How I got a Literary Agent

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They say it is more difficult to get a literary agent that it is to secure a publishing contract. And any of us who have had rejections from publishers (hands up all writers!) or agents know it’s bloody hard every which way. We are somewhat fortunate to have some commercial publishers accept unsolicited manuscripts (i.e. without an agent) in Australia but we also have the difficulty of a relatively small population, which means more competition for readers and a smaller window of success for all budding authors. Of course, one does not have to aim for a traditional commercial publisher; self-publishing is always an option, but for this article, I’m focussing on the traditional road, which is the one I chose to take.

All publishers and agents want to see a bona fide publishing history but what if you’re just starting out? It’s a chicken and egg conundrum. Years earlier, I’d had interest in a memoir from a couple of publishers, but ultimately no takers. I now call this manuscript my ‘practice book’, which believe me, is a thing. As with most pursuits, there 10%/90% rule applies. That is, ten percent talent/aptitude and ninety percent hard work. Add to this the idea that it takes 10,000 hours to become proficient and something, then a ‘practice book’ makes sense. Through this experience I discovered the love, the art, the discipline and practice of writing. Yes, this was disappointing not to have it published, but it helped me realise two things:

  • I had the ability to write a whole manuscript to the end
  • Yes, it was rejected by publishers for several reasons but, at the same time, I was told I could write!

The manuscript I finally had published was initially rejected enough times for me to think, Okay, what I’m doing is not working even though I know I’ve written something worth being published. This revelation had me thinking outside the box.

Now, before I tell you exactly how I managed to get an agent, and consequently a major publishing contract, I feel obligated to list a few pre-requisites because my method is obviously not going to work for every manuscript and every person who wants to be published. Bottom line, there are no magic solutions. Whether it is fiction or non-fiction, similar rules apply. So, before I stepped outside my comfort zone, I knew that my manuscript:

  • Was unique in that no-one else had written a comprehensive manuscript on my subject
  • Had a broad potential readership
  • Included two major popular themes (a girl’s own adventure and a woman against the odds)
  • Included exhaustive research on my subject
  • Had been worked on to the highest standard I could produce short of a professional editor
  • Had been seen by people whose expertise I trusted to tell me it was ‘a goer’

There are other things I did leading up to getting published, but I will leave this for another article. The important thing to note here is that I was as prepared and confident as I could be with the manuscript that had taken a lot of research and several years of writing.

First of all, there were two distinguished academics who had written about my subject in the past. I had approached both of these women early on and they had been enormously helpful and supportive, giving me material that both had acquired through their own research on my subject. This was an easy first step because I already knew them. But I also knew their endorsements would probably not be enough because I wanted to pursue a broader audience beyond academia. I had already been rejected by two university publishers and, on this basis, I decided not to go on submitting to universities. The fact that I had not done a Masters, let alone a PhD thesis (though I was heavily encouraged to make my project a PhD) also gave me some pluses and minuses in that department. My narraitve had not been hamstrung by academic rigour, but I was also writing about an important historical figure that required historical credence. However, on speaking to a few lecturers in writing departments, I came to the conclusion that a PhD would not necessarily help me get published and would probably hinder my narrative. I just needed to ensure my research had been rigorous and learn how to present the associated endnotes in a professional manner acceptable to publishers.

The next step was the most difficult. I thought about who might be somehow connected to what I had written and also have a public profile? Then I asked myself did I know anyone who might, however indirectly, know such people? I discovered that the world does have, at the most, six degrees of separation. So, I asked those friends and acquaintances who knew such people either directly or indirectly, whether they’d be happy to put a word in for me. All eventually agreed, even if some were hesitant at first. Once I had six people lined up, I asked them, with great deference and respect, if they would read 3 chapters of my manuscript and, if they liked what they read, give me a little blurb. I was stunned to find every person I asked agreed to do this. My hard work had paid off.

The next thing I did was to submit to almost every literary agent in the country (there are only about twelve!). Instead of filling out the space required for my publishing history, I instead submitted ‘Praise for the Manuscript’ with each endorsement I had received. This caught the eye of a couple of agents and now, several of those endorsements appear on the back and on the inside of the cover of my published book.

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