So you want to be published? Read this first.

So you have finally finished your book and all that is left is to email it to an agent or publisher and wait for the answer you have dreamed of your whole life: “Yes, we will publish/represent your book.” After sending the document off, you expect to wait at least a few months to hear a decision, but what’s this? Your iPhone pings almost immediately, with the news that not only has the person received the manuscript, but they want to sign you up. Just like that!

This is the biggest thing that has ever happened in your entire life. Your book is obviously so brilliant that it took only a matter of seconds for the publisher/agent to make up his mind. You are great. You are a genius. You are F. Scott Fitzgerald. Better than that, you are Dickens! You call your parents; you update your Facebook status and everyone emails their congratulations and cheers of “we knew you could do it.” You visualise your Booker prize and wonder how you will tell your boss about your new-found fame and success. Your book will be a bestseller won’t it? It really must be that good, if they accepted it straight away…

Well possibly not. While there are certainly some big agents and publishers who see real talent in a very short space of time, there are others that you need to be wary of.  Here are a few examples…

Back in 2000, I encountered an agent (let’s call her Agent X) who had received my proposal for a film star biography. Within a short space of time, she proclaimed her love for the project and felt she could gain interest from a mainstream publisher. As a naïve, young writer, this obviously appealed to me in a big way. There was another agent interested too, but she had asked for a series of revisions on my proposal. I knew no better, so instead of sticking with the agent who required a little more work, I signed with Agent X. Yes it worried me slightly that this woman didn’t seem to have any Internet presence… Yes it was concerning that she didn’t give me her telephone number and her address was a PO Box… And of course it was strange that when I asked what other books she had sold, there was a deafening silence… As I said, I was young and naïve. My impatience for success had temporarily made me stupid too. I ignored all of the warning signs and let my heart make the decision for me.

Needless to say, after I had signed the contract I foolishly waited to have my book accepted by a mainstream publisher. Sadly, the agent’s initial flurry of activity gave way to ignoring my emails. Since I had no telephone number for her, the only thing I could do was wait… and wait… and wait. Finally, after some months went by, I heard from Agent X again.  She told me that the proposal had been sent to publishers but she hadn’t heard anything yet. I immediately replied to ask who the proposal had been sent to, but when I heard from her months later, the answer was not what I expected. The agent told me that she had mailed my package to a small publisher specialising mainly in novels and also two dealing in greetings cards and gift books. Since these publishers did not ordinarily work with my kind of book, it was inevitable that they had all rejected. I was gutted.

A year had now passed since I signed to the agency, and I was no further forward than I had been without an agent at all. Finally Agent X wrote and said that we should call it quits; that the book was still a good one but nobody was interested in it. I agreed to tear up the contract, but there was an extra problem. A clause stated that I must pay for all travel, photocopies and phone calls made on my behalf, which came to over £100. Now this clause is not altogether rare, and I’ve seen it on several agent’s contracts in the past, but normally the cost – if any – is paid through future sales. Of course my book had not sold, therefore I had to pay the money back.

In retrospect, I don’t think that Agent X was a bad person. I think she had good intentions and wanted to sell my book. However, I don’t believe she had the experience or know-how to follow it through. The fact that she had no phone number, building address and past sales had worried me, but my naivety and desire to get my book out there, clouded my judgement and sent me rushing into a situation that was doomed from the start.

Another example of things being too good to be true, comes from an acquaintance – let’s call him Simon – who fancied himself as a would-be author. With that in mind, he sent an email to a very small publisher, giving them no more than an idea for a novel. No manuscript was attached and he did not mention any past writing experience at all. Despite that, very quickly he received an email saying, “This idea is great. We will publish.” No advance was offered and a very basic contract was sent over. Simon signed and began writing his opus, confident that because the publisher had such great faith in him, it was bound to be a success.

Two years later, Simon had managed to cobble together a manuscript which he felt was worthy of publication, and sent it back to the interested publisher. This was where everything fell apart. The boss of the company, passed the manuscript to an editor. He immediately spotted Simon’s inability to tell a good story: sentences were rambling and made no sense, he had no concept of grammar and his fact-checking was non-existent. The manuscript was rejected and the contract deemed null and void due to the book not being worthy of publication. Simon had wasted two years of his life because the acquiring publisher had based the interest only on an idea and poor Simon took this to mean that he was the next Shakespeare.

The truth is that an experienced publisher (or agent) will never commission a manuscript or proposal they have not laid eyes on, unless your name is King, Rowling or similar. If it isn’t, you can forget going down that path…

Finally, please be aware of the publisher who offers to print your book, but only if you pay some or all of the costs involved. Now if you want to go down that route, then obviously that is your call, but personally I would never pay to have my book published. The same goes for agents who ask for a reading fee. An agent gets paid when they sell your book and not a moment before. If someone is asking you for money in exchange for reading your manuscript, I can only recommend running in the opposite direction!

In conclusion, while we all like to think of ourselves as literary heavyweights and our egos enjoy the idea of a publisher or agent signing us after just one email, it is exceptionally rare that this will happen. If you do find yourself in this position with a highly-successful, long-established publisher or agent, count your lucky stars and let me be the first to congratulate you. However, always do your homework before signing or agreeing to anything. Ask yourself the following… Does the interested person have a successful backlist? What was their last sale? Who are their authors? Do they have a real telephone number and address? If the answers to these questions are in any way negative, it would be my recommendation that you cut all ties and move on.

Remember – there is no quick fix to success as a writer. Everything takes time, work and patience. Don’t let your excitement cloud your judgement and if in any doubt, always seek advice.

Until next time,

Michelle x

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