You can expect to wait anything up to eight weeks for a reply from a literary agency. This is why you really must do multiple submissions.
Some years ago now, after the very first batch of submissions I sent out, I got a very fast and favourable (and exciting) response from a reader at one of the top literary agencies. She liked what she’d read; she requested more of the novel; she liked that too. However . . . she was unable to get any of the agents to take it on. Well, it was disappointing, but it was promising.
Sadly, though, that promise faded in the face of the rejections that followed. Some of these arrived fairly quickly, others only came in after the next batch of submissions had been sent out. If the correspondence was conducted by letter, the rejections tended to be polite if somewhat generic. Email responses seemed briefer and less polite. And despite the obviously pro forma nature of these rejections – despite the fact I felt sure that no-one had really looked at my work – each one was painful. So, times were hard in publishing, agents were taking on very few new authors.
What to do next? Well, I decided to put my novel aside and start another one – possibly a more commercially oriented one this time. I also decided to do the six months Faber Novel Writing course. At the end of this, an Anthology is produced and there is nerve-wracking reading event in front of agents. As a result of all this, two agents showed an interest in my novel. Great!
But it wasn’t finished yet so it was a few months before I was able to send it to them, after first checking that they were still interested. They assured me they were, but one of them must have been lying because after an ‘excited’ acknowledgment of its receipt I never heard from her again.
The other one liked the book but thought it needed some more work. We had a very amicable and productive meeting and I went away to do the revisions. She asked me not to send it to other agents until she’d had another look at it. I didn’t, and when it was finished I sent it back to her. She was, she said, really looking to forward to reading it again. I waited . . . and waited.
Eventually, I sent a gentle inquiry asking whether she’d had time to look at it. She apologised; she hadn’t but would very shortly. I waited again. And waited. By now, the message was becoming very clear; she’d lost interest.
So now, once more, I was faced with the task of sending it out to other agents – with all the accompanying palaver of covering letters and synopses. This time round though, I could say in that pesky covering letter that I had been on the Faber course. And, mindful of the success of S.J. Watson and Rachel Joyce, it did make a difference. This time the responses were much less pro forma. My submission was ‘read with interest’. They enjoyed reading it. They praised its ‘fluid, witty style’. According to one, it ‘stood out from the many [they] received.’
Nevertheless, none felt able to take it on. Some mentioned the difficulties they had getting publishers to consider first time authors. Fair enough. But some sounded somewhat over-wrought. One said she would need to feel ‘absolutely passionate’ about it – and she obviously didn’t. Another hadn’t ‘fallen in love with it as much as she’d need to’! Someone else hadn’t quite ‘fallen under its spell.’ (I couldn’t help wondering whether all those middling books out there that have been published managed to meet such amorous requirements.)
I began to notice that these rejections weren’t painful anymore. My expectations, it would seem, were now pretty much non-existent.
So, I had two options – give up or self publish. The latter had always seemed like a last resort, a kind of consolation prize, but suddenly it felt right. It would put me in control. No need for more covering letters and synopses (hurray!); no more long delays; no more uncertainty. I did some research and decided to go ahead because I feel that both my novels are worthy of publication, and to have some readers has to be better than having none.
The publishing part is relatively easy (I can say that now!) The marketing, though, is another matter. But I’m giving it a go.