“Thank you for your submission, which I very much enjoyed reading. However … ”
However. But. Regrettably. Unfortunately. Sadly.
I have received a few of these emails in recent weeks and no matter how much you steel yourself for rejection, it will come as no surprise to hear that it stings. Though what might come as a surprise is the reaffirming love for the industry I discovered as a result.
Having worked in publishing for over a decade, I was under no illusions as to how difficult it would be to get published. Well, firstly to finish the umpteenth draft of my manuscript. Then to persuade an agent to offer me representation – said agent who is inundated with hundreds of queries every week. Then for a Publisher to take a chance on a debut novel over and above all of the fantastic pitches they receive every week. The list goes on. Time is precious, lists are smaller, budgets are stretched, and the talent? Well, there is plenty, and you are one of thousands jostling among a gifted crowd. Nonetheless, nothing ventured, nothing gained, and I felt I owed it to myself to try.
Books have always been my biggest passion. Reading books and then, when I was old enough, writing them. I still remember my first “novel” studiously handwritten by my seven-year-old self on nearly eighty sides of A4 paper (front and back). It was called A Danger in the Woods – a page-turning thriller about an out-of-control mop running dangerously amok in one family’s back garden. A true game-changer.
Fast-forward over two decades later and I was ready to submit my first manuscript for real – and I’d left the mops at home this time. A mildly exhausting labour of love, as all manuscripts are, I sat back from my keyboard and found myself dithering. Writing is a strange and isolating business, with countless hours spent exploring other people’s minds, investing in their motives, and sharing in their trials, while all the while wondering if what you’re doing is really any good. The fear of rejection is overwhelming! At last, I decided to take the plunge: time to pour over those all-important query letters instead.
As someone fortunate enough to work in the industry, I am keenly aware of my privilege. I am familiar with the submissions process and I have access to brilliant people who have selflessly provided invaluable advice along the way. However, the submissions process really is the same for everyone and I can verify with confidence that having a job in the industry gets you nowhere. “You work for a publishing house,” one of my friends enthused, “can’t they publish you?” I offered a sanguine shrug / smile combination. If your nephew told you he’d written the best book of all time, would you risk your professional reputation – not to mention thousands of pounds – and publish it simply because he’s your nephew? I don’t think so! Nice idea though.
And so, off my manuscript went. A short while later, a few rejections trickled in (I expected those), towering silences endured (I expected those) and, excitingly, a few full manuscript requests came through (I was delighted by those!). I should point out at this stage that this isn’t a J K Rowling tale of triumph. I began this process a matter of weeks ago. My manuscript is still being read, further rejection emails are no doubt still being written and I honestly don’t know which way it will go! What I do know is that, even in rejection, I feel closer to the industry than ever before.
In all of the years I have worked in publishing, I have never lived or worked in London. While I am proud of my career to date, this lack of experience within the industry’s central hub has always left me with the nagging feeling that I have never truly been part of the “inner circle”. Who would I know, I wonder, if I walked into the Nibbies tomorrow? And how, after over ten years, might it be possible that I would know no one at all? A sign, perhaps, that I hadn’t fulfilled my potential.
My experience with literary agents has helped to change that. Even in the limited interactions I have had so far, I have never felt more connected to the industry I love so much. Here, then, are the people at its very core, championing authors and fighting for their futures. A simple acknowledgement, a polite refusal, a few kind words, and I was reinvigorated, reenergised – wanting to talk about thrilling plots I’d read and new authors I’d discovered.
Since the first click of that submissions button I’ve read more than ever before, with a new book in my hand every other day. I’ve become curious and questioning – and I hope that doesn’t become the headline of this article: “writing book makes author think”. Only, it did make me think. Of the agents I have submitted to, none of them are men. Why is that? What does that tell me about my own preconceptions? Why aren’t there characters of colour in my novel? How am I to be part of the solution if I am not addressing the problem?
Those kind words, too, mean more to me than I can adequately articulate. Is there a better feeling in the world than when a literary agent tells you that you can, in fact, write, and that they would like to read more of your story? I would be lying if I said I haven’t read those emails more than a few times. A small affirmation that all of those lonely hours with your laptop were worth it.
I suddenly wanted to know these lovely people, to re-engage with the business, and know all there is to know about books, books, BOOKS. A stubborn social media-phobe, I find myself considering a Twitter account so I can keep abreast of the latest news – where I suspect my first few posts will be the written equivalent of Bambi on ice. There be trolls, I am told, and not the retro plastic kind with fluffy, rainbow mohawks. Yet, I feel it might be worth the sacrifice.
I used to think I wanted to be a literary agent – all of that time reading. I now understand that literary agents spend most of their days / weeks / months plotting when they can find time to read! It’s a desperately difficult job with thousands of paper dreams passing through their hands, and I realise I don’t have the fortitude for it. I do, however, have endless new questions about this essential piece of the publishing jigsaw; questions agents will quite rightly be far too busy to answer. One day I hope to have the chance to ask them in person.
I am a notoriously private person. Only a handful of people know I have even written a novel and even fewer know what it’s about. So, why am I writing this? Because the submissions process has helped me rediscover a passion. Because it’s reminded me how warm and generous this industry can be. Because I feel more strongly than ever that aspiring writers shouldn’t give up on their dream. It isn’t easy but sometimes the making is in the journey. Rejection is a sucker punch, but it can also be a powerful tool. If it doesn’t happen for me this time, then I am already plotting my next manuscript. If it does happen? Well … I do love a happy ending.
Stephanie Bramwell-Lawes is a National Account Executive at Igloo Books, an imprint of Bonnier Books UK. She is tentatively trialling Twitter @BramwellLawes.