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Life, Writing

My First Year as an Agented Writer

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAA year ago, after a radical re-write of my first novel, I found myself in the midst of something I never thought would happen – having previously failed to get anywhere, my book and I had finally succeeded in attracting the interest of several literary agents.  I’ve been thinking back to that fevered, exhilarating time of meetings, emails and phone calls, which felt like a dream then, and in some respects, still does.  A year ago, I was on the kind of high where you can only imagine things going your way.  This is not a blog post I wanted or expected to be writing now, but a sense of perspective is one of my gains.

This is about what’s happened in between.  Some of you know and others will have worked it out – my first book hasn’t got me a deal.   It’s not a secret and I’m not embarrassed about it. People are always asking me what it’s like working with an agent and even in the absence (which naturally we hope is temporary) of good news, I’m happy to share my experience of my first year as an agented author. I think it says a great deal about my fantastic agent, Diana Beaumont of the Rupert Heath Literary Agency, that she gave me her support to write this piece, as with everything.

Each writer seeking representation will have their own wish list of qualities they hope for in an agent, and I had mine.  I wanted us to get on and communicate well so we could work as equals.  I wanted my agent to be approachable and on the same wavelength.  It impressed me hugely that the first time we met, Diana could quote about fifteen moments from my novel off the top of her head.  She hadn’t even finished reading it and she knew she wanted to represent me. She really connected with my work.  We had several long phone conversations over the next few weeks which only confirmed this.   Diana wasn’t just excited about We Can’t Be Strangers but the next book I’d write.  And the one after that.  She still is.

I made the right choice.

We then embarked on the process of getting the manuscript into prime condition for submitting to publishers.  After the eight months I’d spent rewriting it was gratifying to be told that it was polished and in very good shape.  It still makes me laugh to recall Diana telling me that very little needed doing, ‘maybe ten things’.  But they weren’t any ten things, they were the insights of someone with years of experience as a senior commissioning editor.  Did Diana understand my book and characters better than I did?  The answer’s probably yes and it was a thrill to get input of this calibre. I enjoyed the process even if it was more work than I’d expected.  Diana understood from the start how my mind works and has an instinct for what I’m comfortable with (or not) – she only ever suggested subtle tweaks that made perfect sense and she trusted me to find my own solutions.  It’s a sign of good synergy that she always liked what I came up with.  I’ll admit to being resistant about the ending; I held out for its lack of resolution, but when I saw the light, it only took half a day to fix and we were both happy with it!

By late February, we were ready to submit to publishers.  It was nerve-wracking but exciting too.  That feeling was short-lived.  I’d opted not to be informed of rejections as they came in, so when after a few weeks I’d heard a resounding nothing, that could only mean there was no interest from editors.  Diana eventually sent me a short morale-boosting message and I realised it was better to be in touch.  She sent me some of the more positive rejections which were both incredibly generous and encouraging and also pretty hard to read.  The months passed and Diana’s efforts to sell my manuscript have been tireless.  We are both surprised and disappointed at the outcome.  I’d never thought about how much rejection agents have to deal with – they will only offer representation to an author they think will sell but there are no guarantees, for writers or for them.

I was aware what a difficult time it is for a debut novelist to get a book deal and I know many others in the same position (some of whom have since succeeded – hurrah!)   But it would be disingenuous to make it sound as if I took all this in my stride because I didn’t.  After all the hard graft and excitement, the whole experience felt like a major knockback.  I spent about a month feeling totally despondent.  You may not believe this if you’re seeking representation, but rejection at the next stage hit me far harder, probably because at that point I was in with a serious chance.

When I began to write fiction nearly six years ago, it was a real turning point for me.  For a while this year it seemed that writing had switched from something good in my life to something that made me miserable – and that in itself was a wretched feeling.  Where did I go from here?  Maybe I wasn’t tough enough for this after all.  At exactly the right moment I spotted a competition to write a piece on coping with rejection.  Of course I hoped it would help other writers (it went on to be one of the most viewed posts here, which means more to me than the prize I didn’t win) but in a sense I wrote that piece as self help.  It beats self pity.

And then I set about taking my own advice – to keep writing. I felt motivated to start a new novel and it made such a difference that I wasn’t on my own any more.  Keen to learn from what had happened, I knew I had to write something with a better hook.  Diana and I had discussed my next project before we started working together and as luck would have it (I was due some…) the new story does have a more grabbing premise.  Add to that the fact that many of the editors had said they’d like to see my second novel and I was back in the game…**  I did some planning and was all set to head in one direction when Diana suggested a different approach which immediately felt right.  I will never waste my time writing something I don’t believe in.

And belief is what gets books written and into the hands of readers.  Diana and I still believe in We Can’t Be Strangers, regardless of whether it turns out to be my first published novel.  And once I’d picked myself up and committed to writing a first draft in six months (my idea), I realised how far I’ve come and how much I’ve learned from all this, highs and lows alike.  Anything that can bring joy can cause pain and writing is no different.  But I love it and I’ll always keep coming back for more.

A very big thank you to Diana for being such a loyal and inspiring agent, to my lovely family and my many supportive friends.  I promise I’ll make it to your book groups eventually.

Would love to hear other writers’ thoughts – whether or not you have or would like an agent!


**Since I published this post almost two years ago it has had thousands of views and I am delighted when anyone finds something of use here, whether it’s encouragement to keep going, comfort, or feeling that you’re not on your own… A couple of new comments have prompted me to update it – for the benefit of anyone who hasn’t been here or ‘met’ me before – to say that the new book I talk about in this post DID get me a publishing deal, and my debut novel PARIS MON AMOUR was published by Canelo and Audible in June this year.  I hope you take heart from this – it’s not an unusual story by any means, we just need to be more open about it!

About Isabel Costello

Writer (novels: Paris Mon Amour 2017; Scent 2021).Host of the Literary Sofa blog. Co-founder of Resilience for Writers with Voula Tsoflias. Perfume lover and Francophile.


116 thoughts on “My First Year as an Agented Writer

  1. What a fantastic, and honest piece Isabel. So great to read. For me, getting an agent is ‘the holy grail’. Having said that I know some writers who have them and are not over the moon with them. You sound like you have been very lucky in finding an agent who is in it for the longterm with you, and with whom you see eye to eye in so many ways. I can imagine though, that rejection once you’ve found an agent who really beleives in your work, would be harder to take than rejection when you’re submitting unsolicited. It’s so great to hear about the journey you’ve been through, and most importantly how you’ve picked yourself up and got back on the horse. I hope this book will be the one that takes you through to publication.

    Posted by annabelsmith | November 5, 2014, 10:30
    • Thank you very much, Annabel, and for being the first to respond from the other side of the world! I realise I am very fortunate to have an agent who’s willing to stick by me and help me raise my game any way I can – it’s one of the reasons I’ve been able to ‘get back on the horse’. I love that!

      Posted by Isabel Costello | November 5, 2014, 15:09
  2. That must be very difficult: to get an agent, and then not get a deal. It’s a situation that doesn’t get written about very often, and so, I can see how it would come as more of blow than not getting an agent. Well done for writing about it! And I’m sure that if the writing in your novels is as good as that on your blog (and I’m sure it is) you will get a publisher to buy your novel.

    Posted by Claire Fuller | November 5, 2014, 10:45
    • Thanks, Claire. Signing with an agent then having the first book not sell is far more common than I’d realised (though I always understood it was a possibility!) and as you say, not much is ever said on the subject which is one of the reasons I decided to write this piece. And thank you so much for your kind words about my writing – I was pleased to get some very nice feedback from editors too.

      Posted by Isabel Costello | November 5, 2014, 15:12
  3. Oh god, I feel your pain. In fact, don’t tell anyone but I’m sitting here teary eyed. When I finally got an agent, I too felt so excited anticipating this great new step in my writing career. Six months later, my agent still hadn’t managed to sell my book. Still hopeful, I started working on a new novel (thinking when I sold the first one, I’d have a second on the go) but when I showed my agent, she confessed she didn’t really like it.

    Another month passed by without a sale. After feeling so relieved that everything was finally coming together after 10 years putting all my energy into writing, I felt so demoralised. I genuinely felt like giving up. Instead I stopped thinking about it all for a week, and focused on cleaning my flat. A new idea came to me while I was washing up and I wrote a synopsis there and then. My agent loved it. A week later, she rang me to say I’d been offered a two book deal with Harper’s new imprint Harper Impulse, for the book she’d been pitching for 8 months, and the new idea.

