers, and then negotiate offers and contracts. 

They turn a “publisher friendly contract into an author friendly one” which seems worth its weight in gold. 

During their talk, both Julia and Penny stressed the importance of a good author-agent relationship – especially as it’s an agent’s job to tell the bare-bones truth. Agents are also loyal: whereas a publisher might drop you if your sales aren’t great, your agent should stick with you and have faith in your writing; in Julia Churchill’s words, an agent is about “growing a career” as a writer. 

Their job is to sell your book – that’s how they make their 15%.

Good news for us pre-published newbies, too. Yes, an agent’s general nine to five work is all about looking after their existing clients, but talent spotting is a key part of their job, and they take the slush-pile very seriously indeed. If you get rejected, don’t go and shove your head under the duvet and your manuscript in the fire: thankfully, agents like authors with broad shoulders, so re-submit it, so they can see that you are honing your draft and developing your ideas. 

Once your novel is polished and perfect, how do you find a good agent, and what should you put in your submissions letter? Julia and Penny’s first top tip is to research, research, research. Make a list of agents who represent books you like, and books that are similar to yours. Then write to each individually, saying why you have targeted them, and how your book would fit alongside others that they represent. Submission pet hates include threats, hyperbole, meaningless comparisons, alarm clocks to start the story, and unnamed, non-descript settings – you’ve got to place it, people! 

Next up: authors. 

Authors are expected to read, write best-sellers (!), know the market, revise their work, and self-promote their novel. If a publisher sees author self-promotion, they will be more inclined to match this: promotion begets promotion. 

Don’t underestimate the value of visits - big names like Jacqueline Wilson visit up to twenty schools a month, and Robin Stevens practically popped in to every Waterstones in the UK to promote her fantastic detective novels. 

Social media plays an important role: remember, you will be Googled to see if you have an online presence. Along with Facebook and Twitter, do consider Vine, Snap Chat and You Tube. If you’re pre-published, and you want to start an online profile but are unsure what to write about, Julia and Penny suggested posting about the writing process, following your favourite authors, and tweeting about books you’ve read. Do mention self-published books, do be authentic, and don’t forget about the brilliant SCBWI Facebook page as an ace starting place! 

So what do publishers do? 

They print, package, distribute, market and promote your book – phew! And, of course, they make profit, so that they can pay authors (and subsequently, agents). 

There you have it folks. Agents, authors and publishers in a nutshell – thank you, Julia and Penny, for your publishing trade secrets! 

Sarah Dukes teaches English and Art in a Secondary School in Malvern. She holds a first class honours degree from Canterbury Christ Church in English Literature and Art, and is a pre-published member of SCBWI. She lives in Worcester with her husband and two children.


  1. Interesting and incisive summary - thank you!

  2. This is a great report on what was an excellent session. Julia and Penny were incredibly generous and honest in this session. As a first timer at the conference they helped it all to fall into place for me.

  3. A great report - thanks. So vital for those who couldn't be at the conference as well as revisiting for those who were lucky enough to be at the big event!

  4. Sarah Dukes. You have made us both very proud of you.

    Thank you
    Sally and Terry

  5. Well done Sarah, love Emma, Kristen and Ella xx


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