Misadventures in Publishing

Saturday, 22 October 2016

"Everyone’s got a novel inside them”, so the saying goes. “And to bring it to market is a misery”, so should it conclude. In my befuddled attempts to reveal to the world my “baby”, as the more cuddly variety of literary agent will refer to your book, I have sometimes found myself wishing it had never been born. 

The summer before last, a peculiar notion burst into my mind… “What if a man in his sixties suddenly finds himself victim to his first ever crush?” Spare me, some may think, but I embraced the comic potential.  I wasn't a writer, but stuck in a sweltering attic flat in the South of Germany in the middle of a heatwave, I filled the bath with cold water, sat in it and wrote my first short story. I have to say, I rather enjoyed myself.  A couple of days later, pleased with the outcome, I thought I'd look for “a home” for my precious little bundle, another literary agent phrase I was soon to become familiar with. I entered my story into one of the big British national story competitions, for which it was shortlisted, and I was invited to read from it at the awards ceremony.  So sure was I that my story was perfection itself, I was ready and waiting to stand up and make my way to the podium when the winner – not me – was announced.

This small setback didn’t rattle my confidence, however.  Undaunted, I spun my story into a full blown chronicle, “A Blindefellows Chronicle”, about the vicissitudes of a forty year friendship between a timid younger man and an older, worldly-wise lothario.  I wrote it in the evenings after work, whilst living on perhaps the dullest university campus ever, and it added laugh-out-loud colour to my life.  Six months later, there it was, two hundred and fifty pages of the book I'd always wanted to read, a witty comedy seamed with delicate stitches of poignancy. 

Michael Bond once said he could have papered his walls with his rejections for ‘Paddington’, but mine were virtual, airy spirits, and possibly more disheartening, whispering around me diplomatically that my story “wasn’t for us” and “isn’t what we’re looking for” and asking, “Are you a well-known figure in the media, or does your book contain a character who is? ”  No, I’m not and my story, like the preponderance of the literary canon, isn’t about anyone or anything famous. In fact, I made up one of the words in the title so it will have a zero ping factor on any search engine.  Sad that marketing is now expected to factor, with an exponent, into the imaginative equation as you write. I wrote eighty or so ‘query letters’, in which you’re asked to sum up your submission on the subject line, each one of them to ever so slightly different agent requirements, so that no carpet-spamming of agencies was possible. 

I soon learned that most ‘query letters’ sink into the quicksand of 'the slush pile', a vast email graveyard.  What a job the literary agent has receiving thousands of these per week and most submissions the most hackneyed efforts at stringing together bundles of sentences which, read aloud, would sound as expressive as Google Translate.  “Everyone’s got a novel inside them” is a truism that's simply not true and this misleading phrase needs to be thrown out with the bath water. Today's diplomatic literary agents send out pleasant and polite copy-pasted rejection letters but, having now heard scores of typical examples of the tangled verbiage they generally trundle through, I'd say they need to give more of a rude awakening to those who churn out doggerel prose, such as that offered to Zane Gray by one of their predecessors, “You have no business being a writer and should give up”.     

A month later, however, a spark of hope popped into my mailbox.  A top New York literary agent requested my complete manuscript, which I proofread yet again, within two days until my eyes were sore, and sent off as an attachment.  At their request, I desisted from sending out any further ‘query letters’.  A month passed.  “Probably a good sign that I haven't heard anything”, I thought.  Then two, then three and then the rejection... “Obvious quality” and “humorous page turner” but “niche market” therefore “doubtful it could be a best seller” and thus not worth their attention. Understandably not wanting to waste more time on being a floater, sinker or doggy paddler in the slush pile, I signed up to what I mistakenly presumed was the quick solution– a highly selective, direct to market publisher specialized in crowd-funding-- who had made me an offer in the meantime.

Once the book appeared on their website, getting the first hundred people to subscribe in advance to my cause was surprisingly easy. I dug into the recesses of my Facebook friends list and found I could not recall a fair few of them but I wrote to them anyway, starting every message with a jolly salute such as, “Hi there, Ahmed, how and where are you these days? Guess what! I just finished my debut novel…”  One of my first “Patrons of The Arts”, as my publishing site calls them, was rather unexpected.  Daniel was a grumpy, pudgy boy who used to sit at the back of my literature class looking like he was in a coma.  Secretly intelligent, he scratched rude words into his desk and stared into space, the toad adolescence squatting on his life.  The adult Daniel was unrecognizable, jolly and jovial, and hearing from him again made getting published worthwhile...in the beginning.

After those hundred people had signed up to support the book, things ground to a halt.  “Keep asking people you know”, the publisher's author support assistant suggested, but I had already asked them all in individualized letters five or six times.  Also, I was running out of people I knew and scraping the bottom of the barrel with friends of friends.  I had written letter after letter to people who I felt sure would pledge for a copy. I sent out especially comic extracts, but nothing, not a peep.  No reply from a colleague whom I’d got on with famously, not a thing from a couple to whom I’d once lent my flat for a month.  Holding out the begging bowl was starting to get embarrassing.  I branched out and joined writing sites chock full of terrible writers and chatted away to them on vapid forums. Some of them shared their hastily daubed prose which tended towards the genre of ‘Soft-Core S&M porn with sexy vampires making out with witches and wizards, in a school for the magically gifted, with cameo appearances from mythical beasts’.

Then a little hiccup of hope– I sent my manuscript to a top Goodreads.com reviewer who awarded it the highest honour, a five star review and patronage spiked momentarily. I made three sales to strangers, bona-fide members of the literature reading public with no prior personal connection to me. Next, a successful documentary maker read some of it on one of the writing sites and added his lovely review– another brief sales spike.  I could have funded my book entirely myself with ease but I was determined to avoid vanity publishing. I wanted people, if only a few, who neither knew nor cared who I was to buy my book because the extracts on the publisher's website had made them laugh. Being sucked instead into this onerous task of marketing myself every evening was banal. I wanted to be working on the prequel to my book, set in the same absurd English boarding school but in the Victorian era, with my writing on track to fill the period drama watching audience's Downton Abbey sized hole, hard upon the heels of Aidan Turner’s Poldark. 

When my three months funding time is up, a few weeks from now, I will make up the difference myself, tinging my debut novel with the shame of vanity publishing. After that, I'll move on and continue writing my second novel but going through all this publishing malarkey again is something I’ll think twice about.  Like the first novel, I will write it for my own entertainment. I work with a Welshman, an IT-teaching bachelor, and I happened to mention my novel to him and then asked him whether he wrote, expecting a response in the negative.  “Ooh yes, I’m on the fourth of my see-ries now”, he trilled, “Takes place on another plan-net.  I’ve got a Kindle readership of about ten thousand.  Not quite enough to retire on though.”  So, it seems that even inside of the most unlikely of us is a novel. I imagine him now, alone in his flat, lost in late night thoughts of a vivid green, multi-breasted alien female on a distant planet where nothing is known of self-promotion...long, long ago in a galaxy, far, far away.

Auriel Roe, October 2016 @unbound

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