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Getting Published: What To Do If You Can't Get An Agent

One Step Too Far by Tina Seskis

Five and a half years ago, I had an idea for a story. It was so out-of-the-blue and exciting to me that I just started writing it down, and before I knew it, it had become long enough to turn into a novel.  Part of what had precipitated this was attending a local creative writing class on a Thursday afternoon: I urge any aspiring writer to do something similar.  It was just so interesting to be given different ways to look at the world, and then be encouraged to write down what I saw, or heard, or felt – and then have to brave reading it out in class (definitely a good prelude to the scary business of letting people read your novel). 

So that creative frenzy became my first novel, One Step Too Far.  I wrote it, largely at night, for my mum, who was unwell at the time and read it as I wrote it, and much of my grief and energy was eaten up by that book; and a few days after I finished it my mum died, and it was sudden and awful.  I was so convinced that I would get a publishing deal (how innocent and optimistic I was back then!) that I bought the 2010 Writers' & Artists' Yearbook and sent the manuscript off to a handful of agents.  And then I sat back and waited.  And waited.  

Life went on.  I forgot about the book.  On the first anniversary of my mum's death, I thought of it again.  I couldn't decide what to do with it; whether to have another go at being published, or simply put it in my bottom drawer as something I'd done for my mum.  On the advice of a friend I paid for a manuscript assessment with The Literary Consultancy, to find out what somebody in the industry thought. It was the best £500 I could have spent, as not only did TLC agree it was worthy of being published, they also pitched it to various top literary agents for me, free of charge.  Unfortunately, I had no writing credentials and the manuscript was seen as a bit too genre-blurry at the time (although the psychological thriller category is huge now) and so, although I got lots of complimentary comments, sadly no-one would take me on.  

More time passed.  I wrote another novel.  The grief for my mother finally hit me, hard.  By the beginning of 2013 I still hadn't managed to get a literary agent, let alone a publisher.  I had finished my latest marketing contract, and the phone had stopped ringing.  We needed money.  I hit rock bottom.  It was the new dawn of self-publishing, and so I researched and researched what people were doing.  I read every book and blog on self-publishing.  Some were helpful; others were not. The ones that were the least helpful were the ones that encouraged you to do it via social media.  (Trust me, the numbers don't stack up.)  I finally worked out how I thought I could do it successfully, and with the tangible support and encouragement of TLC, I decided to go ahead and publish my novel myself. 

I took it seriously.  I wrote a business strategy, and presented it to my husband, to convince him to let me invest some of our savings (£3,000 was our starting budget, to include a cover, ISBN's, proper typesetting, marketing materials and advertising).  We did it on the basis that if we lost all of that initial money at least I had tried, and that freed me up to be able to take risks and make mistakes.  

I had no name, no contacts, no credibility, and so my approach was to produce a quality product, get it out to as many people as possible, and then (hopefully) let word of mouth do the job.  I paid to put the book on a site (called NetGalley) which lets people read it for free pre-publication, to drive noise and awareness.  Amazon was also key to my strategy, and in fact was the only ebook platform I used. I set up a publishing company, and outsourced the skills I needed. I pitched to the book wholesalers.  I doorstepped all my local bookshops.  I wrote to online book groups.  I also launched a local marketing campaign, putting up posters and handing out business-card sized ads for the book in Highgate and on Hampstead Heath (my husband and son disowned me on dog walks).  I pitched newspapers and magazines directly, myself.  

I told everybody I encountered about my novel, and through that I got some lucky breaks.  A friend hooked me up with a freelance book production expert, and she helped me produce the quality books I needed to stand a chance of getting into bookshops.  Someone else suggested the book would look great at railway stations (the original cover was made up of rail tickets) and so I found out who the buyer at WH Smith was and pitched him direct.  When he ordered 2,000 copies, it changed the agenda, and I was able to move into full-scale production.  My local estate agent had sold a house to the editor of Grazia, and he gave One Step Too Far to her and she loved it.  Timing was on my side.  I went to London Book Fair with that week's copy of Grazia under my arm, where One Step Too Far was in Ten Hot Things.

One Step Too Far launched in April 2013.  By the August it had sold 100,000 copies and had hit No 17 in WH Smith and No 1 on Amazon UK.  Suddenly I was getting offers for the book from publishers all over the world.  It was extremely stressful.  Eventually I took on United Agents, who helped steady the ship and within weeks UA sold the manuscript to 16 publishers worldwide, including a three-book deal with Penguin in the UK, and HarperCollins in the US.  Now I mainly write full-time, and my own publishing career is on the back-burner.  Being published by someone else at first was hard, as I'd been able to make all the decisions myself before.  It has been a rollercoaster ride but right now I am in the middle of writing Book 4, and when the writing is flowing I am rarely happier.

Tina Seskis grew up in Hampshire, and worked for more than twenty years in marketing and advertising before turning her hand to writing. One Step Too Far was her first novel and was an instant bestseller with over 100,000 copies sold in just four months. The rights have since sold to fifteen publishers worldwide. Her second novel is called When We Were Friends.  Tina lives in North London with her husband and son, where she writes full-time. Find out more on her website, and follow her on Twitter @tinaseskis.