Getting an agent is the first hurdle in becoming a published author (other than actually writing a book to pitch to agents in the first place). Everyone’s journey to achieving the holy grail of representation is different but most have many ups and downs. Here’s mine…
When I was about 23 and dreaming of being a journalist, I had my very first freelance article published in The Guardian’s Office Hours section. In what feels like a surreal dream now, on the back of reading that article a literary agent wrote to me via the newspaper.
‘I enjoyed your piece in last Monday’s paper and I wondered if you had ever given any thought to writing a humorous novel with an office setting,’ he said. ‘If the idea appeals, and if you are not already represented in the book world, I would be pleased to hear from you.’
It makes me laugh now to think what a lucky break into publishing this could have been. Could have been, because rather than snapping the arm off this agent who appreciated my satirical take on being a temp (as I was at the time), I rather ridiculously TURNED HIM DOWN.
I knew I wanted to write a novel one day, but at that time I had no idea what I wanted to write about (did I want to write a humorous novel with an office setting?), or how to go about it. I didn’t feel experienced enough in the university of life to be able to write anything interesting in a novel. Maybe this was the best decision for me at the time, I don’t know. But years later, after multiple rejections from agents, it seemed a tad silly.
Roll on several years and I did eventually decide to try writing a novel. After many false starts, and many early mornings writing before going to my job in London, in 2010 I managed to finish a full manuscript and started to send it out to agents. Back then, this was a laborious process since most agencies still wouldn’t accept email submissions, so I did a lot of surreptitious printing of my book’s first 50 pages on the office printer. Acting The Part, as this novel was called, was subsequently turned down multiple times. Most were standard rejections. Some had an encouraging handwritten note attached. One agent, miraculously, wanted to read the full manuscript – but then rejected it. Another suggested I rework my first few chapters and resubmit, which I did – only to have it rejected again.
Eventually, I relegated Acting the Part to a usb stick in a drawer and left it there.
Years went by, I moved to Switzerland and turned freelance, which gave me more time to think about writing again. In 2016 I started a new novel, The Other Daughter. I didn’t really know what it would be, or what it was even about, but gradually, over the next couple of years, it started to take shape. I got to the end of my first draft and gave it to some close friends to read, who were encouraging. I read books on how to edit and tried to follow the advice. I had no idea if it would get published, but it did feel different to my first, failed attempt – somewhere along the way, I’d learnt a thing or two.
In the spring of 2018, a few drafts in and unable to see how I could polish my manuscript any further, I started the submission process once again. Easier this time, now most agencies wanted submissions via email, but no less of an emotional rollercoaster. The standard rejections started rolling in. Some were encouraging, others less so (one agency who had showed initial interest when I’d submitted Acting The Part to them years before turned down The Other Daughter about an hour after I sent the email). I submitted in small batches rather than lots at once, so I could tweak the cover letter or pages if I got any feedback.
But by the autumn of that year, not a single agent had asked to read the full manuscript. I wondered if I should give up, but I just couldn’t. Instead I paid a freelance editor (the brilliant Julia Weber) to look at my submission package and tell me what I was doing wrong. Not much in terms of the book, she said, but the cover letter needed work. On her advice I rewrote the letter, making it snappier, hookier, less waffly, less dull. With everything crossed, I sent it off to five more agents carefully chosen from the Writers & Artists' online directory.
Within days, two of them had replied asking to read the whole manuscript.
And a few days later, in a week I will never forget, both of them offered me representation.
After submitting for so long, I now had an actual choice! I’m not very good with decisions, and both agents were wonderfully enthusiastic and lovely, but I eventually went with the agent I felt really ‘got’ the book and who had suggestions for making it even better – the fantastic Hayley Steed at Madeleine Milburn Literary Agency, who later sold The Other Daughter to Simon & Schuster.
Is there a moral of my story? Mainly it’s the one that’s most often cited – don’t give up. Write more, write better, try again, try harder.
Oh, and don’t let your book down by writing a rubbish cover letter!