An agent or publisher is interested – what happens next? #getpublished

Congratulations. An agent or publisher is showing enough interest to want to speak with you.

There is usually a slow process of meeting each other, to see if you will get along. The agent or publisher will shower your story with praise, then probably suggest changes to your script and see how you respond. Sometimes they are slight tweaks and can be fixed in a week or two. Other times, you can be asked to do substantial redrafts that take months. Throughout all this, they are looking to see how you handle the situation.

They want someone who responds quickly and takes advice well. If you let yourself be distracted by other pressures IMG_3442

or decide now is the time to close your laptop and take a gap year, IMG_3443you risk losing their attention.

Agents first

Do not expect a contract at an early stage although it can happen. Agents are more likely to be prompt about contracts than publishers and will send you a standard form of around a single page. In July we looked in detail at what agents do.

If a contract does come your way, keep breathing and think about it. You do not have to accept it straight away. You can ask for thinking time if there’s another agent/publisher you’re hoping to hear from. And it’s a good idea to consult the UK’s Society of Authors or a lawyer about the legal terms. There’s usually little you can renegotiate in standard provisions but it helps to be clear about what they mean.

As soon as the agent is happy with your script and has taken you on, your script goes out to chosen publishers. It came as a shock to me that agents get rejections too but it does happen. Maybe someone just pipped yours to the post or the heat has gone off a particular genre in the space of weeks. I have met an author whose agent was passionate about his thriller and spent five years hawking it around the world, but could not place it. There is a long history of classic novels being rejected many times. Rejection does not mean your agent is incompetent or that your novel is worthless. Stay calm, polite and positive – and keep writing the next thing.

The upside is that, at this level, you know your work will have been carefully read and that your agent will sift and report on feedback. If not, go elsewhere.

A publisher says yes

With undying thanks to your agent, you are sitting in the offices of a real, live, smiling publisher who has your work on the table. (In July, I posted detail about what publishers can do for us and when. My first post is here, and part 2 is here.) The publisher’s editor has put you through yet more rewrites and has satisfied the marketing and money people at the new acquisitions meeting that this deserves a chance. You’ve got a deal!

Congratulate yourself again – very few new writers reach this stage. Most publishers take at most one first-time novelist a year. A publication date is set and the cover’s agreed. You have more work to do now:

  • Your help will be vital with publicity and this starts before publication. Do not expect to get much of your next book written over the next weeks and months.
  • Prepare your own website if you have not already. Start blogging about your new book and how you came to write it. Podcasts go down well too.
  • It’s never too early to start your social media spinning.
  • Make friends with your local booksellers. They’re lovely and are usually delighted to meet local authors. Your publisher should provide you with some free publicity copies to hand out.
  • Contact local newspapers and blogs to ask for interviews and reviews.
  • Plan your book launch.
  • And try above all to keep writing the next thing. You’ll need it sooner than you think.

They’re asking you to buy some of your own books?

Here comes one of the hardest facts about today’s publishing world: your publisher may well require you to buy some copies of your book yourself, at discount. I first encountered it in 2009 when it was described as a contribution to printer’s costs. It’s very common now, the idea being that it encourages you to market it. The discount (paying 40% of the full price is not uncommon) also means that if you sell at 80%, you are still making more profit, more quickly, than waiting for royalties.

Fame and fortune at last?

Most first novels sell fewer than a thousand copies. That’s why the Booker prize was invented, to help literary novels reach a wider audience. Publishers and agents hope that by the time they publish your third or fourth, preferably in a series or the same genre, the public will have noticed you and the whole exercise will become financially worth their while. They are gamblers at heart. You may be one of the lucky ones who has a substantial advance from a big publisher who is going to flog your book with a great big publicity budget. I hope so. IMG_E1806Even if you’re not … You have become a strange new creature, a published author. That can lead you to other ways of making money (coaching, talks, radio and television appearances). It means too that people see you differently. Instead of the friend they are used to, the one who spends most of the time alone and gives a slightly dejected shrug when asked how the writing’s going, they see a confident, new you with a book in your hand. That book has your name printed on it and they are being asked to buy copies. After all the years of lonely scribbling, there is no finer sensation than welcoming friends to your book launch and watching them queue, smiling and laughing, for you to sign copies for them.

