This is how you get a literary agent or publisher

You know when you spend a couple of weeks thinking about and planning an awesome blog post? And then just as you sit down to write it you find someone else has done an equally awesome job elsewhere?
Yeah. Well that’s happened.

But it’s okay. It’s not a competition. So I heartily recommend you head over to BubbleCow right now and sign up for their free five-day guide on writing a book proposal.

The information you’ll receive is absolutely spot on. It’s not too detailed, but it covers enough to make sure you have what you need to get started, including:

  • researching similar books in your genre
  • writing and pitching a query letter
  • developing an appropriate synopsis.

So once you’re done here, pop your coat on, head over to BubbleCow and sign up. It’s good quality, free advice.

More than that, it’s how you get a literary agent or publisher.

Is that it?

Well no, not quite. The information provided in BubbleCow’s guide comes recommended because it gives you the conventional approach to writing a book proposal and acquiring an agent or publisher.

The route described and the advice offered is exactly what you should be doing. And, more or less, it’s the route I took to getting an agent for my novel earlier this year.

But before then I’d been on a more unconventional journey. As there’s no point in me repeating BubbleCow’s excellent guide, I thought I’d share a little of that journey with you here.

Finding my voice (for free!)

In late 2004 I’d been a copywriter for a year, working at Sheffield Hallam University, the same university where I’d completed the taught component of my MA Writing course.

At the time, I was also 24 and struggling to put together my final thesis, a collection of short stories.

The truth is, I only started writing my novel instead because I found out that, as a university employee, I could take any postgraduate course module for free. Well, so long as the module would help me do my job more efficiently.

Copywriter. Writing a novel. The university bought it.

Person I’m indebted to #1 of many

My novel tutor was Simon Crump. He was on a temporary contract and only ever taught that one group of students. Me and 10 others. We were a large group – my short story group had been half the number – and a real mixed bag.

But with a tutor who believed in my writing, and in this new, longer format, with a year’s professional copywriting experience behind me, my fiction was transformed. My voice appeared out of nowhere.

I loved novel writing. And still do.

Secret agent man

Four months later, including 12 seminars and a stiff deadline, I had the first 10,000 words of a novel and some fantastic feedback.

When a visiting editor from that-there-London came to give us a master class, I was asked to supply the first three pages of my novel for her to ‘crit’ in the session.

Naturally, I was very excited, but sadly, her ‘crit’ consisted of a ‘yeah, this was good, I wouldn’t change much’, and that was it.

Pah! I thought. Sign me up. I’m brilliant!

Then, a couple of months later, I received a letter, completely out of the blue, from an agent at Curtis Brown. The visiting editor had passed my three pages on to him and he wanted to see some more.

Holy wahoozers!

Much to my excitement

I sent off my first (and only) 10,000 words and waited for the feedback. It came. And it was great.

There was a meeting in that-there-London and all I had to now was write the remaining 50,000 words and hey disco – shades on, I was to be an author!

I was 25 years old, had performed alongside Sean O’Brien at the Guardian Hay Festival the previous year, and now I’d written the first part of a novel and got an agent ready and waiting for the final manuscript.

There were no guarantees, naturally. But still.

It was a thoroughly exciting, all be it unconventional, position to be in.

Three years later

Have I ever told you how difficult it is to be 25, have an agent interested in your novel but only have the first part of it written?

What I’d assumed (in my naivety) would take a couple of months to complete, in reality took roughly three years. Life, and all manner of writerly difficulties, got in the way.
But mainly life. New jobs. Being young. That kind of thing.

Throughout though, the agent from Curtis Brown, who had since moved to AM Heath, kept in touch. And when I’d finished the novel, he still wanted to see it.

An unconventional book proposal

To go back to the start of this post, I recommended BubbleCow’s guide to writing a book proposal because it gives you the conventional route to getting an agent or publisher.

In 2008, my proposal, as professional as I tried to present it, was effectively, ‘Erm, you know that book that I was writing? The one I’ve already told you all about? Well here it is.’
I waited an agonising, and it turns out unusually long, six months to hear back. When it did it was a polite no. A nearly, but still a no.

I was upset for a while. Not because I hadn’t been successful with the agent who’d been interested from the start. But because mentally, I’d been writing with the weight of that interest on my shoulders.

I was obsessed with the notion that this one person just had to love my novel. He’d waited so long. I had to get it right.

This, dear readers, is an unconventional way to write a book and unconventional way to get an agent or publisher. So unconventional, in fact, that it didn’t actually happen.

Back to the future

So here I am at the end of 2009. The same novel has had more blood, sweat and tears invested in it. It’s significantly better than it was 18 months ago. And it has literary representation, with the tremendous Tibor Jones, achieved in a much more conventional manner.

It went like this: A recommendation from the sort of writer that makes writers marvellous people. A book proposal just like the one in BubbleCow’s guide. And an agent with the necessary passion and belief in my work.

Simple as that.

And to conclude…

My point in all this, apart from receiving a little cathartic word-massage, is that yes, unusual things happen in the publishing industry and you may well find yourself with an agent or book deal via unconventional means.

But generally, unusual things don’t happen. There are rules and regulations. You have to be willing to do work hard and do whatever it takes. Be prepared to learn and get better.

You must never, ever look for short cuts. Stumble upon them, fine. But never look for them.

All this is why you should read BubbleCow’s guide to writing a book proposal. And because I couldn’t have said what it says better myself. Even though I was about to try.

  1. Ian,
    Thanks for your kind words. You are correct in that our guide is just ONE way of getting published. The secret is (as always) contacts. Many writers sending out submissions but have no real insight into what is needed and therefore are rejected out of hand. The aim of the guide is to give writers a push in the right direction. However, as you have suggested, the best chance of getting published is when you can get a great book in through the back door. Writers need to work hard at building networks.

    Gary

    1. @Gary No problem at all. I think it’s important that writers get as much research done as possible before they start submitting, because as you know, you only get the one chance with each recipient.
      @Matt And I’ve just read your ‘un-published’ post and done exactly the same thing! Bravo to us, eh? Sounds like we both had a fairly uncoventional experience when we started out. I’ll make sure I pop over and leave a comment on your blog to say as much.

  2. Iain,
    It’s always interesting to me to see the paths that folks take to “making it”. I agree that there are rules and guidelines to generally follow yet I also know that unconventional can and does work.

    Being interactive in your process, paying attention to your gut and following your instincts can be very helpful in accomplishing your goal.

    Thanks for the BubbleCow rec. I’m headed over to get that after I post this comment.

    Also, I am going to bookmark this page as a source of inspiration.

    Cheers

    George

  3. […] If someone asks me what I write, I tell them I’ve written a novel and that I also work as a copywriter. But that’s not how I started my writing journey. […]

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Up Next:

Jean Hannah Edelstein (part two): traditional media and marketing a book online

Jean Hannah Edelstein (part two): traditional media and marketing a book online