Writing a Novel – (Not) Finding a Publisher

A Single Source of TruthThis series of articles is about writing my novel, A Single Source of Truth.

Buy it here on Kindle or paperback.

Writing a book is hard. Getting people to read it?… Impossible!

Okay, not quite… and it shouldn't be impossible, not in this day and age. With the internet, artists not only have the available knowledge and tools to create whatever they want, whenever they want – but they're within clicking distance of the eyes, ears and minds of billions of people from around the globe. It's wonderful, but with such a vast stage, competition for consumer attention is fierce. That's why there's still very much a benefit in traditional routes.

The Traditional Route

It makes perfect sense. Organisations such as theatres, record labels, cinemas, distributors, publishers… they've all built a reputation for promoting, showing or selling only certain works that have passed their litmus quality test and are the “right fit” for them. Due to their time in the game – often decades – these organisations have gathered many a loyal following who are eager to part with their money, time and attention for whatever recommendations they offer. It's social proofing at its most potent, and the exclusivity of the stage is what makes it so appealing.

The difficulty with the traditional route from an artist's point of view is convincing the gatekeepers. These people are the decision-makers, and they hold the keys to the most prestigious stages in the world. Unless they can be convinced that they'd be insane to let your work slip through their fingers, you haven't got a chance in hell.

As an author, the gatekeepers are publishers (and to some extent, agents). Getting a book traditionally published not only means the scrubby, typo-laden manuscript will be tidied up, polished to perfection and given a professionally designed cover, but with it comes a boatload of marketing – advertising, interviews, reviews, launch parties, and book signings. The book will be thrust under a large spotlight, and who knows, maybe it'll even win some prestigious award!

It helps to get published, but it's not the recipe for success (in the promotional sense). You still need to write a bloody good book, and at the end of the day, art is completely subjective. If a publisher says no, it shouldn't be taken personally.

Querying Publishers

My intention with A Single Source of Truth was probably to always self-publish it, because never in a million years would I think any publisher would want it. And yet, once I had a draft I was happy with (after a couple of rewrites thanks to the paid editorial assessment), I figured it couldn't hurt to at least try. And so, putting my actual writing of new things aside in favour of “getting myself out there”, I rolled up my sleeves and started researching prospective publishers.

The first thing most people tell you is to get the Writers & Artists Yearbook; a massive tome that is released each year with thousands of contacts inside. Well, I'm not one for patience, and so instead I just Googled. With my novel being set in the UK, I decided to target only UK based publishers and agents. It was also important to query those who work within the same genre; no point sending my techno crime thriller to a children's book publisher.

After probably a few weeks of scraping the web for any sort of web link or email address I could find, I ended up with a spreadsheet of 42 publishers and 45 literary agents. The big players like Random House, Bloomsbury etc were a write-off already, because they rarely take unsolicited queries – the query has to come from an agent, and as I didn't have an agent, I crossed them off the list! (their loss, pah!).

Many of the publishers and agents had websites that provided clear instructions on how to submit new work, and they all pretty much followed the same rules:

  1. Submit a query letter
  2. Include a full synopsis of the book
  3. Include the first 3 chapters or first 5000 words, whichever is shorter

The Dreaded Synopsis

I can think of only one thing harder for a writer than writing a story, and that's writing the synopsis for it! How can one squeeze a 108,000-word novel into two pages, let alone one? Well, it has to be done, unfortunately. And if anything, it's another good chance to look at your story from a holistic point of view. I won't bore you with a how-to on writing a synopsis for a novel, there are plenty of resources out there for that; suffice to say it's like writing most things… tedious work. I first got my synopsis down to about 5 pages, then whittled it down to 2. And finally, after much wailing and gnashing of teeth… a single page.

If you're interested, here is the one-pager. *Spoiler Warning* A synopsis tells the whole story, twists and all. If you haven't read the book yet, go here… it's free!

DETECTIVE SERGEANT JOHN BECKFORD investigates computer crime for a High Tech Crime Unit in the Metropolitan Police. When old flame DI ALISON FARBER turns up one day with a computer under her arm, Beckford gets embroiled in a new case: A Ukrainian computer science student who’s blown his head off with a 12-gauge shotgun. 

Beckford’s analysis of the computer reveals a webcam recording of the student’s suicide but suspects it to be fabricated. Further investigation leads him to believe a hacking group is behind the murder and cover-up, a theory that’s confirmed when Beckford is attacked at home one night by masked assailants. 

Beckford manages to escape and goes into hiding, but things go from bad to worse as he’s digitally framed as the leader of a child pornography ring and the prime suspect of the murder of a Chief Inspector. Now a wanted fugitive, Beckford uncovers information that exposes a network of corrupt Metropolitan Police officers. And after another attempt on his life, Beckford is rescued by a mysterious helper who turns out to be none other than the “murdered” Ukrainian student. 

The Ukrainian explains how the same digital wizardry that faked his own death is being used by the hacking group who are after him. Known as The Studio, they have the technical ability to penetrate almost any computer system undetected, enabling them to manipulate data to forge what people perceive to be true. 

