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.
As John Greenleaf Whittier observed:
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, called Late 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 is here, 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.