Congratulations, you’ve made it. It has all been worthwhile.

I wish you the very best of luck and happy writing!

You’ve sent your submission – what happens next? #getpublished

It’s time to make a diary note about chasing in three to six months’ time. Meanwhile, let’s get busy doing other things.

IMG_3383Waiting by Degas, 1880-2

This will be harder than you think. Our inner writer longs for approbation and needs it fast. Do you remember the feedback stage, how hard it was to let your readers take their time? This sensation can be even more powerful now that your work is in the hands of professionals. Please be patient.

Take a break. Celebrate having reached this stage, you’ve done well! Get out among friends again and enjoy the real world. Then get stuck into writing something else. Make yourself a tight schedule of writing and research and stick to it. If a positive answer does come, they will want to know what you’re working on now.

Sometimes an agent/publisher’s submissions page will let you know how long they usually take. Allow them at least three months anyway – that’s the blink of an eye in publisher/agent time. Then a gentle reminder checking that your submission has reached the right person will be fine. Keep it calm and professional.

In my experience an outright rejection comes pretty swiftly. If they like what they see, they will read and re-read, share it around the office, have a word with marketing and accountancy, and so on. If they’re taking a while, it might be good news…

Rejections first – let’s get them out of the way. Some rejections are about you and some aren’t.

Reasons for rejection you cannot avoid:

  • The agent/publisher is feeling unwell, really tired for other reasons, has a headache or hangover, is about to get the sack. We all have off days.
  • Their office has so many unsolicited submissions stacked up, they have succumbed to temptation (who wouldn’t occasionally) to get rid of some. They all deny it but this does happen. There are many easier ways for publishers and agents to make money and there’ll be another load of talent arriving in the morning.
  • They’ve had too many of your kind of thing and don’t have time to say so.
  • They really like your kind of thing and have one in the pipeline or have recently done one just like it. Sometimes they will say so.
  • They’ve just had a bad experience with a new writer – too much trouble, lost too much money? – and can’t face it again for a while.

Reasons for rejection you can avoid:

When agents and publishers come to the slush pile, what buoys them up is the hope of finding the Next Big Thing and making their fortune. They may not know exactly what they’re looking for but they know what they don’t want. Let’s help them out by avoiding the following:

Rejections take many forms:

IMG_3385Sometimes you will receive no answer at all. Considering how many people are sending out submissions these days, this is understandable. Some websites even declare this is their policy. Never mind. The silence could be for a multitude of reasons that have nothing to do with you.

A standard form reply is common, without your name or a personal signature. Try not to be downhearted, as above.

A personal rejection with your name on it is a big step forward. It might say your submission doesn’t ‘chime’ with what they are looking for but at least they have bothered to look and might well remember what you’ve done. Try to be pleased.

With all of the above, there is no need to respond. Be patient and detached about these rejections and keep studying your craft, looking for ways your submission and script might be improved. This ‘rejection stage’ is your most important learning stage too.

Hard as it is not to take a rejection as a personal slight, it is vital that you stay professional and do not bother anyone who has sent you a rejection. At all costs do not telephone to argue the toss and above all do not call on them in person in their offices. Not only will you ensure that they never look at your work again, neither will their friends and loved ones who may well work in the business.

 Buoying up the spirits

This stage can take years and leave you feeling low from time to time. This is normal. So in one of my writing groups we found ourselves talking about how to keep the spirits buoyed up through rejection times.

  • Repeated rejections of the same piece of work just might mean it still needs fixing. Keep trying to improve.
  • Take up something really good fun that gets you out among non-writers. Dancing or playing a musical instrument can work, whatever you enjoy most. It’s all material.
  • Keep catching those inspired patches of writing, whatever they’re about. Keep flexing happy writing muscles in your journal, or with poetry, flash fiction or whatever else suits you. Remind yourself that this is not peacekeeping in a war zone or fostering orphans, it’s only putting words on pages. If you keep crafting, it will come good.

Good rejections

Are there such things? Oh yes, and if I can do one thing to help you through this stage, it is to lift your spirits when you receive a good rejection and see it for the gold dust it is.

