Publishing: How to Win the Lottery; These Days, the Book Trade Is an All-or-Nothing Business: Huge Advances Go to Those with the Marketing 'X' Factor and the Rest Get a Pittance - If They're Lucky. Jason Cowley Talks to the Winners and Agents to Find out Just What You Have to Do to Get Your Name in Print

Article excerpt

Byline: JASON COWLEY

Before university Santa Palmer-Tomkinson (right) spent a year in Argentina. It was the formative, perhaps the most idyllic time of her life.

'I really thought I belonged there,' she says. When she returned, a year or so later, everything had changed: those with whom she had once lived and socialised had moved on, to America and elsewhere, and she now felt lost, no longer at ease in Argentina.

An aspirant writer, she had spent much of her late adolescence working on children's stories, pastiche Mills & Boon and sketches for romantic novels.

Then, when she was 25, she met her future husband, Simon Sebag Montefiore, who encouraged her to take her ambitions more seriously and to strive to become the writer she had always wanted to be. So she wrote a novel set in Argentina. It is soft-edged with nostalgia, and full of the vitality and richness of her earlier encounters with that country.

The novel, Meet Me Under the Ombu Tree, was sent out, anonymously, to four agents under, she concedes, the unoriginal moniker 'Miss X', which made her sound more like a porn star than a novelist. 'I did that because I really didn't want to read about myself in the gossip columns.

You know the kind of thing: "Poor Santa is trying to cash in on the success of her sister, Tara."' It was rejected by three of the agents, but the fourth, Jo Frank, liked what she read. Together she worked with Santa Montefiore to improve and burnish the novel until it was ready to show to potential publishers. The first publisher to read the book, Hodder & Stoughton, made a pre-emptive bid of pound sterling100,000. 'I was astounded,' Santa recalls. 'I had expected, if my book was to be published at all, to receive an advance of, at best, pound sterling20,000.' She advised her agent to accept the bid. In the event, the book was put up for competitive auction. 'The auction was an exciting but awfully anxious experience, not least because everyone began bidding at a very low level, much less than we had been offered originally.

Soon there were only two publishers left, HarperCollins and Hodder. I was working at the time for Ralph Lauren. I spent the whole day sitting at my desk receiving phone calls from Jo every couple of hours. She has this cool, phlegmatic voice.

She would say: "Hi Santa, it's me. The figure has now reached pound sterling80,000."

The whole thing was like a dream.' In the end, Hodder won the auction - for pound sterling100,000, the same figure as its original pre emptive bid.

Daisy Waugh is another novelist who, like Santa Montefiore, experienced what she describes 'as a lovely bidding war'. In her twenties she had published two books, a novel and a book about Africa, but neither had made much of an impression. After that, she spent a long time 'having babies and writing rather rubbishy journalism'. So when she eventually returned to writing fiction, her expectations and confidence were low. Still, she sent five chapters of her work-in-progress, The New You Survival Kit, to the agent Clare Alexander. The chapters were swiftly offered to interested publishers and, to Waugh's surprised delight, an auction began.

'When you set out to write a book you dream that people will bid to publish it, but you never believe it will happen. When Clare told me that Little, Brown and HarperCollins were competing to buy my book, making these outlandish bids, I was so thrilled but, at the same time, unwilling to believe that it was really true. Then she kept calling and with every call the price would rise, so that, in the end, you are moving in a kind of fuzz of disbelief. It was wonderful!' Waugh - who eventually received pound sterling120,000 for The New You Survival Kit and its follow-up, Ten Steps to Happiness, which is published in January - and Montefiore are the fortunate beneficiaries of an inflationary trend in the modern book business towards what the literary agent Simon Trewin calls 'winner-takes-all publishing'. …