I want to talk about my own journey to get published today, because I think it will help a lot of writers who are terrified of following up with agents, editors and publishers.
It’s a little bit ‘meta’, though, because the two frameworks I teach are in the Book Deal Accelerator and 90 Day Memoir. One has the outcome of a nonfiction publishing deal, and the other is a compelling true story told with the Hero’s Journey 12 stage framework.
This story of my first literary agent and my first book deal ALSO illustrates the 7th and 8th stages of the Hero’s Journey framework, which typically is where students struggle when it comes to writing their memoir. I always say that the 8th stage is metaphorical, or figurative death. Not literal death – but this story might help you to understand it, better. The 8th stage asks that the Hero let go – and it’s in the letting go, that true transformation takes place.
When I’m teaching the Hero’s Journey to writing students in 90 Day Memoir, I always have to clarify that the 8th stage feels like death. It’s not actual death, but it feels like it, and requires a similar level of surrender. Read on for my own publishing timeline and how my first book deal came from a necessary ordeal and ‘death’ to my preconceptions about agents and publishers.
The importance of following up with agents and publishers
So many writers I work with don’t realise how important it is to follow up in a timely manner. On everything. In late 2008, thanks to a very kind fellow writer I actually met at a tram stop (!) I managed to land an agent who worked for one of Australia’s TOP literary agencies, responsible for all our blockbuster bestsellers, books that become films etc etc. I flew to Sydney and met with the agent, she was interested in my book, which I had just finished drafting, she said she’d talk to some publishers about it. This, I thought, was the beginning of the dream for me!
But the problem was, I assumed she would just take care of the rest. Because that’s what most people assume about agents. That’s what you always think when you hear someone has an agent.
“Talk to my agent!”
Basically means you have a bouncer and a deal-maker…. doesn’t it?
So, that agent took my manuscript and took me (I assumed, although she never actually sent me a contract 🚩🚩🚩🚩). It was so strange, she said she was talking about my book to her publisher connections, but I had nothing in writing, and would go months without hearing from her. But again – like most first-time authors, I had nothing to compare it to. I thought that’s just how agents operate. No contract, until they’ve sold your book, maybe?
A rejection that taught me more than two writing degrees
So she HAD pitched me, because I was invited to meet with a top 5 publisher in Melbourne. I wore my best dress, and unknowingly walked into a BRUTAL meeting where said publisher told me all the reasons she would NOT be making an offer on my manuscript.
It was November 2008, and when I managed to, I reflected on her reasoning and I’ve shared this in many of my memoir writing masterclasses, because it’s the reason so many memoirs are rejected – I’d started the story in the wrong spot.
So! I re-wrote the entire manuscript having learnt from this very useful (but brutal) rejection.
Now, I should just add that most of the writers in my memoir program THINK the supreme ordeal is actually what comes BEFORE the supreme ordeal. I’d been rejected in person, at a cafe, by said Publisher, and it took me months to be able to even look at the manuscript again. I thought that was my ordeal. Oh, how wrong I was!
It was the help of a dear ally (aka my friend Dave, who has since moved on to the next realm) that inspired me to pick that manuscript up again and rework it.
LOUISA – YOU WROTE A BOOK. YOU WROTE A BOOK.
I still remember his incredulousness that I’d done what I said I’d do and written a book, and equal incredulousness that I could even entertain the thought of giving up on it. As if that one fact meant that even if it had been rejected, I was further along than I’d realised. he really was the ally who got me back in the ‘fight’ and prepared me for the REAL fight aka my
Supreme Ordeal Publishing Deal.
Preparing for my
Supreme Ordeal Publishing Deal
In 90 Day Memoir I talk about the 7th stage of the Hero’s Journey being all about preparation. It’s when the protagonist goes inwards, either literally or symbolically, as if to prepare on a whole next level for the extreme transformation to follow. This was me in Autumn 2009.
I redrafted Love & Other U-Turns from May until July in various houses, I looked after cats and chickens and rabbits as I wrote, unable to take any big contracts because I was fueled by my beautiful friend Dave’s battle with cancer (his rapidly declining health gave me a huge sense of urgency) and support with timely emails cheering me onwards in the journey.
In July, I flew to Sydney, having found a house to share for six weeks because I wanted to be ‘close’ to Publishers. My agent was in Sydney, too, and i thought maybe we could catch up? I was a bit of a gypsy at that stage in my life. I had barely any possessions, no animals of my own, no partner and no reason to be in miserable and freezing cold Melbourne.
I remember being so excited to be in Sydney because the only people I had ever met who were published authors lived in Sydney. It all excited me and spurred me on.