  • A personal rejection with your name on it that gives feedback and some positive comments – well, it’s time for celebration. You have no idea how rarely this happens! IMG_3387It means you have been noticed. It’s time for a kindly thank you and a close look at the feedback. Your inner writer might feel rejected but to have professional advice at this level is a huge step forward.
  • A personal reply makes no promises but compliments some aspects of your writing and recommends a manuscript advisor, perhaps giving a contact. This means that your script has been read and appreciated but needs help. Instead of working with you in-house, as used to happen, you are asked to pay. A manuscript advisor that works closely with your chosen agent might be the best thing for you chances of publication. Maybe not. See how you and your bank balance feel.
  • A personal rejection with feedback, some compliments and an invitation to send your next script – it’s time for celebration. This is great news! Reply warmly with thanks but please do not be tempted to send something until it is ready, even if it takes time. Ask if they might be prepared to consider an idea in principle.
  • A personal reply asking for your full manuscript. It’s time for celebration with fireworks. But before the rest of your script leaves home, have a final check through to make sure everything is on its toes. All too often agents and publishers are hooked by the first three chapters and find that, with the rest, the quality goes swiftly downhill. Take time to make sure all is well first. Then congratulate yourself, you have come a very long way. Fingers crossed.
  • The personal reply asking you to call to make an appointment to meet or speak on the phone. This is the big one. It can be the beginning of one of the most valuable and rewarding relationships of your life.

Next time we’ll look at why agents and publishers reject. Meanwhile, I wish you the very best of luck and happy writing. Good luck!

Sending it out – 5 best tips #getpublished

Publishers or agents?

An agent told me once that if you take independent publishers into account, more publishers are accepting direct submissions than agencies. It’s hard to say whether luck will favour you starting with agents or publishers, so it’s a good idea to try a mixture of both.

1/ Who do I try first?

Make a longlist of your best targets in order of preference, remembering that a rejection means you cannot approach them again with a later version of your novel unless you ask you to.

Do I try one at a time or several?

Publishers and agents like to feel that they are the first and only readers of your proposal, of course they do. On the other hand, each one can take three to six months to say it’s not for them. So, it’s not unreasonable for your first shortlist to be around three publishers – one big and well established, one medium sized and one tiny – and the same for three agencies. You’re looking for a spread of size, experience and sense of novelty. Within a well-established agency, their new young adventurous agent might be a good idea, for example. Or not. Much depends on how the wind is blowing and we won’t know until we’ve tried.

The more websites you scroll through, the more of a feel you will get for each firm’s ‘personality’. Have you noticed how kind they tend to be? They really do want to find our best new stories and sell them for us.

2/ What do I send?

Always send precisely what the submission guidelines ask for. This sounds obvious but if you’re sending more than one at a time, details can slip and overlap. Best to concentrate on one submission at a time.

Usually they ask for three things:

  • Your cover letter or email. Some are happy with emails, others (still) specify hard copy only.
  • A synopsis and/or chapter summary.
  • Sample chapters. Usually for fiction it’s the first three.

Many agents and publishers like email and often have an online submissions process on the website to help you out. A letter can feel like a slog these days but it will give you the satisfaction of feeling the physical weight of what you send. Always do your best to make sure your submission is complete in one go. Sending follow-ups with additions or corrections will not gain you extra attention – you risk being seen as annoying.

3/ What goes in the email/letter?

If your submission coincides with a busy agent or publisher having an off day, sorry to say it but your email/letter may be the only part of your submission that will be read, so take time to make it as engaging as possible.

Your tone is important. This is a business communication and you need to be professional. On the other hand, don’t be too formal and dry. Agents and publishers love a good story well told and your words should carry that.

There’s no point in being showy either. The days of pinning a Monopoly fiver to the front page are gone, as are dubious jokes.