    Now the first book, The Temp, is published, and the struggle to sell it begins! Securing a book deal is tough, but selling a book once it’s published is also hard work! I know what you mean about rejection feeling harder the further along you are. My advice is to move on with this next project and try not to carry that memory of working so hard on the other novel in your mind! I think the only way we can survive is to live in the present, enjoy the writing, rather than wishing we were at the end! That’s my plan anyway!

    Good luck and thanks for sharing X

    Posted by Emily BenetEmily | November 5, 2014, 10:54
    • Oh Emily, you’re so sweet! The response to this post had me in tears this morning (in a good way!) I’ve really appreciated your openness about your writing career, and that of some other writers, although not that many want to talk about the tough bits whilst they’re still ongoing. I’m glad I decided to. I completely agree with your final sentiment about moving on. In order to focus on my WIP I have mentally left the first novel behind now – there’s nothing more Diana or I could have done – but obviously I couldn’t write this piece without referring to it!

      Posted by Isabel Costello | November 5, 2014, 15:17
    • Dear Emily,
      Yes, I too am still waiting for my debut novel to be ‘found a home’ after eight months and some very nice ‘nos’ from publishers. Now it seems to have gone quiet.No news at all for two months. I began a second novel over the summer , shared it with my agent( whom I think you may know, having seen the twitter feeds on your success) with mixed reception, and must admit went through a bit of an emotional trough. But having gone back to her feedback, after a few weeks,I now see it as very helpful. I have decided to put it away for a few months then return to it with a fresh eye. Meantime I am shifting focus back to short story writing for a while. I think it’s the silence that is most difficult, not knowing who might be currently reading and who not and how long it might take to find a publisher, if at all. It took one of the first batch my agent sent to four months to respond! The feedback said all the right things, extremely complimentary, except the much wished for ‘Yes’. I have realized I must not give up hope, the process is ‘glacial’ moving for the majority of new writers and it’s crucial to focus on a new project. Otherwise there is the danger of unhealthy preoccupation. But it’s hard…

      Posted by Bren Gosling | December 12, 2014, 00:26
  4. A brilliant and honest piece Isabel. So much luck as you write your second novel. Your dedication is fantastic. I have no doubt you WILL get there, Cesca X

    Posted by Cesca Major | November 5, 2014, 10:55
  5. That’s a lovely piece of writing. I admire you and envy you in equal measure! Hope it all goes well. Yes I would love an agent!!

    Posted by Moira Please | November 5, 2014, 10:56
  6. Very much only gearing up and dabbling with my writing so nowhere near the seeking an agent stage, but really appreciate you sharing your experience Isabel so openly and honestly … excellent advice on points to consider when choosing an agent…

    Posted by poppypeacockpens | November 5, 2014, 11:11
  7. Thank you Isabel, first for updating your followers on where you are with that first novel we’ve all been waiting for, and secondly for such an honest and thoughtful (as always) piece. I can see how rejections with an agent are totally different to those that have gone before, but it sounds as if you have a partnership with Diana that’s really working for you. It’s a great thing for your writing to have an experienced agent on board, who understands and is excited by what you are trying to express in your writing and has some excellent ideas on how to make it better.
    For me, having accepted a contract with a small press, I’m disappointed there won’t be big sales for my debut novel, but working in partnership over the editing, having a small team excited about my novel and prepared to invest in making it happen, does feel a tremendous boost. Also, it’s great to have a break from submitting for a while (though I haven’t yet given up hope of an agent and a bigger publisher for my next novel or the one after that)!

    Posted by Annecdotist | November 5, 2014, 11:15
    • Thank you so much, Anne. I’ve been saying this all day, but I really am incredibly lucky to have Diana as my agent and to know that she believes in my work as much as she did a year ago. I know it doesn’t always go that way when a first book doesn’t sell. Congratulations on your publishing contract! From what I gather, big sales aren’t generally the norm for most writers and there will surely be advantages to working with a small team. Also, the fact that you have an established presence online is bound to come in handy. I for one am very keen to read your novel when I get the chance!

      Posted by Isabel Costello | November 5, 2014, 15:25
  8. As everyone has said, thanks for such an honest post. There’s so much emphasis put on the importance of writers getting signed by agents that it’s not widely appreciated how many writers who do have agents are yet to sell their novels — I know several very good writers who are in exactly the same position as you — and one who decided to leave a high-profile agent because he didn’t think the agent was giving him or his novel enough support. You appear to be very fortunate in having an agent who strongly believes in you as a writer and will spend time developing the next novel.

    Two points particularly struck me in your post.

    The first was about how you believe you’ve improved as a writer through the process of first reworking your novel to the point where you generated agent interest and then using the insights Diana gave you. All the experience gained from changing and revising the first novel will surely benefit the next one. I’ve certainly found that my writing has improved the more I keep writing and also reflecting on feedback.

    The other point was about the hook or the concept. It’s frustrating fact of the publishing industry that one writer can can spend years honing 80,000 words of perfect prose to find that an agent or publisher will prefer a book by another that’s less polished but has a great hook. There aren’t many writing courses that teach how to come up with a good hook — I wonder if this is something into which agents, with their knowledge of what’s currently being pitched, have a particularly keen insight and can point you in the right direction.

    Posted by Mike Clarke | November 5, 2014, 12:43
    • Hi Mike, thanks for commenting. As I mentioned below/above (?), I’ve come to realise that there are loads of us in this situation and it really was news to me – although I’ve heard quite a few established writers talk about manuscripts that didn’t sell, it was in a very different era of publishing. I think it’s important for debut authors to understand that although getting an agent does feel like the holy grail, it’s actually only one step, albeit a major one, on a road that may have many invisible potholes!

      Improving as a writer is a lifetime project and there’s no doubt that you learn something from every project esp when you have access to the best quality feedback, which I have been fortunate to have both now and previously (when I had the benefit of two professional editors, one before the rewrite, one after!) As for the dreaded hooks, well, what can I say, other than that my agent has a better understanding of all that than I do. But even I could tell the new novel has a stronger hook (you know what it is but please keep it to yourself…) – let’s hope it grabs someone this time!

      Posted by Isabel Costello | November 5, 2014, 15:34
  9. What can I say, Isabel? Everyone has said it so well in other comments…keep on keeping on! And it is so refreshing to hear about the difficulties even though deep down we writers know they’re out there and more likely than successes. x Jen

    Posted by Jennifer Grigg | November 5, 2014, 13:00
  10. Thank you for writing this post, it’s refreshing to read something so honest and it shows that the process of publishing can be full of complications, whichever stage you’re at. But it seems like you’ve managed to take the situation in your stride – hopefully you’ll be writing a piece about signing a publishing contract before too long!

    Posted by Amy | November 5, 2014, 13:05
  11. This is a fantastic, honest article. I think the huge investment of time in writing makes any setback difficult and plays on the mind, what ever stage you’re at. Getting close to something and not getting it strikes me as even harder especially knowing that you can’t just write another book in a week. However what is clear is that having an agent (or even a mentor) who is on your wavelength is just such a huge advantage and support. That’s got to be worth celebrating.

    Posted by Peter Domican | November 5, 2014, 13:10
    • Thanks, Pete, you’re so right. In my bleakest moments I tried to remind myself that if nothing else, my first novel (albeit vastly rewritten) got me an agent and that was and is a pretty massive deal. The collaborative aspect of working with an agent is something I really wanted and enjoy very much.

      Posted by Isabel Costello | November 5, 2014, 15:39
  12. Isabel, I’m so glad you wrote this as an excellent follow-up to “Dealing with Rejection.” Having read your writing, which I absolutely love (your short stories & We Can’t Be Strangers) I can’t help but believe your excellent outlook and measure of success will bring you publication sooner rather than later. Meanwhile, I believe in good karma. By spreading the good word about other writers and giving us wonderful feedback on your journey, you are helping those of us without agents (yet!) to keep our expectations where they need to be: realistic and informed. Even if everyone’s experience as a author is different, I enjoy knowing that I’m not walking this road alone. Somehow I hope to reach some zen state where I see rejection as a learning tool and opportunity for improvement.

