Last year I wrote a novel. A historical novel called What Has Fallen From Heaven, about a girl in Roman Egypt whose gilded life is turned upside down when she is struck down with epilepsy. It wasn’t my first full-length manuscript, but it was the first I’d felt fully proud of, and so when I’d tidied it up (we’ll gloss over the research hours, the sub-standard children’s teas, and the grey hairs involved in that process) I began the follow-up marathon of submitting to agents. That was in the autumn, and unfortunately it was not a process that has been (so far at least) successful. I remain agentless, despite the carefully crafted synopses and cover letters, and the hours spent puzzling over witty asides that might win me the friendship of that cool agent on Twitter. Still, some positives came out of the process, and in case it’s of interest to others, I thought it might be worth having a look at the stats.
Based on some useful advice from Claire Wingfield, I kept the field wide and deep. Using a combination of the Writers Workshop Agent Hunter (£5 for a month’s subscription, for the searchable, online equivalent of the agents section of the Writers’ and Artists’ Yearbook) and online research, I approached all the UK agents I could find with an interest in historical fiction. I added in a few others – the US agent of someone who writes novels in the same era, a couple of agents who’d recently indicated they were looking for debut authors, one or two I’d met at conferences/events, and a last few who just look like clever, funny individuals I’d like to hang out with. I tailored the cover letter/synopsis/extract in each case, because they all like to keep their requirements subtly different, don’t they! I did it in a few tranches, in case there was early feedback I needed to respond to. These were the results:
|Did not reply (of whom 1 had recently passed away)||25|
|Full MS request||1|
There were a few disappointments. Some agents ask you to assume they’re not interested after a certain period, which is fine, but others promise a response but didn’t (or at least haven’t yet) deliver. In particular, I went to some lengths to submit to a United Agents Open House, which promised a response to everyone within 2 weeks (later extended to 4-6w); I never got one. I’m not sure if others had the same experience. And while getting a full MS request was a huge boost, it did make me sad when (despite an initial confirmation of receipt, and later, a very gentle nudge from me after a couple of months), that agent never came back to me. It was a highly reputable agency, but didn’t seem like professional behaviour. I wouldn’t trouble either of them with anything again (and yes, I dare say they’ll sleep easy!)
Overall though, submitting my novel was a heart-warming process. I had lots of positive feedback, and a couple of requests to send through what I write next. I did have one agent, a former Classicist with a strong interest in historical fiction, who was kind but firm in claiming that no-one likes Graeco-Roman fiction (it’s niche, admittedly). But I had compliments variously on the characters, the setting, and the plot, and if there was one frustration, it was that there was no overriding theme to the feedback to which I could respond from a practical perspective. It’s partly because of that that I’ve moved on to a number of new projects, long and short.
I haven’t given up altogether, though. There are a couple of amazing independent publishers who are particularly strong on historical fiction, and my manuscript is out with them at the moment. And I loved the opportunity to read an extract from What Has Fallen… last week at a Bristol’s Novel Nights live lit event – here, and I think a writeup is on the way – the feedback was lovely, and even if it ends up being a swan song, I feel like my manuscript will have gone out with a bang.
Thanks for reading. Do you have submission war stories you can share?
Until the next time,