  • ‘Dear [first name and surname, spelt correctly]’ usually works these days.
  • In your first line, drop the name of your recommendation by one of their authors if you have one. Likewise, mention where you met, if you have, such as an event where the agent was speaking. Best not to be over-friendly: ‘You might remember me’ is plenty.
  • Why is your work apt for them and for the particular person you are writing to? Which aspect of their author list or particular publications of theirs do you admire? Try to be specific without grovelling. (Saying they are a ‘leading’ publisher or agent is not enough; they know that.)
  • No negativity: ‘This must be your worst nightmare’ or ‘sorry to be boring but’ just puts ideas into heads and stops them reading.
  • Describe your book in one paragraph, not forgetting the title, genre and total word count. This is your sales pitch and needs to be the most arresting part of your submission. Agents and publishers are looking for narrative drive, a good strong story. Above all, be clear. This is harder than it sounds.
  • Characters first: who do we care about most in your story? Another way to put that might be, whose story is it. Focus on that character: what does s/he want, what stops him/her getting it, why do we care? If you have several main characters, keep to two or three at this stage; more are confusing.
  • What is the gist of your story arc and why is it vital? Be specific: a character ‘has many other adventures’ is not enough.
  • Between the lines is a sense of why your book should sell while others do not.
  • In another short paragraph, give your writing CV. This should be two or three sentences about the 3 to 5 main places you have been professionally published or are in the pipeline, any prizes in recent writing competitions or your completion of a university creative writing course (though this is not essential). People with most to brag about tend to have short, plain bios. If you are a first-timer, do convey that you are a committed writer keen to improve your craft and output. Show that you are enthusiastic about the revision process by briefly mentioning your writing group and circle of critical readers. However hard you toil at producing reports at work, they do not count. Nor do unpublished scripts. Saying that your mum loves your story will not help.
  • Why are you the person to write this book? This is what they mean by ‘anything relevant about the author’. For example, if your romantic lead is a fire fighter, it will help to know that you are one. Why did you come to write this book? If there is an interesting story there, give it a line or two. Do not waste their time saying that you’ve loved reading and writing since an early age, that is taken for granted.IMG_2930Still Life with Books and Candle, Matisse (1890)
  • Who is likely to buy your book? Here is where you describe how your book fits with the book market (which shelf in the shop, which age range for children) and how yours stands out from the others available. Are there other markets besides bookshops that might welcome yours?
  • How would you help to sell? Are you happy with giving public readings and talks, being interviewed, writing journalism and blogging? Any other ideas? Summarise your online and social media prowess – you will be expected to have some.
  • If your submission is with other publishers or agents at the same time, it is polite to say so without detail or appearing to pressurise.
  • Do not forget (even though they are also on your script’s cover page) to provide your name and contact details, and your website if you have one.

4/ Things not to include:

  • Full CVs of you and your family with or without holiday snaps of pets etc.
  • CDs and tapes.
  • Artwork unless specifically asked for.
  • Marketing plans – let them deal with that.
  • Extracts from rejections from other agents and publishers. However tempted you are to mention the ‘This looked OK but…’ part of a rejection, it is irrelevant here.
  • Confirmation postcards. A waste of time, they just get lost.

5/ Is your submission email/letter ready?

You know by now that writing is about rewriting. Let’s look at this first draft of your submission again:

  • Is it too long? How much is too much? Aim for one side or equivalent of 12-point A4, or slightly more. More than two pages are unlikely to be read.
  • Read it aloud to yourself. Does it feel easy, relaxed? What jars or feels repetitive?
  • Is the tone right? Friendly and professional, hard-working but easy to get along with. Have another look at the publisher/agent’s website to see how formal their tone is and follow their lead. Is there room for wit without being cringe-worthy?
  • Typos, spelling, grammar, cliché check: there’s always time for a last careful look, by somebody else if you are sick of it. You don’t want a hilarious typo to mar the whole thing.

Well done! That’s the first thing. Next time, we’ll look at your synopsis.

Happy writing!

#getpublished – 7 things agents and publishers take for granted

Before you send out your draft, let’s take a moment to step inside the minds of professional agents and publishers. Imagine them on their Monday morning commute hoping that today maybe … maybe … they’ll find the Next Big Thing in the book world.

They know what they’re looking for and in a way they don’t. So, let’s look first at what they take for granted:

  1. Spelling, grammar and syntax

Agents and publishers have usually spent most of their years in the company of wonderful writing and have often studied English literature in one form or another. They tend to see competence with spelling, grammar and syntax as the first skill of anyone who wants to be published.

