There may be a self-publishing revolution going on at the moment, but for many authors the dream is still to get a traditional publishing deal. Readers of this blog will know that Louise and I have just done it, but our route to our deal with HarperCollins was as far from the traditional route as you can get. Although the instances of indie authors getting snapped up by big publishers are becoming more common (see Amanda Hocking, HP Mallory, Michael J Sullivan), the most common route to publication is still through the agent’s slush pile.
John Harding is a well-known British novelist who has had four very different novels published, including What We Did On Our Holiday (which was a huge hit in the UK and screened as an ITV drama) and his latest novel Florence and Giles, a brilliant and original gothic horror novel that has had rave reviews everywhere (the Daily Mail called it a tour de force) and been an international bestseller everywhere from Italy to Brazil. It’s currently available on Kindle for just £0.99 on Amazon.co.uk and is a huge bargain. John has great experience of the publishing game and kindly agreed to share his wisdom with my readers. If you’re looking for a traditional publishing deal, read on for John Harding’s practical, up-to-date tips:
- WRITE THE BOOK FIRST
OK, we’ve all heard those stories about people who write a first chapter and get signed up for megabucks, but it doesn’t happen very often. Even if you get the agent, get the deal, you still have to write the book. Most of us find that hard enough anyway, without the added pressure of a deadline and other people’s expectations. I sent the first three chapters of my first book What We Did On Our Holiday to someone at Curtis Brown who loved them and asked to see the rest, which I’d told her was finished – it was, but not properly edited. I managed to get an edit done in a fortnight, but it still wasn’t perfect. After a lot of soul searching she rejected it, with, I have to say, reasonable objections. I spent another six months on the book, but when I approached CB again, she’d left the agency to have a baby. I ended up with a much smaller agent – although the book was a bestseller, I still think if I’d got the book sorted first and got Curtis Brown at the beginning of my career, things might have been even better for me since.
I’ve been in many writing classes both as student and teacher and recognise that stage where writers have been working on something so long they desperately need validation. They want reassurance that the whole project is worthwhile. It’s hard to be patient but if you can’t be, don’t blow your chances with an agent by offering him inferior product. Show it to your writing buddies, your family, your talking budgie. Of course they may not tell you something you want to hear, or they may do just that and you won’t believe them, but either way there’s nothing lost.
Put all thoughts of publication out of your mind (apart from as an occasional warm fantasy on a bleak morning when the words aren’t flowing) until you actually have a completed book, as good as you can make it, to publish.
2. WORK ON THE BEGINNING
As someone who’s had experience of reading fiction professionally let me tell you a sad truth. Agents and their readers are not going to allow you unlimited time to show them your talents. If you haven’t impressed them in the first page or two, there’s a good chance they’ll just stop reading. Agents are inundated with manuscripts. Some will only accept submissions from people with some kind of celebrity or a proven track record. Your first scene needs to contain your very best writing and above all the first sentence has to be special, but more than that it has to include something original. Preferably it will kick start the action and make the reader want to carry on. I’ve always found that, no matter what order I write a book in, it’s a good idea to get the first scene down first. It tends to set the template for everything that’s to follow. It establishes the tone of the book, tells the reader what kind of read they’re getting themselves into here. It should also have a hook, what Alfred Hitchcock called a MacGuffin, very near the beginning. This is something the reader wants to find out more about. A startling event early on (and I really mean by page 3 latest) is best, and it should definitely have taken place by the end of Chapter 1. See Enduring Love by Ian McEwan or Great Expectations by Charles Dickens, the latter a perfect example because what happens in the first few pages drives the plot of the entire novel.
3.WRITE A GOOD LETTER
The letter is where you sell yourself to the agent. Avoid anything that sounds amateurish: ‘I came second in the Little Smelling Village short story competition’. ‘I’ve always wanted to be a novelist’. ‘My mum thinks I’ve got a lot of talent’. ‘I have a degree in English Literature.’ When I look through my files now I see that the letter I wrote for What We Did On Our Holiday was outrageous and funny (not being boastful, I regard it as having been written by a different person, it’s so long ago). The point being the novel was aiming to be outrageous and funny and the letter had a flavour that carried on into the opening scene. Agents these days will be looking for anything about you – besides your writing – that makes you commercial. Are you famous in another sphere? Is your crime procedural related to your job as a forensic scientist? Do you have contacts in the media? Have you a good online presence? 10,000 followers on Twitter would be useful (although you still have to write a good book).
