In my last blog post I detailed my bumpy, eye-opening and occasionally turbulent route to publication, and how having found a publisher I built a relationship with them. Strangely enough, people rarely seem to ask about finding a publisher, and more often they enquire about the process of finding an agent, a subject I thought I would turn to here. In case people aren’t familiar with the difference, a publisher occasionally will take submissions (usually a synopsis of the novel that should ideally be a page) and three chapters of it, and can on occasion offer to publish a whole novel off the back of that. Agents exist because of the key word in that sentence, ‘occasionally’. Most publishers don’t accept submissions from anyone, they look to what agents suggest they should publish. I had a publisher, so for my first longer publications didn’t need an agent. Of course, agents will tell you they don’t just find publishers and secure an advance for their writers. They will also deal with stage adaptations, film and TV rights, reprints and more.
So, having been fortunate to be published by the same publisher for two novels for my third novel I casted around again for an agent when the publisher was taking a long time to deliberate over it. The impression I soon got was that it was the quality of the writing that agents looked at. Did it grip them and then yes, was it a good story. I got the impression I got was that at the back of their minds agents seemed to be asking ‘can we market this book?’, and ‘does it fit with lists and the tags we currently have about what works and doesn’t?’. I was fortunate in that a friend of mine really liked my ballet novel and recommended it to their agent, who worked at a major agency who was looking to build their list (industry speak for ‘get more clients’). Agent 1, as I will call them, asked me to post my previous novels to them right away, and having received them asked to meet me in London to discuss moving forward. Excitedly, I booked the train down. I tried not to feel too deflated when, on arrival in London this agent greeted me with the words-‘I hope you didn’t come all the way down just for this?’
I had just started a PhD in Creative Writing, and the advice I he gave me was ‘listen to every word your supervisor says. Now this is your third novel you need to spend a lot of time on it, three years perhaps, and we can develop a long-term plan.’ I returned home, and set to work. Agent 1 asked me to complete a draft, send it to him, and said then we’d discuss moving forward. I emailed a draft a few months later, and got no reply. A gentle follow up reminder a few months later also yielded no reply.
Agent 2 was also recommended by a friend. I met this agent at a literary event and they said they were looking for psychological fiction. I discussed my previous work and they said they were very interested. Send me your last novel, she said, and I will read it by the end of the week. A few more promises were made, and the agent was (perhaps understandably) delayed in reading it. When they finally were able to read it the verdict was ‘there is too much tell and not enough show in your writing. It’s a no from me.’
Agent 3 was sent opening chapters and got back in touch that day. He sounded most enthusiastic about my writing and this seemed like a real opportunity- he was excited having actually read it. He was keen for us to have a long chat on the phone and in it several revisions to my proposed synopsis were suggested, along with books I should read to hell inform my story. He also offered notes on how to enhance the main character so we cared more about his plight, and how my novel could take in other issues relevant to the story to appeal to the market today, as well as the culture we live in. I got to work on it right away and a month letter had sent him a draft. He said he would read it right away.
Three months later, I gave him another gentle reminder. ‘I will read it this weekend and get back to you,’ he promised. Another two months later (with, I note, no acknowledgement of the delay), and he again said ‘I will read it right away and get back to you. This went on for nine months. I reluctantly noticed that every time the agent made another promise there was no acknowledgement of how testing this repeated pattern of promise and disappointment might be for a writer I said to myself, cut the guy some slack, he is probably snowed under. But when I took a look at his Twitter feed I saw they had just messaged a gym instructor asking if he’d be interested in submitting a book to his agency on how to cut down on body fat. Seemingly he had some spare time on his hands then…
A year on and there is still no response to my MS. I can only assume he is still about to read it, any day now.
I met Agent 4 at a ‘Meet The Agent’ event and was encouraged by their response to the writing I submitted. I took on board their suggestions on how to tighten my plot, to get to the action faster, and submitted a draft to them, at their request. While I waited to hear back I also submitted the draft (which had gone through by now about 25 edits and around 7 or 8 major rewrites) to my previous publisher. They were very kind and encouraging but felt that part of the plot needed to move a bit quicker. Did I have another novel they could look at? But by now I was determined to find this one a home. I decided to try a drastic experiment with the novel. To cut any scenes that weren’t essential to the novel, to drive the action to the fore, and to slim it right down. I submitted this to Agent 4 (who I hadn’t yet heard back from).
It was then that I also submitted the opening chapters to my eventual publisher. They were unusual in that they dealt with all submissions using an online portal. I had previously submitted them an idea for an academic novel, which they had rejected, but I had liked how once they approved your opening chapters and asked for a full manuscript, they supplied reader reports within a matter of days, giving me a detailed précis of the novels strengths and weaknesses. They also asked for advance endorsements on the novel, from other authors. This was tricky, as understandably people are usually reluctant to take the time to read and endorse novels if they don’t even know if they’ll be published. One pleasant side-effect of the long process (two and a half years of writing and submitting at this point) is that I had gathered a few good quotes from people along the way, and I asked for their permission to use them.
I submitted this new, slimmed down version of the story, with endorsements. The publisher wanted detailed plans on how I would market the book, to which market, and how I would help promote this. Online presence (on Twitter and in peoples blogs), and contacts with journalists relevant to your books subject matter were important, and fortunately I had some decent answers to give. My last novel had sold well, which they said ‘encouraged’ them. Feeling I was getting somewhere I offered detailed responses. Having been finally convinced that I had a network of press contacts and people relevant to the novel (contemporary musicians in this case) who would help promote it they finally offered me a contract for the book to be published in the UK, US and Canada. I had finally crossed the finish line with my third book.
Just after I signed the contract Agent 4 got in touch and said they really liked the new version of the novel. Perhaps we could work together on your next one, they asked?
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