Today I am pleased to welcome J. Paul Henderson, author of Last Bus to Coffeeville, to the blog. Paul’s latest novel The Last of the Bowmans was published by No Exit Press on 21 January 2016. Paul has kindly written a guest post about the publishing process and getting an agent or not as the case may be.
I started writing The Last of the Bowmans for probably the wrong reasons: to get another book published. It was conceived not out of love, but as a donor baby to save the life of its three-year old brother, Last Bus to Coffeeville. But things changed.
Last Bus to Coffeeville was my first book, written over a three-year period and completed in January 2011. Writing a book is enjoyable. Getting it published isn’t. It costs you three years of your life.
Everything you read about being published focuses on the importance of securing an agent: without an agent you’re dead in the water. And this is generally true. Publishers no longer accept unsolicited manuscripts, and it’s the agents who now accumulate and sift through the slush piles. Consequently, it’s they who decide what a publisher reads and doesn’t read.
The same people, who emphasise the importance of securing an agent, also emphasise another importance: to go with an agent you feel a connection with, and not with the first one to offer representation. It’s good advice, but only if you’re Haruki Murakami. The rest of us can’t be picky. We’re thankful just to get an agent. Any agent.
And boy was I thankful when I heard back from an agent only two weeks after sending out the manuscript. I thought my ship had come in, and so I travelled down to London on a train. She and a colleague (the rights director, from memory) took me to lunch (this is what agents do), and I ordered sausage and mash: I wanted to give the impression I was low maintenance and a man of the people. Over coffee we agreed terms, and then parted company. They went back to their offices and I headed for the Underground. It was the last we saw of each other.
I should have been whistling or skipping down the street after that lunch; buying a copy of the Big Issue from one of its luckless vendors or throwing coins into the cap of a Rumanian accordionist: I’d got an agent! I was on my way to being published! Hip, hip…
But there was no hoorah. I felt oddly depressed, and couldn’t help but feel that I’d just made the biggest mistake of my life. But it was a mistake I couldn’t have afforded not to make: a writer can’t live without an agent! Everyone knows this.
It soon dawned on me that it’s also difficult to live with one.
I was under the impression, after our luncheon meeting, that the manuscript was pretty much ready to go. A few tweaks, maybe, but nothing major. But then the agent decided to send it to a ‘brilliant’ (she used this word a lot) freelance editor, and he wanted major changes: the characters were fine, he said, but the plot was lacking: there were no car chases – or this is how I interpreted his comments. (I talked to him over the phone once, and he ate an apple for most of the conversation). The agent agreed with his every word, as if more interested in representing him than me.
I was new to the game of non-academic publishing and didn’t want to appear overly-precious. I also figured that between them, the freelance editor and the agent knew what they were doing. And so, for the next four months I made the changes they asked for, but then, when they asked for more, I dug in my heels. No more changes! The manuscript presented to the publishers was a mess, a bad compromise between what they wanted and what I wanted. I was almost relieved when it got turned down. It wasn’t the book I’d written.
The agent’s new plan was for me to write another book, and one that would allow Last Bus to Coffeeville to ride its coattails. And so I started writing The Last of the Bowmans, a celebration of life on the small-scale.
Halfway through writing chapter one, something happened. I fell in love with the story and its characters, and again found myself writing for all the right reasons: to get The Last of the Bowmans published! The day I finished writing, I felt the same sense of bereavement as when I’d finished writing Last Bus to Coffeeville. It was a good sign.
I sent the manuscript to the agent and looked forward to her timely reply: the book, she’d tell me, was brilliant! I was brilliant! Everything was brilliant!
In the event I heard nothing. I emailed her a couple of months later and she replied that she’d been busy. A further three months passed – (that’s five now, if you’re counting) – and I emailed her again and asked if the manuscript was something she wanted to represent or not. She replied the next day apologising for the delay but said no, she didn’t. It was the voice, she said – that lazy and irrefutable get-out clause for any agent – and the fact that we’d disagreed over the first book. She thought I’d be better off getting representation elsewhere. The fact that she’d never even read the manuscript (I still believe this to be true) inclined me to agree with her, and we went our separate ways
I revised Last Bus to Coffeeville to my liking, and then prepared to take out the Writers’ and Artists’ Yearbook for the second time (how I hate that book). But then I got lucky.
There’s a song called People and it’s sung by Babs Streisand. It starts: People who need people are the luckiest people in the world. I beg to differ. It’s the people who know people who are the luckiest people in the world. And I was that lucky person, because it turned out that I knew people who knew people who knew other people, and I was introduced to No Exit Press.
I handed over both boys to them: Last Bus to Coffeeville and The Last of the Bowmans. They have different personalities, I explained, but I love one as much as the other.
Fortunately, they did too.
About the book:
“After an absence of some seven years, Greg Bowman returns from America to find his father lying in a bamboo coffin, his estranged brother Billy stalking a woman with no feet and his seventy-nine-year-old Uncle Frank planning to rob a bank. While renovating the family house he is unexpectedly visited by the presence of his dead father and charged with the task of ‘fixing’ the family. In the course of his reluctant investigations, Greg discovers not only the secrets behind the strange behaviour of his brother and uncle but also an unsettling secret of his father’s, and one that brings him face to face with the unintended consequences of his own past.
The Last of the Bowmans is the story of a family on the run from itself in a city with no place to go.”