    Posted by brittajensen2013 | November 5, 2014, 13:34
    • Thank you, Britta, your support and enthusiasm for my writing means a lot to me. When I write about my own ‘journey’ it’s always in the hope that it will help other people to keep going, in the way that so many other writers have supported me. Learning to handle rejection is such a big part of being a writer – what I’ve discovered this year is that different kinds of rejection knock you in different ways. Who knew it came in so many flavours?!

      Posted by Isabel Costello | November 5, 2014, 15:43
  13. What a brilliant blog post, Isabel, and such a great insight for all of us that are various stages of the process. As someone who’s just going through the first stage of getting agent interest I can only hope that if I do get one, I have as great and supportive a relationship with them as you do with Diana. I have no doubt in my mind that you’re going to get there, (as you already know!) and it really is just a matter of time.

    Posted by Amanda Saint (@saintlywriter) | November 5, 2014, 13:36
    • Thanks, Amanda, that is what I wish for you too (on both counts!) It’s so important to sign with the right agent, not just any agent. Wishing you loads of luck – whoever you end up with will be impressed by your genuine commitment to writing, I’m sure!

      Posted by Isabel Costello | November 5, 2014, 15:46
  14. I remember this time last year and everything that was going on after York and I am so sorry that what seemed inevitable hasn’t yet materialised. I am not surprised it knocked you for a bit but what I think is amazing about you is that you always come back again after reflection and get stuck back in. I honestly believe that you will get a book deal. All credit to you for being so open and honest and courageous about the process. Really hope the Paris one clinches it for you and then your first one after that.

    Posted by Vicky Newham | November 5, 2014, 14:20
    • What a lovely comment, Vicky, thank you so much. Yes, the excitement of York 2013 does feel rather distant now, but on the bright side, I do feel I’ve moved on a lot in my writing and my ability to weather a few hard knocks (not that I had a choice about that!) I have a good feeling about the Paris one – really hope you’re right!

      Posted by Isabel Costello | November 5, 2014, 15:48
  15. Another great post Isabel. What can I say? Like others, I think it’s just a matter of time for you. But I know that’s not much help when you want that time to hurry up and pass so you can get to the good bit. I think you have a really healthy attitude to the whole writing/agent/publisher merry-go-round. It’s easy to become despondent, and only natural when we do. I think it happens to all writers. Getting an agent, and even a book deal, is no guarantee of further book deals. Each novel has to earn its place, and that is the hard part, when you just don’t know if the novel you are working on is going to make it. I’ve written three. They have all been rejected by agents and/or editors. We have to love what we do, and ask ourselves: would I be writing this even without the goal of getting it published? If the answer is yes, then I think it’s much easier to withstand the disappointments. My goal is to get another published, of course it is, but at the same time I really love and enjoy writing. Sometimes it’s the only way to look at it, if we want to stay sane!

    Posted by louisewalters12 | November 5, 2014, 14:30
    • Louise, I’m incredibly lucky to have so many wonderful and supportive writer friends and you have been one of them, and an inspiration to me, for as long as I’ve been writing this blog. Being open about how bloody hard this whole business is feels more healthy to me than bottling it all up. As you say, rejection is such an enormous issue for writers that it’s nothing to be ashamed of – we all have to go through it. And I’m aware that it’s not just tough for new writers! Your love of writing really shines through and I can’t wait to read your next published novel (and I know I’m one of very many after the success of Mrs Sinclair’s Suitcase). I suspect you may be more dedicated than me though – I love writing and can’t imagine ever not doing it but if I’m totally honest, I don’t think I’d choose to write novels for the fun of it. Reaching the reader is my real goal – somehow!

      Posted by Isabel Costello | November 5, 2014, 15:56
  16. One day, my friend, you will give the keynote address at FoW, I am certain of it, and your audience will be inspired and moved by your story. As others have said, you take every knock and turn it into grist to the mill (what is grist exactly? Must look it up sometime.) And you leave me in awe with the depth you are developing not just in your writing but as a writer.

    You know I loved ‘We Can’t Be Strangers’ – but I can’t wait to read the new one! x

    Posted by janeide2013 | November 5, 2014, 15:16
    • You are such a star, Jane – this really touches me. And the support I have from people who’ve actually read and liked the book really keeps me going. I haven’t given up on WCBS, not by a long way, but I can’t wait to see if the next one is ‘the one’…

      Posted by Isabel Costello | November 5, 2014, 16:01
    • Grist is milled grain, especially malted barley. It’s a term used in brewing beer where the grist is added to the liquor (water) in the mash tun before it turns into wort and then boiled in the copper. (All that research for my novel set in a beer connoisseur’s pub has finally found a use!)

      As brewing in medieval times was often done at home (usually by women) this ancient word would have been a lot more familiar to our distant ancestors.

      Posted by Mike Clarke | November 5, 2014, 19:58
  17. This is one of your best, most courageous efforts to date, Isabel, due in great part to your willingness to be honest with your readers. Thank you for that. The best is yet to come – I know it.

    Posted by Kristin | November 5, 2014, 15:19
    • Kristin, I don’t know where I’d be without you, my number one writing partner and ONLY person who’s seen anything of #2! Even at that early stage your input has made a huge difference to progress. If I ever have a book launch I am flying you over and putting you up at the Ritz. OK, perhaps not the Ritz. S’s bedroom. Sending more thanks than words can say.

      Posted by Isabel Costello | November 5, 2014, 16:06
  18. Bravo, Isabel, for writing this post. As someone who is several steps behind you on the ‘road to publication’ (euurgh), I NEED to know things like this, as do other writers. I need to manage my expectations, and understand that each step is just that – a step, not the final destination, and that nothing is guaranteed until the book is published. And even then, staying published is just the next challenge.

    Being realistic helps me keep going, perverse as that sounds. Exhilarating highs followed by crashing lows are exhausting and demoralising. Much better to have a realistic idea of what can happen at every stage of the process – including what can go wrong. Although I may have gone a bit too far the other way – when one of the agents I saw at York asked for my full MS I skipped out, completely exhilarated, called my husband and in the space of a five minute phone call convinced myself that the rest of the book in no way lived up to the chapter the agent had read, that she would hate the full book, and given that I had to do a complete rewrite before I could submit it to her anyway, I should probably just enjoy that moment as the highlight of my writing career because it was all downhill from there…

    So your first novel (which I really enjoyed) may not be your first published novel. Your second sounds like a humdinger. And you’ve got fabulous support from your agent. Go get ’em.

    Posted by rachaeldunlop | November 5, 2014, 15:50
    • Thank you, Rachael. I am delighted that so many writers feel encouraged and informed by this piece as I would hate to put anyone off. But I have to agree with you – I think going into it with a sense of all the possible outcomes makes it ‘easier’ in the long run than assuming that once you have an agent (hard enough to get to that point) it’ll all go just the way you want it. You’re really clued up and that can only help you in the long run – good luck!

      Posted by Isabel Costello | November 5, 2014, 16:09
  19. What a moving and thought-provoking post, Isabel! At least – even though it probably doesn’t seem so to you! – you have time on your side. I’ve given up trying to get an agent because I realised that even if I did it would be a very long-drawn out process, and I found it difficult to cope with that thought almost as much as with the rejections.
    But then, as you know, I was 79 when I finished my first novel, and Time’s wingèd chariot doesn’t half set the alarm-bells ringing! Now, at least, as I’m starting out on my fourth, I have both pleasure and pain: the pain of knowing that if I’d only started earlier I might not have written more but what I wrote might have been better, and the pleasure of knowing, having gone down the indie route, that many people not only like my books as they are, but are willing to pay good money for them!
    Good luck with your new one, and keep smiling! At least your agent seems to be a treasure: cherish her! Having been through the whole range of negative thoughts about agents, I shall raise a glass to Diana (and to you!) this evening. There’ll always be a place for your literary sofa in my literary lounge!

    Posted by Tony Whelpton | November 5, 2014, 15:53
    • Tony, I love the way you refused to let the system limit your options and found a way to get your novels to readers – there certainly is more than one way to go about this thing. I really wanted an agent for all the reasons that are apparent in my article and you’re right, Diana is a real treasure. Cheers to you too!

      Posted by Isabel Costello | November 5, 2014, 16:11
  20. Your transparency is refreshing. Brilliant work.

