J. Kent Messum is an author & musician who always bets on the underdog. His debut novel ‘Bait’ was published in Autumn 2013 by Penguin Books and won the Arthur Ellis Award for ‘Best First Novel’ in 2014. His second novel ‘Husk’ was published in 2015.
HOW I GOT PUBLISHED
“Never tell me the odds.” – Han Solo
By the time I’d finished my novel Bait in the summer of 2012, failure was no longer an option. I didn’t know what my chances were in the publishing world, and truthfully, I didn’t want to know. Bait was my third attempt at writing a book, and I felt I really had something. It also felt like time was running out. For years I’d ignored all the advice to “pick a real career” or “get job security”. Instead, I went all in on my dreams, never formulating a fallback plan, making sure there was no safety net beneath me to raise the stakes. Now, eight years into a ‘ten-year’ success plan, I found myself nearing the end of my tether. My writing career had gotten little traction. No real publishing credits or measurable success could be identified. My other career in music had withered and died. That, combined with the recession, landed me in a bad spot financially.
I took on a job working long days as a laborer in a frozen food terminal to make ends meet. By night I wrote. The direction my life had taken was unexpected, and I was getting dangerously close to hitting rock bottom. Something had to break one way or another. Come hell or high water, I decided I was getting published.
The first step was getting a literary agent. Over the years I’d learned that agents were busy people, constantly inundated with queries and manuscripts, receiving hundreds (sometimes thousands) of pitches from aspiring writers every month. To stand out among the competition was going to take a lot of work. Attention to detail became paramount. I procured long lists of legitimate literary agencies in New York and London and got busy crafting and sending out queries. The best case scenario was that I’d get one chance with each agency to prove I was worth looking at, so I figured I better make it count. It was laborious, but spending time tailoring every query to exactly what an agency requested in their guidelines seemed like the smart thing to do. Giving anyone an easy reason to dismiss me was something I tried hard to avoid. The process took months, but before I was done well over a hundred agencies received queries from me.
With the exception of actors, writers deal with more rejection than anyone else, a fact I already knew and prepared for. As I progressed through my lists of agents the rejections started rolling in. There were many, and they all stung. Eventually a few tentative nibbles came my way, but the enthusiasm I was hoping for never materialized.
Then one night I queried Peters, Fraser, & Dunlop, an exceptional high-profile literary agency in London UK. I didn’t think I had a snowball’s chance in hell, but I pushed forward nonetheless. A few days later I got a reply from agent Laura Williams asking to see the first three chapters of Bait, which I sent over. The next day there was another email from Laura. The three chapters had intrigued her and she wanted to see the full manuscript. Nervous, I sent her the whole novel, wondering what she would make of it.
The following morning there was another message waiting for me. Far too quick a response I feared. Laura only had the book for one night. My assumption was that she’d read the next chapter or two and put the book down in disappointment. I opened the email, bracing myself for yet another rejection. When I read the first paragraph my jaw dropped. It began with “I have just finished your novel…wow.” She went on to write that she hadn’t read a submission in a long time which had impressed her so much, that she thought it was “brilliantly written and immaculately plotted”. Before I knew it I had conference call with Laura and the team at PFD. The agency and their enthusiasm for my work was everything I could have hoped for. That same week their foreign rights agent, Rachel Mills, flew to Toronto on business and met with me, bringing contracts with her. I signed on the spot.
The publishing part fell into place soon after. PFD deemed the manuscript to be in excellent shape and were quick to shop Bait around. Interest in the book was almost instant, and in little over a month they had set up meetings for me with several major publishers. I went to the meetings unsure of what to expect. There was a lot of very positive feedback, and it quickly became clear a publishing deal was imminent. I just didn’t know with whom, for what, or how much. Shortly after all the meetings were complete the agency told me a little bidding war had started for my novel. They said they would call me when they had further news. I can’t even begin to tell you how anxious the wait was.
Thankfully, the wait turned out to be short. I was laboring in the freezer one day when I received a text from my agency asking if I could take a call. Without taking off my sub-zero snowsuit I ran to the parking lot and squeezed into my car for privacy. When the call came through my agents informed me that they’d secured a publishing deal with Plume/Penguin Books that came with an advance that would allow me to quit my job and write full-time. Shaking in my snowsuit, with the phone pressed to my ear, I sat in my car and cried.
That day turned out to be just the beginning. PFD secured more international deals for Bait in the months that followed, including one from Penguin UK that came with a commission for my second novel Husk.
I’m frequently asked for advice in regards to getting published. There’s a lot to say on the topic, but what it comes down to in the end are three things I believe writers need to remember above all else: Patience, perseverance, and maintaining your sense of purpose.