In January I decided, as an unpublished and unagented writer to go to the London Book Fair. I wanted to find out what made it so special, see it for myself – peak at the wizard behind the curtain. To dispense with the far away allure and come away with a proper picture of how things really were in Oz.
I didn’t expect to get anywhere when I entered the Date With An Agent event but as I was going anyway, I thought I’d give it a shot. When I got word that I’d been accepted I was ecstatic, rereading the email over and over to see if maybe I was projecting positive words where there were none but no, I had a place and now a legitimate reason to go. The curtain was shifting.
Given my general tongue tied delivery, I thought it best to be prepared. Research. Notes. Full questions and answers document and then pacing the kitchen from one end to the other until I knew it inside out. I had business cards made (thank you Neogen) and I selected (with a little bit of help from friends and family), which of my suggested cover images I might show them should the conversation extend that far. My vision for the project. I would also show my experience in publicity and marketing, again should the topic of how to sell my book come up. Hell, it could go all the way and I allowed myself the dream that I would show them the whole world I had envisaged for my series while they grabbed the world’s biggest publishers into one room to begin the bidding war.
But while I’m a dreamer, I’m also a realist and with a little bit of homework on the fair itself, I found out that the agents and publishers conduct constant back to back meetings, for their existing clients on a separate floor. You needed an appointment just to get through the door. There would be no impromptu exchanges unless I accidentally tipped coffee over one in the queue for a danish. And so the date I had confirmed, grew in importance. One date, ten minutes. You try not to put too much pressure on yourself but its impossible when you’re wishing that this opportunity could change your life. A meeting with the wizard if you like.
I may as well have slept in my car, for all the sleep I had the night before. But then missing my red eye flight, was not an option. On the plane I ran through all my questions again in my mind. First my pitch, then questions that might be asked about conflict in my story, romance, themes, the period setting, the supernatural elements, my character breakdown, how I came up with the idea, authors that inspired me. I also had answers to the tricky question of what made my book different to others on the market, its target audience, my research, my plan for the series, and perhaps the biggest answer I’d prepared – how I would promote it. I prepared notes on other story ideas I had, just in case. I had done, I thought, as much as I could. My pitch was ready, once I didn’t falter.
Once inside, I made my way to the overhead balcony on the first floor just to peer into the warren below. From there I could see the expansive stands of Harper Collins, Penguin Random House, Hachette, Simon and Schuster and Pan Macmillan. Their stands from above looked like clinical cafes with lots of white tables set out for their meetings. I guessed they didn’t travel to the other floor. The agents came to them. The rock stars of the industry. Each of their stands had an exclusive entrance – again not somewhere you could wander into. But there is comfort in the familiar and I made my way to Author HQ, the area of the fair specifically designed for writers. Here I sat in on seminars on Copyright (useful), Sci-Fi and Fantasy (really good) and a presentation on self publishing by their sponsor Kindle Publishing Direct (always enlightening).
When the date rolled around after lunch I was ready, glad that at least my appointment would be done early in the day and I could breathe out at last. For the purposes of discretion, I won’t mention who the agent was I met, but suffice to say they were on my wishlist and so I was delighted. Would I remember by pitch? Damn it what was the first line? But as it turned out, they did most of the talking. They explained before I said anything that they’d read through my chapters (I’d sent the first three in advance) and that basically my manuscript was unsellable for at least another 15 years before my brand of supernatural characters i.e. vampires would make another appearance back into the publishing spotlight.
My pitch killed stone dead. No questions about my project, not even one I hadn’t prepared for. The agent wasn’t rude. They were very professional and friendly. They said they were happy to report that they liked my writing but suggested I try a mythological route, perhaps taking my protagonists into a new story – one from my Celtic background. I don’t dismiss it as an idea but to have them say it then, while my book lay dying in front of them was difficult to hear.
‘What do you want?’ they asked.
A very good question.
‘I want people to read this book’ I said, my hand nervously tapping my notes.
‘Then perhaps look at self-publishing for this book’, they suggested.
We talked for a few minutes more. In an attempt to take something away from it, I pitched my other idea for a book which they liked (good to try it out) but unwritten as it is, there is nowhere for it to go. I thanked them and they wished me luck in whatever I do.
As I walked away I kept thinking – they want me to write something else. The negative of that see-sawed with their positive comments about my writing. My self-confidence nonetheless shrivelled. Jesus, was I going to cry? No, pull yourself together. It had been a long day and it was still only half past two.
Maybe this wasn’t Oz after all. Maybe I’d wandered into the witches castle by mistake. Were an army of flying monkeys about to snatch me into the air and carry me out, drop me in the Thames? No. Still Oz – but maybe the wrong wizard for this Dorothy. And while I could have sat in my pyjamas at home to get another rejection, this face to face one was all the more jolting in a weirdly positive way. The truth is you won’t always hear what you want to hear. Because the person sitting opposite you is a person, an individual with a different experience, professionally and personally to you.
Were they right though about it being unsellable now? While my work was in no way an attempt to jump on the already peaked Twilight trend of the YA vampire when I started writing five years ago, I knew that it would be a difficult sell in the years following after it. So how quickly do trends come back? Is it fifteen years as they said? Like the Wicked Witch of the West, I was melting, cold water thrown over me as I disappeared into the floor.
The following morning, after a very nice meeting with a literary consultancy group I approached the big publishing stands – each manned with a reception desk and a gaggle of busy people. I asked if I could leave my information, my one page synopsis and cover art with them. The girls at the Harper Collins desk were lovely and helpful. Hell, they took it from me which was a small victory in my head. Some others looked at me as you would a five-year-old. ‘Oh, you know we don’t take unsolicited work? You need an agent. Have you heard of the Writers and Artists Yearbook?’ Strangely I told her I had. She wasn’t getting my vibe of YES OF COURSE I HAVE – I’M TRYING A DIFFERENT APPROACH HERE – JUST TAKE THE BLOOMIN INFO SO I CAN WALK AWAY FEELING LIKE I’M TRYING AND DOING ALL I CAN FOR MY BOOK. I smiled politely and walked away.
I hit the Ireland stand and hooray for the friendly and welcoming girl there who took my info no problem. I went to a few more seminars (all top notch and very helpful), listening closely to another Kindle Direct Publishing one. I know that there are readers out there for my book. They exist. I just need to reach them and if I can’t get a ‘legacy’ publisher on board, the option to go it alone and do it myself is very tempting – more so with every minute and the lure of complete control over my book, my cover, my pricing, my marketing, my rewards, grows with it.
Maybe something will come from my guerrilla marketing, maybe it won’t but I can’t say I didn’t try. The London Book Fair is that rare thing of soul crusher and dream builder. Would I go again? Sure. Did I take a mental kicking? Sure, but then that’s nothing new. The submission process is a beast at the best of times.
This is the industry and it’s tough. And more doors will slam in my face than ever before and I’m putting myself in front of those doors and those people for a reason. Because I want my book to be read. Not a future book. THIS book. THIS story. Rejection toughens you, makes you resilient but most of all it makes you more determined than ever. So as long as doors are there I’ll keep knocking on them, politely and professionally. Or maybe I’ll get the wood and nails and build my own door to my readers.
Whatever the outcome for my book, the journey to release will have been a hell of a ride.