Alongside writing The Relic Trilogy, I started to look into the publishing industry to learn what I’d need to do to get published. To start off with (I’m not going to lie), I had no clue about how hard it was going to be. Surely you wrote a book that was “good enough” and the rest would fall into line, right? WRONG.
I also had dreadful preconceptions about self-publishing and its validity as a “respectable” route to market. My cousin wrote a book a couple of years ago and told me he was thinking of self-publishing. My instant (unspoken) reaction was that he was obviously doing this because his book wasn’t good enough to be “properly published”. Ahhh…my naive former self…how little I knew. Publishing is subjective. There is no such thing as an objectively good or bad book. It’s like saying a song is objectively good or bad. You might be able to weed out those sung out of tune, in the same way that you can weed out books full of typos, but as to the rest, it just depends who’s listening.
During my research, I learned about the route to traditional publishing (get an agent, who will sell your work to publishers), but also about the self-publishing phenomenon. The general message was that more and more people were choosing to self-publish given how difficult it is to get representation through the traditional route. It also takes a very long time to traditionally publish, and there’s a great deal of uncertainty and lack of control along the way.
The more research I did, the more self-publishing seemed like a good option for my impatient self, however, there was still a part of me that wanted to be published “properly”, or at least to give it a go.
I did fairly extensive research into how to get an agent, mostly online, where there’s a load of advice (and even more mow than there was then). Essentially, you need to learn how to position and pitch your work, target a large number of agents, and then get comfortable with waiting and rejection.
The reality is that the process is a a lottery. Agents who may at some stage in the future be interested in your book may not have an open list at the moment. Agents may feel that there is no current trend for your kind of material and that they don’t want to take a risk on something editors at publishing houses aren’t currently demanding. An agent may be in a bad mood when they read your submission, or not like something you say in your cover letter, and therefore write off your book before they even give it a chance. An agent might get distracted by a phone call while they’re reading your submission and then forget all about it. An agent may have a celebrity approach them for representation and choose the celebrity instead of an unknown. An agent may have a referral from someone they know and trust and choose a book that comes to them via this route rather than via their “slush pile”. Or, you might find an agent who loves your work, but, because it doesn’t fit neatly into a pre-existing genre, they don’t think they can sell it to a publisher. Or, possibly worst of all, you might find an agent who loves your work, agrees to represent you, and then can’t find a publisher who wants to buy it.
The road to becoming a traditionally published author is fraught with danger, and it’s one hundred percent subjective. No-one really knows what’s going to sell (otherwise every book published would make money, which isn’t the case).
In short, it’s a numbers / luck / right-place-right-time game for new authors. You need to write to as many seemingly appropriate agents as possible and hope to strike gold, iterating your query letter as you go. The important thing to remember is that pretty much everyone gets rejected by at least some of the agents they submit to (even JK Rowling), so just keep plugging away, be patient, take on board feedback, and hopefully, eventually, someone will like your material enough to offer representation.
And remember, everyone’s journey is different, so don’t compare yourself to others. For every person who gets an offer of representation overnight on their first submission, there are tens of thousands who do not, some of whom go on to outsell those overnight wonders.
With all of this in mind, I started to play the numbers game. I submitted to agents, still attached to the idea of being a “proper” published author, the kind with a real book out in the shops. How hard could it be anyway…if I wrote to enough agents, eventually someone would pick me up…wouldn’t they?