Despite the tsunami of information aimed at debut authors, there are plenty of mid-career writers who find themselves agentless, publisher-free and scrabbling for grocery money. I did.
My first few (non fiction) books did quite well in the late 1990s, and opened some helpful editorial doors – I worked for Cosmopolitan, Esquire and Vogue on the back of them. But times, and writers, change. When that seam ran out I went back to university, had a baby and penned a novel, The View from Here.
My original London agent, was unenthusiastic about View and I had a feeling, anyway, that it might be better suited to the US market (several American characters). I managed to sell it myself to a small US publisher called Soho Press. While that success didn’t do a heck of a lot for the grocery money situation, it did boost my confidence, and, having researched the American publishing scene, I became enamoured with it.
I have always loved New York, so that may have influenced me, but I also liked the energy the agencies there seemed to be applying to the upheavals that were going on in publishing. I decided that I’d like a New York agent. But… not just any New York agent; I am not only mid-career; I am also mid-life – too old for a girly agent pal, or someone who made me feel nervous about calling the office (been there). I wanted a real pro – a Big Agent. I felt that unless I had the aforesaid Big Agent, there was, given the opportunities the internet offers to self-publishers, no point in having one at all. I made a list of the twenty or so most appealing New York agencies (based on sales and who they represented) and learnt how to write a decent query.
It would be nice, and easy, to say now, that I just wrote That Part Was True, queried it and got taken on, but it was messier than that. I sent out a couple of things and had some responses, but no green lights. I spoke with another London agent, on a friend’s introduction, and was (grocery money almost non-existent by this point) briefly tempted in that direction, but, somehow, I held my nerve and when That Part Was True was ready I went back to The Apple.
Going in to the process this time, Alexandra Machinist at Janklow and Nesbit was my first agent choice. Not only is Janklow the papa of the Big Agency fish, I loved everything I had read about Alexandra. Later, it was helpful having a favourite because I had more than one offer of representation. So far my partnership with her has been perfect. She found me my editor Deb Futter at Grand Central who is a joy to work with. And that sale led, in turn, to others, including the one to Orion, here in England - I’m sure that the book would not have jumped the Atlantic in the opposite direction so easily.
I can say now that the lean years focussed me on what I really wanted - in that nothing-to-lose way that that is often motivating. But I am in no rush to repeat them. I hope, if you’re still battling through, that you find yourself with a packet of smoked salmon in your grocery basket when you least expect it. I did.
That Part Was True by Deborah McKinlay is published by Orion on 13th March.