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How a Getting Published Day can actually get you published

By Chris Bonnello

Most of us have seen them: workshops and events with a humorous tagline such as “warning: attendance may result in a publishing deal”. I was always quite cynical about those ‘warnings’, because publication only needs to happen once before the organisers can boast about it.

Then it happened to me. I’ve not yet got my head around it, but I am now one of the people those warnings refer to. So, what’s my story?

Note: In the time between this article and the book’s final publication, “Guerrillas” was renamed “Underdogs”. It has since become a novel series reviewed positively by The Guardian and endorsed by various high-profile authors, its third instalment partway through its publication process. More details about the series can be found here.

Guerrillas is a dystopia novel about a war fought by teenagers with special needs. Speaking as an autistic man myself, representation matters: and most neurodiverse characters in books, movies or TV shows are either tokenistic, stereotyped, or the victims rather than the heroes. I am hoping that Guerrillas could push representation in a healthier direction, so I submitted it as my ‘book doctor’ piece for March’s event at Regents College.

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A little bit of background…

The first draft of Guerrillas was written in 2010, almost as a coping mechanism for my unemployment. Without wanting to sound too J.K. about it, most of my workless days were spent at my local pub: not for a beer but for a quick lunch, followed by writing Guerrillas for as long as they’d let me occupy a table for. This silly story – one that involved freedom fighters attacking a million-strong army of cloned soldiers – was never going to get published of course. But that wasn’t the point. The story gave me a reason to leave the house.

Jumping forward to 2017, Guerrillas was my dissertation piece for my Creative Writing Masters. It got a mid-distinction (and throughout the course’s history only one student had ever graduated with a high distinction, so I was happy).

But there were problems. Mentioning a Masters degree in your cover letter may raise an agent’s eyebrow, but it won’t magically turn your story marketable. It won’t change the agent’s personal interests. It may send the message that you take writing seriously and you’re in it for the long haul, but your cover letter still has to be good. I went to Regents College on the back of a dozen non-responses from literary agents, plus a couple of copy-paste rejection emails. As I learned at the Getting Published Day, it was largely because my cover letter was crap.

The Getting Published Day experience

On March 3rd this year, Britain was recovering from snowy weather that had shut down the whole country as usual. I was very grateful my train wasn’t cancelled like all of the previous day’s trains had been, as other attendees had not been so lucky. (They were, however, suitably compensated by Jericho Writers and had access to everything they paid for, including their book doctor sessions being hosted over Skype.)

My first bit of advice about attending such an event: don’t plan to have your ego stroked. You will learn valuable lessons, many of which are eye-opening, some of which are hard to swallow. I was one of the people who shared my attempt at the ‘elevator pitch’ task, and watched it get shot down –awfully, but helpfully. Because of this I was able to adapt my Guerrillas pitch to “it’s like The Hunger Games with learning difficulties”, which everyone seemed to love.

On a similar note, I entered my book doctor session expecting my work to be slaughtered. In fact, I was hoping it would be slaughtered. The worst possible response would be “it’s pretty much perfect, I don’t know what to suggest”. When my time came, my book doctor (a five-time novelist and freelance editor), spent the first half of my slot talking about a publishing company called Unbound. Just when I began to wonder why he was spending my precious appointment time advertising a publisher, he said “oh, we should probably talk about Guerrillas at some point. Long story short, it’s by far the best thing I’ve read all day. And with your permission, I’d like to contact Unbound and recommend it to them for publication.”

I went home happy, playing in the snow on the way back to the station after a little too much wine at the end of the event. But the occasion warranted it.

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The Road to Publication

Unbound accepted Guerrillas for publication, and I signed the contract just after midnight on my birthday. Later that day, 14th September, the pre-order campaign went live.

Unbound are a crowdfunding-based publisher who take a modern, author-centric view of the profession. They do everything that most traditional publishers have always done, except with more opportunities to engage their readers and help them be part of a book’s journey. Guerrillas reached 100% of the minimum required pre-orders 35 days in out of 90, not least because of a strong social media following that made Guerrillas a perfect fit for their platform (I have 84,000 followers on my autism awareness page, Autistic not Weird.

Since hitting 100%, the fun part has begun. Conversations about cover art, timeline estimates (the current publication month is May 2019: not bad, given that most publishers need two years), and being assigned a structural editor – who by pure coincidence is the same novelist who recommended Guerrillas to Unbound after the Getting Published Day!

Less than two weeks from now I’m scheduled to receive my editor’s structural feedback, and I am warned that the soul-crushing anxiety is just a natural part of the process. But in a strange way I’m looking forward to it, because once I know what to change I’ll be heading down to the same pub I frequented in 2010, to finish Guerrillas where it began.

And once the edits are finished, I might even have that beer.

To finish, I’d like to genuinely thank Jericho Writers for hosting events to help aspiring authors like myself. Were it not for them, Guerrillas would still be trapped on my laptop, with agents ignoring my terrible cover letter. Instead, it’s halfway through its pre-order stage and has already sold more copies than the average book sells in its first year after publication. Wow, things have changed since that snowy day in London.

To find out more about Guerrillas and where you can get a copy, click here.

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