Last week I posted part one of How I Got a Book Deal, intending to give new writers an insight into how some of today’s fantastic authors got their novels published, and to hopefully encourage others not to give up. To show that the road will likely be long and full of rejection, but that it’s all part of the journey. The response was overwhelmingly positive. Many people contacted me to say how inspirational it was to read these accounts and how they will definitely keep at it.
So this week another group of incredible writers share with us their path to publication – it’s a passionate and emotional read, folks. And it teaches us that it’s all about rewrites, self-belief, patience, time, a bit of luck, hard work, and never ever giving up. Thank you to Amanda Jennings, Jason Hewitt, Katie Marsh, Brian Lavery, Cassandra Parkin, Ruth Dugdall and Claire Douglas.
I got my book deal in a fairly traditional way. I wrote a book and then trawled the Writers and Artists Yearbook for a list of suitable agents. Chapters and synopses were packaged up and sent out with fingers crossed. I signed with an agent and thought this was it, that I was there, that it wouldn’t be long before we were celebrating the imminent publication of my debut novel. How wrong I was! There was a lot of rejection and in the end I had to put that novel aside and write another. But I was determined to get published. So I went away and wrote another book. Two editors showed an interest in this one. The first asked me to makes some changes, so I rewrote it, which took three months. She rejected the book. Then a second editor did the same. And I did the same, I went back to the manuscript and made the changes she suggested. Once again it was rejected after all that work. I was devastated. But a few weeks later I answered a call from my agent, which began ‘are you sitting down?’ The second editor had been back in touch saying she couldn’t stop thinking about the book and she’d like to sign it. An amazing moment, filled with excitement, joy, gratitude and relief – one that I will never forget!
I did an MA in Creative Writing at Bath Spa and at the end of that volunteered to be the editor for the annual anthology produced for each year group. It was a huge amount of work and included not only producing the book from scratch but also sending copies out to prospective literary agents. Lots of my fellow students found agents as a result, but no one was interested in me. The following year though an agent at Janklow & Nesbit contacted me out of the blue to ask if I could send her the latest anthology. She’d received the one I’d sent out previously which had my details in the front as the editor. I politely replied and told her that I’d been one of the students and had now gone back to my ordinary life, and that I’d pass her details on, but also that I’d also finished the novel I’d been writing on the course. Could I send it to her? She said yes and ended up taking me on. That said, after four years of writing and editing (including a change of agent at J & N), we still didn’t manage to sell it. One editor at Little Brown told me that it showed all the tell-tale signs of having been written by a Creative Writing student and that, if I wrote another and found my voice, she felt quite sure that it would sell. In the meantime my new agent, Will, had said that the only thing to do was to pick myself up and write another. I was incredibly depressed about it but I knew that he was right. The Dynamite Room took another four years to write, but in the end it sold over night in a pre-emptive two-book deal. So my journey to publication was a long and tortuous one but I believe that everything happened for a reason. My lesson? Don’t give up.
If you ignore the nine years and two ‘near miss’ novels that went before it, my book deal happened very quickly. I submitted my third book to agents in spring 2014 and got signed by Hannah Ferguson of Hardman & Swainson within a couple of weeks. Then we worked together on a new edit, which involved cutting out 30,000 words, deleting a plotline and a major character, and completely changing the ending. In August she then submitted the manuscript to nine publishers while I bit my nails a lot and refreshed my email approximately every three seconds. Luckily, the response was very quick, and we had offers from two publishers within ten days. The book was sold at auction to Hodder & Stoughton and ‘My Everything’ was published in August 2015. Seeing it on the shelves is every bit as wonderful as I imagined it, and my second book – ‘A Life Without You’ – is out in July this year.
