Sunday, April 7, 2013

On being agented but unpublished

In April last year, my agent sent out the manuscript of my debut novel to a load of publishers and we waited. Approximately one year later, we have had eight rejections and six still to get back to us (i.e. probable rejections, but hey-you-never-knows).

Is that tough to take? You betcha. Is this going to be a self-pitying rant/moan about my misfortune? Not if I can help it…

Yes, of course it’s not easy. If you get an agent it tells you that you are good enough to be published, or at least they think you are. I am, of course, talking about getting published the traditional way, which to me is still the gold standard all serious writers should aspire to. An editorial seal of approval still counts for a lot, surely.

The cautionary tale I want those of you approaching literary agents with your manuscripts to take away from this is that getting an agent is only the beginning. It’s a major breakthrough, yes, and the day you get one is a day to be celebrated. But, trust me, it could well be a long way to go yet. You may get lucky, you may not. Heck, I was very lucky with getting an agent: they were pretty much the first ones I approached.

So yes, being agented but unpublished can be agonising sometimes: you’re so close, but being published is oh so tantalisingly out of reach. The problem is, or at least the problem I’ve experienced this past year, is that it can skew your perspective somewhat…

For instance, I know full well that I’m in a better position than 99.9% of writers by having a top notch literary agent in my corner. I know full well that there will be plenty of people reading this thinking, ‘ungrateful bastard, he’s moaning about being unpublished, but he’s got an agent hasn’t he?’ Well, yes, but ultimately you get an agent to help you be published, remember.

Also skewing my perspective are things like, say, Twitter. Having the tag line ‘YA Author and School Librarian’ in my bio attracts lots of writers to follow me. And you know what? They all seem to be published, or having their debut coming out soon…and thus it becomes easy to forget that Twitter is Unreality: if you’re a writer who follows other writers, then it becomes rather full of people shamelessly self-promoting their writerly wares. The only tweets you see are, by and large, by people you choose to follow: it’s not actually indicative of the how the writing world is at large.

So the answer to dealing with a skewed perspective is to fight back with proper perspective. Here are a few things that are more important than getting published:
  • A roof over your head, food on the table etc
  • A steady, reliable income (more than £53 a week, Mr Duncan Smith). This is by no means guaranteed if you end up relying on your writing to financially sustain you…
  • Having a day job you quite like, actually. 
  • Doing something rewarding and worthwhile in the real world, which might be a bit more rewarding than getting paid for the schizophrenic, made up world you’ve transposed from your head and in to a manuscript. This can be something like voluntary work in Uganda this summer, say.
  • Cardiff City getting in to the Premier League (this is by far the most important)

OK it seems obvious, but when you spend so much time writing about your own make believe world with your imaginary friends, you do forget the obvious sometimes. You see why you have to be mad to be a writer…

So yes, of course I want to be published. My agent wants me to be too, but the fact is that, much as she loves my writing (when she says things like ‘you are super talented’ I do believe she means it), she’d drop me if she thought there wasn’t the potential to make some tidy money from selling my books. That’s how all agents operate.

As for them publishers, who many a ‘they’re only interested if they think it’ll make loads of money, and so lots of literary fiction is ignored for the next Fifty Shades rip-off’ type accusation is levelled at? Well, yeah, they want to make money. It’s called capitalism. Deal with it: we all have to. Even The Clash sold out to a major label remember…

So, you know, there are worse places to be than being agented but not published. Heck, there are worse places to be than unagented and unpublished: like, say, having your first book bomb, and every reputable publisher not wanting to go anywhere near you from then on. So the moral of the story is: chin up and keep going!


  1. I know exactly how you feel. I feel hugely privileged to have a super agent who says such lovely things about my writing but it still is difficult to watch the rejections coming in. I am happy that I have my health and a roof over my head but I so want not to be a one book wonder. And why is it, everyone else seem to be getting publishing deals. Not that they don't deserve it. There isn't a 'traditionally' published debut I've read this year that hasn't bowled me over. I think standards are rising and I must up my game but, even so, I can't help turning green!

    Good luck!

  2. Thanks Sally, and good luck to you too. I know you have a wonderful agent, of course, and I do envy you a bit you know: you've had one book published, which is one more than me ;)

    Maybe it feels like everyone's getting publishing deals because they're the ones who shout loudest? No one wants to shout too loud about not getting a book deal, I suppose.

    I've seen your writing, so I know just how damn fine a writer you are. Like your brilliant agent, I really do think you'll get there. You deserve to anyway!

  3. I also know how you feel and I can vouch that you speak the truth. You may not think that I can relate so well to this, bearing in mind that I've had quite a few books published, but trust me, I can. I have also had several rejections recently (not to mention the ones I had before I was published!) and I also do not either a) criticise the publishers who rejected me, just because I didn't write the book they wanted at the time or b) stop believing that I have the required talent. It really is a matter of writing the write book at the right time. You can write - otherwise you wouldn't have a good agent believing in you - but the "right book at the right time" is a matter of inspiration, luck and just keeping on searching for that inspiration and luck. GOOD LUCK!

  4. Thanks so much for that Nicola. It is a tough old business, so I'm not surprised at all to hear that you can relate to this, and that you still get rejections coming in! I'm not the only one in this position of course - Sally Zigmond being one example - so there's only one thing to do: keep the faith and keep bu**ering on. A maxim that applies to every writer at whatever stage of their writing career most likely!