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Of all the changes that have taken place in the last few decades, few can be as dramatic and far-reaching as those in the world of reading, writing and publishing.

When I set out to write my first novel, I knew nothing about publishing. I didn’t belong to a writing group or know anyone to turn to for advice. However, that didn’t worry me because I came across a book in my local library, called The Writers and Artists Year Book. I carried it home, read it from cover to cover then sat down in front of my typewriter and began tapping out what I was sure would be a best seller.

When the last word was written, I typed, “The end’, scooped up the pages, pushed them into an envelope and addressed it to one of the literary agents listed in the Writers and Artists Year Book. Then I walked to the post office, popped it into a post box and sat down to wait.

I waited a long time. The agent was based  in London and overseas post took a long time to go back and forth in those days, but three months later I received a letter advising me that my manuscript had arrived safely. The agent also said he was confident he would be able to place the novel with a publisher before long.

Sure enough, he did. A few months later, I signed a contract with publishers, Eyre Methuen, and a few moths after that held a copy of my very first book in my hands. It was a thriller called, The Eye of the Peacock, based on an attempt to salvage treasure from the wreck of the Grosvenor on the Pondoland Wild Coast.

The hard-cover run was followed by a reprint in paperback. I was sure I was going to make a million, but unfortunately that was not to be. The royalties that came in were nice, but nowhere near enough to live on. My husband and I moved to a farm round about then, and with not enough hours in the day, I had to face the fact that the great novel I was itching to write would have to be placed on the backburner till I had more time on my hands.

Fourteen years went by. Then, out of the blue, a letter from my agent arrived advising me that foreign language rights to my novel had been sold to a Russian language agency. He also asked confirmation of my address so he could post the royalties. As it happened, I was in the midst of planning a trip to the UK—my first ever—and was able to write back, “Don’t post. I will call for the money personally.

Two weeks later, I walked into the palatial office of Curtis Brown inFleet   Street, London. I introduced myself, met my agent and, a short while later, walked out carrying a large brown envelope filled with British Pounds. I spent every penny on that holiday and brought back many happy memories.

Computers and modern technology changed everything. The old days when literary agents took time (or rather had time) to read every manuscript that came their way is over. In today’s world, where the number of aspiring authors has spiraled, and the cost of publishing has skyrocketed, agents know that publishers are extremely selective about the books they choose to publish. They have to be if they want to stay in business.

Today, few agents accept unsolicited manuscripts and fewer still accept submissions mailed in the post. They don’t have time to read manuscripts and they certainly do not have time to tell the author why their work was rejected or comment on how it might be improved.

Today, authors are required to send a query letter by email or via a form on the agent’s website. Agents then wade through the hundreds they receive every day. The sad truth is that unless the author writes a good, ‘catchy’ query letter, his or her manuscript will not be read. It might be a masterpiece, a best-seller waiting to be discovered, but if the author’s query letter doesn’t come up to scratch, the manuscript will not see light of day. Tough, but that’s the way it is.

If a query letter shows promise, the author may be invited to submit a synopsis, a pitch and the first 3 chapters. If those show promise, the agent may request the full manuscript. Even that does not guarantee that he, or she, will take the author on as a client. Even if that is accomplished, the agent must still find a publisher who likes the manuscript well enough to invest in it and offer a contract. No easy task.

Getting published is more difficult than it used to be—a lot—but it’s not impossible. Publishers still need books to publish and they are always on the lookout for new talent. So if you have the urge to write, don’t be put off. Keep writing. You never know, your novel might be the next best seller.


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