Wednesday, 10 June 2009

How To Get A Book Deal - Director's Cut

So, I thought I might as well post up the original text of my article on how to get published that The Independent commissioned then wankerishly mangled. I know I'm being a teensy bit precious but it is a bit galling when you get an article printed in a national newspaper but they edit out some of the most important bits. In a way, it was doomed from the start - 'how do I get published?' isn't a particularly helpful question. We don't live in a country that needs more published authors - what we need are better authors. In all the freelance editorial work I've done, and in all the writers I've known socially, I've only ever seen two cases of people who were struggling to find an agent, and yet were exceptional writers - in both instances, their manuscripts started weakly then got rapidly and dramatically better a few pages in. Also, both authors were writing in somewhat obscure subgenres, where the number of lists dealing in that sort of thing are limited.

For almost all the unpublished authors I've read over the years, the answer to 'how do I get published?' is, very simply, 'write better'. The vast majority of rejected writers don't get published because they're not good enough. For some reason this simple truth seems to make a certain subset of aspiring writers apoplectic with rage. 'No!' they bellow. 'It's because dipshits like YOU refuse to give me the secret password that will get me past the gatekeeper! What do you mean, "write better"? What sort of trite bullshit is that? Agents send my work back with a standard rejection letter! That means they can't possibly have read my masterpiece! How dare you insist I "write better", you smug gobshite! I'll fuck you in half!'

These are the people who nod with credulous glee when told that the publishing industry is a clique-ridden clusterfuck that genuine talent will never penetrate. These are the people who end up forking out thousands of pounds to self-publishing companies, companies who perpetuate these myths because they stand to profit. These are the people who will always be a bit rubbish.

The novel I spent years working on and then trying to sell? It didn't fail because of a global conspiracy. Nobody published it because it was a bit mediocre. Dude. Write better. That's it. That's the secret, you irredeemable bellend.

So anyway, here's the full original piece in all its discursive, flabby glory:

How To Get A Book Deal

When I went undercover at the London Book Fair, posing as CEO of Fabulous Books Inc, an aspiring author gave me the lowdown on how to get published:

‘I sent my manuscript to agents and editors but I just got it returned. It’s very difficult to get anything read. The way the modern industry works, it’s all about self-promotion. The thing is, you’re asking people to put their money into your work. So to convince them you’ve got to show that you know how to sell a novel, so they know they’ll get their money back.’

Dressed in a pinstripe suit, with a red silk handkerchief stuffed into his breast pocket and cherry-red braces, he was walking from stall to stall, handing editors copies of his children’s book. While in India, he had paid to have over 2000 copies printed. The cover was drawn in pencil crayon.

‘This is Phase Two of promotion,’ he explained. ‘I’ve been posting copies through the letterboxes of people in the neighbourhood.’

‘What, friends?’

‘No, just, you know... local letterboxes.’

Imagination is supposed to be one of a writer’s strong suits, but ever since I was a child and a teacher first asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up, and I said: ‘Someone who writes stories,’ I never managed to think of a better reply. Back in school, a group of kids could answer ‘nurse’, ‘train driver’, ‘builder’, ‘inventor’, and you’d never hear: ‘Very good – except you Johnny. Inventor? Are you mental? That’s not even a real job. I mean Jesus Christ. Go and stand by the coat rack.’ We were encouraged to dream. Learning what was and wasn’t feasible would come later in a series of informal realisations, by which time we would be so off our faces on burgeoning hormones that our only aspiration for the future was that, one day, we would get to squeeze a breast.

If you want to be a footballer, or a heart surgeon, or an astronaut, there are clear prerequisites and cut-off points – before you proceed you must acquire such-and-such a qualification, if you haven’t achieved such-and-such by the age of 20 your chances of a career are zero. By stark contrast, becoming a professional author calls for a highly subjective skillset, recognises no age limit, and can even co-exist alongside other jobs. Obviously I’m not advocating some Logan’s Run style cull of older writers – my point is that, with most other vocations (including mother), there comes a stage where you can say: ‘well, it was a pretty dream, but it’s impossible now,’ and finally let go, safe in the knowledge that no amount of hairshirty exertions will ever be enough.

Most people who put pen to paper and attempt a book are perfectly aware of the horrendous odds they face, but becoming a novelist has little to no start up costs, and offers theoretically limitless profits. Anybody – including you – could be plucked from the doldrums of their shabby, average job and hoisted into a life of status, meaning, and comfort. Knowingly being on the wrong side of probability doesn’t stop thousands of people buying scratchcards every week. A lottery ticket’s value doesn’t come from an expected return on one’s investment – what you’re buying is a tiny, white hot nugget of hope, that you get to carry around with you, drawing warmth from it until your numbers come in dud.

For all the supposed allure of the distant finish line, in my experience, writing a novel is a long, lonely path, lined with signposts pointing in contradictory directions. It’s like trying to unclog your drains by yourself. You spend countless miserable hours alone, elbow deep in your own excrement, and at the end of it all, you don’t get published.

