Thursday, January 08, 2015

Jacqueline Winspear's guest blog on Thursday

Our own Jackie has graciously provided the story of her search for an agent.  The fact that I tricked her into writing a blog on my assigned day, as well as her own Friday blog makes me feel a little guilty.  But I'll get over it.  My thanks as always.

----Jim Born

In May 2001 I had a really bad riding accident (funnily enough, it was worse than the recent one, but this is more painful). At the time I had a very demanding new day job, and I also had a novel in progress that I was passionate about, but had only written about a quarter of the book at that point. The thing about the new job was that it did not allow an ounce of time for my writing - I felt as if I had sold myself down the river for a 401K and a company car.  The night before the accident, a friend called and said, “How’s that new job going.” And I said, “I would give my right arm not to be doing this job …” And the very next day I broke my right arm and crushed my right shoulder, and as I was flying through the air (and this is absolutely true), I remember thinking, “This is happening because I’m supposed to be writing.” Following surgery, things were pretty grim - we were living in a rural area, no public transportation, I could not drive. My husband dropped me off to spend the day with a friend one day - he would pick me up on the way home from work - and my friend, a well-known local columnist, said to me, “Now’s the time for you to finish that book!” I pointed to my right arm and said, “With this?” And she wisely said, “You’ve got a left arm, haven’t you?” So that was it - I set myself a goal: Within three months I would have 75% of my arm back and I would have a manuscript. The doc had told me I would be lucky to get 65% within a year. I do well with goals. That evening I began work on the Maisie Dobbs manuscript again, with one hand. Soon I was lifting my right hand onto the keyboard because I wanted to go faster. Three months later, at the end of August 2001, I had a manuscript and 85% of my arm back. I had no income, because I had given in my notice on that job - yes, I could have “milked” the system and claimed disability, but the truth was that I knew I would never want to do that job again, and I’m an honest person. I had no idea when I would work again. The other thing was that I was so exhausted, rewriting amounted to running the spell-check. Here’s what happened next:

I invested in Jeff Herman’s book (Guide to Publishers etc …), and went through the list of agents carefully. I knew I needed an agent who was interested in mystery, history, women’s fiction, British fiction, War, and any combination of the foregoing. I tabbed 30 agents. Then I went deeper. My “A” list of 10 agents hit most of the profile points. The “B” list two or three, and the “C” list were hitting one or two, maybe just mystery and history. Then I had to set to work on preparing the proposal. Now, I had worked in academic publishing - which as you know has as much in common with general books as baking has to do with the tech industry. In fact, academic publishing is a first cousin of the tech industry. I had only ever seen proposals for textbooks on subjects such as “Digital Control Systems” or “Principles of Compiler Design.” I had no idea about pitching a mystery - but I did know about business. So, my proposal went way over the top. 

I prepared a one-page synopsis, followed by a detailed chapter breakdown with one paragraph on each chapter, which I thought would demonstrate the arc of the story. I went to bookstores and made notes about where my book would be placed if it was published, and which books would be alongside it. And I read the Acknowledgements page of books that were in the same field as mine, just to see if authors mentioned their agents - and I took those agents names down and did some background reading on them, adjusting my A, B, C profile lists accordingly. The next part of my proposal was “marketing” - which included the information about where the book would be positioned in a bookstore, which other books would be alongside it, and also non-book retail possibilities (special interest WW1 groups, Anglophiles, ex-pats, anything I could think of). I included a resume - completely unnecessary really. And once I’d prepared all the pages of my proposal, I wrote a table of contents for it and put it in a nice little binder. I made ten copies, and I also prepped ten copies of sample chapters - the first chapter, a chapter from the middle and one from towards the end of the book. I wanted to demonstrate the writing from different stages of the story. I clipped my sample pages - about 50 - to the inside back cover of the proposal and I set to work on my one-page cover letter. First paragraph - Introducing my book, this is what it’s about. Second paragraph - this is why it matters to me, personal connection to the story (my story within the story). Third paragraph - why I chose to approach you as an agent, mentioning a couple of the agent’s authors/books. Fourth paragraph - thank you for taking the time to read my proposal, etc., and look forward to hearing from you. The cover letter was the only personalized document - not only in the “Dear XXXX” but in that third paragraph. It demonstrated that I’d done my homework, that I took time over it. On August 31st, 2001, I sent ten packets out to my “A” list (at $3.20 per shot, which was $32.00 I could barely afford, especially when added to Kinko’s costs!!!). My plan was to hit the “B” list when all the refusals were in. I hoped I would not have to go through again and find a “D” list. The packs would have landed around September 4th, so if I was lucky, a few agents would have opened a pack on - yes, September 11th, 2001. When that terrible event happened, I thought, “That’s it - who wants a book about war now?” I knew it was only a matter of time before we were at war. I also knew the publishing industry - vulnerable at the best of times - could end up in the tank. And that’s what agents thought too.