You can feel cross-eyed by the time you’ve checked your submission a dozen times, but another time might make all the difference. Spellcheck has its pits and traps, and sometimes a shady sense of humour.

Grammar and syntax are about the subtle business of putting your words in the right order and making sure, for example, that your sentences have a verb and subject that match. It’s our job to play with all this and make the language dance but we need to judge when and how much we can bend the rules, and above all we should be clear.

There are plenty of resources to help you, including a wonderful section in Stephen King’s On Writing. This is our Highway Code and to get anywhere on the publishing industry’s map, we need to know our stuff.

Haven’t there been classic writers who couldn’t spell their own names? Stand up, Mr Shakespeare? Who twisted the language like a rambling rose, especially in the voice of a first person narrator? Stand up for applause, Mark Twain and Huck Finn. Of-course there have but if you are a so-far unknown writer trying to break in, it’s wise to make it easy for yourself. Agents and publishers used to take time to correct and upgrade a writer’s text but they can’t afford it these days and since the proliferation of university courses, they are used to work that’s polished and honed.

If you write well but need help with these basics, please find a way to get it before your work goes out. Pay if you have to: it’ll pay off.

  1. Formatting and layout

In short, obey all submission guidelines first, last and always. You can find these on a publisher’s or agent’s website. There will be more about this in tomorrow’s post.

  1. Articulacy

You have the power of conveying things well in words. A clear, simple, uncluttered style will be your friend. This is why professional journalists often transfer successfully to fiction; they are trained in cutting superfluous words like adjectives and adverbs and getting quickly to the point.

  1. A positive, life-enhancing vibe

I’m being controversial here. Aren’t writers entitled to write whatever they want? Isn’t negativity as much part of life as positivity? True, but I beg you to pity the poor agent or sifter who trudges through the unsolicited pile. Even if you’re describing life’s direst circle of hell, please manage to give a sense in your submission that, one way or another, your characters will learn that life is worth living. Not only is this kind to agents and publishers, optimism sells better. For those of you who disagree, stay true to your inner light. Here is my favourite cartoon – behind me as I type:

Golding cartoon

  1. Storytelling skills

Agents and publishers have hawk-like focus for who has good storytelling skills when they’re scanning a submission. They can tell within a paragraph or two.

Low patches in your writing energy can be an opportunity to freshen up your skills and get a new perspective on how your story might work best. Writing exercises and morning pages or journal are like scales and arpeggios for musicians – they keep you limber. Keep reading and learning, seeking out advice and help in as many places as you can. Keep editing and rewriting, cranking up the quality of your script.

And, as Elmore Leonard said, don’t bother to write the bits readers skip.

  1. Talent

What’s ‘talent’ doing here? How can agents and publishers take talent for granted? Because if they get distracted from your script and forget to pick it up again, another dozen or more talented submissions are waiting for them that day. Because if talent is there without all these other elements, it won’t be able to shine.

  1. The secret ingredient

Agents and publishers make most of their money from their existing clients and backlists of deceased classic writers. It’s amazing in tough times that they bother with unknown writers at all and many are choosy about when they open a submissions window. They know however that new writers are the life blood of the industry.

So, when they pick up a new, unsolicited typescript, what are they looking for?

  • A strong, unusual voice in
  • a cracking story
  • of high importance featuring
  • great, memorable characters and
  • drama (plausible high stakes, conflict, plenty of dilemmas). And
  • if possible, a powerful, enduring truth told in a new, exciting way.

These are what make agents and publishers lean forward, exhale with relief and turn more of your pages. They are what every post in this blog has been about and I put it here free to do what I can to help great new writers who don’t have the money or opportunity for a creative writing university degree.

I’ll leave you with Stephen King’s lessons on how to be a great writer. Turning off the television and picking up a book instead is in there, yes 🙂

More tomorrow. Happy writing!

What do publishers do, 2? From book launch to beyond

I love book launches, my own and other people’s, and didn’t discover until my second novel that you can have as many of them as you like!

