How I got my first publishing deal: 5 Australian authors share their secrets

A female writer in her study wearing a pink jumper, looking at her laptop while standing up and cheering in celebration.

By Allison Tait.

When you’re beavering away on a manuscript, dreaming of being a published author, getting that first publishing deal can feel a million miles away.

But it happens! And, while sometimes publishing works in mysterious ways, the truth is that for most authors it’s about being in the right place at the right time with the right book (aka, doing the work).

Here, five Australian authors share the inside story of how they got their first publishing deal – and you can hear the full story of their journey to becoming a published author by clicking the episode link for the So you want to be a writer podcast.

“I met my publisher at a course.”

“I actually met a publisher at a course that I was doing. She was a non-fiction publisher, so not really what I was writing, but we hit it off. Without telling me, she then recommended me to a fiction publisher, and that’s where this crazy adventure all began…

“The next minute I found myself pitching stories! I suggested the idea for The Intern, they liked it, and the next minute I was writing sample chapters.”

– Gabrielle Tozer, debut novel The Internepisode 10


“I met my agent ten years before I finished my novel.” 

“I had just moved to England and before I left home I used to enter a lot of writing competitions with my [short] stories and had some success. When I got to England I thought, ‘I’m going to do that again.’ So, I entered a competition, which was run by one of the big glossy magazines. I can’t remember which one now and I didn’t win.

“One day, I got a letter out of the blue saying, ‘A friend of mine who’s a reader for this competition loved your story and thought I would like it, too. Do you think you could send it to me?’

“It was from an agent ­– she was actually the head of quite a prestigious agency in London – so I said, ‘Yes.’

“She wrote back saying, ‘I love the story, next time you’re in London please let’s meet and have a chat.’

“I, of course, invented a reason to be in London immediately, and we just clicked. We chatted about my work, but there was no pressure from her to ‘write something now’. Just this sense I had that she was interested in me and my career and what I might produce in the future. She sent short stories out and it was through her that I got some really good publications.

“But she waited ten years for me to write The Night Guest.”

– Fiona McFarlane, debut novel The Night Guestepisode 12


“It was three hours of mad, frenetic bidding between publishers all over the world.”

“It’s a story that will either inspire would-be writers or they’ll hate me. I would hate me if I wasn’t me. On the one hand it’s like winning the lottery and you feel enormously grateful that every dream you ever had of being a writer suddenly comes true in the space of sort of three hours of mad, frenetic sort of bidding between publishers all over the world [for 117 pages of a then-unnamed novel that would become The Suspect.

“Within a couple of hours, though, the terror set in, because I didn’t even know it was a crime novel. It hadn’t been plotted out. It was less than a third of the book.

“All of these people had bid for it, not asking me how it finished, not asking me what’s going to happen next, they just… to me it was like being backed to the favouritism for the Melbourne Cup – never having run two miles before. And having people backing with enormous amounts of money behind you.

“And when you’ve never written – even though I’ve written 15-odd biographies for people as a ghostwriter, so they knew I could deliver something – but I had never written a novel before.

“That was scary. That was quite a scary prospect.”

– Michael Robotham, debut novel The Suspectepisode 26


A male author in his office wearing glasses, looking at his laptop and pumping his fists, cheering in celebration.

“Pick your best life’s work, get it in great shape, catch her attention, she’s the next one we’ll try with.”

“I’d had a collection of short stories published in 1992 that had sold 900 copies, mostly to my mother. It was shortlisted for an award and it got me an agent.

“Then, in 1995, I took the pile of notes that I had been compiling for a few years and I wrote a novel. I entered it in the Vogel Competition for writers under 35, as I then was. It didn’t get shortlisted by the judges, but Allen & Unwin read every entry anyway, and they held onto it for a long time, before ultimately deciding not to pick it up.

“But my agent told me that Laura Patterson, who had just become an associate publisher at Transworld, was at the start of putting together a new Australian fiction list. She would be at the Brisbane’s Writers’ Festival and coming to the young writers’ event that I was part of.

“My agent said, ‘Pick your best life’s work, get it in great shape, catch her attention, she’s the next one we’ll try with.’

“So I did. I picked a piece that was designed to work for a live reading. I got so stressed about it that afternoon I had a migraine, so I had to medicate myself and lie down for several hours. Then I stopped vomiting, and I got up, in a fairly dishevelled state (which suited the story) and I gave it everything.

“The next day Laura Patterson came up to me and said, ‘I hear you have a novel manuscript, I would like to read it.’ That was Zigzag Street and she published it a year later.”

– Nick Earls, debut novel ZigZag Streetepisode 28


“I applied to do something called Literary Speed Dating…”

“My debut novel After The Fall was the third manuscript that I wrote. My first two unpublished manuscripts did the rounds of publishers, both in Australia and overseas, and were widely rejected all over Europe and North America, as well as Australia. After the Fall was also rejected roughly 40 times in Australia and in the UK.

“What got After the Fall up was just a stroke of luck. More and more I’ve realised that luck or serendipity plays a small role in every publishing deal, but you’ve got to be prepared, of course.

“I applied to do something called Literary Speed Dating at The Emerging Writers’ Festival in Melbourne. It was an event where would-be authors submitted an A4 page about their book – it could be an excerpt or it could be a synopsis. I believe there were about 700 applications, and I was lucky enough to be one of only ten selected.

“Then we went speed dating. We were at the Melbourne Town Hall and we had ten minutes each with ten different publishers from ten publishing houses. In those ten minutes we had to sit down and pitch our novels as effectively as we could, and then the bell would ring and we would hand over our A4 piece of paper and move onto the next one.

“The pressure was immense but, long story short, Allen & Unwin picked up the novel from that event.”

– Kylie Ladd, debut novel After The Fall, episode 32

 


Author bio

Allison Tait is the author of three epic middle-grade adventure series for kids: The Mapmaker Chronicles, The Ateban Cipher and the Maven & Reeve Mysteries. A presenter at AWC and former co-host of the So you want to be a writer podcast, Al reads a lot (and widely), writes a lot, and blogs at allisontait.com. She is saving her own ‘publishing deal’ story for the next post in this series.

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