It was somewhat circuitous route to a book deal for me. I have been writing since I was a kid. I had more than 25 years as a national and regional journalist in print and broadcast, here and abroad, before returning to higher education to the University of Hull, my adopted home town for the past three decades plus, where I completed an undergraduate degree in English Lit. & Creative Writing. My book, a creative nonfiction, The Headscarf Revolutionaries (Barbican Press, 2015) derived from a funded PhD thesis, supervised by the English and the Maritime History departments respectively of that university. It tells the story of the 1968 Hull Triple Trawler Disaster, in which three trawlers, the St Romanus, the Kingston Peridot and the Ross Cleveland sank in as many weeks with the loss of 58 men, and the subsequent fishwives’ uprising led by safety campaigner Mrs Lillian Bilocca. It also recounts the incredible survival of Harry Eddom, mate of the Ross Cleveland, the only man to survive the disaster. In the course of my research I wrote and presented a piece for BBC Radio 4’s Four Thought series in late 2013, based on the biography I had been commissioned to write that year by the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography on the life of Mrs Bilocca. There were a few inquiries after that. So I was very lucky in as much as I did not have to send the manuscript to an agent or publishing house. Other than tons of journalism, my ‘other’ writing was mainly short fiction, poetry and some academic publications. I had a few options to check out after the Radio 4 broadcast but was in no real hurry as such. Had it been 20 years earlier, I’d have signed the first thing put under my nose! I even considered a self-publication route. I had great faith in the story. Then I was approached by Barbican Press (London and Hull), a director of which was that city’s University’s Professor of Creative Writing Martin Goodman, who had also been the principal supervisor of my doctoral thesis. I knew he loved the story, I respected his work and his own track record as both a nonfiction and fiction writer. But most importantly of all, I trusted the man to do the right thing with my work, and as Polonius said, ‘if you find an honest man bind him to your heart with hoops of steel.’ So I signed up with the small, feisty, indy house and became their best seller. Now a film and TV production company have optioned my book, and I am under way with a second nonfiction due out later this year, alongside a novel in its early stages. I am aware of how lucky I am. I am also aware that the harder I work, the luckier I become.
My first book deal came via a competition that I only submitted to because everyone I knew told me I had to. In 2011, I wrote a collection of short stories as Christmas presents for a group of close friends. Then they all ganged up on me and told me I had to get them published, so I entered “New World Fairy Tales” for Salt Publishing’s 2011 Scott prize. I was so convinced I wouldn’t get anywhere that I wasn’t looking out for the winners announcement. I discovered I’d won when my lovely friend and fellow author Louise Beech messaged me on Facebook saying, “By the way, do you know you’ve won the Scott Prize?”
I’ve always loved Legend Press’s superbly-curated list of commercial literary fiction, and they’re also one of the very few publishers who take unsolicited and un-agented submissions. So after a lot more persistent nagging gentle encouragement, I submitted the first three chapters of my debut novel, “The Summer We All Ran Away” to Legend. I was expecting it to languish in the slush pile for months before receiving a polite form rejection, so it was a fantastic surprise when they called in the manuscript within two weeks, and signed it within another three. My second novel, “The Beach Hut”, was published by Legend Press in 2015, and my third novel “Lily’s House” will be published, also by Legend, in October 2016.
In hindsight, my biggest hurdle to publication was a lack of self-belief. I’m eternally, abjectly grateful to my lovely friends and family for making me send my work out into the world. My best advice is to skip the I’m-not-good-enough-let’s-not-bother phase – I’m speaking from painful experience when I tell you that it’s pointless and unnecessary. Just take a deep breath, and get submitting.
Before I was published I thought it would go something like this: find agent. Agent finds publisher. All is well in the world. Then I discovered it was more like this: find agent. Book gets rejected. Ruth hides under duvet for a while then writes new book. Book gets rejected. The world is a cruel, harsh place. Things changed for me when I entered the Luke Bitmead Bursary. After four years of scenario two, winning that award (which included a publishing deal with Legend Press) was life-changing. And, strange though it may sound, I’m glad it happened the way it did because I take nothing (not one reader, not one review, not one invite to talk) for granted.
I submitted my first novel to an agent when I was 24. It took me another fifteen years before I’d find an agent and publisher.
The Sisters was my fourth attempt at a novel. I started writing it with a view of sending it off to agents and publishers but then a good writer friend alerted me to a competition that Marie Claire Magazine were holding. The prize was a one-book publishing deal with HarperCollins and an introduction to an agent – Juliet Mushens of United Talent Agency, who was also a judge.
I emailed Marie Claire the first three chapters of the unfinished novel with just an hour to go before the deadline. I never expected to hear anything further about it. In the meantime, I carried on writing the rest and put the competition out of my mind. Three months later I received the phone call from Marie Claire to say I had won. It was the most surreal, amazing feeling. After so many years of submissions and rejections somebody actually wanted to publish my novel! It was the kind of thing I’d read about happening to other writers, I never thought it would happen to me.
I went up to Islington to meet Juliet and felt so lucky when she said she’d represent me. Because I only had a one book deal I was worried about what would happen after The Sisters was published but Juliet sent my second novel out to publishers and it went to auction. It was all so exciting. I spent a day in London meeting the four different publishers and I was thrilled when Michael Joseph, Penguin won the auction. My new novel Local Girl Missing will be out in August 2016.