It’s a good while since publishers would lay on a big bash for a first-time author at their expense, inviting every respected critic for miles, but you never know. Mostly we authors arrange and pay for our own. What do you do?

  • Find a location. Galleries and libraries work well. Any space will do where all your friends can gather, drink your wine, hear you talk about and read a bit of your book to whet appetites, and thank everybody who helped. Loud applause.
  • Who do you invite? Everybody you know – in my experience your friends will love it, especially the ones who think they are in it. They will also be more than happy to take away a copy without paying for it as if their friendship entitles them to this. (Maybe it’s just my friends but I doubt it.) Explain to them gently that they are to buy your book, as many copies as they can carry. In exchange you will sign their copies mentioning their names, with the place and date to make it unique.
  • Invite local media too, distribute flyers and put up posters. Not many strangers will come if they haven’t heard of you but you never know.
  • Make sure your books arrive on time. You’d be amazed how often this doesn’t happen, even for well-established authors!
  • If you’re like me, choose something a bit extra so that people will remember your launch in particular. Friends of mine who were trumpeters used to come and play a short fanfare before my readings. Gallery 4At the launch of my poetry collection Orion, professional actor Alice Barclay read the poems. It transfixed everybody far more than if I’d read them.
  • I like to keep the momentum up by moving on to a cheap meal close by but that’s up to you.
  • Spread happy photos around social media afterwards with pictures of your books in stock in shops. Done and dusted!

Back to what publishers do. Here are four more things following from Friday’s post to make a round dozen:

9/ ‘Brand building’

Time and again I’ve heard it said that publishers make very little money out of fiction until an author’s third book. That’s right, 3rd. Until readers get a feel for your name and style, for your regularity of output, for your ‘brand’, sales are unpredictable. Your publisher will try to find out about you and your life to depict you as a unique writer worth watching, to enhance their publicity efforts.

You remember how JK Rowling was a single mum writing in cafes with her buggy beside her? Cafes are excellent places to write and most of us do it some time or another. What her marketers were doing was painting a picture in our minds and hearts to lift Harry Potter beyond the book itself.

10/ Protection of your legal rights

Both your agent and publisher will do this – your legal rights are (usually) their legal rights and they want your work to make as much money for everyone as possible. They will ensure that nobody else passes off your ideas/style/concept as their own. Fan fiction is only a compliment as long as it does not steal your thunder and income.

Where your rights conflict with those of your agent and/or publisher, you can have a word with the Society of Authors or consult a media lawyer.

11/ Sales

Aha! Now we’re talking. Publishers have access to networks of great big warehouses and lorries that should carry your books to places you have never thought of. They have lunch and drinks with bookshop owners in other continents. They do their utmost to make sure the boxes of your books will actually be opened in book shops and your books displayed, sometimes even paying for the privilege. (Some boxes of books lie unopened in the back store for months, such is the busyness of life.) They do deals to get your books into prominent places on tables and shelves and sometimes onto recommended lists.

Many bookshops will not take self-published books. Yes, lots of us read happily on a variety of electronic gadgets but the paper book trade is still the majority of sales. A traditional publisher gets you onto all the gadgets and into the bookshops too.

12/ Publicity copies

You will probably be allocated some publicity copies. These are not freebies for your grandparents. (Those are the ‘author copies’ described in your contract.) You will be expected to circulate your publicity copies among your contacts to spread the word and this includes pounding the streets looking for lovely bookshop managers who have time to listen to you. Waterstones are remarkably helpful and at the time of writing still have discretion to stock something they like, or which has local interest. Independent book shops are invaluable too. They will not all have time to read your book, even if they said they would. Bookshop staff are heavily overworked and underpaid. While your publisher is cultivating your brand, we authors do well to cultivate as many of these lovely people as possible.

The day might come when you’re sitting on public transport and see someone reading your book. Or someone crosses a room to say how much they liked it and when can they buy your next one. Until then, it is your publisher more than anyone who makes you feel that your writing, your hours of work, all your effort are worthwhile. Agents are invaluable but they can only hope to sell your book. All being well, your publisher will publish it and what a thrill that is.

2009-06-29 18.08.53

With the Arcadia Books team 2009

Next week, who is your ideal publisher or agent?

Happy writing!