    Posted by miette | November 5, 2014, 16:13
  21. Huge thanks for such an honest, brave and helpful post, Isabel. The writing world needs more like you, methinks – so thanks for setting the record straight that ‘getting an agent’ is not the holy grail uncovered, and the end of all a writers’ troubles. I think the publishing world is changing so fast, and it struggles to keep up with itself, and is hugely risk averse – more so than it’s ever been. Loads of good luck with novel number two. My novel number two, three year’s work, isn’t good enough, and is under the bed. The best place for it! Onwards and upwards…

    Posted by vanessagee | November 6, 2014, 10:40
    • Hi Vanessa – thank you so much for your comment and kind words – the reaction to this post has really taken me by surprise. I’m frankly stunned to hear that about your second novel (if I’ve understood correctly) and doubt that it’s about it not being ‘good enough.’ I still remember barely being able to breathe during your reading of the Dodie story at Word Factory this summer. Speaking of which, by extraordinary coincidence I’ve just found out that you and Adam Marek have a gig tonight about ten minutes from my house, so I’m going to come back for more, and say Hi.

      Posted by Isabel Costello | November 6, 2014, 12:40
  22. Brilliant post. When I signed with an agent I was exhilarated but very quickly I began to ask myself whether the book would actually sell. I wanted to know the exact odds! It would be impossible for any agent to answer this question, of course, and as a writer I didn’t want to sound gloomy or negative. So I didn’t ask. There is very little written about this subject and it’s great you’ve started the conversation. (In fact my book did sell – and that was definitely down to hookiness – but who knows what the future holds? No guarantees in this industry, but the adventure is never dull!)

    Posted by JulietW | November 6, 2014, 11:27
    • Hi Juliet
      Thank you! I think that question has probably occurred to every writer who’s aware that there’s a possibility of the manuscript not selling (it certainly did to me!), but you’re right, it’s awkward to ask, impossible to answer and even if a (horrible) statistic did exist, it still wouldn’t have any relevance – it really does come down the individual book every time. It’s important to remember in all this that plenty of people DO make it. Your success was well deserved – long may it last!

      Posted by Isabel Costello | November 6, 2014, 12:45
  23. Great post. I had a similar experience… lots of positive rejections, ‘we want to see the next’ etc. I also have a fantastically supportive agent, and even when I wanted to give up and move on, he was determined to sell my book… I made the decision to rewrite based on some of the feedback I’d had from publishers, and when it was resubmitted, it sold. I am delighted, of course, and it comes out in March. But my biggest challenge has become ‘book 2’. I’ve started 5 or 6 this year and ditched them all. As my deal was for one book, I am not tied in and can write what I like without deadline… except that’s what’s holding me back. I’m due to get copyedits for book 1 tomorrow, so of course this week I’ve started something new. Again!!! I get the feeling that the whole thing never gets any easier! I thought getting an agent was the pinnacle. Turns out it really is only the start.

    Posted by SJI Holliday | November 6, 2014, 17:47
    • Hi Susi – thanks for commenting and sharing your story. I’m so pleased it worked out for you in the end – and with the original book! That’s a great testament to your work ethic and your agent’s belief in you and the book. As for book two, I’m sure when you hit on the right idea it’ll keep growing and you won’t look back. Exciting times for you – congratulations!

      Posted by Isabel Costello | November 8, 2014, 14:04
  24. Very helpful to read and a useful reality check for me. I’m on the verge of being submitted to publishers by an agent though oddly I don’t consider myself to be agented.

    I have no idea if my book will get a deal or not. I also have no idea if the agent will want to keep going with me if it doesn’t. I have no expectations at best and at worst expectations of no book deal.
    Not enough is mentioned about this grey area between getting an agent’s interest and the deal, probably because it feels too embarrassing for the vast majority who don’t get a deal. I happen to be temporarily residing in this grey area right now though could very easily be bounced backwards to no agent at all and certainly no book deal.

    It’s definitely very very very hard to get a debut book off the ground since no matter how fabulous a writer you are if the thing has no commercial legs publishers won’t buy it.

    There are so many of us writing novels and I despair of it since the amount of actual readers out there seems to be pretty small. Well done for being brave enough to bring this up. Sounds like you are lucky to have so much interest and support from Diana Beaumont.

    Posted by Annette | November 6, 2014, 17:52
    • Hi Annette I’m glad you found my piece helpful although I do hope it hasn’t taken the shine off what should be a very exciting time for you and your manuscript – it hasn’t gone smoothly for me and quite a few others, it seems, but it works out well for a lot of writers! It is difficult to strike a balance between optimism and realism actually. I know what you mean and it does feel like a particularly challenging time for new writers with far more people writing and putting themselves out there than in the past, and as you say, the emphasis on sales potential even though it is very hard to predict which titles will do well. I’m always delighted when a tiny underdog of a book surprises everybody and rewards both the writer and the publisher who took a chance on it. Wishing you all the best with your submissions.

      Posted by Isabel Costello | November 8, 2014, 14:15
  25. Isabel, thank you for writing this. It is strangely heartening to know I am not the only person in this position – though I hope you get your book deal in the next hour in the same breath, as I know that feeling of suspended hope only too well myself. And I don’t love it.

    I, too, have a wonderful agent, Simon Trewin of WME, who has been enormously supportive of me over the last (almost) two years. We are now about to start pushing my second novel after having no takers for the first.

    Continuing to write is the only antidote for the pain of waiting; after all this is a long game and you want the career, not just the deal. That’s what I remind myself of when I feel impatient and frustrated, and to quote Simon, it’s a marriage, not a one-night stand.

    Any day now! I will be looking out for your name in my local bookshop.

    Posted by R. M. Clarke | November 6, 2014, 18:00
    • Hello Remie – it’s so lovely to hear from you and I’m really pleased you found this heartening. Thank you for your good wishes, and I send you plenty in return. I love Simon Trewin’s take on the situation – he has a fantastic reputation and clearly believes in you and your work in a big way. Hopefully the success you’ve waited for is just around the corner now!

      Posted by Isabel Costello | November 8, 2014, 14:23
  26. As you know Isabel, I’ve been in the exact same position as you a couple of years ago so I totally understand where you’re coming from and admire your honesty. My second novel attracted an agent and I also assumed that this was me well on the road to publication. But after rejections from the big publishers my agent didn’t pursue selling the book. I sent my last novel to her and although she liked the writing she felt it wasn’t commercial enough for her to sell. I then made the decision to approach small independent publishers who are based in Scotland and go it alone. Four were interested in the novel and I followed my gut feeling to accept a contract with one of them. I very much doubt this will lead to big sales or I’ll see my book on a bestseller list but they believe in my writing and the idea of working closely on a one-to-one basis feels like the right fit for me. Of course I too indulged in dreams of bidding wars but I didn’t start writing to make money so just to get my book out there means I have achieved my ambition. Having read your novel I feel sure that it will be published and maybe a small independent publisher would be a good match for you too. However, you’ve still got the support of an agent and I’m sure she’ll champion your next book (can’t wait to read it!) and possibly manage to sell book one too as part of a two book deal. It WILL happen for you one day, of that I have no doubt! x

    Posted by helenmackinven | November 6, 2014, 19:20
    • What a fantastic blog piece and comments section. As someone who’s only just jumped the first hurdle (signing up with an agent), it’s been very important to learn how things can turn out even for the most talented and dedicated writers. Why do we do this to ourselves? We must be barking!

      The next person who tells me they’re also thinking of writing a novel (I.e. almost everyone I ever meet) will be redirected to this page!

      Thanks for another great post.


      Posted by Anna Mazzola | November 7, 2014, 00:10
      • Hi Anna, thank you. Your comment made me laugh! There is truth in what you say – sometimes this whole thing feels like sheer masochism. Why do we all work so hard and put ourselves through this emotional mangle? There’s not even any money in it (for most). The answer, as many have said, is because we love writing and feel we have a story to tell. Congratulations on signing with such a fabulous agent – I hope things go well for you.

        Posted by Isabel Costello | November 8, 2014, 14:33
      • When you say you’ve signed with an agent, have you actually signed a contract with them? that is before your book has been sold to a publisher. Sorry just interested as I think not all agents go about things in the same way.

        I’m technically agented and the agent is submitting my novel to publishers but there’s no signed agreement between us. How does it work? I’m just assuming that with no publishing deal (it might happen you never know) there can really be no promise of full time representation.

