I think that Vivian Swift is being just a little too self-deprecating when she places all of her success on leverage: from what I've seen of her book, she has a remarkable talent and a welcoming style which probably played a far bigger part in her success than she realises. Here's her view of her rather original path to publication, which just shows that sometimes things work out just fine when you ignore all the rules!
I've since learned that the word "quirky" is publishing-world code for "unpublishable", but when my quirky book was published by BloomsburyUSA in 2008 I thought it was because my illustrated travel memoir about staying put was JUST what editors the world over crave: a really different kind of reading experience. Turns out that no, that's NOT why I got published (did I mention that I've learned that editors loathe "quirky" books?): I got published because, as a complete and total nobody in the publishing world, I wisely leveraged a single teeny bit of biographical research into a golden "in" with my FIRST choice of powerhouse agent who got my manuscript read by all the best houses in New York City.
The total time from the day I first mailed my query letter (to my one and only agent choice) to the day I got a publishing deal was three and a half months—which includes the delays caused by my bad timing; my new agent had to send my manuscript proposal out during the Christmas holidays.
Here’s my story: I was a fifty-year old unemployed gemologist who had spent two years putting together the first three chapters of a book I had long fantasized about writing, a modern version of The Country Diary of an Edwardian Lady. If you don’t remember that book, that must mean that you weren’t alive in 1977 when it became a publishing phenomenon (to date, five million copies have been sold). Not that I expected to out-do The Edwardian Lady; I just wanted to write my own homage to a book that I had greatly admired since I was twenty years old.
The manuscript of my first three chapters was fifty-three pages long, and it was entirely hand-lettered. I bound it into an eight-inch-square booklet, illustrated with over one hundred small watercolour paintings. It was exactly the kind of manuscript that one is forbidden to toss over the transom. But I didn’t know that at the time; I had never taken a writing class, attended a writing workshop, read a publishing industry blog, or had face-to-face contact with anyone remotely connected to the book publishing business. Only from reading my local newspaper years earlier had I learned about the one “insider” guide I used to prepare myself for becoming an author: Forest for the Trees by Betsy Lerner, a former top editor in New York City. The reason I read about Betsy Lerner in my local newspaper was because she was a famous local author: Betsy and I happened to be living in the same small town on the shore of the Long Island Sound at the time. That article in the local paper also mentioned that Betsy had recently become a literary agent. Good to know, I remember thinking; if I ever get around to writing that book I’ve always wanted to write….
So, half a dozen years later, I have this fifty-three-page hand-lettered illustrated manuscript and I have only one agent on my mailing list. I had done a little follow-up research on Betsy Lerner and found out that she had a stellar reputation representing hip, urban, literary writers; yet I was still sure I wanted only her to read my cozy, suburban, un-literary manuscript. She represented Neil deGrasse Tyson! My hero! The coolest astrophysicist ever! So like any starry-eyed wanna-be writer doofus, I sent her my query letter with my home-made manuscript attached.
But I’m not a complete doofus: I made sure to mention, in my query letter to the formidable Ms. Betsy Lerner, that she and I had a connection: we had once lived in the same small village on the Long Island Sound.
Leverage, my friends; I was looking for leverage. I was dumb enough to think that name-dropping a town with just seven thousand households in it was leverage. And the funny thing is, it was.
Less than a week after I’d sent her my manuscript I got a voice mail from Betsy Lerner herself (which, by the way, is the single most validating moment of my entire writing life, even now, a year after my first book is published). Quaking, I dialled her phone number. She picked up after two rings. I was speaking to Betsy Lerner in person.
“How did you know that I used to live in [small town on the shore of the Long Island Sound]? was the first question she asked me.
And then she said that she liked my manuscript but, she warned me, my book was very odd and she wasn’t at all sure she could sell it, but she wanted to give it a try. That was in November, 2006.
“This is so not my thing,” was one Editorial Director’s response when Betsy first sent him my manuscript [translation: It’s too quirky for me]; “I’m going to give it to another editor here who does more of this kind of thing [translation: An editor who likes lost causes].” And then, a few days later, he emailed back: “I can’t get this book out of my mind. I’m keeping it.” And then we knew we had passed extensive internal review about a month later but by then it was almost Christmas, and then it was New Years… I had a signed contract on Valentine’s Day 2007, with my dream publisher, BloomsburyUSA.
There’s only one agent, I am convinced, who could have got such a fabulous publisher to look at such a quirky little book as mine, by dint of her reputation for good taste and keen eye for good writing, which she was willing to squander on my behalf: My agent, Betsy Lerner.
Not that there weren’t struggles, over the cover (I fought to keep Bloomsbury from re-designing it), and the fact that it’s a very quirky book to market in a very a tight economy (An illustrated book for adults? A travel memoir about staying put? With cats?? No wonder Borders put it in their Self Help section.). And of course I’ve had my usual first-time-author indignities: my first book event at Barnes and Noble where I was shuffled off into the Children’s Department to sign books at a knee-high kiddie table under a poster for Captain Underpants was merely a harbinger of things to come.
But now, as a published author, I am invited to speak to audiences of unpublished writers about my experience and the one thing I have to tell them about getting the right agent is leverage. See above. Which may or may not be helpful. Because, usually, stupidity doesn’t get you very far in life, except when it does.
Publication in November 2008 of my first book, When Wanderers Cease to Roam: A Traveler's Journal of Staying Put, has been such a marvellous experience of stupid perseverance and dumb luck that I’m going to try to do it again, with an even quirkier book, one that even Betsy Lerner has doubts about. It’s an illustrated travel memoir about a road trip through France. “A book about France is a hard sell right now,” she tells me.
Wish me luck.