The letter should be short, pithy and sweet and never more than one side of A4. Writing a synopsis is trickier. I’ve never believed in the blow-by-blow synopsis because I think an agent will just skim it and not absorb it. What it needs is a brief resumé of the plot that doesn’t give too much away (remember the main incentive to keep on reading for an agent just like the rest of us is to find out what happens next) but above all it should spell out this book’s USP (unique selling point): ‘There’s this five foot high, autistic, punky girl who’s a computer hacking wizard and martial arts expert, oh, and she has a big tattoo all over her back . . .’ ‘This woman has short term amnesia and wakes up every day unable to remember who she is. The man in the bed next to her claims he’s her husband but she doesn’t recall ever seeing him before’. That last one for S J Watson’s Before I Go To Sleep is all the synopsis you need if it’s that good.
4. TARGET THE RIGHT AGENT
It’s no use sending your young adult book to someone who specialises in historical fiction for adults, or your chick lit book to an agent who only handles literary fiction. Of course many agents have fairly eclectic lists – it tends to make life more interesting for them to have some variety – but you need to check out the person you’re sending it to. A good starting point is to find similar books and then find out who the authors’ agents are, and then research the individuals. Fortunately you can do all of this online these days, and many agents actually Tweet or blog about the kind of books they’re looking for. Once you have some agents to aim at, tailor your letter accordingly. The way they talk about books online may offer real information about the approach that will work best. In the old days it was considered bad form to approach different agents simultaneously, but that time is long gone. Send the book out to around half a dozen, and don’t choose all your number one picks first time. Keep some in reserve (see below).
Be prepared for a long wait. Even in the digital age, when authors email their books to prospective agents, the world of publishing moves exceeding slow. You will have to wait weeks, and I would give it at least a couple of months before sending a polite email asking if the agent has got around to it yet. It’s a delicate balance. Sometimes a bit of persistence pays off. Sometimes you can even get a bit of personal rapport going which may help. But there’s a fine line between that and being a nuisance. Pestering an agent is not going to work. At the end of the day it comes down to hoping they’ll give the book a decent read and like it. Remember, they don’t owe you a thing. They have no obligation to do this.
5. DON’T GET ANGRY, DON’T GET DEPRESSED
Sometimes the first agent who picks up a book loves it. It happens. But mostly it doesn’t. Most authors have one hell of a job finding an agent. Odds are you’re going to get rejections. Maybe lots of them. The important thing is not to get angry. Surprisingly ‘My mum and all my friends like it, so what do you know about it!’ won’t persuade an agent to change his or her mind. One thing to take on board is that the agent really wants to like your book. He’s in the business of uncovering new talent he can sell; it’s how he earns his living. He’s not some kind of literary firewall, trying to keep you from being published. But it’s the nature of the game that not everyone will like every book, and that many agents won’t even read your submission. But that’s not a reason to give up. I was reading a while ago how, after the poet’s death, Emily Dickinson’s sister-in-law and best friend sent one of her poems to a publisher who rejected it. She took this as the final word on it and never submitted another poem. If you’re going to be a writer you need a thicker skin than that; you’re going to have to learn to live with criticism, so keep your chin up and keep going.
In this process it’s important to take careful note of any feedback you receive. Mostly you’ll just get a standard rejection letter, but if anyone says anything specific about why they’ve rejected your book, and if two or more people say similar things and it keeps on getting rejected, you may want to think about a rewrite or a tweak. This is where not having blown all you’re A list of agents first time round comes up. You still have some up your sleeve for the second version. Human beings find rejection hard to take and this submission process can be tough. But it’s something nearly everyone who gets published has to go through.
When I’d completed What We Did On Our Holiday properly I sent it out to six agents. After four rejections I received a very rude letter – well actually not a letter, just a scrawl on my submission letter, she couldn’t even be bothered to dictate a proper letter – saying: ‘This is not my kind of thing and frankly it goes on a bit too much for my liking’. That arrived on a Saturday morning and I naturally felt very depressed all weekend. Being told your work is boring is not what you want to hear. And my options had all but run out; I was going to have to find another six agents to send it to. However, on the Monday morning I received an email from the final one of my six agents that began: ‘I simply adore your book, it has had me laughing out loud and in tears. I find it utterly compelling. Please send the rest as soon as possible.’ Two agents, two completely opposed views. It’s that subjective. By the end of the week, I’d signed up with her, a month later the first editor she sent it to signed me up, and a year or so after that What We Did On Our Holiday was in the charts.
6. GOOD LUCK
None of the above means anything without it!
Follow John Harding on Twitter: @JohnRHarding
Contact: Email John via the form on his website.
Florence and Giles is available for just £0.99 from Amazon.co.uk