        Posted by Annette | November 12, 2014, 16:04
      • I signed a contract with my agency a year ago (hence the post!) having discussed, agreed and in a couple of instances altered the contract terms etc. My impression is that ‘signing’ with an agent usually starts that way but I am not an expert. Personally if I am going to (hopefully one day!) be paying someone to represent me and sell my work, I want to be clear on what basis that will occur. If you have questions, the Society of Authors is a good place to look for answers.

        Posted by Isabel Costello | November 12, 2014, 16:43
      • Hi Isabel
        Thanks for replying. Interesting. I have signed nothing so far but am being submitted to publishers. So this can be done without a contract? I think I will give the society of authors a ring.

        Though have a friend who had her mss sent out to publishers by an agent at a big agency and she didn’t sign a contract either. she didn’t get a deal & now isn’t sure if she’s agented either.

        Posted by Annette | November 12, 2014, 17:19
      • Hi Annette and Isabel,

        Yes, I signed an agent/author contract. I know some agents don’t offer contracts until there is actually a publishing deal, but, being a solicitor, I needed a piece of paper even if in reality it doesn’t mean all that much (in that either agent or author can terminate the agreement if it isn’t working out, and the issue of commission doesn’t arise unless the agent actually sells the book).

        I’d be interested to hear what the Society of Authors says about it.



        Posted by Anna Mazzola (@Anna_Mazz) | November 12, 2014, 17:28
      • Hi Anna and Annette
        I’m not a lawyer but Anna’s reply perfectly sums up my feelings on the subject! Thank you both for commenting.

        Posted by Isabel Costello | November 12, 2014, 17:58
      • Hi all,

        I am a lawyer in NY. I signed with my agent last September, and her contract specified that her represemtation was for the book that has now not sold. So technically, she’s no longer my agent. We are both free to part ways. But she’s still in touch with me, and I will be sending her my new book whenever (sigh) it’s done. I won’t be limited by our original contract from sending it to other agents if I chose, and she’s not going to be obliged to sell it. Hope that helps a little… : )

        Posted by Terri Weiss | November 12, 2014, 18:15
      • Carole Blake’s book ‘From Pitch to Publication’ is good on agent technicalities (though it’s quite old now). Harry Bingham has a piece on agent contracts in his ‘W&A Yearbook How to Get Published’ that might be worth a look.

        How much does a contract favour the author rather than the agent when the book is on submission? I’d think it would be much more in the agent’s interest to have the author under contract than vice versa once the MS starts being taken seriously by publishers?

        Posted by Mike Clarke | November 12, 2014, 19:33
      • Thanks all.
        Incredibly helpful perspectives. Seems that most agents do offer a contract at this point which makes sense. This is not the only agent interested in my work but currently the only one submitting because that book has not been shown to anyone else. But I could show it to others. I suppose I feel a bit insecure without a contract even though it is meaningless without a book deal.
        On the other hand I’m a writer & permanently insecure.
        I can’t thank everyone enough for replying!

        Posted by Annette | November 13, 2014, 09:34
    • Ah, Helen, my friend, thank you for your contribution. For so long we’ve been toughing it out together and I couldn’t have been happier for you when you got your much deserved break a few weeks ago. That novel of yours totally deserves to be out there and will be so enjoyed by readers. I hate to think (and in fact, KNOW) of so much good stuff out there that may never see the light of day so when someone like you shows the kind of perseverence you have to make it happen, that is very inspiring for the rest of us. Thank you for your belief in my book – your opinion means a lot to me. Maybe I’m deluded but I do feel I’ll get there eventually!

      Posted by Isabel Costello | November 8, 2014, 14:29
  27. Isabel, thank you for your excellent post!, I had the same experience this year. Landed a big agent for my first book, then sixteen publishers’ rejections within a few short weeks of the submission date. It took me a few months to start writing again, and I’m not sure my agent is completely behind my new project, but I’m passionate about the topic. So we’ll see, probably in another year or two. I’ve thought long and hard about how this happened, and I still don’t have the answer…

    Posted by Terri Weiss | November 7, 2014, 02:00
    • Hi Terri, thanks for your comment. It’s nice to hear from an American writer – this happens all over and it’s good to be able to talk with others who’ve been through this kind of disappointment and come out the other side. The fact you are passionate about your new subject counts for a lot and will drive you forward, hopefully to success this time! Good luck!

      PS I’ve also thought long and hard, and I don’t think there are any answers!

      Posted by Isabel Costello | November 8, 2014, 14:42
      • Thanks for your reply, Isabel. I hope we are both successful this time. My experience was almost identical to that of Ben’s friend: My agent, who is the influential type, as he describes – handled my first book the same way. I’m hoping the supportiveness of my family and friends – including my newest writer friends! – will see me through the next project. I’m not quite as ambitious as you re timing. I’ve imposed an early Spring 2016 deadline on myself. Good luck to us both! I’ll be checking in with you! : )

        Posted by Terri Weiss | November 8, 2014, 18:18
      • Thanks, Terri. Unlike you I don’t have a legal career to contend with, hence my tough deadline. Have been reading and enjoying your own blog and can you believe, our manuscripts went out on the same day? So for future reference, 25 February is blacklisted, OK?!

        Posted by Isabel Costello | November 11, 2014, 12:29
      • Yes, Feb 25 is definitely definitely out. Sooo weird, we both went out that day, and we both got thumped. : /

        That was reeally nice of you to check out my blog. I’m way behind on posting. The new book has gotten in the way of doing much other writing- how do you keep up your blog, along with your novel-writing, omg?!

        Posted by Terri Weiss | November 11, 2014, 19:23
  28. I think what these early rejections teach us is that it isn’t just about being published – we want to keep writing, whatever the outcome. I’ve been an author for 20 years and would have been more prolific if I hadn’t spent half my writing time and energy working on a book I knew would be ‘too niche to achieve bulk sales’ – which was indeed the exact term three of the publishers my agent sent it out to last year used. Do I regret it? Not at all. These days, we can self-publish. I don’t think the writer I am is defined by what and whether I get a traditional publishing deal, and I love being the writer I am! Nice post, Isabel – really important for new writers to understand this is not an easy place to make a living, at any stage in your writing career.

    Posted by Jenny Alexander | November 7, 2014, 08:52
    • Hi Jenny, thanks for your comment. I like your attitude and admire your confidence in yourself as a writer. I am also determined not to measure my worth according to whether or not I get a traditional publishing deal, nor to significantly change what or how I write in an attempt to become more marketable. If I sacrifice the integrity of saying what I want to say, I wouldn’t love writing any more. And that, as you say, is the reason most of us keep doing it. All the best with your work.

      Posted by Isabel Costello | November 8, 2014, 14:52
  29. Back in the day, when I was a callow young fellow, desperate to be published, I was led to believe by virtually everyone I talked to that a literary agent was a really big deal, and that I wouldn’t stand a chance of being published without one, so as soon as I had something I thought was decent, I set out to acquire one. My first agent got me my first book deal, for The Sins of Rachel Ellis in 1977 and shortly afterwards she moved to Canada and abandoned being an agent. (I like to think this wasn’t my fault!) Down the years, I’ve had other agents, four or five of them, but the truth is I nearly always fall out with them eventually and decide to ‘go it alone’ for a while. I’ve now published over 40 works of fiction and have to admit that I have sold the larger part of those titles without the help of an agent. The truth is, a good agent is hard to find. What I don’t like is when you connect with one who wants you to write the book that in his or her head, rather than the one that’s in yours. So, I suppose what I’m saying is that you can sell books without their help and they’re not always a necessity.

    Posted by Philip Caveney | November 7, 2014, 14:34
    • Thank you, Philip, it’s really interesting to hear the perspective of such an experienced writer. There have been so many changes in the industry in the time you’ve been writing and it’s probably truer than it’s ever been that you don’t necessarily need an agent, as you say. I completely agree that working with someone who is a frustrated ‘writer who can’t write’ would be awful. Luckily my agent seems very interested in MY ideas!

      Posted by Isabel Costello | November 8, 2014, 14:58
  30. A beautifully touching post. I have spent the past couple of days questioning why I write, why I am putting hours, weeks, months into something with no guarantee anyone will ever read it. Of course, it’s because I love it and I can’t imagine not writing. I think I need to toughen up though to have a hope of surviving in the publishing world. I wish you lots of luck with your books and thank you for your honesty.

