They say that in order to be a writer, you need to develop a very thick skin. Truer words were never spoken. On a number of occasions, we read news about a writer flooded with offers of representation from top literary agents, following which their book gets picked up for millions of pounds in a publishing auction, propelling the said writer into a world of glittering possibilities, movie deals and the prospect of making some more millions. Such things do happen, but they are few and far between. The reality of getting published is often very different and far less glitzy.
For starters, nobody will even look at your work unless it borders on perfection. Don’t get me wrong, writing is still a very subjective market, but agents today require you to submit a manuscript that has been edited as much as possible. And no, they do not suffer typos and grammatical errors gladly. Agents sometimes get more than a hundred submissions a week, so you can only imagine how fierce the competition is and how little a chance unedited drafts stand in the milieu.
My journey started back in college in Canada where I truly began to realise that writing was actually a profession for some people. The voracious appetite with which people devoured books there led me to finally understand the importance of books. In Pakistan, we don’t have enough bookstores that sell original English books, and thus, we are merely a blip on the radar of the Big 5 of Publishing, namely Penguin Random House, Harper Collins, Simon & Schuster, Hachette and Pan Macmillan. All of them have offices in India where most of literature from South Asia is dealt with.
Coming back to my story, I remember being in awe of writing while at Western University, but I still didn’t take any courses in the subject. My time was occupied by my degree in economics and psychology, but the seeds of ‘creativity’ had been sown. I went on to do my Master’s from Durham University, but it was only afterwards that I started to pay closer attention to this feeling burgeoning inside me. Perhaps it had been there since childhood, but I had successfully kept it under control. Despite my avid interest in reading, I hadn’t written much more than a few embarrassing short stories. One fine day I came across Faber Academy’s debut online six-month Novel Writing course. Here was a course that promised to get you started on the path towards publication – something I hadn’t even dared to dream yet. After some deliberation, Faber Academy accepted me. For those of you who don’t know, Faber Academy draws its roots from the great independent publisher, Faber & Faber. The course taught me things I didn’t even know existed. I learned about plot and structure, dialogue and characters. The best thing about the course, though, was the friendships I made. They are going strong to this day. The critical feedback I received from my peers not only bolstered my self-esteem as a writer but also made me face some of the problems with my work without feeling devastated by harsh words. After all, your peers are also writers with the same insecurities, and quite understand what it means when someone disparages your work without a reason.
During this time, I was lucky to find an editor, Hazel Orme. If you follow publishing, you’ll know that Hazel Orme is the real deal! Her editing skills are second to none, and in her critical feedback, she was gentle but firm. She urged me to chop out entire chapters of my novel. At first, I couldn’t bear the thought, but, chop them I did, and my novel was much better for it. I did several rounds of edits before Hazel was finally happy with the novel and deemed it fit to be seen by literary agents. A writer’s job revolves around editing as much as writing. I remember meeting Hazel for the first time in 2016 and found her as kind in person as she was in our email correspondence. Today, I’m proud to call her a great friend and a positive influence in my life.
While working with Hazel Orme, I had also taken another brilliant course with Faber Academy at their offices in London, where I made vast improvements in my work. I was also encouraged to finish writing my novel by a top literary agent, Juliet Mushens (Caskie Mushens).
I remember when I finally sat down to submit to literary agents, I was naïve enough to imagine them flocking around me with offers of representation. A few weeks later, the rejections came. Rather, they rained! There were a few full manuscript requests as well, but nothing came out of it. I decided to wait a few months, and then submit again. After the second round of submissions during which I worked on my novel a bit more, I finally noticed the tide turning. There were more full manuscript requests than there were rejections, and finally, one day, I received an offer of representation from Annette Crossland, director of A for Authors Agency Ltd. She believed that in addition to being well written, the novel told a very important story that deserved to be brought to the attention of the world. I remember I didn’t sleep a wink that night. More than the thought of being closer to those elusive millions, it was finally the idea that someone thought my work was important.
I met Annette Crossland for the first time in London in April 2017 with Hazel Orme accompanying me. I was very jittery with nerves. Having only seen her pictures, I had the impression that she would have a few terse words with me before dismissing me. How wrong I was! Meeting Crossland was such a pleasant surprise and I felt an instant connection. Crossland had already submitted to a couple of publishers which sounded very promising, but she was very direct with me. She told me that turndowns were very common in the industry and that I must not get my hopes up of getting an immediate deal. And, she was right. The turndowns started, but thankfully, this time I had Annette shielding me from the worst of them. An agent’s job is a very difficult one, truth be told. In addition to dealing with publishers, agents also need to pacify frantic authors. 2017 gave way to 2018 and it was during a visit to London in December 2018 that we heard from, The Book Guild, an independent and well-respected UK publisher, that had seen the potential in the novel and wanted to publish it!
We went to meet them, and I couldn’t be happier with their plans for publication. It was an iconic moment when I signed the contract and held it in my hand – a moment Crossland was very kind to capture on camera. I hadn’t yet recovered from all the excitement when a few days later, I heard back from Crossland again. Sayantan Ghosh at Simon & Schuster had offered to acquire publishing rights for my novel In the Company of Strangers for South Asia. Another sleepless night. At this rate, I thought I wouldn’t get any sleep at all as there was so much happening. We had hardly signed the deal with Simon & Schuster when plans were announced for a big book launch at Foyles in London, one that would be helmed by leading events organizer in the UK, Sabine Edwards of Pendleton Events. I was to launch my book alongside the talented AA Chaudhuri whose debut crime novel The Scribe was being published by Endeavour Media. The next few months passed in a flurry with discussions over the cover design, completing final edits and preparations for the Foyles launch. Needless to say, with Sabine Edwards managing the event, everything went very smoothly, and we even managed to secure leading literary commentator, Ayo Onatade, to moderate the event.
Today, the book is officially out in bookshops in the UK as well as all Online stores including Amazon, Kobo, Apple Books etc.
I have detailed my personal journey to publication to highlight the importance of following your dreams. There were many times when I was so disheartened that I was ready to give up. No matter what happens, no matter what anyone might say to you, make yourself a promise that you won’t give up. Only then can you persevere as a writer/author as the road to publication is riddled with hardships. I like to tell my students and anyone who would like to hear, “If it can happen for me, it can happen for anyone”.