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Go for 80 rejections like Marlon James

Waste paper bin
"I’d slap me around the face too if I could time travel."

6 December 2015

Go for 80 rejections like Marlon James

I nearly gave up on finding a publisher for my debut novel Beat The Rain after only 8 rejections from Literary Agents and no rejections from any publishers.

I’d been so excited about finishing my novel that initially I rushed to get it out there. My covering email wasn’t right, my synopsis wasn’t right and the manuscript still needed some fine tuning. But I wanted approval from an agent or a publisher, so I couldn’t and wouldn’t waste any more time. (Yeah, I know, I’d slap me around the face too if I could time travel).

Predictably, this didn’t go well. I chose 8 literary fiction agents, all high profile, all extremely unlikely to even look at a submission from an unknown, debut novelist with no profile. Why didn’t I recognise this? Why wasn’t I looking for agents and publishers who wanted to work with debut novelists and were taking submissions?

Self sabotage or dreaming of being ‘the one’

To be honest, I don’t know. Maybe I was deliberately sabotaging myself, proving to myself that my manuscript definitely wasn’t worthy, just to feed the little insecurity gremlin in my stomach.

Or maybe I just had the dream of being ‘the one’… you know, the rare or even mythical (outside of marketing spin) unknown author that catches the eye of the major agents and publishers by virtue of their manuscript alone.

Either way, it was a stupid strategy. Over the space of 3 months, I was rejected by all 8 agents. Intellectually, I understood the odds of getting read and picked up from a cold approach to agents with a debut novel. But emotionally it still hurt, not least because most were standard, non-personal rejections.

I wasn’t even good enough to get a personal response.

If you try not to fail, you can’t try to succeed

For a few months after that, I retreated back into myself, convinced the novel I’d written wasn’t publishable. The website I had created for Beat The Rain lay dormant and I didn’t send off any manuscript submissions for another couple of months.

Then two things happened. A designer friend of mine had agreed to design a book cover for Beat The Rain, for free, she just wanted to help. When she sent through her final version of the book cover, I absolutely loved it and it reinvigorated me a little.

Then Marlon James was announced as the Man Booker Prize winner for 2015 with A Brief History of Seven Killings and the next day, my partner sent me a very simple, very short email:

“Marlon James got nearly 80 rejections. You might want to go for a few more than 8.”

The best advice I’ve ever been given

It was the best advice I’ve ever been given. The next day I rewrote my synopsis. I gathered reviews and quotes from people who had read the manuscript and rewrote my covering letter accordingly. I included more of my personal and professional credentials and crucially, for me, I researched the publishers I wanted and stopped approaching leading agents with full author lists.

I chose 8 publishers who specialised in literary fiction and were actively interested in working with debut novelists and sent off my next round of submissions.

Getting a publisher

Within 3 days, I had the first asking for my full manuscript. Within two weeks, another two publishers had expressed an interest. Even the rejections I got back were personal – they’d actually read the samples and enjoyed them, but didn’t feel they were right for their lists.

Within a month, I had signed with John Hunt Publishing – their  approach feels very 21st century and fits who I am and how I want to do things.

To be honest, none of it feels real at all – I still have moments every day where I do a double take. I have a publishing deal.

A lifelong dream is about to become a reality. And all because Marlon James got 78 rejections and went on to win the Man Booker Prize.

About the author

Author, writer, father, runner. Not always in that order. Born in London, England, Nigel now lives in Brighton (via Nottingham) with his partner, their two children and greying ginger dog.

Buy Beat The Rain

Nigel’s debut novel, Beat The Rain is published by Roundfire Books and will be available in bookstores on 29 July 2016.

The novel is available to pre-order now from Amazon.

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