Rachel Johns isn’t just an English teacher and lover of Diet Coke. You only have to look at her beautifully bright website to notice the extensive amount of books that Rachel’s written. From Rural Romance, digital novellas to a section of “Life Lit” novels that have driven her success as one of Australia’s leading, bestselling authors. Her latest, Flying The Nest, published by Harper Collins touches on the fundamental human subjects of family, happiness and the conflicts that arise within families. In fact, all of Rachel’s novels are so relatable and real (yet humorous), drawing on issues and themes that her readers can understand and empathise with. This makes her one of the most popular, bestselling authors around!
What I love about this thorough interview is Rachel’s honest recount of the mishaps, rejections and steps she took which ultimately gained her a reputable publisher and then agent. She also states that you should follow your heart with regards to choosing a genre that YOU want to write and feel excited to write in. Like me, Rachel was taught to only write literary fiction at university. And of course, you do it for the good grades! But after settling into her own groove of writing, Rachel got noticed. Her books can be purchased here, or found in any good bookshops around Australia.
How long have you been writing?
I first put fingers to keyboard at 17 when I accidentally dumped my high school sweetheart. I’d never contemplated writing a book before then – I didn’t even particularly love high school English – but I think writing was a form of therapy, helping me deal with my heartbreak. And in the process of writing that one dismal book of me and that boy (I changed the ending – killed him off, instead of dumping him), I caught the bug! I was about to start a primary school teaching degree at uni but I switched to a writing degree, that was a terrible decision (but that’s a whole other story). I’m now 40 years old so I’ve been writing for 23 years, but it took me fifteen of those years, slogging away in the trenches, learning my craft and writing many, many crap books before I finally got published. There were a number of reasons why it took me so long: 1) I wasn’t a really reader when I started writing (I am now and can’t get enough) and to be a writer, you most definitely must be a reader. Reading teaches you so much and without a passion for books, I don’t think you can truly have a passion for writing. 2) I was only 17 and had very little life experience from which to draw inspiration. 3) My degree didn’t actually teach anything about the craft of writing novels and it was only when I joined Romance Writers of Australia at 26 that I finally started to learn what it takes to craft a story. 4) For the first decade of my writing life I was attempting to write literary fiction (because that’s what uni made me think I should be writing) when really what I wanted to write was something like Bridget Jones Diary. It was only when I followed my heart and started to write the kind of books I most enjoyed reading that I finally started making good progress towards publication.
What led to your offer of representation with an agent (or contract with a publisher, if you went that way around first?)
I got a contract with a publisher about a year before I got my agent and there are kind of a number of different things that led to this point. It’s a long and convoluted story. But in the end, it was my membership with Romance Writers of Australia and the network I made with other writers and publishers through this organisation that led me to meet both my current publisher and later my agent. My very first book however was a romance novel with Carina Press, a digital only publisher – I submitted this book after it had been rejected by Mills & Boon. Due to its length, I knew that no mainstream publisher would ever consider it, so I submitted it through the general submissions email. By this stage, I’d already finaled in a number of contests, but had no foot-in with Carina at all. On April Fools Day 2011, they offered me a contract for that book. Due to the fact Carina Press was the digital imprint of Harlequin Mills & Boon, I got to attend a dinner in Australia for their authors during the Romance Writers conference that year. It was at this dinner that a friend actually pitched my novel (while she was more than slightly tipsy) to the person who was to become my first print publisher. I was mortified at the time, but the publisher gave my friend her business card and I sent her my synopsis and partial the following Monday. Within a month she requested the full and another week later, I got offered my first print contract. The next year at the Romance Writers conference, I pitched to my now agent, Helen Brietweister of Cornerstone Literary Agency in LA. It wasn’t the best pitch and she was dubious as to whether she could sell what I was writing to American publishers, but she took JILTED (my debut rural romance) with her and read it on the plane. She cried so much (and apparently not because it was terrible) while reading that a flight attendant brought her a whole box of tissues and asked if she was okay. In the taxi on her way home from the airport, she called me and offered representation.
How long did you have to wait to hear back and was it a partial or full request?
I think I’ve kinda answered this question above (sorry), but with my digital submission, I think it was about six weeks before I heard – I submitted the full manuscript to Carina Press as per their guidelines.
How many submissions did you make prior to gaining representation/publishing contract?
Honestly, I’m TERRIBLE at keeping records so I’ve no idea. I think I worked on between five to ten manuscripts (if you can even call some of them that!) before I finally wrote the one that got over the line, but I’m not sure I actually submitted all of them. The first ten years I got a couple of form rejections that I think scared me and then I kinda just hoped a publisher would come knocking at my door (bahaha). When I truly got serious in 2006 and started actively submitting again, I had to develop a thick skin. I clocked up a number of rejections quickly but over time they got better and better (yes, some rejections are much better than others). I even got to acquisitions with one book before it too was rejected. Then, in 2011, I submitted my first rural romance to pretty much EVERY publisher in Australia and they all (very nicely) told me it wasn’t for them. The difference now was that I wasn’t getting form rejections, I was getting detailed feedback, telling me what they liked about my book but mostly that it didn’t quite suit what they were looking for. The general opinion was that my books were too romance-focused for Aussie readers. I guess it’s not surprising then that Harlequin was the publisher to finally offer me a contract for that book and interestingly enough, since then I’ve had interest and even a few offers from other Australian publishers. Times change, trends come and go. There will always be an element of luck involved but you’ve got to be ready when that luck strikes.
Any tips on cover letters/synopsis/pitches?
Be professional – my skill is definitely not in writing synopsises (so no tips there) – but just make sure that absolutely ALL your interactions with publishers and agents and other writers (people talk) are as professional as they possibly can be. I also believe it’s the book and your voice rather than the synopsis that make publishers jump up and down, so make sure that your first three chapters are absolutely the best they can be before you submit. Don’t rush – so many people seem to be in such a hurry these days. On the flip side, don’t take too long either – you can tweak forever but there comes a point where you’ve gotta push your baby out into the world.
Your first reaction when they offered the representation/contract?
When I got the email from Carina Press on April 1st, my first reaction was immense relief that, after FIFTEEN YEARS of trying to write, someone finally wanted to buy my book. Second reaction was worry that maybe it was an April Fool’s Joke. When I got an email from Harlequin telling me they wanted to buy my first rural romance, I’d just woken up from a nap with my two-year-old and thought maybe I was still asleep and dreaming! Then I think I fell off my chair. After so long working so hard, sacrificing time with my young family, sacrificing TV watching and ironing (okay, the last one wasn’t that much of a sacrifice) so that I could make time to write, it was such a relief to feel that I hadn’t wasted all those years.
What’s next for you?
I’m currently writing what I think will be my TENTH rural romance and next May I have a women’s fiction novel out called HOW TO MEND A BROKEN HEART. It’s set in New Orleans (one of my most favourite places on earth), so of course I had to go on a research trip to write it!
Thanks so much for being on here, Rachel. For inspired writers out there, this interview has been really frank about your journey to publication and highlights the reality of timing, time-frames and experience needed to get that novel noticed! Follow Rachel on Instagram for more details about her upcoming novels.
Thanks for stopping by!