Topping the bestseller lists is fantasy for most of us. What should you realistically expect from the publishing process? Literary agent Nelle Andrew dispels some myths.
This article first appeared in issue 5 of Publishing Talk Magazine in 2014. Nelle Andrew is now at Rachel Mills Literary, and won Literary Agent of the Year at The British Book Awards 2021 (congratulations, Nelle!)
Our society forces us to compare ourselves against each other time and again, box-ticking the life thresholds from birth to death. With the advent of the internet this comparison is exacerbated, as we discover the truth behind the rise of our heroes and the charmed routes which they easily strolled down to glittering success.
For modern authors this comparative nature is a terrible thing. Now any budding writer with a manuscript not only has to look up at the book spines bearing the names of all those they will be compared to, but they get to know the dizzying heights their potential peers reached: six figure advances; ten publishers frantically bidding for the book within 24 hours of receiving the submission; film rights sold for even loftier sums and how this all came about because they had a dream; watched two TV shows at the same time or simply saw a boy wizard on a long train journey and suddenly they were dominating the high street, Amazon and our TV screens…
Sound familiar? Of course the truth is we all love a ‘rags to riches’ story and the media most of all, so you don’t really hear about the struggle for five years and the countless rejections many authors face before becoming an international superstar. And the more tales you hear of outlandish money and tales of authors and publishers from the nightmarish ones (they hacked my book to pieces, sold it and when it bombed cancelled my contract) to the fantastical (they sent me on a first class trip to America for promotions of my book and I was speaking to 150 people each night at a time), it makes the process of getting published that much harder. Because you cannot help but compare yourself to these stories and as much as you try, they colour both your expectation and self-perception, making you see disaster and inadequacy where there is none.
The end is only the beginning
As an agent the first thing I do when I sign a client is to give them the realities of the publishing process and especially during submission. The first thing I try to dispel is the idea that the author’s job is done once they have given me the manuscript. Now every author starts the interview with the words: “I know it needs work…” but really I can see in their eyes that they want me to say, “No, not at all, it’s pretty much done.” Sorry – no. EVERY manuscript needs work and this can take weeks, months or even in some case years. Harper Lee spent two and a half years with her editor working on To Kill a Mockingbird and legend has it got so frustrated that at one point she threw the typed pages down onto the streets of New York. When she called her editor he calmly replied: “Go pick up every last page.”
So the first myth every budding author should dispel is that when they type ‘The End’ it really is the end…because in fact it is only just the beginning. A good agent will put you through your editorial paces and a good editor will do the same. This is a process and it starts from the moment you send out agent querying letters to the day of publication. It doesn’t end when the agent submits the book, that is when it really starts to ramp up.
Don’t expect to hit the jackpot
Submitting is when author expectations often come home to roost, and it does nothing but make the author feel bad about themselves. I have been lucky to sell a book in a week and others in the space of four months. All those stories you hear about massive advances happening within the space of ten hours of reading are the ones you hear about because they are rare: this happens to a handful of books a year out of a pool of thousands across all imprints and agencies. It is not something to aspire to; it is like winning the lottery, not only in terms of cash but in terms of the odds, which are stacked against you.
So don’t sit by the phone and computer screen, raging because the dream of those six numbers coming up hasn’t happened. It truly bears no reflection on the novel and its potential. The Help didn’t go for six figures at auction. It went quietly but passionately to an experienced editor just starting a new imprint – and the rest is history. It is the readers who make books the success they are. There are some books that the industry went crazy about and which have sunk without a trace; and others that no one expected to explode as they did and have come to define their genre.
Be honest about your goals
The elephant in most authors’ rooms is the expectations you have for yourself. Most sensible authors will outwardly be humble, but are secretly and naturally thinking about the ultimate dream: commercial success with literary awards. That is the apex for any author career. But it doesn’t always happen and so it is important for you to be honest with yourself. Do you prize commercial success over reviews and critical acclaim? Are you the other way round? Do you care more about reputation than sales?
It’s okay whatever your answer is. But you have to be honest about it and you have to be honest with your agent about it too. Because the authors who are successful are those who made that choice and geared their writing towards that purpose. A publisher once said to me: ‘Only an author can kill their own book,’ and he was right. Because it’s the author who decides whether or not to take the advice given. Whether to promote, or pull away because they have expectations and ideas for themselves which they haven’t communicated to their agent and publisher who are left trying to guess.
Treat publishers and agents as partners
The most important and potentially detrimental expectation of them all is what you expect from your publisher and agent. I have always seen agenting as something akin to marriage brokering: you are striving to find the perfect match for your author who gets who they are and what they are trying to do and will hopefully translate into a long and productive partnership.
I have no interest in mollycoddling my clients. In praising them without due or in serving them. I want to build their careers, correct their faults and make them rise to the zenith of their talent and potential. So I only choose authors I a) believe in and b) I believe I can work with along these principles. But not all authors want what I want or would be compatible with my style. I accept that – and they need to too.
Being honest about what you want from an agent and publisher ultimately means being honest with what you want from your career. But this is the biggest myth I can debunk: publishers and agents are not here to serve. We are partners: we cannot do this without you and you cannot do this without us. Equality and respect is key and when one of those things falls out of balance the whole relationship breaks down.
Don’t worry about your peers – just be yourself
When it works, writing and publishing can bring untold emotional and financial rewards. There is nothing more satisfying than seeing your book for the first time as a living thing ready to be shared with others. But before you start down this road, or even if you have taken the first footsteps remember this: your path is yours alone. Do not look to the left of you or the right of you. Be honest about who you are and what you want and forget the lives of your contemporaries. You can only be yourself, and it is the authors who remember this, and set their expectations aside in the light of this truth, who end up defining their genre rather than aspiring to it.
This article first appeared in issue 5 of Publishing Talk Magazine (2014)