Introducing: Sam Jordison, judge of the 2021 First Chapter competition

We’re excited to announce that Sam Jordison is the judge for the 2021 First Chapter competition. (The deadline is 31st January, so start thinking about your entry once you’ve checked out Sam’s interview!)

Sam is a publisher, author and journalist. He’s the co-director of Galley Beggar Press, and has worked on many successful and award-winning titles — including Lucy Ellmann’s Ducks, Newburyport, Preti Taneja’s We That Are Young, and Alex Pheby’s Lucia. He also writes about books for The Guardian and has written several non-fiction titles, including Enemies Of The People and the best-selling Crap Towns series.

We caught up with Sam to talk about what makes a submission stand out to him, what Galley Beggar Press looks for — and what he loves to read for fun, too. Competition entrants, take note!

  • When you receive a submission at Galley Beggar Press, what gets you excited enough to then ask for the full manuscript?

Mainly, it’s the sentences. If those grab us, we keep going. I’m afraid I can’t really give you an exact definition of those sentences or what it is that has to work… But it’s an inexact science. It’s a gut feeling and subjective aesthetic judgement as much as anything else…

  • Galley Beggar Press has a reputation for publishing innovative work and taking a gamble on novels that the trad publishers won’t. Is innovation something you exclusively look for when reading submissions or are you also interested in traditional storytelling approaches?

It’s not necessarily something we look for. But I do think it’s something we’re attracted too. I’ve just been reading a fantastic interview with the late great John O’Brien from Dalkey Archive talking about how much he valued subversion in books. Books that aren’t afraid to challenge – and say new things in new ways. I also really liked EL Doctorow’s idea that writing isn’t worth a damn if it isn’t transgressing… Anyway, I guess my general feeling is that writers shouldn’t be conformists. Part of what makes them important is their ability to make us think differently… But, you know, that can also be done through traditional storytelling. I guess. I might have trouble telling you exactly what traditional storytelling is… But it’s worth saying that you don’t have to use complex prose to say complicated things. Or to move emotions.

  • When reading the shortlisted first chapters, what’s going to make a story stand out for you? 

Mainly, I have to refer you to my first two answers, with more apologies about the vagueness of all that. I’m going to respond to beautiful sentences, smart ideas and a feeling that there’s heart in the story. Easier said than done, I know.

  • What types of writers and novels are you looking for at Galley Beggar Press?

Good ones! We just want to publish the best books we can find. Beyond that, we don’t really know. Part of the fun lies in being surprised…

  • When you’re reading for pleasure not work, who are your favourite authors?

There are too many to list. I’ve just discovered (rather late!) Edith Wharton and am in awe of how good she is. Otherwise, I like lots of the people you might expect: Hemingway, Dickens, the Brontes, Don Delillo, James Baldwin, Penelope Fitzgerald, Michael Ondaatje, PG Wodehouse… Some people are surprised at how much I like Terry Pratchett – but those are mainly people who haven’t read Night Watch. What can I recommend that your readers might not have read. I just finished Who Sleeps With Katz by Todd McEwen and haven’t got over it. The ending broke me! It’s beautiful and funny and made me long to go to New York. I’m re-reading Ragtime by EL Doctorow at the moment, which is a marvel.  

Thank you, Sam, for being our judge this year and for sharing your guidance and insights. To enter, and find out more about our competitions, please do head over here. Good luck!