Irish Novel Fair Phase 5: Following up with agents and publishers

Becoming a Novel Fair finalist is not a guarantee that you will be published. It’s not even a guarantee that an agent or publisher will read your novel. It’s simply your chance to pitch to 15 agents and publishers in one day.

The value I’d already gained from the process was enormous, so by the time it came to Phase 5 – following up with the people who’d asked to read my novel – I felt I was greedy to hope I’d clear the last hurdle and achieve a dream I’ve held since I was a child. But I decided to approach this stage as methodically as I had the other stages.

Here’s my system for following up with agents and publishers.

  1. Create a list of agents and publishers and note the date on which you met.
  2. Send your MS out immediately.
  3. Add any notes you have from your conversation on the day to your list – anything that will make a follow up easier (did they mention an upcoming holiday? Did one of their authors win a prize? Was their dog sick? Were their kids trying something new or scary? Were they attending the London Book fair?).
  4. Add any specific deadline or waiting period you were given by the publisher. Respect that. Don’t ping anyone earlier just because you got an itchy trigger finger.
  5. Add a 6 week follow-up timeline.
  6. Follow up with people who gave you specific timelines inside those timelines, follow a 6 week timeline for everyone else.
  7. Keep. Following. Up.

Your follow up has to start right away. The night of the novel fair I emailed my manuscript to as many agents/publishers as I could before exhaustion made me stupid. I got up early the next day, and followed up with the final people on the list.

Once I’d emailed everyone, I went through the list again and added notes beside each agent/publisher, recording what we’d discussed, reading recommendations they made to me, any dates they’d mentioned for following up. This technique is one I started using in the early days of recovering from my brain injury, when my memory was dreadful and I needed as much support as I could give myself. But this technique is also taught in business and start-ups, because most people can’t remember who said what after a few days, never mind weeks.

Waiting for news from the novel fair was not the only ‘verdict’ I was waiting on during this period. In the month before the novel fair, my sister told me she’d found a lump in her breast. I’ve been through this. Several people I love have been through this. We tried to find comfort in the fact that over 90% of women who find a lump discover it’s benign, even while fear sank deep into my bones. My sister had a scan scheduled for the next Thursday. The following Tuesday she underwent surgery. The fast timescale suggested to me that she wasn’t in the 90% of women who have a benign lump. She was promised a diagnosis the following Thursday. That Thursday came and went. And the Thursday after that. And the Thursday after that. Over the weeks we learned that her tissue sample had been sent to London for analysis as the lab in Belfast ‘hadn’t seen anything like it before’. I Googled the name of the lab who held the sample. Its strapline read: “Europe’s Largest Soft Tissue Sarcoma Unit”. One of my thoughts was how lucky we were that she was in the hands of the best.

While we waited for a diagnosis, I also waited for the verdict on my novel. I felt I’d done good job at the pitch – my hope was that the novel would deliver on the promise. Over those same weeks I received a few rejections from agents. One was a pretty flat no (a no I’d been expecting as the in-person dynamic didn’t work at all when we were focussed on my novel – we only connected when we left writing behind and talked of real life). The other agents were very encouraging about my novel, and constructive with their advice. Oddly, each rejection gave me a sense of relief. That’s because I hold a completely irrational belief that if something good happens, something bad will happen to keep the balance. In an strange way, like a child, I felt that my ‘bad’ news was keeping my family safe from my sister being given bad news.

In early March my sister was given a diagnosis. She had a tumour that is so rare it is seen in only 1% of all cancer cases. And she had the rarest presentation of that tumour. Before her diagnosis I had thought that you either have cancer, or you don’t. That a growth is either benign or it’s malignant. That, like what I learned about gender at school – you’re either a boy or girl – there’s nothing in between. But my sister was diagnosed with a ‘borderline’ phyllodes tumour, which is a fast-growing tumour with a leaf-like pattern of cells (“phyllodes” is from the Greek, meaning “leafy”). These tumours are usually either benign or malignant. But hers presented with features of both. It wasn’t snow, it wasn’t rain – it was slush. Luckily, even a full-on malignant phyllodes tumour will grow fast, but rarely spreads. The tumour doesn’t respond to chemo, but once diagnosed, can be excised. For the rest of her life my sister will follow up annually to check her excision was 100% successful. This diagnosis, coming after so many weeks of uncertainty, felt like one of those once-in-a-decade lottery wins you read about in the newspaper.

After that, a river of energy freed up in my life. Though I was still struggling to balance my writing, my full-time job and manage my ongoing back pain from our car accidents, I returned my focus to the Novel Fair follow-ups. I had a system (of COURSE I had a system).

I felt most confident contacting the agents/publishers who’d responded to my initial email – at a minimum I knew the email address I’d used worked. But most agents/publishers didn’t respond to my first email, and so I felt a little uncomfortable – and insecure – emailing them. I’d no way of knowing if the address I had was right.

I found the black hole of a non-response harder to process than the hard outcomes of an outright rejection.

I think from when we are babies we like to explore cause and effect. A baby throws a ball – and even before they can crawl they track the ball’s arc and resting point with full attention. Lobbing your novel at someone who doesn’t confirm receipt feels a little like dropping a pebble down a well and never hearing the splash. The solution is of course to be a baby, and keep dropping pebbles in the hope there is water down there somewhere.

This. Isn’t. Easy.