Magical thinking thrives in unpredictable environments. Even for industry stalwarts, the dense mesh of variables that governs whether a book sells in barrowloads or slumps into ignominious obscurity makes publishing a baffling business – which, of course, is part of its attraction. There are no control groups to test successes or failures against, meaning that editors tend to rely on trend-chasing and hunches, garlanding the process with statistics to lend it a spurious air of scientific rigour. As Mark Le Fanu, General Secretary of the Society of Authors, told me somewhat ruefully: ‘The fact is, for almost everyone involved, it’s a very unpredictable, tricky industry.’

It shouldn’t be surprising then, that to the uninitiated would-be writer, the book industry can seem variously like a glamorous dream factory, an unfeeling monolith honeycombed with toff cabals, and a kind of clapped-out zeppelin piloted by monkeys that randomly distributes food parcels. You find yourself fiending for guidance, and there is no shortage of pundits, hucksters and gurus all willing to sell you a map that shows the one true route through the labyrinth.

The fact is, there is no one-size-fits-all prescription for getting published. What we refer to as ‘the publishing industry’ is a whole stir-fry of different companies with different agendas and different end-products, many competing with each other over a shrinking consumer base. Books end up on publishers’ lists through a variety of processes, and the only general advice possible is to embed yourself as deep as you can in the belly of the beast, then use every means at your disposal to get your work read by the people with their hands on the purse strings. Of course, this policy presumes that you have spent years honing your craft, know your market, and have produced a manuscript that showcases your skills firing on all cylinders. Yes, the occasional purblind idiot may blunder across the minefield unscathed, but most will get blown to smithereens. Think of talent as your insurance policy.

My friends took a variety of routes to publication. One entered a children’s writing competition with a novel he’d written in a week, came runner-up, and was offered an advance five times that of the winner. Another came up with the proposal for his first book on a single side of A4 the night before he was due to have a meeting with a publisher, who promptly accepted. Two got to know their editor socially, bandied around some ideas, wrote a sample and pitch, then wrote the rest on acceptance. One spent four years studying creative writing at university, won a writing award, attracted an agent, finished his first novel, then had his agent sell it off in an auction between publishers.

As for me, I spent years working on an elaborate Fantasy novel that didn’t quite hang together, then lost my job, split up with my girlfriend, moved back in with my parents, and had a nervous breakdown. For the next 18 months, I watched as my best mates started achieving things that, just a couple of years before, were nothing but whimsical fantasies. I played video games, ate breakfast at two in the afternoon, and listened to my recently retired dad shuffling round the house like Marley’s Ghost. Eventually, partly at the behest of my therapist, I began to write about what I was going through – the tight knot of jealousy in my stomach, my heart-to-heart chats with my father. Writing about my feelings spurred me into action – stupid, ill-conceived action, mostly – which in turn gave me more to write about, until soon I’d wrestled some of my darkest demons and decided that I could live without the glory of being ‘someone who writes stories’. At which point I showed what I’d written to an agent, who showed it to a publisher, who said: ‘no this is self-indulgent flatus I will not give you money for it’, and then my agent kept on showing it to publishers until one said: ‘this is very good I will give you money for it’.


And apparently useless as a practical model for getting your magnum opus out of your desk drawer and onto the bookshelves of homes all round the country. Except, maybe it isn’t.

Tenacity and flexibility make a formidable team. Take pleasure in creative failure – it’s a sign you’re pushing yourself – but learn from it too. I had to bash my head against a brick wall several times before I thought: ‘Hey. Maybe I should change direction!’ Getting published isn’t a matter of pushing books through strangers’ letterboxes – it’s about practising until you’re really good, then persevering until you’re really lucky.

1. Don’t dilute your vision by reading others’ work. Especially avoid new genres and forms.
2. Never lose faith in your original draft. To edit is to scorn your infallible muse.
3. Submit your work with as much supporting material as possible. Self-portraits in green crayon scream ‘I am creative’.
4. Approach editors somewhere they could not reasonably be expecting to field submissions. This will catch them off-guard and you will be more likely to negotiate a favourable deal.
5. Bear in mind that the Writers’ Handbook and Writers’ and Artists’ Yearbook are both produced by publishers, and are therefore biased. Ignore them.

1 comment:

  1. I'm glad you put this up- I found your blog via that article and the unedited one doesn't pull its punches- it's what all aspiring published authors need to hear. I've just recently parted ways from an agent who loved my (non-fiction) book but couldn't sell it to publishers. I'm now rewriting it- I sent it out too early and took a chance on a young new agent who didn't have enough decent contacts (but let's face it I wasn't exactly fighting others off).

    I read feedback from editors she sent it to- a lot of them liked it and some of them even took it to their board but it was turned down. Many said it was because "names" or "celebrities" were writing books on similar themes. I was upset about that at first and used it as a bit of an excuse for failure to friends and family that I had stupidly told I had an agent. But that way lies madness and delusion. My book needs to be strong enough for that not to be an issue. That's entirely up to me, isn't it?