I was rejected (or ignored) 750 times from 2013-2019, before attracting the interest of Hodder & Stoughton’s The Future Bookshelf submission scheme in July. I’m still waiting to hear back from them. I have a feeling that I won’t!
I’ll be slightly disappointed if they reject me, but not destroyed, for after so many rejections, I’m as resilient as a rhinoceros wearing Kevlar armour! I’m ready to self-publish on KDP Select, which will at least offer immediate feedback on the worth of my Cornish Detective series.
There’s more than one way to climb the publishing mountain, so don’t be discouraged.
As I languish in limbo, while deciding whether to go ahead with self -publishing, which I’ve been preparing to do for seven months, or to wait for a reply from The Future Bookshelf who are contemplating if my manuscript is worth publishing, I came across an outspoken answer on Quora.
The question posed was What are the hardest aspects an author has to deal with when trying to get their book published?
Michael Davies, an Australian writer, publisher and writing teacher, who answers first, doesn’t pull any punches!
It goes to prove how unregulated the internet is, with corporations such as Google and Amazon happy to take money from unscrupulous traders without checking what it is they’re selling. Just think of the plagiarism scandal on Amazon books.
As a veteran of querying—I sent off my 701st submission on Friday—I’m glad that I’m returning to self-publishing. I’m preparing to launch my Cornish Detective novels this summer, which means building an author platform. Getting two blogs together and deciding how to post on social media doesn’t feel much like being a writer, but at least I’m getting a prompt reaction. Querying feels like throwing a message in a bottle into the sea, hoping to be immediately rescued.
This heartfelt article describes what many of us know is involved in querying literary agents.
If you’re just starting out as a writer, yet to jump through an agent’s submission hoop, then what Glen Cadigan describes will give you a good idea of what to expect when you’ve completed your precious story.
I just received my 40th ‘No’ from 88 queries made in February, which brings my total of rejections up to 677 since 2013. I’m not upset by this, forging ahead with my plans to return to self-publishing, which, at the moment means adding posts to my Paul Pens blog in anticipation of it going live. To me, rejections are like flies splattering themselves on my windscreen as I drive onwards.
I found Glen Cadigan’s article via a link on the excellent Writers’ Services newsletter, which is worth subscribing to, that also featured an article from Jane Friedman who does a question and answer session with two literary agents, comparing and contrasting what they say with the reality that Glen Cadigan describes.
Before I started reading it, I predicted that both agents would stress the importance of good quality writing, which is what they always say, and that I’ve described here in an old post as the biggest fallacy about publishing.
The idea that your manuscript will rise to the top of the slush pile, glowing like an irresistible gold ingot because it’s well-written is nonsense. It certainly helps, for writing has to be coherent, at the very least, but from seeing what does get published to become best-selling, I reckon that it’s the concept of a story, something unusual, intriguing and exciting that can be marketed, which motivates agents and publishers to get behind a book.
While exploring the Galley Beggar Press website, I came across this wise advice from one of Galley Beggar’s founders Sam Jordison:
“I also want to give a few words of encouragement. Submitting a book takes guts. I know it can feel like cutting your own heart out and serving it up so other people can poke around in the red, bleeding, somehow-still-beating flesh. I’m acutely aware of how dispiriting it can be when this act of emotional exposure is met with either a negative answer or silence. So I want to be clear on a few things. We admire anyone who has finished a novel, let alone been brave enough to send it to us. Just because we might say ‘no’ (or nothing) this time, it doesn’t mean we won’t say ‘yes’ another time. Just because we might feel your book doesn’t fit on our list, it doesn’t mean it might not fit somewhere else. Just because we’ve said ‘no’—it also doesn’t mean we might not have regrets later. (In the past we’ve missed some damn good books. It happens. You can’t always understand what you’ve got in front of you when a manuscript comes in.)
All of which is a convoluted way of saying that you’ve really got nothing to lose by sending in your work, if you think it fits with what we do. And potentially, lots to gain. Even if it’s quite a long shot…
It’s also a way of saying: don’t give up.”
There are some decent and polite agents around, but on the whole, I’ve found literary agents to be just about the most uncommunicative profession I’ve ever had dealings with—silence being their default setting unless they’ve been programmed to spit out form letters of rejection!
All the same, It’s vital to keep on keeping on with the querying, while investigating other ways of getting your name and stories known to the general public, such as entering competitions.
I read of one Science Fiction writer (whose name escapes me), who spent several years querying literary agents, getting nowhere. He knew that one particular agency was an ideal match for his debut novel, and even though he’d written several more in the intervening period, he continued to submit this book. On the twelfth submission, he was signed to them. When he sat down opposite his new agent, she claimed to have never heard of him before!
I’m not sure what this proves…other than, that if you don’t persevere no one is going to come out searching for you and your novel.
Of all sad words of mouth or pen, the saddest are these: it might have been.
Quite by chance, I came across a quote from super-agent Carmen Balcells, said not long before she died:
‘To be a literary agent: it’s a modest job. But it’s a job that’s important for the writer. It’s a position that you take the right decision for your clients. And the problem is that the ego [of the agents] can get in the way. It’s very important that the agency is a person, one person. It’s not about money.’
I’ve just read a volume of poetry by Ursula K. Le Guin, calledLate In The Day, which included a couple of essays as an afterward. One was on verse form, the other, an extract from the acceptance speech she gave to the National Book Foundation for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters.
