My Road to Publication

Academy alumna Sarah Clarke on getting her book deal, and the hope that kept her going

5 minutes read

Like so many authors, my road was a rocky one, littered with rejections and periods of self-doubt. But the spark of hope never quite went out, and I’m so glad it didn’t.
I took the Faber Academy online Writing a Novel course between October 2018 and May 2019. Before I started the course, I was a copywriter with a dream to write a book. Six months later, I felt like an author. I’d learned how to plot, pace, and find my characters’ voices. I had industry knowledge, a group of writing buddies, and an almost completed manuscript.

I finished my book – which later became my debut novel A Mother Never Lies – in the summer of 2019 and sent off my first batch of submissions within 24 hours (patience has never been my strong point). I knew the statistics of course, how hard it is to get published, the size of agents’ slush piles, but I couldn’t keep the excitement at bay. I checked my email almost hourly and every call from an unknown number became a ‘what if’ moment before I tapped to accept.
I had my first rejection after two weeks. It was pleasant and gracious, reminding me that agents’ opinions are subjective, and wishing me luck elsewhere. But I still cried. It was a moment of realisation – that other people weren’t going to love my book like I did – and that I needed to toughen up. Or maybe I didn’t…

My second email came during my holiday in France and slipped into my junk mail, suddenly making my obsession with email checking a sensible precaution. And joy of joys, it was a full manuscript request. I sent it off with shaking sandy fingers and allowed myself to dream about what might come next. Lunch with my new agent? A five-way auction from wide-eyed publishers?
As it turned out, it was another rejection. An email I read silently during a BBQ with friends, and one I kept to myself for two days because I couldn’t bring myself to say the words out loud. It seems so stupid now, how fragile I was after just two rejections, but perhaps we all have to go through that initial pain.
For the next six months the cycle continued. Submissions, rejections, no-responses, and full manuscript requests. I had learned the hard way that the latter carried no guarantees, and thank goodness I had, because six agents ultimately rejected my novel – even the two that asked to read an edited version for a second time.
During this period, my novel evolved. The advantage of full manuscript requests is that agents give you feedback; the disadvantage is that their feedback doesn’t always tally. While this was proof that books are subjective, it also meant that I needed to choose which pieces of advice to follow. The stakes felt so high, that I struggled to decide. Then one agent suggested I use a professional editor. I was unsure because it meant more investment in my flimsy dream, but luckily my husband persuaded me. The editor’s notes were perceptive and considered, and really helped me improve my book.

My journey skidded to a halt in March 2020, along with millions of others as the pandemic took hold. With everyone at home, and wider work challenges, my priorities shifted. I thought I’d put my writing ambitions to bed forever, but when life seemed to get back to normal in the autumn of that year, I realised I wasn’t done.
By then, I’d heard about digital-first publishing, and how writers could submit their manuscript directly. After the frustration of so many near-misses with agents, this felt like the right direction for me. And so it turned out to be. I submitted to four digital-first publishers and had positive responses from two, but HQ Digital was my always my first choice so when they offered to work with me, I quickly accepted.

That wasn’t quite the end of my journey though. A Mother Never Lies originally included a factual event and for many good reasons, HQ Digital wanted the story to be entirely fictional. This meant re-writing about a quarter of the book, but this time I had a purpose and the support of a super-positive editor, and I really enjoyed the process.
In March 2021 HQ Digital not only agreed to publish A Mother Never Lies in the August, but also offered me a contract for two more books, one of which – Every Little Secret – published earlier this year. I will never forget the moment I read their email, how I danced around the kitchen with my dog and couldn’t text anyone because my hands were shaking too much.
There are some authors who enjoy wild success from the off, but not many. For most of us the road is long and arduous, full of potholes and hills so steep that you can’t imagine reaching the top. So what keeps us going? For me, it was my book. Every time I seriously considered giving up, I read my book again. And through it all, I never stopped wanting to share it with the world.
As a footnote, A Mother Never Lies has sold very well and amassed nearly 2,000 reviews, some of which have been so beautifully written they’ve brought tears to my eyes. I include this detail because this is a book that was rejected by thirty agents.

Sarah Clarke is a copywriter and author and lives in London, UK. In 2018 she enrolled on Writing a Novel (Online) and fell in love with fiction, particularly the dark and twisty kind.
Sarah signed a three-book deal with HarperCollins HQ Digital in March 2021.
A Mother Never Lies and Every Little Secret are published and Sarah is currently writing her third novel, which is also set in south west London. You can find her on Twitter, Instagram, Facebook or her website, and buy her books here.


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