An article on publishing and the slush pile. Nothing new but usefully disheartening. Publishers haven’t accepted unsolicited submissions for many years; they only look at work forwarded by a literary agent. Back when i last tried to get my novel published (just over a year ago), i found that many literary agents no longer accepted unsolicited material. Some still at least glance over the covering letter, to see if you’ve been on TV – in which case you’re qualified to write a good novel – but otherwise i think there’s no point even trying to be published. i gather that the first question a publisher or agent will ask is not “is this any good” or even “will people like this?”, but rather “is this person famous?  Do they have their own PR?”

i first tried to get my novel published over 2 years, between 2004 and 2006. i only sent it out to about 30 agents, as there really aren’t many who tackle “literary fiction” in London. i think most just sent it straight back, perhaps after glancing at the covering letter to see if i’d been on TV. i had two proper rejections, both saying something like “this seems good but there’s no market for it.” What they meant was “you haven’t been on TV”. i was touched that they’d even looked beyond my unknown name.

i gave up in the end, as i realised i had written to almost all the literary agents in London, and i couldn’t afford postage elsewhere – not when i knew the chances of being read were about one in a trillion. i was also usefully disheartened by reading the Grumpy Old Bookman’s excellent blog, where i realised just how astronomically unlikely you are to get anything published, anywhere, if you’re not in the right circles. i occasionally come across articles by journalists or novelists who claim it’s actually very easy to be published, and as long as you have some talent you just have to keep trying and sooner or later you will be accepted. They speak as those on the inside, for whom success is a given. They should try submitting their next article or book under the pen name of an unknown from Huddersfield, and see how far they get on talent alone.

The Grumpy Old Bookman says publishing is a barely rational business – that it seems a miracle anyone makes any money at all. Most books seem to lose money, and as far as i can tell publishing houses are largely sustained by random and unforeseeable bestsellers, like the Harry Potter books. i read an amusing tale of some children’s novelist, whose huge sales formed the main part of her publisher’s income, neglecting to write her editor’s name on the envelope of her next manuscript. i think she wrote under a pen name, so the editorial assistant who opened the package didn’t recognise her, and returned it with a note saying it wasn’t any good and they didn’t want it.

i also tried to promote my novel on the stupidly-named youwriteon website, where, in return for reviewing other people’s sample chapters, you receive reviews & scores. The idea is that agents look at the highest-scoring works, and grace the elect few with a deal. i gathered about a dozen reviews, which broke down as follows: one third loved it but churlishly only gave 4 out of 5; one third recognised it was good but it wasn’t really their thing, so they only gave it 2 or 3 out of 5; the remaining third (all women) hated it and hated me and wrote “reviews” which were clearly attempts to reach through the screen and throttle me to death. As a result my novel’s score was about 2 out of 5. It seemed that the best way to get consistently high scores was to write something competent but wholly inoffensive; i suspect that, for example, a work by Philip Roth would get a few 5s and a lot of 1s, and average a 3 out of 5. 

However, failure has been good for me. For one thing, i would now be appalled if my 2004 draft of The Better Maker had been published – it has lots of good scenes and prose but is too obviously a first draft of a first novel. By about 2005 it was, i think, technically competent – that is, no reason not to be published – but i remain dissatisfied. It is fundamentally flawed, built on bad foundations. i just deleted about 1/3 of it, and am going to try to rewrite around the good bits – to rewrite the main character – but i am not optimistic. If nothing else, it taught me how to write fiction, and i am quite happy for it to remain unpublished. In any case, even if it were published writers make so little money that one could not live on the proceeds – especially at my rate of composition, one novel in 7 years.

i don’t blame publishers and agents. i always advised my tutor friends, at university, not to waste hours marking bad student essays, since most students are unimprovable, being as they are uninterested in books or thought. Likewise, if i were an agent i wouldn’t stay up till 0200 reading unsolicited manuscripts, especially not if you knew a good novel could very well make almost no money – not when Waterstone’s is running the show. These days successful writing is merely an adjunct of celebrity.

The great benefit of failure is that i write for myself. After being mildly persecuted by deranged trolls and hysterical women and retards, i have disabled comments for this blog. This was the right thing to do. One should write without thought for pleasing people, especially since most people are out and out fools. An angry woman once hissed at me “oh you just want to write for yourself because you are so selfish!” – as if anyone would be interested in my words, so i should try to whore myself out to others – but despite being a woman she was, in a sense, correct – i am selfish; just as i drink green tea because i like it, and i don’t care that most people hate it, so i write because i like writing, and failure has merely encouraged me. Bravo for failure, then.