    Posted by FabricatingFiction | November 7, 2014, 18:23
    • Thank you, Louise. We all ask ourselves that question regularly, I think, and mostly come up with the same answer. When I was feeling terrible about all this earlier in the year I eventually realised one of the reasons was because I’d stopped writing! And as soon as I started the new book, my mood lifted enormously. I’ve had to toughen up as does anyone who has the sensitivity to write but needs the resilience to deal with all the knocks – plenty of tips in the Coping with Rejection post if you haven’t read it yet. Good luck!

      Posted by Isabel Costello | November 8, 2014, 15:02
  31. It’s so strange, sad yet enlightening reading this Isabel. I remember the times when you were telling me all these exciting agent goings on and you were, rightly, so excited. I don’t think I helped play that excitement down much! But why would I? You had finally got what you had worked so hard for and deserved. You know I’ve read your book and I bloody love it. I was ready for you to hit the big time too.
    I remember agreeing – yes, best don’t be kept in the loop. No news is good news…until…well that wait becomes too long.
    I know Diana is the right agent for you and her long-term approach will see you through the other end. It’s so important for you to know, not just what an achievement your first book and getting an agent is – but the fact you’ve overcome utter disappointment and heartache to CONTINUE WRITING. So many give up but the brave and talented, like you, always win in the end.
    I, like so many others, cannot wait for that time and we’ll all toast you!
    Love Emily Benet’s reply too. Both of your honesty and letting us in to your real thoughts and lives as writers (the bad bits as well as the good) gives so much knowledge and hope to us all.
    Great work team!
    I still have my very own Ben section on your wonderful Literary Sofa and that is just a stupid but brilliant version of the modern world. Keep going tiger. It’s gunna happen one day xxx

    Posted by benmblackman | November 8, 2014, 11:38
    • Ben, your lovely message is one of the reasons you and you alone (apart from me) have your own section on the Literary Sofa – and I am delighted that you’re coming back soon with a Silly Season post. When I was writing this article, I realised how easily I could make myself sound very zen and philosophical about everything that’s happened, when the reality is that it’s been very painful and disappointing. Talking about all that and hearing other people’s stories, and all the amazing support I have from so many quarters really keeps me going. Thanks for loving my book and having my back, dude.

      Posted by Isabel Costello | November 8, 2014, 15:10
  32. Thank you for writing this. Really. I had an agent for two years who didn’t change so much as one comma of the two novels I wrote. When she sent them out – and she championed them with great passion – I wondered how on earth they could possibly be ready to put under the noses of commissioning editors when only lil’ ol’ me had worked on them. After two confidence annihilating rounds of rejections – you’re right, the kinds ones are tough – I found the grit to write a third. When my agent didn’t like it, we decided it best for us to part ways. It was an amicable parting but ultimately felt like another rejection. I have struggled to come back from this and have not yet found the confidence to start approaching agents in any serious way. That was a year ago. To know that there are agents out there who actually work with authors to develop their books and get them ready for publishers to see is heartening. It is also comforting to know that you had your own moments of misery and doubt when faced with all that rejection – I feel better about my own moment in the wilderness. I have started another novel, my fourth, since my confidence in the third has vanished. I am trying something more commercial, trying to get that hook in early… Hopefully it will work. I wish you much luck and will look out for you in Waterstones.

    Posted by Susie Lynes | November 8, 2014, 11:41
    • Hi Susie – thanks for sharing your experiences. It sounds like you really have had a very tough time – I think you can justly allow yourself a moment or two in the wilderness but it’s good to hear you’re on your way back. I’m lucky that my agent is a former editor, but all of the agents who showed an interest in my manuscript had good ideas about how I could strengthen it and get it the best it could be. They seemed to see that as a natural part of their job and I certainly expected and actively wanted that. So I’m pleased that you now know there are plenty out there who can offer this to their clients – I hope you get one of them on your team with the new book!

      Posted by Isabel Costello | November 8, 2014, 15:17
    • Susie, you’re not alone. A friend of mine had an experience very similar to yours. The agent did no editorial work on the book, despite assurances otherwise before the author signed, and even sent out a cover letter to editors that relied very heavily on the author’s own covering letter/blurb. But the agent was very influential and an excellent salesperson.

      Agents come from all kinds of backgrounds. Some come from the theatre and similar backgrounds. Others come from routes you might more traditionally expect — e.g. Oxbridge Eng Lit graduates — usually via publishing and internships. The former are likely to be killer salespeople (which is basically what an agent gets paid to be) whereas the latter probably will be able to give much more editorial insight into improving their clients’ work. Ideally you’d want a combination of the both but it’s probably why people often give the advice that it’s more important to get an agent who’s right for you rather than the first one who shows interest.

      The whole writer-literary agent-publisher relationship seems fairly unique to the literary world. As an intermediary the agent both acts for the writer in trying to get a deal — and a good one too — and provides an unpaid, indirect service to the other party by acting as type of quality filter. Most other industries (even in the creative arts) have other models where barriers to entry are not provided by the agents acting for a supplier. If you compare publishing with, say, pharmaceuticals, the drug companies spend massively on nurturing their intellectual capital. I wrote a whole Creative Writing MA essay on this and still can’t work it out. I guess it’s just the way it is.

      Posted by Mike Clarke | November 8, 2014, 17:34
  33. I have nothing but admiration for you Isabel, and your commitment. So generous of you to write this blog x

    Posted by Eleni Kyriacou | November 9, 2014, 09:59
  34. Thank you so much for posting this, Isabel. I read it last week while I was waiting for an agent (who hadn’t signed me up but was working with me on edits) to come back to me. I was feeling pretty pessimistic after waiting for eight months for her to comment, having concluded that I’d fallen down her list of priorities; and sure enough, she came back and said sorry, it wasn’t for her after all.

    it does knock you, no doubt about it. I have been getting by on a mixture of this piece, supportive tweets put out by the Literary Rejections people, and playing Let It Go too loudly in the car. (Idina Menzel is always good therapy, I find!)

    One curious positive has come out of this though – I’m happy to have my book back under my control. I’m still working on it, and the hiatus has given me a different and, I think, better perspective on it.

    I’m extremely grateful too to the agent, who put in a lot of work and ultimately had to make a business decision. With hindsight, I wish she’d been less enthusiastic about the book when we first met, but that’s a quibble. Of more concern to me, I think, is the length of time it took for her to say no – but perhaps we were both gambling on success. If I find myself in the same position again, I will ask more questions.

    Thank you again. It’s important we know we’re not alone, and that we’re not failures!! Because we’re not. Now where’s that Frozen CD, Idina beckons……..

    Posted by duchessthecat | November 17, 2014, 18:29
    • Hello and thank you for this comment which brought a real lump to my throat in several ways. Firstly, I’m so sorry to hear that this incredibly long wait has resulted in disappointment for you. I haven’t had this particular experience but I know more than one writer who has, and I know what a knock it is. You are being very brave and philosophical about it and looking at ways to move on and I am touched to hear that my post has played even the tiniest part (for that it would have been worth writing even if you were the only one who read it!) I hope that the edits you carried out were ones which took the manuscript in a direction you were comfortable with yourself and that all of this leaves you, somehow, in a better place than before – it’s great that it sounds that way. FWIW I agree it would be wise to ask more questions next time. My personal view (no more than that) is that it’s preferable when submitting to keep several agents in the picture rather than get too involved with one who hasn’t offered representation – others disagree, but to me that does mean a serious commitment to at least submitting the ms to editors when ready. All the very best as you go forward – play that music loud! My own anthem (not that I particularly like the song) is Tubthumpin’ by Chumbawumba “I get knocked down, and I get up again” [constant loop]

      Posted by Isabel Costello | November 18, 2014, 10:40
      • Oh now you’ve gone and made me cry (but in an entirely good way). Thank you for such a lovely response, and I really do wish you all the luck in the world with your books.

        Posted by Duchess the Cat | November 18, 2014, 14:35
    • Duchessthecat – You are SO not alone! I spent 2 years working when I could (freelancing with small kids) on substantial edits with a seriously top agent who’d jumped on my submission, urged me not to sign with another interested agent, called to say how much she loved my writing – The CALL! – and wanted to meet me…

      I spent 3 hours being told a brilliant career lay ahead of me, how ‘honoured’ she felt to be in it ‘at the start’, couldn’t wait to show editors ‘what she’d found’ and to ‘aim high’, as I had ‘no idea how good I was’ (and if you think I’m trumpet-blowing here, just bear with…). I was blown away. I asked if it meant she really wanted to be my agent. Yes, she said – no eye contact at that point; but hey, these top agents don’t waste time if they’re not serious, right? – adding there wasn’t any point signing anything as it meant nothing and the rewrite might take a year. Fair point.