When I worked in start-ups, most of my time seemed to be spent emailing or ringing people (mostly men) who didn’t respond to my query. I often turned up to meetings only to have a last-minute cancellation pinged into my inbox, letting me know the investor or advisor had something more important to do than speak to me. Worst of all was sitting in an office or coffee shop waiting for someone who never cancelled, but never arrived. I remember returning to our startup hub once after the 3rd cancellation from a VC I really wanted to meet. I figured it was Game Over with this particular VC and said so to an advisor. He gave me some advice that I’ve tried to work with ever since. He said that I could only consider a query as a ‘no’ if I had tried to contact them 10 times and heard nothing in response. And to call it quits if 5 in-person meetings fell through. While I consider many aspects of the start-up investment world to be toxic – and I’m glad I’m no longer in it – I like the way this technique depersonalises the void. Here’s how I see it:

You have 10 pebbles. Drop 1 down the well. Listen for a splash. Repeat 9 times. Walk away if you don’t hear a splash – that well is not bottomless – it’s dry.

Getting the tone of a follow-up email just right is not easy. In my emails, I included the following:

  • Who I was and how we met
  • The title of the novel I had sent to them
  • The timeline since then
  • A ‘personal’ note, e.g. a thanks for a reading recommendation they’d made.

I have no evidence or research to prove this approach is the best to take. It’s based on how I’d like someone to contact me. I am assuming the agents and publishers are so busy that their inbox is bursting with unopened emails and unread manuscripts. I imagine the recipient has zero time to waste, and prefers to use their brain to read manuscripts, negotiate rights, and pitch the novels they love at editorial meetings – they do not want to spend their time wondering who you are and why you’re contacting them.

I have always appreciated people taking the time to keep their communication clear, short and friendly – which takes more time than something long and rambly, or short and angry. So I tried to give the information in a succinct, yet personable manner. Instead of:

Dear Agent/Publisher, 

It's been 6 weeks since you met me, Michelle Gallen, at the novel fair in Dublin. You promised to read my novel Big Girl, Small Town. What's the story?

Best, Michelle

I aimed for something like this:

Dear Agent/Publisher,

Time flies - it's been 6 weeks since we met at the Irish Novel Fair in Dublin. I hope you weren't too swamped by the London Book fair and that you enjoyed the Bologna Book fair!

I was wondering if you've found the time to read my MS, Big Girl, Small Town?

Best, Michelle
PS I've read the book/ate at the restaurant/climbed the hill you recommended - it was wonderful. Thanks for the tip!

Following up takes persistence. If someone doesn’t reply to your initial email, then it makes the next email a little harder. And the one after that harder still. It takes real grit to persist for as long as it takes to get an answer. And as noted above, answers don’t always come.

I deeply appreciated the fast, warm rejections I had from a number of agents. And I tried not to feel frustrated by the slower responses. The act of writing a novel can be the work of years, and considering the barriers many of us face in completing a whole book, the ‘final’ product can feel like a miracle to many of us writers. We want – understandably – to reach an audience, and the agents and publishers we reach out to are the the gate keepers. After investing so much time and energy, it can be frustrating when the agents/publishers we reach out to don’t read our MS immediately (or at all), and respond inside 48 hours (or years).

But agents and publishers aren’t yet robots. They’re people just like us, with a finite amount of time on this planet, with stuff happening at home and in work. Research shows that human brains are moulded by the books they read. It’s an amazing privilege, really, to have another human read your story, even if they don’t do that as fast as you like, and don’t go any further with it. When I consider that a study has shown that average readers read just 12 books a year, voracious readers (me!) read 50 books a year and super readers might read 80 books. Agents and publishers receive hundreds or thousands of manuscripts every year. I can’t help but feel that if one of these super busy, book professionals found the time to read my MS and feedback, I am very privileged.

Following up again and again…

If you’re lucky, each and every agent or publisher you contact will reply to your first email to confirm receipt. They will give you a clear timeline for following up, and they will contact you in due course to let you know where you are in the process. Of course the reality is a mixed bag of silence and sporadic contact.

The possible trajectory from the follow ups seems to be this:

  • Silence – the agent/publisher simply never replies to your emails.
    • Follow up 10 times. Then either walk away or progress to one of the steps below.
  • Thanks but no – the agent/publisher emails to say I read your novel, and while I thought X, Y or Z, we do not think it’s a fit for our list. We wish you lots of luck with your writing career.
    • I recommend replying as quickly as you can to thank the agent/publisher for their time, attention and feedback.
  • You’re still in the game – Agent/publishers says I read your novel, and now it’s been shared with more of our internal readers. I’ll follow up in X weeks.
    • Reply as quickly as you can to acknowledge receipt and let the agent/publisher know you’re waiting to hear more.
  • You can see the finish post – Agent/publisher emails to say we’ve read your novel and we’d like to discuss it further here in the office. We’ll follow up in X weeks.
    • Reply as quickly as you can to acknowledge receipt and let the agent/publisher know you’re waiting to hear more.
  • WINNER! – Agent/publisher says we’d like to publish your novel.
    • Reply while weeping tears of joy.
  • WINNER EXTRAORDINAIRE!!! – After a fierce 5 way auction handled by your hotshot agent, a publisher buys world rights to your first novel and the next 5 novels.
    • Reply after scraping yourself off the floor.

I view each of these results as a win – they all teach you something. But outcomes 2-6 rest on a scale that moves from winning £1 on a scratch card that cost you £1 to buy, to I’ve only bloody won the 12-week rollover Euromillions jackpot….!!!!!

So what was my outcome? Was it a £1 win or a Euromillions rollover?

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