How to spot a bestseller

“I can usually spot a good book on the first page,” says enduring literary agent Luigi Bonomi. “You can just see a really good piece of writing almost straight away – and then you’re immediately intrigued…”

As someone who’s worked with a wide range of bestselling authors, from thriller writer Will Adams to ex Top Gear presenter Richard Hammond, you’d expect Bonomi to be able to coax the best out of the best. But actually, he’s finding more and more satisfaction from the literary prize he judges – which celebrates new writing from the Arab States.

“What fascinates me is how many people are interested in writing in the Gulf,” he says of the Montegrappa Writing Prize. “There’s a wonderful mix of nationalities, a lot of them have careers, but they all desperately want to write. We have about 300 entries every year – I’m always very impressed.”

The Montegrappa Writing Prize was launched by the Emirates Airline Festival of Literature in 2013 in conjunction with Bonomi’s literary agency. Budding GCC authors have to submit the first 2,000 words of their unpublished opus, plus a synopsis of 400 words. Bonomi then chooses five that excite him, who then get the chance to discuss their work at the following year’s festival – the winner zeroing in on their manuscript in more detail. There’s still time to enter for 2020; the closing date is at the end of this month.

“I think the Montegrappa Writing Prize fulfils a really important role in the author’s journey to being published; it gives their project a credibility,” says Bonomi.

“You can try and self-publish, but even the moderately successful authors who go down that route spend five hours or more every day just on promoting themselves. Actually, if they do manage to sell bucketloads of books, they end up finding an agent for their next novel.”

The prize doesn’t guarantee a publisher – but with Bonomi’s full seal of approval, the winners are definitely on the right track. There have been eight published authors in the last five years, the biggest success story being Lucy Strange, whose first novel, The Secret of Nightingale Wood, was published in October 2016. A fairytale-like story full of suspense and intrigue, it’s gone on to be translated into many languages and was one of Amazon’s Best Children’s Books of the Year.

“Lucy has done really well,” says Bonomi. “She was a teacher in Dubai, and after the Montegrappa experience, she was snapped up by the publisher who discovered JK Rowling. She’s now onto her third novel with contracts for more in the pipeline. It’s so good to see what effect the Montegrappa Writing Prize can have.”

The other event Bonomi leads at the Emirates Airline Festival of Literature is a ‘quick pitch’, where authors have five minutes to sell their synopsis and find out whether their book has a chance. Sounds brutal…

“It’s like speed dating for authors,” he jokes. “A lot of literary agents are doing it now. It’s quite intense, but the role of an author now is intense. They really have to be out there, promoting themselves, having a presence, building a following and engaging with their readers. That’s a lot of work.”

Work that, for some lucky authors, might start at the Emirates Airline Festival of Literature next year.