      It did take a year. A blissful year. I felt Validated, Special – She Had My Back. She replied to any email instantly (with a ‘x’) and was very encouraging on my rewrite, even supplying a reader’s report suggesting A, B, or even C, to make it better. I felt like the rookie in the poker game. But I’m up for a challenge and life rewards hard work and all that, so I turned down some freelance and a lot of social stuff to spend another (less blissful) 8 months trying to write a book I’d never set out to write. I wasn’t sure about the draft I sent, but we were working on it… So I waited. And waited. Until: •Repeat your first paragraph above •. It was the Friday before half term (yup, thanks for that) and the email began: ‘Aaargh! This is tricky…’ It was short, it was brutal and, quite frankly, it was heartbreaking. I didn’t get dressed for a bit. I didn’t stop crying for a bit. I didn’t read and I didn’t write for quite a bit.

      The thing is, you try not to take it personally, but it’s so hard. You are effectively putting heart and soul into writing a novel. And hindsight, as I know to my cost, is 20/20 vision – I should’ve found the money for a consultancy/book doctor; never have sent a duff draft; asked more questions; committed her before another rewrite… But however much you do it to a book, you can’t edit the past. Let It Go seems a pretty good anthem on that score.

      This all happened a year ago, and a lot has happened since. I did re-find my book somewhere along the line – I sat down ego-less and challenged myself to finish what I’d started. Write the book. Tell the story. Forget about agents and deals; all that stuff is just baubles on a tree etc; I tried to be grateful, like you – the agent had seen something; and my story still had ‘so much potential’, apparently. I applied to be mentored through Womentoring – just about the best thing I ever did, on so many levels; not least because I met the literary lifesaver that is Isabel.

      The more I learn of agents and deals, the more I understand ultimately a novel is little more than a bag of carrots in a fiercely competitive marketplace. I won’t lie, it’s still one of the most horrible experiences of my life. I felt a failure, a loser, and if I’m honest, I’m still a bit sore – rejection truly sucks. Several writer friends got either signed or seriously good deals in the months following mine, and I’d be lying if I said it didn’t hurt, happy as I was for them. But two have since had the same experience as Isabel. So posts like this, by a brave and wonderfully honest person who says it like it is are vital – it give you comfort and strength to know you’re not alone in this. It always takes one person to say it first, and Isabel, you are truly an inspiration. It will happen for you. I don’t know anyone else who deserves it more!

      Posted by Jenny Knight | November 18, 2014, 13:55
      • I certainly do not think you’re trumpet-blowing because believe me, I’ve been there. Last year, after a Call and a Meeting, I thought I as good as had an agent, and a top one too. The book was great, the characters were great, it could be taken to editors already in the state it was in, “there is nothing I would change”.

        The first suggested edits were “tweaks”, which I made. I would have been mad not to. There is no doubt that the agent invested time and effort in the next version, because I was sent a variety of readers reports. These were less glowing than the agent’s initial assessment, but I had no idea they were harbingers of doom. Not after that first meeting. I rewrote, and resubmitted. Whereupon nothing for eight months (despite some gentle chasers from me) until the Email of Horror.

        I have very mixed feelings about this process. With hindsight, I was naïve to agree to work exclusively with the agent on edits without first establishing some sort of timeframe for the process. On the other hand, I was benefitting from her editorial and industry expertise. Objectively, I know that the book, and my writing, have been improved by the process. Emotionally, I feel as if I’ve been dropped from a great height. Rejection really truly sucks!

        Although I think that my writing was the reason for the rejection (although – the same question you will be asking yourself – why such a change of heart after such a positive first meeting?), I hope that it wasn’t as a result of the agent canvassing editors with the pitch and coming up blank. The agent did tell me at our meeting that her style is to mention things to editors when she sees them, even without a contract in place. At the time, I thought that was for my benefit, but now I’m wondering if I missed a trick. However, I don’t think there is anything to gain from asking that question.

        Interestingly, like you I got no eye contact. I think my brain knew that was a Bad Sign – in a previous career I would have characterised it as evasion straight away – but my heart hoped it wasn’t.

        Thank goodness for Isabel having the courage to put up this post. It really does help to talk.

        Posted by Duchess the Cat | November 18, 2014, 15:06
      • Both your experience and Jenny’s – which are spookily similar – make me feel sad, and also lucky that I haven’t had bad agent dealings. I’m so pleased you both feel better for swapping stories. It’s interesting (and understandable) that it’s possible to override everything you know as a writer about human behaviour and body language when the prospect of something you want so much is in sight. I hope you will both eventually find yourselves in the position many do with a strong manuscript, with several agents keen to rep you – trust and honesty are SO important in this relationship and the first person to show an interest isn’t necessarily the right one for the job. Remember, you’re the one who’s hiring!

        Posted by Isabel Costello | November 19, 2014, 06:56
      • Jenny, it’s very brave of you to share your story publicly and like Duchess the Cat, I’m grateful that you did. You’re a fantastic example of someone who’s come back from a very bad place and it’s been a huge pleasure working with you. Thanks for your kind words – I have high hopes of you too!

        Posted by Isabel Costello | November 19, 2014, 07:01
  35. Hi Isabel, you probably know that I’ve been dying to comment on your post, but was in this odd situation where my publishing deal hadn’t been signed yet and I couldn’t really talk about it. Now it has, I had lunch with my lovely publishers last Friday and my two-book deal is signed.

    For everybody, this is the (very long) timeline that it took to get me to this point. I have the exact date as my agent and I were actually talking about this the other day. I first met him in December of ’08. He was interested in my book but didn’t think the pacing and structure was right. I really liked working with him and followed his suggestions and did some major re-writes. It was towards the end of 2010 that I sent him a version that he loved. He actually does a lot of editing – is a fantastic writer – and after I’d signed with him, we worked on the manuscript for another ten months. He sent it out to 16 publishers in November 2011 and in January 2012 we heard that one publisher loved the book. But then it went quiet as they were taking on fewer new authors than before. They were recently acquired by a large firm and the editor contacted us, to ask if we could resubmit my manuscript to the new firm. Four months later I have a publishing deal and am just over the moon. My agent and I joked about that the most important character trait in a writer is an immense amount of patience.

    I know you’ll get there as well Isabel! Probably in less time than it took me.

    Posted by Anja de Jager | November 18, 2014, 12:27
    • Hi Anja! Thanks for commenting and sharing your truly inspiring story of a long long journey to publication that came good in the end. As you know, I am absolutely delighted for you (enjoyed the champagne!) and your perseverance and work ethic have inspired me a lot. It’s also nice (in contrast to some horrible experiences people have shared) to know that sometimes it can all work out very well if you are lucky (and talented, obviously) to get the right person on side with your work at an early stage. I’m so looking forward to seeing your brilliant novels on sale and telling everyone about them. And thanks for all your support and encouragement – I hope you’re right!

      Posted by Isabel Costello | November 19, 2014, 18:11
  36. Have just found this blog and all these comments on this particular post – so useful, supportive, comforting and great to know there is a body of others out there with whom to share the woes as well as the wonderful moments of writing. Look forward to sharing much more in 2015 – Happy Christmas!

    Posted by judehayland | December 25, 2014, 09:18
  37. Really excellent piece, Isabel, and the comments below are very interesting. My overwhelming feeling while reading them was one of luck. How it is, in the publishing world, so often down to luck, pure and simple, whether a book gets picked up. My own experience suggests there is the thinnest of lines between a yes and a no. Before I got a publishing offer, it had been rejected by just about everyone. For various reasons that I won’t go into here, I am certain that if it had landed on my publisher’s desk just a couple of months later, they might not have taken it on. It was just down to lucky timing.

    You write beautifully, and talking to you last night the book sounds amazing, exactly the sort of thing I would love to read. I’m sure it will happen; the trouble is not knowing when it will happen. Am rooting (spelling?) for you.

