Wednesday, July 25, 2007

How to publish your novel (without really trying)

Warning: Plenty of writing submitted to publishers and agents is not even read.

If you want to be really really rich, just do what JK Rowling did. Sit in a coffee shop or on a train (it helps to be single, miserable and down on your luck) and think up a fantasy that can be transformed into an epic, the installments can then be developed into a franchise with many spinoffs – movies, merchandising and the rest. And voila!

Except – Oops! - we forgot to mention one eeny meeny simple link in the chain: going from the execution of the idea to actually publishing it. The assumption of course is that good work will simply be recognized, and then the rest will be history right? Write?

Unfortunately David Lassman has recently proved what a lot of battered spirits have long suspected. Plenty of writing submitted to publishers and agents is not read in the first place. Lassman resubmitted a synopsis and first few chapters of literary classics like Austen’s Pride and Prejudice (changing only the title, main characters names etc) and received many formulaic rejections. He sent opening chapters to 18 of the UK's biggest publishers and agents, including Penguin, who republished Pride and Prejudice in 2006. Penguin described Lassman’s submission as ‘a really original and interesting read’ but ‘not right’ for Penguin.

Here’s a sample of rejections I’ve received for the 46 810 words in HOLIDAY, in the last 14 days:

The Wylie Agency: Thank you for your recent query / submission. Please excuse this form letter, but the volume of submissions we receive does not permit us to reply individually.

Blake Friedmann Literary Agency: Thank you for the material on your book. I’m sorry though, that I won’t be offering to represent you. There is lots to like here, but I'm afraid that I have to be absolutely passionate before I offer to take an author on.

Thank you for your recent enquiry to the Barrie James Literary Agency.
Although all submitted work is carefully read, we are not planning to represent any new writers at this time. In many cases this is a great shame as often the work is innovative and interesting.

Caroline Sheldon Literary Agency: Thanks for you email however I'm afraid that due to being enormously busy with the clients we already represent…

Toby Eady Literary Agency: Thank you for sending us this. I'm afraid we would not be the right agency for you but I wish you the best of luck finding representation elsewhere.

Then this heartwarming email from ‘Dave’ at Trafford Publishing:

Hello Nick
Thanks very much for inquiring about Trafford. I have attached an electronic version of our guide. Please take a look, and I am sure we can assist you to publish The Holiday.

When you open the attachment you’re given a very neat and concise description of how to pay for your own book. You even get to design it to, at a nominal extra charge of course. I emailed a friend who went this route. He said he paid $1000 to publish 20 books. And that was that.

The implication from the above quotes is of course that the material was read in the first place, but was found not quite good enough, or ‘inappropriate to our list.’. In fact, Christopher Little (which represents JK Rowling) said of the faux Jane Austen submission that they were ‘not confident of placing this material with a publisher.’

Alex Bowler, assistant editor at Jonathan Cape was the one exception who did recogmnise the material: “…there is such a thing as plagiarism and I’d hate for you to get in any kind of trouble with Jane Austen’s estate…”

Penguin has subsequently admitted that Lassman’s submission was probably not read in the first place.

So, coming back to the title of this article, if you want to get published you need to be someone who can be beaten down again and again, you need to cope with constant rudeness, clichéd and impersonal responses and prolonged periods of hopelessness. In short you need to be a Die Hard 1-4.0.
It really helps, once you’ve developed your craft, that you really are table to tell a good story. This is something that can require painstaking concentration, or, if you’re lucky, it can start to flow naturally. Chances are, even if you’re JK Rowling, you will find yourself having to endure the agonizing seasons where you must painstakingly find your way across several hectares of blank page, and in doing so, still produce a story people other than you will care about.

There is hope however. Hope lies in the grim reality that despite mountains of submissions, very little material that is sent in can boast having one simple quality:
A Good Story.

Herein lies the opportunity for every aspiring writer.
If only A Very Good Story could be quickly recognized and snapped up. My story, HOLIDAY, has been given glowing reviews from three close friends. That’s nice, but one wonders if it is enough. Yes, one can post it on one’s blog, or put a synopsis on The reality remains that it is very difficult to be noticed in all the clutter. Take a lesson from Rowling then: keep at it, even if it takes a few years to get noticed. Don’t give up.

In the end, you have to know someone who knows someone, and you have to stand out. Not just your writing, you. This means knocking on a lot of doors, and did I mention not giving up.

If you saw the title of this article and scoffed at the ‘not really trying' bit you have already learned a great deal, and I dare say you might be ready for bigger, and better things. I hope so fellow writer, I do, but that part is entirely up to you.

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