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Thursday, 5 May 2016

My road to publication - again

As you will have noticed if you're a regular reader of my blog, I've recently written a non science fiction book (called Sixty-Six Metres). For this one I wanted to try and get a different (new) publisher, because it's a completely different genre, a thriller instead of science fiction. Today I  signed a contract with Carina, a digital imprint of Harlequin, which itself is a division of Harper Collins (one of the 'Big Five'), and thought I'd explain how I got there, because it might help other writers who are struggling to get published.

First, the book. Why did I write it? I've been a scuba diver for many years (I used to be an instructor), but in 2012 wrecked my back and couldn't dive for around 18 months (I dive again now). During that time I was writing Eden's Endgame, the last of the Eden Paradox series, but I was sorely missing diving, and so started a thriller which had a lot of scuba diving in it. After about 7 chapters I put it down for a year while I finished Endgame, but then I picked it up again and finished it last July.

By then I'd already had it reviewed by two literary agencies, Cornerstones and Writers Workshop, with quite a lot of positive feedback. After some editing, I took it to the York Writers Festival in September. My first chapter got hammered however, so there ensued a dramatic re-write and I then decided that it was ready to send out to agents.

Between November 2015 and March 2016 I sent out query letters to twenty agents, usually a few every couple of weeks. It isn't very helpful to talk of an average response rate. Some respond very quickly, within a few days. Some respond within about two weeks. Most respond in the 4-6 weeks region, and of course a few never respond (most did). As I got feedback, I altered my basic query letter structure a few times, to vary it and maximize my chances of getting a 'hit', or at least getting the agents to go beyond the query letter to the actual three chapters ad synopsis.

This is exactly what happened, since at the beginning I felt they weren't reading it, I just got quick form replies (sorry, not for us, or in so many words). Later i got more detailed rejections, where it was clear they had at least read some of the material.

I was mainly targeting UK agents, and only those who did the kind of thriller I had written. It is absolutely crucial that the author does some basic research (it doesn't take long) to ensure that they are agents for something similar to what you've written. It also maximizes your chances - which, let's be honest, are very slim in any case - if the author finds some way to connect with the interests of the particular agent you are writing to. By February my rejections were no longer standard form letters, and I knew the material was being read, and that the synopsis worked, but somehow the thriller wasn't quite right for them, meaning they felt they could not represent it. Some nice replies pointed out that the thriller market is very tight, and that although my writing and concept were good, they had to be perfect for them to take it on. They would also mention that they received 3000 queries a year, and took on about 3 authors in that same period.

At this point I did the math and changed tack.

I decided I wasn't going to get an agent for this book, and so aimed straight for publishers. Most big publishers and quite a lot of medium ones ONLY accept agented submissions. Agents are the filters, as otherwise the publishers are overwhelmed. This is how the business works. However, some publishers are open to submissions. I wrote to six. By now my query letter, synopsis and first three chapters were honed and streamlined. Then the unthinkable happened. Within a month I got three rejections, and three demands to see the full manuscript.

All three really liked the full MS. One said they were however moving out of the thriller market because they could not compete with the 'big boys'. The other two offered me a three-book contract. I deliberated, then chose Carina / Harlequin / Harper Collins. The first book will come out later this year, initially as an ebook, and then (maybe) as a paperback. I've already started book 2.

So, what are the lessons here? Here's what I've learned this time:

1. Write the best book you can, something you are proud of. Don't write to a formula, or write what you think will sell. It needs to be authentic, it needs to be you. Get it checked by professional literary critics. They'll tell you if you're ready to submit. Go to writing conferences, get feedback. Brutal feedback works best.
2. Make the first paragraph fresh and reader-grabbing, without being over-written.
3. Make the first five pages shine. The only way to do this is to polish via editing.
4. The first line has to hook the reader. Mine is: "The only thing worth killing for is family."
5. The first three chapters have to be word perfect, no grammar, punctuation or spelling mistakes.
6. The synopsis has to be tight and well-written, preferably a single page (though respect what the agents or publishers submission pages ask for)
7. The query letter should be concise but also stand out from the rest. You have to boil down your story to a few lines, focus on your protagonist's inner and external conflicts and show why they should care about her.
8. Research the agent/publisher website. Pick your favorite authors in the genre and see who publishes them (easy) or who is their agent (harder). Don't just fire off query letters in a scatter-gun fashion, you won't hit anything, and you'll run out of bullets (people to write to).
9. Be patient. But if you're getting nowhere, vary your strategy every couple of months.
10. Respect the submission guidelines on the agent / publisher website. Don't do block submissions (several in one go), it is too easy to make mistakes and send the letter to the wrong agent.
11. When you get rejections, simply say 'thanks for letting me know, best wishes.' Don't ask for further feedback, you've got the only feedback that matters and you're unlikely to get any more, and they might block your submission if there is a next time.
12. Believe in yourself. If after 6-12 months (depending on your patience) you're getting nowhere, consider self-publishing. Because that way you can start the next book. You're a writer, right?

Good luck.





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