    Posted by Beth | March 25, 2015, 14:01
    • Thank you for this very kind comment, Beth – I’m glad you enjoyed my thoughts on the subject. I think you’re right about the luck element and the many published authors I’ve heard acknowledge this always get my respect. There are no guarantees of success in this business regardless of the merits (or otherwise) of any given book. I’m pleased for you that things worked out and look forward to reading both the one I picked up last night and your new one later this year. It was a huge pleasure to meet you!

      Posted by Isabel Costello | March 25, 2015, 14:43
      • And thanks for your reply, Isabel! I remember hearing the very thoughtful Val McDermid on the radio, and she said that she thought getting published was the result of a combination of talent, hard work, and luck. And I really think that’s true. Two of those we can do something about, but one is beyond our control. I never forget how lucky I have been. Anyway, I could bang on about this for ever… really lovely to meet you and have subscribed to this excellent blog now so I will keep up to date with there you’re at.

        Posted by Beth | March 26, 2015, 10:38
  38. I am so happy to have found this article and all the amazing stories shared by everyone!! Have felt so isolated with worrying. as for the last two months I have been agonising over my “relationship” with “my” agent – I put the quote marks as I am beginning to realise I have no relationship with her, and she is not “my” agent at all!!

    After working my socks off to rewrite and rewrite my novel over the last eighteen months (and the original novel, of which this formed just about a quarter) for a year before that, I think it is the best I can make it. Had a top level London agent all fired up about it, but she scared the pants off me, to be honest! – then had someone else interested and someone else again and now have a junior agent at a huge London agency who never contacts me.

    When my gently humorous, rather apologetic emails querying what is happening with my novel that she begged me to submit before Easter (and now it’s August) .. “I’m so sorry to bother you, but I wonder if ….” finally get an answer, it is all lies!!

    “I’m going to read it over the weekend and get back to you on Monday…” “I’m off on holiday for three weeks and going to take it with me to read on the plane…” / “I’ve given it to my work experience girl to read and she loves it, so I am going to make some notes tomorrow and get them across to you by the end of the week …” – of course this is all lies, lies, lies and has been going on for months, now.

    If I can sit up until 2.00 am working on my novel and work all weekend and even in my lunch hour from work, why can’t she simply either read the damn thing like she promises or email me and say she hasn’t had time? How can I have a relationship with someone who might be negotiating contracts for me when she tells me lies?

    Wow – didn’t set out to do such a rant – was going to write a very calm and rather witty thing, or so I thought , lol. very cathartic, though. Guess I am going to dump her and try some other route, lol. Have answered my own question!!

    Posted by Vivi | August 12, 2015, 13:11
    • Thanks for your comment and I’m glad you got some benefit from this post and the amazing response it received at the time. You deserve better than the treatment you have been getting from your ‘agent’ and I hope you have more luck from now on. A good author-agent relationship is based on trust and communication. Having written another novel which is now ready to submit, I have a greater understanding of this than when I wrote the post and it makes me appreciate mine even more. All the best

      Posted by Isabel Costello | August 12, 2015, 18:16
  39. I really enjoyed this post, Isabel. I so connect with what you say about rejection – I’m searching for an agent, and the closer I get, the more painful the NOs become. I hope book two is going well, and that when you land your publishing deal, your first book ends up being published as book two, or book three. I know what I’m looking for in an agent too – and this post is a good reminder that I have to hold out for the right person. An interesting, honest and heartfelt post – so glad I’ve found your blog. It’s brimming with great stuff. The very best of luck with everything, and can’t wait to read more.

    Posted by FionaMoMitchell | January 17, 2016, 10:54
    • Thank you, Fiona! This post caused quite a stir when it first appeared and I was pleased that lots of people took heart in it. It seemed to me there are plenty of successful writers willing to reminisce about how tough it was to get a break – and I admire anyone who admits that, and the role of luck, at any stage – but not many who talk about it when they’re in the midst of difficult patches. Fortunately I bounced back! I also wanted to share some thoughts about the realities of working with an agent, which is a bit like marrying someone (with 20 other spouses!) after two dates. Again, there’s a huge amount of luck involved but it pays to be ‘on the same page’ from the outset, esp when things don’t go to plan. I’ve been incredibly lucky with Diana and hope you find the perfect fit for you!

      Posted by Isabel Costello | January 17, 2016, 14:38
      • Thank you so much. Yes, I hope I get lucky – we’ll see. But whatever happens, like you, I’m going to keep writing. I look forward to reading more of your work – books and blog!

        Posted by FionaMoMitchell | January 17, 2016, 15:57
  40. Wow I am so so glad I found this article after googling ways to cope with what I’m going through… the exact same thing. I got an agent last year and everything was going phenomenally well… I even got called to London to meet an editor who loved it and was telling me everything she wanted to do (from printing maps of my world in the front to illustrations above the chapter numbers) and when we left my agent bought me a drink and told me a deal was in the bag. Basically this editor told us a deal was coming she just had to work out what it would be. I was stupid enough to tell my friends and parents about it because honestly, she put me on cloud nine with NO indication she would change her mind. And guess what? That’s exactly what she did. No phone call, or email, she just didn’t contact us until my agent chased her. The cruelty of the industry seems unbelievable. Since no one else made a deal either, I am hovering above a mini well of depression wondering where to go from here. Clearly – as my friends tell me – to get this far I MUST be good and the book must have appeal. So where do I go now? What do I do? I’m trying to write another book but with this experience looming over me like a dark cloud I feel my heart may not be 100% in this next book. I don’t want this serious knock back to destroy my flair and make me feel like none of my efforts are worth it. I’m a mum with a full-time job and writing is what I do instead of sleeping some nights! I hate writing 1,000s of words and then looking at them all thinking “will this ever be worth it?” . . . I’m so glad I was able to read your experience and feel less alone

    Posted by Naomi | September 14, 2016, 09:50
    • Oh golly – join the club! I was on the Faber Academy writers course a few years ago. My novel was taken on by one v.high.flier big London agent – so excited – great future – you are a brilliant writer! – But if you could just make a few changes here and there …… that didn’t go anywhere much. Then another agent – equally enthusiastic, equally full of grand plans about how I could improve and then what a best-seller it would be. Another year went past, and another. All faded away …. another agent at big London agency all super excited – same old, same old. Then nothing. Years passed while I wrote and rewrote and rewrote some more. One last ditch attempt and I have signed up with an agent in the USA – but that was more than six months ago and still nothing has happened.

      It’s been five years of really hard, committed work, and nothing has happened, meanwhile I work at a job which leaves me too exhausted to write in the evenings or at weekends. All I want is to make enough money from this one book to enable me to give up my job for a year and get on with my next novel, which is germinating away in the back of my brain, but it feels as if it’s never going to happen. To add insult to injury, last night I watched the film of Steve Watson’s Before I go to Sleep – on the same course as me!!! Grrr!! – and super rich and successful within just a few months of putting forward his initial book proposal! More grrrr!! Grrr!!

      Posted by Shannon | September 14, 2016, 12:12
    • Hi Naomi, thanks for your comment and I’m glad that my post made you feel a little better after what would be a bruising and deeply disappointing experience for anyone. This is sadly not the first time I’ve heard of such a (badly handled) ‘change of mind’ scenario; the whole process is hard enough without people behaving in such a disrespectful and unprofessional way (which didn’t happen to me). As a result of talking about all this, I’ve realised how many published authors have to overcome serious blows to their confidence and morale. It might not be time yet – it takes a while to recover from something like this – but I hope that with the support of your friends and agent (a major advantage), you WILL bounce back. Because they’re right – clearly you must be very talented to have got so very close! If you don’t feel completely committed to the new book maybe try some short pieces or something completely different to recapture your enjoyment of writing without putting yourself under pressure? Good luck!

      Posted by Isabel Costello | September 16, 2016, 14:08
    • Hi Naomi, I do sympathize. I’ve been there, and I have the T-shirt to prove it 😉 Isabel knows my tale of woe so I think she won’t mind if I pitch in here. There is no easy solution to all this disappointment. I think all we can do is put our heads down (or hold then high!), keep pushing through, and keep believing in our abilities. I took the self-publishing route with my second novel, after months of agonising and wondering if I could do it. It’s been hard work, with more to come, but ultimately I will get my second novel out there and to me that’s the important thing. I am disillusioned with much of the publishing world, but I’m still in love with books and reading and writing and always will be. Don’t give up!

      Posted by louisewalters12 | September 16, 2016, 17:15


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