My first novel A New Map of the Universe was published by UWA Publishing. For a first novel, by an unknown author, with a small press, the sales were respectable. Not out of the ordinary, but not shameful.
For my second novel, I wanted more. I wanted to be translated into Bosnian, Swahili, Latin (who said it’s a dead language? Ignorami!) I wanted to top the bestseller lists in Lesotho, Azerbaijan. Nothing less than Total World Domination would please me. To this end, I needed to find (cue dramatic music) AN AGENT.
The word on the street was that finding an agent was a bit like the quest for the Holy Grail, i.e. life-threatening and doomed to failure. However, because I tend to have wildly unrealistic expectations, I decided that this would not be true for me.
An aside: When we were on our honeymoon in Vietnam, Duckers and I booked a ‘First Class Sleeper’ for an overnight train from Ho Chi Min City to Danang. I imagined something similar to the Orient Express - Egyptian cotton sheets with a chocolate on the pillow, my own personal porter to tuck me in etc. The reality was more like Prisoner Cell Block H - on wheels. The sheets were ‘communist white’ aka grey, cleanliness undetermined. The gap between my delusion and the reality was so vast that I started to cry. Have I learnt from such experiences to temper my unrealistic expectations? Not a bit.
I wanted an agent and I believed I was going to get one. Why was it so important? Of the publishers that might help me to achieve Total World Domination, almost none accept ‘unsolicited manuscripts’. In other words, if they’ve never heard of you, and your first book sold only a measly 1500 copies, they don’t want to look at your crummy manuscript. They want someone else to do their dirty work. (Don’t we all?) That someone is an agent. An agent will read through 100 crummy manuscripts to find one good one. They they’ll sell it to a massive international publishing house with ginormous marketing budgets, keeping just a wafer thin sliver of the pie for themselves. Everyone’s happy.
The Australian Literary Agent’s Association lists contact details for their 18 member agencies. Not all handle fiction, and of those that do, there is usually at least one which is not currently accepting submissions due to being already swamped. Depressing? Just slightly. One snooty little outfit does not accept ‘unsolicited manuscripts’ at all. Baffling, seeing as I thought that was their raison d’etre. Never mind. Next!
Over a two year period I submitted my manuscript to the 9 literary agencies in Australia who considered fiction, as well as 2 each in the US and UK. I waited up to 4 months for responses (and in some cases received no response at all. What can I say? Some people are just heartless). Mostly, I received form letter rejections telling me that my novel was not suited to the agency or that they were not sufficiently enthusiastic to offer me representation. It was a bit like the “it’s not you, it’s me” break-up. Cunning. But ultimately just as gutting.
They all wished me the best of luck, all the best, every good fortune etc. How kind, how charming, how…HEARTWRENCHING. Every one of those 13 rejections was a boot in the face, a knee in the groin. Sometimes I cried, sometimes I ranted, sometimes I rehearsed the speeches I would make to them at literary events after the book they had rejected became a bestseller. Eventually I picked myself up off the floor and started making a list of publishers who DID accept unsolicited manuscripts. Huzzah for them!