For many emerging writers who want to follow the traditional publishing route the first task (after writing your book) is to find an agent who will represent you and help find a publisher for your book. This can involve a strange alchemy of timing, serendipity, talent and chemistry. It requires rigour, attention to detail, thoughtfulness and tenacity. And there is little to surpass the joy of finding an ally to offer support and validation as you begin your journey to publication. Getting an agent is a huge hurdle and once over it you feel immediately like you have crossed into a new realm of writerly existence.
But it quickly becomes clear that there's a long way to go between signing with your agent and actually getting your book published. It's a massive achievement, and you must celebrate wholeheartedly. You may be one of the lucky writers whose book gets snapped up or is the subject of a bidding auction and everyone wants to take you out to lunch. Or, like me, it could be just the beginning of a longer journey.
It took three years to find the perfect home for my book, Elisabeth’s Lists, with Granta. Throughout those three years I revised, redrafted, went slightly mad, pestered, festered and panicked. Yet my book is the better for it.
I thought it might be useful for anyone whose manuscript is going out on submission to editors if I explained what happened to me. I found it hard to find much information about this stage in the publishing process, presumably because authors don't want to talk about those books that never get picked up (and there are many). So, here's how my book went from newbie agent signing to editorial acquisition.
This is one of the joys of having an agent. You now have an expert who understands the book business, who knows what editors are looking for and who is there to help you shape your manuscript into the best possible state. For me this involved an important reworking of the book to include more of my own personal narrative. My agent made helpful suggestions and we bounced ideas around, until she was ready to send it out on submission.
If, like me, you tend to obsess and over-think, this stage is one of the hardest. Your agent might tell you which editors or publishing houses they are submitting to, but I would advise against knowing too much. It may lead you to stalking the editors on Twitter, to zooming in on photos of their desks to see if the pile of papers on there contains your manuscript (*embarrassed face*), and to shouting 'Please be me! Let it be me!' when they say things like, 'Just read the most fabulous submission'. My advice here is the less you know the less you will worry. And embarrass yourself.
After maybe four weeks we had a couple of 'no's and one editor who was very interested and took my agent for lunch. It didn't work out. I was pretty disappointed, but she was kind and gave us some helpful feedback. We took that advice and chose to completely redraft the book.
After another year or so of rewriting (and this was a long process because I also work part-time and have four kids so was squeezing it in around everything else) my agent decided we needed fresh eyes on the draft before she sent it out again. We found the brilliant Anna South, an editor who reads and consults on manuscripts, and sent it to her. This was absolutely crucial in getting me my deal, but it may not be necessary for everyone, and did involve paying out for the consultation. Anna loved the book, gave me insightful, invaluable feedback and suggested an editor at Granta she thought would love it.
After a bit more editing and reshaping my agent submitted it exclusively to Laura Barber at Granta. Who did also love it. 'Phew' doesn't even cover it. After an encouraging email from Laura saying she wanted to share the manuscript with her colleagues, I began to think this could be it.
But, as ever in this process, there were more hurdles to jump. Just having an editor who loves your submission isn't a guarantee that you will get a book deal. The editor has to sell the book to her colleagues. Laura sent mine round to the other editors at Granta, and they thankfully also loved it. She then prepared for an Acquisitions meeting in which she had to convince the sales, marketing and finance teams that the book could sell. After all, this is a business transaction as well as a matter of the heart.
I knew this meeting was on a Tuesday and spent the whole day pacing around sweating and feeling sick. I hadn't intended on telling anyone in case it went wrong, but found myself blurting it out to a woman on the sideline of my son's football match. When I hadn't heard anything by early evening I was certain that the editor hadn't managed to convince the others in the team. But then my agent sent me what is still the most exciting and happy-making email I've ever received: they wanted to make an offer. We'd done it.
Much whooping, shaking and crying ensued, to my children's bemusement. I couldn't announce the deal publicly until the contracts had been signed, but I told my family and close friends. I missed my dear mum enormously at this point - my book is about her mother and I knew she would have been so delighted to know it was going to be sent out into the world.
As you can see, for me it was a long and not wholly straightforward journey to publication. But the hard work made my writing better, thickened my skin and honed my voice until I had written the best book I could write. I know the experience is different for other writers, but if you are out on submission and rocking quietly in the corner, take comfort from my story. It does happen.
Lulah Ellender is an author and copywriter living in Lewes, East Sussex. Her first book, Elisabeth's Lists: A family story, tells the story of her long-lost grandmother's extraordinary life through a book of handwritten lists she left behind. It is published by Granta and is available from all good bookshops.