The not-so secret agent: what I learnt about the publishing industry the easy way

In 2011, I completed a narrative non-fiction book on a controversial, 19th century criminal case. The events in The Water Doctor’s Daughters take place in France and England, and as an opening gambit I aim high and email a query letter to one of London’s foremost literary agencies. Somewhat to my astonishment there is a response within a few days from associate agent Zara (not her real name). She asks to see a synopsis and the first three chapters. I am even more shocked when, two weeks later, she asks to see the entire manuscript.

Feeling it would be wise to find out a little more about Zara I do a quick search and find myself reading a list of her recent tweets. My heart sinks when I discover she is an edgy young ‘20 something’. My query letter contained few biographical details, so thankfully she has no idea I am nearly thrice her age. If it has to be revealed I hope her grandmother has told her that 61 is the new 39.

I also lack what is known in the publishing industry as a ‘platform’, i.e. youth, beauty, international fame or (better still) infamy. Given the state of traditional book publishing, I am relieved that at this stage Zara seems willing to judge my work on its own merits.

However, her tweets to an in-group of young publishers and rival agents reveal an acerbic wit; mostly directed against aspiring authors. In the stress of the submission process someone has made the cardinal sin of misspelling her name, prompting, “So I spelt his name R-E-C-Y-C-L-I-N-G- B-I-N”. Someone else has incurred her wrath by submitting a 30-page synopsis. Naturally clichés are often in her sights; “I swear I’ll kill the next person who writes ‘He nursed his drink’”. By sheer luck the only drinking in my book involves poison, not a substance one is inclined to ‘nurse’, but a few tweets later, “How I detest the word ‘poignant’” . Now I know I have used this word, because the situation of my protagonists is poignant to the core.

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At one point there is a discussion between Zara and her peers about whether it would be kinder to dispense with rejection platitudes such as, “Sadly I didn’t fall in love with your book”, and simply tell people they can’t write. Someone suggests that by the age of 34 there is little chance of improvement.

Age comes up again when Zara jokes that none of her older colleagues know the meaning of the slang term “touching cloth”. I have no idea either, and almost choke on my coffee when I Google it and read, ‘To break wind with more force than expected, and to cause faecal matter to come into contact with one’s underpants before being able to suck it back in; for example, “I floated an air biscuit and touched cloth”. Good grief! My shock is intensified due to having been immersed in the prudish Victorian era for the previous two years.

Every morning I check my emails, but several weeks go by without a decision from Zara on my manuscript. I continue to follow her tweets, feeling increasingly like a cyber-space stalker. Some of the more graphic postings are on her love life, and send a post-menopausal flush to my cheeks. I worried like a mother when she caught a bus home in the midst of the London riots. I long for her to tweet, “Awake all night; no, not great sex… reading a fantastic manuscript from down-under”. However, writer’s paranoia makes me fear reading, “Ploughed through dreadful 19thC true crime ms. OMG…why didn’t someone knock this author off before she began?” Of course in reality she makes no reference to me whatsoever. I take comfort in her tweet, “Only the shockers [submissions] get discussed…we keep the good ones to ourselves”.

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But I still haven’t had a response to my manuscript. Zara seems so busy arranging boozy lunches that I’m tempted to message her saying, “For goodness sake , can’t you just grab a sandwich and read my bloody book?”

Submitting to multiple agents is considered bad form. However, as there is no word after two months (to prompt Zara would be viewed as unforgivable hectoring), I decide it’s time to hedge my bets. Yes, I know that’s a cliché. This time my choice is more selective; an agency headed by a man I’ll call David, who appears to be middle aged and is described by existing clients as “absolutely charming and unfailingly courteous”. It is a much needed boost to my confidence when he responds to my emailed query within hours, “Thanks Pauline, do please send me the full manuscript”. How attractively decisive…I’m beginning to have visions of trips to London and an extramarital fling. David does not tweet, and I am almost certain he would not know the meaning of “touching cloth”.

FOOTNOTE – I later met David in London over lunch at Soho’s Groucho Literary Club. He did not become my agent, but generously introduced to the firm who subsequently published The Water Doctor’s Daughters. I suppose you could call him my ‘Claytons’ agent!

Have you ever written a book and submitted a manuscript? What happened?