The panel consisted of John Jarrold (ex-editor and now a book doctor and agent) with authors Ian McDonald. Ian Watson and Ben Jeapes (who is also a former editor). It was an interesting and informative panel and here is what I jotted down:
JJ started out by saying that he thought it was harder to get published now than 15-20 years ago. (At which I thought, "Oh, bummer," because I nearly sold a novel 17 years ago, but it wasn't quite good enough. Hopefully I've improved since and Moving a Mountain is better, but will it be enough better to finally score through these ever moving goalposts?)
JJ Thought that it was the end of epic fantasy. Publishers were now looking for other things. Also that SF was making a comeback.
On the subject of synopses, JJ said to provide 5-10 pages that had to catch the editor's eye.
Ian M said that you should make the synopsis read like the novel, but in miniature.
JJ stressed the importance of presentation. As Ian W said, no publisher is going to re-punctuate a novel for you. JJ went on to say that problems like dyslexia are no excuse; you just have to work harder at those things and cited Jon Courtenay Grimwood (who talked about his dyslexia at Eastercon two years ago) as an example of someone who, despite his problem, made sure that the MS was as perfect as possible before submitting. He then offered a couple of tips: Read your dialogue aloud. Whilst dialogue in a book is not an exact representation of real dialogue (if you ever read a verbatim transcript of any conversation, you'll immediately realise this), it should be possible to say it naturally without your tongue getting in a tizzy. Ian W seconded this, especially if the dialogue is supposed to be being shouted across a battlefield, for instance. JJ then reminded us all not to take rejection personally; an editor is rejecting the book not you.
Ian M recommended books on screenwriting as also being excellent for novel structure and pacing.
JJ recommended reading and re-reading favourite author to see how they do it -- not to copy them, but to examine how they have done something like dialogue or description and then try their techniques in your own way.
JJ on being asked what publishers and agents were looking for said, give me the same thing, but different.
There was then a brief exchange about the problem of publishers refusing to accept unsolicited submissions, but I didn't jot down any helpful conclusion, unfortunately. But see comments on agents below...
This bit is important: JJ said that if you think your novel is good don't submit it. Only send it to a publisher if you're sure it's gosh! wow! wonderful! Yes, there really is that much competition now.
Ben pointed out that the book must stand alone. You will not be there to explain any apparent discrepancies ("Oh, but I explain that in Chapter 12.") or omissions ("Well, that's dealt with in volume 3."). This applies both the the editor reading the MS and also (should the book be published) to the reader reading the finished novel.
JJ mentioned that, because of the differences in size in the two markets, British authors are often published first in the States and then picked up over here.
Sadly, the first book has to work and sell well. These days, with publishing run by accountants interested in the bottom line, there is no longer room for the modest success and slow growth of a career. Until you are a success (when in a way you don't need the advance publicity!), there is no real money for marketing a novel.
Ben then said that the thing that made his heart sink when he ran his small publishing company were the words comic fantasy. (This is where I thought, "Oh, bummer!" again as that's what I have almost finished and thus will soon be submitting.) JJ confirmed this by saying that all UK publishing houses either already had a comic fantasy writer (Terry Pratchett, Tom Holt or Robert Rankin) or didn't want one, because they didn't publish that kind of thing, preferring to concentrate on grimmer and more serious stuff.
I asked a question at this point about how, having committed the heinous crime of writing a comic fantasy, I should try to sell it. JJ suggested that I emphasise the plot and de-emphasise the comedy. This tip has been filed away for future reference.
Finally there was a reminder to research the market to ensure that you submit your book to an appropriate publisher and to check their details in the Writers' and Artists' Year Book or the Writers' Handbook, also to check online because these days publishers have web pages with lots of information about the books they publish and often containing information on how to submit to them.
All in all, a very useful (if sobering) panel.