So Chuck Wendig’s written a piece about all the misinformation about the publishing industry, and asking writers to use the mighty power of anecdote to shed some light on the process and get rid of any conspiracy theories. I wrote a comment, it turned into a long comment, and eventually it turned into the definitive story of how Mark II got published. Not written, Christ I’m still not sure how you write a publishable book, but this is how it got published, and I think it’s probably a pretty good template to work to. So I’m sticking this up here as a link to refer to so I don’t have to repeat myself again.
Mark II got published by Tindal Street Press in 2006. It was, I believe, the third book-length piece of fiction I had written and attempted to submit to agents, so by that time I was intimately familiar with the cycle of submission and rejection letters – my favourite remains a standard form letter I got when I was 15 that someone had scribbled “Stick at it!” across.
I wrote a book. I redrafted the book. I got some friends who I trusted to read it and tell me which bits were crap, then I redrafted it again. Then I paid my sister and her friends £20 to go through looking for typos, because she was 15 and I didn't have any scruples about child labour when it came to siblings. Then I went through it one more time to polish it.
This wasn't the first book I'd gone through this process with, and I already had (and still have) a nice thick folder full of rejection letters. This time I decided, rather than spending a small fortune on printing and postage (Again, this was 2004/2005, and no literary agent worth their salt would dream of accepting email submissions in those days) I decided to send out a bunch of query letters. I found my agents by going through the Writers’ and Artists’ year book with an orange highlighter, marking out anyone who didn’t explicitly say they hated teenage or science fiction.
The query letter consisted of three things: That I was 19 years old and was taking the creative writing course at the University of East Anglia (a prestigious course, although I’ve no idea how much this helped- the agent that eventually accepted me didn’t know I was taking the course when we met), a short sentence describing my book, and a further sentence explaining why I was interested in that agent, customised for each letter to prevent it sounding like a mass mailing (which it was).
I sent off 28 query letters and kept a spreadsheet of the results. I still have that spreadsheet. I don’t know exactly how many of those agents asked to see the manuscript, but I remember it was the majority which meant that I could include a cover letter that said “as requested, here is my synopsis and first three chapters...”
I do know that out of that 28, 5 never responded, I eventually received 13 rejection letters, although most of them chose to read the book first. 7 requested that I send them a synopsis and first three chapters, and then I never heard from them again.
The one agency replied to me query letter asking to see the whole manuscript (I expect it was a screw up on an interns part, as traditionally they look for 3 chapters and a synopsis, as does everyone). This was the agency that eventually called me up asking me to come and visit, and who eventually agreed to represent the book. I suspect (though don’t know for certain) the reason was a combination of genuine enthusiasm for the book, the passing resemblance its tone had to The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time, and that they also had Never Let Me Go on their books and thought cloning was going to be big that publishing year.
From there we went through the whole cycle again, they approached numerous publishers, many of whom had nice things to say about the book, some recommending we target YA publishers. Eventually one publisher, Tindal Street Press took us on. Shortly afterwards it was also sold to Fazi Editore in Italy, and the Italian translation actually netted me a bigger advance and twice as many sales. The Italian translation also allowed me to say I share a publisher with Richard Castle, which I'm eternally grateful for.
Mark II was published in 2006 by Tindal Street Press, with a launch party in my home city of Leicester. Since then the book’s sold roughly 3,000 copies worldwide, and once a year I buy a meal with my PLR payments. I’ve had a couple of film companies inquire about the movie rights, but as near as I can tell film companies inquire about the rights to everything, so I’ve never got more than a little excited about that.
My second novel was wildly different from the first. Both books were science fiction, but my second had actual spaceships and aliens in, so my agents were a bit at a loss as to what to do with it. We parted on good terms and I entered the whole cycle once again. I’m currently working on a third book (well, fourth, but the third one is banished to a bottom drawer for the time being) and have received a lot of “loved it, but don’t know how to sell it” style rejections for book two, which I’m considering attempting to self publish, since I think I’ve got a pretty good idea how to sell it.
So that’s how Mark II went from being a lengthy word document on my laptop to an actual book with pages and a cover and everything. Although name-dropping UEA probably gave me a bit of a boost in the being-taken-seriously stakes, I started out with zero contacts and no more insight into the publishing industry than you can get by reading about it and by building up a stack of rejection letters. If I had to put Mark II’s getting down to any quality other than “it being a good book” (naturally, they’re all good books) I’d say it’s a willingness to accept many, many rejection letters as a natural part of the process, not the end of the world (some times that's easier than others), taking the time to get the presentation right, and being very, very lucky.