At one stage I collected rejection letters. Most were polite, the pre-formatted sentences of disappointment sent as some form of recognition of what I was trying to achieve. Yet that did not make them easy reading. When your own stamped and self-addressed envelope returns home, it is hard not to be downhearted.
Yet the submission process remains crucial. It is still a common route to becoming a published author and it is enduring because it works. Now, I appreciate that many people do not believe this to be true. They look at published authors and sense that there is some secret, hidden route that once discovered will open the literary Garden of Eden where publishing contracts are tossed around with wanton abandon. I am also aware of the rumours of frustrated writers sending in the works of Jane Austen or some other literary great only to roar with delight when they are rejected by an agent.
Despite all that I firmly believe that the submission process does work. Anyone doubting that should read the biographies of the talented historical writers that are being published at the moment. Many come from “ordinary’ jobs. Be it teachers, vets, doctors, IT consultants or even bankers, many of us do not look supremely qualified to become a writer. And yet we do.
My own story is actually pretty typical. I have no degree, no creative writing experience or knowledge of publishing, writing or anything at all to do with the world of books. I just sat down one day and started to write.
When I had completed my first book, I engaged in the submission process. I blasted out my submission packages, following the rules laid out by the agencies carefully. I sat back and waited and watched the rejection slips wander back. As hard as this was to take, it was the process at work. The book I had written was simply not good enough. Now, that is a hard statement to write. I still think that story works. The plot was well formed alongside a cast of fascinating characters that would enthral a reader and the potential for a long series was built in for free. Yet it went nowhere simply because no one wanted to go out to bat for it. There lies the crucial detail. Agents are not just looking for good books and well-written stories. They are looking for something they can back with every fibre of their heart and soul. They do not do this lightly. They have to believe in you and your book wholeheartedly. They cannot do this regularly, no one can. They are searching for the gem that resonates with them as an individual.
So where does that leave us writers. Well, we have to do everything we can to hit that agent with something so punchy and so fantastic that we blow their proverbial socks off. For me it meant planning the submissions for my second novel with mercenary precision. I no longer blasted them out in the hope that someone would see it. I targeted individual agents with a track record of representing writers of historical fiction. They did not receive a standard, “Dear Sir” letter but one crafted just for them. I was no longer bland but professional and confident, detailing where my book fitted into the world, what it was similar to and why it was unique. It was a slower, bespoke approach but it worked. Four agents asked to read the whole manuscript with two showing particular interest. In a surprisingly short space of time David Headley of DHH Literary Agency offered me representation and I was away.
I have asked Dave why he offered to represent me. The answer should not be a surprise. My submission package worked. Dave receives a lot of submissions and he reads every single one. Mine stood out. I hope that does not sound arrogant but I honestly believe it is the truth.
So treat the submission process with the same care you have lavished on your manuscript, giving it your full and undivided attention. Research your targets with the same diligence you just spent months applying to your novel. Agents will read your work so do all you can to make your submission the best they have seen that day, that week or even that month. Do not break their rules, do not submit on fancy paper or try some other crass way of getting their attention. Hit them with a professional, considered and realistic package and explain why you have sent your work to them. There is no guarantee of success but you can be confident that you have given your work the very best shot of getting some attention. You can do nothing more.
View DHH Literary Agency’s submission guidelines here
The Scarlet Thief and The Maharajah’s General, the first two books in Paul’s Jack Lark series are available now and published by Headline.
Signed copies are available from Goldsboro Books. The paperback versions are available now as well from other retailers.
Visit Paul’s website: www.paulfrasercollard.com
Follow Paul on twitter: @pfcollard