Beckford is captured and interrogated at an unknown black site by masked members of the Studio who must leave no stone unturned to maintain the secrecy of their existence. Beckford is shocked to learn The Studio is a legitimate – albeit covert – unit of the Metropolitan Police, specialising in digitally strengthening cases against known criminals. A modern form of noble cause corruption. If it wasn’t for their handy work, the killer of Beckford’s sister wouldn’t be behind bars. They have Beckford over a barrel, but he escapes.

A year later, Beckford is living under an assumed identity in the Orkney Islands, where he spends every spare moment re-treading his sister’s murder investigation, knowing that only when he can find strong evidence to convict his sister’s killer under a true justice system, will he be able to expose to the nation the truth behind the wrongdoings of the Metropolitan Police.

The Query Letter

The good thing about getting a synopsis written is it gave me material for my query letter. The query letter is really the one shot at getting a publisher or agent's attention. The chapter samples and synopsis will be attachments to the email (unless you post it, but that's becoming rare these days), but if you don't reel them in straight away – hook, line and sinker – they're not going to open anything.

The query letter needs to be succinct enough that they don't get bored, but encapsulate the feeling of the story without giving too much away. I used the one-page synopsis as a template but tweaked it to hold a few details back. Here's the query letter:

Dear _____,

I’m currently seeking representation for my mystery crime-thriller novel, A SINGLE SOURCE OF TRUTH.

Once a prolific homicide detective, DS John Beckford now investigates computer crime as part of a High Tech Crime Unit in the Metropolitan Police, having transferred out of CID after the high-profile murder of his sister sent him spiralling into a depression.

When blast from the past, DI Alison Farber, arrives at his office one day with a computer in her arms, Beckford becomes embroiled in a new case: a Ukrainian computer science student who’d put two barrels of a shotgun to his head. And filmed it. 

Beckford’s analysis of the computer throws up questions, and when he probes into the night the student killed himself, further inconsistencies cause him to suspect the suicide was fabricated, and that in fact the Ukrainian had been murdered. His suspicions are confirmed one night when he’s attacked at home by masked assailants, and after managing to escape, Beckford learns a warrant has been put out for his arrest regarding the indecent images found on his computer. What indecent images? Things go from bad to worse when a close colleague is murdered and Beckford is the prime suspect. 

As his crimes are forged into reality, Beckford discovers he's being fitted up as the leader of a child pornography ring. Now a fugitive in the city, he not only has to evade the police but also an unknown group of hackers hell-bent on destroying his life. With help from both sides of the law, Beckford traces his digital enemies to an underground syndicate known as The Studio, where information is created, altered, or erased to manipulate what people perceive to be true. 

Will Beckford manage to uncover the conspiracy behind The Studio and clear his name? Or will he end up being ‘removed’, just like anyone else who gets in their way?

By day, I’m a web developer and business analyst, but I’ve been writing fiction for over fifteen years, during which I’ve penned a number of screenplays, stage plays, and short films, some of which have been produced. A SINGLE SOURCE OF TRUTH is my first novel and complete at 108,000 words. The manuscript is available, in part or full, upon request.

Thank you for your time and consideration. 

Best regards,
Stewart McDonald

I submitted that query letter with the synopsis and requested sample chapters to 64 publishers and agents in total. I got 24 responses, the first one being on the 6th February 2018, and the last one 6 months later on the 29th August (also Judgement Day, come to think of it!). Of those 24 responses, 23 of them were flat out rejections. Only ONE person requested to read the full novel. Which they did, getting back to me a month later to reject it.

Rejections are Standard

I was prepared for rejections, and so should anyone trying to make it in a creative industry. Most of the rejections I received were from agents who basically said they only maintained a small client list and couldn't take on any more writers now. Whether this is a template rejection, no one knows (apart from agents), but they didn't owe me anything. My query was a lotto ticket and nothing more. Here are some of the responses I got:

Unfortunately we will not be moving forward with your submission, as it doesn't quite fitwith the future direction of our list.

After consideration I'm afraid I won't be offering representation

Unfortunately our agents ultimately decided that your work would not be best served here 

It’s an interesting story and I like the way you write, unfortunately it’s not for us this time around feel it is something we could place successfully in the current publishing climate

Unfortunately in this instance I didn't feel passionately enough about the story to be convinced it would sell in today's competitive market.

while I thought there was much to be admired here, sadly I didn't quite feel the connection to your work that I think would be needed for me to represent this

We enjoyed your writing, but after extensive consideration, we do not feel that we are the right agency to represent your proposed material.

Unfortunately it isn’t the kind of thing we represent at this agency so we would be the wrong agency for you.

I’m afraid I don’t think it’s quite right for my list

we're going to pass I’m afraid I didn’t respond warmly enough to the story to be able to fully engage with it

We are sorry that we cannot invite you to submit your work or offer to represent you the writing was missing an 'unputdownable' quality that we look for 

Try Try Again

I was already in the throes of self-publishing before all the rejections were through. Maybe that was my pessimism and impatience running away with things, but I'm glad I started when I did. Undoubtedly, I'll try and get future novels published the traditional way, because why not? It's worth a shot, and if someone out there bites, life as a writer will become just that little bit easier.

Stay tuned next week where I'll be discussing my journey into self-publishing.

If you have any comments or questions, please post them in the box below.

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