Those at the 2011 Festival of Writing will remember Claire McGowan’s instantly gripping opening page (from the Saturday evening competition awards.) She had in fact already just recently secured an agent and a book deal. Here’s what she wishes she’d known then.
(And NB: Claire is also Director of the Crime Writers Association – and will be at this year’s Festival, for which you have no doubt already bought tickets.)
It’s been three months since my first novel, The Fall, was released, over a year since I signed my first publishing contract, and a bit longer than that since I got an agent. During this time, my perception of the writing and publishing process has changed utterly. This time two years ago, I hadn’t even been to a writing event or met another writer. I was totally ignorant of how things worked. I’m sure you are a lot more clued up than me (you’re reading this website, for a start), but I’d like to share with you some of the truths I’ve learned since becoming a ‘published writer’.
Being published is not the final frontier – Once you sign the deal, there’s a whole new world of insecurity out there. Lots of other people have books out too. What makes yours special or different? Instead of obsessing over agents, you can start obsessing over Amazon sales figures (welcome to my world).
Getting published isn’t the same as staying published – I’ve met a frightening number of writers who’ve been published and then lost their contracts, even after enormous first advances and tons of publicity. Markets change. Times move on. Reinvention seems to be key here – several ‘writers’ are actually the same person with a different name.
All agents are not created equal – just as you wouldn’t settle down with the first love interest you meet (would you?) it’s not always the case that any agent will do. I don’t think anyone can be expected to turn an agent down, if you’ve been waiting for a long time to get one, but they should be the right one for you, and this depends on all kinds of things, like personality, working style, genre focus, and where they are in their career.
It’s not that hard to get an agent interested – if you have a decent idea and can sum it up succinctly, you’ll see an agent’s ears prick up when you talk to them. What makes them sign you will depend on a range of factors – how many clients they have, if they have many of the same kind as you, if they think they can sell this book at this point, etc. If they say no, it doesn’t mean they don’t like you or your book’s no good.
You should follow the guidelines. But you don’t always have to – Officially, you have finish your novel first, then submit to agents through the proper channels and following the guidelines to the letter. And you should. But sometimes things are different. If you’ve met an agent at an event, for example, they may ask to see a work in progress, or to have the whole book. Don’t do this unless they’ve asked though – and make sure you go to events to meet them! [Hmm, wonder if we can think of any excellent places to meet agents – Ed.]
Getting an agent doesn’t mean you’ll get published – For me, this was one of the most shocking truths. I assumed that an agent meant a guaranteed sale, but sometimes it doesn’t. You may need to rethink, write another book, or start over again. But it does mean they have faith in you.
Agents and editors want to find new work – I learned this after I was shortlisted in a competition, and began receiving emails from both wanting to see my book – a complete turnaround from my previous slush-pile attempts. The lesson here is 1: enter competitions; and 2: have a web presence, so they can find you.
Nothing is certain – Don’t get too attached to your characters, story, title, or even your own name, as it’s perfectly possible you’ll be asked to change some or all of them before the book is published.
Talent will out – Yes, a handful of people get a leg-up because of who they know, or because they’re vaguely famous already. But you, the sales assistant in Dorothy Perkins with the amazing novel taking shape on the back of till receipts, you have every bit as much chance as getting published as they do – as long as you’re good.
Nothing happens if you do nothing – it took me three years of serious writing before I could even show my work to anyone else, let alone send it to agents. Now I’m on Amazon for all the world to judge (and they do). My advice is get over your fear as soon as you can and start submitting. Joining a class really helps. It only hurts the first few times…
Publishing types and other writers are among the nicest, most passionate, and most generous people you will ever meet. They love books. You love books (I assume). It’s a marriage made in heaven. And that’s why…
Writing is the best job you can have. It’s not been exactly as I’ve envisaged, and even in this first year I’ve had various unexpected ups and downs, but I was never wrong about that. And not just because you can go to work in your pyjamas.
You can get The Fall from Amazon, or from your friendly local bookshop.