The whole speech ishere, with a video. She has wise words to say about the current state of publishing; this resonated with me:
I think hard times are coming when we will be wanting the voices of writers who can see alternatives to how we live now and can see through our fear-stricken society and its obsessive technologies to other ways of being, and even imagine some real grounds for hope. We will need writers who can remember freedom. Poets, visionaries, the realists of a larger reality.
Right now, I think we need writers who know the difference between the production of a market commodity and the practice of an art. Developing written material to suit sales strategies in order to maximize corporate profit and advertising revenue is not quite the same thing as responsible book publishing or authorship….
Yet I see sales departments given control over editorial. I see my own publishers in a silly panic of ignorance and greed, charging public libraries for an ebook six or seven times more than they charge customers. We just saw a profiteer try to punish a publisher for disobedience and writers threatened by corporate fatwa, and I see a lot of us—the producers who write the books and make the books—accepting this. Letting commodity profiteers sell us like deodorant, and tell us what to publish and what to write….
Books, you know, they’re not just commodities. The profit motive often is in conflict with the aims of art. We live in capitalism. Its power seems inescapable. So did the divine right of kings. Any human power can be resisted and changed by human beings. Resistance and change often begin in art, and very often in our art—the art of words.
I’ve had my own experience of my self-published books being treated like ‘deodorant’, for I uploaded 44 titles to Amazon three years ago. I priced them attractively, but all the same, after about 18 months Amazon contacted me to suggest that I allow them to bundle various short stories and poetry collections with nine other writers’ work—as if my creativity could be shrinkwrapped like a multipack of lightbulbs, toothpaste or deodorant.
This would have given me a profit of 10 cents for each sale, instead of the original $1.99 I’d priced a 6,000-word short story. No skin off Amazon’s nose, as they make their profit whatever happens, and it’s certainly a tempting purchase for a customer, but it put me in the bargain basement, priced at less than what a charity/thrift store would ask for my secondhand book.
The commercial imperative tramples a writer’s message underfoot. It even affects the book cover design, for I’ve read several crime thrillers this year where the illustration on the jacket misrepresented what happened in the story. Sure, it looked alluring or sinisterly malevolent, with a rugged hero, but it was plain that the artist hadn’t read the book, or if they had they were instructed by marketing to sex things up! In this way, books are becoming like processed microwave meals.
I recently received my 40th rejection from the batch of 88 queries I made this February—yet again, it was from someone, presumably an assistant, whose name doesn’t appear on the literary agency website.
I’m bulletproof, so it didn’t bother me, but all the same I was heartened to read advice from a couple of publishing industry professionals in these two articles:
I’ve written and edited five novels since 2014. If writing a story is like wandering a world I’ve created, with beautiful scenery and fascinating characters, then editing resembles staggering through an endless swamp in thick fog, wearing lead boots; the only sign of life is the croaking of frogs—and they’re not saying nice things!
I firmly believe that this odious task improves the readability of my manuscript, yet, despite this, I wonder who I’m doing the editing for….Tidying my writing may impress a literary agent or publisher’s editor, though they’ll still find things to correct. As for any reader who may be drawn to my stories, I’m not sure that they’d notice the improvements.
The reason that I say this, is that the most frightfully written rubbish becomes a best-selling book. Also, while editing, I’ve read crime novels by three of my favourite authors, and they most definitely didn’t do any of the nit-picking I’m bogged down with at the moment. I admire Harlan Coben and Jeffery Deaver for the readability of their stories, but neither uses language beyond the vocabulary of a ten-year-old. John Connolly is more literary in style, but my jaw dropped when I read a short paragraph of five sentences, which contained the word ‘had’ nine times!
‘Had’ is one of the words I hunt down, so it made me question who edits his manuscripts, and how he gets away with such gawkiness. The answer is, of course, that he’s a successful author with a long track record. You only have to look at the monumental length of J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter novels, which started off at the conventional word count of 80,000, but escalated to 257,000 once she’d achieved mega-sales. You don’t tell the goose that’s laying golden eggs what to do!
Editing manuscripts feels like an initiation rite, a compulsory test that I have to do, to please gatekeepers whose judgement has little to do with what a reader likes. I’m a grumpy lion, who’s never been good at jumping through hoops, but do any of you feel the same way?
After spending five months at the beginning of 2015 researching the likes, dislikes, blogs, tweets and YouTube videos of literary agents, and querying 160 of them to a chorus of rejections and total silence, I’ve since run two more campaigns of querying, bringing my total of submissions to 690!
I’ve written five novels in my series featuring a Cornish detective, so can pick and choose which title to use to query. Most agents reply within six months, with the quickest taking only two hours! I have a hide like a rhinoceros, so take rejections philosophically.
I’ve learnt a lot about the querying process, for, like editing, creating a blurb and a synopsis or self-publishing on Smashwords and Amazon, you have to do it to appreciate the problems and refine your technique.
To my astonishment, two form letter rejections came in during the last week. I queried both agencies 16 months ago! It’s polite for them to eventually reply, though I now have an image of them buried under piles of manuscripts, their hard drives clogged with queries as they labour to say ‘No’ to legions of hopeful writers.
I’ve read about 30 writing handbooks in the last few years. One of the best is The War of Art by Steven Pressfield. It’s not a writing guide as such, more a motivational boot camp nag into how to overcome obstacles in the creative process.
He really knows what he’s talking about, from long and bruising experience:
Together they started a publishing company called Black Irish and published a sequel toThe War of Art. It’s called Nobody Wants to Read Your Sh*t and is available as a free audio download if you sign up to Audible.