For me, waiting is the worst part of the writing business. I try to get on with the next project, of course, but somehow progress is slow and uncertain because at the back of my mind is this shrill yet silent scream of fear and hope intermingled: when will the publishers respond to my latest submissions?

Maybe they never will.

Let’s be honest, some publishers – and agents – treat authors with ill-concealed contempt. They’re just too busy, or so they say, and won’t take the trouble. You probably recognise this line on a publisher’s website: ’If you don’t hear back, it means your work isn’t for us.’

It’s arrogant and discourteous.

Where would they be without us?

The handful of publishers I’ve targeted with my latest un-agented submissions seems a decent bunch, though. They’re small, hard-working firms struggling like everyone else to survive and I’m sure they will get back to me eventually. They’re idealistic, with a strong sense of mission. They’re not the nine-to-five, Monday-to-Friday kind. One asks authors to give them a nudge if they haven’t heard anything after six weeks; another promises to respond within four weeks, while a third warns it may be four months before they reply.

Four months – now that’s sheer bloody torture!

One publisher’s website I Iooked at this week says they’re so overwhelmed with submissions that a response could take nine months. Good grief!

Two publishers in particular I like the look of: a Dublin based outfit run by people who are themselves writers with a very strong focus on effective marketing and another bunch in the north of England determined to succeed and with great covers on their books.

I’ve submitted my novel to five publishers in all after examining the work they produce.

One got back to me with a message right away, saying the submission looked interesting and I could expect to hear back soon. That’s both thoughtful and encouraging.

Obviously, I don’t have an agent right now.

I’ve had three over the years and they were all very different.

It’s harder to land a good agent than it is a publisher in my view, but agents are the gatekeepers to the big ie. wealthy publishing houses, so if you want all the bells and whistles for your book, you’ll probably need an agent.

My first was an extremely astute but self-effacing Londoner who sold my first novel to a big publisher with a substantial advance in the UK and then in the US, too. We parted ways some years later after he sold a black comedy I’d written under a pseudonym and despite my repeatedly urging him to do so, he failed to disclose that I was the author, thereby enraging the publisher, who predictably blamed me for the deceit.

The second was very different: a flamboyant character with a colourful background and regarded in the book trade as a maverick, which I now understand to mean that he was seen as less than honest (though that wasn’t so in my case). A Boris Johnson of the literary agents’ world, perhaps. I’m reliably informed that he sold one of his bestselling author’s novels twice – to two different publishers. Still, we got on well enough and stayed in touch until cancer killed him. He made us both some serious money.

Both agents had one characteristic in common: they were natural salesmen.

Their technique seemed to involve ‘hand-selling’ a book to a publisher they knew well – well enough both professionally and socially, preparing the ground by mentioning the book over a coffee, Sunday lunch, perhaps, at a literary festival, or a drink after work. There might be a second approach – again, in person or by phone – with more details and if the publisher showed serious interest, the typescript would be sent over by courier, largely for dramatic effect.

Good personal relations and careful preparation of the ground seemed to be crucial, though these were the days before the internet, so progress was slower and cultivation of contacts more direct. Pretty much everything was done face-to-face.

Even today, matching book with publisher would seem to be an obvious first step.

My third and most recent agent sent out 25 submissions of my latest book on one day, a cut-and-paste, scatter gun approach by email. I was horrified – but I said nothing. After all, I told myself, this is the digital age, the book trade has changed radically, and what I do I really know about publishing? Next to nothing. I told myself to trust the professionalism and experience of the agent, a former teacher. So I kept my misgivings to myself.

He altered the title of the book without asking me, but again I didn’t object. He had a tendency to ignore or overlook issues I raised in my emails if he didn’t agree with them, perhaps in an effort to avoid arguments. If I did raise a particular issue again, he’d say he was sorry and that he’d forgotten. This did not inspire confidence.

I was also uneasy about his verbose and long-winded letter or ‘pitch’ to the 25 publishers. It seemed a far cry from the ‘hand-selling’ approach of the agents I’d known previously. But I suppressed my misgivings. It was surely better to let the agent have plenty of room and not cramp his style. He said later that all 25 editors were known to him, but I doubt it.

Four or five days later the first rejection landed – curt, somewhat brusque in tone.

The problem here, as I saw it, was that neither the editor nor the publisher concerned seemed suitable for this particular thriller. They had not published anything similar, so it wasn’t surprising that the editor didn’t like it. Surely, I thought, the point of having an agent is that he or she matches the novel to the right publisher.

Then – silence.

Over the four months that followed, perhaps six to eight rejections trickled in. I didn’t keep count.

Rejections don’t bother me; they’re part of a process that’s highly subjective, and more often than not, books these days are judged by committee.

There were no offers, though.

The vast majority did not respond at all.

The agent took the view that he could not and would not chase them – only if there was an offer could he then go back to them with news of the offer in the hope of prompting a response. Perhaps it’s a well-established custom, but I did think it odd.

I repeatedly told the agent I didn’t want what he called ‘feedback’ from the rejections. I only wanted news of any offers, but he continued sending me details of the rejections regardless, as if it was somehow good for my writerly health – like bitter cough syrup forced on a child – and that I might learn something from the varied opinions.

This was no salesman but a rather pedantic schoolteacher with poor self-awareness berating a recalcitrant pupil who won’t listen to his betters.

After four months I wrote him a note thanking him for all his efforts, saying that I saw no way forward and offering the required 60-day notice of my decision to end our association. He didn’t object; he was probably relieved.

I’m waiting again…but at least I’ve designed my own submissions individually and matched them with the five publishers I’ve selected who might actually like the book, and that seems so much better.

Hopefully, they’ll feel that way, too.

There’s a sixth publisher in particular I’m sure will like the novel; unfortunately they’ve been closed to un-agented submissions for months. I suppose that’s the price of not having representation.

PS. I’d just finished writing this when I received an email from one of the five, expressing interest and wanting more. Details to follow…

John Fullerton, July 2022

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