On Agents, Publishers, Promotion, and Other Lessons Learned on the Road to Publication
I took up writing after a lengthy career in business. Having qualified as a barrister in London and practiced law for a short time, I became a corporate executive working for other people for many years in Europe and the U.S. Then, in the 1990s, I went into business for myself and with a friend started up a computer services company. Several years later, we were fortunate enough to sell the company to the large American corporation NCR, and I was free to pursue my long-held ambition of becoming an author.
As of this year, I have written three well-received published detective novels set in World War II London. I have an audience, my books are freely available, and I have many more ideas for further books. I suppose I can now regard myself as an established writer. Like most authors, however, I have found getting to where I am a long and tough haul.
When I started out on my writing journey, I had no friends who were authors, no contacts in the publishing industry, and had never taken a writing course. All I had was self-belief, determination, and the memory of an English teacher long ago in school saying I had a nice turn of phrase. When I sat down at my desk to write my first book, I really had no idea how to go about it. After much trial and error, I eventually worked out a method that suited me and knuckled down to t he task. Then, when I had eventually completed my draft manuscript, I really had no idea whether the book was any good. I gave it to my mother who praised it, but as she pretty much praised everything I did, that wasn’t so helpful. I gave it to a couple of friends. They liked it. Then I gave it to a friend in public relations who had once been a journalist and was a keen thriller reader. He loved it. I was encouraged and decided to send it out into the wide world. I bought a copy of the Writers’ Handbook, which is the industry bible in the U.K. and lists all the literary agencies and publishers and their submission requirements. I went through the handbook and made a list of agents or publishers who specialized in mysteries and thrillers and began to send out submissions. I had not realized the slow pace at which submissions are returned and waited on tenterhooks for months for the first responses. Eventually they came. All rejections. No reasons why. Just “the book is not appropriate for our list at this time” or other similar standard verbiage. I swallowed my disappointment and continued to work my way down the handbook list. More rejections followed. Then a well-regarded agent responded favorably to my submission. “You might have something here. Please send me the whole manuscript.” More weeks passed. Then the response: “You are almost there but go away and see if you can improve it.” No guidance was given as to the requisite improvements. Again I swallowed my disappointment. Then I remembered that one of the yet-to-be-contacted agents on my list also offered writing advice for a fee. I got in touch with him and he agreed to read the manuscript on an advisory basis. He and his partner (who was also his wife) made a number of excellent suggestions and I amended the draft accordingly. He was then pleased enough with the book to offer to act as my agent. He had represented bestselling authors and was well connected. He thought my detective story was excellent and deserving of publication. It seemed that I was on my way. Perhaps very soon!
In fact, things didn’t turn out quite the way I anticipated, but this was undoubtedly the first major steppingstone in an ultimately successful journey. On this journey, I learned many things, a number of which may be of help to other writers who are starting out, and here are some of the more important ones.
- Believe in yourself and do not be disheartened by rejection. The vast majority of authors have had to deal with rejection before achieving success. I must have had fifty or more rejection letters. You have to keep plugging away.
- Having a good agent is no guarantee of success. I shall always be grateful for the detailed literary advice mine gave me and for the boost to my self-confidence he gave me at a time when I sorely needed it, but as an agent he failed me. Despite his belief in my book and my talent, and despite his extensive experience and contacts in the industry, he was unable to find me a publisher.
- Following my agent’s failure, I changed course and pursued the “indie” route. I found a well-established U.K indie publishing company, with high content and production standards, who agreed to package my book and take it to market at my expense. I know I was lucky to have the resources for this; not everyone does. However, since 2011 when I followed this route, the indie market has proliferated and the cost of publishing in a digital world has been much reduced, so it is an increasingly viable option for many.
- However published, it is a fact that once a book is out there in the marketplace, its chances of gaining recognition in the wider publishing world are enhanced. If good reviews come on Amazon, Goodreads, or other sites, the book should attract attention. In my case, with the additional assistance of effective public relations work, such attention came. This led to the current situation where my publisher now is an imprint of a traditional publishing company where Audible publish audio versions of my books on a commercial basis, and where I have had expressions of interest in television rights.
- Again, once a book is out in the marketplace there are numerous promotions, offers, and giveaways available on Internet book sites. These should be pursued as actively as possible. Many of them can increase awareness of the books and their author significantly.
- There are now over 800 reviews of my books in the media and on sites in the U.S., U.K., and throughout the world. Fortunately, most are positive but of course there are some negative ones. I think it is most important not to get too upset at bad reviews. One should be open to justified criticism, and, if unjustified, one should just shrug it off. Every great writer—Tolstoy, Dickens, Twain, Updike, Mailer, whoever—has had bad reviews. A book with a one-star review can find itself in very good company!
- As is implicit in what I have written above, being an author is really two jobs. One job is writing the book. The second is getting it into the market and achieving sales. An author should make himself as available for promotional work as he can to publishers, bookstores, magazines, and bloggers. J.D. Salinger may have sold millions of books without doing this but I do not think he should be taken as the norm! I try to accept as many invitations as I can. Sometimes a book signing, for example, may be buzzing with a large crowd and sometimes it may be sparsely attended but generally I believe they are all well worth doing. I have been to many successful smaller gatherings where I have been able to talk at length to enthusiastic readers of my work and get great feedback. It is always a good thing to listen to your readers!
My path to achieving a wide readership for my books has been slightly unusual, but in this developing digital world, I am sure that such unorthodox paths to success will become more common. Whichever path you follow, the very best of luck to all you ambitious writers out there!
Mark Ellis is a thriller writer and a former barrister and entrepreneur. He grew up in Swansea, under the shadow of his parents’ experience of the second world war. His father served in the wartime navy and his mother witnessed the bombardment of Swansea in 1941. Mark has always been fascinated by World War II and, in particular, the Home Front and the criminal activity which sprung up during wartime. He has written two previous DCI Frank Merlin novels, Princes Gate and Stalin’s Gold, and the upcoming release Merlin at War, available October 12, 2017. He is a member of the Crime Writers’ Association. He divides his time between homes in London and Oxford. Visit him at www.markellisauthor.com or on Twitter at @MarkEllis15