About a month before I flew to Sydney, I pressed ‘send’ on the redrafted manuscript, so incredibly proud and excited to get a response from an agent I had assumed was as passionate about my book deal as me.
The changes I’d made to the book had made it so much better, and I’d learnt an enormous amount about writing, story structure and memoir just from the experience of the re-draft.
A week later, I was still pressing ‘refresh’ and there was nothing, not even an acknowledgement from said literary agent. I even followed up, saying I was staying in Sydney for six weeks so if she wanted to meet in person, I could come into her office.
She didn’t even confirm receipt of the manuscript, despite requesting both a HARD copy I’d sent via costly registered post (!) and a PDF emailed version.
The Hero is faced with a choice: Stay the same or risk death for change
A month passed by. My time in Sydney was fast-finishing. A friend had invited me back to Melbourne for her wedding, and my flight was booked. Still, no word from literary agent. I didn’t hear a peep. Too afraid to chase her lest I lose the amazing literary connection, it wasn’t until Dave asked how the ‘new’ manuscript had landed, and my one and only published author friend in Sydney told me of something called the Friday Pitch – where Allen and Unwin were requesting unsolicited manuscripts on the first friday of every month, that I finally braved the ordeal.
Subject line: Just following up…
[oh GOD how many times do writers have to send this exact email???]
The response was unexpected.
Her email (littered with typos) explained that she had been very busy and had only just had a chance to read my manuscript (this was months after I had sent her hard AND soft copies). She didn’t think it was very good (!) and I needed to change the beginning.
Now HANG on…
Hero faces Death
I read and re-read my agent’s (short, rude) email, incredulous.
The exact change she wanted was something I had worked hell-for-leather to make, before I sent her that precious copy, registered post, and the email version too.
I had the painful realisation that she didn’t care about my book, hadn’t read it, and in fact lied that she had.
Reader, I fired her.
Her complete apathy about that was only matched by the passion in which the Publisher (who’d requested the manuscript) enthusiastically made an offer the very next week. For the exact same manuscript.
Let go and things move fast
As soon as I had that realisation, I couldn’t go back. I emailed the agent to say ‘the arrangement’ was not working for me and received another similarly short, sharp, rude reply. I sent the manuscript to Allen & Unwin on a Friday (no, they didn’t want it as hard copy too!), and by Tuesday there was a message on my phone from the Publisher saying she was taking it to acquisitions and would get back to me with an offer.
I had a book deal within less than 7 days of firing that agent, who had sat on my book for four months.
Follow up is SO important in Publishing, as is listening to your gut instinct
Thank GOD I followed up! You MUST be your own best advocate in your writing career, and you MUST follow up with agents and publishers – and let them go if they’re not serving your best interests (or making you feel like *&$#).
Firing that agent catapulted me towards a contract with Allen & Unwin for my first book in a matter of weeks. I didn’t miss the opportunity or lose any chances and my book was out less than a year later on June 1, 2010 (super fast, in publishing terms, really!).
But this is the thing: time can’t be taken back, and the longer you wait to make the bold moves, the more momentum you lose.
DO NOT listen to people who think you should be grateful for one email from a lazy agent after 6 months.
A funny thing about that book deal is that I’d also sent an email pitching myself to a NEW agent the Friday I pitched to Allen & Unwin.
August 2009, to be exact. In May 2010 that agent finally replied and said they’d be happy to meet with me. 🤣.
My book was PUBLISHED in that time!!!
You are on your own Publishing Hero’s Journey, and here’s what you CAN control:
Here’s the truth: Publishing can move fast, and Publishing can move slow. YOU have control over how and when you follow up, and what you do, and you must be brave, bold, and professional. Timing is EVERYTHING. I didn’t want a similar book to come out on my topic because I’d been too scared to do what needed to be done!
Most authors I know are completely disempowered in the agent relationship, and it doesn’t need to be this way. One author I know even PAID her agent just to let her go off and pitch her own book to a new publisher (what?!). Another hired her own lawyer (for thousands) because her supposed agent (another ‘top’ international agent with a great reputation) was ‘too busy’ to look at a movie deal offer from a major production company. This is just not on!!
You are worthy of a good deal and you deserve to be supported by professionals and peers in your path to publication.
The stories authors share privately about agents need to be more widely known by unpublished writers, because what you DON’T know is harming not just your publication possibilities but your career.
I don’t want you to miss ANY opportunities in your path to publication, and I want it to feel like an empowering process along the way!
Traditional publishing is so secretive and disempowering for many first-time memoir authors, but it doesn’t need to be.
Sheer determination and some luck took me to my first book deal in 2016. Now I’m back with a memoir and I’m going the traditional route again, but starting from scratch!
I’m very grateful to have found you, Louisa. I’m obsessed enough from within to make this happen.