In case you missed it (if you’re living under a rock, or have become a hermit, or get all your news delivered by snail), last week was the Frankfurt Book Fair. It’s where everyone announces their big books, and it’s easy to get lost in the buzzy deal headlines and general excitement. And that news is great – but it isn’t necessarily normal.
What we don’t talk about is how many titles don’t get published, or how long it can take agents to find a home for their authors’ books. Publishing is an industry peppered with failures and it’s safe to assume that every single author out there will have faced rejection at some point in their careers.
Someone who knows this better than most is middle-grade author A. M. Howell. In this week’s post, A. M. Howell gives a brave and honest account of her experiences submitting to agents and of her sometimes difficult journey to publication, as well as some invaluable advice for aspiring authors.
I often think back to summer 2015 when my internet search history mostly consisted of terms like ‘how to get an agent’ and ‘my journey to publication’. I picked up quite a few tips when I was submitting my first book to agents, and since then, and thought it might be helpful to share them, as well as talk a little about my own (quite lengthy!) route to publication.
It’s really tempting to start submitting to agents as soon as you’ve written those magic words ‘The End’ on your manuscript. But it can be really helpful to put your book aside for a few weeks and then re-read with fresh eyes. You may find ways to tighten that tricky ending, develop a character a little more or correct some annoying typos, all things that will help make your story shine even brighter before it goes hurtling out into the world.
Buy or borrow a copy of the latest edition of the Writers and Artists Handbook. It contains a wealth of information on literary agencies and the types of manuscripts they accept. I created a spreadsheet of my top twenty ‘dream agents’ then also visited the individual agency websites to see what was required for submission – normally a full synopsis (detailing the ending), the first few chapters of the book, along with a covering letter.
Do your research and spend some time tailoring your submission – a little personalisation can make you stand out from the crowd. If an agent tweets that they are looking for a comedy about unicorns, and that is what you have written, then you can mention that in your covering letter!
As hard as it may be, try and prepare yourself for some straight rejections. I don’t know a single author who hasn’t received some. It’s natural to be upset, and by all means rant and rave internally, but try and resist firing off an email to the agent saying they are missing out on the next big thing. Agents do, of course, know other agents and word is likely to get around! Focus your efforts on taking on board any feedback you get, grit your teeth and send off another submission.
Many writers and authors I know have had their first book rejected by agents and/or publishers. Try not to be disheartened. If you have received positive feedback it might be worth re-writing. But the best thing might be to start something new. Don’t view that book as wasted work though, as every word you type helps to hone your skills as a writer.
If you do get a full read request from an agent it is time to celebrate! If this is followed up with an offer of representation, your instinct may be to accept immediately and go and eat lots and lots of cake. But perhaps take some time to consider if this agent is good fit for you and your book. When I began submitting my first book, I got some straight rejections, then one agent asked if we could meet. She offered to represent me and I was over the moon, but when we met there was something that just didn’t quite click.
I chased up the other agents who were still reading the full manuscript and then Clare Wallace from The Darley Anderson Children’s Book Agency, an agent at the very top of my wish list, asked if we could chat. We shared the same vision for the book and I didn’t hesitate in saying yes when she offered to represent me.
Clare went on to submit that book to publishers but even though it had positive feedback sadly it didn’t get picked up. I was very upset, but dusted myself off and got back to writing something else to take my mind off the disappointment. But then the very same thing happened with my second book! It wasn’t until my third book that I got to the stage of talking to an editor at a major publishing house on the phone, with the book subsequently going to acquisitions. Clare and I felt quietly positive, but then we got the sad news that while overall they loved the story, the sales team had concerns about sales of similar types of contemporary teen fiction and so they would not be making an offer. This was another real low point and I wondered what to do next. After a few weeks off and chatting things through with Clare, I decided to try something new – historical fiction, something I have always read and enjoyed. I remember sending Clare the first three chapters of what was to become The Garden of Lost Secrets and she emailed me straight back. ‘I love it – just write it,’ she said. So I did.
In the end it was my fourth book – The Garden of Lost Secrets – that was The One that eventually got me the book deal of my dreams with Usborne this year. I guess the moral of this is to stay determined – both at the ‘trying to get an agent stage’ and the ‘trying to get a publisher stage’ but also don’t be afraid to experiment with different genres and styles of writing if what you are writing doesn’t seem to be working. While my first four books will always have a place in my heart, the switch to historical fiction was the best decision I ever made and now I can’t imagine writing anything else!
The Garden of Lost Secrets was published by Usborne in 2019 and has gone on to experience great success. The Times chose it as their Children’s Book of the Week, calling it ‘an impressive debut … [with] an effective twist that goes off with a bang’. It’s also had rave reviews in the Telegraph, the Daily Mail, and the i, and it was picked by The Bookseller as One to Watch, who described A. M. as a ‘brilliant new voice’.
A. M. Howell’s latest book, The House of One Hundred Clocks, will be published in February 2020. It’s full of dark secrets, ticking clocks and mysterious ghostly figures, and you can read an extract here. You can follow A. M. on Twitter and Instagram or visit her website where she shares her future projects.