By that time I was cleared to travel, and having gone through a quite difficult recovery, my husband’s friend who worked for United got me a buddy pass to fly to England as soon as airspace was opened up again after 9/11. I had put all thoughts of the fate of the manuscript out of my mind - over 3000 people had been killed, so it seemed beyond selfish to even think about it. Plus I had just landed a job with a company I once worked for, and was starting as soon as I returned from the UK. Then, miraculously, three days before I was due to fly to the UK, I had calls from three of those agents. 

Over the next month each of the others would write to say that they were not even thinking of taking on new authors until they knew which was the wind was blowing with regard to the publishing industry. I signed contracts with one of those agents within about a month of arriving back from the UK - and I chose the one who was interested in me as a writer, not the ones who were just looking for someone who might be the next big thing. Amy (Rennert) was the only one who asked me, “How do you see yourself growing as a writer.” And I thought then that she would be the one who would support me in my desire to be the best writer I could be. Because it was coming up to the end of the year (and the book needed revising!), Amy said she would not go out to publishers until February at the earliest. She started her “push” with the manuscript in March 2002. The book was sold in April 2002 - and not to the highest bidder. I took Amy’s advice, which was sound - she said that it would be too easy to go with the big publisher offering the bigger bucks, but as a new author especially, I could get “lost” among the big name authors. It would be easy to become overwhelmed, plus if the book crashed and burned, that would be my career, in tatters. The smaller publisher would also be able to publish the book sooner. “Maisie Dobbs” was published in June 2003 by SOHO press. But there is more to the story. Coincidentally, I had just read an article in Poets and Writers magazine, where very well-known authors were asked what they thought was the best way to publish a first novel - big publisher with big splash? Small publisher? A few declined to be named, but to a person they concluded that if you could pull it off, it was best for a first time author to publish the hardback with a small outfit, where there was personal attention and you were nurtured as an author, but then have the paperback rights picked up by a major publisher. I had that in the back of my mind when my agent told me there as an auction in progress for the paperback rights to Maisie Dobbs. Those rights went to Penguin, which was great, because they were marketing heavyweights. I think it’s important to say that my first advance bought me a new laptop, that’s all, and it was something to get very excited about. I knew I had decided upon an agent who I believed would be good for me over the long haul - and I made a good decision. The series has grown slowly but surely, though I was lucky when that first novel garnered so much attention, and was nominated for 7 awards, including the Edgar for Best Novel (I could not be nominated for Best First, as I wasn’t a US citizen).

I know I was so very fortunate in this almost “textbook” path to being published within the traditional publishing framework. Everything seemed to slot in at the right time. But I did my homework before I pitched - I had no personal contacts, so I had to do my due diligence. I did not just send out to agents without doing some pretty in-depth research, and I was thoughtful about my proposal, making sure it was succinct, that it demonstrated someone who was ready to be a professional writer, and one who would work hard - not only on the book itself, but in making it a success. But according to Amy, here’s what sold her - the cover letter. It was that second paragraph, when I wrote about my grandfather and his wounding in the Great War, and when I wrote about my grandmother working in a munitions factory - she said there was an emotional resonance that was hard to ignore. And all the other stuff I researched and wrote? Not wasted, because it made her job easier - it gave her plenty of material for her pitch to publishers.  


  1. James O. Born1/08/2015 9:51 AM

    Excellent story, Jackie.

  2. from Jacqueline: OK, so this is my fourth attempt at posting a comment today, and after this I will throw in the proverbial towel! You may have tricked me into writing your column, Jim, but I am glad I wrote the whole story in this way. I consider myself incredibly fortunate to be a published author, and not a day goes by that I do not think about it and feel blessed - yes even on the bad days, and of course it is not all "beer and skittles" as the British say. And especially today, we have to be fortunate for our freedom of expression - let no one take that away from us.

    1. James O. Born1/08/2015 2:07 PM

      I agree that we are blessed to be writers and to have such freedom. Well said,

  3. Ms. Winspear is a wonderful writer and one of my favorites.Thank you for asking her to write this article. I've read every Maisie Dobbs book so far and am anxiously waiting for the next one. That I'm also a writer, though much lesser known than most of you on this list, it's very encouraging to hear about publishing with a smaller press. This is exactly what I've done and Ms. Winspear is absolutely right. I've received so much support from my publisher and the other writers there that I can't imagine doing it any other way. Paul

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  5. I am a Maisie Dobbs fan & enjoyed this post on the background of how you completed the manuscript. I was also fascinated in the agent hunt.

  6. Jackie,
    Very impressive. I wondered how you found your agent.


  7. I am reminded of Bob Cousy's story of his "lucky break." As I recall it, he was a kid when he broke his right arm and was forced to learn to dribble with his left hand. Thus, he became ambidextrous, something that helped him throughout his basketball career.